With the upcoming X-Pyr adventure race in mind we assembled a van full of Aussies with paragliders to explore the Pyrenees. Reminiscent of the 2011 X-alps road trip I was looking forward to this trip but also wondering what kind of mayhem would ensue, it being a little more involved than my sedate and secluded solo sojourns. We kicked things off with a few days in Barcelona, the “odd couple” David and Carl being joined by half bearded Andrew and myself, and my somewhat regular walking buddy Aaron over from the UK to enjoy some sunshine and mountain views (generously agreeing to drive when we would fly). Over the next couple of weeks we somehow held it together to string together a great bunch of flights and walks across the best part of the Pyrenees.
There was some effort made to see the sights in Barcelona but mostly it was three nights of eating, drinking, and making merry. On 14 June we picked up the Citroen 5008 van. It was a little more cramped than I’d expected and as noted on the first (and second, third…) hill start it seemed a little gutless at times (the automated handbrake didn’t help). But we got on our way and after a brunch stop we reached the flying site of Ager early in the afternoon. It had been flown earlier in the day but with a big cumulunimbus building nearby we opted to continue on the road.
A scenic drive through dry hilly country, hydroelectric reservoirs and steep canyon walls took us north to Pont de Suert and we continued up Vall de Boi to the national park, where the green and rocky mountains were alive with flowing water. We convinced David to take the risk of leaving his glider in the car, but in spite of howling northerlies we took ours for a walk. Perhaps even more optimistically we tried to teach David to play cards (500), after a three hour walk to the Refugio.
The next morning our much “discussed” plan was put on hold as sheets of rain, sleet, and hail assulted the hut. With flying out of the question all save Carl decided to go higher into the mountains for a day walk as bit by bit it began to clear in the early afternoon. David’s protests of just wanting to fly ebbed into proclaimations of “beauyutiful” as we toured the high alpine lakes. We rejoined Carl for lunch at the hut before descending the car and driving on to Castejon de Sos, the most well known paragliding site in the high Pyrenees.
I suggested the old faithful Pajaro Loco hostel, having vague memories of my last visit, but Carl made his usual enquiries and found something, which on arrival I realised was the same place! My mates hounded the local paragliding shop and various weather forecasts, working themselves into a frenzy about the specifics of the dying northerly. I thought we’d just wait and see and the next day Aaron got us up to launch with conditions looking perfect. Andrew and Carl unwrapped their new Ozone Alpina gliders and were justifyably excited about their first flight here. Finally I led them off and we thermalled up over the mostly shaded mountains.
David was unnerved by a collapse and Carl got cold hands so in the end Andrew and myself continued flying together towards the town of Sort, while the others regrouped and followed us on the road. Andrew and I top landed together but when we reflew the entire area around Sort was completely shaded.
After an extended period of scratching in light lift Andrew managed to top land on the Orri turn point while I drifted down into the valley and landed in Sort. When the others turned up Andrew flew down to join us. We watched the last part of the Germany Portugal game and then went out for musically inspired pizza and pasta. The next morning David briefed us again on the valley winds as we drove up to the Orri ski field. There was a northerly blowing and I complained that we were too late, conditions were a little on the windy side.
I flew and tried to connect with scrappy lift whilst soaring the breeze. I got low and landed by the car, deciding to quickly pack and walk back up. The others opted not to fly but were happy to watch from the mountain, applauding my fast time back to launch rather than noting that I should have face landed before the shady period. Taking off again straight into the gusts of a thermal I managed a bit better but still didn’t get that high before going on glide over the back. It was a really technical flight, hanging in there in bumpy leeside until I could connect with a cloud and then head towards Organya. Against the odds I would have made it to Organya if not for a scary looking cumulonimbus prompting me to reconsider and backtrack. We regrouped a few hours later and drove there, watching Horacio pull some impressive moves as thunder rumbled and the odd stray rain drop fell. Later that evening after a great meal prepared by David and Carl, the rumbling subsided and Andrew took Aaron for a quick tandem before it went completely katabatic – not the typical Organya day.
Rallying the troops for the earliest start yet we were on the road toward the Puigmal turnpoint. Reaching a grassy pass where we could fly we all huddled inside the car as the freezing wind blew and big clouds grew around us. Finally Andrew and I went soaring on a gorgeous grassy knoll, before we piled back into the car for a long drive to Ager, thus making our first loop of the trip.
We ran a very tight schedule, driving up to the low Ager launch and getting everyone airborne including our driver in the tandem. After thermalling side by side with Carl and getting photos of both Aaron and David I top landed, ran back to the car, and without wasting a minute drove straight down to meet the others and set up the Holland vs Australia game over wifi.
At half time we moved to the pub, their radio broadcast a minute ahead of our laptop version causing some distraction initially. On the full time whistle we continued driving to Huesca, arriving in time for the last of the Chile Spain game. There was some interest in the game at the pub but the Catalonians don’t seem to give their full support, as revealed by some young kids on bikes that Carl talked to in Ager.
A very big day with three long drives had me complaining at how good the weather had been – not much time to rest. The next morning from around 6am I had some serious gut problems, making use of the bidet adjacent while sitting on the toilet. By around 10am there was nothing left and we drove out to a castle north of Huesca to fly. I felt terrible, sitting in the car was tiresome and standing up was an effort. I needed to lie back in my pod harness. In the air again and I went into my meditative state of suspension and felt quite good again. It was great seeing kids have a medieval sword fight on top of the castle and best of all was managing to get away after getting really low over the town.
Flying towards the main Pyrenees I had a very nice flight but was surprised to deck it just short, in a riverbed. Back on the ground I promptly vomited and had to sit down several times as exhaustion overcame me during the simple process of packing my glider (and fixing the wingtip lines, at long last). I lay on the road until the first car gave me a lift and the boys picked me up from Sabinanigo not long afterwards. We spent the night in the ski town of Biesca.
The next morning I was back in action and joined the young guys in hassling the old guys to get an early start. We drove and walked to a launch above Sabinanigo for our final flight together before Carl would leave for southern Spain. We climbed out together, Carl flew to Jaca, I flew towards the big mountains, Andrew followed me, and David sort of half followed each of us. I pushed ahead, exploring east a while before returning and pushing to the west. I overdid it a little with cirrostratus forming in the evening and didn’t make it back to Collorada to join the others where Andrew had landed.
Instead I had a bit of a hike and fly adventure that night and the following morning to join the others. It was a a windy day so after some final Spanish tapas (I didn’t need to try the ass kidney tapas after having smelt the odor, let alone having seen the look on Andrew’s face as he removed it from his mouth), we continued driving on to France.
French food didn’t disappoint but the next day we had to deal with French Pyrenees weather. Sitting on launch we were completely enveloped in cloud for well over an hour. Eventually everyone save Andrew and I gave up, and we were left alone with our gliders, waiting for a break in the cloud. It finally came and we had a much better than expected flight up against limestone cliffs with the vultures.
With thunderstorms visible above the gloom it was time to drive through the cloud in the direction of Spain. We got sangria and other treats at the border (Col de Pourtelet) before walking up to the Refuge de la Pombie, back in France, under the shadow of the iconic Pic du Midi d Ossau.
That night the Spanish thunderstorms dropped their ordnance into France and we were treated with an impressive lightning display and hail whitening the ground while we sheltered in the refuge and enjoyed the french hospitality. The next morning was still cloudy so it was well into gentleman’s hours once we began climbing the peak. Andrew and I persisted with the more exposed part of the climb and enjoyed fantastic views with cloud forming around us just as we reached the summit.
Meanwhile Aaron and David were relaxing and socialising with our refuge host. On our return I had a quick wash in the lake (the refuge owner told Aaron he was on resuscitation duties – he’s your friend!) which in hindsight was worthwhile because it was another late night by the time we’d found a hotel in Lannemezan – unfortunately we couldn’t find the key for my friends holiday cottage in the gorgeous countryside near Bagneres de Bigorre.
Finally it was time to drive the driver, we headed off to Toulouse to have a final lunch together before David caught his train and Aaron caught his plane (somewhat delayed due to air traffic control strikes). Andrew and I drove north again into the gloom, feeling quite lucky that our day lost to transportation had coincided with our wettest day yet. The rivers were well and truly full the next day as we departed Castejon de Sos to climb Posets, the second highest peak in the Pyrenees (and well within the cloud for most of the day!).
The Refugio Angel Orus surprised us with good wifi and hot water showers high in the mountains. With wind and cloud evident the next morning we thought we’d try our luck flying Castejon anyway. Taking a long shuttle ride to launch the wind was surprisingly light and after chatting to Gerard and Allen, the only other cross country pilots, we took off and had a short flight to Benasque. Running for shelter from the approaching showers we ate lunch in a hotel as thunder rumbled. We had a reprieve afterwards waiting for a ride but luckily we both got rides just before the rain really set in.
A short XC to Benasque before afternoon storms
Andrew was still keen to fit in any last possible flights before leaving for Oz so we decided to have another go in the morning. Heavy thick fog eventually cleared and we had a prolonged sleddie in disappointly light lift. I had lost my enthusiasm for flying but good old Andrew persisted in dragging me and Gerard back up the hill – Allen was still flying. Conditions were now much windier with stronger lift and I zipped around locally and bashed out a few wingovers before landing by the car. Still the day wasn’t over – we drove south and found the El Grado site for an evening soar.
I had to admit that it was a pretty nice spot. Views of the Spanish flats, Ager, and the distant cliffs of the Pyrenees. I was pretty damn hungry though so it was just as well that the roadside restaurant in El Grado delivered us the biggest hamburgers we’d ever seen – and they were the small ones!
We drove on until dusk, reaching Lleida after 10pm and booking into a hostel. Sweaty and tired we cleaned up and had a couple of final celebratory beers to conclude the trip. The next day I’d fly to Prague from Barcelona just a couple of hours before Andrew flew back to Australia. Another action packed trip concludes, one of those adventures that you appreciate more and more as you recover the sleep debt in the following weeks!