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Peery Knees - vol bivouac

Ben Keayes - 20/02/2007

Pyrenees without a Plan
Or 5 epics and 1 classic

Vol-bivouac – such adventure hidden in the word (already much more enticing than fly-camp with all the intimations of pink Lurex wings, tank tops and helmet discussion). ‘Dangerous’ Dave Ashcroft and I, having had the luxury of a successful safe and under planned trip through the western Alps last year had no second thought about committing this year’s free holiday days to a second bivouac experience.

But to where?

Somewhere more adventurous (or less travelled) than the French Alps. The Tatras and Bulgaria appealed enormously – the Andes and the Himal even more but practicality and cheap flights decided us on the Peery Knees. So exciting I can never spell them.

Preparations!

Ha! Not for us! Dave’s consisted of a battered piece of paper on which last year’s equipment list was written, mine a frenzied last minute dash ‘round Kendal trying to remember what I forgot things last time, what I hadn’t got and if I needed it. Actually my equipment was improved – with Brad at Snowden sourcing a lightweight Randoneusse Harness… ahhhh! It doesn’t have a reserve… ahhhh my reserve is in Keswick …. ahhhh! And they’re on holiday.

The consequence – the Keswick reserve was Dave’s old one. I know – it has been thrown, been swimming and it’s pink and lilac but – and this is unsubstantiated, is probably in much better shape than mine. Mine being given the – it would work perfectly if you were a skinny 8 year old kid in a bathing costume. Want to borrow a hanky to back it up? – treatment from Aerofix.

So my tiny 15msec + reserve it had to be. Ahhh…there’s no reserve pocket on a Randoneusse. Never mind. A bit of fettling with 2 shoe laces and a bit of climbing tape tied a leopard skin print reserve bag (designed for front deployment) loosely onto the right hand side. As by fate and fortune this is the same set up (though his fix involved needlework skills) as Dave, we looked a dashing pair.

Other Equipment

Other equipment had been lightened over the last year. Gone were gore tex waterproofs – replaced by ultra lightweight Golite and Montane items (saving nearly 3kg), and a more rationalised camping set (including ‘proper’ expedition freeze dried food, a plastic mug and Yuri Geller spoon). Combining this lower weight with the fact that the Randoneusse can be rolled up (with reserve and instruments) and popped into a sleeping bag compression sac meant a very compact 70ltr rucksack held all the gear.

Total weight without water at the start of the trip was sub-20 kg. Quite acceptable in a good rucksack. The rucksack itself is the only remaining area where substantial savings might be had – weighing as it does nearly 3 kg. But the support offered (and replacement price) will keep it in the hunt for years to come. In line with the Irish idiot author Flan O’Brien’s analysis of the particulate theory of matter – which states that each time you touch something particles are exchanged (a theory he backs up through an in depth examination of the behaviour of bicycles that are ridden more than 3 hour a day) - a large part of this rucksack was comprised of my flesh, sweat and blood – whilst I’m largely Cordura and hollow. Those who know me will probably agree. Either way my weighty trusted friend will be staying.

The Stage is Set

Those still following these rambling might be asking the question ‘where in the Peery Knees might these fools be going?’ those who care less ‘please go again and not come back’ and those who care more ‘what happened?’. All these questions will be sidestepped soon.

The where in the Peery Knees we go was starting to bother us as our flight started its descent into Barcelona. Face pressed against the glass we looked for bivi routes. Good lots of snow and one valley big enough to see. Is that Andorra? So I stopped filling in Su Doku (I know) – got out the road map and we picked two spots. I fancied Ager as at least I had heard of it offering flying. It also had a train line going to it, had the advantage of being within flying distance of the big stuff and might offer a straightforward introduction to Peery Knees flying. Dave picked a spot at random based on train lines and the biggest hills. We tossed a coin and fudged the answer. Fate could decide. Which ever train leaves first would win.

Dave’s did. So due north from Barca – into the hills. A place called Nuria beckoned – holding the promise of a cog railway to a saint seeing an angel type spot. Right on the border – with Michelin camp site and outdoor shop that sold gas. In good shape for adventure on the morrow.

The cog railway did its job. It also pointed out in a headmistressy manner what we could expect if we bombed in a ‘typical’ Peery Knees valley. Trees, cables and waterfalls. None of the wide valleys with flying school bomb outs of the Alps. I think we’d better land high – above the tree line. Always.

The Flying Begins - Spain

Utterly nerveless we set up on a perfect spur above Nuria. At the entrance to the high valley system – above the tree line with a bombout field in front of the monastery. Thermals were ripping - the stage was set. We were at 8000’. We took off – the ripping thermals were too small to use. We crashed back into the hillside aware of the extra speed surging through our heavily loaded wings. And we waited. After a while – it became obvious that our perfect spur was less than. No idea why. Not a clue. With extra resolve we took off, crashed and took off again. Until we got above the peaks. Just. Straight over the back (100’ clearance) to a spur. I arrived into the middle of a herd of XXXX the local antelope who were mildly put out. Dave hit the hill just above me. I though he had a plan so crashed near him. No – he had crashed and had no plan. After some cajoling I was persuaded to ball up my wing and walk up a bit. I hate that – let alone when really hot heavy etc.

The spur worked no better than the previous. After a big struggle and several crashes Dave got up high to where the day was working well. I nearly made it, got over excited, made a mistake and flew to the head of the valley where I skimmed snow fields until landing.

A new fangled innovation (Dave calls them ‘radios’) meant we hatched a plan. I packed up, Dave top landed and walked down to help me back up. Up high the day had changed. Slightly menacing clouds, wind coming up all the sides of the hill and a big snowy / stony takeoff reinforced my relief that we had survived the first day. But no. The bit was between Dave’s teeth. Bullying me into unpacking we took off from opposite slopes of the mountain as Dave’s plan to ground handle it around to join me was stopped by a lack of insoles in his boots. In rough air, surrounded by peaks, and slightly dry mouthed with fear we waited. Then a thermal, cloudbase and a lovely zoom right around the back of the national park. All the time expecting to be rotored into the scree. My sub-plan from last year of sending Dave in first was working. He survived I enjoyed. Getting bolder I take the lead, cross a high col and crash into the next hill. We decide to brew up and camp. Quite a day. And the GPS claims we have moved 3.5km yes three and a half kilometres from our launch. These Peery Knees are going to take some cracking we thought.

What a day what a bivi site.

Stony, cold and scenic. I had prepared myself for Dave’s need to sleep wrapped up in his Vulcan at some point but as the cold wind howled it was a necessity.
The plan the next day was walk along the ridge to the top of the highest mountain in the region, and fly from the summit crossing the big valley to connect to the next range. More than 3.5km but we were confident.

Until we found take off. The only bit possible was in compression on the top of a spur. Getting dragged would be bad. The wind was absolutely ripping. Enormous scree slopes promised thermals rough and vicious, take off only possible in rare lulls. I nearly walked down (which Dave would have supported). His optimism prompted continuing assessment of the conditions. I was so gripped I forgot to take a photo of the launch and after launching (again quite dry mouthed for the first 10 mins) – was much too busy. Walkers arriving at the summit must have been put off for life as we attempted to get high enough to go at the same time. Our wings did everything – but kept us alive. Once engaged I love a full on fight – and this was what we were in. Bullets coming through too tight to turn in – and if you did you did with half a wing. At last – we got to cloudbase together and ran down the big spur to the north.

Drilled down the spur actually. But time to reflect and chuckle. Latch the thermal (rough of course) over the town and get height. Bugger. Dave missed it. Come on lad. The difference in the air was remarkable. At the top of the big valley was a cu-nim looking scary. Up the side valley – oh – another cu-nim. Above me a cloud street. And 6 up everywhere. Everywhere. And… what the hell is that cloud creeping up the valley low down. Looks like fog.

So I spiral. Not to land but to keep contact with Dave who inexplicably still is scratching and thermalling in obviously nasty air low in the valley bottom. 6-7 up everywhere. So I spiral. Those that know me know that I don’t spiral. G-force and me don’t mix. However necessity is the mother of invention and I was getting them good tongue hanging out in the style I’ve been advised is professional.

Getting on the radio (6 up everywhere) we decide to head North and land. Dave scratches over a surprisingly large gorge in the middle of the valley – I’m full speed bar and big big-ears (6 up) – until I spiral it into the deck. Flying an instinctive last minute circle to judge low level wind was a good plan. Opposite direction to that 200’ up and very strong. What is going on?!

Dave, further down the hill also notices. As he touches down, a crash of lightning and immediate thunder. Timing.

Having packed up and found a café – also discovering that we were now in France (quite a surprise) we figured it out. That old lake district classic – sea breeze convergence. See the picture and make your own mind up… bearing in mind a cu-nim is sweeping down the valley from right to left.

The Flying Continues – France / Andorra

The next day dawned howling. Clouds at 10 – the storms in the night not having blown through. Our pidgin explanations to the French flying school and attempts at extracting information were stalling. I don’t think they believed us. Until I claimed ‘le vent de la Mere yesterday!’ and accurately beat the quiz about our wing colour. ‘Ah we were wondering ‘oo it waz’. The little old instructor with the face of a thousand walnuts suddenly spoke English, pulled out a previously nonexistent map and offered his help. Basically, all sites were miles from the mountains – involved afternoon dynamic flying off the valley winds and if we really wanted to para-bivouac in the Pyrenees we should go West to East. Great. Thanks.

Ignoring all we head for the Col de Puymorens – up on the Andorra France border and importantly quite near space again. Two terrific hitches – including a trucker taking us completely out of his way and not letting us pay tunnel tolls landed us at the wind blown top of the Andorran valley.

Only slightly deterred by the force and coldness of the wind, only slightly off put by the Pastis and sandwich from the bar we set out walking North. Don’t know why but our road map thought it was a good idea (we were down to one road map due to my having left Dave’s in the back of a Renault when playing the bongos earlier).

After 3 hours of walking – we ran out of hill. A deep valley ran up into high corries blocking our path to South faces. All quite unmentioned on our road map. Still what a day – what a bivi site.

Night two inside the Vulcan. And I’m being taught cards (christmas cracker cards to save weight). And I’ve stuffed all my gear strategically to stop the wind whistling through the tent. And I’m absolutely happy.

By dawn the west wind has stopped. Eerily. So up we go. And later, off we set. Smooth and silky cruising around the peaks. We are aware we’re not making progress though (as again we’re rather hemmed in). So a dive and a flush and valley winds and lee-siders and no sense can be made at all as again I land facing the opposite way from that expected – again making no progress. Dave 1Km away as expected. No idea why. Not a clue. That’s Andorra ticked then.

The Flying Returns to Spain

Whenever I hitch – abroad or in the uk I’m always struck by the generosity (after the irritation obviously). I’m usually scruffy and with a large bag – yet people invite me in. And it’s always people with old cars, full of kids, animals and tables. There is no one poor enough to own a small car in Andorra. So we had to bus instead. Even this was unwilling to stop – for fear we’d pollute the air-conditioned atmosphere no doubt.

Quite a relief to get out of Andorra – not needing a new watch, designer thongs or a camera so small you could hide it in your designer thongs; it wasn’t really my kind of place. Mind you the place we ended up looked hopeless too.


Take off in Andorra

A Town called Fortune

A joyous hitch to the North again – now to the west of Andorra by a lovely couple who pretended to like Manchester and didn’t mind stopping the car and hiding in some bushes when we noticed vultures feeding on some roadkill. They took us to Sort – in Catalan fortune – a town whose economy is rooted in rafting trips and lottery sales. I liked it – or perhaps it was the Pastis. Big hills beckoned and an old ski resort was the spot.

Or at least the start of the walk to the spot.

It hurt bad. A jeep track – 12km of jeep track – all at the same grade. Dave’s coke power destroyed my Pastis power. 4 hours later I was done. The vultures were circling, the sky overdeveloping and my water-bag leaking. Dave was convinced we should lunch into the cu-nim and head up the valley to the sun. I thought we’d die but felt like I had. A short smooth, scratchy flight led to us landing on a spur with cliffs poised above and below in readiness for tomorrow.

What a day, what a bivi site.
The day of Three (or Ben gets the grump)

The wind of course had changed direction. Again. And we knew we had little chance of lee side success. So we wandered over the col – to get onto the east face. Good choice. From the climb rates of the vultures it was already working. And some.

I understood the conditions for the first time.

Wind to the north – Thermals up the East – we need to go North West.
‘This first bit looks hard – and it’s bloody strong and rough. Still, we’re high – Dave’s higher just keep it together – keep flying along the pointy bits… NO NO NO. Can’t use the radio - too rough. He’ll never make it over that spine back. He’s going down in the rotor in that valley – god that looks bad – and I’ve got to follow to send the bits home to Clare.’

And so I did. Keeping in the middle of the valley – preparing to throw the reserve – fighting the rotor and trying to keep an eye on Dave doing the same thing. Then a thermal ‘is this my lifeline?’ Dave looks like he’s going to land safely… Then it got messy. Slack lines, falling, keep it flying – all the skills developed on pitchy comp wings in play – and this wing is so secure. As I sort it out Dave comes on the radio with a cheery ‘I’m going to walk to the col and give it another go’. Timing.

I landed fine – out of rotor cycle – with massive post-adrenal smile packed up and walked to join Dave. The more I thought about it, the more I needed to make the point – that in my mind the decision was wrong and could have killed either of us. I felt properly angry (rather than my usual irritated beyond belief). How do I get the point across – did I need to – what might it change except confidence next time? Am I really mad at this one that went wrong – or at all the others that went alright earlier in the week? Was there really any alternative?

We had the first of several conversations about decisions and mutual responsibility – then flew again. Very different here. Not very thermic – with the wind off the hill and another couple of ridges to sneak ‘round / get over. After an hour I landed prepared to walk. Dave – with the desperation of a man who takes an hour to pack had a last go – and found the key. Scratch ‘round the corner, scratch the scree crash between thermals wait, scratch crash. It took him 30 mins it took me the best part of 90.

And then the promised land. Sunny afternoon granite faces into the wind – dynamic soaring huge cliffs, a land of lakes, forest and granite, smooth air crystal views, vultures and beauty. I followed the valley into the heart of the mountains wanting this to go on forever. In fact I landed in the most beautiful spot I’ve ever been.

Dave stayed out front – landing high and coming down to camp having found a promising launch site and way to get to it. Good scouting and the perfect end to a perfect day.

Following the Epics…

An extra-ordinary day. Right from the start it looked mountain promising too. The wind had only switched from NE to NW (the smallest night switch so far) – and as far as we could tell was light. We were on the right side of the hill. There was no early cumulus build up, we were keen, we were ready we were able. Take off was a thin grassy line leading up from the forest (where a natural firebreak had been caused by winter avalanches) right to the summit screes, sandwiched between monumentally crenellated granite cliffs on each side.

Got to work. Thermals and dynamics. Brilliant. We took off. It offered promise – being soarable. We explored the cliffs either side – diving back to our secure grassy line whenever we though a slope land might be necessary. Except… 10m from security and very close to big sharp things, I’m pinned. No lift or sink but precious little movement in air that’s getting rougher. Bang. Full frontal. The tuck and extremely rapid recovery seemed to give me speed – speed that enabled me to enter the huge thermal. 4000’ later – after one of the swiftest sustained rides I’ve been on, I’m at 12,500’ in wonderment at the view.

Dave poor chap missed the ride. He’s scratching – surely he’s down. I took loads of pics, until a rude lump hit – knocking the batteries out of my camera (a more exciting story than the frozen finger fumble – which could well be true). As it was freezing cold they probably wouldn’t have worked much longer anyway. So – being above at least one inversion – with everything buoyant I wander off to check out potential routes – expecting to see Dave land soon. An hour and half later – never dropping below 10,500’ (which was well above the summits) – Dave’s scratching finally pays dividends.

He’s up! Actually, as soon as he got established enough to radio – his first question was – where are you? In one of my favourite ever responses – ‘look up – high up – above the twin peaks. I’ve been here for hours!’ I was able allay Dave’s fear I had landed – a fear which, given the uncompromising scratching Dave had had to undergo, would I’m sure have been true had our positions been reversed.

We set off directly over the back – I’m leading – largely due to cold induced urgency. I’m trying to pick a route that will allow Dave (still lower) to follow with the minimum of effort. He still gets a bit low on the first crossing (11500’!). I’m now at nearly 13,000’ and although my hands are so cold I’ve had to larks foot my hand through the brakes and I’ve got canopy affecting shivers, I can’t resist taking the next (weak) lift to break the barrier. Dave is now getting well established – though his blue / yellow Vulcan is really hard to spot.

The next peak – and I’m flying fast and straight – the thermal takes me to base of the first cloud we’ve seen. Thin and wispy and damn near 13,500’. Dave’s vanished, but extols me on the radio to head south. He doesn’t realize how cold I am. But he’s got a point. On the glide a friendly vulture comes to play – really close and so high up. 20 mins later the same chap plays with Dave who gets blurred close ups (trying too hard for the wing plus bird shot?).

And then, almost without warning, the bivi part of the trip is over. We land in a windy valley. Shake hands then heads over the day’s experience. I thaw out in the sun as Dave starts to pack. A rustic sandwich that excites the local moggies draws blood from weather cracked lips. A psychopathic ride attempts to drive all those that didn’t pick us up off the road – his dread headed smile in the mirror developing a brotherhood with the strange English with the ridiculously high adrenaline tolerance – on the way to Ager.

Ager is great – though so easy we made classic mistakes – taking off far too early. Dave’s desire for kilometers leads him to a technical flight (including a near miss with a hydro-electric power plant), and long walk. I boat around the valley – enjoying the view until a cliff scratch leads to a close inspection of the vulture colony. Too close to the cliff for pics – but I’ll always have the mental movie.

I loved this trip. The beauty of the Pyreneese – quite unexpected – the bivouacs alone were worth the effort. The challenge of the flying, the trust in your partner, the balance between ambition and safety, desire and judgement. This trip expanded me. Perhaps a little too much. I became aware as the lights fused on my motorbike and I made my way home on a sliver moon – I was pushing the curve. Throttle back, enjoy the ride – go back to the Peery Knees and adventure again.

 

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