A Journey to the Wall Part 1 – Beginnings and Doubts

I’m out of bed at 3:00 am and I’m shivering in the shower. First signs of a fever? Not now, no! Not where there are flights involved. It’s too late, I tell myself … I’m off for ten days mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada of Spain.

Prologue

What follows is a diary-style account of my expedition walking in the Sierra Nevada of Spain in March 2006 with my lifelong trekking companion Wayne Gosden.

The mountains are a passion that drives my photography, and this trip was part of an ongoing project to work in the mountains of Mediterranean Europe. Trips for me had been recently beset by small problems, but this one turned into something else, as I got attacked by a severe chest infection that would lay me out for the duration and for most of the summer until it turned hot in July.

I’m fortunate to enjoy good health and fitness, so this was an unusual experience for me, which caused me to reflect a great deal on life. Written retrospectively, I have tried to record my emotions exactly as they felt to me at the time. I had no predetermined aim when I started, as with all my photography; I just wanted to see what came out and to understand myself a little better. As mountain epics go, it is very much in the minor league and hardly worth an entry; Joe Simpson it definitely is not. I’m also mindful of others who do have really serious health issues, and those who do not return from mountaineering, as tragically befell a group on Mulhacen this time. Nevertheless, in the spirit of openness, I just wanted to share it.

Our plan was to stay a night at the beginning and end with our dear friends Jeni and Dave in the Alpujarras near Orgiva, and then to use the Poqueira Hut as a base for Mulhacen and Veleta. We intended to make some use of the bivouac huts on the main ridge, weather permitting, and to walk out via Trevelez and Pitres. Join me please.

Monday 27th February 2006 – Cold Beginnings

I’m out of bed at 3:00 am and I’m shivering in the shower. First signs of a fever? I turn up the water temperature and manage to bring it under control. Not now, no! I have an immediate sense that this trip could be a disaster.

Should I call Wayne? If we were travelling to Snowdonia I would call it off now. But I’ve not been ill on a foreign trip before, not where there are flights involved. It’s too late, I tell myself. I’m off for ten days mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada of Spain.

I feel some excitement on the airport bus into Malaga. At the bus station, we check out the bus times and have to hang around until 15:30 for a direct bus to Orgiva, so grab a beer or two in a bar. Sitting on the street, we watch people go about their normal Monday morning business. The sun is warm and a tonic after a drab and inspiration-less winter in UK. I’m sure it is helping me feel better – maybe this morning was just a one-off.

We’re needing gas for the stove, and take a walk in search to no avail. The screw-thread gas canisters for my pocket rocket can be bought everywhere in the UK, but I find only one small store selling normal ones that have to be pierced. If we can’t get gas, we’ll have to buy a new stove or abandon the camping idea. Back at the bus station it comes again: the headache, the energy drain, the coughing.

The bus ride to Orgiva is three and a half hours, taking us along the coast through pleasant towns such as Nerja and Salobreña. This stretch of the coast – the Costa Tropical – is so much more attractive than Torremolinos and the racing-hell of a road to the west of Malaga. For much of the journey I doze in the warmth of the afternoon sun through the large bus window. My head throbs and sneezes attack from time to time, soaking a handkerchief.

I text Jeni and Dave to provide our ETA and mention that I am ‘not 2 gd’. They offer to collect us from Orgiva, but we’d planned to walk the 5k to their little cortijo so stay with it; maybe it will clear the head. It is dusking as we leave the bus and begin the walk along the little road to Tijola past Cortijo Romero.

The air smells fresh and cool, and I instantly remember why I have come to love this place. We arrive soon enough and, as always, Jeni and Dave lift the spirit quickly, dear Fruitbats. However, it’s not long before I’m gone, out of it, with little appetite, almost falling asleep at the table. The outlook is not promising.

Tuesday 28th February 2006 – Dozing in Tijola

2005_406135 Sierra de Lujar from Tijola

Sierra de Lujar from Tijola

I’ve slept solidly, but wake feeling extremely groggy.

The sun is streaming in through the window, and I am immediately very present in the clean Alpujarras air. It is a beautiful moment, and I rise briefly but return to sleep. Wayne checks on me but I am oblivious.

I fall out of my pit at about 10:30 feeling bloody awful. There is no way I can go up today (our plan was to walk up to the Poqueira refuge). Jeni and Dave and Wayne all suggest staying put. Of course I’m grateful, but there’s no alternative.

Wayne goes off for a long valley walk with Jeni and Chip and Luca, the delightful dogs. Chip is a miniature dachshund and Luca a bitzer with three working legs and one useless one that whirls like a helicopter rotor. I smile as they head off up the vega. There’s nothing I can do but sit in the sun.

At some time I grab a slice of toast with rosemary honey and a fat orange fresh from the trees. Am I aware of sleeping? I don’t know, but the others are back already. It’s been three hours, apparently.

Later in the afternoon Dave is clearing the way to place geraniums in pots by the road side of their cortijo, and I speculate with him about what to do. Life is not fast in Tijola, and even then there are frequent stops. Jobs take as long as they take. Neighbours pass by and talk with big smiles, concerned about the bug I’ve imported from yUK, and about our intended trek up Mulhacen. Old Carlos believes it to be impossible to climb these mountains when there is so much snow; it is another world to him up there, when his life has been in this friendly hamlet, harvesting his olives and oranges. Unlike yesterday, I have a hearty, big appetite for Jeni’s wholesome food this evening. She cooks and does everything with love in abundance, and the meal oozes vibrant energy. Jeni could tell us to the local field where each ingredient was grown. James from next-door joins us with a home-made tomato soup that has had a couple of days of care. What would we give for a thriving local produce market at home, I wonder, one where tomatoes are odd shapes but taste of heaven, instead of consistently-round, millimetre-perfect diameter blandness. Who said Tesco provides choice?

Wednesday 1st March 2006 – Not Driving over Lemons

I’m feeling a little better today and have taken in some of the remarkable energy that blesses this valley. I begin the day with more toast and honey, and yet another hot-lemon drink. I also begin to think about the 10k haul up to the refuge at 2500m: will I get there; will I be able to climb anything when I get there? I’m still coughing heavily. It is an unproductive cough, and I sense that I am not getting enough air in. It’s fine whilst I’m dozing in more sun, but at altitude with 15 degrees less warmth? The headache has gone, but everyone urges another day in the valley. The cockerel goes off again; he needs a new clock.

Driving Over Fruit Salad

Driving Over Fruit Salad – cartoon by Dave Lupton

Dave, Wayne and I play a sweep on the first vehicle to drive over the strategically-placed lemon in the road. I wonder if any of Chris Stewart’s driven-over lemons1 were strategically placed. There seems to be a psychological block to actually driving over a lemon; every driver misses it. So we place some more. Wayne bowls an orange at me, cricket style. He needs coaching! I bowl one back and surprise him with its pace.The game continues on a walk to and from town, and the neighbours think we’re up to no good. (More of Dave’s brilliant cartoon work can be seen at www.daveluptoncartoons.co.uk/) I feel reasonably OK on the walk to Orgiva, and we decide that Thursday will be our approach day to the mountains. It is a difficult thought process. Again I know that if I were at home I would not climb. But I feel almost a sense of duty to Wayne. I can’t let him wander up on his own, yet I don’t want to be a burden, either to him or to Jeni and Dave, though they would never see it that way. This is the time, though; if I don’t go up then I probably will not do anything this trip.

Footnote

1 – Chris Stewart’s book Driving Over Lemons, set in this locale on the Alpujarras, is a classic in the modern genre of the British aspiration (obsession?) for a quieter, simpler, more soulful life in the sun.