Scribbles on a map and someone else’s GPX files can never substitute local knowledge. Unfortunately James McKnight didn’t have any of that and, as he discovered, he was soon in way over his head in some of the Pyrenees’ most remote countryside.
Words James McKnight Photography Victor Lucas
Photographer Victor Lucas and I had been talking about this trip for over a year since I first visited the remote village of Nocito (population 10), a luscious place set among alluring hills on the edge of the Pyrenees. I had been wooed by Nocito’s charm as a mysterious settlement in an improbable location quite a long way from nowhere at all really. We had both been intrigued by the idea of bikepacking, or whatever you want to call going for a long ride carrying everything you need. However, glamorous images of heroes making their way through immense landscapes had perhaps not told us the entire story as we would soon find out… Bikepacking ain’t easy.
Finally in Spain, we were joined by Ben Winder, a last-minute addition to the team, and beginning to wonder if we’d bitten off more than we could chew. At least for once we had done a great job in terms of coordinating kit and learning about the route – we wrongly thought.
Whatever the case, any level of good organisation wasn’t going to be enough to save us from our greatest weakness – optimism. Our proposed ride would follow several GPS tracks found online, ducking in and out of the offbeat Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park, a magnificent area of time-eroded mountains and deep crags in the province of Huesca, Aragon. Having gauged the speed of whoever created the GPS file, we’d come here expecting a mostly gravel road and mellow singletrack ride and based our daily kilometres on that. What we didn’t know was the creator of that GPS file was some sort of rocky trail-craving, kilometre-crunching machine…
Better get going.
The first day was already quite bluntly informative of our over-zealous route planning. Six hours after leaving the campsite in Nocito we were somehow just 15km from the start line – these ancient paths were not conducive to forward progress. We were also starving hungry, a side effect of going into a sparsely populated area expecting to find a burger stand. The point where we stood, somewhere beyond the remains of Used (population: zero), served only rocks and hard places. It seemed our order was between the two.
To further add gravity to our situation, as we crawled at great lack of speed along an awful trail littered with fist-sized rocks and spiky bushes, an English-speaking Frenchman with a strong Liverpudlian accent (an irrelevant, but interesting detail) stopped us in our tracks. “Alright fellas?” We asked where one might find the campsite at Rodellar (population: 50). “Where? Jamais heard of it, man.” He’d just appeared from the direction we were heading. “But I can tell you the next section of trail is terrible! Shouldn’t you have set out earlier?”
The ride had started as it would go on – delusional. After packing, unpacking and repacking several times at Nocito – the sign of a nervous first bikepack if ever there were one – we’d stopped at the local store to stock up on food for the days ahead. This was more ‘bunker’ than ‘supermarket’. There’s something quite intriguing about a retailer who finds the stockpiling of bottles of wine imperative, especially when they are cached in a head-high heap in the corner. Alas, booze wasn’t going to get us through the Spanish mountains. We left Nocito with two old croissants and a handful of figs.
The myriad dormant villages scattered about Spain’s countryside are signs of a rural life that once was. Now, mere ghosts of those ancient settlements endure. Some, like Nocito, cling on to their steadily expiring life source – people. Elsewhere the villagers either left long ago in search of work and city life, or they departed this earth once and for all. Our journey around the Sierra de Guara would guide us through a timeline of depreciating communities, from those still surviving and with even as much as mild economies (campsites, some olive oil production), to those on the verge of complete abandonment, to those already in decay. With that thought to chew on – and not a lot more, as it were – we continued to push into the unknown.
Over-planning and under-equipping.
Victor had over-planned (in my opinion) his equipment and ended up with manifold bikepacking-specific luggage strapped to his bike, the overloaded saddle pack in particular causing wheelbarrow-handling as it swung around wildly, an imbalance that would cause the rider to veer off course and into an array of variously dagger-shaped vegetation at regular intervals. Ben and I, on the other hand, had brazenly waded in with heavily-loaded backpacks containing not a lot of useful stuff (thankfully Victor had predicted this and provisioned for us too), plus a few bits and bobs strapped to the bike with Velcro and little forethought. Our packs weighed a back-bending 9kg compared to Victor’s 1.9kg; on the flipside, his wheelbarrow had an extra 4kg in the bucket. It had taken only the first moments of trail time to realise these heavily loaded backpacks and bikes were quite a hindrance on such technical terrain – we would most definitely have been faster on foot.
The biggest dilemma for any aspiring bikepacker must surely be how to carry sufficient water: where and how to store it and, as we found out, where to find it in the first place. We had devised methods of portaging an amount sufficiently heavy to cause a total lack of bicycle control, yet not quite enough even for a single day of riding, a stroke of reverse genius as we rode through a country known for its heat. We were fast to realise the iodine tablets and filtration pump we were carrying weren’t going to help when there was barely as much as a muddy puddle in sight.
Realising there was little readily available water in this tough climate left us in a constant state of panic, evaluating fluid levels at all-too-regular intervals. Furthermore, our romantic plan to string hammocks between sun-blessed little trees at whatever point we should decide to stop had failed to take local laws into account, such as, say, ‘strictly no wild camping allowed anywhere’. Riding out into quite starkly barren moorland shortly before our meeting with the Liverpudlian Frenchman, we also noticed a distinct lack of trees. Not by chance, the aforementioned all coincided with a decision to hunt down a campsite. That’s why we were now heading for Rodellar, a known hangout for climbers and, for us, a land of much hope and promise.
X marks the campsite. But not the ravine.
Traversing the high moorlands between Bara (population: a few) and Rodellar, we were heading for an X on the map – a supposed campsite in the second village. However, at this point in the day it was becoming quite clear that we should prepare for a night of roughing it. We weren’t all too disheartened by this thought, although we were now ravenous. We pushed on, dissecting ancient habitations and following paths we assumed would have led residents of these lonely villages to faraway neighbours. Daylight was nearly gone, we had heaved and pushed and grunted our way up to a highpoint of 1,200 metres at Nasarre (population: zero), and now we were ready for a great descent to make all our efforts worthwhile.
At this point the story doesn’t become a fairy tale. The ride down from Nasarre into a deep, menacing and ever-darkening gorge was as brutally eye-opening as the rest of our day. Sweeping through open lands on fast trail, it felt like we would be freewheeling all the way to our ride’s end. The sun was still up, our spirits were lifted by the downhill, it seemed inevitable that the campsite would be somewhere around the next turn.
But then the Mascún Canyon became apparent. Here, the river has gradually chiselled its way through the limestone, creating an impossibly deep ravine with some of the most spectacular rock formations I have seen. We stood in awe of nature’s creation, and in fear of what was to come. From our point on the map we could see Rodellar must be at roughly the altitude we now stood, but there was only one way to get there – into, down, and out of the gorge. We were shattered, broken from a day of dashed hopes and malnutrition. At least we had ridden a long string of singletrack near Bara earlier in the day, a glint of gold among a long day of grit.
We were not in a suitable place to set up camp – steep walls of rock towered above our heads promising to drop a loose boulder at any moment and dense foliage around the trail left no other option but to forge ahead. Copious rocks and stones somehow clung to the steep track, causing many near misses as we timidly persuaded our iron mules down the harsh gradient. Victor’s wheelbarrow proved a great danger in this unforgiving environment, although our backpacks also occasionally lurched over-shoulder to send Ben and me rolling into the thorns.
Gently trickling water in the canyon calmed our nerves after landing from the downhill. Craning our necks we could see tiny humans clinging to an overhanging piece of rock above, climbers eking the most out of their day on an impressive natural stone archway. This was a sign of nearby civilisation; the relief at this point was palpable. It was a surprise to find river and trail became one and the same here, but we shrugged it off and began to pick our way along the riverbed, crossing from one side to the other a number of times in search of dry land.
By the time we set eyes on Rodellar it was pitch black in the valley. We’d all but given up hope of ever getting out of there alive when the lights of the village appeared atop a large outcrop. It was a sight for sore eyes (and legs, arms, shoulders, etc.), and an hour later we were devouring rounds of patatas bravas in the campsite’s friendly bar. We had set out with visions of great outdoor feats, but we had been burnt. Now here we were unashamedly enjoying hot food by the kilo in a pretty nice campsite. Our epic had become a holiday jaunt, and we were totally alright with that.
A learning experience.
Things we learned from our first brush with bikepacking: calculate rides in terms of hours, not kilometres. We realised the full 150km loop we had planned was beyond us, and while washing down the bravas with cool beers, spontaneous pangs of cramp going off like landmines, we made the decision to simply ride to an endpoint then retrace our route.
Perhaps this is all beginning to sound like a disaster. It was far from it. Because it’s exactly these sorts of challenges and adaptations that turn an ordinary ride into an expedition, as minor as it might be. Almost immeasurably slow progress, completely upturned camping plans and a newly revised route were unimportant. We were surviving, adapting, discovering and pushing on. Mountain biking doesn’t need heroics to inspire adventure. It just needs to provide the unexpected.
Nobody likes to backtrack, but the first day had offered a glimpse of life on the trail in this area. We knew that the going would get a whole lot tougher beyond the point we had now chosen as the end of the ride, and, unable to contact any of the marked refuges on our route, thought it sensible not to take the risk – we wouldn’t stand a chance of carrying enough food for three days in that wilderness. As we leaned back comfortably into the chairs at the bar, we discussed our new-found appreciation of those hard nuts who really do go out into the wild with little more than a bike, loaded pannier packs, and a long beard.
Soon a rhythm was found as we scuffled through Spain. We learned that bikepacking should never be a rush, that we shouldn’t expect all-time dudetastic downhills and should instead focus on being at one with our surroundings – hot, dry, dusty and crumbling – we were very much at one.
Fighting our way along the at times quite dangerous trail that follows the Mascún river on the second day, we were again in a slow race with the sun – both us and it heading for the horizon and this time we were determined to arrive there first. Progress was embarrassingly slow, but we were unapologetic in our enjoyment of every protracted second as we shimmied along various ledges on our way towards camp two. Below us perfect turquoise water flowed through an intricate obstacle course of boulders, bends, twists and turns. Pretty Roman-era bridges spanned the short distance across the river – the banks here so steep you could almost hop from one side to the other.
Eventually we made it out of the gorge and into marginally easier terrain, ticking off clicks on gravel roads that were clearly designed to punish users by taking straight lines up the steepest inclines in the area. It was hard going but we were out of the ravine, and from a high point could now peer into the plains that rolled infinitely south beyond the mountains. A heat haze wobbled tentatively above the scorched fields, their total flatness in contrast to the thousand-metre peak on which we stood. Spain’s enormity and this region’s low population density were eminently clear. With little detail to place the dazzling scene, we could have been anywhere in the world. After a moment of contemplation, the vultures began to gather overhead again – testing for signs of life. We rocketed off the mountain in a cloud of dust and rubble as we tore across a 45° slope on another improbable fire road.
Before long we were setting up for the night in an unlikely site on the edge of the very plains we had just been scoping. This spot will forever be seared into my memory. The trees of this camp-come-farm were perfectly spaced for hammock slinging (although I preferred to sleep on the floor), and they bore copious fruit – apples, pears, figs – which we were entitled to eat as much of as we could stuff in our beaming gobs. We’d arrived in Yaso (population: a handful) late and hopeful, going off-course on a whim that the campsite on our map existed. Its cheerful owner was surprised – shocked almost – to see us. He was in the middle of rebuilding his basic abode and nearly fell off his ladder at the sight of unfamiliar faces. “Set up wherever you like, eat all the fruit you want, no pesticides here, I’ll get dinner ready for eight,” he enthused.
Back at the small outside bar an hour later, shivering from the cold showers but warmed by the sight of beer, we perused the menu, avoiding the local speciality of pig’s blood pie and opting for the other choice: egg and chips made with great enthusiasm by a man who hadn’t seen other people for quite some time. We played a few games of table football and swigged a few more beers, finally retreating to the orchard for a perfect night’s sleep, happy with our day’s toil. What a bunch of buccaneering trailblazers we were.
We woke early and gorged on dewy fresh fruit, eaten while taking in the sumptuous view. A thin mist hung over the endless fields before us, just a few perfectly triangular hillocks perforating its veil, with a purple hue cast across the scene from the lazily rising sun. Pure opulence for just a few euros. Our host warmed some milk for hot drinks and dusted off a few biscuits from the storeroom, keen to get us on our way with almost-full stomachs. He bid us farewell with the instruction to come back soon, please. A quick look around the village reminded us how unlike its modern cities Spain’s tough fringe can be. Hacked-off wild boar trotters were nailed to one door as merry decoration, splintered bones, bloodied hair and all. We pedalled back towards the hills.
Fresh trails, served hot and straight up.
Having covered ground rapidly through a muggy and quite dense forest, our focus was now forced onto another straight-up fire road. We were a little weary from the arduous days before and our motivation had perhaps been left back at camp. All that lay ahead were trees and a bastard gradient – we seemed to be going nowhere. But then, without any forewarning, we crested the climb and burst into a bowl of hills resembling something from a Western movie – sandstone stacks silhouetted against a bright blue backdrop, dozens of vultures hanging high in the intense light and tumbleweed rolling across the burnt orange set. What had we just stepped into? Peering over our shoulders, slightly dumbfounded, we looked back where we’d come from: shaded, lots of green vegetation, still damp from the night before. Back to what was in front: something you’d only imagine existing in Arizona or Utah. The hill we’d just climbed formed a weather barrier and the bowl into which we were about to descend a perfect suntrap.
Into the oven we went, navigating heavily rocky but fast and very rideable terrain. By now Ben and I had refined our set-ups, moving as much weight as possible out of our backpacks and onto the handlebars, frame and saddle packs. The bikes were heavy, but we were able to ride almost as normal, enjoying fast turns, rolling over enormous boulders and dropping down steep chutes. Victor was still experiencing the effects of his over-planning, particularly as the anchors were unexpectedly slammed on each time his drooping saddle pack came into contact with the rear tyre. We all enjoyed a cooling swim in a perfect basin, the sight of a watering hole quite a surprise in this desert-like area, before once again hauling ourselves out of the canyon and into more rolling lands.
Badminton and bakeries.
The badminton rackets Ben and I had packed (seemed like a fun idea at the time) would finally come into their own as we made our way forwards. The temperatures here on the edge of the mountains were higher, enlivening flies into a shield between us and any breathable air. The swarm followed us across fields and through forests, landing on the lips and eyelids and nostrils of anyone who dropped below a barrier speed of about 10kph. This, along with the hard days on the pedals, drove us to exhaustion. We stopped regularly, swatting our small friends to oblivion between volleys.
Time began to fly as we whizzed along small dirt lanes carved through ancient pastoral lands. Our journey was nearing its farthest point and by now we had settled into a groove, yet we knew never to expect an easy ride. Even in this area on the edge of the hills, habitations were few and far between and often what looked like a town from afar turned out to be nothing more than a few rotting walls. Our ride became focused on a search for food and water. We made a beeline for anything resembling modernity, eventually finding one roadside bar open and with food in its kitchen – a near-miracle in this forsaken place.
Finally, just a few days after leaving Nocito, yet what had seemed a lifetime’s effort, we arrived at our end goal, the enchanting Moorish settlement of Alquézar (population: 300), a hilltop village steeped in history. This place, with its multiple hotels, restaurants and even a bakery, seemed a metropolis among the ruins from which we had come. A slap-up feast in an empty little bar would refuel us perfectly, ready to start the return leg in the morning.
Sat looking over the many scattered streets of Alquézar and peering into the bottomless ravine behind, I pondered the ride. We’d pedalled, pushed and wheelbarrowed our way through a very modest number of kilometres spread over just a few days, yet the journey to this point had been long and winding. The challenges we had faced were insignificant – missing one meal, fixing a puncture, or having to push a bike up a hill are barely a matter of life or death – yet I think we can permit ourselves to call this jaunt an adventure. Because, although we had grand plans to cover huge distances and conquer remote peaks, you can never really write this stuff before it happens. It’s when the path takes an unexpected turn that any outing goes beyond a normal ride. There’s no need to go to the far ends of the globe with pack rafts and helicopters, to spend weeks surviving on dust and puddles, or to climb the Himalaya in order to find adventure. Just head out the door, forget the script, and enjoy the unknown.