Expeditions and other interesting articles

Scenery: endless mountainsides layering into the distance, breath-taking Panoramas and oceans of snowy peaks. Terrain: narrow, snow shrouded Mountain passes, moonlight axle-twists and kilometre-long Mud-run extravaganzas. Survival: sub-zero wild camps, midnight double-ditch recoveries and fresh pancakes served through a blizzard. So, you are looking for adventure? How much adventure do you want? Five trucks embark on a recce to the Pyrenees in November, unaware of what’s in store but fully prepared for every eventuality.

Words and photos Ros Woodham - Published in Land Rover World (LRW) magazine 2011.

AS OUR CONVOY boards the Chunnel in Folkstone, the only thing we are sure of is tonight’s camp in Bourges, breaking up the long slog through France. From then on, we have left the outcome of the next two weeks in the Spanish Pyrenees to spontaneity, luck and the weather. With confidence I take my seat beside Ian Woolley of Mudrut in the lead vehicle, a 2008 110 Utility with a broad stance and brimming with survival gear. Woolley has hand-picked a team to help him explore the terrain, climate and culture as we traverse the Pyrenees off-road from west to east, looping Andorra and culminating at Cap de Creus, the eastern most point of mainland Spain. Armed with maps of the Spanish regions of Catluña and Lleida, and hours of reading and research into the area, Woolley has plotted a route which most adventurers would only undertake during summer months. The Pyrenees are not to be underestimated during the winter; we are aware that we are dicing with the weather, particularly on hearing European weather reports stating that the first snows have fallen early. To aid our navigation we have downloaded detailed maps of France, Spain and Andorra and loaded them onto the Garmin 276C which has an external antennae to minimise dropouts caused by the high-sided terrain.
Elected navigators will be placed in both the lead vehicle and the third truck, keeping in radio contact to agree the correct route. Also on board we are carrying a Motorola 9505A satellite phone on the Iridium network ensuring that we will never be out of communication even if cell phone reception eludes us. Our expedition will be non-stop, driving all the daylight hours available as well as some night driving if necessary. We should be prepared to set up camp wherever the trails dictate. A thorough pre-trip briefing enforced the point that we may find ourselves stranded and setting up camp in remote and isolated areas, perhaps at altitude and possibly hampered by the snow. A suggested kit list was designed to over-prepare each crew for any eventuality. Our altitude will vary significantly during the trip and it has been difficult to estimate overnight temperatures, but our brief stated that we must be prepared for being stranded for several days in sub-zero conditions. Therefore we have all ensured that we have adequate sleeping equipment and that each crew carry provisions for up to three days. Grateful that French workers had recently voted to end the fuel strikes, we arrive at our Bourges campsite in somewhat drizzly conditions, eager to set up our sleeping quarters and tuck into some hot food.

Tonight will be a dry run in a relatively comfortable environment giving us the chance to iron out any camping or kit issues before we hit the mountains. Doug is first to set up in less than five minutes. His My Way roof tent sits atop an impressive adventure trailer built onto a Sankey chassis. Pre trip conversations had revealed some trepidation about bringing a trailer to unknown terrain but Doug was keen to test the new rig. For myself and Ali inside the 110s Hanibal roof tent, it was a relatively comfortable night. I slept well inside the minus thirty Tundra bag, but was slightly concerned to hear that several of the group were cold. The night temperature was well above freezing and this is nothing in comparison to the temperatures and conditions we are likely to experience further south, several hundred meters higher up. We discuss the available kit distribution to ensure that everyone will be warm enough at our next camp. The two-day, wet, grey slog down the French autoroutes finally delivers us just across the Spanish border to Bossóst in the centre of the Pyrenees.
It is pitch darkness as we cross the border and the outside temperature reads two degrees. Using the on board 600w inverter and Vodafone dongle I have accessed the Internet using the Mac Pro and contacted the local tourist office to locate a campsite close to the start of our route planned for tomorrow. It is difficult to find campsites open at this time of year as November is between tourist seasons and there are not many folk crazy enough to be out and about in these parts at this time of year. We set up camp once again. Tonight we will try out the nine-man Tent Tipi housing a very welcome log-burning stove. The wig-wam is a superb design simple to erect and a great social centre for the team at camp. We feed the stove with oak that we brought with us and let it smoulder with charcoal bought from the petrol station. Tonight Ali and I will be sleeping on cots by the warmth of the dying stove while Woolley gallantly opts to sleep outside under the awning of the 110, although I sense that he is secretly excited to try out his new American Forces Modular Sleep System! The group demonstrates an impressive variety of luxury camping alternatives.
Team Woolley boasts several options including the 110’s Hannibal Roof tent, while Ali and myself choose the Tent-Tipi. Doug, once again, throws open the doors to the Cirque du Doug. Paul, Tash and Finley ‘the Off-Road Legend’ Harris in their 110 with Hannibal roof tent are warmed luxuriously by the diesel-run Webasto heater. Tony’s Hilux setup includes an OzTent with Fox Wing awning and OzPig. And last, but by no means least, Chris and Nigel Shortt in their oldy-but-goody fifteen-year-old Ninety, also with OzTent. When we awake we see our surroundings for the first time in daylight. We are just under 1000m in altitude in the valley Val d'Arán and snow has fallen on the higher peaks overnight. We are excited to get going. It takes a couple of hours to breakfast and pack down before heading into Bossóst to collect provisions en route to the trails. We cross the Garona river and begin climbing hard reaching the snowline unexpectedly soon.
We pause at a viewpoint overlooking this unique valley to take in the magnificent low Arán, crownedby the Pico de Montlude at 2518m. It finally feels like an adventure and the hard work in planning and preparation has been worth it. We pass a junction leading to the Margalida mines and continue climbing into the snow along soft forested tracks lined with fir and black pine. At a fork in the road our two navigators agree to climb higher towards Bassa d’Arres. It is spectacular. We scale the snowdusted slope looking out to our right at a massive ocean of snowy peaks all fighting for sunlight through the whispy clouds. Reaching an altitude of 2000m we take a moment before beginning the descent towards the tiny village of Vilamos Back in the warmth of the wig-wam, we are planning tomorrow’s routes and making sure we are fully prepped for an early start heading straight back into the mountains. We’ll be covering plenty of kilometres tomorrow.

An early start and by 9am we are already on the routes. We enter the trail at Vilamos where the style of the buildings makes it clear that this area’s bonds with France are stronger than those with the Iberian Peninsular. We will be covering part of the circuit Varradòs and the Sauth Deth Pish. We spend many kilometers traversing the side of the valley wall, slowly climbing to a height of 1700m where the gritty, black mud of this slate landscape creates a startling contrast between the fresh layer of fallen snow and the protruding rocks. Still climbing, and with a perfect blue sky above us, the light dusting of snow thickens to a good covering and we press on with caution, aware that below our tyres the slippery track drops away dramatically towards a spectacular but unforgiving valley below. Most of the group have opted to run mud tread for this trip but our 110 is shod on all-terrains which fare better in these snowy conditions.
Nevertheless, the lack of track width tells us to chain up for safety. Nobody imagined that we would actually need chains for this adventure but we are glad at this point to be over-prepared. Proceeding carefully, the snow grows ever deeper and it becomes difficult to judge the edges of the track. The snow is now several feet deep and a thunderous purple cloud is creeping up behind us threatening more snow. We are over 2400m up and there is absolutely no way of turning around on this narrow track. The group confer on the next move an to follow. Our maps tell us that once we crest this peak we should begin a descent which we are keen to do before the dark cloud is upon us. With Woolley at the wheel, I lean out of the passenger window keeping a close eye on the approaching track giving a running commentary to my driver on our distance from the dangerous drop away. The chains cut through the virgin snow churning it into deep ruts behind us for the rest of the convoy to follow.
Still climbing, we keep going maintaining good momentum. We punch on through the virgin snow, dazzled by the sun’s glare that bounces off it making it all the more difficult for our eyes to pick out any changes in texture. We reach a small plateau where it is impossible to tell in which direction the track goes. We make as good a judgement as we cand it is decided that the lead vehicle should punch ahead to cut a groove for the others whilst heading towards a gateway and a welcome landmark marked on our map. We rest and radio back to the group to follow. Through the ominous dark sky appear our teammates dutifully following in our footsteps. Suddenly the L200 lurches sideways caused by its trailer slipping, dragging the tail end of the truck with it and the whole rig rests at an uncomfortable angle half off the track. We consider winching it back on to the track from the lead vehicle but Woolley is concerned that this will simply drag the pick-up along the edge of the slope.
Instead, a couple of the guys check the ground on the lower section and route him across the corner. Doug floors the throttle, cutting a new path into the snow, flies across the shortcut and back on course behind the 110. Bravo. We have reached the peak but we are not yet out of danger. We must descend to lower ground before the weather sets in. The valley on the other side of the mountain is awesome but there is no time to gawp as there is a long, tricky drive ahead of us before we are clear of the snow. We agree to press on and have located the next 20km route which will lead us to a sizeable town where we hope to find a campsite and a hot shower. However, the snow has thickened once more and several kilometres down the track we meet a stranded French couple in a Citroen Saxo. It is unclear exactly how they got here in the snow or exactly how they imagined they would make it in their hatchback but we certainly can’t leave them stranded.

We agree to tow them back the way we have come to the town of Montgarri. We attach the strop from Woolley’s 110 to the towing eye on the Citroen’s front bumper. There is a reasonable covering of snow but nothing particularly deep so I explain to Stefan that we will assist them up the steeper inclines, unhitching to allow them to drive the flatter sections. After reaching the top of the first incline we unhitch and I keep an eye on them out of the window as we accompany them, staying a few meters in front, to ensure they arrive safely to tarmac. However, as we round a corner I look back and no longer see the car following. I run back on foot to see the little blue car wedged between a snow bank and a tree. As I approach it is easy to understand how this happened; the ice beneath the compacted snow is slick like glass and it is barely possible to keep my feet from slipping beneath me. The Saxo had slid completely off the track, pirouetted and ended up nose first into the tree.
Amazingly the car seems undamaged and the couple only a little shaken so we attempt a recovery. We consider the situation for a moment; this is a tricky recovery due to the angle of the car and the risk of winching it into further danger. The natural winching angle would drag it free from its tree where it would slide further down the slope. Woolley sets to work with the Warn 9.5 XP winch and locates a suitable tree on the opposite bank to which he attaches the tree strop and snatch block to obtain the prefect angle to winch the car directly back onto the track. The grateful couple were soon on their way again. When we arrive back with the group it is clear that the decision has been taken to set up camp right here, right now. It is an idyllic spot; a flat clearing surrounded by mountains and snow-lined fir trees. It is enchanting and an opportunity not to be missed.
By nightfall the camp is made, the team recount the day’s events with enthusiasm and we pat ourselves on the backs. The embers in Tony’s OzPig glow red outside, and the Tipi’s log burning stove is churning out heat for those who prefer to be under cover by the light of the Coleman lamp. What could top such a perfect situation but several rounds of real pancakes a la Doug? He prepares the batter beneath the awning of the 110 and explains that the ‘essential’ crepe machine is the genuine article from the Krampouz factory in Brittany, “it is the bees knees and will accompany me on other trips,” he grins as he hands over another steaming hot pancake filled with banana and chocolate sauce. Although the thermometer reads five below, our spirits are soaring and we wash down the crepes in the appropriate manner with Tony’s concoction of warmed port and brandy. I am beginning to feel like we have hit a good stride within the group. We certainly know how to find a good adventure.
A sudden ‘swish, swish’ wakes me. It is dark inside the Tipi and seems like the middle of the night, until I realise that the strange noise is Woolley sweeping away the fresh snow that clings to the outside of the tent. Morning light feeds in through the canvas revealing my frozen breath. My nose is like ice but the rest of me is snug inside the Tundra bag which is laid on top of a down-lined Exped and reindeer skin. Ali stirs in the sleeping bag beside me and orders that the log burner is lit. Dutifully, Woolley enters with an armful of kindling and sets to work making a fire. Fine service indeed. Following an unexpected rescue mission to salvage a French couple in a Citroen Saxo from a snowy end yesterday afternoon, we were forced to camp at 1,700m in the snowy Val d’Arán, losing us valuable time on our mission. Our next milestone will be Andorra, marking the halfway point of our Pyrenean recce, which began in Bossóst and will be complete when we reach Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean coast.

Several inches of snow have fallen overnight and our enchanted encampment glistens as still more falls. Undeterred by the weather, Doug fires up the pancake machine and, once again, supplies us all with a hot breakfast in the form of a banana and raspberry coulis delivery system. Tony deems this the right time to try out a recent purchase, the Luggable Loo, which he sets up inside the Oz Tent. The environmentally friendly lavatory collects the waste in a biodegradable bag which can then be buried. Tony emerges from the tent in a green haze and generously invites the rest of the group to take advantage of the luxurious campsite facilities, offering fresh bags for the ladies. How very chivalrous. Decamping takes a little longer than usual. The Tipi has been warmed by the log burner leaving the canvas supple.
Similarly, on the roof of the 110, Tash has no problem with the Hannibal roof tent as it has been gently warmed all night by the Webasto heater. However, Tony and Chris struggle with the frozen, stiffened canvases of their Oz Tents, performing oversized origami in an attempt to fold them into parcels small enough to pack away. With the day’s routes already loaded into the sat nav, we realise there is still a long descent before we are likely to be clear of snow. The track is largely covered by thick fir trees sheltering it from the deeper snow, so we make a group decision to proceed without snow chains. However, less than a kilometre further on, the heavy Sankey trailer towed by Doug’s L200 begins to push the rear end of the truck into a sideways slide on the descents, so he decides to put chains on the rears.
With heavier snow falling, we all follow suit for safety. We skirt the hillsides that fringe the black pine forests between Beret and Montgarri. The Beret Flats were at one time the haunt of witches and sorcerers practicing the dark arts on this great mountain plateau at 1,850m. Looking deeper into the valley, we can see the ruins of what used to be the dwellings of the inhabitants of Montgarri. Due to the isolation during the cold months and the progress of society, the town was abandoned about 60 years ago. Before then, villagers could spend as long as six months with no outside contact. The last villager, named Ton, left in 1962 when his wife died and he was the only one remaining in the village. The abandoned Santuari de Montgarri keeps the village alive. Ali and I are in the lead vehicle, the 110 Utility. The river runs alongside us to our left and crisp peaks tower above us on both sides.
We take the first bite out of the fresh snow as we emerge from beneath the thick cover of the firs, onto the beautiful valley floor. Silver birch line the riverbanks, clinging onto their last leaves, spattering golden yellow across a predominantly white landscape. We continue following the flow of the Noguera Pallaresa River. Descending several hundred metres, we cross the river where the snow melts and the tarmac winds us through some spectacular gorges and valleys towards Alos d’Isil. The low afternoon sun bounces rich colours from the autumn leaves, glossy from the rain. Finally we reach Esterri d’Aneu, the first sizeable town we have seen in 50km, where we stop to regroup, refuel and enjoy a late lunch. After the previous night’s rough camp we are eager to find a campsite this evening for the luxury of a hot shower and washing facilities. We have passed several sites that are closed during the winter, but the fuel station attendant is extremely helpful and makes some enquiries for us.

We tell her we are heading towards Tor. She looks at us, certain that we have made a mistake. “Pero no hay nada allí,” – “There’s nothing there,” she says with some concern, even the villagers have left for the winter. After making some calls she tells us to go and meet her friend in the next town who will show us to a campsite. Wondering if this is the start of a wild goose chase, we continue along the main road to meet a guy in a bar, who directs us to a restaurant further on, where they suggest we try the place next door. We discover that this site is also closed, but the owner lives here and agrees to open the facilities and turn on the heating for us. We make camp among the eerily deserted site, surrounded by derelict, weather-beaten tents. The Armco of the main road separates us from the broad, swollen river and, despite camping in a canvas ghost town, we are delighted by the hot shower and some mains electricity.
The Coleman stoves get busy cooking dinner, running on petrol which is much more useable at low temperatures than LPG. Meanwhile, Doug and Paul demonstrate their resourcefulness and handy work fixing the hinge on the Tipi’s log burner, without which our evenings would be a much less cosy affair. The metal parts had suffered when the stove was cooled off in the snow too soon after the glowing embers were removed, causing the hinge to snap. Using only the tools and materials to hand, Paul and Doug impressively craft a new hinge, sturdy enough to exceed the status of a field repair. After another sub-zero night we breakfast, pack down and spread out the maps across the bonnet of the Utility truck and agree on the next routes. We must cover some kilometres on tarmac to reach the start of the off-road section in Tor. The lanes leading through Tirvia and then Alins offer some wonderful scenery.
The sun raises the temperature to a few degrees above freezing and our spirits are high in the knowledge that this last route should deliver us across the Andorran border on schedule. Winding higher, the tarmac turns to broken track which hugs the sheer rock, presenting tricky switchbacks, impossible to manoeuvre in one hit. Herds of goats, cows and occasionally horses are at home here but the terrain is brutal. This superb trail crosses a stone bridge as we approach Tor, located at the point at which the La Rabassa River meets the Vallpeguera Ravine. At 1,760mthe tiny village is one of the highest in Cataluña. It boasts the Romanesque church of Sant Pere, a 10th-centurybuilding with a fabulous bell tower,and above the village are the remains of the castle of Tor, which watchedover this route to Andorra and was destroyed by the French in the 16th Century. In the heart of the Pallars Sobirà area this enigmatic village welcomes us with a special energy.
Approaching the stone buildings our path is blocked by an enormous Pyrenean mountain dog who clearly rules the roost and is perfectly happy sitting in the middle of the road. Who are we to argue? Suddenly, the weathered and bearded face of a villager appears at the Defender’s window. His face is hard, with deep lines and a thousand stories hidden behind his eyes. However, his demeanour does not match his aspect; he is welcoming and animated about our visit. Speaking in Castilian Spanish with a heavy Catalan accent, he asks us where we are headed. When we explain that we are going to Andorra he sucks in though his brown teeth, lowers his head and peers at us through course, grey eyebrows. “This is how long I’ve been here,” he says gravely, running his thumb and forefinger through his long beard and twisting the ends between his fingertips. “Winter is no time to be crossing this trail. But today you may be lucky.

I have been up on the trail this morning and it is mainly clear. You will encounter snow at the highest part but…” he pulls away from the window to study our tyres. Without any words, one flick of the wrist and a scoff seems to suggest that our trucks are capable enough. He winks and beckons us out of our vehicles. As the man disappears into the maze of old ruins, a kind-faced woman emerges from a doorway. Above her the sign reads ‘Casa Sisqueta’. She explains that this is the only restaurant in the village but it is closed. The few inhabitants are preparing to leave for the winter to return when the snows have thawed. However, she invites the entire group upstairs to a wonderful wooden panelled room with a long trestle table and an enormous inglenook fireplace, and welcomes us with a large tray of tea, coffee and Bart Simpson biscuits. Elena explains that she was born in the village and used to spend winters up here too, but in later years the family had chosen to leave during the harshest winter months.
She apologises for not providing us with food but assures us that she will cook us something special if we return in the spring. Warmed by a hot drink and the burning logs, we bid farewell to Elena and convoy across the river where the route known as Smugglers’ Pass begins. The panorama is overwhelming. After climbing out of the village the immense ravine appears before us. A massive section of forest was damaged by an avalanche on one side which we can see clearly below the snowline. We are dwarfed by our awesome surroundings and nothing could be better than ambling through the lush, green pastures below the brilliant white peaks bathed in the midday sun, and knowing that one last peak separates us from Andorra, which lies in the next valley. We ford the La Rabassa River and begin to climb steeply. Patches of snow begin to appear around us, noticeably thickening at every switchback.
I begin to wonder about the kind of people who would have used this route throughout the last century. Andorra’s neutral stance made it part of an important smuggling route between Vichy France and Spain during World War II and the Spanish Civil War, acting as platform through which to supply belligerent nations. A couple of Catalan guys have caught us up in a Navarra. Shod on all-weathers, the pick-up has been thrashing and slip-sliding its way up from the valley floor. They approach us, asking for directions to Andorra. Looking ahead up the ever snowier track, I wonder if they will make it. Perhaps this route is still used for smuggling. Now inches deep in snow, we finally crest at Coll de la Botella, at 2,069m. I am unprepared for the view that awaits us on the other side of the mountain. On foot, I approach the cliff edge to take in the full spectacle, walking onto Andorran soil as I do so.
Looking down into the vast Setúria Valley in Andorra with the stunning Tor Valley of Spain behind me, I forget about the icy, biting wind that cuts through my clothing and feel a real sense of achievement. We pat ourselves on the back and look forward to the next part of the adventure. The tarmac begins at this point and we take a steady but satisfying drive down steeply towards the Andorran towns below. The trick is keeping to the patches without black ice! Passing through Pal and Massana, heading for the tiny country’s heartbeat, Andorra la Vella, there are obvious signs that this is a prosperous country with a high standard of living. We make for Camping Valira, a wellsituated campsite on the edge of town with luxurious facilities and extremely welcoming staff. We set up in uninterrupted sunshine, kick back and crack open the G&Ts, toasting our success in completing the first half of our journey. We plan to use Valira as base camp for a few days while we explore the loop of trails in and around Andorra. We treat ourselves to dinner at a pizzeria in town and settle down for some well earned rest.

At this point we must bid farewell to Ali and Nigel who will sneak away from camp early in the morning to catch a bus for Barcelona airport. However, we will be welcoming Adam on the return bus who joins as Tony’s co-driver for the rest of the journey. With the intention of spending the next three days exploring the Andorran routes, the following morning we wander around Andorrala Vella’s tax-free shops until Adam joins us and we head through border control and into Cataluña. Clear blue skies and some welcome winter sunshine brings much warmer daytime temperatures and drier driving conditions. Even though we have lightened our loads by leaving some of our main camping gear at base camp, it is still important that each crew carries enough gear on board so that we could spend the night, expedition style, should we become trapped above the snowline.
We reach altitudes in excess of 2,000m and, consequently, drive some incredible mountain descents at the end of each day. The trucks take a real pounding due to the extreme changes in terrain, altitude and temperature. During one particularly intense mountain descent, Chris had to double brake to keep the Ninety from careening into the back of the lead vehicle. Back at base camp over a cheeky beer, we discuss the possible reasons for this and decide that it would be sensible to take the wheel off in daylight and have a look. On closer inspection in the morning, Chris and Paul discover that the wheel bearing was failing, allowing the disc and wheel excessive movement. If the bearing had seized, the car would have been pulled violently across the road – not fun on a narrow mountain pass. Thankfully, Chris has brought a spare bearing kit, and Woolley keeps seals, paper gaskets and tab washers in the support vehicle.
Doug and I are sent on a mission to find the high temperature grease that we still require. We are delighted to discover that Andorra is a relatively easy place to find auto parts, and that the Andorrans are particularly forgiving with the language barrier. In a warehouse hidden on the fifth floor of an apartment block, without a Catalan dictionary, we are inventive in miming what we need. We seem to have provided the garage sales team with good entertainment while successfully acquiring the right grease. Using the 52mm box spanner from the support truck, the wheel assembly is back together and we’re ready to roll once more. It feels as though we have been spoiled by the experiences that we have been presented with so far and it is difficult to see how we can maintain such an exciting level of adventure with immeasurably beautiful scenery. It is hard to convey the alluring views and the sheer scale of the scenery around us.
I am glad we have camped each night, allowing us to experience the landscape in one seamless episode, and able to exist within our environment around the clock, witnessing it in every kind of light. It is a feeling that leaves me both humbled and hungry for more. At this point in our adventure the group has bonded excellently and the intricacies of each day have become comfortable routine. Each member brings something valuable to the table: photographic experience; language skills; mechanical knowledge; navigation experience; cooking skills; and even simple, but vital moral support. At this point we have relaxed into a solid team, each individual defining their own role within the group, an aspect of every Mudrut adventure that Ian Woolley is keen to instill within the group. “I always define a clear goal and, where people are happy to, assign duties so that they feel like they are a part of an expedition rather than just a guided tour.”

Andorra has been a superb leg of our adventure but tomorrow we must leave our temporary base camp and head east, back into Spain, en route to our final destination on the coast. We begin to wonder if there is enough adventure left out there for us… Andorra’s capital pales into the early morning haze, 1,000m below us. The ascent weaves through tight hairpins, stacked like a staircase hugging the mountainside, and the pressure in my ears is an indication of the pace at which we are gaining altitude. The TDCi powerhouse roars as we charge higher, pumping pleasantly warm air into the cab. The locals spoke of fresh snowfall on the peaks and warned us of the difficulties of leaving Andorra by this route, but our batteries are fully charged and we are up for the challenge. With 500 off-road kilometres under our tyres, the warmth of the Mediterranean coast beckons us, and we focus forwards on the third and final leg of our Pyrenean adventure.
Tarmac becomes broken track, the patches of snow thicken forming a white blanket, and a biting wind carries large flakes horizontally across our path. The stark landscape begins to look remarkably similar in every direction. Suddenly, the track forks unexpectedly. Studying the map we agree to go right and cross a bridge around the next corner. However, the wind is blowing dry snow into drifts, obscuring our landmarks and making it difficult to navigate. Our chosen route rises into bad weather and we never reach the bridge. We decide to leave the pick-ups and trailer at the bottom of the incline while the three Defenders continue ahead to recce over the crest. The Land Rovers make easy work of the fresh snow but before long it becomes clear that we have taken the wrong turning as the track dissolves into little more than a treacherous side slope. Woolley begins to about turn and radios to the other two Defenders to do the same.
The dwindling track restricts the manoeuvre and the nearside rear tyre finds a deep, frozen rut hidden beneath a drift. The rear end slides and the front tyres grasp for traction, only succeeding in burying the truck to its axles. We set to work with shovels to clear the tyres and compact the loose snow back into the rut. Some careful consideration and skilful driving from Woolley brings the 110 back to safety and Paul spots him around the rest of the turn. We rejoin the pick-ups in the shallower snow, where it is easier for them to turn around. However, due to the tight space, we have to unhitch Doug’s trailer and spin it by hand. In reverse order we leave the exposed mountainside, correct our navigational error and proceed through a forested area where the pines shelter us from the weather. We are glad to descend away from the snow and dark clouds into the wet, mossy valleys of the Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park beyond Andorra.
While traversing the peaks of the Cadí Mountains, we have crossed the border into Spain, beginning an eastward stretch to the coast. Lower down, the bad weather continues with drizzle and poor visibility, so we use the opportunity to motor on, putting plenty of kilometres on the clock, although there are still 400 to go to our destination on the Med. As daylight dwindles, the sun dips behind the mountains and the clouds begin to part on the horizon, bathing the entire valley of Gósol in spectacular golden light. The world is sepia. The relentless drizzle transforms the low rays into an amazing double rainbow that appears like an illusory bridge spanning the entire valley floor. This awesome atmosphere lifts our spirits and encourages us to continue driving instead of looking for a camp. Our maps show the route ascending once more and, as darkness falls, the precipitation turns to snow. Our spotlights highlight the snowy branches like an enchanted forest.

As we emerge into a clearing, still ascending, the last drops of golden light are picking out the beautiful white peaks around us; I wonder if Aslan will come bounding around the next corner. We press on, keen to find a suitable camp. The terrain is taxing and the scenery overwhelmingly beautiful. From the tail of the convoy, Woolley and I listen to the CB commentary from those at the front who are equally inspired by our spectacular surroundings. Shortly, the convoy halts. The rutted tracks scaling the mountainside present us with an extremely tight downward hairpin with little room for error. Tash and Paul in the lead car carefully pick their way around the bend. The track is barely two inches wider than the 110, then plummets onto darkness on the outer edge. Adam and Tony follow in the Hilux, then radio back with news of a short cut across the switchback.
Chris approaches it in the 90. The slope is alarmingly steep, presenting an extreme axle twist section. Chris relishes the challenge and Paul spots him through successfully. Woolley and I also choose this route and he offers me the wheel. I accept it in a heartbeat and I ease the 110 into the slope. The headlights beam unhelpfully into the dark night sky and I rely totally on the careful instructions from Woolley in the seat beside me, and Chris’s hand signals from the track in front. In first low, the brakes groan in an effort to hold the three-tonne truck at a steady and safe pace. The suspension flexes and creaks, easing us into an extreme twist. My adrenaline pumps hard and Woolley’s knuckles tighten around the dash’s handle hold. Great teamwork and support sees us all safely through this exciting challenge. Onwards and downwards, we finally emerge onto bitumen, triumphant but relieved to find a campsite for the night.
An icy draft and a face-full of canvas awaken me. It is the middle of the night and the wind has lifted the tent pegs clean out of the rainsoftened ground. The Tipi’s centre pole had thankfully blown away from me, flattening the stove and several chairs. Woolley is already outside attempting to straighten the mess. Wrapped in my sleeping bag and still somewhat stunned, I stand up to hold the pole straight while he replaces the pegs. Before he has a chance to hammer them in again, a gust of wind whips underneath the canvas, felling the pole like a dead tree and taking me with it. I am now lying flat inside the folds of the Tipi canvas, cocooned in my Tundra bag in a sleepy despair, and listening to fits of giggles from outside the tent. Once fixed, our temporary repair holds for another couple of hours before the wind strikes again. This time, the dawn is breaking and I look across from my exposed camp bed to see Doug also chasing part of his tent across the campsite.
We decide to give up and pack up. Blue skies and warm winter sun are a complete contrast to yesterday’s blizzard conditions. The red muddy tracks have largely hardened leaving some puddles and stickiness on the surface that cakes our tyres. A long descent presents some great axle twists with video and photographic opportunities. Woolley splashes sedately through a muddy trough and Paul lines up to pose for his photograph. I position myself with the camera at the side of the track. “A little bit more splash, please,” I request, naively. Dutifully, but rather excessively, the Defender roars and lunges forwards. Instead of the bow wave I was expecting, the entire contents of the puddle explode into the air with a trajectory that centres me in its path. As if in slow motion, the inevitable barrage of red globules hang in the air above my head and I manage to rapid fire several shots before turning away to prevent a full lens assault.

As I unfurl from a soggy crouched position, I hear roars of laughter from Woolley, who witnessed the entire event from a safe vantage point on a high rock, and from Paul who is already out of the driving seat, lying on the bank in uncontrollable hoots. With little time left to reach Cap de Creus on the Mediterranean coast, we step up a gear on the following day to make up some time. Paul and Tash take over as expedition leaders and we power on through most of the day. By nightfall we are still motoring. Tash navigates, giving a running commentary over the CB and checking each waypoint with Adam, the second navigator in the middle truck, to verify the route. Suddenly, the tightly packed convoy bursts into a grassy clearing at the top of a furious climb and Tash wails over the radio. We grind to a halt. White-faced, Tash emerges from the darkness suggesting that we took a wrong turn.
Their 110 is parked perilously close to a cliff edge over which we can see nothing. We had certainly not anticipated a Thelma and Louise style ending to this adventure! About turn and back on track, Woolley and I tuck in behind the lead car. They pause to study the terrain ahead. The muddy ruts seem to present no immediate issues so Paul accelerates forwards. We allow them some space in front of us before we follow on, but suddenly their 110 lurches unexpectedly sideways. In the darkness all we can see is the Defender wallowing in a mud bath like a hippopotamus. Paul keeps the revs up and fights with the steering to find traction. The Defender flounders for a moment longer before executing an interesting sideways manoeuvre; moving forwards but with the rear wheels following in a different set of ruts to the fronts. Stunned, Paul emerges from the vehicle to study the unanticipated obstacle wondering quite how he managed to emerge in an upright position.
An exclamation of disbelief can be heard from Tash who has walked the section ahead. It is the longest, most furrowed mud run I have ever seen. It is dark, boggy and endless… and there is no way around it. We are presented with some fabulous off-roading, but at the same time conscious that we may well be camping in the bog. There is no turning back so we decide to go for it and, if the worst comes to the worst, we will pop the roof tents wherever our vehicles stall and begin the rescue mission in daylight. The next hour is as exciting as it gets. Paul attacks the boggy channel, at least half a kilometre long. The mud sucks at the underside of the Land Rover but the engine never lets up. The Defender breaks free and lunges into the next trap, the front end leaping free of each pothole and plunging into the next. The contents of the 110 are shaken up inside. Finley the Off-road Legend, our 15-month-old explorer, beams with delight from his baby seat as he surges past.
Whoops and applause from the team mark a victory for the Defender. The rest of the convoy line up for their turn, encouraged by Paul’s success and eager for their piece of the excitement. With just one tug needed to help Doug’s L200 through with the trailer, incredibly, we all make it, elated with our achievement. However, now it is late, dark and cold and we must find a camp. After such a long day we would prefer to find the warmth of some campsite facilities and a hot shower, however our sat nav shows no marked roads within 40km of our current location. Eventually we hit a tarmac road but the fog is beginning to settle, drastically reducing our visibility to just several metres. Woolley and I take the lead and we decide to seek out a lay-by or some flat land to park and set up camp. The Lightforce spots are no help; they simply brighten up the dense wall of moisture obscuring our view. We proceed at a snail’s pace, scouring the verges for a flat spot. Suddenly, without warning, the 110 dips dangerously sideways.

We stare at each other for a moment in silence, holding our breath. The Defender’s right wheels have been sucked into deep, wet sludge at the side of the road. The truck is in danger of tipping and a further drop into a bramble ditch would befall us if it did. We exit the vehicle carefully and the scene outside confirms that we were right to be cautious. Driving forward or reversing out of the mud would risk getting stuck further or tipping over. After weighing up the options we decide to position the other 110 in a small lay-by on the opposite side of the road to aid recovery. Suddenly, the rear end of this Defender disappears into the same kind of gloop, and the two trucks are marooned at equal and opposite angles at either side of the road in what is to become known as the ‘Double Ditcher’!
With two trucks out of action, Chris steps up in the 90 to winch Woolley’s Defender clear. Tony uses rocks to rebuild the broken road beneath the rear wheel for a safe recovery. Woolley then spins the recovered 110 around in order to winch the other out of the gloop. Several of the guys stand on the rear bumper of the angled Defender to prevent the vehicle from tipping as it exits. It steadily emerges from the quagmire, caked in glue-like mud. Extremely relieved and anxious not to test our luck any further, we drive into the entrance of a farm track and retire for the night. We are close to our destination. A beautiful sunny morning sees us into the last limb of the Pyrenees mountain range, culminating at Cap de Creus. With its Daliesque landscapes and beautiful rocky coastline, the warmth of the lower ground is a welcome contrast to the last few crazy days in the icy mountains.
We break for lunch on the beach at Cadaqués, throwing stones into the crystal waters of the Med. It is a great moment to reflect on the incredible chain of events over the last two weeks and a chance to really contemplate what we have achieved. Finley the Off-road Legend paddles in the shallows and I realise that our 15-month-old fellow explorer has been much more than a back seat driver throughout the adventure. He has been happy, warm, trusting, superbly behaved and entertaining; a measure of the confidence and competence of the group. He never wanted for anything (except perhaps a clean nappy after the cliff-edge incident) and full credit goes to his parents, Paul and Tash, who have not only taken excellent care of little Finley but have also participated 100 per cent in the adventure, fulfilling their roles as crucial team members. It is clear that the success of an adventure comes down to good preparation.
We have carried with us an exceptional amount of gear which, at the start, seemed a little excessive. However, through necessity we used all the equipment we brought. Furthermore, we have tested our trucks in extreme weather conditions at altitudes in excess of 2,000m, where they have performed outstandingly. For me, the experience of living entirely out of a truck for an extended period of time has been thoroughly empowering. You learn fast to identify the most important items, how to pack them, and to allow access to the right gear at the appropriate moment, especially when camping in sub-zero conditions. The Pyrenees have dealt us a rich hand of natural beauty, physical challenges and unforgettable experiences. The vast landscape with its changing features and unique characteristics has continually defined what we did and where, presenting us with unexpected and exciting encounters around every corner. The last kilometres wind around the tiny mountain road leading to Cap de Creus, a stunning vantage point marking the easternmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and the close of an awesome adventure.


This article was written and photographed by Ros Woodham. Published in Land Rover World (LRW) magazine across three publications starting in February 2011, March and April. Land Rover World has now become Land Rover Monthly (LRM)

Closer to home, why not consider Northern Europe? Your guide is Ian Woolley and he can take you in search of the Northern Lights.

Photos by Ros Woodham - Words by Ian Wooley - Published in February 2012

There are few people who do not have witnessing the Aurora Borealis on their life’s wish list. Throw in winter wonderland landscapes straight from a postcard and the chance to visit the Ice-Hotel or a snowmobile trip across the tundra and it is easy to see how attractive Scandinavia is as a winter over landing destination. However, most would view a trip into this beautiful, yet hostile, environment with a certain amount of trepidation. We intend to change that and give you a taste of what a traveller of Northern Sweden and Norway can expect (beyond Schnapps and saunas!) and what vehicle modifications they should consider. For any trip, a solid, thoroughly serviced vehicle is an essential starting point. For a trip like this you need a well running vehicle. Impurities in the coolant mixture degrade its performance, so as part of your pre-trip service, it is worth flushing your coolant and refilling using a more highly concentrated mix. For my own vehicle, a 2008 Land Rover Utility, the Texaco Havoline derived coolant is usually mixed at a concentration of 50% with distilled water.
This protects the system down to minus 37degC, which, should be sufficient, but is a little close for comfort to temperatures, which might be experienced. A 60% mix will protect below minus 55degC, which provides plenty of margin. It is likely that most brands of windscreen wash supplied in England will be frozen in your washer bottle long before you reach Oslo. Look out for ‘Spolarvatska’ over there, which remains liquid down to nose-dribbling temperatures. I have not experienced any problems with the standard engine, gearbox, transfer box and differential lubricants’ performance, on my Land Rover but it is worth checking the specification of your particular set up. It is also worth examining the manufacturers own modifications appropriate to your vehicle when sold into the Scandinavian or Russian markets. My own vehicle requires a heated engine breather, which I had fitted by my local dealer at very little cost. It is always good practice to schedule any service work such that the vehicle for at least 500 miles before leaving to make sure that no new gremlins have been introduced.

One of the decisions at the forefront of the Arctic traveller’s mind will be tyre choice. Interestingly, actual law varies between the individual Scandinavian countries, even principalities and is less stringent for visitors than residents; the former generally must change to winter oriented tyres during the cold months. However, common sense dictates that appropriate tyres are used. Most 4x4s will already be fitted with all-terrain or mud tyres which will be marked ‘M&S’ (mud and snow). Conventional wisdom dictates ‘all-terrain tyres for snow’ – these tyres ensure that snow picked up in the tread provides a good grip against snow on the ground. Surprisingly, I have found that the more modern mud terrain tyres like the KM2 from BF Goodrich to also be reasonably effective on ice and snow covered roads. All tyre compounds suffer at cold temperatures, losing elasticity to eventually resemble a lump of spinning concrete on the end of the axle! Dedicated winter tyres have a higher silica content to combat this effect, employing unique patterns and the tyres sipes (grooves on the edge of the tyre) to maximise available grip. It is likely that the casual Arctic traveller would forego a new set of tyres and accept the compromise that M & S marked tyres offer. Obviously, once snow-chains are fitted, the tyre below is unimportant.
However, while you should carry them, they are rarely required as the Swedes and Norwegians pledge to keep their major routes open during the winter months. The highways - notably the E6 - are ploughed (day and night when necessary). While the tarmac is not visible for many months at a time, the ice left on top is hard and has grooves cut in it. These grooves provide a surprising amount of grip in stark contrast to the black ice that you might occasionally fall foul of in the UK. Travellers will be pleasantly surprised to find how frequently they pass fuel stations. With fuel so abundant, an extended or auxiliary fuel tank can be considered a ‘nice-to-have’. The only occasions I am glad to have extra fuel on board is when traveling into the night. Most fuel stations, excepting those on the most major roads or near large towns do not open 24 hours. An interesting piece of advice was given to me years ago regarding extended fuel tanks: It was suggested that I should not fill them in England, rather carry just enough fuel at intervals while driving through Denmark, and then fill up when higher into Sweden as the quantity of anti-waxing agents in the fuel increases as one travels north. A tank filled in relatively mild England could resemble soup by the time it’s needed!
Most 4x4 owners contemplating an Arctic trip will already have some underbody protection and an aftermarket bumper. Despite the most careful driving, there is always a chance of a minor slide planting your vehicle in the side of a road somewhere along the way. In addition to waffle boards and a snow shovel, in these circumstances a winch is a godsend. (You will be glad that you had it properly serviced before you left as any muddy water in the unit will have frozen and rendered it unusable!) Even driving down a highway, you can come across ‘hardas- rock’ chunks of ice, which may be under your car before you can react. Reindeer are a major road hazard, as are moose. Until you see one playing in a snow beside a road, it is hard to comprehend just how big these animals are. A collision with a moose would probably spell the end of a trip, but any protection at the front of the car will increase the chances of the occupants living to tell the tale. Moose are not the only large hazards though. The trucks that ply the Arctic roads do not easily give way and often drag behind them a plume of snow and ice, which momentarily cuts vision to almost nothing.
Good visibility during the long low-light hours, then, is paramount. Roof mounted auxiliary lights are great in clear conditions but of little use in heavy snowfall or fog. Low mounted, wide-dispersion lights are likely to be of most use. Of course, if your vehicle has the mounting points available for both, then this is definitely a case of more is more. External temperatures so far below zero will expose the limitations of a poor cab heating system. This is famously true of pre- TD5 Defenders where an aftermarket heater matrix might be a worthwhile investment. In my experience though, modern vehicles generate enough heat when driving to maintain the temperature gauge at the usual reading and blast reassuringly hot air from the vents. However, once the vehicle is parked with the engine off, the temperature inside will drop very quickly. Even an engine on tick-over will likely lose temperature. While this is not a problem for the car, it is uncomfortable for the occupants. A parking heater, whilst not essential, is probably top of my ‘nice-to-have’ list. The market leading Webasto Thermo Top is fueled from the existing diesel tank and draws a miserly 0.3-0.5 litres per hour to generate typically 5Kw of heat.
Plumbed into the coolant system of the car, these heaters maintain the temperature of the heater matrix, which in turn provides warm air for the interior of the vehicle. These are also very useful in the morning. I usually spark mine up when tipping out of my sleeping bag, meaning you can climb into an already warm vehicle with an upto- temperature engine and clear windscreen! An alternative auxiliary heater, which warrants consideration, is of the Eberspacher ‘cabheater’ type. Less useful, because they only heat the cab, they have the advantage that they only have to run smaller, more efficient fans to circulate the hot air. Subsequently, the battery load is significantly less. Additional lighting, heating, other accessories and sub-zero morning starts will severely test the vehicle’s electrical system. Traveling alone, I would welcome the security of a dual battery system, but regardless, battery choice is paramount and I fit Odyssey exclusively. Compared with standard or even other advanced brands, they have exhibited superior capacity and resistance to harsh conditions.
As comparatively more equipment is required on a cold-climate trip, space will be at a premium. Thick coats and sleeping bags consume valuable room and it is worth loading some of this light yet bulky gear onto the roof. I usually pack it in ‘Space Cases’. These readily available, rugged, waterproof boxes were originally made for the Australian military by Trimcast to carry their Fosters in, but provide valuable dry storage on any trip. A Scandinavian winter adventure certainly requires more thought and careful preparation than a less arduous European summer trip, but is not beyond the reach of the enthusiastic overlander. And the results, should you be lucky enough to see the mystical Northern Lights will make all the hard prep work more than worthwhile.

Associated article links....

Webasto Thermo Top Specialist heaters
Eberspacher Specialist heaters
Odyssey High performance batteries
Space Cases Storage solutions

Cold Comfort

Who says you have to slum it when overlanding? Neil Watterson checks out a comprehensively equipped Arctic-bound 90 that even has a heated roof tent.

Photos by Laurens Parsons - Words by Neil Watterson - Published in LRO December 2013

Picture the scene. You’re in a roof tent peering out on the crisp snow gently illuminated by a full moon. Stars fill the sky and satellites streak across the blackness with clockwork regularity. It’s -20ºC, but you’re snug: not only do you have plenty of warm bedding, but your roof tent is made toasty by warm air piped from the heater fitted in your Defender below. That’s exactly why David Gould designed this Defender – it’s a work vehicle, but also set up for venturing into the Arctic Circle. In winter. But why a 90, not a 110? ‘If I were thinking “most practical” I’d go 110 or 130. But a 90 looks nicer. It’s a cooler-looking vehicle – I just love them,’ explains David. He does, too. This is his sixth 90 and one of three he currently owns – he also has a challenge truck and a V8 auto. David owns a radio communications company with masts in the UK and overseas and needs a 4x4 to get to the sites – which, by their very nature, are on top of mountains. So a Defender was a sensible option. ‘We have 80 or 90 radio sites and a tracked ATV, but that can’t carry much kit in it, so I bought this 2009 County Hard Top. And I wanted to use it for weekend greenlaning and trips.

‘If I were thinking “most practical” I’d go 110 or 130. But a 90 is a coolerlooking vehicle. I just love them’

I used to tow a camping trailer with it, but it was a pain in the backside, so I wanted a camper that would do anything. plus it still had to drive up mountains to the radio sites.’ ‘Then I decided I fancied going to Nordkapp – as far north in Europe as you can drive – in January, so I started to look at what to do with the vehicle.’ David hasn’t done much of the work himself, but he has been the driving force behind the design. ‘One of the guys at work did a lot of the mechanical stuff, but then I decided I wanted much more done, so I took it to Devon 4x4.’

‘Hey, I’ve got a good idea…’


As with all vehicle builds, planning was key. ‘David used to come to us with ideas, some of which we thought would never work,’ laughs Matt Cook, Devon 4x4’s master fabricator. ‘Then we’d think about it and say, “You know what, if we did it this way it may work”.’ Which is why much of the kit on the Defender is unique. Take the rear winch bumper, for instance. David had to persuade Matt to make it slightly differently because >

> he wanted the rear crossmember to be galvanised. ‘We bolted plates to it, had it galvanised then removed the plates to allow it to be welded to the chassis,’ explains Matt. Which is just as well. ‘I’d have had them strip the whole vehicle and galvanise the entire chassis if they hadn’t,’ retorts David. The on-board power set-up is really something, consisting of three Odyssey batteries: two PC1500s (the normal size for a Defender) plus a monster PC1800. So, plenty of power – but there needs to be. The Defender has a 2.7kW inverter fitted. ‘It means I can cook and boil a kettle at the same time – it’s almost the same power as you can get out of a mains socket,’ explains David. ‘The batteries are charged by the standard alternator, but I have a system for boosting the alternator output to optimise the charge at 14.5 volts. Matt’s been looking at ways of fitting a 210-amp alternator on the gearbox power take-off.’ Why not a generator? ‘Because a generator needs to run at a fixed speed, while an alternator can charge all the time the Land Rover is moving.’ The entire vehicle has been insulated with closed-cell sound-deadening, making it lovelyand quiet. ‘More like driving a Discovery,’ as David puts it. This will also keep the warmth in.

The heat is in.....

And warmth was a big priority for Matt. ‘We fitted a Webasto Air Top heater and the heat is piped out to a T-piece leading to both the front and the back. The front pipe splits and runs along the side of the seats, where I designed some heater rails to distribute the heat. This can either send the warm air into the footwells, or as an air curtain up the sides of the doors.’ But the heater isn’t only of use when you’re driving. Once you’ve closed the front vents, you simply drop down the rear numberplate and connect the ‘elephant trunk’ hose to the connector – you can now pipe warm air directly into the roof tent.

Sorted – inside and out.....

The interior is exceptionally well thought out. All of the wiring and plumbing has been routed out of the way and storage drawers keep kit in place. A slider-mounted fridge means getting food out is never an issue. Exterior carrying capacity has been maximised, with the large lockers mounted to the sides. One carries the roof tent accessories, the other crockery – in a custom-cut foam mount. It’s the second go at it. ‘The first one was nearly finished when some of the foam broke, so we had to start again,’ says Matt. Front and rear winches mean that if David does get stuck he’ll be able to get himself out – although, with ARB air-locking diffs he’s far less likely to get stuck in the first place. All the extra lights, including a whopping 80-bulb LED light bar, means he’ll always be able to see where he’s going. David has achieved exactly what he wanted with his Defender. With its gleaming red paintwork and comprehensive equipment roster it’s a great-looking, capable vehicle that has nothing to fear from the Arctic Circle.