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.

Montage

Many other things happened in Nicaragua but it’s late now and I am weary. I’m peering back at distant memories. The stories here have lagged some months and thousands of miles behind the present moment: a sweaty armchair on a veranda, the equatorial humidity of Brazil, a worried and trapped family right in the Coronavirus epicentre.

What we need now is a cinematic montage to wind up the Nicaragua chapter, a happy mashup of the highlights and magic moments of those last three weeks, set to a uplifting electro-pop soundtrack. Something with meaningless lyrics that would fit almost any situation. Empire of the Sun perhaps.

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it
Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it

First is a soft-focus arrival shot in the city of Granada: A small taxi draws up, comically overloaded: surfboards tied to the roof with string, a boot which will not shut over a pile of luggage. The Nicholls spill out, hot and sweaty after a two hour drive without air-con and with many of their bags on their laps. The camera sweeps back to reveal the colonial majesty of the town square as they unload their belonging into Selina Hostel, a baroque villa dosshouse, all hipster graffiti and leafy inner courtyards.

Then we go aerial to take in the whole of this beautiful city, shining white and crumbling gently in the tropical heat. Pillared facades, walled gardens, old cathedrals, balustraded walkways, covered markets, tree-lined squares. Then higher still, a majestic sweeping shot: the backdrop of mountains and volcanos, the endless lake to the east.

There is a time-lapse sequence of the Nicholls attacking the city of Granada like Pac-Man chasing eggs around a maze. They traverse the streets from the port area to the mountain side, scuttle up the bell tower, disappear into no less than three museums. We see them marching back and forth, occasionally finding themselves in dangerous areas and doubling back again to safety. They stop to refuel – papaya smoothies, green tea, cinnamon buns.

A meal sequence next: breakfast plates of waffles dissolve into pittas loaded with falafels for lunch, tacos al pastor, quesadillas. Now they are cramming in burgers, cakes, more smoothies, then a steak restaurant! Chins glistening with grease, tomato stained shirts. Have these guys not eaten for a week? Fade to black, music swells.

On and on and on we are calling out, out again
Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me

Another comical taxi ride! We’re bumping through the countryside past huge smoking volcanos, Mombacho to the left, Massaya on the horizon. There are roadblocks. Money is demanded for no apparent reason. A new arrival – and where are we? Laguna de Apoyo! A cerulean crater-lake some 10km wide. As the camera pans slowly across, the otherworldly colours shimmer and we see prismatic light effects on the water that then blur into white. Casa Marimba comes into focus, a terracotta hostel nestled on the slopes of the lagoon amid wood-groved terraces full of hammocks and loveseats. The light is dappled through a venerable old tree in the courtyard (is it a ceiba?), the movement of monkeys and mot-mot birds brings the canopy alive.

There is a floating platform out on the lagoon and our heroes swim out there for a slapstick sequence of dives and bellyflops, near-drownings, kayaks borrowed, left untethered then lost in the fierce wind. There is laughter. There are tears. We see Will and Menna on a sunset run around the lake (way too cheesy – cut!).

A long walk around the lake and a montage of rainbow bird sightings: an oropendola de Montezuma, parakeets, trogons, an osprey, lots of motmots – the national bird of Nicaragua -, various types of large kingfisher. The music dips and we hear Arthur’s reedy little voice solemnly listing them out: Great collared! Amazonian! Rufous!

Now it’s changing all the time
Living in a rhythm where the minute’s working overtime

That taxi sequence again – a sped up two hour cross-country dash, ending in a dusty one-road fishing village that looks like it hasn’t seen any development since the forties. Suspicious locals peer out from dark doorways. The taxi pulls off the Nicholls look worried. But surprise! The bare walls of the Miramar surf hostel are unprepossessing from the street but look inside: there is a skate park, racks of surfboards, a yoga platform, sun decks, swimming pool, flags. Everything is made from local timber, palm fronds, bamboo. A perfect wave breaks on the reef just in front.

The place is run by some a crew of charismatic Brazilians and each is frozen for a moment on screen with their caption: Sergio, ‘the Comedian’; Rafael, ‘Spear-Fisher’; Leandro, ‘Skateboard Guru’; Eduardo, ‘the Philosopher’. We have a party shot – wives and children, beers, music, a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. There are no other actual guests in the camp, but the hosts are larger than life and the the Nicholls are pulled into their extended crew. We see shots of surfing, yoga, fishing, Arthur gutting a barracuda to make ceviche, Will surfing right into the rocks, wrecking his board and his feet. There is a birthday party, a boat expedition, a spear fishing trip. Ten days of sunshine and great waves.

Don’t stop, just keep going on
I’m your shoulder, lean upon
So come on, deliver from inside
All we got is tonight, that is right ’til first light

The final taxi sequence takes us into the sprawling urban grit of Managua. A grey filter is subtly introduced and it bleaches the colour out of the scene. The music winds down into the final repeated lines of the track. The Nicholls are holed up in a shady motel in the slum area of Managua – fussing and packing, discarding excess weight, piling up bags. The room is bare. A small fan rotates noisily in the corner. They will get up at 4am to catch their flight the next morning

And here the montage finally fades to black. There is long and arduous travel ahead, at the end of which the family will find themselves in Mexico. And that of course is a totally new episode.

Final refrain and credits:

We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it’s
Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it
On and on and on we are calling out, out again
Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me

Shadow of the Volcano

We are on the island of Ometepe to climb a volcano. Though the kids are still small and the volcano is big, we have decided that it is one of those elemental experiences that we should go through at some point in our travels. Unknown to Matilda we have been training her up for just this moment. Those long cliff top walks, that 15,000 daily step target, the steep forest trails. We have chosen Volcán Maderas, the smaller and more dormant of the two volcanos on the island. It is going to be a ten hour round hike with an elevation of around 1400 meters.

When we awake on the big day we find ourselves enveloped in a blanket of cloud. It isn’t quite raining but it certainly isn’t dry either. Our guide Abel waits for us in reception. He is clearly a man of the mountain, slight, weatherbeaten, his eyes dark portals to another dimension.

Breakfast in the lodge comes slowly and perhaps we are not as organised as we should be, so we leave an hour later than planned. I sense Abel’s disapproval at the delays and the many rounds of pancakes we have eaten, but we laugh it off. By eight o clock we have shouldered our packs and we set off into the gloom.

The trails are overgrown and we are barely out of the gates when Abel already has to pull out his machete and hack a path through vines and shrubbery, much to Arthur’s delight. We march through a densely wooded valley and then up through coffee fields and abandoned cocoa plantations on the shoulder of the mountain. Then the climb starts to steepen.

There are various microclimates stacked at different altitudes up the mountain. All of them involve varying levels of moisture and low visibility. I imagine we are working our way up inside different cloud banks: first the nebulous mists of the low stratus layer, then into the dim white glow of cumulus. Higher up it is humid and dense as I imagine cumulonimbus to be. Then we hit a new kind of rain with a sharp wind that chills our sweat, and I figure we must have found cirrus, as this is the last kind of cloud I can remember.

The terrain underfoot changes from grass to dirt tracks and fallen leaves, to ferny vegetation, then mud, then rolling rocks and scree. For an hour Abel leads us up a stream in full flow, hopping stone to stone, splashing through muddy pools, crawling through rock tunnels, ducking under snatching branches. Matilda is the only member of the team who has proper hiking boots, the rest of us push on in wet trainers.

Abel turns out to be a guide in the minimalist sense: someone who is simply there to indicate the path to a destination. He is not a tour guide, we do not learn about the history of the island, the eco-system, local traditions. If anything he is like a silent spirit guide, floating in and out of the mist ahead of us, leading us along some metaphorical inward journey. He shows no signs of tiredness, he never stumbles. He slips away to scout the path ahead and some minutes later we round a corner to find him squatting immobile on a rock, face raised, communing silently with the ancestors. He pushes a fast pace.

I am using behavioural psychology tricks picked up over some years in sales management to motivate my poor daughter. We have anchored past successes (remember that time you climbed the cliff in Madeira with hardly a moan). We have engaged a sense of competition (and you got there before Arthur…). We’ve visualised the route ahead, we’ve established intrinsic motivators, we’ve set goals and we’ve quantified rewards (gummy bear every half hour, bar of chocolate at lunch, two puddings tonight). Now she is powering up the mountain, bouncing along chattering away to Abel who doesn’t say much back. She has found a ski pole in the lodge and she fiercely stabs it into the mud with every step. In fact it’s uber-fit Menna, who runs twenty five kilometres without fail every week, who is the first to start struggling. She is sliding around and lagging behind the group, sweating and frowning fiercely.

Arthur’s style of movement is not slow or steady. He jumps and bounces, slips and crashes, tries to make difficult jumps, falls a lot, wastes energy. He is always in danger of turning an ankle. He cycles through emotions from elation to dejection and offers a constant running commentary on his progress. He is the next to crash.

When it is my turn to hit the wall, it is intense. We’ve been climbing solidly for about three hours, I am wet through and I have a dull percussive ache in my quads which flares every time I have to lunge up another thigh-high rock. My backpack contains eight litres of water, it digs into my shoulders and catches on tree branches as we squeeze through gaps. My breath is short, my heart is hammering, my feet squelch. I am very glad when Abel calls a halt and I wolf down half a pack of peanuts and a secret handful of gummy bears.

We make summit just after one pm. There are no life-changing views or blinding moments of self-revelation, my spirit animal fails to materialise. Instead Abel indicates a point of cloud-covered rock like many others and tells us that this is the highest point. We nod and puff, then wind our way between various smokey outcroppings before sliding over the other side, through a series of steep and slippery faces, down into the crater.

An hour later we have reached our destination. We stand around uncertainly at the edge of the crater lake which stretches away into the mist like a grey shroud. A few stakes reach up ominously out of the water. Abel won’t confirm that they were used for ritualistic sacrifices, but one has an old skull on it, an oxen I think. We half-heartedly throw a in few stones, which land with muffled plunks and stir up some sullen ripples. We have literally no idea how large the crater is, how high the walls that surround us. How deep are the netherworlds that lie beneath that lifeless surface? We stand in a cold wet marshland with the silhouettes of mossy trees and bromeliads above us.

I was expecting Abel to light a fire at this point, start chanting and brew up the ayahuasca, but he just stands around wordlessly. It is too wet to sit so Menna and I crouch down and make sandwiches on a tree stump, then we all stand around in a circle stuffing in ham and cream cheese, chorizo, mango, oranges, chocolate. Abel doesn’t seem to have any food with him. No doubt he was intending to lunch on dew and wild berries, or perhaps just to chew on hallucinogenic tree bark. We feed him a sandwich or two, then he transmogrifies into a bat and flies away to the spirit world for ten minutes while we digest.

We haven’t managed to sit down at all, so our trembly tired legs are hardly rested when we have to shoulder our packs and turn back for home. Abel clearly thinks we have energy to spare so he takes us on a longer, more perilous route out of the crater that involves a long stretch of hand to hand climbing up a mudslide. We complain but he no longer hears us, he is tuned into the low rumblings of the volcano, drawing energy from magnetic fields deep beneath us. He floats across the slippery mud face, each touch gentle and tender. We lumber after him, stumbling, sliding, occasionally screaming, making a chain with our hands so none of us slip into the abyss.

Then we are over the summit and back into the cirrocumulus landscape. The return journey is not the gentle downhill ramble we had hoped for, but a slippery losing fight against gravity where each downward step places stiff demands upon tired knees, the falls multiply, the chatter dries up.

I have nothing much to say about those three nightmarish hours. Arthur spots an armadillo, Matilda doesn’t once moan and Abel himself slips over a couple of kilometres from home, which cheers us all up immensely and gives us the psychological boost we need to complete the trip.

The next morning we are greeted by the manager of our lodge in a state of high excitement. He tells us that as far as he is aware, Matilda is the youngest person ever to make it up to the crater lake and return alive.

He asks for a picture for the hotel notice board.

No Direction Home

Christmas is coming on like a freight train. Our festive plan was originally to skip across the border to Nicaragua, but everyone we speak to grimaces and shakes their head. Security is so bad right now, they say, hurricanes, revolution, covid, crime, poverty. So we’ve done an about-turn, and decided to go the other way instead. We will head to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean south coast for Christmas, then we’ll skip across to Panama for New Year. As we’re currently up on the Pacific north coast this will mean diagonally crossing the country – a 500km drive along some pretty poor roads.

Various bear traps lie in our path: our Costa Rican visa expires on Christmas Eve, so does our car hire agreement and our travel insurance too. We haven’t bought a single present yet, and perhaps more pressingly we have nowhere to stay. It is now the 21st December and time is running out.

Directionless and uncertain we start start bumbling our way cross country anyway, for we have been kicked out of our house in Playa Grande. We stop en route to spend a couple of days with London friends, Ohad and Yael, who are on holiday here, bravely travelling with a cluster of four small daughters. This is not a family who believes in relaxing on the beach. No, they have built themselves instead a challenging itinerary of volcano hikes and climbs in the rainy highlands and it is all laid out carefully on a spreadsheet. They are data scientists. We intend to insert ourselves carefully into this schedule for a couple of days as we work our way across the country. Overlay some of their order onto our chaos.

Our rendezvous is on Volcano Tenorio.  It is a four hour drive and we rattle up in our dirty jeep, surfboards bouncing on the roof, only forty minutes late. We have an inflated belief that we are now Costa Rica experts and will be called upon over the next couple of days to deliver a series of impromptu lectures on local flora and fauna, offer some well-meaning snippets of advice.

Falling out of the car in our dirty vests and broken trainers, we immediately see that they are much better prepared for this expedition than we are. Stout walking boots, utility trousers, headwear, large camera, bulging backpacks, exotic kit (a UV ‘black light’ torch whose sole purpose is making scorpions glow in the dark!). Furthermore they seem to be very well researched and with some prodigious wildlife sightings already under their belts (tarantulas, crocodiles, sloths, something called a olingo that I have never even heard of). As we set off on the trail, we find ourselves upstaged: recipients of travel tips, students of wildlife facts.

It is interesting to be back with other humans again. Over the months on the road, as new landscapes have unfolded our social sphere has shrunk, particularly for the kids. Travelling families are rare; local kids don’t hang out at hotels or on jungle tours and when we do meet them Arthur and Matilda have only the most basic rudiments of Spanish and are shy and uncommunicative. So they hang out with us instead. All day, every day, in close proximity. Since arriving in Costa Rica three weeks ago, we have stayed in nine different places – hotels, tents, cabins, hostels. We have all shared a single room for seven of the nine. Now, reunited with their schoolfriends, our kids are suddenly flutter off like leaves in the wind. It feels like having a plaster ripped off – a sudden tear then the forgotten touch of air and sunlight.

Matilda and Shiraz flit along the trails, hand in hand, whispering secrets to each other like a pair of woodland ghosts. Arthur and Eden run, climb, shout, they hang upside down, try to outwit each other and fabricate animal sightings. Menna and I find ourselves deep in grown up conversation. We are rusty.

We trek along the trails and find the psychedelic turquoise waters of Rio Azul. The Ticos say that after painting the sky, God washed the blue out of his brushes in the waters here, but Yael tells us it is aluminosilicate particles expanding in the acidic volcano waters. We cross Indiana jones style rope bridges and see a bold coati that saunters past us like he owns the place. Further on we see an obese family feeding it chocolate bars. Ohad catches a lizard.

It is a new thing for us not to own our time and pace. We are swept along, passive to someone else’s agenda. In a busy 24 hour period we complete the Rio Celeste hike at Volcano Tenorio, then drive cross country over to Volcano Arenal. I blow out a tire on a mountain road and have to do an exciting pit stop with a local lad who is sitting on the roadside. We stay the night in a hotel that reminds me of the Overlook in the Shining, swapping kids between rooms so they can have sleepovers with their friends. We listen to Ohad’s statistical analysis of Covid lockdown efficiency and we play chess. In the morning we loop our way around the 17 hanging bridges of Mistico Sky Park (and spot a Motmot), we grab lunch in La Fortuna (and spot a toucan) then more waterfalls and a swim in the rocky pools (and spot a sloth with a baby on its back). Arthur and Eden are very taken by the big rope swing that drops into the rocky pool and do it time and time again, chattering with the cold.

All the time the spectre of Christmas looms. Yael and Ohad don’t celebrate Christmas and feel no stress – but we do, and our kids have picked up on it. They have no home address to put on their letters to Father Christmas, and are nervously asking if he will even come to find them in Costa Rica. At this point we can’t honestly say that he will.