Coast to coast Pyrenees 2022 – (Dangerous) Dave Ashcroft
After postponing my trip for a year due to Covid, I was finally in Bilbao bus terminal, Spain, queuing for a ticket for Irun on the French border.
There were only a few people in front of me, but they were filling out forms and passing documents to and from the lady in the booth. It was agonisingly slow. I was tempted to go to a machine to try and buy a ticket, but the queue behind me grew and grew, so my position seemed to grow in importance. Forty-five minutes later the lady at the kiosk said “the bus was full” – my heart sank momentarily – “but I could take the last bus at 8:30pm”. This turned out to be a blessing. I now had time to buy some gas from the Decathlon store on the other side of town, a task I’d abandoned while in the queue. I was a little concerned about getting there and back in time, especially when lugging a 21kg rucksack through town. I got the wallet out and found a taxi. The driver was very helpful, even illegally parking in front of the Decathlon store with my bag in the boot, although it was a bit in shock when I came out of the store and he was nowhere to be seen! I found him drinking a beverage 50 yards down the pedestrianised street. As it turned out the bus was 30 minutes late so I had a beer and my 3rd sandwich of the day. By the time I’d been dropped off in Irun and walked a couple of kilometres over the border into the town Hendaye, France, it was nearly midnight. I found the accommodation and my room, showered, watched a fire work display out of the window and went to bed.
In the morning I left my bag in the hostel and walked west to dip my boots into the Atlantic. It was going to be two days of hot sunshine. After breakfast I headed east in the wake of the 2022 X-Pyr paragliding hike and fly race that set off from here six days earlier. They’d had poor conditions at the start of their race, but were now spread out between the middle end of the Pyrenees and the east coast. I considered that my chances of succeeding in vol-bivouacking coast to coast was less than 50% and had no intention to follow this years complex 600km route, but I did end up crossing through 3 of their turn points. Initially the summit of Le Rhune (Larun), which seemed a necessary induction, and then the town Accous and mountain Pic du Midi Bigorre just by chance. Setting off, using maps alone, I struggled to follow the athletes route on the flatlands before ascending Le Rhune. There was a maze of lanes – a lot just heading to private houses. At one junction I was harassed by a bunch of dogs. I probably made their day! I was lost, and 5 minutes later had to walk back past the same dogs. Lots more barking. I took another lane towards Le Rhune and decided to turn the inReach satnav on. I crossed a field, a lane, and ended up in someone’s garden! Defeated a second time, I retreated on the lane I’d crossed and walked past the same dogs a third time!
They lay there in disbelief, complete silence – they must have thought I was taking the piss. I felt a bit of an idiot, but consoled myself that things would be easier on the higher ground where I could see my goals, and didn’t have to climb over fences or fight through hedges (I’d already ripped my trousers). When I finally got onto the top of Le Rhune to join hundreds of tourists it was 3pm, I was too knackered to consider flying straight away and, instead, sat down and had a cool pint of coke at one of the cafes, filling my platypus bag with fresh water. There was a funicular railway running to the top and I convinced myself that everyone here must have come up on that. I had a couple of thermals on the glide east, but didn’t get much height. Not wanting to walk up another hill that day, I chose a level path to Urdazubi, passing through the village Zagarramurdi for some fruit and drink. Not wanting to ruin myself by overdoing it in the first couple of days, I stopped at 19:30. I slept under a pitched roof to a shop at the entrance of some caves famous for their stalactites and early stone age rock paintings. I had achieved my goal of 1/14th of the total 440km east. Unfortunately the security lights kept switching on every time I moved!
The next day began by ascending a pleasant footpath up through a forest and on to a long winding track south through the hills to an ideal take-off at 1000m elevation. I got there by midday and waited for the wind to turn onto the hill as forecast, but in time it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. The vultures were persevering on the north side, but not getting much higher than the hill. There didn’t appear to be anything more suitable further up the track so I set up to fly from the less than ideal north side. It wasn’t as steep, and the narrow valley below was covered in trees and didn’t promise much in the way of thermals. I had to lay my wing out between an antenna and a switch room, both surrounded by high security fences. Launching in a light gust, my glider swung above my head perfectly, but before I got any forward speed it rolled slightly to my right and caught a line on the corner of the fence. All filmed on my GoPro, my entire wing pirouetted into the compound, landing on the flat roof of the switch room inside. Fortunately there was no barbwire, and with some nimble climbing and careful gathering of string and cloth I managed to lift it back over the fence. There was no damage done and I was soon climbing back into my harness feeling very hot and sweaty. From the same launch spot I got it right the second time and soared level with the hill enjoying the breeze. Although up for a while I gained no height, eventually landing in a field only a mile and a half away up the Izpegi Pass. Convincing myself I would be able to fly from the pass, I packed up and laboured up the hill, repeatedly crossing the switch back road.
I was pleased to find cafes, bars and a shop at the top, but no possible take-off even with the best imagination. Vultures, buzzards and hawks played in the fresh wind funnelling up and over the col. I walked a short distance up the hill on the north side of the pass looking for a take-off, but the wind was off, a bit fresh, and the hill was covered in a thigh high thorny scrub. Maybe I should have walked further. To the south side and below was a forest. I contemplated laying my wing out on the carpark and trying to ground-handle through the parked vehicles, but imagined the worst outcomes, the entertainment I’d give the many tourists, and the tree tops waiting for me just over the edge. Reluctant to waste all this height by walking down the pass (D948) I chanced taking the GR10 trail through the trees to my right, in the hope of finding a clearing and suitable take-off. Two hours later the sky had turned grey with spells of drizzle. Walking under a heavy sky, with the rumble of thunder menacingly close, I eventually found a lovely round grassy hill I could easily take off from. It was 6pm and I enjoyed a long glide east on the tail of a Eurasian Griffon Vulture just ahead of me. With a wingspan of over 2m, these are the most common vultures in the Pyrenees and flying with them would become a daily routine in the flights to come. As we approached Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorri the bird turned back and I continued over the town looking for a suitable place to land. At the far end of town a small campsite came into view just within my reach. Although it would be a very tight landing, the conditions were calm and I just like landing in campsites! Not taking my eye off the ball, I set up my final glide to clear a telegraph cable and, avoiding a concrete table tennis table, made a spot landing. I had a round of applause and was feeling a little smug and at the same time relieved I hadn’t draped my canopy over any of the small trees that filled the campsite. I held my fist up and acknowledged my feeling of relief to the older French gentlemen with the universal hand gesture of ‘my anus was flinching’. They laughed out loud and repeated the gesture back. We were both amused. I packed my canopy away and pitched the tent just before the first heavy shower. It rained on and off through the night. I was thankful not to have been caught in the rain high in the hills.
Showered, fed and motivated, I walked to Saint Jean Pied de Port and had lunch on the river bank outside a Lidl superstore and tended to deep rooted blisters that were leaking into my socks, an unfortunate consequence of walking long distances on tarmac roads in boots and in extreme heat. There was no wind but at least it was overcast with low cloud due to the rain overnight. Although I had covered a lot of ground so far, yesterday didn’t count for much as I was mostly walking south. I had no planned route for this trip as the weather and wind direction would determine my course, but I’d worked out that I needed to travel east 2 squares on the map per day (approx. 31km) in order to make it to the coast within the 2 weeks I had. On paper this appeared realistic, but I knew the mountains ahead would slow me down and force an irregular route, especially if I couldn’t fly. Today was going to be a long days walk, arriving late at a refuge hut in a forest high in the foot hills before the proper Pyrenees mountains began. Near the end of the day I had neglected to fill my platypus when I last crossed a river, blissfully unaware that I would not find even the smallest source of water again. Three hours later, walking up a switchback road I was dehydrated and feeling very sorry for myself. I’m embarrassed to admit this but I actually waved a car down for some water. To rub it in, my altitude put me in the cloud and I was getting wet from a persistent drizzle. The hut was a large wooden shack. Old and empty – straight out of the Blair Witch horror movie. I checked out each room by torch light. Some rooms were locked, possibly where the corpses of previous tenants were stored! I slept with my pen knife in my sleeping bag and I had carefully lent a broom handle against the door that would clatter on the floor if anyone entered the hut in the middle of the night. On a sad note, late that evening I got a text from home saying that my Dad had had a small stroke and was in hospital! This was a curve ball that I hadn’t seen coming, and played on my mind throughout the rest of the trip. I felt quite helpless. My Dad requested that I didn’t come home on his account, and so I continued my journey with a feeling of guilt.
Although the forecast the next morning was good to fly, I hardly saw the sky for 3 hours due to the dense forest while I navigated small trails to finally rise up and onto the clear open hills. I spent the rest of the day in and out of cloud and sunshine as it passed me by. Maybe, if I had taken a different route east, opportunities to fly might have materialised. By the time I got to the windward side of a pass where I had hoped to have a flight, I could hardly see two steps in front of me and the cloud I was in was cold and wet. I was aiming for another refuge using my inReach GPS and a photo of the area I had on my SLR camera. Matching the twists and turns of the track with those on the satnav, I arrived in time for the mist to clear and reveal a small house with solar panels next to a stream. Two shepherds were herding their sheep into pens nearby. Cold and a little wet, I was pleased by how modern this refuge looked compared to yesterday. I found the door was locked! Checking out the barn door at the back and shutters on the windows, I heard a shout from one of the shepherds. I walked over and asked him if he had a key. He told me it was his house! Apologising, I asked if there was a refuge here and he pointed down stream. A hundred yards though the mist sat a stone hut, not visible until you were almost at the open door. To my surprise, it was full of Pyrenees trekkers. French, German, Dutch, and American. Seven including me. The mood was good – jokes and banter crossed the language barriers. It was nice to be in a group hiding from the weather. With rain followed by thunderstorms forecast for 9am the next the morning, there were plans afoot to leave no later than 5am and get over the next set of peaks. I ate a hot dried food meal and prepared my boots with dubbin.
After porridge and coffee for breakfast, I was the third ‘party’ to leave into the darkness. I bumped into the German, who returned having been warned by the shepherd of the imminent thunder. My torchlight illuminated numerous yellow and black salamanders in the wet grass. I filled up with water from the stream and navigated up to the first summit by GPS. The sun rose to reveal a spectacular landscape of peaks and valleys below boiling clouds. I wished the weather had been better, as it looked a great place to fly. Passing a couple of peaks ridge walking, I thought I was going to have it easy and get over the high ground before the storm, but thunder commenced bang on cue at 9am, soon followed by heavy hail stones the diameter of 1 pence pieces. I put my baseball cap on under my waterproof’s hood to protect my head, but the small stones of ice stung my hands holding my walking poles. Lightening struck repeatedly. It was exciting and unpleasant at the same time. The storm passed as quickly as it came. As the hail melted, the descent became a choice between a muddy path or slippy grass. By 11am I was on a main road (NA137) where a large modern refuge had been recently renovated, with restaurant and facilities. I took my boots off and rolled my trouser legs up as high as I could to try and capture the mud that had dried and was flaking off and leaving a trail on the clean floor. At 39 euros for a meal, bed and breakfast I decided to stop early and take the rest of the day off. I wasn’t that sure which country I was in, having been straddling the border all morning and so asked. “You’re in Basque country” was the chef’s reply. Ah, Spain I said. He looked disappointed in me. “No, Basque!” I think he spat in my food for not recognising their independence! I read, ate, washed clothes, charged stuff and generally chilled out. The young Dutch couple turned up and eventually the German appeared too. It was nice to meet them again, to chat and have something in common. It was day 5 and I hadn’t flown again. Following ridges and valleys had slowed my progress significantly and I was now running more than 2 days behind schedule. Staring out at the view that appeared and vanished between the sunshine and showers I tried to dismiss any feeling of guilt . The forecast for tomorrow was flyable.
After breakfast we all set off at different times and by different routes, but with the same goal, to journey east. Intending to fly, I chose the monotonous, gradual plod up the main road to the top of the pass and into France. I arrived above a small ski resort called Braca de Guilhers. The wind was a northerly and slightly fresh and cold. Unfortunately the cloudbase was well below me. I found shelter from the wind and sat it out from 10am until 2pm wrapped up in all I could wear, including waterproofs. When I could eventually see the village below me I walked around the hill to find a suitable launch next to a chair lift and waited another hour for the cloudbase to reach the top of the hill behind me. With cloud covering all the high ground I wouldn’t be able to fly over anything and would have to initially push north into wind to get out of this valley, and then east. After a total of 5 hours waiting, of which I could have been making good progress walking, I decided to pack my harness ready to fly.
There’s a paraglider pilots rule of thumb regarding safety. It’s goes something like this: If you make 3 mistakes before you take off, you’re probably not in the right frame of mind to be flying. Mistake 1: I tried to shift my harness to one side while accidentally standing on the reserve handle and pulled the whole reserve parachute out onto the floor. (Took 15 minutes to repack). Mistake 2: Just before clipping in, I forced myself to have another wee, broke wind and accidentally followed through! (Took me a few minutes to sort that out too). [too much information – ed. 🙂 ]
The flight had a tough beginning with multiple attempts to fly out of the valley without losing height. In the end I pushed too far out to return to the ski slopes, and was soon considering landing options when I got lucky in finding a thermal. Not taking anything for granted I spiralled much higher than cloudbase before steering north by compass and into clear air. I was finally out of the valley and eventually turned east. Unaware to me I flew over the village of Accous, the 2nd turnpoint of the X-Pyr comp. However I did notice how the bracken had been recently cut out to form huge bird designs on two low lying hills. I only just made it over the local take-off (recognisable by a wind sock) to soar up the north side and into a hanging valley. It was a bit fresh at first and I wasn’t sure if I was being reckless. Without exception, all the trees were shaking their leaves in alarm. But as I climbed higher the wind calmed down. Up on the peaks it was very light and I was reliant on weak thermals and a couple of vultures showing the way. Marmots squeaked and whistled in alarm as I contoured deep into a grassy bowl. Crossing over a tree covered ridge I found where the vultures were congregating and climbed up to join them soaring on the clean white rocks (Montagnon a Isere 2173m). A few kilometres further east lay a deep valley heading north out of the Pyrenees. Anxious about the strong wind in the valleys I hoped to push upwind and get in front of all the mountains. After a good climb to cloudbase I was optimistic at first, but ran out of height pretty quickly. With half the height I had, I accepted that I was about to land in this valley. Concerned how strong the wind might be I attempted to land on the opposite side and save some height, but the trees were thrashing around just as I was setting up to land. I turned tail and set up over a larger field in the valley bottom, landing in a fresh, but steady breeze without any problem. Although I’d lost all my altitude there was a supermarket across the road in the town Laruns. For the entire trip I’d only brought 6 dried food meals and 6 portions of porridge, hoping to find opportunities to stock up or dine out. I bought bread, butter and cheese for dinner and breakfast and downed two Danish pastries! I camped in the garden of an empty house a little higher than where I had attempted to land. Although the flight had been sketchy to begin with, at height it had been smooth and enjoyable. Only covering 29km in a straight line, it was a quick and effortless way to travel giving the soles of my feet a break.
With a good forecast I had high hopes for the next day and walked up in baking sunshine. Cloud formed low in the valleys and eventually climbed above me, and then unexpectedly descended over me. I sat on an ideal grassy take off all day hoping for the clouds to rise or break, but they never did. I sat and read my book as walkers came and went. Three Pyrenean Mountain Dogs kept themselves amused chasing away walkers who got too close to their flocks of sheep. At 5pm, with nothing else to lose having wasted the whole day, I took off just within cloud, and chanced crossing the valley to a pass only a few kilometres away. I was lucky on route and caught a weak thermal up to some crags where about 15 Griffon Vultures circled.
After a disappointing day, flying in close quarters with these guys was great fun, although I almost had a head on collision with one. With an extended glide, I made it to the pass. Too low to fly straight through I slope landed. If I had been 5 metres higher I would have got over the pass, but being overcast and so late in the day I would probably have only flown a few more kilometres and had to walk back up in the morning. I pitched my tent on the same flat patch of grass I’d packed up on. There was a stream and a few small trees with fallen branches to make a fire. I wanted to conserve my gas, and boiled a pan of water for food and again to wash with. I counted the days I had left and booked a flight home giving me another weeks bivouacking. Flights had to get better than this.
The next morning was hot and blue. Walking up in search of the highest suitable place to launch I watched 3 wings float down from different take-offs. One from my hill. They were flying small mountain wings with no intention to stay up. I passed the compulsory herds of sheep, cows and horses, all bearing alpine bells. A lone Pyrenean Mountain sheep dog barked once and walked up to greet me. We had a hug and sat together for a few minutes taking in the view and both of us appreciating some company. She had a big ripe tick on her head. I carefully turned it in my fingers until it dropped off. An hour later I laid out my wing on a flat bit of grass high up on an arrete and packed my belongings into the harness. I sat and absorbed the view, playing the waiting game. The sky stayed 100% blue. There was a strong inversion that was to last all day with not a breath of air.
At 1pm a few vultures flew back and forth and I took off. Never getting higher than any ridge or peak, this flight was to be the hardest I’d ever flown in my 27 years flying. The air wasn’t rough, or the flying technical, but with the exception of relaxing during glides across valleys, I had to scratch all day and work hard for every inch of height, desperate not to sink down into any of the deep and remote valleys. The vultures had decided to top land just after I’d taken off. When I came across any of them perched on the rock face or ridge, I would intentionally fly too close and scare them back into the air and then keep an eye on their progress. I flew via the towns Cauterets and Luz-Saint-Sauveur. That day I only covered 33km if measured in a straight line, but when I landed at 6pm I had finished an irregular flight contouring the rim of each valley. I landed as far up a pass as I could glide, next to tractors turning and baling their hay. They said I could camp in the next field up stream. Dumping my bag I went to get some water and noticed a couple of paragliders coming in to land just 200 yards further up the river. By chance, I’d landed next to a French paragliding club’s landing field – complete with café!! The fluent English speaking cook made me a meal and let me camp in the landing field. He even had coffee on the go before I left at 7 o’clock the next morning.
The D918 road weaved up and over the Tourmalet pass, just a few kilometres south of X-Pyr’s 5th turn point, Pic du Midi Bigorre. After a wash at a cable car station, I walked up the grassy ski slopes to avoid the road and had pancakes for breakfast at a café on the pass. I sat down at around 2200m and contemplated which direction to launch from while watching the vultures working the early thermals. Waiting until 1pm, I launched straight into a strong thermal coming through and circled all the way to 3000m. Thinking my luck had changed for the better, I flew across the pass and onto the high mountain chain to the south. But when I didn’t find any thermals and there was no breeze to ridge soar with, I returned almost immediately to the pass constantly going down like I had a puncture. Descending the east side of the pass I almost hit a small cable that ran diagonally across my path about 100m off the floor. I only saw the cable at the last moment as it shifted in my vision flying through bumpy air. I flew across the pass to scratch on the south east face, eventually joining a dozen vultures in good lift relatively low in the valley.
We thermalled together up the green grass and up to the base of clouds that had just started to form no higher than my original take-off. I tried to scratch and thermal up to the Bigorre antennas and observatory on three different sides of the mountain but gained no height. Setting off across the pass an hour later I had better luck, and thermalled up and above each peak. If you look at a relief map of the Pyrenees you would struggle to find any obvious ‘ridge runs’ to cruise along. Following the highest terrain and flying up as high as I could on each peak, I made one glide after the next to sunny slopes, steep forests, or hills providing lift from any valley wind, but generally heading east. Late in the afternoon, I found myself relatively low above some local pilots soaring downwind of Saint-Lary-Soulan. I struggled to climb the tree covered spur for what seemed a very long time, but eventually broke free and continued east, finding thermals on every high spur I came across. I joined a single red paraglider at cloudbase at around 3000m and wondered if he was one of a handful of similar minded British pilots I’d heard were following the X-Pyr route the same week as me, but he finally flew north with the height he had which didn’t add up. It seemed I could have bounced along like this for another hour, but it was 7pm and I was considering landing somewhere high to save walking up tomorrow. Dismissing a couple of small reservoirs far below me, I came across a small tarn and hut at a similar height to me. Taking a closer look, there were people sitting outside the hut. There was no wind at this altitude and, turning low over the tarn to lose a little height, I landed near the hut, where a group of French youths appreciated being entertained with my slightly sketchy and committed landing on the rocky plateau. I left my gear as it lay and went over to the merry group who sat eating snacks and drinking wine around a bench. I opened my map and asked where I was. Even if you know, it’s a good opening line to break the ice. They will normally ask where you took off from, where are you heading to, etc. They said they were sleeping out under the stars tonight. I asked “is the refuge not open?”. They said, yes it was open, they were still serving dinner on the other side of the hut!! An hour later, after a 3 course Sunday meal, I sat in the late sunshine on the veranda with a wonderful view from 2450m.
I felt very lucky indeed. Maupas Refuge – half way across the Pyrenees! I’d only progressed 45km further east today, but with a favourable wind I was hoping to make Andorra tomorrow. If not, my chances of getting to the coast were doubtful. I found a small patch of flat grass and camped outside.
After breakfast provided by the refuge I had the whole morning to relax. I found a secluded sunny spot on the edge of the tarn, and sitting on a rock stark bollock naked, washed as tadpoles swam round my feet and dragonflies skimmed across the water. While dismantling my campsite, a couple and infant arrived and left their rucksacks there intending to camp in the same spot that evening. I scouted the hill for a suitable take-off and decided a grassy col higher up would give me the best options and only a 15 minutes walk-up. Cumulus clouds eventually appeared directly above me at around 1pm. Although thermals ascended on alternate sides of the col, I couldn’t ‘for the life of me’ get my wing above my head, even breaking a line in trying. I didn’t notice the 3 inch tear in the canopy which might have been made at this time too! I bunched up and carefully climbed down the steep path on the other side of the hill where I could see a rock free grassy slope and, and although steep, it was exposed to the regular thermals coming through.
Ten minutes later I was cooling off having thermalled up to ridge height where the same family I met earlier had just climbed to the top and were waving. Straddling the border, I headed east, observing the clouds ahead to understand where lift was prevalent and where to avoid. Far away in the distance I saw a white paraglider to the west and another just just visible to the east, both skying out. There was a lack of cloud activity to the east, but the clouds were more mature in Spain so I used the height gained under each cloud to fly SE. Cloudbase was much higher today, approximately 4000m. It was chilly at these heights and I was underdressed having accidentally left a fleece jumper hanging up in the campsite shower at the end of day 2. I had also neglected to put on my neck gaiter but took some relief from the cold by rapping my arms around my neck during the glides.
When descending as low as ridge height I flew in any direction (even backtracking west if I had to) to find lift that would take me back to cloudbase where I could take long transitions east. There were no vultures today, but a sail plane joined me in a climb. The passenger and I waved enthusiastically to each other. High cloudbases meant thermalling for long periods of time resulting in sore ribs from leaning on one side of the harness or the other. My gps/vario had run out of power the day before and I had it plugged into the solar panel hanging over my front reserve near my belly. It was only tied on at the top, and when I ran into rough air the solar panel would catch the wind, flip up and hit me in the face! It would always take me by surprise and I couldn’t see what my canopy was doing. I was heading south hoping to make it to a continuous flat bottom cloud which looked like it would be a highway to the east, but way before I got there the sky beneath it turned an impenetrable dark grey. The cloud-street had overdeveloped and a curtain of rain now spanned the horizon. I changed my course and flew due east for a while, but was eventually chased NE by encroaching showers which were kicking off from ever closer clouds. I flew away with only a brief dose of light hail, but lost a lot of height in the prolonged glides on speed bar. By now my gps/vario had died completely and I was relying on my miniature back-up vario on my helmet. Its negative tone announced my descent. Due to no GPS, I hadn’t a measure of the increasing headwind as I flew north up a valley.
Once below ridge height my glide angle was dropping significantly and I couldn’t quite reach an adjoining valley ahead on my left that should have given me lift and probably a way out. Instead I had to turn to flee downwind to find a safe landing field before running out of height. Looking alarmingly windy on the deck, I turned east into a narrow adjoining valley where people were camping in a field. There is some psychological comfort in having witnesses to your impending feat. Setting up in front of a steep forest to glide in to land, I noticed how the leaves were shaking vigorously and I was maintaining height. I thought I would rather be going up than risk landing here, and by soaring left and right began to slowly gain height just above the tree tops. My lift improved with height, and eventually approaching the ridge, thermals seamlessly replaced the dynamic lift, and approaching cloudbase I reached enough height to push into wind and over the last ridge and back into France. It was significantly windier than when I’d left 5 hours ago, and concerned about ridge soaring the high mountains that made up the border, I pushed NE where the hills lay much lower. Flying over a few villages I was wondering if I might find accommodation and charge my all singing and dancing vario, but once I’d lost some altitude the wind became light and I couldn’t refuse taking each smooth, warm thermal which I came across and continued flying into the evening. I eventually top landed on a round grassy hill at about 8pm and made camp just before sunset. Not having had a hard walk up that morning meant I still had 2 litres of water left. If I hadn’t, then I would have had to go down.
The temperature overnight was pleasantly cool, but knowing it would soon warm up, I set off early in the morning for bigger hills a long way off to the south. It had been a mistake flying so far NE yesterday unnecessarily, I could have landed closer to the border. I had flown well over 100km and off the edge of my map, but only 80km east – to a similar longitude as the middle of Andorra. Now I was way off track to the north. It was a long sweaty walk over rolling grassy hills. Just as I was running out of water I passed a natural spring trickling across the path. By midday, I was ‘goosed’ and decided the hill I sat on would be good enough to get up from, or at least allow me to fly across to the cliffs I could see baking in sunshine on the border with Andorra. I got great insight from watching the vultures and hawks using different ground features as the sun moved across the sky. When the clouds started to form overhead it was my cue to fly. I shouldered my harness and carried my glider over the brow of the hill to launch. There was no prevailing wind but the odd thermal was coming up on this side.
Dressed in all my clothes ready for cloudbase I was sweating like a pig. I soared and scratched the grassy hill, slope landing about four times. Concerned about gliding down into the valley and completely wasting the day I desperately needed a decent thermal to get away. I roughly spread my wing out again and waited on my hands and knees with sweat running down my shades, overheating. When the next cycle came through I made a few laps of a natural bowl before homing in on the core and climbing to cloudbase, concentrating hard not to lose the lift. The feeling of my damp t-shirt turning cold was a brief relief and I zipped up my jacket in preparation for flying at altitude. Staying high I crossed the border and headed south from one forming cloud to the next. Cloudbase rose above 4000m, and at this height I had no idea what the prevailing wild direction was, and more importantly, when getting low, I had to imagine what direction the valley wind might be and from what hill the warm air might trigger off from. It was a barren grey landscape that would spend most of the year buried in snow. There was a lack of grass and few trees, with a ski resort at the top of each valley. One of them was the capital, but even that looked so small I failed to recognise it. There was a moderate headwind as I crept over the border into Spain a little bit low. I knew I had to work my way back to cloudbase and stay as high as possible before attempting the 20km crossing to the Pyrénées-Orientales (a line of peaks and ridges that form the natural bolder as they run 60km east to towards the Mediterranean). To get there I had to fly over a wide flat basin. I had expected to land out land and have to walk, but some clouds helped to shorted the gap. I could make out a small airport on my right I had to avoid, but couldn’t see any planes on the ground or in the air. As a result of choosing the shortest path across these flatlands, the hills I approached were less than ideal – shallow rolling hills with no trigger points or ridges I’d been used to. They were so flat you couldn’t even determine where the top was! There was a fresh headwind too, but the air was alive and I accidentally ran into a small pokey thermal a few hundred feet from the deck. Halfway up to base a white sail plane joined me for a few wide turns and then shot off east to bigger hills. I finished my climb and headed after them like a tortoise chasing a hare, weaving a path to stay under cloud or over features way below me, trying to stay high. Although the hills soon grew into 2500m+ mountains, they had a 100% cloud cover, preventing any thermals being generated. Trying to glide around to the windward face of the main ridge, I ran out of height and landed on a grassy ridge that I couldn’t quite glide over. Not far below me the tree line started. I was in Cataloneo.
It was 5 O’clock and I wasn’t sure if I was camping here, flying down, walking up?? While standing in my harness relieving myself, the breeze picked up for a couple of minutes. I dragged my wing under an electric fence to have a look at what lay on the other side. A huge grassybowl cut deep into the hill below the ridge I’d failed to connect with. When another breeze passed through I wanted to carry on flying. But this time in the old fashioned way, soaring the dynamic air – if it would keep me up! I spent the next 20 minutes zig zagging the back of the bowl, scratching the grass, slowly climbing the hill. The cows watched while chewing the cud, but small herds of Chamois ran to higher ground. The wind was as weak on the ridge, so I scratched that too. Further east the clouds were dark and not that high. They were creating some gentle lift and coaxed me away from the main range. Until now I didn’t really need to know where I was going. Just stay in the big hills progressing east any way I could. I hadn’t dreamed of flying so far today and now I was about to run out of hills I didn’t know what direction to go. In hindsight I should have landed high and set myself up to fly tomorrow afternoon when I could fly above the flatlands at the best time of day. But I had that curious greed to milk out every mile. I also suspect I was weary of walking up any more mountains and thought walking to the coast across relatively flat terrain would be a certainty. I tried to recollect the topographical maps I’d ogled over weeks earlier. Just at the foot of the hills, the landscape ahead was in sunshine, beautiful green forests with red tiled roofs bunched together in the valley bottom. The houses would stop where the river would squeeze through a gorge and then new red roofs would reappear a few kms further on. Eying up landing options, I kept taking weak thermals with no horizontal drift. Just high enough to wonder over to the next village. I tried, but couldn’t get high enough to glide to the fourth village and at 7:30pm, enjoying the last thermals of the day, I set up to land at Serralongue, France. From above I could see a restaurant where tables were occupied outside. Spiralling down to a cut field next to the church, I showed off to a family, circling around a lone tower until on the deck in front of them. It was very hot, and while answering questions I was pleased to answer, I hurriedly discarded the winter clothing and had the first drink since taking off at 1pm. They said they would save a seat at the restaurant and enquire about accommodation for me. Before I even got there a middle aged lady approached and said that the hotel / restaurant had no accommodation but she would let me stay for free at a studio just a short drive up the hill. As thanks I offered her a drink, and she asked for a double rum!! I ate with the two French families who I met earlier. Real food. When I went to the bar for another drink I felt like I was going to pass out and had to quickly sit down. Not sure what that was about! Dehydration, lack of salts? When it was turning dark I said my farewells. The young children from my table had gone to look for the mademoiselle who’d offered some accommodation. She eventually arrived to drive me a few kms out of town. The adults on my table laughed at the worried look on my face as I got into her car.
When I left at 7am the landlord collared me and I ended up paying him 40 euros. I didn’t try to explain what I was promised, but he did drive me back into town, saving me a walk. I picked up a swallow off the street that must have collapsed from yesterday’s heat, and fed it some water. Tomorrow I would be in a similar state. Only 56km to the sea, I reckoned it would be an easy 2 day stroll. Unfortunately I’d arrived at the same time as the heatwave that struck Europe in the middle of July. In the mountains I hadn’t really noticed. As I trod the winding tarmac roads, the temperature rose, and my deep blisters came back to life and wept into my socks. I was looking forward to swimming in a river half way through the first day. There wasn’t much water, but I could float about under the bridge, sheltered from the sun. The water was so warm I didn’t feel any benefit from it at all! After drying and talcing my feet, I got blisters on both of my heels within half an hour! Stopping for a drink at every village on route, I eventually arrived at Les Pedres campsite, Capmany, at 9pm. I showered, and then ate a dried food meal with a retired Welsh / Irish couple who gave me some beers. It was nice to speak English again.
The next day was very unpleasant. Very sore feet and unbearable heat. I had to get to the coast, but my goal was only the next shop or café, one at a time, village after village, crisscrossing my paper map in a very indirect fashion. If I sat down, my the blisters in the soles of my feet swelled up making walking worse. The water in my Platypus bag was so warm I only used it to soak my arms trying not to overheat. I also found breathing more frequently helped. At 3pm I could see the Mediterranean Sea and abandoned the winding ‘scenic path’ and took the busy main road directly into the town Llanca, stubbornly walking against the traffic. It was probably the dodgiest thing of the whole holiday, but I was spent. I sat for a while outside the Euro Spar supermarket with half a melon and 2 bags of ice for my bare feet. In case you were wondering, I ate the melon. I still had to walk to the beach and then return to the train station. On the way to the beach an obvious old hand at trekking recognised the manner in which I staggered into town and suggested I used Vaseline on my feet next time. I will try that in future, instead of the talc. A selfie on the beach, another sack of ice for the train to Barcelona, and the story is complete.
And the Pyrenees, I will leave behind me. Next year I will return to the Alps and use the trains, busses and cable cars to my heart’s content!
And my wing of course.