In Alicante I had stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the locals, sat reading Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ with ginger hair clinging to my sweaty, freckled neck and shoulders slowly roasting under the intense UV rays. My Spanish goes as far as ‘hola‘ and ‘Yo quisiera un cafe solo, por favor‘, the latter being an essential allowing me to access the elixir of life, coffee. If anyone were to extend conversation beyond this I would be paralysed to a dumb mute, not being able to understand anything. These differences, amongst other reasons, are why I felt rather out of place in Spain upon arrival. Having driven for more than 7 hours from my uncle’s villa, the Pyrenees mountains greeted me with a warm excitement. How can it be that I feel more at ease amongst rocks, sharing a bedroom with anonymous foreigners and eating alien food to the English speaking comfort of a villa in Alicante? Here’s a small testament to my passion for big hills and the powerful holistic journeys I believe they offer.
Coming from a family of semi-lunes, its natural that we’d be into the outlandish recreation of mountain walking. For all four of us, the possibility of exploring a new range usually excited us more than a candy does a child; nevertheless, when my parents told me during my university deadlines that the family summer holiday would be hiking in the Pyrenees, I sighed heavily, lamenting over their incapability of selecting a relaxing get-away. I was exhausted and overworked. When we started walking with our 11kg rucksacks I was sulking up the valley, knowing I’d soon get into the flow but feeling bitter about having to put effort into a holiday. We’d been walking for 3 hours when we reached a high col which Daniella – my younger sister and family navigator for the day – declared was the first check point. Scrambling onto of the lunar-like lherzolite rocks, my eyes were met by the most exquisite view over the rise. It was then I remembered why we did this. The sublime beauty met me accompanied with tranquil silence.
Anybody who knows anything about physiology will know the benefits that exercise has on mental health as well as the body. Not only does it release endorphins (otherwise known as runner’s high) but reduces cortisol levels, eventually leading to brain scans showing a reduction in the size of the amygdala. Indeed, after a 7 hours of hiking intensively up peaks and down valleys, I sat down with a great sense of satisfaction as my brain buzzed with chemical changes. However, this ‘high’ isn’t unique to the expedition-lover – gym enthusiasts can simply run for 20 minutes on a treadmill at their local sports centre and get the same rush. The mountains offers more for the mind, the ‘spirit’ and all of the senses.
Unlike mindless beach holidays, the physical exertion of hiking is one of the best ways to knock your stressed busy-body right into a mindful state; I found that trekking on a rocky path with a vertical drop to my left naturally averted all of my attention from my menial problem. That birthday card I had to buy, that form I needed to fill in, the commission I had to finish – all of it slipped away like the dust under my boots. As I placed one foot in front of the other, all that occupied my mind was my physical sensation and the exquisite natural immensity that surrounded me. The 700m climb brought far from pleasant physical sensations; I looked like I’d walked straight out of a shower, drops pouring down from my forehead in the heat and my legs were burning with lactic acid. Although I was used to such a feeling and derived some sort of pleasure from the pain (I’m not a masochist promise), there was still an uncomfortability to it which I knew I had to embrace. The physical challenges of such a walk teach you to endure and persist, especially on the fifth day when you wake at 5:00am ready for a 6 hour grind.
One lesson I learnt very early on in my mountaineering experiences – or rather had to learn – was that I couldn’t afford to hold onto my fragile competitive ego. I will forever remember what Ian (the mountain guide who took us through the Drakensberg mountains) the time he shouted at me and Daniella as we fought for first position in the hiking group; in his thick Afrikaans accent he rebuked us saying, “Mountains aren’t here to be conquered, if you do that you’re sure to loose to them. They’re there to be respected and enjoyed”. Ian maintained that the mountains could ‘sense’ if you weren’t there to honour them as your feet moved harshly upon their slopes. Although I was sceptical about this animistic claim, I found truth in his proverb. There is no room for childish pride amongst the rocks. Any slip of foot, any overconfident navigation or forgotten turning will lead to folly (a lesson learnt by the British among you on Duke of Edinburgh I’m sure). You learn to synchronise your breathe with your steps to keep a steady pace which takes you from A to B without running out of stamina whilst keeping a close eye on the map. In this way, walking works as a form of meditation as you approach your experience of reality free of judgement, embracing the purpose of pain and regulating the body through awareness of the breathe. The ego is left where the wifi access ended. There is no room for competition or rush when Mother Nature throws the elements at you. Humility is key.
It was the second to last night and we were staying at the Regugio de la Restanca. Every refuge we’d stayed at so far we had made friends with an eclectic mix of fellow international adventurers retreating into the solace of the hills. That night me and my sister had met two Dutch guys, 20 and 23, with whom we’d exchanged amusing stories over a bottle of wine, like the time my mum’s pants had split on a boulder or I fell into a stream. We’d also been for a gorgeous swim in the turquoise lake which stretched outside the window, the refreshing glacial water welcoming our sore, mucky bodies. But, it was now time to retire to the bunks for an early night. As always, I slipped into blissful unconsciousness as soon as my head hit the pillow. However, I must have only been sleeping a couple of hours when I was stirred by the violent bashing of the wooden window shutters. Daniella sat up next to me, sleeping bad liner pulled around her head; then her face flashed into vision as a white light filled the room. Ten seconds later, an immense cracking pierced the silence, echoing and refracting as if bouncing off the rock. It was an electric storm. I had been in many storms before, even a snow storm on Scarfell Pike, yet this one had an unfamiliar gravity to it. As I lay in bed, I had a strange sense of paralysis coupled with excitement as the wind howled through the valley. Would we be struck into a pile of ash by the gods? I was reminded of chapter 7 in ‘Frankenstein’: ‘While I watched the tempest, so beautiful yet terrific, I wandered on with a hasty step. This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits…’. I was encountering the Sublime; a notion defined in its binary between fear and wonder.
“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”Emmanuel Kant, ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ (1781)
Indeed, this feeling persisted throughout our stay as we encountered dangerous heights and ominous mists. If you’ll allow me to be hopelessly poetic for a moment, it brought a certain level of transcendence with it. I was somehow more conscious of my fragility, my mortality, my helplessness. Here I was, at the mercy of forces that not only mystified me but were beyond my control. In this way I believe my experience took me into a greater state mind in which my perspective altered from the power invested in me to that of my environment. With view of the climate crisis this awareness of our environment is becoming more and more pressing. The sheer monumental beauty of the range challenged me to consider further how I could help preserve the eco-system which hanging by a thread. How paradoxical that the almighty landscape that stood before me was being broken down by a species as feeble as mine.
Being a deeply spiritual individual (a statement I will no doubt elaborate on another time), I was drawn to the spiritual presence of these places as well. There was a deep peace there which offered restoration and grace. The physicality spoke of an immaterial majesty and magnificence; the deep crystal-like aqua and mammoth crags pointed to a Creator of great detail and power.
I know I can be hard to read of such experiences as anything more than aloof romanticism but before you question the legitimacy of my experience I urge you to try it yourself – get onto some rocks! Mindfulness, sublimity and transcendence await.
Thank you for reading and as always would love for you to comment and let me know what you think! (If you want any details on the route we took or have any other question surrounding hiking please don’t hesitate to message me).