Borders Exploration Group
Patron: Sir Michael Strang Steel Scottish Charity No:SC034336
Northern Spain has been selected as the destination for BEG's 2004 European Expedition. Watch this section of the Web Site for information regarding Leader applications, Venturer applications and proposals for itinerary and activities.
Europe has a number of mountain ranges, the Alps probably being the most famous and most visited. The Pyrenees have never attracted the same level of attention or number of visitors. Defining the Border between Spain and France the area has a strongly independent culture and unique heritage, shaped by a turbulent and often violent past, much like our own Border region. The range has amazing mountain scenery in wild and remote areas as well as large areas of forest in the valley bottoms. It is excellent although highly demanding trekking country, with a number of long distance footpaths crossing the region. The mountainous landscape caters for adventure activities such as rock climbing, mountain biking, canyoning and white water rafting. The mountains also contain a number of different habitats at different levels, a chain of national parks and reserves exist along the range in recognition of the importance of the ecosystems of the mountains and their surrounding areas. It is this combination of factors which in my view makes this area a prime candidate for a BEG European Expedition.
The area we hope to visit is the vicinity of Ordesa National Park.
The following is adapted from the Spanish tourist board website at http://www.spain.info.
"Ordesa National Park is characterised by high peaks and steep slopes, in which the peak of Monte Perdido stands (3,335 m), topped by its glacier, rising up over the entire site. It forms a stunning landscape ensemble dominated by high peaks. It possesses a wide variety of ecosystems, with both Atlantic and Mediterranean influences, translating as a rich and diverse flora and fauna. The massif of Monte Perdido (3,355 m) presides over its orography, with the summits of Tres Sorores, from where the valleys of Ordesa, Pineta, Añisclo and Escuaín come from. A sharply contrasting landscape: the extreme aridity of the high ground, where the rainwater and thaw filter through cracks and holes, contrasts with the green valleys covered in forests and meadows, where the water forms waterfalls and travels along canyons and ravines. It is a high mountain spot that vaunts an extremely fragmented orography, made up of deep canyons and raised massifs. Medieval history fills its towns in the form of remains of castles, hermitages, fortified houses" (sound familiar?).
Pyrenees in general
The following information gives a rough background to the whole Pyrenean region and is taken from 'Trekking in the Pyrenees' by Douglas Streatfeild-James. Second Edition (2001) Trailblazer Publications.
Stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean the Pyrenees form a natural barrier around 450 kms long between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe.The eastern and western ends descend to the coastal plains in a series of foothills, while the central area boasts a number of impressive peaks, the highest being Pico de Aneto at 3404 m. The legacy of glaciation can be seen clearly with classic features such as u-shape valleys, cirques, arêtes, hanging valleys etc.
The summer climate is warmer than many imagine, but the mountains are subject to a number of climatic factors which make for regional variations in weather along the range. In the west the climate is governed by systems coming in from the Atlantic, often bringing rain and cloud. The eastern end of the range gets much of its weather from the more stable Mediterranean climate; good conditions are guaranteed but it can be very hot and dusty. These differences affect the landscape of each end of the range - green and lush in the west, dry and dusty, often dotted with vineyards in the east. Temperature quoted for the central Pyrenees for time of travel are around 26 degrees centigrade. The range also forms a divide between the weather systems of continental Europe and the Iberian Peninsula; in summer conditions are notably more stable and sunnier in the Spanish mountains than their French counterparts. However, it must be remembered that with mountains of over 3000m in height wind and weather conditions can vary greatly.
The Pyrenees are well known for their spectacular flora. The huge number of species, including 160 that are endemic, is due in part to the range of climates experienced in the mountains. At higher levels are highland, sub alpine and alpine plant communities, which are dominated by herbs and grasses. Below 2600 m forests are often found. The Pyrenees contain some of the most extensive beech woods in Europe. At higher altitudes coniferous species dominate, including Scots Pine
- Brown bears (estimates range from 6 to 80 left?)
- Wild boar
- Marmots (rock-dwelling beaver look-alikes, reintroduced )
- Izard - relative of Chamois
- Mouflon - wild sheep reintroduced
- Desman - small aquatic mammal webbed feet, long snout used as a snorkel, rats tail.
- Deer, foxes, badgers, squirrels
- Bearded vulture (up to 1 x 3 m)
- Griffon vulture (")
- Egyptian vulture
- Golden eagle
- Black kite
- Bonnellis eagle
The only time the region has been close to being under one rule was during the roman period, and even then the high mountains remained the territory of local tribes, with the surrounding areas being firmly under roman control.
During the Moorish occupation of Spain from 711 to 1492 the Pyrenees were for a long time the centre of Christian resistance, and the unique culture and architecture still found in many parts is partly attributable to this. In the middle ages political instability to the north and south of the region allowed the formation of independent regions including Catalonia and Aragon.
During the Napoleonic wars the peninsula was occupied by French forces. The Peninsular war (1808-1814) saw British and French forces competing for control, the French being forced to retreat over the Pyrenees after Napoleons defeat at Vitttoria in 1813. In the late 19th century spa towns in the Pyrenees became fashionable the first real interest in the mountains themselves began to develop.
The Spanish Civil War saw the Pyrenees used as a point of entry into the country for idealistic young foreigners joining the republican forces. By the end of the war the defeated republican forces fled across the mountains to France. The last dash was made in winter across the high passes, with thousands dying in the attempt.
In the Second World War the Pyrenees were an escape route from France for allied airmen and an entry point for those wishing to join the French resistance which was very strong in the south west of the country.
During the Franco regime many of the regions around the Pyrenees were penalized for supporting the republican cause. After the Franco's death in 1975 areas such as the Basque country and Catalonia were given a large degree of autonomy.
The area has often been portrayed as a rural idyll by many writers over the last century but in reality life was hard with little rewards. Until recently the entire economy was based on farming with transhumance being a way of life well into his century. There have been radical changes but not without costs to social life. In the Spanish Pyrenees hamlets now deserted, many villages retain only a handful of inhabitants.
Training Day 1 Report
Well we all managed to crawl out of our beds rather early on Saturday morning for a jam-packed day of BEG antics! After battling through rain and sleet to West Morrison we were welcomed by rather sleepy, if not smiling faces armed with cameras, scales, meter sticks and rather ominous looking barrels and planks of wood!
Just what you want to encounter first thing in the morning! I think we were all feeling slightly apprehensive and very excited – it was great to see everyone, and also those people you don't remember seeing before!
In order to break some tension, we partook in some initial 'Icebreaking' activities. We split into three groups and a conductor was nominated; each group had to say 'Yeah,' 'Boom' or 'Bam' when conducted...we sounded rather awful but it was the beginning of us making a fool of ourselves and we realised this expedition was going to ! be a lot of fun. We are rather a musical group! Then there was my favourite, which was the fun with the carpet tiles. I think we all enjoyed dancing around to 'Hot Stuff' and whoever responsible should be congratulated on the choice of music! This game was a play on musical chairs; only with carpet tiles which were gradually reduced in number as struggled to all fit on them. Once reduced to a mere 2 and a half carpet tiles we resorted to piggybacks and pyramid techniques, during which I may have injured Gordon (sorry Gordon!)
Feeling more relaxed and slightly more awake we settled down in front of the OHP for some planning and brainstorming. We were briefed on the outline of our projects which we will be working on in the run up to the expedition; covering aspects such as local culture, geography, history, flora & fauna and geology of the Pyrenees and Catalonia. Talk of the projects and the prospect of learning basic Catalan defin! itely brought us slightly closer to he reality of the expedition. As did our 'brain-showers' concerning fundraising which seemed to inspire great enthusiasm; there is definitely going to be an influx of car-boot sales, duck races and beetle drives in the Borders during the next few months!
We had a very informative talk about equipment and received our kit-list (only 4 pairs of pants for 2 weeks?!) Not sure any of us anticipated how much stuff we will need to beg, borrow and steal for this expedition (it's called BEG for more than one reason!)
I think we all realised the amount of work that was required and just how much the leaders and training team have been putting into the organisation of this expedition. PJ then went on to give us a presentation on risk assessment and the importance of teamwork when surveying dangers on such a trip. Presented with a number of example activities we had to risk-assess, we thoroughly! proved ourselves as 'risk-junkies,' willing to take on the world but perhaps a little too keen for an adventure! If anything we learned that you do not require grip gloves for indoor climbing, much to the annoyance of the climbers in the group! This definitely left us considering the tasks and activities that will face us in the Pyrenees in a slightly different light.
By lunchtime I think we were all glad for a break (and food!) and a chance to get to know everyone a bit better. Lunchtime conversation consisted of the Pyrenees and the contained excitement began to come out of everyone – I distinctly remember a conversation about certain peoples' erratic sleeping patterns and getting the impression the expedition will include a lot of sleep-walking, talking, screaming and general rearranging of everyone's stuff in the middle of the night! It was at this point we were told that we would not be venturing outside for the aft! ernoon's activities, due to the torrential rain and sleet – a general feeling of disappointment as we all wanted to get out, however at least we would be staying dry today.
By the time we were split into three groups, Lewis and Linford had joined us for some basic training – tents, stoves and blindfolded draughts. Our tent group didn't have much experience beyond Wendy houses, but the tent went up and came down successfully. It was exciting to see where we shall be living out of for 2 weeks and get a feel for assembling essential equipment; although I doubt we shall be pitching tents to cd players and table legs it proved us to be masters of improvisation! Next we were in for some draughts – instructing our blindfolded team members to assemble a draughtboard of carpet tiles (notice a recurring theme?) and complete a draughts game using plastic cones. A surprisingly intricate and challenging exercise, which confirmed we ! could not tell our lefts from our rights! Hopefully we will not need to rely on our navigational skills under the darkness of the Pyrenees too much.
Now for some more awkward tasks, perhaps the more perplexing of the two being the Tower of Hanoi teamwork; we were split into two groups and faced with a tower of huge inflatable rings, which we had to move under certain conditions and rebuild the pyramid at the other end of the corridor. It was rather confusing and involved a lot of frantic running up and down the corridor! However it required good communication skills and ended up being a lot of fun!
I think the next task was a firm highlight of the day – probably the craziest moment, where we had to move our group from one end of the room to the other with only a couple of barrels and a few planks of wood - (now that's what they were for!) of course we could not touch the floor! This was a test of balance and co-operati! on; if one person were to take their weight off their end of the plank, then the person at the other end went flying...which I think happened to poor Linford! I think our group made it, but managed to snap two planks of wood in the process and flatten some barrels!
Following this we settled down to get to grips with some equipment; head torches, backpacks and sleeping bag liners were passed around and thoroughly investigated. I think we were rather overwhelmed and not sure where to begin. If anything we realised the collective organisation and input required for an expedition like this and that we are all going to smell after a few days in the mountains...let's all hope Fiona brings her portable shower! And of course the question on everyone's lips arose...what is it that we are going to eat in the Pyrenees?! Whatever it is, Chuck's suggestion of employing a donkey to carry it was rather well received, if we ever get hungry... As we were drawing towards the end of our day (feeling absolutely knackered!) it was very exciting to learn we would be flying to Barcelona from Edinburgh at 8am of June 27th. To round up we sat as a group and went around everyone, discussing the highs and lows of both the training day and the selection event...of which everyone agreed it was great seeing everyone again and the highlight of the day was the task with the barrels and planks. I think everyone was disappointed we didn't get outside, but there will be plenty of opportunity for that on later dates no doubt!! Overall it was a very busy and exciting day, doing activities you might not normally find yourself doing on a Saturday afternoon! It confirmed the commitment required for a successful expedition and highlighted the number of laughs to be had in such a great group! I don't think we can wait until next time...
Frances & Natasha :)
Training Day 2 Report
We all managed to arrive at Glentress forest at 8:30am to start a busy day of activities which were organised to give us an idea of what the adventure stage of our expedition will be like. As we waited bleary-eyed in the car park for everyone to arrive it dawned on us that the hills surrounding the car park were the ones we were going to be cycling up later. Accordingly, various bags of chocolate and sweets appeared from nowhere and were handed around to boost those lagging early-morning energy levels. To begin with we were split into two groups so our instructors would have more manageable, bite-size chunks of BEG to deal with. Unfortunately Georgina was at home with the flu and we were all sorry to hear that Hannah had decided to pull out of the expedition so our numbers were depleted, though together we would still be an intimidating group of novices to any instructor!
My group was the first to do the mountain biking and to get started we cycled around the car park a few times to get used to the gears. These seem to have got slightly more complicated since I last owned a bike but eventually we all managed to push the correct switches and twist the handles the right way so we set off up the hill.
We tackled our way up some twisted, rocky paths and got to the top without too much difficulty, only to be told that most people drive to this point to avoid the hill. Never mind though, I learnt some important lessons on the way up: it is almost impossible to start again if you stop mid-way up a hill, and even the humiliation of being seen with your trousers tucked into white socks is preferable to getting caught up in the bike chain.
At the top of the hill we were greeted by a skills park full of log piles, raised bridges and rocky drop-offs to confront. Some of us (like Rachel) attacked these confidently and skilfully whereas others (like myself) needed some persuasion and instruction before having a go at the trickier obstacles.
John Hall then led us around a practise track which included countless hairpin bends and felt like the mountain-biking equivalent of a mogul field. After we'd done this a couple of times and learnt how to control the bikes and "fire" ourselves around corners we were taken down some longer runs. When given the choice between a blue and more difficult red trail most of us opted for the blue, although this proved to be quite challenging enough for our abilities. There were plenty of drops and sharp bends to provide enough almost-over-the-handlebar moments to keep everyone's adrenaline pumping.
We did a few more trails which seemed to get even faster and more difficult, but we eventually made it back to the car park with no broken bones or bikes. After thanking our guides we left them to fix their punctures and headed on down to Walkerburn.
We found the Rugby Club (this proved to be a small adventure in itself) and dug into our lunches while waiting for the canoeing group to paddle down the river and meet us. After waiting fifteen minutes... and fifteen more... and then another fifteen we started to get worried, but we finally spotted a group of colourful splodges in the distance moving down the Tweed to meet us, only an hour later than we expected! We went to the riverbank to help carry the canoes and were met by some very cold, wet and bedraggled BEG members. As they peeled off soaking life jackets our group began to wonder if kayaking was really such a good idea. After hearing stories of several dunkings, Linford desperately tried to find out which canoe was most likely to keep him afloat and we all made sure we were told how to get out if we capsized, just in case. There was nothing left to do except pull on the rather damp and ridiculous looking equipment and head off to our starting point.
The kayaking turned out to be a very enjoyable (and not too wet) activity. By the time we'd done a few warm up exercises to amuse passing traffic the rain had stopped and we spent a while sitting in the kayaks on the bank to try them out for size before we were pushed apprehensively into the river. There were a few panicky moments as we tried desperately to reach the opposite bank and hold on before the current swept us away but we all (bar one) made it to roughly the right place.
As we travelled further downstream we learnt several important skills, such as turning in circles, steering, paddling backwards and the most difficult of all: travelling in a straight line. Some were more successful than others at this last task (Aisha preferred going in circles), but I had a long kayak so seemed to get the better deal.
The river provided many contrasting experiences; sometimes we could drift effortlessly down watching the birds and listening to the silence, but at others we had to paddle madly down narrow, choppy and shallow stretches in pairs while being watched closely and guided by our instructors.
We reached Walkerburn relatively dry and having had no serious accidents (although admittedly there were several near-capsizes). However, we still faced the challenge of getting out of the canoes and onto dry land without getting soaked. With the support of our instructors we managed this quite successfully and we stepped onto the bank surprisingly dry.
Our group (Amy writing now!) had just as eventful a day. It began with a gentle warm-up, led by Heather which involved us jumping, running, skipping and hopping between paddles, trying to keep warm! When we finally got into the river (after a fashion show with spraydecks!) it was not long before Gordon decided he was a bit too dry and headed into the Tweed! Halfway down and the leaders were 4:0 up on capsizes, but that soon ended when I (as promised to Jim) decided to dive in. Wet and weathered however, we ended at Walkerburn RC for a well earned lunch.
Not long after, we went back to Glentress for the mountain biking - some with more appropriate bikes than others! Shona showed all of the guys up and Fiona was (according to the instructors) trouble! We were back down by five, just before the rain came down hard, and all ran into The Hub for hot chocolate and cakes.
Our group (Lucy writing again!) met the others up at The Hub but unfortunately didn't have enough time to indulge in the cakes. All that was left to do was have a quick de-brief and collect some information about the next training weekend. This is approaching very soon and looks to be hard work, but we'll all be glad to see each other again and spend a couple of nights in the tents to work out if we'll need to bring ear plugs on the expedition to block out that snoring. We then climbed wearily into cars and travelled home with a day full of laughs and new experiences to remember and the quiz night and training weekend to look forward to.
Lucy & Amy x x