Climbing in Estepa

Friends, old and new, whizz down the motorway towards Estepa. The morning is cooler than it might be given the time of year, and the haze hangs on the horizon while ‘Horses’ by Patti Smith fills the car in advance of the September Iconica Fest concert. We talk music, work and life, but mostly we’re looking forward to coffee after an early-ish start.

The two cars pull up at the rendezvous seven minutes apart, stopping at a roadside bar for breakfast and to pick up the last member of the party. I know this because the WhatsApp group has been pinging messages back and forth since last night, although promissing to self-destruct since its inception.

‘Aquí tamo’, we type in Andaluz. We’ve arrived.

Breakfast follows some semi-awkward “post-covid” introductions and greetings, because if I was often stumped by them before, I’m now entirely out of practice (I haven’t kissed friends hello in forever).

The tostadas de jamón arrive, made with proper pueblo bread, along with coffee, as a group of cyclists dismount and make their way to the neighbouring table for some breakfast of their own. They look like regulars and I wonder if they do this every Sunday. Large bellies clad in fluorescent yellow-green lycra seem rather incongruous, and yet I’m sure they can cover far more miles than I’d ever manage.

I love these types of Sundays because Sundays used to look very different. A morning rush to a building where we’d sit for several hours, listening to whatever was being said or sung from the front. It always felt more stressful than freeing, and yet at the time I thought it made sense. Sometimes it could be interesting, sometimes it felt relevant, but the longer I sat in that pew, the more questions I asked myself, and the less it felt like faith — of any kind — could be contained between four walls.

Today, as the caffeine hits and the conversation flows, I finally begin to feel at ease. I blame a bad night and new faces, but there might be more to it than that. I’m nervous, but I have no reason to be. Back on the road, my brain finally starts kicking into gear and at last I’m feeling excited for the day ahead.

It’s not far to Estepa. Being July, we skip the famous polvorones and park on the outskirts of town. From the boot of the car we pull out backpacks, rope and other safety equipment. All set? Let’s go climbing!

As we begin the short uphill walk to the rock face we pass a couple of walkers on the small stretch of tarmac and I’m reminded of the time we did the camino. My mind wanders to good memories while I take in the view, then tries to focus back on the group conversation where they’re discussing, among other things, which way to the gate in the fence.

I seem to be doing this a lot lately, weaving in and out of conversations. It’s not that I don’t want to join in but my mind keeps going off at odd tangents, like the loose rocks that roll off down the hill, displaced by our shoes as we zig zag our way up the path. Something sets them off, but it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll end up.

We walk on, leaving a small trail of dust behind us. Gradually the ground evens out and I do manage some snippets of conversation while we head into the trees towards firmer, more solid ground. We’re almost there, now.

Once at the base of the climb we start pulling out harnesses, helmets and shoes. I look up to where we’ll be going in a minute, studying the route and trying to assess the difficulty against my energy levels. These first ones look doable although I’m a little nervous about the height. Still, I’ve got a good feeling about the day as we decide what to climb first.

All set and geared up, we pair off; two to climb, two to belay and two to watch. We take it in turns, choosing which routes we each want to do and whether we’d lead or top rope them.

When I started climbing lessons in September looking for something fun that would get me out of the house more, my only expectation was to learn how to climb safely. Instead, I found a very special community of climbers who didn’t hesitate to encourage, challenge and give advice at every step of the way.

I forget sport can be like that. Good for the body, but also good for the soul.

Two of the guys go first and are soon half way up. The route on the right is long but not too tricky, the one on the left has fewer hand holds but plenty of good places for your feet. I watch from below, perched on a rock, taking mental notes for my turn.

It always feels good to be outdoors. We haven’t been climbing together for a while, and this particular group is a good one. Summer has brought lessons at the gym to an end for now, but they have been the highlight of my week.

I found myself looking forward to the next session and feeling miffed if something got in the way of me going. Climbing outdoors is different, in some aspects better, more enjoyable. Less crowded, for one. Peaceful, too. I sometimes find myself worrying about safety outdoors, but I know these guys have my back.

Not long after the first climbers are both back on the ground, challenge completed and commented, we switch over. I fasten the rope to my harness with a figure 8 knot, dust my hands with a little chalk and begin the climb.

Suddenly everything else around me fades, my focus is on where I’m placing my hands and feet, pulling myself up and away from the ground. The higher I go, the more I have to remind myself not to look down. Quite why I decided to get into climbing when certain heights can make me dizzy, beats me! I guess I enjoy the adrenaline rush and the sense of achievement that comes from completing it.

I manage fine today (unlike my last stunt at a longer climb) and after taking a quick look at the view from 25m up, head back down to join the others. I can’t quite see them from the ledge but I can hear their voices travelling up from below.

I love how conversation flows around all sorts of topics, from Stranger Things to bad films, to pilates and covid. The fact they translate the series title so freely, makes me think of home and the Spanglish we fling around. It kind of suits it.

I can’t get my brain to remember Don’t look up when Moonfall is described, but that’s where my thoughts go for a second, it may even have been mentioned in Spanish. By the time I remember, we’ve moved on to something else, like why our generation gets to handle so much bad stuff or maybe it’s just time to get climbing again.

A quick break, a second climb and then it’s my turn to belay. The sun begins to shine through the haze to our spot and the flies start pestering us more as the day gets warmer, which might have been what made me lose my footing and give my climbing partner a scare just as he was beginning his descent (Sorry! I hope there are no hard feelings…).

We finish up on these routes and decide to move slightly further up the mountain to a shadier area. We send a scout ahead while we pack up and then join him as he guides us to the place.

A few birds soar close to the rock face, a couple of pigeons but also some birds of prey. As far as climbing goes, we have several options to choose from here, ranging in difficulty. The others all climb more than I do, so since I’m not feeling too ambitious today I let them take the lead. I do top rope one more route, which was a fun challenge, but mostly I watch or belay.

I’m very much a visual learner, so watching others climb can be as fun as climbing myself. Calling encouragement or pointing out possible holds, it’s all part of a day out climbing. We all cheer when someone achieves a tricky move, I admire the stamina and repeated efforts. By now I’m worn out and ready for lunch, but thankful I got to come.

As I sit by our bags and snap a quick photo or two, I’m reminded of my athletics days and how sport fosters community. Connecting with friends like this is special in ways I find hard to describe.

It’s that word community I keep coming back to as I write this. It implies connection and trust, fun, almost family. It’s something I hadn’t felt much since leaving the traditional structured church, but why shouldn’t I experience it here under the open blue sky?

I know some of them more, others I met just today, but somehow watching them interact together conveys the strong sense of community found among good friends. If these people can get me to forget my phone for a while, enjoy the moment and just ‘be’, that has to count, right?

Once everyone has had enough climbing for the day we head back down to the cars and lunch; it’s gone half past three and I’m already on my second handful of dried nuts and raisins.

We drive a short way to a roadside restaurant with a bunch of lorries parked outside, always a good sign. The cool air conditioned room welcomes us and we sigh, grateful to be out of the sun. Even if my friend hadn’t been talking wonders about the place all day, I would have known it was good just from looking at it.

It had the perfect vibe and the smell of homemade cooking. There was a row of hams hung all along the ceiling above the bar. A series of cow bells, ranging in size from ‘small’ to ‘what kind of cow wears that?’, decorated the space over the corridor to the kitchen. A number plate that said ‘Lisboa’ hung above the door, seemingly out of place, along with a painting of some place I couldn’t identify. I wondered what the story was there.

To the left, above the unit displaying desserts such as fresh fruit and what appeared to be natillas, flan or similar, other agrarian equipment decorated the wall. A murky fish tank was perched on top of the unit and seemed to hold a single large goldfish. Below the staircase, on a rail, were the white paper tablecloths that are a staple at any restaurant like this and a table with cutlery and serviettes.

The banister itself was covered in cheap kiddies toys, the kind I remembered seeing in similar restaurants dotted all over Spain during the car journeys of my childhood. Display cabinets in the centre of the room had crystals and gemstones, a table covered with local confectionery lined the centre of the room, too. There may have been bread, as well, but I didn’t really look closely.

We headed to the loos to wash our hands and freshen up, then sat at a table near the stairs and the telly. It seemed like a local program was on and whatever it was appeared to involve the whole town. I tuned it out and focused on the menu.

Drink orders were placed, then all but one proceeded to order the flamenquín, a traditional dish from Córdoba. The local variation was far superior to any I’d had before and turned out to be a very good choice indeed. Thanks, friend, for talking your head off about it, all morning. I think we can all agree you were right to do so, because it deserved every word of praise.

I had my back to the room, but apparently one of the other diners was some famous flamenco person. I forget the name and wouldn’t have recognized the face, anyway. My attention was instead grabbed by the toddler with big eyes who sat contentedly on the bar as mum chatted to the waiter.

The waiter himself had a colourful personality, a no-nonsense, down to business attitude, yet friendly and efficient. He made us do a double take with his warning about the hot bread (cuidado que queman más que las palabras de una suegra; i.e. they burn more than words spoken by a mother-in-law), but he kept us informed as to the progress of our order and pattered back and forth between the kitchen, the bar and other tables with a cheery attitude.

Talk centred around food, film and a debate on when a spoiler ceases to be a spoiler. If there are films I haven’t watched, it was unlikely I’d ever watch them, anyway, which was why I made no effort to stop the conversation. I did, in fact, enjoy it. I will confess, however, that there is a list of classics on my ‘to-watch’ list which I might get around to watching someday. None were mentioned over dinner, though, and Pulp Fiction is one I have seen, so we’re all right on that one.

After a final round of coffee, we headed back to the cars with happy hearts and full stomachs. Time for goodbyes, a joke I almost missed and a couple of closing remarks concluding a tiring but enjoyable Sunday.

I couldn’t have asked for a better day of climbing.

When’s the next one?


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