Pico Aneto: The future is melting

Velocio ambassadors Jack Thompson, Ricard Calmet and Alba Xandri saw the impacts of a warming planet first-hand when they journeyed to Pico Aneto, the highest point in the Pyrenees. Wild weather, melting glaciers and stories of local people facing the impact of climate change in their daily lives shaped the trio’s journey and opened their eyes to how serious this really is

This article was produced in association with Velocio 

The story began in Rasos de Peguera, a quiet, deserted former ski resort in Berga, Catalonia, Spain. Alba Xandri has childhood memories of learning to ski on the rolling hills there and now, decades later, where there were once blankets of snow and happy children, there remain only the ghosts of years gone by. Without enough snow to sustain the resort during winter, it was forced to close years ago.

A few months ago, Xandri returned to Rasos de Peguera with her husband, Ricard Calmet, and friend, Jack Thompson. They stood there in the eerie quiet, waiting to begin a three-day journey to Pico Aneto, the highest point in the Pyrenees. It wasn’t the first time these riders had attempted a long-distance challenge like this. Thompson himself holds multiple Guinness World Records and fastest known times (FKTs) around the globe, and has been described in the past as “the most extreme cyclist in the world”. The journey to Pico Aneto, however, wasn’t about breaking records or pushing his body to the limits. This was far more important.

Starting the trio’s pilgrimage in the long-abandoned Rasos de Peguera ski resort was especially fitting with the wider purpose of the trip in mind. Along the way to their destination, Xandri, Calmet and Thompson would be making a film about the impact of climate change, as well as the power of E-bikes as an alternative mode of transport in a world suffering from the impact of carbon emissions released by cars. The film would form part of a series that Thompson, an Australian who relocated to Girona years ago, is working on named A World In Crisis.

“My films look at topics like climate change and indigenous Aboriginal rights and I use the bike to tell those stories,” says Thompson. “Originally, I’d planned after Unbound in the US to go to Alaska and do a piece on climate change up there. But flying to Alaska to do a piece on climate change didn’t really sit well with me and I realised I can tell a story on climate change in Spain, in my own backyard, and I can engage with local people.”

Thompson decided he would take a different approach to the journey compared to previous challenges. “This idea came up that we would explore Pico, which is the last big glacier here in the Pyrenees. I thought that rather than go on a road bike and try to do it all in a day, let’s actually have some fun.”

Thompson met Xandri and Calmet at an event in Aragon earlier in the year, the Himalayan Border Bash, and immediately clicked with the Spanish couple. Like Thompson, Xandri and Calmet are also fans of taking on tough and unique challenges, travelling all over the world on bikes. The duo’s local knowledge was invaluable when planning the route up to Pico Aneto, and their understanding of Catalan culture also proved useful when meeting people along the route and listening to their stories about how climate change had had an impact on their daily lives.

“We decided to do the challenge on E-bikes as we’d all have the same ability,” says Thompson. “We met up with different local families along the way. We spoke to them about their experience with climate change in the region, in particular, like disappearing ski resorts. The overarching theme of it was: how can we get more people riding bikes and out of their cars? Let’s demonstrate what’s actually possible on a bike.”

There is a known stigma around E-bikes within the cycling sphere and Thompson is acutely aware of this. The notion that using a bike with a motor is ‘cheating’ or ‘not for real cyclists’ is one that he aimed to dispel with his journey to Pico Aneto. “I think so much of the time an E-bike is seen as a good bike for somebody that doesn’t really want to exercise,” he says. “It’s so wrong, because we did four or five hours on them, and you still get a really good workout. You can just cover longer distances, harder terrain, and you can have fun while you’re doing it with somebody else that isn’t necessarily a really strong rider. That was the crown to the story.”

While Thompson came up with the idea, it was up to Xandri and Calmet to plot the route that would take the three explorers through Spain and up to Pico Aneto, mostly using mountain bike trails and fire roads. “There was a little bit of tarmac along the way just to connect things up, but the majority of it was off-road,” says Thompson.

“Ricard and Alba live up in the mountains in the Pyrenees. They’ve got a really good knowledge of those mountains and the roads that link them. We then had some discussions around where we were going to stay each night, the different family hostel opportunities. We tried to plan places where there would be interesting people to talk to along the way.”

On the first day of the trip, when the group had set off from their starting point of Rasos de Peguera, they found what they were looking for almost straight away. They ventured deep into the Pyrenees and experienced what Thompson describes as “crazy weather”, including lightning storms and hailstones – another impact of climate change that he says added to the overall message of the film. Midway through the day, they stopped by the side of the road for some respite.

“We just stopped to eat and an older couple popped their heads out from a little apartment,” says Thompson. “At first they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But they warmed to us and when we explained about our mission they invited us up for coffee in their house.

“Joan and Lourdes spoke about their experience with the weather changing; they’d been living in the same place for 40 or 50 years. They’ve noticed that the summers are now more extreme both in terms of heat and rain and that winters are milder. The snow falls less often and it only falls higher up the mountain.”

The couple also shared how there is less wildlife around now that the weather is drier, and spoke about how Joan has to ride his E-bike to the nearest town because, like many businesses, the small store in the village is closed down since the winters no longer attract the same level of tourism. Once their bodies were warmed and rejuvenated with caffeine, it was time for Thompson, Xandri and Calmet to continue their journey to Pico Aneta. It was riding in what Thompson says felt like four seasons in one day, but an opportunity to get better acquainted with both their bikes and each other. Eventually the trio arrived at the guest house where they were staying for the night, sharing it with a group from a local school who were also learning about the area.

Day two of the trip had 111km of riding on the menu, as well as some 2,800m of elevation gain, meaning the group had to be tactical about how they used their motors, saving them for the steepest of gradients. Thompson recollects the stunning passes they ascended as a highlight of the trip.

“During the riding that day, it felt really remote. We were up in the clouds and there were wild horses around,” he says. “It felt like we were on another planet, we could see the weather and we were sort of riding around the clouds, always just getting lucky.”

That night, they slept surrounded by the ominous shadows of the mountains too, finding a hostel deep in the hills and run by local people. “It was a typical Pyrenean stone guest house. There must have been about 100 or 200 cats there too. It was kind of weird, but we had an amazing dinner and spoke to the people who ran it, learning a lot about the area.”

The guest house was once a winter destination, but because the area no longer receives the same amount of snow, the resorts no longer operate like they used to. This has meant that the owners of the house don’t get the same number of guests during winter and have had to reinvent themselves as a summer destination for cyclists and hikers. They now have a secure bike shed with power outlets designed for charging E-bikes and the business model has completely changed as a result of winter sports no longer playing such an important role.

While there was time for the group to chat to others and enjoy the views on the opening days of their adventure, the final two days brought more time constraints and more risk. Thompson explains that by the third day, they were aiming to catch a bus that would take them to the Refugio de la Renclusa on the slopes to Pico Aneto. That meant reaching the meeting point within good time and ensuring they had all the provisions needed to travel to the top of the glacier the following morning.

“We had a schedule that we had to hit to get to the bus on time to get up the mountain,” says Thompson. “There was a bit of a storm forecast too, which added to the stress. When we eventually arrived at the bus stop we had to quickly pack the bikes up and hop on the bus. We had to take enough food for us for two days which included the hike to the top so we were all scrambling around trying to get enough.”

Eventually, the trio made it to the refuge, sleeping the night in bunk beds and setting their alarms for a 4am wake-up call. A ten-hour hike to the summit awaited them the following morning. According to the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology (IPE), the Aneto glacier is shrinking at a rate of 1.5m per year, meaning it could be completely gone in less than 20 years, with climate change having already exposed dark, ancient ice.

Mountain rescue officers warn against hiking up certain trails to the top of Aneto due to these changes too, as more ice melts by the day. “It took maybe four and a half hours to get to the peak, which was over 3,400 metres,” says Thompson. “When we got there, you could see where the glacier had been in years gone by and how much had receded. That was quite impactful, seeing that.”

Thompson explains that he is a rookie when it comes to ice hiking, so the journey to the top was a tricky one for him too. “I went into this very green,” he admits. “I didn’t take an axe with me, though I did take crampons and I used them because it was quite slippery.

It was actually kind of scary when we got up there. I’m not scared of heights, but the peak itself was like an actual peak that you had to scramble along for about 20 metres. Ricard and Alba were attached to each other with harnesses, but I didn’t have a harness, so it got my heart pumping. The hard bit was descending, which took around three hours, and my quads and calves were on fire the following day.”

Thompson says that the trio formed a strong bond over the days they spent together on their pilgrimage to Pico Aneto. “Most of my travels are solo, so to have done this with other people was so cool, to be there all together and experience that. We were all pretty shattered the following week. We were on E-bikes, which you could argue is not that difficult, and we did one day of hiking, but it actually did take a real toll,” he says. “We spent the week after complaining about achy muscles but it’s probably one of the best trips I’ve done just because I didn’t have the time pressure. The climate change story and using the bike to tell that was quite a powerful driver and wanting to go and do it at all. To build that relationship with Ricard and Alba while doing that was pretty special as well.”

Around the mid-19th century, there were 2,800 hectares of glaciers in the Pyrenees, but that had shrunk to 250 hectares by 2022. These numbers are chilling and proof enough that Thompson, Xandri and Calmet’s message is an extremely important one.

There should be a sense of urgency to slow down this process while it’s still possible. Thompson sees alternative modes of transport, such as E-bikes, as integral to this movement. “With the film, I hope that we can reach a non-endemic audience,” he says. “I want to bring E-bikes into the non-endemic world, that’s a major goal. I also want to remove the stigma that E-bikes are only for people that don’t really want to exercise. I think there’s this huge space that exists for people to go out and adventure on E-bikes and use them as a tool for exploration and having fun.

“In addition to that, I want to open people’s eyes to the fact that the world is changing. You only have to step into your own backyard to see that it’s changing as a result of climate change. We’ve seen that just by visiting a glacier that’s only a few hours drive away. It’s happening right in front of us and we need to do something about it.”

Watch Jack's film,  ‘Melting Heights – The Last Pyrenean Glacier’ here

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