It's early evening as we make our way up a long, very long fireroad to the mountains above Plan, nestled in the Spanish Pyrenees on our 6 day traverse of these iconic mountains with Basque MTB.
Here, the limestone peaks rise abruptly from the valleys below, and their white faces are turned bright orange by a rapidly dwindling sun. As the sun kisses the mountains, long shafts of light creep ever higher until the sun dips away.
That is our cue to make moves.
It is as the sun almost vanishes until tomorrow that we meet the Trekking Mule crew and their animals, Paloma and Peregrina. At this stage, each day's proceedings have been kept secret, and we're left to introduce ourselves to both man and beast, with little knowledge of what's to come, bar an overnight stop in the high alpine, and some assistance from two very chilled quadrupeds.
As the light fades rapidly, we make our way across the open pasture and wind our way through the pines in a massive glacial bowl to our camp for the night. The sound of our tyres are deadened by the thick carpet of needles on the ground, and the only sound is our breathing and the clunk of gears being changed.
Our camp site resembles something akin to that of a National Geographic location straight out of Yellowstone. Pine woods hem us onto a glacial lake's shore, with sheer limestone cliffs rising around us in all directions. A clear sky and no artificial light grants our eyes access to what is probably the best light show bar a sky filled by the Aurora.
Millions upon millions of stars make themselves known in the cold, dry air and the sky is so clear we can pick out the satellites orbiting Earth.
After stowing our kit, the glacial lake begins sucking all the heat from the air, and stories turn to the legend of the lake. According to local mythology, a robed Muslim woman resides in the turquoise waters, and will only appear to those pure of spirit. Locals bathe in the lake for health and good luck, not that we're in any hurry for either. Temperatures soon turn icy, and dinner is dispatched in multiple servings to keep the body heat up. Despite the firey heat of the day, we're fighting to keep warm as we head back to our tents for the night.
As dawn emerges, nobody seems in any rush to get up and moving. The ground is frozen and the tall cliffs keep the sun from warming our chilled bones. Coffee saves the day. As we all creak and groan into life, we make the slow trudge around the lakeside to where the sun has reached into the cauldron that hosted us for the night. Like lizards we sit, motionless and silent, enjoying the gentle warmth.
Once we've defrosted, we're beckoned by the loading of mules to gear up. We're getting ready to ride, but no bikes to be seen...
To make the final push to the high mountain pass, Paloma and Peregrina take our bikes, which we're very grateful of, as the air thins from the somewhat empty air of the campsite, to where the head and legs grow heavy until we're well into vulture and chamois territory. At the high pass, rifle cases point to this path's history. A perfect setting for an ambush during the Spanish Civil War along this important route through the Pyrenees.
The wildlife here, unsurprisingly, seem perfectly at one with this inhospitable habitat.
Chamois cling precariously, or so it seems, to cliff edges in search of fresh greens, while grey vultures hang lazily on updrafts well beyond the cliffs above.
From here we make the long, technical descent all the way to the valley floor beyond. We'll be descending hard and fast for the best part of an hour, taking in the open, boulder-strewn hillside, summer pastures littered with cattle, and one very dead one, beforedropping into the bedrock-heavy pine woods along the riverside. Hands sting, legs burn, lungs wheeze heavy through big grins and the head tries to make sense of superlatives within superlatives.
Then there was the gift shop. The best souvenirs are the ones you cannot buy.
After enjoying stars beyond measure, thanking animals in a foreign language, and reaching a mountain pass that took us well into the wilderness providing a descent that seemed eternal, a haggard vulture feather and a spent 7.92mm Mauser cartridge give the memories a tangible existence.
Thanks must go to Basque MTB and Orbea for conjuring such a trip, our group of strangers that became friends over a week in the mountains, Trekking Mule for a unique transport solution, Paloma and Peregrina for taking care of our bikes, and Alpkit for providing the kit that meant I didn't expire on the coldest night of my life...