Running with the pack – dog sledding in the Pyrenees

David and one of the huskies

David and one of the huskies

Imagine sitting on the comfortable seat of a fairy-tale Christmas sleigh. The nodding reindeer glide across the gentle hills, only the quiet swish of the parting snow disturbing the winter calm. A red-and-white fur coat keeps out the chill.

No. It’s not like that.

Imagine, instead, a top of the range Harley Davidson motorbike. Imagine also – I know that this is will be difficult – that this machine, for which you have paid thousands of pounds, has two major faults. The throttle is permanently stuck down; and the handlebars won’t turn. Oh, and there is no seat either.

When I arrive at the Plateau de Beille, south of Carcassonne in the French Pyrenees, it is surprisingly quiet: no wind, no cars, and almost no people. It is just a few degrees above zero. The road has been cleared since the last snowfall two weeks ago and the pine trees have lost their covering, but everywhere else is blindingly white.

David, one of the two mushers at the Base Angaka, opens the gate to the compound where the dogs are kept. They are individually attached to metal stakes by heavy chains, just long enough to allow them to rub noses and just short enough to prevent them from fighting. There are twenty-seven of them altogether; cross-bred huskies from Siberian and Greenland stock.

The snow on the ground has long since solidified into ice but the dogs seem indifferent to the cold. Most of them are jumping up and down excitedly, running in mad circles. A few are lying down, but only one or two are hiding in the rudimentary wooden kennels.

‘We built them so that the visitors didn’t think we were mistreating the dogs, but they hardly use them,’ David explains.

These are quintessential dogs. Dog’s dogs. They don’t walk, they run – up to 25 km/h. They don’t yap, they howl. And when they smell, they stink. The air is sickly sweet with the smell of wet hair, stale sweat, urine and excrement although, apart from the inevitable yellow stains in the ice, the compound and the dogs themselves look clean.

I go to stroke one of them but he leaps up at me. I have no choice but to take him in my arms and cuddle him, to let him lick my face. They can be affectionate, David tells me, but they have not sold their souls. Full of life and powerful, they are quite capable of living in the wild. They are obedient – in some ways – but not slavish.

David points out the dogs I will have on my sledge. Onyx, brown and beige with a nose like an Alsatian, is thin, short-haired, and quiet. She will be my lead dog. Sam is mostly black, much more stocky and already trying to knock me off my feet. He is part of the power for the sledge.

‘Start with Onyx and then work your way backwards along the traces,’ David instructs me. I undo Onyx’s collar from the chain and she pulls me across the compound to see a friend.

‘Lift her up by the collar. You won’t strangle her. Grip her between your knees and pass the harness over her head,’ advises David. Onyx is easy enough but I soon discover that the other dogs can drag me wherever they want to go, even with only two legs on the ground.

The sledge is attached to a tree but the dogs make fitful attempts to free it. ‘Stand on the brake before you unhook the rope. Otherwise they will disappear.’ I unleash the rope and the dogs instantly drag on the sledge. I have to put all my weight on the brake to stop them.

just starting out

just starting out

I assume that David has grown up in the countryside with dogs from his earliest youth but he corrects me: ‘No. My father is a dentist and he doesn’t like them at all. When I was young I could have a lap dog at home but nothing bigger. He said that if I wanted a pack of dogs I would have to wait until I had my own house.’

‘And now that you’ve got your own house?’

‘We’ve got eight settees, but my wife and I only use one of them. Even the lazy ones and the fighters have a right to their share of affection.’

David is twenty-five, small and thin, with a girlish face and long golden brown hair. He has a disconcerting way of laughing at the end of every sentence, making me wonder if I have quite understood what he has said. He shows me his puny hairless arms to demonstrate that one doesn’t need to be muscular to control a dog sledge.

The three of us are waiting in line. David, with six dogs, followed by me and then Guillaume, another neophyte, with four each. The two other people who had booked in have already chickened out.

The sledge is built around a glass-fibre baseboard with two skids running along its length and projecting out the back. If the snow is solid the skids glide over the top of it. If the snow is soft, the glass-fibre base takes the weight. At the front of the sledge is a curved wooden bumper. ‘When you hit a tree it will deflect the sledge to one side or the other,’ says David. Strapped onto the base is a large blue waterproof kit bag for stowing provisions and, if necessary, injured dogs. For the moment the only thing in it is the anchor, a vicious looking device which serves as a handbrake. We are advised to stow it in the sack with the points facing down and away from us. Towards the back of the sledge is a vertical hoop, making the whole thing resemble a Victorian brass bedstead with the legs sawn off. This bendy wooden framework, described inaccurately as the ‘handlebars’ by David, seems rather flimsy for its purpose. Behind it, between the two projecting skids, is a small rectangular aluminium grid: the brake pedal.

The huskies decide that it is time to go. I lean back, as instructed, and release the brake slightly. The dog team surges forwards. My hands are welded to the ‘handlebars’. My feet, on the other hand, are precariously balanced on top of the projecting skids. But only for an instant. As soon as I have recovered from the shock of the acceleration, I jump with two feet onto the brake pedal again. The grid forces two spikes deep into the snow. After several metres accompanied by annoyed growls, the sledge shudders to a halt.

Huskies can pull twice their own weight, happily, all day long. My four are capable of pulling 200kg – about twice the weight of me and the sledge put together. And they are fresh.

I lean into the first bend and swish round it, one foot on the brake, the other on the skid. Then the dogs charge down the hill on an icy slope between rows of pine trees. The sledge is catching up with the dogs and the traces are dangling dangerously between their legs. I hit the brake to avoid disaster.

The next bend is sharper. I lean into it but straighten up at the last moment to avoid attaching my head to a tree trunk. The sledge swerves wildly and nearly hits the trees on the opposite side of the track. After several more bends, my heart beating ferociously, David pulls up his sledge and we slam to a halt behind him. I remove four of the six layers of clothing I am wearing.

familleOff we go again. This time through the forest on a path which seems hardly wider than the sledge. These dogs live to run. At each corner David calls out ‘gauche’ or ‘droite’ and the lead dog starts tugging, almost walking sideways in her efforts to persuade the others to follow. Onyx mostly follows David’s tracks but every so often she takes a short cut, dragging me into drifts and over bouncy snow-covered rhododendrons. The dogs run round cavities where the snow has partially melted. The sledge flops into them and then flops out again. Miraculously, I don’t fall off, but by lunch time my arms are aching.

After eating, David, Guillaume, and I add one dog to each of the sledges.

La montagne va plumer l’oie – The mountain is going to pluck the goose,’ says David looking at the sky.

The dogs are beside themselves with excitement. This afternoon, the bends seem to be sharper and the dogs less disciplined. We leave the relatively smooth tracks of the morning and on the first serious bend I lose control of the sledge and it falls over on its side.

‘Don’t let go of the sledge, or the dogs will run away,’ David has warned us. ‘But don’t feel that you have to go over the cliff with them, either,’ he adds comfortingly. So I cling on to the handlebars, shouting ‘Stop’, being dragged through the snow until the dogs decide to pull up. Still dizzy, I scramble to my feet and right the sledge. The dogs race off immediately, wrenching my shoulders out of their sockets. I have to jump on the skids or leave go. We are off again. The next time, my coccyx finds something hard to land on. The time after, I decide to play dead. The dogs are not fooled and after a very short time they start tugging at the traces.

Meanwhile Guillaume has stamped so hard on his brake that it has broken in two. We find another abandoned sledge a few metres away and transfer his kit bag to it. Guillaume is approaching retirement but is as tough as the sea boots you can buy at his ships’ chandlers and boat repair shop. His daughter has given him a weekend dog sledding as a Christmas present. He thinks it will make a change from snow shoeing, which he finds rather tame.

Scientifically speaking, the lower your centre of gravity, the more stable you are, or so I believed. So, as well as leaning back as far as possible, I bend my knees. The huskies charge down the hill. At the bottom, there is a hairpin left-hand bend with the obligatory pine tree and adverse camber. I navigate the bend somewhat shakily, but when I stand up again the sledge slithers sideways, one skid off the ground. I can see myself shooting over the low cliff on the outside of the bend so I lean in the opposite direction and the sledge falls over. Guillaume jumps on the brake to avoid me and is thrown over in turn. We are both pulled along the ground by our arms until the dogs decide they have had enough. After another three crashes I conclude that science can’t explain everything. Standing up is better.

By now the clouds have come down the mountainside and visibility is about ten metres. It starts to snow. I have no idea which way David has gone, but it doesn’t really matter. The dogs have no problem in following his tracks.

At five o’clock it is beginning to get dark and we make our way to the camp where we are going to spend the night. Guillaume and I intend to sleep in one of the igloos. David, who has done it all before, prefers the hut. The dogs prefer the stakeout. Attached to a rope stretched between two trees, they sprawl on the snow, panting. We fill their bowls with biscuits, pouring water onto them and leaving them to stand until most of it is soaked up. ‘It’s the only way to get them to drink,’ explains David. Some of the more obstinate dogs tip their bowl over and leave the biscuits to drain before eating them.

mountainsLifting up a straw bale to block one of the entrances to the igloo, Guillaume cries out in pain. Subsequent attempts to bend over make him gasp in agony. I wonder if he has cracked a rib but no, he thinks he has torn a chest muscle in the crash on the hairpin bend. Now that he has stopped moving, the muscle is seizing up. We prop him against the living pine tree which is the central structural element of the hut and pass him things as he needs them.

‘I’m going to go to bed early. I think I will be better off in the cold,’ he says. Getting into the igloo is not much fun because the low entrance tunnel forces him to bend over. I unlace his boots, take them off, and ease his legs into the sleeping bag. ‘No, it’s worse,’ he gasps, ‘and if I need to get up in the night I won’t be able to get out.’

Guillaume follows me out of the igloo, literally screaming. Back in the hut he sits on a bench, hyperventilating, his eyes watering. We suggest calling the emergency services.

‘No, it’s alright. Just help me get into my sleeping bag. As long as I don’t have to get up and go outside, I’ll be fine.’ I empty my plastic water bottle and cut its top off, in case he needs to use it in the night.

David, is stirring his cassoulet. ‘What do you do with the dogs in the summer? How do you keep them in condition?’ I ask.

‘In summer they run wild around the prairie and then in September I start training them again. I have a sledge with three wheels which they can pull over the grass. When they get a bit stronger I have a Renault 4L. I’ve cut off the roof and most of the bodywork and I attach them to it. The advantage of the car is the brakes.’

Somewhat later the dogs start to howl and I go out to investigate. The sky has now cleared. A group of walkers with snow shoes is crunching through the forest in the bluish snow-refracted light of the full moon. They disappear over the hill and the dogs fall silent, leaving me to appreciate the dépaysement, the magic of being ‘elsewhere’.

Opening the door to the hut, I overhear David talking quietly on his mobile: ‘C’est la vie’. Something bad has happened in the other world. His accountant has fallen 300m in the Alps; he is in hospital with broken ribs. He managed to stop himself just ‘that far’ – David spreads his arms apart – from the cliff edge. ‘C’est la vie. C’est comme ça.

The morning is crisp and cloudless. A snowmobile comes to take Guillaume back to the base where a doctor will examine him. David and I attach the dogs to the sledges. ‘Allez,’ he says, and we head off up the hill. He calls back to me: ‘nous nous sommes réduits comme une peau de chagrin.’ I translate this – inaccurately – as: the group has shrivelled up like a dry chamois leather. Certainly I feel about as supple as one, still tired from the day before.

On the slope I push the brake a little too hard and the dogs stop momentarily. When I release it the sledge surges forward but, unnoticed by me, Sam has taken the opportunity to squat and relieve himself. The other dogs drag him forwards, waddling, legs akimbo, spraying indelicately. I jump on the brake and wait until he has finished before releasing it again. But the huskies have picked up the scent. At the slightest deceleration, one or other tries to squat down or to drag the sledge towards a tree. The dogs not involved in this activity seem to take a malicious pleasure in forcing the sledge forwards. In the Tour de France the cyclists haven’t the time to stop and find a convenient bush. The difference is that the cyclists wait until there is nobody else in range.

David points to a hill: ‘Let’s go that way.’ The hill isn’t very high but the slope is steep, 40 degrees or more, and the snow loose and powdery, impossible on foot without crampons and an ice axe. The dogs are soon up to their shoulders in it, forging their way through, their feet scrabbling to find a foothold. We hang on to the sledges, walking between the skids, being hoisted upwards. I feel as though my arms are only held in their sockets by my skin, the residual strength in my muscles having already been used up.

I tell David, and admit that I can’t continue, so we head back to the base, well before the intended hour. Back in their compound, the dogs are disappointed. One of them shows his disgust by breaking the thick iron ring which attaches him to his stake.

I’m over 50. I think to myself that a red Ferrari would be much less effort on the muscles and perhaps wouldn’t confirm quite so clearly that I am no longer 25.

Exciting? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. Enjoyable? Hmm . . . most of the time. Will I do it again? Definitely. But next time I’ll do press-ups for three months beforehand.

  • This is an extract from If You Only Walk Long Enough by Steve Cracknell, available from and elsewhere. More details. [The photos were taken on a different occasion.]

PS.  Not everybody is as inept as I am. I have since talked to several participants who didn’t fall over once. But if you are looking for something less energetic try a baptême, a ‘taster’ where you sit on the sledge, swishing around a circuit, safe in the hands of your musher.

The Base Angaka on the Plateau de Beille is near to Ax-les-Thermes in the Ariège. They propose a range of activities, from 45-minute ‘tasters’ to weekends in the wild. Other activities in the area include all types of skiing, sledging and hot spa baths. You can also build and sleep in an igloo.

Access: Carcassonne airport (126km, 2 hours) or Toulouse airport (138km, 2 hours).


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