For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.
My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).
I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.
The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.
I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.
Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.
It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.
I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.
I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.
On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?
I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?
I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.
I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.
I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.
I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.
But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.
All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.
I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.
Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.
Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.