Rough Guides editor Helen Abramson does what she loves most, seeking out adrenalin sports in the stunning Pyrenees region around the town of Sort, Catalunya.
The Pyrenees lend themselves well to outdoor activities. Sort, on the northwest tip of Catalunya, has a reputation as a handy base, where you’re never far from some of the best adventure sports this alpine region has to offer. I’m there with a mixed-ability group and immensely enthusiastic and well-informed guide, Isi, with a week to try out a selection of the best activities: hiking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning and mountain biking.
Forty kilometres from Sort, I’m peering down from a viewpoint high above Sant Maurici lake, bright turquoise and shimmering in the autumnal afternoon sunlight. From here you can make out part of the treacherous route escapees from Nazi-occupied France took seventy-odd years ago, as they headed into Spain through the mountains. Now part of Aigues Tortes National Park, this region is popular for hiking, and it’s obvious why. The lake is enclosed by lush foliage, its verdancy deepened by an unusually wet summer, and slopes lead up to craggy domineering peaks. A relatively easy circular 3.5–4hr route involving a few scrambles, some narrow hillside traverses and a pleasant forest walk takes us past a gushing waterfall and offers breathtaking views. A pretty good start.
Our next activity takes us to the Noguera Pallaresa River for whitewater rafting with Roc Roi: 40km, grade 3 rapids, six happy paddlers and one guide. The river is dammed, and water is released at specific times each day throughout the year – ideal for rafting and kayaking. There are plenty of rapids to keep us occupied, including “the washing machine”, and one particularly wild section that knocks one of our crew out (mercifully, not me).
With everyone back on-board and the raft now in calm waters, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Order is barely restored, however, when the guide, Seori (who happens to be a Scot living in Sort), calmly announces that the boat appears to be deflating. We’ve got a puncture. Fortunately, this is a slick, well-organised operation, and Seori and his colleague, who’s been following us all day in a minibus, swiftly extract the offending article: an enormous concrete boulder with rusty, vicious-looking metal poles sticking out of it. The boys put their training into practice, patching up the hole in just a few minutes, and we’re being ordered back on the boat with barely enough time for me to answer a call of nature behind the bushes. Half an hour later, and our vessel is swapped for a non-ruptured one. Everyone seems to have rather enjoyed the drama, and the scenery is, once again, jaw-droppingly lovely; in the quieter sections of the journey, there are plenty of contemplative, peaceful moments in which to savour it all.
The last section of the rafting route, with slightly gentler rapids, is where the kayaking takes place the following day. The 2014 Freestyle World Cup was held in July in Sort; as we’re not quite at that level, our group is given inflatable open kayaks, which are far less likely to capsize than regular ones. The guides use arm signals (imagine someone guiding an aeroplane on a runway) and whistles to point us in the right direction for a safe run down, and I spend the majority of the session struggling to get my boat in line and cursing my fellow paddlers for turning this into something very reminiscent of bumper-cars. It’s quite exhausting, but an entertaining ride nonetheless, and the adrenalin stakes are upped with a 15m jump into the water from the rocky shore above.
Hell’s Canyon is next on the agenda. Not one for the faint hearted, this ninety-minute descent through luminous white limestone walls – with only one way in and one way out – is a non-stop rollercoaster ride involving several abseils and jumps into cool, crystal-clear water. Heavy rain in recent months means there’s more water gushing through the canyon than normal, so, as the ever-charismatic Isi puts it, with a huge grin on his face, the conditions are ripe for “the most fun”. The first abseil is small and swift, over a relatively gentle incline, and ends in a refreshing pool.
Things heat up with an 18m abseil from where this canyon gets its name: a descent into a black hole in absolute darkness, down through water cascading so loudly I can’t hear myself think. For a moment I’m not sure how I’m going to get my next breath, but then I’m down and standing in the pool below, looking up at the shaft of ethereal light streaming in at the top, and it’s just magical. After several more descents and a thrilling 10m jump, it’s time to be reborn: an awkward abseil leads to a water-filled hole, through which Isi has to pull each one of us out, head first. It’s not elegant. We are spat out at the river, and there are cries of protest at not being allowed to do the whole thing again.
For a change, we’re out of our wetsuits the following day and on dry land, as downhill mountain biking is our final activity. The route starts 1800m above sea level, in the Baqueira / Beret ski resort, one of the top – arguably the best – in Spain, yet for some reason somewhat under-the-radar for foreigners. The 35km cycling trail descends 1200m, with a few small uphill sections thrown in, so it’s not a complete free ride for the legs. The landscape is as picturesque as it gets: grazing cows jangling their bells, distant peaks looming through a gentle haze, bright greenery all around, and a rest-stop at a tiny mountain hamlet, with a ninth-century church, a single cobbled street and a collection of ramshackle houses that look as if they may crumble at any moment. With such intoxicating views and exhilarating trails, it seems a shame for this journey, and the whole trip, to end.
Sort has proved itself a more than worthy base for rambling through the mountains, floating downriver on inflatable vessels, squeezing through canyons and speeding downhill on a bike – all in beautiful surrounds. Plus if the dozens of spider-like people clambering up craggy overhangs are anything to go by, it’s not bad for climbing, too.
Helen travelled on Explore’s eight-day Active Pyrenees tour. The tour costs from £1097 per person, to include return flights; hotel accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis; some other meals; transport and the services of a tour leader and driver. For further information, or to book, visit www.explore.co.uk or call 0844 499 0901. 2015 tours depart June–September.