Cold Mountain

“I learn something every time I climb a mountain,” said Michael Kennedy before he skied into a tree and died. Today we are climbing a mountain and we too are learning something: about preparation and planning, about lackadaisical approaches, about extreme weather. We are learning that mountains are cold places. “I learn something every time I forget my jacket…”

Our travel philosophy is simple: we seek out new things, we throw ourselves after adventure, we plan as little as possible, we let luck and impulse guide us. It doesn’t always work of course. We arrived in Brazil in the middle of the world’s worst Covid spike. We got lost in the desert with no water. We found ourselves surfing with sharks. I nearly bled out in an isolated jungle lodge. Now we are trekking through snow on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano with no boots, no gloves and only thin anoraks. At least we have covid masks to keep our cheeks warm.

And somehow now we’re in Ecuador. A blurred night and day journey. Natal to Sao Paolo (Gol Airlines, check-in chaos, arguments about surfboards, no food) Sao Paolo to Panama City (Copa Airlines, 2am takeoff, heads lolling, sunrise over the sea, congealed egg breakfast), Panama City to Quito (Chatty pilot, bumpy flight, The Andes! Hair-raising landing).

It’s our first day here and full of naïve optimism we have taken the teleferico up from Quito. Just on a whim. A simple cable car ride that will take us to the mountain top where we might go for a stroll and drink in the view. It is pleasant and sunny when we climb in the bubble car, but weather moves fast in the mountains and as we clank our way upwards, clouds come rolling in all around us. They look heavy and menacing.

Quito sits 2800m above sea level, the second highest capital in the world (the highest is La Paz, a little further south in the same mountain chain). Now after climbing another kilometre in the cable car we find ourselves at some four thousand meters of altitude, up in thin air. There doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen to fill our lungs.

Our arrival coincides with some kind of cosmic tantrum. The clouds close ranks, the visibility deteriorates, a flurry of snow veils the landscape. Then a heavier spray of hailstones and then a full electrical storm erupts. Lightening bounces off the cloud ceiling above us; percussive booms of thunder make us jump. We splash through slush in our trainers, icy waters drips down our bare necks. We stuff our hands into our wet jeans’ pockets, tuck in our elbows and hunch forwards against the wind.

Matilda is scared of the lightning and after ten minutes on the trail, she is whining hard and so the girls turn back for the lodge. Arthur and I goad each other reluctantly onwards, putting great emphasis on completing our quest. Maybe we have some kind of summit fever. There is a swing somewhere ahead that a taxi driver has told us about. It is positioned on a cliff top, so you can take photos suspended in mid air, high above the plateau where Quito lies spread out, a faraway Lego town on a creased rug, the white bricks smudged and dirty from overuse.

It is only a twenty minute tramp up to the swing but they are the coldest and wettest twenty minutes in recent memory. Our ability to deal with the cold has been diminished. We’ve been softened up on tropical beaches. We make it to the swing at last, panting like dogs, soaking wet, toes numb, Arthur is shivering violently and thinks he might have altitude sickness.

Neither of us fancies actually sitting on the swing – the wooden seat is dripping with slush and the chain is icy. The weather has cleared enough to make out a ghost town below, so I take a quick snap of Arthur standing beside the swing and we agree that this is enough of a summit trophy for us.

We run back down the mountain to safety, squinting into the snow, slipping and sliding in the slush. We find the girls sipping hot chocolate in the cable car lodge, and breathlessly we tell them our heroic stories. Arthur saw something that might have been a mountain hare! Daddy slipped over on the flat path! How wild is it that two days ago we were in the desert and now we’re in the mountains!

Ecuador is going to be a different type of travel experience we all agree, and we head down the mountain to find a camping shop where we can buy some warm clothes.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment…”

Richard Cross and countless other gear-boffins.

Nazare

Nazaré is Europe’s big wave Mecca and we are here on pilgrimage. We are not the only ones either, a wave of this notoriety pulls a crowd. Firstly you spot the life-or-death hardcore surf crew with their deep tans and bleached eyes. Then there are the others, softer, like us, who seek vicarious thrills from the sidelines. Around all this is the periphery: the tour operators, guides, rickshaws, buskers and falafel vans.

For your surfing to qualify as ‘big wave’ you have to be paddling into monsters that are 20 foot high or greater. As a family we watched Riding Giants, the seminal big wave documentary, when we were staying in Croyde – some decades ago it seems now. It tells the story of a wild renegade scene, a group of guys who had dropped wilfully, out of straight fifties society and set themselves up on the undeveloped North Shore of Hawaii. They slept wild on the beach, lived off the land and discovered and surfed the largest waves that had ever been ridden. This scene then grew over subsequent decades as boards developed, bigger spots were found and new generations of surfers pushed the boundaries ever further. As surfing became commercialised, the big wave hunters remained splintered from the mainstream in their own secret club, a circuit without sponsors, a cabal of riders with their own mystique – until films like Riding Giants brought exposure. Now the XXL and other big wave competition are worldwide; Arthur and Matilda can recite the roll-call of largest waves ever surfed. They drop those exotic names casually into conversation: Waimea Bay, Pipeline, Mavericks, Jaws, Teahupo’o, Cloudbreak, Nazaré.

They know the big wave legends too, the stories of mythical waves were hidden in plain sight, or thought impossible, crazy, chimeric until some hero stepped forwards. Mavericks, one of the biggest, ugliest, heaviest waves in the world, was surfed alone by Jeff Clark for 15 years because he couldn’t convince anyone else it was worth the long dangerous paddle out. It was said impossible for such a wave to exist in California. Greg Knoll paddled for three hours in a unique storm swell to be the first to surf the third reef at Pipeline. Jaws was thought too fast, and heavy to surf until Laird Hamilton got a jetski to slingshot him right into the heart of the tube. And Nazaré is a deep water dragon who awakes only when the wind is right and direction of the swell merges with cold funnelled up through a 130 mile underwater canyon. This is a wave that is commemorated in shrines and for hundreds of years meant only death in this little fishing village. Until someone persuaded Garrett McNamara to come over from Hawaii to take a look at it. The picture of him riding an 80 foot smoking black mountain put the town right on the surf map.

Nazaré itself is built on legend. A twelfth-century lord hunting up on the cliffs; a white hart; a sea mist. Our Lady of Nazareth reached down from the skies to miraculously suspend his horse as it reared out over the void, she brought him back to safety. Now the old town that bears her name, with its churches and shrines, sits proudly up on that clifftop. It is connected by a funicular railway to the lower part of town, which, seen from above, is a labyrinthine swirl of of red roof tiles, white walls and narrow streets that extends down the South beach. Old ladies salt their fish in the traditional way out on the sands. A surf school runs lessons in the mild waves in the bay. A veneer of wave-generated tourism sits uncomfortably over the traditional fishing village, ‘Rooms for Rent’ say the handwritten placards that women in traditional dress wave at you. Surfer Paradise! Nazaré Monster Wave Tour! American Burger Bar! At the other end of town, Praia do Norte, where the big wave breaks, is still wild and undeveloped.

We stay in a place belonging to Tim Bonython, a veteran wave-chaser, photographer and filmmaker.  It is a stylish apartment in the old town.  There are moody prints of giant waves on the wall and a DVD copy of Tim’s latest film The Big Wave Project has been left casually on the coffee table.

We watch it of course and we are immediately plunged into the gladiatorial world of big wave surfing. A spectator sport quickly becomes compulsive when the penalty for poor performance is death. When your adversary is as implacable and relentless as the ocean then you are deep in a classic myth archetype: man – small and flawed but big of heart – doing battle with the gods. In high definition slo-mo. We find this sense of poetic heroism throughout the Big Wave Museum within Forte San Miguel, housed right under the iconic red lighthouse that features in all those famous Nazaré surf shots. The gallery of hero’s weapons is laid out for us here, in this case the wall of ‘big wave guns’, huge elongated surfboards that can achieve the necessary paddle speed to catch a ten storey wave that is moving at 20mph. The padded wetsuit, with it’s impact protection and buoyancy aids, is up-lit in the shadows, glowing like armour. There are elegies to those who have fallen, messages to the wave. “Nazaré, you gave me the best and the worst time of my life” says one marker-pen homage, scribbled on a broken surfboard.

We go down to Praia do Norte but it is deceptively, quiet. There are some fairly mushy waves breaking late on the shore. You can see the water is seething though in heavy roiling surges, churning up behind the break, sucking back from the beach in dark angry rips. We watch some surfers paddle out and they get pulled around, dunked under the water for long times. They don’t catch much.

We shiver and remember the graphic descriptions of the wipeouts that we heard on the Big Wave Project. The ability of a wave to smash you down 50 foot under the surface in seconds, rupturing your eardrums, twisting limbs, breaking vertebrae. Then to hold you down there, rolling and spinning in your dark-water prison for long minutes. We’ve all experienced enough miniature versions of this scenario to understand the world of panic and limp helplessness that waits down there under the waves. We won’t be surfing Nazaré. The wave is hypnotic though and we sit for a long time up on the beach, just watching the suck and pull of its waves.

The Cliffs

We went for a coastal hike yesterday on the northern face of the headlands. This completes a linking series of cliff walks that we have done over some weeks, taking us right around the North Devon peninsula from Saunton Sands to Ilfracombe, some 100km or so.

The cliffs in these parts have something about them that I’ve not felt before. All cliffs are huge and inspiring of course, that is their nature. These ones though have a jagged angular violence has been imprinted deep into the shape of the rock. There are dragons teeth that emerge dark and wet from the foam of the sea. Broken slate shards pile up under the crags as though they had come raining down in sheets. Dark fissures split open the cliff face. We saw a cove where rock ridges ran in lines across the shingle, like the black spines of some reptile that slept beneath.

Within the sedimentary rock there is colour and texture. A corduroy layering emerges in bold lines from the sea. The stripes rise up in diagonals that echo in successive and opposing cliff faces. Slate, granite and quartz are compressed into lines of pink and black and glittering crystal. But then the symmetry ripples and buckles, and you know that this stone mass was once spun and twisted in some huge pressure furnace like hot glass. There is suppressed energy throughout this landscape. Immense elemental pressures have played out here, and antagonistic forces remain locked in counterpoint, frozen within those misshapen bubbles of stone. There is a feeling of interrupted motion. At some point the rocks will surge upwards again. They will grind and thunder as they erupt: ripping out tree roots; showering boulders like rain; throwing nesting sea birds screaming into the air.

We leave the National Trust pathways wherever possible and slip onto the sheep paths that undulate through the gorse and ferns. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The tracks take you back and forth, criss-crossing through wind-stunted greenery, lulling you with smooth lines that rise and fall with the topography of the headlands. False trails peter out deep in the gorse, or lead you suddenly out onto limestone overhangs that could erode at any point. You wander how many sheep ambled along this path at night to suddenly find themselves on the edge of the precipice. Does some instinct pull them back? Or do those woolly coats sometimes catch a gust of wind, and then they are tumbling through black space, bleating wildly? You shiver and pull back from the edge.

I find that my thinking slows on these walks. I listen to my breath. I catch myself trudging up the escarpment muttering out simple rhyming word associations to myself, senseless poems to punctuate my footfall. Jurassic, bombastic, we lack it, eclectic (disrespecting), drastic, classic, smash it! Be enthusiastic!

We climb down to an empty beach where the surf beats onto the boulders. The low thunder sends us all gradually into a frenzy and we shout and run. We throw stones and jump off boulders and splash our way blindly through rock pools. We hold crab claw tokens and cowrie shells in our sweaty hands as we climb back up the rocky path again.

Sometimes you emerge over a hill top to find yourself unexpectedly on a vantage point where you can see the full line of cliffs undulating away into the distance like a folded ribbon of dirty grey. Perhaps there is a lighthouse in the distance, certainly there are birds wheeling in the sky. The sea is bottle green, flecked with sunlight and white horses. The wind whistles around, buffeting you back away from the edge.

Boulder, golder? (more gold?), hold her, quiet smoulder, cold shoulder, eye of the beholder.

Up on these massive granite slabs you can get hit by a sudden sense of your own smallness. A squall of futility blows up around you, borne on the sea wind. What are your puny ambitions and dreams lined up against the permanence, the gravitational mass, the sheer indifference of the rock? What flicker of time can you offer up against his eons? We pilot these towers of bone and muscle forwards over the headlands, spindle legs scissoring, furiously pumping blood down through branching tubes, breaking down matter deep in our guts. This pulsating mess of us all wrapped up in downy veined skin. We totter our towers onwards as though we will topple when we stop. We cover them around with bright materials and we shout out from the top: about our plans and schemes, and what we feel, and what we will do with life. As though it mattered.

Granite, tannic, magnetic, peripatetic! We say. Dead gannet, red planet, dormant, titanic.

As is the way of all small beasts, we disdain even smaller creatures, we care nothing for their worries. The world belongs to us alone. We are unaware that we are just mites creeping unnoticed along the shoulder of a sleeping giant.

But then I suppose he is unaware that in his way he too is small; that he lies on a larger rock which swings silently through space, circling an insignificant star that is hidden somewhere out on the far-flung spiral arm of a galaxy. One single galaxy among many.