Some five years ago, during an attempt to hike up the mountain La Concha (which, beautifully enough, is slang for vagina), I realised I suffer from quite severe vertigo. This was news to me. You’d think anyone with severe vertigo would be aware of it, but up until that point, I simply hadn’t been in a situation where it was triggered. Rooftops, balconies, elevators and the like are no problem to me, since there is no actual risk involved when standing on solid ground looking down. Therefore, I was genuinely surprised as I started feeling nauseous and developed tunnel vision during the hike up La Concha. The reason was the very real possibility of stumbling on some loose rock in a hairpin curve, subsequently falling headlong down the hillside.
Kristoffer had to give me his share of the water and food we’d brought, since being utterly terrified while climbing steep hillsides in scorching heat depletes your body of quite a lot of energy. The more panic, the harder it is to focus, and the more mistakes you make – and so the hike gets even more challenging. Despite resting in the shade, drinking plenty and gulping down four boiled eggs and two oranges, I had to admit defeat. We were near the top of La Concha when my vertigo got the better of me and we had to turn around. On the way down, I had to count out loud from one to ten, managing only ten steps at a time. Being a person who likes to consider herself something of a bad ass, this was a humbling experience, to say the least.
These days, my vertigo doesn’t stop me from doing scenic hikes. Being aware of it, and preparing myself mentally before getting up in the mountains, helps. Two years ago, we made a second attempt at La Concha, or, as I like to call it, Pussy Mountain. This time, I had better shoes, making the hike substantially easier. In addition, I was in better shape than the first time. I find that trusting that your body will carry you through takes the edge off. The three-hour hike turned out to be only mildly challenging, and also quite nice. Bad ass ego restored.
I’m a firm believer in expanding your comfort zone, widening your realm of possibly pleasurable experiences. If you’re scared of something that isn’t inherently detrimental, you should do it over and over again, until it evokes less, or even no, fear. Hiking up hillsides isn’t terrifying to me any longer. On the contrary, I find that it’s one of the most – if not the most – pleasurable things in life. Rock climbing, on the other hand, still scares the shit out of me. Kristoffer is a skilled and enthusiastic rock climber, who’s been kind enough to take me climbing on numerous occasions. Frustratingly enough, it’s evident that I could easily become a good climber, since I’m strong, lean and nimble – but I absolutely hate it. It’s the risk of falling and knocking your teeth out that repels me.
Doing Via Ferrata, then, seemed like a middle ground in between hiking and rock climbing. In Gaucín, there are two beautiful routes. We chose the simpler one, going around Castillo del Águila – the Eagles Castle, which is the medieval fortress overlooking the village. It still classifies as a difficult route, requiring some previous experience. This I did not realise until the morning of the advent. “I do have previous experience”, I told our guide Raquel Granadero. “I have refused to climb plenty of times.” She didn’t seem overly concerned, where as Kristoffer, knowing about my previous meltdowns, crassly stated “It’ll be interesting to see how the guide deals with terrified people”.
The morning of Via Ferrata-day, I had some coffee, which I usually stay off. Since giving up caffeine, it works as a surprisingly strong performance enhancer that I can use when needed. Two small cups make me feel positively euphoric throughout the day (but if I use it more often than every other week, the effect wears off, so it’s for special occasions only). Other preparations included a long meditation and yoga practice the night before the climb. What worried me most, was knowing that once I’d started, there would be no turning back. If the vertigo got bad, I’d have no choice but sucking it up and continuing to the end of the route. In the past, I have been known to burst into tears, demanding Kristoffer to call a “mountain rescue helicopter” – which is something that may or may not exist. Since we’d be going with a guide, I very much did not wish to bruise my ego by throwing a tantrum in the midst of the Spanish mountains.
Being Swedish and having sticks shoved up our arses, we’re very punctual people. Due to my reluctance, we were, nevertheless, ten minutes late to meeting Raquel at the Petrol Station in Gaucín. Raquel Granadero runs Pangea Active Nature and specialises on hiking, climbing and all things outdoorsy. Kristoffer already knew her from a rock climbing session last year, but I’d never met her before. We took her car, with all the gear, through the small village and parked by the fortress. I didn’t say a word during the short ride. Once I’d gotten into my helmet and harness, and walked up the steep stairs leading to Castillo del Águila, it all felt better. When Raquel warned us that the beginning of the route would be challenging, because there is a slight overhang where you actually hang from under the rock, it felt worse again. From previous bouldering experience, I know that overhangs are hard and that that’s where I usually lose my grip and fall. We’d be attached to steel wires, of course, but the prospect of falling still terrified me.
I went between Kristoffer and our excellent guide Raquel, who are both fearless climbers. The beginning of the route was indeed the most challenging part, but I expected it to be much worse than it turned out to be. There was no physical strain at all, which made the emotional part easier. Again, being able to rely on your strength helps. Whenever I got scared, I kept repeating something that one of my favourite yoga teachers often says: “You may feel fear, but you don’t have to become terrified”. In other words, it’s perfectly fine to experience and acknowledge any emotions that arise, but you shouldn’t become absorbed by them. You’ll be better off just briefly observing them with detached interest and acceptance, before letting them go.
Over all, the Via Ferrata was a beautiful experience. The estimated time was 2 hours and 20 minutes, but it only took us 1 hour and 45 minutes. A definite win for my, admittedly delicate, bad ass ego. I’m happy to say I’ll take any chance to do more Via Ferratas in the future. There is one in the nearby mountain El Hacho, and yet another one in the village of Casares.