While unpacking in a hotel room in Belasque, a village hidden deep in the Pyrenees, I am not sure if I first smelled the sheep or heard their bells before being aware of their presence. And suddenly I feel disoriented.
You know that feeling when you are not sure where you are? It was a day after a business conference in Barcelona. I spent that morning on a sandy beach, soaking my feet in the Mediterranean Sea. Now, just a few hours later, and still annoyed by the grains of the sand stuck between my toes, I am surrounded by the sound of sheep bells, smell of… well, sheep, and a brisk, fresh mountain air.
I run to the balcony to check if I am really in the Pyrenees, as I can’t grasp completely the picture I see. This is not a city anymore; the road is blocked by a flock of sheep. My village is in the middle of a mountain range, with peaks covered in snow, and everything below is coated in yellow and red leaves. In this hiking world, I often find myself skipping the birth of autumn. For me, autumn reveals itself suddenly and lasts for about a second. It happens while I pass through the altitude difference on a mountain and lasts until a cold breeze, usually strong enough to pierce my multiple jackets, marks the coming of winter and brings the scent of snow.
At 5 AM the next morning, we are already in the car, rushing to our starting point, ready to dive into the dark with our headlamps. We start our hike at 5.30; double jackets, axes and heavy backpacks on. The silence is almost deafening. The night is not that dark at all. A full moon is about to show up above the mountain. I have always daydreamed about walking guided by the moon, like when I was a child. After an hour, I know that I am in one of my best moods for hiking. At least mentally. Physically? Well, that’s another story. And I feel so into this. This is a perfect day for a perfect hike.
We started planning this adventure three months earlier, and the invitation came as a result of my constant social media postings about mountains. At that time I felt like I have been bragging about my hiking achievements too much, and now I can’t go back. Although people started connecting me with mountains and hiking, that is not what I felt at the time of invitation. I felt fake. I started preparing for this hike while being a bit uncertain about my physical fitness. However, at the same time, I felt that even if I don’t manage to get physically fit, I can handle it. I have done crazier things; I can withstand everything. During these three months, I wanted to give up. I wanted to give up every morning. But then I would think to myself – I can do it. These contrary feelings are the story of my life. Reason and emotions. Motivations and withdrawals. Usually, I just keep it to myself so that people don’t look at me like a crazy person and I let the time do its magic. That is what happened this time as well.
So, here I am, 1800 meters above sea level, on a 15 km hike, trying to reach the highest peak of the Pyrenees, Mt Aneto, at 3404m. I am in the middle of nowhere, with Bob and Steve, whom I only know as business partners. And a guide I met the night before for the first time.
The dawn brings additional positivity to my annoyingly happy face. I only feel bad because my phone can’t catch the picture of calmness, coldness, silence and strength. I feel like flying. The snow appeared on 2500 meters of altitude, and it looks like we are deep in the winter. The air is thin, my heart pumping, my breath short. But, deep inside, I am happy.
At the Bridge of Mohammed (Paso de Mahoma)
As we strap our crampons, the guide connects our harnesses with a rope and starts dragging us up the mountain. Perhaps I am being too slow.. After a 7-hour hike, we arrive at the top, or at least at something that looks like a peak to me. A magnificent view opens on all sides – the shades of blue and green mountains and the snowy peaks in the distance. Then, the guide shows us the ridge, a pile of rocks hanging above a vertical wall, that we are supposed to cross. Behind it you can see the mark of the real peak – this time the upper part of a big silver cross. Going over that ridge is something everybody puts on YouTube. But any video pales to comparison to how this experience really feels. No camera could capture this beauty.
We are supposed to cross the ridge with our crampons on. “Trust the crampons”, says the guide. I always felt like crampons and stone don’t go together; crampons are supposed to dig in the ice and snow. The guide goes first with the rope, looking like he is going to tie us to a stone. He explains that we should follow his every step. “Every step” – he repeats. Adrenaline rushes through me and, as usual, makes me very focused and attentive. I don’t even pay attention to how deep is the vertical fall below. Next thing I know, I am holding the rock and my shoe is hanging in the air with just two spikes of crampons stuck in a small crack of the rock. Steve does the same, making sure to follow my steps, and I realize that – if Steve falls all of us are gone. And then, if Bob falls, we are gone for sure. But I don’t feel fear. I am tied to two guys I hardly know, especially in terms of their hiking skills, and here they are trusting me, trusting themselves, trusting the stones, the crampons. (the guide kept insisting the rope can save us)
The ridge is called Paso de Mahoma, or Bridge of Mohammed. I ask the guide for the explanation of the name but he only responds with laughter – “Trust the stone, trust the crampons”. It sounds like we should trust some god when we are crossing it, but we are trusting each other, and the guide. I try to understand where does this faith, this feeling, comes from. Where do these calmness and courage reside? How do we get there? Is this calmness something I am then able to bring to a daily pressure of work and relationships? This calmness with which I accept whatever I feel and go with it? Even if it’s over the edge, holding my weight on crampon spikes burrowed in a crack of stone.
You know how we, humans, try to explain every feeling, every meaning? As much as I try to verbalize my need for hiking, mountains, heights, I cannot. And maybe that moment of hanging on the ridge was defined as … “whatever, it’s here… enjoy it.” Just as this blog, called hiking-with-me was supposed to be explaining my hiking endeavours, it’s actually more about “hiking” through my understanding of the new challenges and phases of life I am going through.
Here I am now, standing at the top of the Pyrenees, looking at the Maladeta – the second highest peak, which reminds me of the toothy spikes of Malawi, the second highest peak of Kilimanjaro, but this time I am much stronger, accepting that I cannot explain everything, and going with the flow.
After hours of hiking, we reach the peak and it seems like the worst part is over. But after an hour of descending, visual signs of tiredness start to show on our faces… and knees. The stroll down prolongs to another seven hours of heavy backpack carrying.
But the nature of the Pyrenees that reveals itself after the ascent in the dark is astonishing, and makes us forget about the aching knees. There is a waterfall with a thundering sound and a river that disappears into a big hole – the guide says it re-appears in France. There are some white chicken-like-birds called rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) that change colors depending on where they are – white for snow, grey for stone. There are cliffs of granite looming above our heads, and a big grassy plain carved with river streams and bridges. You can easily imagine families gathering here for a picnic, and it reminds me of summers spent in the Slovenian Alps with my grandparents.
And then there is this red tree, showing obvious signs of autumn I missed somewhere on the road to here. I realize that we have just had the last day of summer this year, even though it is the end of October. The clouds are gathering above our heads, bringing cold weather and snow. It is a moment to acknowledge the changing of seasons and how we, in our 14-hour walk, went from a business conference and sunny day spent on the beach to the snowy, highest peak of the Pyrenees, to a rainy autumn without understanding that we, too, are in transition too fast to get acknowledged.
Thanks Bob for organizing everything, and Steve, for keeping an eye me :), thanks for the photos too, thanks Jorge the guide :). You are amazing.
Natasa is an avid hiker, but still discovering herself and the world of hiking. This blog is a place where she shares her thoughts of the mountains.
An economist by education, Natasa is the chief marketing officer of Domain.ME, the international tech company that operates the internet domain “.ME.” She’s spent her entire career at the intersection of airline, banking, social media, leadership and technology, and is constantly trying to figure out the secret to being in three different places at the same time.