The Aragonese dream
My love for the Pyrenean High Aragon still intact, my growing passion for mountainbiking, and finally some googlages in the WebSphere of the Spanish "BTT" led me, across researches, to the "Vuelta a la Peña Montañesa". All roads lead to Rome, so logically I came across the most popular circuit of the Sobrarbe county: countless GPS tracks, photo galleries, and Youtube videos advertise it: it is the must-see.
On holidays in France, with a stay in the french Pyrenean resort of Saint-Lary, I could not let go such an opportunity, dreams are meant to be made! So I prepared the GPX track, studied maps, in which I took two: the Rando-Edition Benasque and the Alpina of the Ainsa region. With a small problem, which we will see later, will cause concerns: the south end is not covered by any of the two. Of well I told myself, in all cases I can get back to the main road from Campo.
This well known and characteristic mountain, shaped like a long winding dolomitic barrier over twenty kilometers, left me a sour aftertaste, after the only time I climbed it some ten years ago: Despite a magnificent ascent and panorama, the fog trapped me on the way back on the high meadow, and I struggled to find the key passage through the rock bars, which I managed walking spirals around each next cairn. Today, no ascent to the top: I will cycle around.
The massive Cotiella neighbor and its satellites: Movison, Llerga, Solana all climbed as well, all always held on me a boundless fascination. The long and isolated valley between the Cotiella and the Montañesa, northern half of the loop, certainly amongst the best "No Man's Land" in the Aragonese style, intrigued me, and the bike was the ideal way to visit these mystical places.
Does it make sense ?
The month of July was particularly scorching, so the direction in which to make the loop, and consequently the choice of the starting point made me hesitate before taking a decision. In each case, it was better to ride the southwest half in the morning, not to suffer of the heat. The other side, more in the shade, better suited to the middle of the day. Choosing the sense was remaining. The website recommended anticlockwise, but doing so meant starting from Laspuña, certainly nearest by car, but also meaning an additional ascent of about 300m to reach the route almost at its highest point, just under these North cliffs that are so impressive seen from Bielsa. Knowing that the only route already easily cumulated some 1500m...
The other option was to start from the South and do it clockwise, which also had the advantage of starting near the road: the little village of Atiart, East from Ainsa, met these requirements, and I decided to do so, against all odds. So, very early in the morning I tightened the hand brake in Atiart, "deshabitado" on the map, but a experiencing a revival: builders were already up to the hard labor of rebuilding the village to bring it a new health as it used to look like. I mounted the wheels of the Titus, carbon bike lent by my father on this occasion, turned on the GPS, and attached at the map holder on the handlebar. My camelbak was filled at maximum, plus a healthy dose of food and all possible tools: breakdown absolutely forbidden, especially in the northern half! I was ready.
Stairways to heaven
The beginning of the route took me by broad land rover tracks, sometimes through a similar furrowed landscape like the Bardenas. At one point, a river is crossed in its bed, place where one cannot help taking an epic picture. Then I passed Molinias, "deshabitado", then began the climb, long enough but fortunately wide. I momentarily lost the route for the first time while riding too far in the direction of la Muera, forgetting to see that in a turn, the GPS track sped straight through a singletrack. This forced me to walk in a few places, but I managed to ride it up almost entirely. Sudden arrival at the monastery of San Victorian, historic site and trailhead of the hiking path to the Peña. I am not heading this way today, but the asphalt road leading to Oncins, a small town also coquette, revealing the first views to the cliffs of what the Peña have more majestic. I met a couple of bikers, with whom I exchanged a few words: "La Vuelta ? en este sentido ? difícil ! creciendo !". Without knowing Spanish, I understood and began to question myself about my decision to have started the circuit clockwise. Indeed, in Oncins begins the portion of path that is "singletrack," which does not appear on the Rando Editions map, only the Alpina. On the latter, it seems to go along the side of the mountain more or less steadily. But the very beginning confirmed what the Spaniards said.
Fortunately, as I arrived to the bump named "As Toscas" I finally rolled continuously on a false flat, offering occasionally roots or rocks to negotiate. This singletrack is simply delicious, and as for me I tried to cross in strength every single piece of slope whenever it was possible. The descent must be more friendly, although some places certainly require also to step down. In some places appear deforested slopes where we find again this type of furrowed relief seen before, where the thin trail goes on the slope: I think it is possible to manage almost everything, but beware of the slide, this type of crumbling rock is covered with gravel. Being alone, I preferred the cross them on foot. Further, the singletrack crosses other portions of slopes on limestone scree slopes, unstable piles of stones, but less exposed, and requiring pedaling in strength while keeping the balance.
While approaching Os Pozos, a western secondary top of the Peña, on which stands an antenna, the slope becomes again steep, and I pushed the bike till the junction of the trails on the westernmost point. After Os Pozos, thanks to these meters previously earned, the rest is relatively calm and rolling to the point where the track from Laspuña is merging. The same track, according to the map, describes a "Y", with the other arm joining the Os Pozos antenna. I wonder if this is not a possible alternative to the ungrateful climbing portion . The arrival of this wide and easy track from Laspuña makes it much easier to ride up till La Collada, the famous pass between the Peña Montañesa and the Peña Solana, the highest point of the entire circuit at 1552m.
La Collada is a beautiful place that makes one forget all the efforts to get there. Pastures with magnificent views to cliffs of the Montañesa and the Peña Solana, the Punta Llerga, the Cotiella, and many others. Remote views to the Monte Perdido and its canyonland in an extensive panorama. Landrovers of shepherds are there, cows, goats and donkeys roam free. This is the appropriate place to eat before tackling a long descent.
Hidden face of the Moon
Here begins the wild episode of the circuit, with the long valley. The trail descends almost continuously until refugio del Ostachio, small masonry where reappear again beautiful pastures and unprecedented views to the southern slopes of the Cotiella, that we could call "the hidden side of the Moon". The North cliffs of the Peña also keep a great look, seen from that side. Beware of not making the error to keep going on the main trail down to Lafortunada! The route goes further down the wild valley towards the pass Cullibert, and something I did not expect is that it suddenly becomes a simple path. Another unexpected detail, it climbs again, and steeply in couple of places! The valley gets very green and wet, reminding a bit the french valleys, near where the path overlooks the river. Stroke of stress when I noticed the rear tire had softened, and discovering recalcitrant pump ! The tire sealant foam saved me and allowed me to keep going...
Suddenly, large clearing, sudden return to southern climate, we are at the Cullibert pass, which also owns its Refugio. Again, stunning views. Hut means it subsequently becomes a 4x4 track again, leading down to Viu, a pretty town that seems at the end of the world. The asphalted road reappears and takes us back to Senz, next village. Mandatory pause as my camelback is coming to an end! I noticed a mini-van, where some people were doing their shopping. I saw various products such as toilet paper, detergent, toothpaste. But no water nor drinks. Panic. My turn comes, I ask :"Agua fresca?". "Aquí, en esta casa!" replied the old woman behind me, pointing to a house on the village square. I rang: a lady offered me two cans of cold water, which seemed straight out from some local source. A glass also appeared on a wooden table I had not noticed: I'm actually in the village's bistro! An old man is having a nap, motionless in the shade, and a black dog lies belly and legs spread widely on the overheated stones. The scene is too beautiful !
I finally decide to leave Senz and its lovely folks. Convinced that the route continued along the road, I rode down all speed, but then realized on the GPS the track has gone long time ago above to the right. I rewound the film from my memory: What had I seen such during the descent? Nothing. And not the slightest desire to cycle back, in the heat, to check. Here the theorem "Never a GPS without real map" comes into its own: I got to the lower edge of Rando Editions map. If I had any third map showing me that there was another track from Senz, I would have known. Too bad, I will ride down to Campo.
The main road has been redone since the time when, in 2002, I took it to hike to the Turbon. The road meandered through gorges. Now a brand new tunnel has been drilled. The old road is closed to traffic: a chance, I can take it, allowing me to enjoy peacefully the sublime views of the turquoise waters of the Rio Esera, cascading down. Admittedly, I went down too low, but it's not bad either! The old road allows me to ride a while avoiding the traffic and the highway-standard asphalt of the new road, but I am finally forced me to join. The climb to the Foradada pass, on a long steady gradient and at the hottest of the heat wave was apocalyptic. With some relief that I left the glowing bitume of the road at the level of Cabezonada, to take back the small gentle piece of track that soon took me back to Attiart and my car. A bit ungrateful end, but what a trip !
A deeper analysis will later reveal, once connected to the Iberpix interactive map of the Spanish IGN, actually revealed a trail connecting Senz to the Foradada pass, avoiding Campo. But if I believe the video posted on Youtube, this is not an easy portion. Time has also come to take conclusions from my choice to have made the circuit clockwise. I met two groups of bikers coming in the opposite direction ... Undoubtedly, the long singletrack from La Collada to Oncins is better appreciated in the other sense. Same for for the small portion near San Victorian, and the steep fragment between Cullibert and Ostachio. Having that said, although seen downwards at high speed, the portion between the Cullivert pass to Viu is also very steep. Good luck for those who will ride it up ! Summarizing, even though the balance still leans to the anticlockwise sense, we need to relativize ... Whatever is the sense we make it, this loop is above all a physical test, which the only elevation change is not enough to measure: it does not take into account all these little exhausting coquetteries that only the Mediterranean landscape is able to offer, which not only tires legs, but also arms and back, as well as the brain and concentration...
This kind of Aragonese adventure definitely needs to be repeated in the future. Torla and trail of the Ordesa mirarors is on top of my list!