This is very personal and only tangential to the actual route. It’s about challenges, fears and how I’d cope with it all. The challenge will be at a rather emotional level.
Hiking the High Route in the off-season was something I could do. Feeling comfortable about it was a different thing. This latter was my challenge.
I got mixed results.
I took a gregarious, sober approach to the task, counting on an unimaginably favorable weather forecast and knowing that I’d be fine and safe no matter what, never mind the exposure, which is high on this route. I worked to convince myself that I should worry not and just enjoy the ride.
The trip turned out a mild flavor of type 2 fun most of the time.
Being conscious about it helped but I’d had loved to be able to feel more comfortable and relaxed. There were limited times when this happened. The reasons that plagued my experience were a mix of season, exposure and wrong expectations.
The Cantabrian Watershed is a demanding route that’s not only about hiking & camping: it requires some route finding, negotiating poor trails or off-trail terrain and it’s very exposed, with the potential for very inclement conditions. It’s hard enough in the summer and a mid November window means pushing the limits of the summer hiking experience. But I already knew all this.
I failed to realize how much my progression would be limited by the season and the terrain. This puzzled me to the point that I felt like I was not performing well and contributed to add stress to my days.
In the summer it’s like walk-and-relax is enough: days are long, you cover huge distances by just keeping on walking long hours and then there’s still time to make camp before the sunset, enjoy the lights and relax. In mid November, I’d hike dawn to dusk, almost non-stop and daylight was gone well before my mileage expectations were met.
The terrain would also play a good part in slowing me down. Route assessing takes time and it’s a key part of a good outcome in the High Route. One might think that walking on a watershed would be straightforward while there was good visibility: just keep to the highest possible ground? Often times you’d have a sea of mountains in front with no evidence of which crest was the good one.
Even when the route was set, progress is not as swift as it is on a well groomed trail. Assessing the best way through is a must to avoid thick bush or dangerous terrain and the actual walking is slower anyway.
I didn’t need to get anywhere in particular. I just needed to spend 8 days in the wilderness. Even so I couldn’t avoid feeling the slow progress stress.
It was the other major factor heavy on my mood. It made me feel vulnerable. Everything was hanging from a very thin line.
It was all much better when I learnt about the place. Then I realized of another known fact: how little did I know about Cantabrica.
The devil was in the details: I got used to find the way through, became aware of the escape routes, convinced myself there was always an alternative to obstacles and overall got more comfortable in the land. I got confident.
The breaking point was probably that morning on day 6 where I hit a narrow, steep, rocky crest section where I didn’t feel safe. So far I had been following the “correct” line, only taking alternatives where they were depicted on the map. This time I didn’t have any hints of what to do except the bare topography on the map and what I could see on the ground.
I checked a route down, then forward and eventually back up to the crest. It turned out so well that I got free of a good part of that extra emotional weight I had been carrying. Halfway through the detour, I stopped for lunch, took my wet things out to dry in the sun and washed my feet in a stream. It was the first time on the trip that I did this all. The nicely warm, windless afternoon would also fit the mood. That night and also for the first time on the trip I stopped the hiking one hour before sunset and did camp chores still in daylight, just because I hit a beautiful, high altitude meadow below a magnificent limestone peak. I was relaxed.
Next morning found myself being engulfed by fog and having to work hard to find the correct way down to the next saddle. It was clear I was still at the mercy of the mountains (as it should be!) But I kept calm. I was definitely more confident.
I write this all mostly to myself, because writing helps to see it clear so I can learn from it. I hope I do.