A New Year
New Years Day 2019
I came round on a floor I didn’t recognise. Sunlight pulsed and blazed, and a raging bull smashed inside my head. I rolled over and the bull slid to the other side of my skull: more pain and bright flashes. I wondered why I smelt like a bonfire; I vaguely remembered legging it after lighting fireworks before midnight, but I couldn’t be sure. I guess it’d been a great New Year’s Eve party! I’d agreed to do ‘Dry January’ this year - since I basically don’t drink anyway, I figured it’d be fine - but last night’s exception was hitting me like a train.
I stumbled back to my van, somewhere nearby in London. Head down, I nearly walked into the police cordon, despite the bright blue tape stretching across the road and blinking lights. A man in plastic overalls was taking pictures of a house, the front door burst open. He was oblivious to the locals shouting from the edge of the cordon. I couldn’t help myself, and immediately thought of the Scottish phrase, ‘there’s bin a murdah.’
The idea of Dry January appealed even more; I wanted to get out of here, back to open spaces and green life. I jumped into my van and turned the key just as the locals kicked off again. The van crunched into gear, pulled out, and headed south.
I can’t think of a better New Year’s Resolution than an annual pilgrimage to Spain. After a few years' hiatus, I was eager to return to the land of plenty. Throughout the many months I spent in the mountains last year, whenever the weather was shit, I’d long for sunny rock climbing in Europe. And now, at last, I was going.
I slipped the moorings at Portsmouth docks, waving goodbye to grey gulls and damp skies. Beneath my feet, deep within 30,000 tons of ferry, I felt the engines wake and rumble. We scratched a boiling white line into the sea, the English coastline shrinking into the distance.
Twenty five hours later, I shouted ‘whoop-whoop!’ at the crag above the road. The van’s engine ticked and twitched after the drive from Bilbao. Etxauri, a kilometre-long escarpment of perfect limestone, glowed in the afternoon heat. The air was warm, clear and blue; the crag enormous, bolted and yellow; and the climbers laughed, sunbathed and cranked. This was exactly where I wanted to be: a sport climber’s paradise. I’d arrived at Angus and Dan’s longitude-latitude co-ordinates, and rushed to pack my bag.
As I ran up to the crag, memories and emotions floated back from previous European trips. The sweet, herbal scent of shrubs, which radiated in the 20ºC heat. Vanilla and pine wafted faintly from a tree with holly-like leaves. The cracked, reddish earth hadn’t seen rain in a month. I heard excited Spanish chatter echo from the cliffs above. There! I spotted a figure, a black dot against vivid orange and grey streaks. Vultures spun on the updraft as if hung on giant wires, the wind whipping through their wings.
I asked the first people I met, ‘Hola. ¿Donde estan los Ingles?’ They pointed, and I soon met Angus and Dan ‘Alright lads!’ and suddenly I was tying into a rope. The ground slipped away; I was crimping and pulling on warm rock, my toes pressing into little edges, and I moved freely… wow!
Dan and Angus are climbing harder than I am, but I shared their enthusiasm and we learnt Spanish and Basque between routes. ‘Baja: down. Hoy mucho calor: today is very hot.’ The energy at the crag is infectious. They - welcoming locals - shout encouragement, voices rising: ‘Venga, venga, siiiiivengaVENGA! ¡Mueve pies!’
Days pass. The skin on my fingers goes pink, then red, matching the back of my neck. We explore new areas of the crag, taking it in turns to climb toward the circling vultures. I make the mistake of climbing during the heat of the day, and begin to burn. All I can think, as I pinch chalky tufas, is, ‘the blood in my brain is boiling!’ The heat intensifies, like breathing in a sauna, and sweat collects on my forehead. My climbing goes to pot, and I begin to shut down. ‘Blood in brain is… boiling! …Brain boiling… Boiling.’
The morning sun. Soft golden light. Still wrapped in the duvet, I slide open the van’s side door and stick my head out, taking it all in. The heat welcomes me into the day, and I stare up at the azure sky - the Basque pronounce it ‘athul.’ I see vultures high, high above, their wingtips sensing the warm air like outstretched fingers. As they wheel, they catch the sunlight on their underside and they ignite in colour, burning, bursting into a fire of gold and orange.
The temperature instantly rises and the landscape quietly wakes. Circular reflections from the silver foil play and ripple on the van’s ceiling. I point my toes, spread my arms, and move more limbs into the light. Life is being breathed back into muscles, and they relax. Throwing back the duvet, the only sound is a small ‘pop’ of the stove igniting, a blue smell of gas. Tops off, I squint into the glare and begin the daily jenga shuffle to make breakfast.
Lizards and geckos warm their blood in the sunshine, doing rapid press-ups. We lounge on mats and bouldering pads, doing yoga stretches. The smell of coffee floats around as it’s pressed into eager mugs, and we motionlessly watch cyclists huff past.
‘Es perfecto.’ This is perfect. The pace of the day is laughable, but by noon we’re usually on our way to the crag.