Four Brothers in The Ossau Valley, Day 6


I love maps. I just love them. It’s the certainty of them, I think. And the comfort that when a map says this road goes here – then it does. And this mountain is here, it’s this high and there’s a cliff there. This valley is this low, and if you take this path, you can cross the stream… here!

And so you do.

Which is why we were so shocked a couple of days ago when the map showing the red and yellow route down the mountain wasn’t there. They moved the route – which is fine – but they never moved it on the map, which is not fine.

Ciara says I change personality when I’m lost in the car and I can’t get my bearings or find where I am or how to get to where we want to be. Not for the better, I might add.

I suspect she’s right. I think it’s an anxiety thing. If I know where I am and where I’m going, I’m comforted, things aren’t so bad. But when I don’t …

And isn’t that all any of us wants? Really? To know where we are and where we want to go and how to get there? Isn’t it? I think it is.

John and Pad spotted a good walk last night. Starting in Arbeost in the next valley over. Up to Col du Soulor at 1471m, then up to Col de Soum and back down. Near the famous Col d’Aubisque that they traverse in Le Tour each year.

It was an hour’s drive over but we decided to go for it – be cool to see another valley too.

We weren’t disappointed. The sun shone again, the valley was amazing, the rocky peaks around were magnificent and we got up and down and around. 18km in the heat with a climb of 1200m – just about the limit for myself and Der and Pad.

We finished the descent through a steep beech forest, sliding down through brittle crunchy leaves. Legs empty again. C’est bien.

We’d begun in the rich damp grassy pastures of the valley floor (good tic country) but didn’t see any livestock. Then up through paths where we really expected Gandalf to meet us along the way. Old paths. Old stone walls, mossy. An arch of hedge over us, shady. A musty comforting smell.

Out into a cut of sheep country, with low grass and clumps of holly and hazel and hawthorn. Lots of blackbirds around here. A big pull up over the scenic road that we could see from a distance at the part that was cut out of cliff. Tough going but we made it. On the last 100m up over the Col we passed by the most beautiful horses, serene and shining. Chestnut colours without the blonde manes we’d seen before. We passed a foal with her mare and the young thing just stood there at the top of the path and let us rub her face as we passed. Remarkable.

We were aware today too that this was our second last walk and tonight our second last night together for a while. At one point early in the hike, Padraig noticed that we were descending, losing ground. Now the key thing about losing ground early on a walk or a cycle is the verb: to lose. And is means you have to regain it, climb it again. So the danger is that instead of enjoying the descent and relishing the rest and the scenery and getting your breath and your legs back – instead there’s the possibility that you’re thinking about the loss of ground and the effort to make it back up. And that’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes instead of enjoying our descents while they’re happening, we are worrying about the next climb.

So now so.

Here’s the secret of climbing, or running. Or cycling up the Tourmalet. When you’re hurting or your lungs or legs are screaming at you. Or in any endeavour that’s killing you. Or if getting out of bed and making to the bathroom is killing you.

You breathe. You just take one breath.

Then another. You just take another.

You take a step. Then you just take another.

And when I’m climbing hard I count these steps. I count them from 0 – 10. So that means I only have to take 10 more steps, just 10. All I need to do is get to 10. I don’t have to slog up the 600m to the Col. I just have to take 10 steps. Anybody can take 10 steps. Try. You can.

First I take 1. That’s 1 done.

Then I take 2. That’s 2.

3, 4, 5. Now I only have 5 left and these are the best 5 because they’re the finishing 5. Only 5 to go! That’s all, then I’m done! Whoopee!

Then I only have 4 to go. Anybody can take 4 steps.

Then 3, then 2 …

Now to stop the hurt, even in this short number of steps, here’s what you do.

Think of every number as you count them. 0 is round, think of 0. Put your foot down. 1 is straight, think of 1, long and straight. Lift your foot up. 2 is flat at the bottom and curved and the top and they meet. Put your foot down. 3 is two curly bits that meet in the middle.

Now I’m nearly at 5.

4 is a long straight line with …

And each step gets easier because it gets closer to 10. Each number is easier than the last. And by thinking of the numbers your legs can’t be heard, nor your lungs. And there’s no Col, there’s no sun, there’s no weight in your backpack, your lungs aren’t screaming, your heart pounding, there’s only that number as you put your foot on the ground.

Every footstep (or pedal if you’re cycling) up the hill has a number from 0 – 10. And when you get to 10 that’s brilliant, you did it. Celebrate with that step.

Now here’s the important bit.

When you get to 10 repeat 10 and begin to descend to 9. Think of 9, you did 9, way to go. Now you only have 8 to go. Anybody can take 8 steps. 8 – done. Now 7, anybody can take 7 steps. It’s getting easier, closer to 0. Amazing. Every step is a feat. 6 is a small circle at the bottom and a curved line out from it. 5 has a flat line at the top and then …

Now a rhythm is developing and you have distanced your mind from the pain in your legs and the hurt in your lungs *. They’re apart from you. Just put your foot down. 4. Lift up the other one 3. Anybody can take 3 steps. 3 has two curly bits joined at the middle.

You don’t have 2,000 steps more to go, you only have 2. Then 1, fantastic, just 1 step and 0. Yahoo! I did it. Now start again. 0.

There’s only this moment and the moment is a number, a step. You are present in this moment, in this number. And the number pushes the pain aside. And the number gains a rhythm. You need rhythm. And the number you need to get to is always getting closer, just a few to go, just one to go – a dawdle – just 8 to go, just 7 to go. Anybody can take 7 steps.

Dermot said at the foot of a big ascent: ‘How to you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ How to you climb a mountain? One step at a time. 10 steps at a time.

How do you live a life? One moment at a time. This moment is now. This moment is now.

Now this moment. Now this breath.

Now this moment. This breath.

This moment. This breath.

This breath.

And then you’re on top of the mountain. And you can see forever.

And you brought some food so you eat it. And you chat with whoever you’re with. And if you’re with your three brothers then you’re blessed. And the sandwich is the best you’ve ever tasted. How can a ham and cheese sandwich taste so good?

And eagles soar above you, and little birds chirp on the big rocks. There’s a stream nearby, cool and clear.

And now.

Easy peasy after the climb and the food and the chat and the views.

Now all you have to do is stroll back down again.



* A quick aside here. Sometimes you have to stop too and take a rest. But it’s a planned stop and it’s a chosen stop. It’s not a reaction, it’s a response. And if you’re injured or if you’re over-extending yourself and you’re not in good condition, you have to rest every now and again. If you’re seriously hurt you have to stop for good and do it another day. But it’s a rest, it’s good. Take a deep breath, then another. Enjoy the view. Look how far you’ve come. You’re fucking great, you deserve this rest. Ah, it feels great to rest. I’m so glad I took this rest. I’ll be ready for anything when I’m rested.


Distance covered: 18km; Altitude gained: 1200m; Highest point: 1600m