Day Five: Water, the essence of Life
Most of the trip, I'd been pleasantly surprised by plentiful fast flowing streams that looked OK to drink from. So I had been carrying less and less water, because it's damn heavy.
But then I had that killer ascent in blistering heat, and despite taking my full 4L my water ran low. Then three flights with landings and walks used up the remainder.
It was OK, I was on Orhi, a big peak ... there was bound to be water.
And yet, the previous evening I had walked and walked, and hadn't found anything but dry runoff channels and cowprints in old mud.
It reminded me how vital water is. Without it, you're quickly stuffed.
Then I found it! Joy oh joy! A trickly stream running down through the rocks. It was a steep slope near the peak. It'll be fine, I thought. Filtered by the rocks, it was clear and cool and wondrous. I drank my fill and went to bed.
A few hours later, and my tummy rumbled. And I didn't feel that well. Ah, too much essence of life in the water. I got the runs.
So on Day 4 all my mountain water tasted of chlorine. At least it was sterile. I should have brought powdered Energade to cover the taste of the purification tablets.
Hiking became tough, because the diarrhoea made me as weak as a baby: I was not getting nourished because I was not holding my food. I had to carry a lot of water too to be certain that I could prevent dehydration. The trail was easy enough but followed the skyline, up and down. And although the altitude wasn't severe, being at over 1500m ASL probably added to my exhaustion. The 7km I hiked before lunch felt epic.
As I reached the high point of the cliff line, the strong North wind that had buffeted me during the morning began to ease. There was a clear divide along the border: to the left, the French air, cool and cloudy, with a persistent north wind. To the right, a Spanish sky made for cross country flying, complete with towering cumulus, and a light southerly wind. The south-facing cliffs baked in the sun, and a few birds of prey circled lazily in the thermals.
I was perched on the divide. The wind eased further. It was going to change!
I unpacked all my gear and set it up for flying. If I stuck my head over the sheer cliff, I could feel the occasional puff. I just needed a moment where the swirling moisture from the north abated and stopped curling down the face.
Out in front, it was hellishly tree-covered. There was a smaller ridge I considered walking down to, but it would put me in a position with no gliding options, as far as I could see. Just forest. I needed to cross the next big spine, so I stayed high, and waited.
The cold backwind never abated, it just teased, and teased, until the cloud erased any hope of launching and I finally admitted I had to pack it all back in the bag, and hike on.
After 4km of miserable hiking, I posted an update to James. "Spent most of day in cloud, so had amazing views of boring damp clag. Mountain smells of cow shit. Bah."
I found a narrow patch of level grass, and went to ground. I was exhausted.
Day Six: Mountain high
Life is full of contrasts; it gives good things an extra shine, when you've suffered the dark moments.
Bivi flying seems to heighten the intensity of things. Yesterday was extremely bad. Diarrhoea, fatigue, packing up and walking down from an almost flyable cliff, stumbling about in the cloud.
Day 6 was extremely good. After waking to a howling wind that was trying to strip the tent off the mountain, I gave up on using my hard won altitude and began the walk down.
Walking takes a lot of time. So when I was half way down I noticed the wind had abated, or at least at my level. And guess what I stumbled across? Another one of those terrible Pyrenean bivi launch sites: close cropped grassy slope, courtesy of the cows.
I shared an early morning thermal with a vulture, had an extended floating glide just whispering over the tree tops, and landed in the last grass patch in the valley (everything is covered in pine trees!)
It's thanks to the Iota that I got cheese and jam. What? Well, I was seeing how far I could stretch the glide, and every time I lined up a field the Iota would just keep floating, that little bit more.
If I hadn't reached the kids summer camp, I wouldn't have met Chavi, who greeted me warmly and once he heard what I was doing, offered me food and water.
How could it be better? Cheese, jam and peanuts: a change of diet, and I'm ecstatic.
That gave me the fuel I needed for the mammoth march in the rising heat to the next launch. The day wore on as I hiked up a wooded valley, lured by the promise of a long ascent and high peak at the end. The normal rubbish maths ensued: walking at 5km/h for 3hrs would mean on launch at 3pm in good time for XC. Right, sticks up!
Sheeshkebab. It was hotter than a monkey's bum on a tin roof, your Majesty. I drained 3 litres of water, refilled. Drained it again.
My legs slowly got ground down to stumps. OK. Maybe I'd get to takeoff by 5. The sky looked epic. The wind had gone.
As it turned out, I reached the limit of my hiking range at the bottom of the final long 500m height ascent. But I couldn't stop. I might be able to glide...
I reached the col at 8:30pm, almost at sunset, after 22km. There was a breeze, but from the wrong way. I sank down on the grass, utterly spent. I'd flown early in the morning, too early for thermals, and I'd spent the rest of a flying day walking.
I found a level campsite. And watched the birds.
Craak crook! They were soaring. It was light, so I'd have to scramble straight up to the peak.
I scrambled. The wind dropped but it would be OK. I had a new plan, a move invented by John Silvester: col busting! Launch. Turn right. Fly over the back.
I held my breath, waiting for the possible rotor and ghastly sink. The wind whispered through the Iota's lines. Nothing bad happened, just a silky smooth sunset glide through a long valley with a spiky horizon. Unused adrenalin fizzed in my blood; made me whoop with joy and brought sharpness to my vision: the immense jagged eyrie was everywhere, each cliff and crag and broken precipice felt as if it was mapped inside my mind.
On and on I glided, until the mountains closed off the way ahead, and made me come down from my reverie.
THAT was what I had come to the Pyrenees for. What an incredible glide!
Day Seven: Escape from the Deep
I woke with a smile. That's a good way to welcome fortune, I find.
But now I didn't need to intend the smile; it was fixed in place from the evening before, when I had crawled into my tent, too tired to wash, too smelly to care, and too elated at what I'd experienced that I didn't know how to contain my joy, except to lie on my back and spread my spirit out wide across the night sky. I felt expanded, transformed, yet humbled - I was in a massive landscape, and I had found a line deep through its heart.
Looking at the map, there seemed to be a launchable slope 2 hours ahead, another at 4. After a full wash and water reload, I tackled the steep pass. Hot, at 10 am. This day is going to cook!
Launch 1 proved to be impossibly low. It led into the most perfect hiking on soft grass and a backdrop of big peaks with icing. Some looked launchable but there were no trails and my legs were having none of that!
Despite good spirits, my legs were failing. A week of gruelling hiking and little 'proper' food had taken its toll on my stamina. I walked on, because I could fly...
The supposed launch came up. It was rubbish. Scenic, but rubbish.
But now I knew the trick. I had a new skill: scramble up the nearest high point, bail off the edge and fly around to where it was working.
And so I could be free of walking altogether.
The flying was tricky, slow and technical. Weak thermals, big treed sections, patience. I was skirting the edge of Prohibited airspace again, a big swathe of the French Pyrenees National Park. It didn't matter, I was finally in my element. Something had clicked, I had worked and worked over days and days, and been pushed back and down and aside, made to scale horrid slopes and sweat out litres of water, made to wait in cloud because I didn't understand where to go. Made to lose my strength because I didn't recognise the danger of the humble cow.
But now, I understood, a little; enough. I was connected with the place, and I was free.
Up and up I went. I passed turnpoint 3, Collarada, climbing. Up and up, to kiss the clouds at 12000 ft (3600 m). Wonderful wispy white stuff, cold and fresh. A parting gift from the Pyrenees: a view back over the range I'd crossed. Hondarribia out of sight, somewhere in the distance.
I aimed for my exit point at Jaca, but there was no longer any doubt in my mind.
I knew I would be there. I would swim in that river. I knew, because I could fly.
I reached Jaca at around 4pm and circled lazily over the city. Words can't describe how happy I was to have flown the last 30k, instead of finishing with a leg-mashing descent!
The Spanish plains were firing off. 5-up thermals and strong SW wind meant I could have flown a long way east if I'd wanted to. These were the legendary Spanish summer conditions I'd been expecting when I planned the bivi. Maybe the good flying conditions had been here all the time.
Once I'd bundled everything away from the searing heat, I fell down in the Rio Aragon and let the waters wash the strain away.
Somehow, the distances I'd clocked up didn't reflect the intensity. It was the toughest bivi I've done, but also the most beautiful and remote. For hiking, the Pyrenees region feels wonderfully safe. The few people I met were very welcoming. The trails were well marked. Wild camping was possible everywhere.
I'll return: I've only done a third of the route, and I expect the distance remaining will be even more of an adventure.
Exit: A civilized man
The bus from Jaca whisked me off to somewhere new yesterday: Zaragoza.
Approaching the city at 21h00 on Friday I guessed I'd best spend the night and aim for Barcelona the next day. All good, my flight out was on Saturday evening.
After a moment of rerouting neurons that were primed to look for grass beside rivers, I found the way that works in the civilized world: Google maps! 'Zaragoza backpacker hostel'? Err, just walk over there sir, turn left now, down the street on the left, it's got 4 stars.
18 € got me a bed all on my own (nobody else took the 3/4 spaces remaining) with airconditioning, a locker, shower AND unlimited basic breakfast!
Stepping out onto the hot streets at 11.30pm I found a city bustling with nightlife, a friendly social kind, people at tables on the plazas sipping wine, musicians playing, and a great little street restaurant that caught my eye - Del Toro was on the menu: served with deliciously oily potato slices and salad.
I was grateful for the dim illumination where I could conceal my shabby clothes. I'd showered, but I really needed to burn my t-shirt.
The food arrived in a battered saucepan. I filled my empty left leg. Then my right.
As I added all the things I craved over the next day my body slowly returned to normal, and slowed right down. No need to pace hard in the burning heat, just keep to the shadows, take it easy. Just like everyone else.
After shopping for some travel clothes, I took in the city sights.
It felt wonderful to be clean, shaved; civilized. There was so much to be thankful for. The generations who built the city out of nothing. The peace that had allowed commerce and culture to flourish. The collective effort of everyone working to keep the interdependent systems in existence.
A world where I could catch a plane, find freedom in the unspoilt wilds, and return home again to my (very much missed) family and friends. All in one week.
A world where I could share the story across the world in an instant.
Our world of great opportunities.
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