Against All Odds: The Spanish 3000s Story Part 1

Travelling Lines Adventure Stories, Big Adventures

This is the beginning of the story of my Spanish 3000s expedition. I’m not sure how many posts it will take up, but it’s going to be a few, so strap in for the ride. To give yourself a little context and a quick overview of the backstory, read my last post written while I was waiting for my celebratory burger to arrive, post expedition. Done? Sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.

Apocalypse

Overnight, the entire foundations of my Spanish 3000s expedition – bagging 25 peaks over 3000m in the Sierra Nevadas of Spain – seemed to have collapsed. It was Sunday morning, exactly six days before my flight was due to part with the runway. My plans had received a one-two punch in the stomach. Overnight on Saturday, with no warning, the FCO downgraded Spain from “travel whenever and wherever you like” to a big, red “travel not advised unless essential”. At the same time, Garmin’s entire ecosystem had shut down. People were saying cyber attack – and Garmin couldn’t respond because whatever it was had taken down support chat and the phone lines as well. Whatever it was, no one’s devices were working properly. Which brand had I chosen to use for GPS tracking and Guinness World Record evidence collection? Garmin.

Aaand it’s back. The grey box of doom appears on Spain’s travel page.

What had seemed like maybe possible when I went to bed was in tatters. But if I’ve learnt anything from living in a pandemic, it’s to get your information from as close to the source as possible. So I found the Garmin status page and bookmarked it. Then I sent an email off to the Spanish guiding company, who were helping me with logistics, asking about the situation from their perspective. Then I started to research what FCO guidance actually meant in practical terms and why they’d put Spain on red.

Investigations

What I learnt was this:

  • FCO red warning doesn’t mean no travel. It just means no travel insurance. Since I didn’t have any (sorry to everyone who’s extremely alarmed by that, but I’d rather have an emergency fund instead) and my medical/rescue insurance was still valid, no problems there.
  • Of course, there is a reason the country has been put on red warning. But to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, “They’re more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” So if you’re prepared to risk it, no one’s going to stop you.
  • Nothing was actually cancelled. My flights were still flying. My hotel booking was still happening. This article from Which was especially helpful (with thanks to the poor journo who rewrote it over and over as things changed.)

Then the people in Spain got back to me and said basically, “Yeah, it’s fine. Come.” As far as they were concerned, everything was going on as normal. I would just have to quarantine for 14 days when I got back to the UK. This was fine for me, since I work from home normally (including pre-pandemic) and was furlough anyway. My own research into exactly why Spain had been placed on essential travel showed that almost all of the Coronavirus cases were around Barcelona, at the opposite end of the country, and in cities. The risk level was comparable to travelling in the UK.

In the meantime, Garmin seemed to get their systems back up and running. Everything seemed to still be going ahead and I decided to just go with the flow and see what happened…

Flow Rider

In fact, this attitude extended right up until the moment I stepped off the aeroplane in Spain. I didn’t know if I’d get there, but I was willing to try. It all seemed pretty unlikely, but since nothing had been cancelled it seemed worth a shot.

The bus to Bristol Airport was almost empty – half the seats already marked as unusable due to social distancing. Sporting a bright orange face covering (a tasteful shade of burnt orange in the images online), I sat in silence. That was the most noticeable difference: the silence.

On the bus to Bristol Airport, before realising I was wearing my face mask upside down.

At Bristol Airport, all the bus stops had been moved away from the entrance to provide more space. I was surprised to see that they’d already got permanent signage up for the changes. Access to departures was through a white marquee – the kind they check your bags in outside the British Museum. I walked through cautiously, apparently having my temperature taken. No sirens went off, no flashing lights or armed guards ready to drag me outside and shoot the infected – sorry, perhaps a little tasteless. But the zombie game analogies going through my mind at the time were too strong too ignore.

Everything was very straightforward. The airport was almost empty. I went through security almost without a queue. In fact, the longest queue I saw was the one for the newly opened Starbucks in departures. As someone who finds the whole ‘getting to an adventure’ thing pretty stressful, it was lovely. Everything was smooth and the airport was both clean and less than half full. I found a seat in departures near the screen (no announcements) and settled down for the wait.

Bristol Airport eerily empty due to the pandemic.

What was it like? The same and yet different. There was hand sanitiser in dispensers almost everywhere you looked – and signs telling you to use the hand sanitiser everywhere else. It was, again, silent except for the bustle when a flight gate opened for boarding or the people trying to navigate the one way system in WH Smiths. Most people wore black or navy face masks – a thing you’re inclined to notice when yours looks like a hi-viz jacket. There were a few patterned ones, home-made or kids’ masks, and one lady in her 30s wearing a puppy face that lined up so well with her features it was uncanny. I tried not to do an obvious double take.

Lift off

Defying all expectations, the words next to my flight number flicked over to boarding. I went to the gate and sat in another fairly empty set of chairs. We were split into front and back half of the plane, then called up in groups of seat numbers. Makes me wonder why we never did this in the first place, to avoid the dreaded seat-finding mosh.

On the plane, everyone was either sitting with someone they knew or on a row of their own. I have never seen a plane so empty.

Lots of room on the plane

We touched down in Spain and fed through several layers of security and checks. I’d already filled out my visa form and got the QR code, which made everything easy. Unlike on my return to the UK, but we’ll get to that. There were heat cameras again, to check for high temperatures, and the usual customs checks. My bag was one of the first off the carousel. It was all going too smoothly. I consulted my route card for what came next – an already scrunched sheet of A4 paper, home laminated on one side.

I had to make my way into departures somehow, to meet my driver. But all the staircases had been closed off, I guess due to Corona. Eventually, armed with shaky directions, I made my way out of the airport, through an underpass and up several flights of stairs. Outside departures, my driver Carlos was waiting by the Tabac shop as agreed. You may laugh, but despite being completely comfortable spending weeks in the mountains alone, I find travelling in cities alone very nerve-wracking.

We walked through the airport carpark, both of us hidden behind masks. In Spain it’s mandatory to wear masks outside in public places. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but when Carlos unlocked his tiny white car, I knew this wasn’t it. He cleared some stuff off the seat as I added my bag to the back seats and climbed in. Carlos spoke very good English and we quickly established that we had a lot to talk about. His hobbies were learning languages and visiting other countries, facilitated by shift work on a ferry.

“I’m an adventure travel writer,” I told him.

“Well, I should tell you,” he said, straight off the bat, “I’ve been to 130 countries.”

“130?” I asked, unsure of his accent. Although the difference between 113 and 130 is pretty insignificant when you’re only in the 20s yourself.

We had no trouble filling a 2 hour car journey with conversation.

Los Tres Miles

Carlos dropped me at Camping Trevelez, handing me over to the lady in reception who owned the campsite. After leaving, he came back moments later, “Don’t forget this!” The camping gas had been left in my footwell.

“Thank you!” I’d be needing that.

After checking in, I asked the campsite owner if she could help me with my Guinness World Record application. So much of GWR depends on evidence and part of that is gathering witness statements to prove you did it. I’d completely forgotten with Carlos (we were too busy talking about language learning and overtourism).

“I am here for a Guinness World Record attempt.”

“Oh,” she said, “that’s different.”

She agreed to help with by filling out the form. “One moment.” She disappeared through the beaded curtains out the back, that her son had passed through minutes ago. I heard her exclaiming something in Spanish, too fast for me to understand, but I got bits of it: “del mundo…. los mas tres miles.” I smiled. Yup, that was me.

She came back and filled out the form, offering advice and warning me to watch out for water in the mountains. There wasn’t much on the ridgelines in the summer. Luckily, I knew this already from the Cicerone guidebook – and that many springs dry up in the hottest months. But I thanked her for her help and went to pitch my tent. I could barely believe it, but this mad idea was actually happening. Tomorrow morning I’d be setting off on a Guinness World Record attempt.

My camp at Camping Trevelez, the night before the start of my expedition.

The Long Walk In

“Señorita! Este no es el camino.”

I stopped. I didn’t think this was the route either. But it was early morning and I was in quiet denial, knowing that I had to walk back up another steep and winding road. The man the other side of the fence, whose garden I was probably walking through, looked more amused than upset. I dusted off my Spanish phrases – another thing I didn’t quite have time to finish properly before leaving for Spain.

“Lo siento!” I called over, “Mi espanol no es muy bueno. Soy inglesa. No es la ruta?” I turned around and started back up the hill again. “Lo siento! Gracias!”

Thank heavens for GCSE Spanish.

The maze of paths and narrow cobbled streets in Trevelez took me round in circles. It takes me a little while to get my head in the map. Particularly a Spanish map that has nowhere near the accuracy and detail of a OS map. They can’t even agree on the heights and names of their mountains.

I was still firmly using a paper map, despite being decked out like Inspector Gadget: camera, watch, GPS tracker and smart watch all on the outside – the latter two courtesy of GPS Training to support my record attempt. I would not go so far as to call myself a technophobe. I can do tech. But I tend to sit in the “if it’s not broken don’t fix it” camp. And as someone who gets on extremely well with a map and compass and treats smart devices with a general air of mistrust, it felt very strange having so much tech on board. In fact, I was still wearing my £10 Argos digital watch too because I wasn’t sure if I could make the smart watch behave.

Eventually, I escaped the winding paved streets of Trevelez for the path out into the mountains. Today was, to all intents and purposes, acclimatisation day. I had a long (over 20km) gradual ascent up the valley to my first 3000m peak: Cerro Pelado. I could have got a lift much further up, but I felt that this would be a good warm up. Turns out I was right in more ways than one.

The path along the river started wide and flat, a dusty earth track cut across the hillside, with chicken wire fences on either side. But soon the path got narrower, muddier and more overgrown. I pushed my way past stiff and spiky plants and reeds – the kind that were glad of any water they could get. Soon I passed through the fence line marked Parque Nacional and was in open access land, but still happily on a path. The grass looked thick and stiff as bristles. Still I kept winding up and up.

I had lunch under the shadow of a rocky face at the top of a small gorge. The river felt wild now. It was a small and lively stream compared to the wide, steady flow lower down the valley. I’d got my head around the map, got a feel for the scale and contours, so I was fairly certain that the hazy grey shape in the far distance, peeking out above the rest, was my first summit.

By 1:30pm, I was on the ascent properly, but still not at my start point for the record. I was going too slowly. My route card said 15:15 and I didn’t think I was going to make it. Since early morning the hills had been empty. It had bothered me that all the Spanish people I had met in the morning were going in the opposite direction: coming down off the hill. It was like they knew something I didn’t. And as the people disappeared, the heat really began. The guidebook had said an average of 15-20 degrees at 3000m in summer. It felt well above that. I was down to a t-shirt, trouser vents open and dripping in sweat. I was getting through litres of water in my slow plod upwards.

The Record Start

Finally, I reached my start point. A point on a river in a narrow channel, a little more than 500m of vertical ascent below the summit of Cerro Pelado. Still several kilometres of walking to do up its shallow and rocky slopes, but the latest point I could start the clock on my 1 week expedition.

GWR require a very specific set of measurable outcomes to beat or set a record. It makes sense. You need to know exactly whether someone has succeeded or failed. It needs to be easily and clearly defined. So, much to my initial disappointment, simply being on top of many 3000m mountains is not enough. You must climb at least 500m of vertical ascent on the mountain for it to count. Instead of doing the gorgeous long ridgeline of 3000m peaks, I would be slogging up and down the sides of these mountains, clocking up the vertical. Still, I was going to start as close to the 500m mark as I dared.

The current record was 7 and I’d decided to shoot for as many as possible in the Sierra Nevadas. But by this point, sitting down by the river and talking into the camera to start my record, I had already abandoned the idea of doing all 25 peaks that I’d planned. It was just too hot. That wasn’t the only problem – higher up water would be scarce and the heat meant I needed a lot of it. The route was going to need a whole rethink. But I reckoned I could feasibly do 15 in conditions like this.

I recorded my video, as required, and set the smartwatch to go. The temperature on it said 32 degrees. I’m naturally suspicious of these things, but if you’re going to rely on its altitude reading, you kind of have to believe its other readings too. I hauled on my rucksack and started up the hill.

Cerro Pelado

On top of Cerro Pelado, my first 3000m+ summit in Sierra Nevada Spain

At the top of Cerro Pelado, several hours later, I sat down. It was gone 6pm and, having been walking uphill since about 9am, I was very glad to be at the summit. In a moment of panic, I did check the GPS tracker – just to make sure I was actually at the very top. But it there I was, smack bang on the summit. The view was pretty nice: barren and bleak and hazy – towers of rock as far as the eye could see.

Now I needed to record some evidence. I got the camera out, hit record and said hello. It was all going well until I got to recording the altitude. I looked at the smart watch: ah. The altitude wasn’t right. Or at least, it didn’t agree with the map. I’d calibrated it at Trevelez, but I guess something had gone awry. Flustered, I got out the GPS tracker and managed to find the altitude in its trip computer. But it was still in feet. The camera was still recording, so I stopped it, not wanting to seem completely hopeless. I sat on top, sorted myself out and recorded my evidence again.

Would this peak count? The altitude on the devices was showing above 3000m and that I was on the summit, but not the same altitude as on the map. Surely that would be okay? Even the most accurate instruments are only guaranteed to +/- 50m. I only hoped I’d started low enough to take that into account and still do 500m ascent. The tragic idea of having walked some 2000m of ascent, my entire day’s effort, only for it not to count, weighed down on my mind.

Still, there was nothing I could do about it. Plus I was an hour behind my route card and needed to make a decision about the next peak. Really, the decision was already made. It was too late in the day to be starting another ascent. We’d just have to call this me learning the ropes and reshuffle the route card for tomorrow.

Instead, I headed down the steep scree slope towards Laguna de Juntillas for my night’s camp. I really needed to get my act together if I was doing to beat this GWR.

The end of a long, hot day. Relaxing before camp at Laguna de Juntillas.

Well, that’s a good 3000 words, so I think I’ll stop here! More of the story coming soon in Part 2 🙂