It isn’t the views that make me nervous. We awoke this morning to mist and now we’ve driven up into it on one of the winding highroads that wend their way through the Picos. The mist is grey and wet. So is the road. No, it’s the invisibility of the valley, far below the roadside on my left, that induces vertigo. It’s cold too – we’re nearing the sixteen-hundred metre mark and the sunless gloom is chilly. I’m preparing myself for heartbreak; I’ve been waiting for this hike for many months but it’s really about the views. Apart from the obvious danger of trying it in these conditions, it would be pointless.
I haven’t brought a jacket and it’s wet out there. I curse myself and my breathtaking stupidity. We’re not quite at the point of giving up and turning around, although I’ve suggested it a couple of times, clinging instead to the hope that the summer sun will start to burn the cloud off by late morning. When we finally reach the little right-hand turn we’ve been looking for, no such luck. K is trying to shake me out of my black mood and suggests we descend to the next village for a coffee to give the weather some more time to improve.
It illustrates a striking oddity of mountain weather that when we get to the village – a ten minute drive – it is sunny, bright and warm. We are encouraged and sit with our coffee for half an hour before heading back up. Still no luck – we drive right back into the murk and park the car at the end of the unmarked little road. The beginning of the route is also unmarked so we have no idea where to go. At this stage I feel thoroughly ridiculous, wandering back along the track amongst the quiet cattle that cross it here and there till I encounter another couple. They know no more than I do but they have a better map and I have a sense of direction. The summit we’re aiming for is two and a half hours away, towards the clear weather. I make a decision and we set off.
It’s up all the way but the gradient is gentle to begin with. Visibility is minimal though and what we can see of the terrain is largely featureless – a scrub covered slope at our feet and grey nothing on all sides. Starting out on the basis that the weather might clear at some point, and inadequately dressed, has put us on edge. We half expect to turn back at some point but after forty minutes or so we encounter a father and son on their way down.
“You have twenty minutes to go,” says the father. “Once you get past a steep slope you take the other side of the ridge. It’s clear up there and the views are spectacular; you can see forever!”
It’s what we need to hear and despite the fact that the “steep slope” is pretty much a cliff, and a nightmare to scramble across, we proceed with renewed energy. The slope is our first warning that the hike will be more difficult than we are accustomed to but any nervousness dissipates with the fog when we find ourselves looking at an uninterrupted view of the Cantabrian mountains. He wasn’t kidding – the range is endless, stretching right to the horizon and beyond and like nothing I’ve seen before.
The path descends as it crosses to the other side of the ridge and we are treated to an hour or so of gentle walking with astonishing views of the mountains across the valley, the fog that seeps over them and the stony promontories that tower above us – vast rock walls rendered by lichens into a mosaic of luminous greens and blues. Black butterflies and a dark bird that flits along the path at foot level and disappears into the scrub, a kite or kestrel at eye level, a vulture emerging from the mist behind us, a pair of ravens – the path curls along beneath the crest and begins to climb again as Coriscau comes into view.
Shit. That doesn’t look easy. The path climbs to the crest again and tracks along the edge of a precipice – from here we can see the mist that fills the valleys beyond, wisping at the lip. At the end of the ridge is the mountain and it’s steep. Very steep – hands and feet, intimidatingly steep and yes, I did say precipice.
Thirty minutes of hard hike later we’re at the base and at the edge of the drop. I’m a little ahead of K and I stop to wait for her. I take a seat to avoid falling to my death, into the bottomless mist. It isn’t rational; I’m a good eight feet from the edge and the strong winds aren’t quite strong enough to lift a grown man off his feet and hurl him from a mountain, but I can’t help it – I just don’t like precipices. Not a precipice person, never have been.
We’re both breathless and take a break, waiting for the trio of tiny figures we’ve been watching, making their painstakingly slow way down. I want to get a feel from them as to what the ascent is like. I’m pretty sure we’re going to give it a go but if some more experienced people were to warn me off now, I’d probably heed their advice. We sit and gather ourselves. K has been saying, ever since we first laid eyes on this final stretch to the summit, that she might leave it to me.
I don’t know how she feels when they finally round the rock we’re sitting behind and give us a hearty “Hola!”, but I am gobsmacked. It isn’t that I was expecting Edmund Hillary and a couple of friends with snow in their beards; let’s try to keep a sense of perspective here – this isn’t the Himalayas. But I certainly wasn’t expecting a moderately elderly couple and their shy, learning disabled son. Nope. No sir. They chat away cheerfully while I gawp at them and then they trundle on.
No need to say anything as we get up and gird ourselves – providence has intervened to tell us there’s no question of chickening out. K goes ahead, both of us taking breath breaks at each turn on the zig zag track. On a gradient so sheer it’s quite something to see, each time I have the nerve to straighten up and look around, how quickly we rise and how the perspective changes. Trying not to think about the fact that we have to get down off this bloody thing, it begins to dawn on me that we’re going to make it to the top now, that we’re only twenty metres away, then ten, and then we’re there.
An honest-to-god summit. As I look around I remind myself, incredulously, that this began in a cranky, murky trudge far below in the mist – in the hopeless, pessimistic plod through self-loathing and disappointment that was my morning. I can see all three massifs of the Picos De Europa, rising through a carpet of white cloud and underneath a canopy of searing blue light. I have never seen a space so vast. Never.
These are the times to let the mind run. To reflect. Not down there in the foggy thick of it, in the unsighted troughs of our struggle, but up here in the places we find ourselves almost by surprise, forgetting so easily in the glare of the frictionless sky how difficult it was to get here.