Crossing the Pyrenees

The guys were off to Ager but they were right in saying my best option for vol biv was to stay in Castejon de Sos. In the morning I made final preparations in town before catching the 11am bus up the hill. A few clouds were forming and a Spanish guy told me there should be good thermals today. When the tandems started getting up I set off. I certainly felt lucky to get another chance after the rather meek resolve I’d shown the previous evening. Back up to 4000 metres! (Well, not far off anyway).
Aneto beckoned – I took off on glide over the crest of the range, following a line of clouds. I was cutting the corner off the last good xc (actually two flights) I’d had from here, so the country was familiar. I now passed the same dam I’d recognised from our June trip on the other side. Or should I say straight over the top! I really didn’t know what to do with myself with such fantastic conditions, and I felt I should linger here, in the highest mountains of the Pyrenees. But despite doing the honours before flying as per usual, I really needed to pee!

Looking west with Aneto in the foreground

After crossing the valley not a lot was happening on the spur I soared. I felt it should be though and continued searching. In fact I did gain a few hundred metres eventually, and then I began to notice a crosswind which began stirring things up a bit making slope landing a bad option. In fact I made sure to give the terrain a wide berth. My bladder was all the while begging for a thermal to boost me up and out of there!
Finally I gave up on the spur and drifted up the valley, something I’d hoped to avoid as it is somewhat of a dead end. After soaring back up to a “safe” altitude I couldn’t get down to land!! Finally I managed it and emptied a steady never ending stream onto the grass. Where it all comes from is beyond explanation…!

Top landing to Pee! Above the Vielha tunnel

After a bite to eat I was off again. Getting to and staying around 2500m was not a problem as at the end of the valley everything was going up. The problem I did have is that the mountains were all higher than that! I could afford to be patient now though – the bladder was content to let me enjoy the scenery.
Bit by bit I followed lift up a spur to climb up a 2800m high ensemble of slabby rocks. As I did, mountain lakes revealed themselves one by one. Finally just over the summit I was high enough to see the sharp jagged range continue out to the Eastern horizon. But not quite high enough to flop over the back, not in this wind, not today.

Looking east over the 2800m peak

I went across to the other side of the valley to explore other options. Here there was a lower pass, with a clear run out to landing options. Next chance I got I climbed over the nearby peak, before drifting sideways towards the col before finally diving into the lee.
After making the crossing I still found myself in sink. There was a distinct downward valley flow! Well, I might be sinking, but with this tailwind at least I’m going somewhere!
It was rough but, you know, that’s perfectly reasonable for a valley in the lee of the biggest mountains in the Pyrenees though isn’t it!! I turned to wait at a spur line for a lift so I could go back on top of the mountain range to join the vultures. It was actually a welcome change from the other sides weak and constant lift. Here you don’t get your lift in dribs and drabs, you get it wham, bam, full presto! I was on my way.
The next phase of the flight was fun. Booting along in tailwind, some real texture to the air, high above grassy fields and sharing the air with vultures. A few crossings later I landed – which wasn’t quite so fun but was without incident – and found I was still in Spain, but only just. If it wasn’t for big clouds dropping rain on three sides I might have continued into France! Anyway there were plenty of interesting mountains to explore on the border before dropping into the lowlands.
I was still high, close to the col at the head of the Varrados valley. I wandered up to a shepherds hut, and met the occupant, Roger. As it turns out his two big things he wanted in life were to discover paragliding, and visit (or live) in New Zealand. I’d dropped out of the sky at the right spot! He also happened to have a tray of home prepared Catalan food he’d been given that he needed to get rid of, so of course I had to stay the night!


Col de Varrados, when cu-nims dissapated and the sun reappeared

Well rested and fed the next morning I set off in the sunshine to my high launch. A couple of hours later, around midday, I took off. It was blowing with strong cycles up the face. Even so it took me a while to get up – but well worth it though, another epic day and up at around 3700m I had a tailwind pushing me off in the intended direction! I felt like I was cheating the system as lower down the wind was off by at least 90 degrees and it would have made things very difficult – I’d even thought I might have been spending another night with the shepherd!
Landing after crossing the first terrain obstacle, I changed batteries and set off again. Again progress was impossible until you found the magic thermal to take you up into another world, miles above everything with the range spread below your falling apart boots!

The French Spanish border, including Mont Roig in distance (east)

A sailplane was spotted once at a discrete distance but otherwise the only flying companions I had were soaring birds of prey, in their hundreds. Unlike some of their Australian counterparts, these birds reflect the tolerance and politeness I’ve noticed in Europeans. They are quite content to thermal wingtip to wingtip, and if you clumsily come over to join their thermal they don’t seem to have any problem changing their turn direction to let you in. They were a pleasure to fly with and quite helpful especially when I followed them into the French side, which was in the lee and as I climbed up I didn’t fully understand why, some valley wind convergence I presume.
I pushed on a little further towards the next obstacle of high mountains. At around mountain top height though I found myself in the lee again. I had plenty of ground clearance but decision making becomes a bit more intense when one minute your taking a solid core upward and next thing it disappears and you’re dropping in stomach churning sink.
If I’d been able to find another glorious ride up to cloud base I might have managed to cross this band of mountains. But to do that I’d either have to keep trying my luck in the ups and downs of where I was, or cross back to the sunnier faces behind, which seemed sinky when I’d briefly passed them earlier. Given going down to the depths of the valley seemed a distinct possibility, I decided to keep my height as money in the bank. Top landing was a scary prospect due to my being thrown around, but a little probing on the other side of a high lump, while I thought it was risky, was actually quite reasonable and I put it down on with a gentle breeze up the grassy slope. It was very quiet for the next hours walking and you wouldn’t have known how the air had been so alive.

It was a good walk, and I didn’t even mind that my next flight (5pm) was a short drop into the upper valley. Of course when I spotted a sailplane circling above shortly afterwards, it made me think that maybe I should have tried a little harder.
Anyway it was a beautiful place to be, and apart from a few alpine cows here and there I had it to myself. I made my way to the Refuge de Mont Roig but when I saw from a distance that it was just a shelter, the hot dinner drawcard became invalid. I decided to stay where I was on the banks of a lake nestled in a cirque, enjoying a quick splash before the sun set. Some pre-existing rock shelter walls supported my tent fly and I spent some quality time with the iPod before nodding off to sleep.

A dip at the Mont Roig bivouac lake. Mirror reflection edited!

Had I known how draughty it would get in the middle of the night, I’m quite sure I would have taken the walk to the refuge. I didn’t sleep much during the morning as even if I had been toasty warm, the tent fly flapping in the wind was about as tranquil as the jackhammers in Gatwick airport!

By morning the furious squalls on the lake made it quite clear that I wouldn’t be flying anytime soon. I almost lost my fingers in the cold gusts while washing some clothes, then left them under some very heavy rocks (my clothes that is, not the fingers) as I went off to climb the nearby peak, Mt Ventolau.
I felt the full force of the wind at the col, but there were still a few birds braving the gusts, wings half folded up. The top was a great viewpoint. Aneto the main landmark, craggy peaks to the east of it, further north the border range I was flying along, and hills fading into the meditteranean blue to the south. The next refuge was past Mt Certascan, which stands above its neighbours and seemed a very long way away. Perhaps I could have started off for it before midday! Later I passed some Belgians who bluntly said it was too far, but soon afterward a Dutch couple thought I was fast and would make it. So I continued on, losing height to navigate around a long spur jutting into Spain. This was a section of the GR11 and I was impressed with the scenery, dappled light through forest, waterfalls, a well preserved village, and as I climbed, more alpine lakes. The wind was howling and as it blew me off balance I smiled, it was good not to be in the air!


Looking east to the lake beside Refugi Certascan

After crossing the pass I descended to the lake to have another dip before checking into the refuge at a very reasonable hour. This one was staffed, and packed full of loud Spanish, along with the French couple I sat with holding our hands over our ears! It is part of a popular four day loop which skirts along Andorra and briefly enters France.
Given the previous nights tent flapping experience and the continuing wind I decided to stay in the hut. Luckily the offputting sewerage stench around the hut could not be smelt inside. The hot meal was quite satisfactory, as long as you don’t make the mistake of comparing it to French fare which of course is an unattainable benchmark for the rest of the world.

Sometime before dawn the wind finally abated. The morning views of dry mountains surrounding various lakes were stunning. I investigated an ideal thermal trigger, launchable, in the centre of the valley, but decided since it was surrounded by high mountains the xc potential could be limited to epic days. A better idea was the French border, it had more options. I reached it just before midday. At that very moment, within minutes it went from calm to gales. The people I’d just spoken to asked if that was too much wind. While nothing in this sport is ever certain my answer was pretty definitive. YEP!


Scary clouds coming from Spain to France

I had lunch and continued the rest of my day wandering on the French side of the border to the Refuge de Pinet. An evening flight would have been possible was it not for the French humidity coming up to greet us, putting us in complete whiteout at times.


Lingering french humidity

Dawn over France, above Refuge du Pinet

Early the next morning the upper winds were obvious with small clouds flying overhead. The forecast was for afternoon showers and i was running out of food. So I finished the trip, with a couple of flights out to the valley, a pleasant walk through green forest, a ride with a Strasbourg couple to Foix, and a train back to Toulouse.
During the trip I’d managed to fly downwind, explore the most interesting terrain, and beeline towards the lakes the Dutch guy (in the train a week earlier) recommended I visit. I’d capitalised well on the weather and it was a climatic finish to the seasons vol biv efforts in Europe.

Six months later and I’ve cut the original 27 minute version down to a ten minute video: 

About sharemyjoys

Nick Neynens
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6 Responses to Crossing the Pyrenees

  1. Yet another epic adventure! I must get out there and do some stuff like this…

  2. Dani says:

    Fantastic blog. Is the wing a montana? What size and wing load?

    • sharemyjoys says:

      thanks mate. Yes the wing is the original Montana, size 26, flown at the top or a few kg over (see Features – Gear list for more info). Pretty forgiving wing, heaps of fun flown heavy too.

  3. Dani says:

    Thanks for your answer. I fly a montana 23 for hike&fly at 85 kg! (5 kg over the top). Very dynamic and fun, sometimes more than my EN D (U sport). In head wing is not the best but… I will cross this 2012 pyrenees in vol vivouac.
    Best regards.Dani

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