I’d been so worried about walking in Spain that I’d forgotten about the challenges of walking in winter.
It started with wind, days of it sweeping across the open farmlands freshly ploughed and seeded and hitting me right in the legs.
Winter is a jumble of kit, a fumbling of hat on when you start walking, then off when you’ve warmed up, tuck it into your side pocket where it’s easily accessible, then back on when you sit for a rest, then change to a warmer hat for sleeping in.
Winter is a precision of camping, where tiredness must be put aside and action prioritised. Never mind that you have just walked for hours in the chill wind, that you are out of breath, skin tingling from the cold, muscles solidified by effort. Do not stand for a moment to catch your breath, put the tent up immediately, in whatever awkward situation you have found – on the edge of a ploughed field, in a grove of olive trees, behind a low spiky shrub of rosehip and reaching thorns which forms the only windbreak in this wide open flatland that you are so unaccustomed to after an autumn of high jagged mountains. The wind flows freely here, hard and strong and uninterrupted and getting into the tent is a relief, the sudden tingling hollowness of quiet. But do not relax, not yet, fumble socks and trousers off, immediately cover yourself with sleeping kit, up to your waist, and then start eating. There are only minutes before dark, fifteen, twenty, and there is food to eat, a diary to write. The food is cold and it will make you shiver as the blood flows towards your guts to aid digestion. It’s temporary though, just make sure you aren’t uncovered while eating, and try to move your feet, wiggle your toes, keep blood moving in your legs and warm up the sleeping bag more quickly.
There’s little chance for stretching, that falls by the wayside in these emergency hours, saved for warmer times in rest day bedrooms.
It wasn’t so hard at first, when the temperature was just under freezing at night, that’s fine, easy to cope with.
It’s nights at minus 5, minus 8, that’s when it gets more difficult. Fingers numb within minutes without gloves, condensation from breath gathering cold on clothing, frozen water bottle, electronics turning off or charging more slowly. My sleeping bag clunks with all the things I need to keep inside it for warmth.
Rustle your sleeping bag close to your chin, pull the hood over your head, remove it from your face, far enough to stop the wet fabric touching your face but not too far so that it still traps warm air around you. Pull the drawstring cords of your sleeping bag closed. Tuck it around your chin.
Now lie still. Congratulations you are now in a position to sleep. I hope you’re comfortable, even with your twitching legs and painful hips, because every time you move, you will have to rearrange the headcoverings to your satisfaction. Rub your thighs, your bum, your hips, try to ease the tension out of them, release your body into softer relaxation that brings you closer to sleep.
There’s an eon of time before it will become light again, your part of this Earth is in its deepest lean away from the sun and the sunrise only gets earlier by one minute each day. Stay close in the warmth, the waiting, the deep sleeping silence of a hibernating land.
14 hours to lie there in the darkness and wait patiently for light, to snooze and shift position, wake to the snowfall and hope it hasn’t blown inside the porch and covered your boots.
I’m only a couple of weeks into walking after the 8 week stasis of my second lockdown and I haven’t expended enough of my energy reserves to be completely exhausted at the end of each day; that will come later, after another month or so. So I can’t sleep straight away, at 7pm. I’m not passing out yet, as I have done so often, into a blank black sleep of a couple of hours, waking refreshed to discover, disappointed, that it’s only 10pm.
Nightimes are about patience, about trying not to sigh when you fumble your phone from a crevice of the nest you’ve cuddled into and seeing it’s 2am. Another 6 hours, you can tell yourself. Only another 6 hours to lie here, see if you can sleep some more, you’re warm now, and safe. See what happens when you curl your legs up, how does the hip pain feel now? There, tuck the pillow a little more to balance against the slope of the rucksack. There, doze now, get rest while you can. Listen to the wind that gently rustles the olive trees, imagine the ripples of the grass, the deer that pauses, ears pricked and nose twitching before resuming the delicacy of every tentative step through a world that could explode with a predator at any moment. Revel in the safety you have created for yourself, the privilege of the apex predator status that means you don’t even have to think about the problem of being attacked when you go to sleep on the ground in a remote area.
Snow has arrived in Spain, come down from the Pyrenees and the Picos to ice the lower lands, blown like dustings of fine sugar into the wrinkles of the ground, highlighting the labyrinth curves of ploughed fields, creating mini drifts in the corners of road junctions, where bare seed heads poke through to wave in the wind.
It snows in fine particles that accumulate like blown grit on the tent sides, I can wake in the night to shake the structure and hear the trickle tinkle of a million flakes rustling down off my roof.
Fresh snow on vineyards, the sprouts of last years’ growth newly trimmed back, leaving trunks writhing from the earth like zombie fingers, stark against the white blanket.
I trudge in this, the depth of snow swallows the push of each step and I wallow slightly, the muscles of my calves glowing with the exertion of the unusual movement. I have very strong muscles for a specific set of movements. My arms can push but not lift, my legs can walk but not cycle. I cannot run in snow or sand.
The usual pilgrim hostels are rarely open, I camp for three nights running in the snow, separating the frosty outer layer of my tent each morning and stuffing it into the side of my rucksack where it can melt in peace. I roll up the inner layer of tent, brushing away as much frost as possible but not able to get it all, especially where it mixes with the mud from where my body heat has escaped and warmed the ground overnight. Taking down the tent is the worst time of the morning, where my fingers need to be in thin gloves for the precision of the fastenings and fixings and they inevitably go numb, as do my toes when newly laced into ice cold boots. It takes a while of walking before my circulation warms the extremities again.
I always have movement, my key to safe outdoor living in the winter. Walk, get good hot blood circulating, make use of the interior furnace.
It’s a shock, one afternoon, as I pull the tent sausage from the side of my rucksack, to find that it’s frozen solid. The cold winds have blown against me all day until my legs are red and tingling, penetrating the layers of insulation with icy needles and tattooing my skin with an artic treasure map, a secret oracle, only to be read by those with whiteblind marble eyes. My inner furnace is roaring from the body’s exertion but like an open fire in a grand hall, the effect is only felt within a few inches. I have come within the shadow of the looming hillside and immediately the blank cold of the land is right there, unrelenting, the sadism of frozen metal, pressing like a flat palm against my face. The futile heat of sunshine does not linger.
I unroll the creaking tent bundle, it’s stiff and sticking to itself. I make sure nothing catches, that no part of it will rip. I take care with the carbon tent poles, not to bend them too quickly or add undue pressure.
Let’s have nothing go wrong here, I know that I am safe if I do this right, as I have come through so many icy nights before.