Exercise Dragon Formigal was a 37 Sig Regt adventurous training exercise in the Aragon region of the Spanish Pyrenees, held over the period 04-17 August 2014. The aim was to complete two treks along sections of the GR11 and to also introduce participants to mountain biking along some of the trails within the region.
The mountain bikers spent their first day getting introduced to bike maintenance and mountain biking techniques followed by an introductory route down to the village of Torla. The trekkers got dropped in the village of Formigal, which had lent its name to the exercise, and followed the GR11 to the Refugio de Respomuso. The clouds built up during the early evening and lightning flashed across the mountains, followed by the rumble of thunder. We set up camp as the heavens opened, and raced to get the tents up as we were pelted with hailstones and rain. The base camp at Bujaruelo didn’t escape and the stores tent with spare personal clothing and equipment flooded and everything got a good soaking and needed to be dried the following day.
The following day dawned clear and cooler which was a relief as the trekkers had a 700m climb to reach the Cuello de Tebarray. After an interesting final scramble up some loose rock we reached the Cuello (Col) which looked down onto a hanging lake on its far side. Our descent took us down through a large patch of standing snow and not wanting to miss an opportunity everybody put on waterproofs and slid down as fast as gravity would let them, which wasn’t very.
A very footsore group arrived at the Refugio de Panticosa in the evening and the first of a number of changes to the original expedition routes was made on the following day. The third day was a morning’s walking to the village of Panticosa, where after an ice cream and a coffee we were met by the welcome sight of SQMS Ali Nash and his minibus.
The mountain bikers (when they hadn’t been trying to stop tents blowing away in the storm) had attempted several routes with varying degrees of success. The mountain bike routes marked on the maps required more ability than some of our group of novices had and mountain bike pushing was a better description of some of the days.
Day one of the four day trek dawned sunny and the trekkers set off up the Ordesa Valley towards the Refugio de Goriz at the far end. Mark and Jenny, the mountain bike instructors, found themselves with another group of students to educate about the finer points of mountain bike maintenance and riding techniques.
The expedition had been planned with one of its highlights being the route of the GR11 through the Ordesa Valley and we weren’t disappointed as the mountains rose 1400m above the valley floor. The head of the valley brought a choice in routes; a short stakes and chains section to gain height or a long walk round. Being an adventure training exercise the group opted for the chains!
The following day was another change to the original expedition plan. In the evening sun before dinner, the expedition leader had come up with a plan to add a proper mountain to the route and also going to see a glacier. Whether it was too much sun or the compelling sales pitch we were going to come off the GR11 and go up Monte Perdido and look at its glacier.
The night had brought a cold front in with a chilly wind and variable cloud that obscured the peak of Monte Perdido. The route up to Lake Helado below the col to the glacier, and the easterly path to the summit had taken us until the early afternoon, and the route over the col looked to be a challenge too far for some members of the group. It had also become apparent that we were not going to be able to complete the planned route down into Valle de Pineta, and so decided that we would summit Monte Perdido before returning to camp at the Refugio de Goriz. After starting to climb up the path we met a Spanish guide who told us that our rucksacks were too big and heavy to complete the route successfully, and with this warning we turned around and set off dejectedly back to the refugio. One success of the day though was reaching the highest point of the expedition at 2800m.
The weather changed again and sunshine on the third day took us back onto our original route along the GR11. A new day brought another change to the original expedition plan as this trek was cut from four to three days. The long previous day had taken its toll on some members of the group. Our route would take the high variant of the GR11 around the Punta de las Olas before descending into Valle de Pineta and our transport back to Bujaruelo.
The guidebook describes the route around the Punta de las Olas as consisting of ledges and some scrambles with sections protected by chains. It fails to mention at several stages being able to see almost 1000m straight down to the bottom of the valley below! We made very slow progress during this day, and the 1200m descent into Valle de Pineta saw us finish at 10 pm – thirteen hours after setting off.
After a briefing from the expedition leader on the dangers of pickpockets in Barcelona the expedition members left the Pyrenees to spend their final afternoon and evening in Spain to look around the city and sample its culture. After booking into our hostel and being reminded again about pickpockets everybody went to see what Barcelona had to offer. Eleven o’clock found the expedition leader back at the hostel on his phone to his bank cancelling his debit card after being pick-pocketed on the metro!
Whilst a number of changes were made to the original plan the overall conclusion is that exercise Dragon Formigal was a hugely successful adventure training expedition. It allowed those that took part the opportunity to experience summer mountaineering and mountain biking in the stunning scenery of the High Pyrenees. Whilst the summit of Monte Perdido was not reached the expedition managed to traverse some very demanding mountain routes..
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Ulysses Trust for their generous support with the exercise. Without the trust’s assistance the exercise would certainly not have been as successful as it was.
Sgt John Phillips
37 Signal Regiment