A Journey to the Wall Part 3 – Escape, Sadness, Relief, Reflection

The storm has raged all night with what sounded like a savage power. Sleep is fitful and feverish. And then I wake in a gloomy half-light … I am gripped by another overwhelming desire to get off this mountain.

Sunday 5th March 2006 – Attempting an Escape

The storm has raged all night with what sounded like a savage power, and at daybreak the visibility is still zero. It is bright but the wind is howling loudly and spindrift is still battering the windows. Light levels suggest that the shroud has its top only a few hundred feet above us, but whiteout it still is.

The morning passes, and the large, noisy group of Spanish disperses into the whiteness, presumably down to Capileira. Conditions wouldn’t allow any ascents, that much is for sure. For us our weather watching is now more concerning the practical matter of our onward journey than of passing interest. Had the weather been settled, we would be moving on towards Trevelez tomorrow for a two day trek back to Tijola. As it is, we’re considering getting out today. Forecasts pinned to the salon wall suggest the beginnings of a clearance by 2pm.

Then at midday, a patch of bluish sky above the snow-haze, a hint of a clearance. I am suddenly and impulsively moved to get off this mountain NOW. I figure we have only a hundred metres to ascend over the ridge before the descent into Trevelez, and then we’ll quickly drop out of the cloud. We’ll be on the lee of the ridge, and the weather is forecast to improve. Wayne concurs and we gear up and check out of the refuge at 1:30pm.

Almost instantly I am in a state of regret. Less than a hundred metres from the refuge, having descended the bowl, the new powder snow is a wade rather than a walk. Stinging spindrift is attacking us insidiously through every small opening in our clothing. As we begin the gentle ascent along the lie of the road towards the ridge, I am aware that we cannot see even this obvious feature.

The whiteout is total. I quickly lose sight of Wayne as I am immediately much slower than he is going uphill. Suddenly I am gripped by a panic.

We’ll be needing strength and concentration to navigate over the ridge and off the hill safely. I have neither; I cough violently and begin to struggle for breath in the maelstrom. My desperate keenness to escape is quickly replaced by an equal and opposite desire to get back to shelter. No discussion; just an exchange of knowing glances and a nod. We return to the hut.

I sit down, breathless and relieved. What was all that about? We explain to the guardian that we’ll be staying another night, and settle with a cafe con leche.Tomorrow’s forecast is much better at least but at 4pm the whiteout has not lifted, and our decision to return is well justified.

I sit by the fire, such as it is, shivering. My headache has returned with a vengeance and I cannot control my coughing. My head falls into my hands. Wayne notices and suggests that I sleep for a while. He doesn’t wait for my response; instead he disappears upstairs to unpack my sleeping bag for me. I don’t know whether I agree or not, but I go; it seems stupid to leave the fire.

Crawling into my bag is an effort and I shiver until the down in the bag traps enough warmth to stop it. It is warmer in here than in the salon no doubt; maybe I should take my bag downstairs to the fire. I can still hear the loud clanking on the roof. In my head there’s a song going around and around – Loreena McKennitt’s Lady of Shalott, and its mesmerising patterns of verse. I’m aware how breathing seems laboured in the cold air.

Sleep is fitful and feverish, drifting in and out of consciousness, spinning dreams of repeating patterns of numbers and colours, and the verses of the song. And then I wake in a gloomy half-light coming from small, square-porthole windows by the bunk. Time is distorted; is it morning, or is it evening? Wayne isn’t there; fuck it must still be evening! I groan involuntarily, and feel a stark sense of utter despair.

My mind says call for Wayne. What good will that do? He’s downstairs through at least four doors and the building is still being battered by a strong gale. I am gripped by another overwhelming desire to get off this mountain. I want to be out of here now. But I can’t. I have no energy at all to do anything; I won’t be able to get off this mountain! Helicopter. God I don’t want to arrive in Capileira in a helicopter and rushed off to a doctor.

I can’t remember feeling this ill, ever! If I have been this ill, ever, then it was in the comfort of my home or nearby, not stuck up at 2500m on a blizzard-blasted bloody mountain with a six hour walk out to safety. Such defines it.

I crawl out of my bag and climb down from the bunk, shivering and stumbling as I try to put on those cold, silly rubber shoes. Damn! I don’t like this little room with high, echoing ceilings above the stairs. I go down to the salon. Wayne is the only one here, other than the guardian and his partner; nobody else. Again I try to pull warmth out of the fire, which at least now seems bigger and warmer than at any time since we arrive, and I realise that Wayne has been tending it properly …

I have no appetite for dinner, just as on that first evening with Jeni and Dave in Tijola. How far away they seem, and how I wish I was there now beside the wood stove, with them in their delightful lounge. Perhaps Dave ought to come up here and fix them up a decent fire. Wayne eats, whilst I sip camomile tea with loads of sugar. I don’t take sugar. It is less than an hour after I emerged from sleep before I’m back there.

It’s the small hours of the morning, and people are making loads of noise. People? There weren’t any people here. They must have arrived late. What the hell are they doing arriving now, with the wind still clattering? I try to sleep through it. What time is it?

Monday 6th March 2006 – Relief and Sadness

The salon is packed with people and gear on Monday morning. Six guys from the Guardia Civil Montaña division – mountain rescue: that’s why they had arrived late. Were they on exercise, or is this the real thing?

The guardian tells us that three English climbers have been out on the hill for the last two nights, and that the team are about to commence a foot search. Shit! Two nights! The last two nights?! We hope they will be found safely holed up in one of the bivouac shelters on the ridge. Anything else in those conditions would almost certainly mean disaster. The sun is shining sweetly, and the wind is blowing spindrift relatively gently across the ground, creating a shimmering mist a metre high. Things are more benign now.

2006_401104 - Ken Descending to Capileira

Ken on the descent to Capileira, on the Monday morning after the storm. Sierra Nevada, Spain

We gear up quickly and make off for Capileira. I am feeling better than last night, with no doubt. But breathing is still shallow and rasping, and I notice the moment I step outside into the cool breeze that the descent will be another trial of concentration and focused effort. The planned trek via Trevelez had been long abandoned in favour of exit.

I manage to find a rhythm that is reasonably comfortable. Even through my labouring, I notice how good it feels to cramponing through the snow with good equipment. If only. If only I’d not been unwell. If only there had been no storm. This could have been, as I read once about a glorious expedition in Peru, an orgy of mountaineering! It isn’t long before we pass the cortijo Las Tomas, and find the proper zigzag path from the lower acequia. Maybe had we found it on the ascent …

We pass two couples ascending with snow shoes in the now warm sun through the wooded section of the valley. Both enquire about the rescue activity, as there is apparently much business in Capileira, and helicopters are buzzing. These are smaller and lighter machines than the big yellow budgie we often see in Snowdonia; no wonder it couldn’t come out in the gales.

Las Tomas. 500m and 45 minutes to the refuge. It took me nearly two and a half hours from here ... Sierra Nevada, Spain

Las Tomas. 500m and 45 minutes to the refuge. It took me nearly two and a half hours from here … Sierra Nevada, Spain

I’m so focused on keeping steady, and on not extending my heart rate, for every time I do so I am coughing painfully.

We reach the hydro, and Wayne gets a phone signal so calls Dave to request his taxi. He’d called Dave earlier from the hut, not that I’d been aware. Dave is going to find the dirt road towards the hydro, and collect us from there, once he’s finished his garlic soup.

The ascent from La Cebadilla feels relentless, but there is a new will that comes with the end in sight.I find a pace and go for it whilst Wayne is making the phone call. I aim for each bend. Setting targets is all very well, but there is always another bend and another rise. I should know that.

At the junction of the path to Capileira I just stop and sit on a wall. I have reached the wall – Journey’s End. Something tells me that if we carry on walking, Dave will not be able to drive down this track, and if we turn right, we’ll miss him. And just then Dave’s little Seat van turns the corner up ahead. Seeing Dave feels every bit as good as seeing the refuge four long days ago, and I fall into another embrace.

The Wall - a finial resting place

The Wall – journey’s end!

Capileira is full of journalists and TV crews waiting for news of the mountain rescue. Shit! I’ve been as unwell as I’ve ever felt, and for short times in the last twenty-four hours feeling more desperate than I’ve ever known, but I’m here, and I’m OK.

In the sun later in the afternoon, after a shower and some lunch, Sebastien confirms from a news report that the three climbers have died on Mulhacen. One other managed to get to Capileira on Sunday afternoon to raise the alarm. I feel dreadful – in myself and for them – but I’m here and I’m OK. I’m also aware that it is only Monday, and we were not due to return to Tijola until Wednesday. Be thankful for such dear friends.

After missing dinner last night, I eat enthusiastically. Jeni is vegetarian, but in her always-selfless way she has prepared a fantastic meal with chicken steaks for us boys (including Dave). We spend an emotion-filled few hours spilling the tale of the last few days, and then hit the sack.

Tuesday 7th March 2006 – Reflections

Today is slow. The cockerel is having his third morning already – he needs a new clock – and the sun is already hot.

With the necessities of the last few days gone, I drift through the morning, observing the birds, listening to their song, watching the regular to and fro of tractors and the men harvesting spring onions from the vega, and reflecting on life and other games. The serenity is beautiful, not only in contrast to the noise of the storms, but also to the inner tempest I have fought the last few days. I feel strangely calm, when I’m not coughing my guts up that is.

I don’t know what Wayne is up to. He must have been to Orgiva with Jeni. She returns with some stuff for me from the farmacia and brings up a big bag of plump oranges. Life is healthy here. I follow the sun from the balcony to the edge of the track next to the cortijo.

Luca (the helicopter-leg dog) is moving in triangles to different spots on the road for lying down, and occasionally comes over for an affirmation. Chip (the dachshund) is chained up because, in Dave’s words, he doesn’t have much up top and will try to bite a tractor …

I spend some time reading a Daniel Goleman book, which I have read before: Emotional Intelligence. Such things present themselves at apt times. How had my emotions been standing up to the extremes of the last few days? And how was I feeling now, in this very moment, not physically but emotionally, compared to how I had been at home the last few months?

Again I am aware of serenity everywhere about this place and in my own mind. Far from feeling sorry for myself, I feel almost that my struggle up that mountain has been a moment of realisation, a small personal epiphany: that whatever is going on in my world I am normally blessed with good health, that I should revere it, preserve it, and that I should do all that I can to promote calm, love, soulfulness and purpose. All this I knew already, but sometimes living it becomes submerged under ’emotional hijacks’ that last for months, when the present moment becomes obscured by things to do. Now I know there is nothing like feeling shite in awful conditions to bring the mind into the present, and it reminds me that I should be present and thankful whenever life is beautiful – like just now – in order to appreciate what I have, what I am and what I may be.

By contrast I’m reflecting too on the sad news from the mountain that those guys died on Mulhacen. Now unfortunately it’s a recovery and not a rescue.

I recall the weather warning from Sebastien on Thursday, and its confirmation from the guardian, and I wonder if they knew. I replay in my mind the slow onset of the severe weather, and remember a similar progression on the Mamores in Scotland some eighteen years ago. I imagine the impossibility of their decision: to dig in or try to find the refuge, and the futile fury of attempting to find shelter in new powder snow on an open slope away from the lee.

I see ahead what the headlines will read. They will be critical, judgmental and full of knowledge as usual, and almost certainly totally inaccurate. Only those guys would have known what happened. My sympathy is with their families.

Star drives past and waves enthusiastically. Jeni and Dave have a lovely community of ex-pats around them in Tijola, and Tuesday evening is their turn to host a Spanish lesson. Surely there is no better way to integrate with the local population that to learn the language. Wayne and I light the wonderful wood fire upstairs – Dave has completely refitted them in the days we’ve been away – and we talk for some hours.