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Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Kids are Alright

The premise of my PhD research, for what it's worth, is that landscape possesses the capacity to affect those who engage with it, whether by dwelling, passing through, working and so on. As the (apparently ubiquitous) Nigel Thrift notes, affect has no stable defintion. Obviously, this ordinance from upon high hasn't prevented the usual suspects from trying to find one. This we have Massumi (2009): a processual logic of transitions that take place during spatially and temporally distributed encounters in which each transition is accompanied by a variation in the capacity ...'
No, me neither, though for once the Chuckle Brothers themselves, Deleuze and Guattari, manage to make more sense, describing affect as 'a mixture of two bodies, one body which is said to act on another, and the other receives traces of the first'. 
Melvin and Wilson: These kids really were alright
So here we are in Guatemala. One body, your correspondent, clad in hiking boots, spandex trousers and now relieved of much excess weight watching the other a frequently-erupting strato-volcano which is exerting a curious hold over her, from her vantage point on the summit of the adjacent Acatenango. Not so much affect, or even casting a spell. We might say that Volcán de Fuego has cast a hex, got a hold on her; beguiled and entranced and every time it coughs ash and cinders, with a throaty roar, your correspondent shifts itchily on her arse like an excited child. It's December 23rd but Christmas has come already. 
Volcan de Atitlan from slopes of Acatenango

So I'm not even going to attempt to define affect, just say what it does. 
Wednesday 23 December; Antigua, Guatemala
Wake up 02:00. Despite the hour and the darkness the friendly owner of the Hotel Camino de Santiago (no prizes for guessing why I chose it) has made coffee. I'm getting used to ridiculously early starts, for Santiagüito we set out at 12 midnight, a race against the clouds arriving and obscuring the view, which tends to happen around lunchtime. The driver (this is, after all, a private tour and I'll have my own guide - or rather guides) arrives at 03:00 and after an hour's drive to Soledad where the trail begins. here i meet my guides, Melvin and Wilson, aged 12 and 14. After hiking with three guides the right side of 35 I'm a little nonplussed but the kids have pedigree; dad, grandad and uncle are all guides though I can't help noticing the lack of any women in the profession. Melvin and Wilson will escort me 1500m up to the summit of Acatenango then 1500m down again. In between times we shall spend twenty minutes or so watching Volcán de Fuego perform. No offence to Acatenango, which is truly a beautiful mountain, but we've come to see fire, if not play with it. 
It's a long way to the top ...

The first 1000 metres of ascent are relatively straight foward and when the night lifts there are stunning views out towards the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan and over to nearby Volcán Agua, which I climbed back in 1989. But we're not here for those sort of views, are we? We've come to see what is, arguably, the world's most active volcano and we are single-minded - perhaps even marrow-minded - in pursuit of our goal. 
It seems to me that Melvin and Wilson have been thoroughly-briefed and are taking their responsbility - i.e. me - extremely seriously. They don't so much guide as herd, patrol even: always one in front of me behind me. There are times when I feel I'm being frogmarched to an impending doom and at first light I shall be no more. This shouldn't be read as a criticism of my guides, who stuck to their task assidiously; I am used to hiking alone and with my previous guides I was given my space. Melvin and Wilson don't cramp my style but I do feel like the child-adult roles have been reversed.

All the more so about 300m below the summit when your correspondent, aged 50-and-a-half throws her toys out the pram. The path has become a slippery slope of volcanic sand and ash - classic three steps forward, two steps back territory - and I just can't get a grip. I begin to swear and curse, quite loudly and then, when I really am getting nowhere fast, I lash out. Not at Melvin and Wilson, I hasten to add, but at the earth beneath my feet. I kick at it, hard, sending plumes of dust flying out into the wind. Estoy muy enojada  I try to tell the kids: I'm angry. But they just look on, a little bemused and concerned. When they try to show me the technique for climbing on this kind of surface I throw a tantrum and tell them I just can't do it. 
Like a glittering prize ...

Doesn't look like we're going to get to the top - so near and yet so far. Thank the good Lord for Wilson and Melvin who are almost English in their stoicism - talk about role reversal. Suitably chastened I edge onwards and upwards and, as demonstrated by a couple of teenagers, it really isn't that difficult. 
Acatenango summit

The summit of Acatenango is a shallow grater of grey stone and ash but we immediately see our glittering prize; within a couple of minutes, Fuego performs and continues to do so, sometimes for several minutes, continuously. Melvin and Wilson leave me to indulge myself and when they say it's time to go I jump to my feet and do as I'm told. We descend, very quickly, via another route, skidding and sliding over loose rocks. Five hours up, three back down. Apparently I was too slow in ascent and not as quick as I might have been in descent. Cheeky buggers ... here's a little tip, kids; it's a good idea to pander to your clients' egos and, if you really don't know what that flower with the white petals is, just make it up. I do it all the time and it's not as if I'm going to know any different. That's the problem with young people nowadays, too honest.
Volcan de Agua from Acatenango
Back at my hotel, I shower, lie on my bed and burst into tears. Now that, dear reader, is affect.
Fuego struts its stuff

Sunday, 20 December 2015

(Don't) Climb every Mountain

Thus far I've attempted to reach the summit of six volcanoes and suceeded only once: Xinantecatl/Nevado de Toluca (4300m), on the very first day of Fire in the Blood, as it happens. I came nowhere close to Mexico's third-highest mountain, Itzaccihuatl (5286m), defeated at about 4300m by a combination of altitude, ticky tummy and a 02:00 start. On Nevado de Colima/Zapotepetl (4340m) we turned back about 300m below the summit, having seen what we came to see - though we would have climbed to the top had my I not still been suffering from the trots. As I took the wrong turning I arrived at the base of Paricutin (2774m) too late to hike it so I had to hire a horse and guide - quite possibly the most uncomfortable journey of my entire life. 200m beneath the summit crater I was distracted by the fumaroles and didn't have enough time to climb the steep slope of ash and cinders. 
Then yesterday, on Guatemala and Central America's highest mountain, Tajumulco (4220m) we decided, in the teeth of a gale and amongst thick cloud, that discretion was the better part of valour. We were 250m below the summit but cold and wet and seeing absolutely nothing of the volcano's famous vistas
One out of six isn't a particularly auspicious record though the only one I regret not climbing is Iztaccihuatl, having gazed lovingly at this mountain basking in the late evening sunshine whilst skirting its flanks on the autopista from Mexico City to Puebla I've already decided to come back and have another crack. The others, as much as I'd liked to have got to the top, were more a means to an end than an end in itself; Nevado de Colima to see the magnificently active Volcan de Colima, Paricutin to see the lava fields and fumaroles. Even Iztaccihuatl was supposed to be a viewpoint from which to watch Popocatepetl rumbling away, as Popo itself has long since been out of bounds.
In the same way that I spent much of this summer's TransCantabrica hike trying to work out whether I was a pilgrim or a hiker, so there's been, in the first fornight of this Fire in the Blood expedition, a tension between alpinismo/montanismo (mountaineering) and 'mere' senderismo (hiking). One of the reasons I failed on Iztaccihuatl was the 02:00 start; it's not that I don't like walking in the dark, more that I like to know where I'm going and be able to watch the landscape around and beneath me evolve as I pass through it. This clearly set me apart from Piotr, my guide, for whom the summit was the goal and, to a certain extent, nothing else mattered. Descending Nevado de Colima, I asked Mauricio if we could follow the dirt road from the microwave station back to where the truck was parked, for the first time I was more at ease on the terrain than my guide. and yet, on Itzaccihuatl, I had, in my rucksack, a set of spikes to attach to my boots to negotiate the glacier and I was looking forward to what would have been my first such experience and, despite the altitude, I enjoyed the scramble to the summit of Xinantecatl, the feel of hard rock under my hands as well as my feet. Yesterday's ascent of Tajumulco was more feet than hands but still my guide, Rudi, insisted we were montanistas.
What all three of my excellent guides would probably agree on is the relationship between altitude and mountaineering, and that 4000m is the cut-off point. Indeed, I suspect Piotr and Mauricio - and I hope they'll correct me if I'm wrong - would look down on any summits beneath that magical number as metaphorically as they would literally. As an avowed qualitativist and sworn enemy of quantitativism, I would, of course, beg to differ, and not just because of my attachment to less lofty but indisputedly 'mountainous' peaks and ridges of the Cordillera Cantabrica. 
My principal PhD supervisor, Professor Paul Cloke, co-authored a fascinating paper based on an orchard in West Bradley, Somerset which, to summarise very crudely, asked what are the qualitities that qualify an orchard to be consiered an orchard, because there're clearly much more to it, culturally, socially, politically - even, in my case, spiritually - which turns a bunch of farmed apple trees into something of cultural significance which goes beyond the rather mundane task of growing a fruit to produce an alcoholic drink. 
The orchardness of orchards; the same might apply to the mountain-ness of mountains and the mountaineer-ness of mountaineers. Can one really be considered a 'mountaineer' if one doesn't necessarily intend to stand on the very top? Even if I wear a helmet, carry crampons and set out before dawn? Back in the good old days - you should, by now, know I'm referring to the 1980s - geography teachers were invariably beard-sporting males wearing hush-puppies and jackets with elbow patches, these were the defining qualities of the geography teacher in much the same way masculinity, Catholicism, Castillian-speaking and heterosexuality defined hispanidad under Franco. Nowadays, geography teachers are as equally likely to be female and even, heaven forbid, a curious combination of both genders.  
Richard Dawkins can rest easy, I'm not about to drag outdoor pursuits into the walking-on-eggshells world of identity politics, jusy trying to orientate myself in what can be a confusing and often exclusive lexicon. As I move south, from Mexico into Guatemala then El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica the volcanos keep on coming but what they begin to lack in altitude they more than make up for in attitude. My flirtation with 'mountaineering' has, for the time being, come to an end, and I now have to prepare myself for scrambles up steep slopes of scree, ash and cinder, of three steps forward up, two steps back. Where does this modus ambulandi fit into the equation? Volcanista, anyone? 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Day I popped my Altitude Cherry

Everybody remembers their first time. Unless you’re a superhuman it’s was probably a difficult and draining experience: gasping for breath, panting like a sow on heat and, occasionally, farting. 

I thought I’d lost mine on the summit of the Volcan de Agua, back in December 1989, the fag end of the eighties. Turns out it was only a touch of foreplay, at just 3766 metres above sea level Agua was a bit like that bit of how’s-your-father you enjoyed on the sofa whilst your parents were safe in bed after a sneaky glass of your mother’s sherry, a fumble then a rumble in your loins but nothing more than a wet patch in your Levi 501s. This time I know it’s for real, this time I went all the way: to the summit of Xinantecatl/Nevado de Toluca at 4700m.

Altitude. Poncing around at sea level we don’t really give it a second thought. I might worry about height gained and lost, about climbs and descents on any of the Caminos de Santiago but I don’t have to worry about a lack of oxygen in my blood. I might, toward the end of a 40km hike, feel the burn in my calves and my thighs but I won’t be worrying about my heartrate, light-headedness or the dreaded headache that indicates the beginning of mala de la montaña – mountain sickness. I felt all of these symptoms and none as Piotr, my guide, and I trotted up from the car park on a gentle slope, immediately overtaken by a group of Mexican athletes undergoing high-altitude training. High-altitude: it has a nice, slightly glamourous ring to it, a whiff of risk and a hint of danger. To say one’s off on a high-altitude hike suggests you’re up there with the big girls and boys; less pedestrian – no longer a pedestrian, in fact. You’ve set off on a journey that will take you not up to the lofty summits but along a trajectory in which you enter the terrain of the climber or – heaven help us – the mountaineer. You are now counted amongst the elite and look down – literally as well as metaphorically – on those who stick to the lowly, lowland trail. 

Sounds exciting and, in many respects it is, but like every glittering prize it has a mundane reality. I might have imagined the classic warning signs of altitude sickness but I was imagining the shortness of breath that seemed to increase with every stride. ‘Take it easy’, advised Piotr, but I’d been waiting for this moment so long I flew out the traps. And I felt the need to prove myself, that I could make the leap from long-distance walker and pilgrim to the lofty heights of the mountain hiker, right up there, above the clouds. 

After about three minutes I gave up and followed Piotr’s advice; though the truth is I had little choice. At anything under 2000m above sea level, I could’ve completed the first stage of the Xinantecatl climb at a fair pace, here the fabled tortoise might have given me a run for my money. And it would get worse, cresting the ridge between the crater and the slope was straight forward enough – I could even engage in conversation without sounding as if I were drawing my dying breath but Xinantecatl is a volcano, albeit an extinct one, so there’s plenty of steep scree and loose rock to negotiate: three steps forward, one step back. I cursed the effing mountain, I cursed my guide and, most off all, cursed the romantic imagination that had lured me across the Atlantic Ocean and 4500 metres up into the atmosphere.  Where was my inner pragmatist when I needed her most?

What do you mean ‘inner pragmatist’? She doesn’t even exist: never has, never will. Which is just as well, otherwise, at every point where I was ready to throw in the towel – and they were increasing exponentially with every metre gained – she’d have been egging me on, the devil to Piotr’s angel, calmly and confidently assuring me I would get to the top. 

I have to confess that I didn’t believe him, even less so when he took a reading of my heart-rate and blood-oxygen levels. ‘If you were at sea level they’d put you in an oxygen tent …’; I thought he was going to say ‘… and you’d be dead’ but he shrugged his shoulders and suggested I go on. The last 50m of ascent to the summit of Xinantecatl is a pleasant scramble … no, let me rephrase that, would have been a pleasant scramble over firm and jagged rocks had I been 3000 metres lower; I wasn’t just an unconfident scrambler, I was an unconfident scrambler rapidly running out of breath. 
Piotr (Mexico Extreme): my fantastic guide

But I made it, dear reader. Of course I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the balls to write this post. In the overall scheme of things, the 600m of ascent from the car park to the summit of Xinantecatl isn’t exactly Everest’s North Face but on this test of acclimatisation and fitness hinged the success of the whole Fire in the Blood expedition. I’m writing this at 4000m in a freezing hut in the shadow of Iztaccihuatl, 5200m, which I attempt to climb tomorrow, setting out at 02:00, in true alpine style. I hope to make it to the top and, having made it to the top of Xinantecatl, I believe I can, though I accept that physiological circumstances might conspire against me. In a sense, in climbing Iztaccihuatl I’m a bit like the old women who swallowed a fly and proceeded to ingest a series of increasingly large insect, avian and animal species to catch the elusive fly. Or perhaps I’m a jealous lover, flirting with Itza to get close to the sensually elegant cone of Popocatepetl on the other side of the Paseo de Cortes. For Iztaccihuatl is, in Aztec mythology, the ‘Sleeping Lady’ but Popo is a woman on fire. And she is out of bounds so all I can do is watch her explosions from afar, not touch nor feel her seismic rumblings, nor sniff the sweet smell of her sulphur.

People – students, teachers, academics as well as ‘normal’ people – have been asking me what it is about volcanoes that I love, expecting, in return, a pithy lecture on physical geography but I have to bring them up in their tracks straight away. ‘It’s not love, it’s pure, unbridled lust’, I tell them and as I do I believe my eyes become craters of blood-red lava spitting fire and fury. They back away, I head home for a large gin and tonic.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

That was the summer that was: TransCantabrica - Stage Five, Espinosa de los Monteros to Reinosa

Where were we? That's right, the busy little hub of Espinosa de los Monteros, on the Viejo Camino, back in my comfort zone. I was, unsurprisingly, the only pilgrim in town, the only hiker in the village; the previous day I'd come across a local and shared a short conversation. Short because I just didn't feel in the mood; whether by choice or circumstance, I'd become a solitary creature and when my trajectory brought me in contact with others I kept my distance. My interlocuter expressed surprise at seeing a pilgrim on the road and expressed surprise when I said - for at the time this was still my intention - I was heading all the way to Santiago. I met with less incredulity the following afternoon, following a short day's stroll from Espinosa de los Monteros to Quintanilla del Rebollar where Olga, the owner of the beautiful Hotel Posada Real Prado Mayor for she, too, was a camino junkie and produced a wonderful book detailing the history of the Viejo Camino/Camino Olvidado. She also treated me to a couple of free beers; that I'd only hiked ten kilometres didn't make them any less welcome. Olga served up a fantastic evening meal, with home-grown produce and even though I opted for the budget breakfast the following morning I got more than I can eat. West of Espinosa, the Camino follows the valley and the one-passenger-train-a-day railway, a pleasant, gently-undulating and well-marked hike; in many respects, Espinosa marked an emotional turning point, I was now beginning to feel comfortable enjoy myself - no longer 'out of place'. 

Seven kilometres out of Quintanilla the camino takes a right turn and climbs a couple of hundred metres to cross the Sierra de las Rozas. It is, in a sense, a futile climb, merely adding a few kilometres to the day's stage, but then again, the same might be said of the whole Trans Cantabrica project; I was walking for the sake of walking, a means without an end. I was happy in my valley, didn't fancy even a gentle uphill so I toyed with following the road through to Pedrosa de Valdeporres but the camino casts a spell on those who follow it, reveals untapped levels of determination. 

Being spoilt at the Hotel Posada Real Prado Mayor

It was an unpleasant climb, not steep but dogged by clouds of flies honing in on my sweat. At the collado, for the first time in all my many hours and days on the various caminos, the yellow arrow let me down. To the left a bulldozed track led down into the valley but the arrrow pointed to a faint path leading to the right. U2's 'I will follow' might have been my earworm that day; I did as I was told and ended up with another dose of lacerations and torn flesh as the path and the yellow arrows petered out and I was forced to wade through gorse and bramble down to the longest railway tunnel in Spain, the 7km Engaña Tunnel: not so much disused as never-used.

The Engaña Tunnel

The end of the line

In 1925 work began on a railway to connect the Atlantic port of Santander with Sagunto on the Mediterranean, by 1930 most of the line had been completed with the exception of the final 60km through the mountains to Santander, including the Engaña Tunnel. The Civil War delayed the project until 1941, when construction resumed using penal labour, most of whom were Republican prisoners. Most were freed by decree in 1945 delaying work until 1951. The tunnel was inaugrated, still incomplete, in 1959, at the cost of an unrecorded number of lives. The whole Santander-Mediterranean project was abandoned in 1961, still 39km short of its destination; rails were never laid in the Engaña Tunnel and although the abandoned track is now used as a via verde, the tunnel itself is now bricked off. 

A little off-asphalt relief

The thorn bushes had delayed me and put me in a bad mood - again! I paused to take a few photos then hot-footed it down the via verde towards Pedrosa, trying to cover the six kilometres in one hour; I failed but did come across the only other hiker I met on the Viejo Camino, a woman from Madrid of about the same age as me, what is it about mad dogs and middle-aged women? We swapped stories, she was carrying out a recce and wasn't at all impressed by the lack of infrastructure, couldn't even locate the casa rural she'd booked for the night; it was mid-afternoon, Pedrosa de Valdeporres was a ghost town.

The narrow gauge Bilbao-Leon FEVE railway; my constant companion

I left her to it and tried to pick up the trail of the disused railway, I got across the viaduct but at that point, not for the first time, the Viejo Camino vanished from the face of earth and I followed the road for the remainder of the day, first the seven kilometeres to Soncillo, where I wished I'd stopped, then another 2.5km up the nacional to Quintaanaentello, where I'd booked a room that was a little overpriced. 

With a couple of welcome exceptions along hot and dusty farm tracks, asphalt was my companion for the next couple of days. None of the roads I trod were particularly busy but the regular passage of vehicles slowly ground me down and provoked an afternoon of existenialist self-interrogation. Not about the act of walking itself, but rather the apparent futility of just following the road, an uncertainty exacerbated by every car and lorry that passed me by, as if they were taunting me. Their air-conditioned comfort up against my toiling sweat; being there just felt like being in the wrong place. 

Campsite at Arija by Embalse del Ebro

The views across the Embalse del Ebro to the north did their best to alleviate the confusion but their influence was being diminished by the opening up of vistas to the west, the Sierra de Peña Labra and the mighty Pico de los Tres Mares. It was like a hypnotist dangling her watch before me: you will succumb to the lure of the mountains. Walk this way.

The Sierra de Peña Labra and the mighty Pico de los Tres Mares

At Villafria I ignored the yellow arrow directing off-road and uphill and carried on into Reinosa to ponder my next move ...