The highlight of the holidays, which after this week’s biblical weather seems a long time ago, was some energetic romping about in the Cantabrian mountains in Northern Spain. There is a beautiful spot in the heart of the Picos de Europa where we have been going for nearly two decades. And in this hiking paradise, we celebrate the fact that despite the absolute confidence ahead of each adventure we embark on, meticulous packing of walking maps and charging up of GPS enabled smartphones, we know we will get lost.
I’d like to think that we are a bright bunch. Very practical, fit and ambitious. But boy do we make heavy weather of getting from A to B.
Etched in my mind forever is the day after a birthday night away in a refuge in a beautiful spot some 1800 metres above sea level. The refuge come hotel had a restaurant attached to it and we celebrated under the stars, fortified with Carajillo (a Spanish coffee laced with hard liquor) in preparation for a hike up to a Col and descent down an unchartered valley to a tiny medieval village (with a bar in it) called Mogrovejo.
There is a track that we normally follow – a 2.5-hour walk through magnificent scenery – but this was something new. I do take responsibility for the drama that unfolded but I also would like to state for the record that I did make the observation that “those contour lines do look very (very) close together”.
But on we went. Stoic. Excited and blindly optimistic that we could tame these bad boy mountains. In the team, we had myself, my wife, two daughters (20 and 25) and a friend of my youngest. All experienced mountain walkers. Hey! We had done it so many times before what could possibly go wrong?
The sun was shining but it was cool at that altitude, so we didn’t take enough water. The walk up to the col was uneventful – but took a little longer than we had anticipated. So, the ‘we’ll get lunch the other side’ seemed, in retrospect, like a naïve plan as the mid-day sun passed overhead and we were still hours away from our destination.
Down the alarmingly steep valley the other side, the gorge got deeper and steeper still. The seemingly flat riverbed below was almost vertically sided, driving us to traverse with bare legs through rough prickly mountain gorse. At one point a daughter got stranded on some slippery shale and there was a moment when my vice-like grip on a protruding rock was the only thing supporting her. However, the rock became loose and a battalion of ants swarmed out like a scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ covering my hand and arm, but I just couldn’t let go.
The friend twisted her knee. The youngest’s ankle which had endured a minor strain (a Uni night clubbing incident) worsened and we were becoming exhausted. Five hours in and the first tears flowed (No, not mine!).
Further climbing down the dry riverbed was followed by frightening scrambles up banks so steep we had to use hazel saplings to pull ourselves out of trouble. At some point we had reached the point of no return, but who knows when that was.
And like many negotiations, poor preparation, unrealistic objectives and an inflexible strategy meant we didn’t stand a chance of the experience going according to plan. We made it of course, but familiarity, arrogance and a bit of a gung-ho attitude, left our party questioning the leadership skills exhibited on that memorable summer’s day, and what turned out to be an 8-and-a-half-hour romp in the mountains. And possibly a little teary (albeit after the first swig of Larios con tonica) in the Mogrovejo bar.
If you’re thinking of going to that bar in Mogrovejo, I’m afraid there’s no gin left… Clacton on Sea next year…
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