It has been nigh on a month since I got back from Spain. For some reason the words haven’t been coming – you’ve only had one measly first part of the story. I say “some reason” as if I’ve been afflicted by some mystical writer-ly disease, or imbalance of the humours that’s stopped me from writing. Sure, it feels weird writing about scorching hot days while it’s raining outside, but that’s never stopped me writing epic fantasy from an office.
In fact, as someone who doesn’t believe in writers’ block, I can tell you exactly why I haven’t written it. There are a few things. The first is a fallout from writing a book in three months and being on furlough from my writing job for almost six. I did an intense push, stopped writing and haven’t got back into regular writing yet. Sure, I write still, but I don’t write things. I write snippets and ideas and reminders and half-baked poems. Lesson 1 for writers: to write something, you must sit down and write.
Number two is that I’ve been filling my time with lots of other things. I’ve just finished ripping up staircase carpets and painting the floorboards white. I’ve been working on businesses, applying for grants and GWRs. I’ve been coming up with half-finished adventure ideas to fulfil the feeling that I ought to be doing something with all this time off. Of course, I have been doing lots of things, but somehow only a trip away counts as momentous enough. My brain is a chaos of small things to do, rather than an uninterrupted chunk of writing time. So that’s lesson 2: if you want to write, make time to write. I have been doing neither of these things.
So why not sit down and write? Well, I guess because I haven’t wanted to. Again, I don’t believe in having to wait for the starts to align and the mood to be right. You can’t do that when you are expected to be producing articles every day. I’ve learnt how to warm myself up and get writing to the point, no matter where I am or how unlike writing I feel. But I haven’t done it. (Or, as the quick-minded of you might have realised, I’m doing it now.)
Why not? Because actually, I didn’t enjoy Spain all that much. I mean, I did in its own way. It was thrilling in places and empty and wonderful. There were a few sketchy moments too. But, honestly, most of my memories of it are overwhelmed by hours upon hours of walking very slowly uphill, with a very heavy backpack, feeling hot. And having just written a book about a similar (sort of) thing except being wet, I’m just uninspired.
Not that that should be an excuse if you have a deadline. And in cases such as these, I find the problem is not the writing at all, it’s just knowing where to start. My brain doesn not compose stories linearly and yet I feel compelled to start at the start. So let’s ignore the rules, skip all the boring bits and write like I’m having a chat with you. That’s what this blog has always been about. Me having a chat with you, unseen reader, who does me the honour of showing up and following my work.
So, you want to hear about Spain. Pull up a chair – oh wait, you already have – and let’s begin.
After my first day’s drama with the heat and the record keeping, I was fairly concerned. After all, the whole point of this expedition was to get a Guiness World Record, preferably as easily as possible. And I’m only being slightly flippant when I say that. But after my calibration issue on Cerro Pelado, I was unsure whether it would count as one of my peaks. I didn’t want any more ambiguity in this trip.
Also, I could tell that the heat and lack of water was going to be a problem. Enough of a problem that I’d need to scrap my route plan and take drastic action. That first night, camped by Laguna de Juntillas, I completely rehashed my route card around 2 factors: getting enough peaks and having enough water. I should say that the only reason I was able to do this was because I’d done so much research into the potential routes and options before settling on the first plan. I knew enough about all the other route choices that I could do a complete rewrite in the field.
In fact, as I clambered up the crest of the scree slope the next morning, on the way to Puntal de Juntillas, it was uncanny. Looking across the slopes, I had the bizarre feeling of recognising a place I’d never been before. But I’d spent so long with my head in the topography, trying to imagine the landscape, that I knew it. It was weird.
It was also very windy. The wind had picked up as the sun set on that first night’s camping. If I hadn’t been lying in the tent, it would have blown away. The surface I had pitched on (and indeed, all around) was just rock. Well, rock with occasional patches of green-lilac shrub. Which looked quite beautiful until you realised they were a carpet of stumpy thistles, no more than an inch high but making up for it with ferocity of spike.
So yes, I’d managed to find a flat spot, free of thistles, a little away from the lake. But even metal tent pegs could barely make a dent in the ground. So I pegged out my corners using loose rocks and went to bed. Then the wind picked up.
There is a very particular form of discomfort from spending a sleepless night in a tent when you are really tired. The wind was strong enough to continually pull the porch out from under the pile of rocks I’d pinned it down with. Occasionally some of the corners on the windward side would wander too. And to top it off, a huge low full moon made the night like someone had left the light on. Of course, I could have appreciated the beauty of a round white globe in a midnight blue sky, casting its light over the earthy-brown rock. But actually, I was as grumpy as sleeping under a streetlamp with no curtains.
Puntal de Juntillas
Eventually, the morning came. I packed up and stubbornly trudged down the valley, to get low enough that I could stubbornly trudge back up again to bag my second – or perhaps first – 3000m peak. At this point, I should probably mention the cows. It seems that I’ve been psychologically damaged by All the Tors. You see, now every time I’m alone in a place where I know there could be cows, my brain is on high alert. And if I see anything in the distance of about cow proportions, regardless of size or colour (within reason), my brain sets off an “Aaargh, it’s a cow!” alert. It only lasts a second before I realise it’s a rock or lump of grass or whatever. But it’s default is to recognise everything as a potential cow…
Luckily the cows in the Sierra Nevada have bells attached to their necks. This means that you can hear them from a good kilometre away. If they’re moving, that is. I crossed the river several times to avoid the herd that was taking late breakfast on the hillside, then headed up Puntal de Juntillas. In the valley, I was out of the wind and the sunshine until about 10am. That was clever, I thought to myself. If I could engineer my ascents to avoid the heat it would really help.
The ascent of Puntal de Juntillas didn’t feel as arduous as the day-long slog up Cerro Pelado. Hiding behind its tiny summit cairn, I got my evidence by holding the GPS between my knees. Not elegant, but very effective. The view was wide and open. The massive but rolling hills reminding me of Skiddaw or – in a strange way – Dartmoor. Some had little outcrops on top and if you could just ignore the height, it looked rather like home.
I walked along the ridgeline to my next peak, Picon de Jerez. Unfortunately, just wandering along the ridge to it didn’t count. I had to descend to about 2500m above sea level (some 2km away) and then come back up again. On the plus side, I now knew exactly what the summit looked like and whether my route was a good one.
Oh yeah I forgot to mention…
But, before I went down and out of signal, there was one more thing to do. You see, I’d had another technology surprise as I was coming into camp at Laguna de Juntillas last night. I was tracking each day’s route on a smart watch. Done for the day, I navigated through the menus and pressed save. The watch turned off and restarted. Err what…? I went carefully through the steps again… save, okay. Reboot. You’re kidding me.
Eventually, I tricked it into saving, but it got caught in an endless saving loop, stuck on the saving screen until I wanted to go to bed so I turned it off. Trace lost for the day, no doubt. Luckily, I was in touch with the guys at GPS Training who’d lent me the watch in the first place. I fired off a help message as soon as I could. The response was that it probably needs a factory reset. But I was scared to do that incase I broke everything and lost all of today’s data too. So I left it.
Descents and Ascents
As it turns out, my choice of descent route from Picon de Jerez was not a good one. I learnt the hard way that Spanish maps do not explicitly mark the shape of their crags. Sure, you’ve got the contour lines (or lack of them) but no helpful rocky shapes like in the UK.
I came down a loose gully with cliffs either side. But it was short and wide enough to get my rucksack through. No drama. Note to self: take paths marked on this map with a pinch of salt. I had yet to see anything that looked like a path marker, not even a little cairn.
After that wobble, the descent route down to grass-level was all on a steep scree slope. I’m going to call it scree, but it’s not nice shards of slate like in the UK, it was more like flat clitter. The stones were big and blocky, maybe a couple of inches thick, but flat so that they slid downhill over eachother wherever you stepped. Hard work and hot work, both down and up.
This time, I went down even further than I needed to, to make sure I had good margin for error when calculating my ascent at the top. I filled up some water, set my GPS devices to recording and then plodded back up again. I caught up with a large Spanish trekking group, also ascending Picon de Jerez. I’d passed them as I made my descent on the other side of the river. If they noticed I was the same hot walker with a big rucksack, they didn’t mention it. Not, that we had much conversation. Their English was about as good as my Spanish. Although we managed a quick conversation in Spanish along the lines of:
Me: “It’s very hot.”
Trekker: “Yes, but not too hot.”
Me: “Yes, too hot for me.”
It’s incredibly humbling to realise just how much we rely on languages. I thanked my lucky stars that I did GCSE Spanish, even if it was a decade ago. At least I could talk like a very stupid child with bad vocabulary.
We continued leap-frogging eachother on the ascent, until they eventually overtook me and headed off along the ridgeline past Picon de Jerez. I didn’t have enough Spanish to ask them, but I guessed they must be doing the Integral or some variation of it. When I eventually topped out on 3000m peak number 3, it was already mid-afternoon. I walked back in the direction of Laguna de Juntillas and sat down on col, looking out along the main ridgeline. It looked wonderful.
But I wasn’t going to have enough time to do it. By sacrificing half the peaks and focussing on my record attempt, I was going to have to miss Los Cervatillos and much of that part of the ridge. For a start I’d already run out of water again and there was no access to water along that ridgeline for miles. So instead, I sat there for a while, in denial, kicking myself for not walking faster or having more water. It was such an enticing ridgeline.
Eventually, I conceded to not taking the ridge. You simply can’t take chances like that when you’re on your own. Or at least, it was too high for my risk appetite right then. That meant walking back down this morning’s valley, past Laguna de Juntillas for more water, towards tomorrow’s start point. I could have pushed on and made a start on the next day’s peaks, camping at Laguna de Vacares. But I simply didn’t fancy it.
You see, at the time I thought vacares meant cows in Spanish. And the thought of having to pitch a tent in the midst of a herd of cows that night was very unappealing. Instead, I found a cool sheltered spot between huge boulders, most of the way down the valley.
As it turns out, vaca is Spanish for cow, but vacas is the plural. So I don’t know what the name really refers to.
Either way, I settled down into my campsite, put the tent up as the sky went dark and made plans for tomorrow. Today had been alright, but I needed to get my game plan together if I wanted to beat this record. I’d managed to trick my smart watch into saving tonight (through a combination of button pressing) which was a huge relief. But I wasn’t tackling this expedition in a clever way. I was just throwing myself at it. It was too hot to be pleasant. I couldn’t be careless about water. There had to be a way to make my life easier.