The next morning, I headed back down to my friend the tortoise, to start my ascent of Veleta. It was cold and breezy. I stomped across the barren ski runs wrapped in a belay jacket, hood up and grouchy. My feet were feeling even grumpier. I’d thought about leaving my bag hidden somewhere, since I’d be going directly past my camping spot again. But in the end I wasn’t brave enough. I should have got up earlier and done it in the dark.
Struggles in Spanish
Of course, it wasn’t long before the layers were coming off thick and fast. And, for the first time, I wasn’t alone on my morning ascent. I was overtaken by two middle-aged Spanish guys in day packs, heading out to the mountains. Almost back at Lagunillas de la Virgen, I caught them up again. They seemed to be waiting for the rest of their group, who were so far behind they couldn’t be seen.
They struck up conversation.
“Lo siento. Soy inglesa.” The usual.
They didn’t speak any English. But they kept trying in Spanish.
“Hablo un poco espanol,” I tried. Was it muy or mas lento? Spanish people speak so fast.
Now, I’m not 100% sure what these guys actually said to me – or were trying to ask me. I think at one point they asked me where I was going. I said, “Veleta.”
They made approving noises. I think I managed to ask them where they were going and recognised Caballo (my final 3000m peak) and Lanjaron, the town I was finishing at. Through gesticulation and waving at the ridge in front of us, I managed to convey that I was going there too.
Then things started to get a bit tense. I’m fairly sure the guys were trying to get me to join their group because I was going the same way and it’s better to be in a group. But I simply didn’t have the Spanish to explain, in the moment, that I was doing Veleta onwards then camping below Caballo and heading on to Lanjaron the next day. One of them was getting faster and more frustrated in Spanish. I was frowning with effort trying to keep up.
At one point, he paused and the other guy said, “Tu comprendes?” You understand?
I shook my head. This didn’t make things better.
The other guy was fast reaching comicbook hair-tearing levels of frustration. I decided I just needed to get out of the situation. We’d already been standing there some time. I certainly wasn’t going to go with them and explaining why was beyond me. So I apologised profusely in Spanish, “Lo siento. Gracias.” And legged it up the track as fast as my rucksack would allow.
As I stopped for water at the Lagunillas, the frustrated man shouted something and waved an arm. Now he could have just been waving. But in my head he was shouting at me for not going in the right direction up Caballo. Bereft of witty Spanish comebacks and wishing I’d revised prepositions, I decided to play ignorant. I turned my back and headed up Veleta.
Veleta (3,394m) was my least favourite peak of the entire expedition. It had the air of Snowdon and Ben Nevis about it. The ascent route was via a path so broad, flat and winding that you could have driven a Landrover to the summit. There was a small building on top, which I assume houses a cafe in ski season. It was like man had taken a bulldozer to this side of the mountain. But I suppose my feet were grateful for it at the time.
I was up and off the summit very quickly. But it was satisfying to look out across the enormous view, towards all the peaks and ridges I’d spent the last week on. It is incredible how far you can walk if you give yourself the time.
From Veleta, I headed back down the same track (again!) to Lagunillas de la Virgen and then up towards my next peak: Tajo de los Machos. I stopped at the col of the Tajos de la Virgen ridge and stared at it. It looked good. I remembered it being mentioned in the guidebook as a committing scramble but I couldn’t remember if you could access it from here. Dismally, I decided to take the safe option and added it to the list of Things to Come Back For.
I stopped at the ruined Refugio de Elorita for some lunch. There is something fascinating about abandoned buildings, crumbling back into nature. Then the plan was to head most of the way up Tajo de los Machos, drop down to the left and pick up a path along the river that led all the way down to Capileira (the nearest town/village). I’d get down to my start height, fill up my water and then head up to the summit again.
I plodded along the ridge in the heat of the day. It was a bit scrambly, but nothing like the spiky delight of a ridge running parallel to my right. Things to Come Back For.
At some point along the main ridgeline, I converged with a small group of walkers. There were 3 of them, looking very swish in their trail running trainers, mini hydration packs and trekking poles. Their kit looked so clean it could have been new. We didn’t talk to eachother, but unfortunately we seemed to be going at the same pace. Whatever we did, we’d end up in the same place. No one – especially not trendy, tanned locals – wants to be going at the same pace as a sweaty tourist, plastered in equal measures of dirt and suncream, lumbering along with a 60L backpack. We were ruining the ridge for eachother.
So I decided to do us both a favour. I found a slither of shade, sat down on a pointy rock and waited. I’d give them a 15 minute headstart and then we could each have the ridge to ourselves. Fifteen minutes didn’t mean much in a day like this. I already felt like I was a long way behind. It was mid-afternoon and I hadn’t even got to Tajos de los Machos, in order to go down it and straight back up. But I’d given myself a pep talk the night before: you need to go all in today, one last push to make it count, carry on into the night if you have to.
The trouble was, I’d been looking down left over the side of the ridge and I couldn’t see a river. Or a path for that matter. But I didn’t have enough water to go down and up this mountain. I guessed I’d just have to go and see – hoping that a trickle of river was still making its way downhill.
As I sat and waited, I wondered why I was pushing on up this mountain. I could run into real trouble if I ran out of water. I could be fine too, but it was hard to know. What was it driving me onwards? Why was I sticking with the plan despite everything? I sat and thought about it.
First, I realised, it was the numbers. I’d started aiming for 25, cut down to 15 and bungled one which left 14. If I skipped this one then I’d finish with 13 summits – and I didn’t like that number. I just imagined telling people. “Oooh,” I could hear them croon, “unlucky for some.”
But there was something deeper there too. Some other reason I’d buried for why I was pushing myself past sensible to squeeze just one more peak into the week. As I sat on that rock, I had a sobering realisation. It didn’t have anything to do with the record: I’d lost my belief in the idea of enough.
I wanted to climb as many peaks as I possibly could because I was scared someone would move the goal posts. Sure the previous record was 7 peaks – and I’d almost doubled it – but what if I got back and GWR decided I’d done it too easily? What if they decided I had to do more, or changed the rules or found some technicality I’d missed? Then I’d regret not pushing to breaking point while I could. I had to blow the record out the park, just to be safe.
Hell, where did that attitude come from?
And then I saw it.
You see, at school I’d always thrived well under a simple system of do the work, learn the mark scheme, get the grades. Find out the rules, play the game and succeed. But at university, all this went completely out of the window. How much work you did was worn as a badge of honour, quantified mostly by time spent in the library or abstract bragging. Coupled with a lack of mark scheme, lecturers who had no interest in teaching and exams that had no bearing on course content, I’d quickly started to flounder. There was no guidance on how much work to do – or even which work was worth doing – and whether you were on the right track. I completely lost my faith in the system.
With 24-hour library access (and desks full even in the small hours of the morning) it felt like everyone else was doing more and better. I was sucked into the hustle and the paranoia of “getting ahead”. I cannot think of a single university summer holiday when I didn’t panic about how much prep work I should be doing, when none was set. Then work-life and entrepreneurship only carried on that feeling: the need to always squeeze a bit more out of everything and be a bit more productive than everyone else. To make the most out of everything.
I looked up at the empty ridgeline of Tajos de los Machos. I could do it. I could climb it, descend vertically 600m or so and hope there was a trickle of river that high up. I could do the ascent with no water and head into camp below Caballo late at night. It would be rough, but I could push myself to do it. All for the sake of 14 peaks, not 13 peaks.
But I’d already almost doubled the record – what more did they want? And I remembered the number of times I’d looked at a mathematical proof, covered in red scribble, and thought the same. What more did they want? What more did I want?
If I went up this mountain, not because I wanted to but because I felt I should – because I was scared not to – then I would have lost. I would be giving in to the anxiety. I would never have the confidence to know that I am enough. That what I’ve done is enough. And yes, I couldn’t know for certain I’d get the record. They might move the goal posts. I might have mucked everything up without even realising. I should make the most of my chance and maximise the time I still had left.
My 15 minute timer went off.
I looked up at the ridge, where small people were cresting the final rise in the distance. Then I stood up, turned and walked off the ridgeline to my right – away from the summit and down towards the valley.
I camped at the laguna below Caballo. A thunderstorm rolled over the peaks in the distance, but never actually reached me. There is a story to be told about my evening at that lake, but now isn’t the time. It’s funny one, but we’re almost at the end of our expedition. I’ll save it for later.
The next morning, I packed up my tent before the sunlight hit it. Everyone else camping by the lake was still in their tents, the bothy-like refuge was silent. I slowly finished my ascent to reach the top of Caballo (3011m). As I did, the sun lit the gnarly ridge behind me, the contrast making the rock appear black against the yellow sky. One to come back for, but now – at about 8:30am on my 8th day in the mountains – I was done. Thirteen peaks and quite an experience. Maybe a Guinness World Record. But I pleased with what I’d done and ready for it to be over.
With the sun on my back, I began the long slow ascent back to civilisation and the bustle of Lanjaron.