The Lions of the Pyrenees

These expeditions for men are not for the faint of heart

(photo: Register Files)

The expedition in question I’d heard about for years.

I was intrigued, however, an expedition into the Pyrenees for three days during which a number of dangerous — sorry, “extreme” — sports would be undertaken by a group of men more used to boardroom challenges than to those that are physical.

All the men going on the expedition — with the exception of the expedition doctor — work in finance or business. They are at the top of their professions. They don’t just run companies; oftentimes they own them.

Yet there is no hotel, never mind any sign of 5-Star room service where these men can retire after the day’s rigors. As it turned out, the accommodation is more a military-style barracks or even a penitential monastery in the mountains. The food was simple but nourishing, the meals often rushed though: the days were planned to the minute from the 5 a.m. alarm call.

The first thing on the agenda each morning was prayer and Holy Mass — the Lions have a chaplain. Attendance at these services is optional — unlike everything else. That said the Lions are predominantly Catholic men but many are of other faiths too; and several are of no faith.

Last year as well as participants from the UK and US, there were Spanish, Germans, Italians, as well as Russians and even some hailing from Moldova. The expedition has been running nearly 20 years. Many of the group had been on it before; all who had been before describe the Lions journey into the Pyrenees as one of the highlights of the year, and, more importantly, one that they wouldn’t want to miss.

These men are known as “The Lions of the Pyrenees.” The “roar,” however, heard over the three days, was one urging each other on. Doubtless, it is something similar to the roar heard by those heading into battle or facing any challenge that is going to be just that, namely, an unusual one.

And what was it that these Lions of the Pyrenees battled against? Themselves mostly. Over these three days, they were to be tested. Firstly, on a long climb over a high mountain where the scorching sun in the foothills gave no hint of the packed snow and ice still at the summit. As they ascended mountain guides accompanied them — not so much a reassurance as an assurance that what lay ahead was not for the fainthearted.

The second day there was even greater need for guides. Canyoning is not a sport well-known in the British Isles. Canyoning consists of dangerous dives from a high point into what looks like small pools of water below, followed by long swims through crevices, both under and around the boulders and rocks, that one encounters in the river that runs through the canyon. To complete this activity, there is a need to be able to maneuver in and out of tight positions, sometimes under water. The secret to survival is suppleness and an unwavering courage in face of the claustrophobic nature of this part of the adventure.

Cycling took place on the third day. The proposed course would not have looked out of place on La Vuelta (Spain’s equivalent to the Tour de France). Up and then down a mountain the Lions cycled, along paths strewn with rocks. The ability to navigate, together with an ability to withstand the heat and dust, to say nothing of the stamina required, made all of this a formidable undertaking.

To some extent, such exertions were to be expected: but was this simply a case of boardroom escapees returning to the fun of their youth?

It appears, however, that these Lions of the Pyrenees are not all they seem. This yearly expedition is not merely an advanced work out for risk-taking adventurers. The body is but one faculty catered for in this enterprise. There is something else, something unexpected, namely, a mental change during the time spent together. Noticeably, some of the party who blanched at the challenges scheduled for each day found the resources necessary to rise to meet them, often with the help of those around them.

That last point appeared to be the key to what the Lions are all about. Each Lion did not approach his personal summit alone. Instead, he was helped by the others in a personal push to his limits; limits he had previously thought unachievable. It was a heartwarming to see the inherent power of a group of men acting in such a positive and collective manner. But, there was a further dimension to this, one that was yet more surprising.

Some of these men were strangers to each other at the start of the expedition. Thrown together by the idea of adventure in foreign climes, they had by the end of the trip become brothers. At first glance, this may seem an extraordinary statement but that was what I witnessed. The conversations on first meeting were understandably trivial, superficial even, by the dinner on the final evening these conversations had moved to a much deeper level. Now, these men were talking to each other of family problems, work difficulties, even the philosophical and spiritual questions that dogged them.

The phrase: “mind, body and spirit” is often overused. In these three days I saw that triumvirate come to life. By the end of my time in the mountains there was a distinct spirit to behold in this company of men I had spent time with. It was one as fresh as the winds that blew down from the Pyrenees, as glistening as the snows on mountain tops that held out against the approaching summer heat, as permanent as the rocks upon which their spirit had been tested, and, for those taking part, as welcome as it proved rejuvenating.