Monday, 30 April 2012

Waking Dreams - Part I

3 days. My solo part of the trip. 3 days, before im due to pick up a friend in Madrid for the main event in Spain. Siurana.

I am unconcerned about the future past this point however, as the granite dome of El Yelmo rises into view with snow capped mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama dominating the skyline behind it. Snow? It's late April. Thoughts of sleeping out now becomes slightly moronic as i didn't bring any bivi gear! But doubt is quickly rationalised. 1) The snowline looks like it's slightly above the elevation of El Yelmo's summit and 2) The wind is blowing south west and will hopefully keep those gigantic puffy clouds hugging the mountain range and not south toward my intended sanctuary.

The bus takes the exit for Manzanares el Real and i stand to shoulder my bag and wait for the doors to ping open, like a horse ready to bolt at the starting gate. Let's have some fun.

Manzanares el Real (left), the dome of El Yelmo (right)
My giddy excitement is noticed by a clan of Spainairds on board who seem to have similar intentions. (I assume this from muddy boots, rolling tobacco and weathered, deep set features one only gains from a lot of exposure to the elements). The oldest one of the three makes a walking gesture with two fingers and points at El Yelmo and i nod enthusiastically. The bus jolts to a stop and i jump out to grab some food and water before heading north.

Leaving the super market the old man is standing, by himself, on the opposite side of the road beckoning me over. i cross the road and say hello. He launches into a series of super sonic Spanish, in which i have to give him the unfortunate response of 'Yo no intendo, soy de inglis' (I don't understand, i'm English).
Ah, so we're down to hand signals then. Not deterred, we both gain the idea that we are headed the same way. He drains a beer and tells me to follow him. With good vibes at hand, i file in behind him. That's one way to start a solo trip isn't it?

After 2km's we reach the northern end of the town. We are now surrounded by boulders and small cliffs. We turn west to follow a river. The valley is very windy now. So windy in fact there are snow crystals in the air, from the clouds on the range behind, glittering in the sun and swirling in the ocean of blue above us. The old man turns around and rubs his hands together to say 'It's a bit chilly isn't it?'. I nod in agreement. 'Tent?' hes asks with his two hands pointed together. Nope. I shake my head and point to the under side of a boulder. 'Bivouac'. He looks at me, frowns and then shrugs as if to say 'Fair enough'.

Heading north out of town
Another kilometre goes by and we reach a small hut by the river. There we meet another friend. The old man hugs him and they have a quick catch up. The other guy has a kind face but makes the old man look positively metropolitan. He walks over and introduces himself. It appears he has lived in this hut or around the area for 20 years. To some people it would be hard to believe but behind his worn features he had deep, dark eyes that sparkled with a rich life in the mountains. He went inside and fished out a crumpled tourist map. It showed a trail that would head east up a valley towards El Yelmo in another kilometre north along the river. He then pointed to a junction of paths up in the boulder field. 'There, many rocks. Maybe bivouac'.

With that in mind, i thank him and thank the fact that if i am to run away with the tail in between my legs, at least there's a hut. Shameful but acknowledged all the same. We leave the friend and the old man goes with me to the turn off east. We say goodbye and good luck. He goes north towards the snow. I head up and east towards the boulders looking for a place to call home.

Higher up now, i am alone. The valley is bathed in sunlight. The wind is the only thing keeping my layers on as it increases in intensity with every step. Not so scary just excitingly turbulent. The only thing that worries me slightly is that the wind has turned more to the south, drawing a possibility that the snow could come my way. But just in time, my anguish is abolished. I'm standing next to a boulder with a huge roof, propped up against another. Literally, a lean to made of rock. A perfect shelter stone!

What's more is that there are rocks lining both sides, making a good windbreaker. I guess something like this wouldn't have gone unnoticed. The next hour is spent adding to the wall, plugging up holes. It's still very windy but beneath the wall and under the roof this is much better than what i thought i was going to get. It's a hotel in comparison. 'The Hotel Bivi Boulder' was now home for a couple of nights.

The bags are dumped. Time to climb something. Its sunset and there at least an hour or two of light.

 Inside the cocoon of my sleeping bag i stare at the ceiling and think 'why?' I just smile to myself. 'Because i can, because i want to'. The insatiable wind rages on outside and lulls me into a deep sleep.

The next morning dawns grey but warm. It didn't snow. Today is for El Yelmo! On the map it looks simple. Head east on trail then turn north where the direct path intersects it. After an hour and a half I've walked to the top of the 'hotels' valley and traversed a plateau. Now I'm looking for the crossroads to no avail. But i can see the peak in front of me! In hindsight, if you've been walking on a good established trail and then you find yourself squinting for clues on where it goes, you've probably lost it.

By the time i came to this conclusion i realised i was following a direct path..for ibex. So, the next hour was scrambling and scraping my way through a thorny maze of boulders startling ibex at every corner it seemed. All i could do was stay quiet and give them a wide berth. Eventually i was at the foot of El Yelmo itself. The south face was steeper than i imagined, so soloing it was quickly put away and an alternative scramble up the eastern flank was made.

The last section looked like a shuffle up a chimney which proved amusing. When at last i was on the summit, albeit an extremely windy one, the recurring hikers high of a wide expanse, in this case snowy mountains to the north and the lake by Manzanares shimmering in the sunlight below can only fill you with love for all places like this. It's just another reason why we come back time and again. The usual sense of achievement washed through me and i felt content again. (Sorry no photo)

The question is, 'why on earth wouldn't you want to do this?'

The way down is much more simple as i find the right path and arrive at the 'hotel' an hour earlier than expected. A little search for some unclimbed boulder problems proves entertaining till sunset.

Tomorrow i must wash in the river and get ready for my friend. Can't be late, it's important i get to her on time. It's been too long since we last saw each other.

With that in mind i check into the 'hotel' one more time.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Through the Looking Glass

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered" - Nelson Mandela

Me & my bro Oliver during his 21st in 2005
It's April 10th and i crossed 'the pond' a month ago now. When people ask me how it is being back, it's hard to explain but i hope this post will help..

The tiny screen on board the flight starts rolling the credits for Sherlock Holmes. This is the one movie i watch on board the 9 hour flight from Calgary as my attention span no longer had anything else to pay attention too, aside from the constant roar of the engines directly underneath me which brings me back, with sobering reality, that we are 9km's above sea level travelling over 500 mph.

"Nothing to do but be happy with your effort to live up to this point. Thank you universe...Wait..Don't be so dramatic, everything will be fine." (I actually say this every time on a flight at some point).

The movie is either a marvelous coincidence or a clever placement by Air Transit. Either way, the banter, the british wit, the city of London and overcast skys are adequately preparing me for the imminent change of scenery. I switch the screen off and stare out the window.It seems we are in clouds and have been for quite a while. Of course we are, welcome back to the British Isles.

Considering i cried when i left Canada in 2009, i feel reassuringly calm as i'm flying further and further away from a place i have come to love. It's becuase i am content. I have been walking my own way.

Gliding down through the clouds, we are met with green! In all shades you can imagine! I guess this is the fruit of the constant rain. Oh well, after living with nothing but snow and ice for the last 3 months the abundance of color is a breath of fresh air. This is the first of many occasions in which i am pleasantly surprised by the UK. Enter the Visitor.

Although i'm in the country less than 12 hours (heading for a week in the Alps) i realise that the significance of life in the mountains has not only become imbedded in who i am but also in my perception and values.

 Skiing in the Alps with my dad & brother, i endlessly survey the ranges making mental notes and using up most of the cameras memory with shots of walls, ridges and mountain tops. A week later, in the south of England i sip tea, listening to my favorite black birds sing and start looking for venues to visit across the UK. I am hungry for historic trad routes. My mind is restless because i know i cannot stay here in 'the Shire'. The urge is powerful. The fire needs the fuel. My first break sends me to the Wye Valley near Bristol (where i snag my first E point!). Again, after days of bombarding the UK climbers website for partners, a friend offers a week in the beautiful Peak district and as it turns out, the Lake district too. (What a treat!) Discovering new places in my homeland gives me huge appreciation for a country i used to snub.

However, i have papers scattered across this desk with how to get to Siurana in NE Spain, somewhere completely new and on my hit list. Got to progress. This is who i am now.

How things have changed.

Pitch 2 of 'King Kong' E1
But my heart knows better. The week in the Alps was wonderful as i got to hang out with my family. Blue bird skies and a constant stream of jokes melted away any apprehension. Back in England, my dear grandmothers made their signature dishes, i saw my step father give away his daughter in Newcastle with my lovely mum at his side and i finally saw my best friends. The ones who are always sorely missed. The buddies who you pick up with from where you left off, the mates who will always have your back. (You know who you are)

Some things don't change i suppose.

In this game that we play where adventure is rife and uncertainty is definite, we must cherish the moments that we have with our loved ones as you can never know for sure what might happen out there. But to all those who know me, i hope you understand that i have to go. I need to experience the highs and the lows of this life. If i didn't, you wouldn't recognize me anymore.

'Embankment 1' E1 , Millstone, Peak District
 (down climbing crux)
Now, if i can just find a way to do this forever...