The Smell of Change Article

© Nick Bullock

Nick Bullock writes about a climbing trip to Catalonia cut short and the shifting scenes around him as he drove home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday 18th March, 2020. Tremp, Catalonia.

The morning was overcast. Bands of cumulous hung over the hills to the south. I'd decided months before that I wasn't doing winter this winter, and I'd been rock climbing in Spain for three and a half weeks. On the run up to winter, I had lost sleep over the thought of avalanches, falling ice, serac collapses and deep, dark crevasses. I just wanted to clip bolts in the sun, to feel warm and safe. But here I was about to set out on an unplanned journey that had kept me awake for two nights and into what, I wasn't sure.

Storks over Coliseum.  © Nick Bullock
Storks over Coliseum.
© Nick Bullock

…My trip had been going well. I'd been beaten up by Coliseum again, a 40m 8a in Rodellar that is so consistently overhanging that when you lower from it you need a compass to find your bag. Burling through roofs on openhanded, Gogarth-esque holds, pinching baguettes, popping for a mono, knee bars, caves, knee bars, cutting loose, smears, pockets, knee bars. Coliseum was a beast, and the beast had yet again brushed me off. Rich Kirby and I ran away from Rodellar when the weather became cold and wet (although no rain hit any of Coliseum's holds). Before we left, I stood in the dry dirt beneath the crag and watched wave after wave of white storks passing overhead. Migration. A return. The gabble and conversation between birds as they flew in a V formation filled the quiet beneath the overhanging rock. I imagined the fields and pylons of Europe filling again with these elegant birds. Welcome back.

El Latido del Miedo at Les Bruixes, another 8a, went better than Coliseum. In my typical style, I stepped on without a hope in hell, but to the amusement and amazement of watching friends, I slipped and slapped and fought my way upward until pumped and wide-eyed, I clipped the chains. It felt good, unexpected and exciting being lowered and stripping my quickdraws. I think my smile was as large as when I had stood looking up staring at the storks. Everyone was laughing and happy for me. I was happy. The training I'd been doing was paying off and I still had two and a half months to go.

Rich and I moved to Camarasa for two days of onsighting. The river in the base of the valley sparked with needles of sun. The lake, held in place by the dam that is separated by dark tunnels, had a green tinge and a duck. At the end of our two days we both had thin skin and eight routes. Back at the parking, I shut my van door before saying goodbye to Rich –goodbye for the time being anyway, because he was meeting his partner Helen, and I was driving to Margalef to meet Philippe, the Black Canyon climbing ranger I had met while climbing with Tim Neill in Colorado the previous autumn.

It was nine at night when I pulled into my usual dossing place on the plateau above Margalef. The wind turbines, massive grey sentries guarding the high ground whined, the lights on their heads flashing red into the darkness. Owls in the pine trees above my van hooted a welcome back. Philippe was already there, the old Ford Fiesta he had loaned from his dad was reversed onto a level spot. Rosemary bushes flattened by the car released their scent into the warm night air. The next day we went climbing on Raco de la Taverna, a steep and orange crag above the Pantà de Margalef, and by the end of the day we had climbed a few routes and left the clips in a few others.

Back on the plateau, talk between beer and food preparation was about the coronavirus situation which appeared to be escalating, although it didn't affect us. It had only been a week since I had climbed in Rodellar, where people came, climbed, hung out, climbed some more and went. There had been talk about the virus affecting people in China, but it felt another planet away. Rightly or wrongly, climbing life continued. Well, it wasn't as bad as the flu and it would be sorted out soon anyway, no need for panic. But now Philippe was becoming concerned: in seven days he had to catch a flight to the States. I've been on so many expeditions to Asia and South America where there is always something going wrong, but generally the wrong sorted itself out. I thought that Philippe was stressing, that it was not going to be an issue. Of course planes would fly, this was Spain not Nepal, they were never going to cancel flights for a virus that's only like the flu… although around the world the count of people contracting the infection and the death toll were increasing.

The next day Philippe and I climbed again, and the day was just about climbing with no phone or internet signal at the crag. But once back in contact, Philippe's concern rose as he received calls from his family urging him to get out of the country while he could. "It'll never happen, how can they stop you going home?" I said, but that night I was proved wrong: Trump announced that the US was suspending travel from the European Union.

On our peaceful plateau, surrounded by olive and almond trees, the call of hoopoes, and the whir of turbines, we had a rest day breakfast. Philippe was looking at early flights; his actual flight was only a few days away, but being stuck in Spain and losing his work carried too high a cost for him. I would be OK. I'd sit on my plateau for a few days, or find a climbing partner, before my friend Keith flew out from the UK. At 1 a.m., Philippe managed to change his flight, and in the morning we went out for our final climbing day together. Although the campsite café had closed and the village shop was cutting back hours, there was still a collective feeling amongst the climbers that things would work out and climbing would continue. But as the deaths around the world increased so did the fear for the ageing community of Margalef. Climbing at Margalef closed later that day.

It was dusk when Philippe and I said our goodbyes in the car park near the river and the centre of the village. Half an hour later, back on my plateau, I heard from Keith: his flight had been cancelled. In fact, almost all flights coming into Spain had been cancelled, and many going out were restricted. I had a beer and took stock. I sent Rich a text message asking what he and his partner Helen were going to do. Helen had only been in Spain for three days, but I was sure she would have to return early to the UK. Rich called me in the morning, Helen was booked on a flight from Barcelona the next day. We decided I would meet him at his and Helen's place near Tremp after he had dropped her at the airport.

I clung to the idea that Rich and I would be able to climb. We would go to secluded crags, we wouldn't see anyone, we would do no harm, it would be OK., And in a few weeks, Zylo, my partner was flying to Spain and my trip would continue.

Back when a primary concern was mashed fingers after a near-but-not-quite attempt!  © Nick Bullock
Back when a primary concern was mashed fingers after a near-but-not-quite attempt!
© Nick Bullock

In the morning, I drove away from the plateau. The rain started on the outskirts of Lleida. Creaking wipers smeared dead flies across my windscreen. The roads were empty, the pavements were empty, the cafes and bars were closed. Shops were closed apart from supermarkets. As I pulled up outside Lidl a van pulled alongside and a man wearing a mask got out. I walked in the rain towards the shop, where a line of people stood apart from each other. Most of the people were wearing masks, some wore blue plastic gloves, all were getting wet. A security guard wearing a mask was policing the door, one out, one in, the numbers were restricted so people inside could avoid other people. Once inside I was shocked at the empty shelves. I paid by card and received my receipt from a masked and blue-gloved cashier.

The rain continued as I drove towards Tremp. Mountain passes and tunnels; all wet, all deserted. The road to the climbing by the river in Camarasa was barred, and the parking place where we had struggled to get a spot just days before had one van, its curtains closed. By the time I pulled onto the small field at Rich and Helen's place, usually so dry, but now the rain had freshened it. The whole of Spain had been locked down: it was now against the law to leave your house except to help someone, buy food or travel to vital work. The numbers of people infected and dead were multiplying.

I had no symptoms of the virus (I had hardly had contact with anyone for days), but walking towards the house, I realised that if I was infected, I could kill Rich because he suffers from a condition for which he takes immunosuppressant drugs. I really didn't want to kill Rich. He was almost my only friend with a similar attitude to projecting routes of a similar grade! I've since heard it said that this virus is just killing the old and the ill, it's natural, but Rich is only 55 and climbs 8a+, given more time he might even climb 8b!

We met in the kitchen with an elbow bump, "Go wash your hands" Rich told me, "I'm not ready to die."

Into the evening reports from friends came in: Spain was certainly in lockdown. France was also on the cusp of a full lockdown, and the borders were going to be shut. It would be socially irresponsible to go climbing with this going on around us. What if we met other people, or had an accident? Even if none of these things happened, it just felt morally wrong to go climbing. What gave me the right to think I could break the law and selfishly continue with my thing while people were dying in their thousands? In a week the Coronavirus had become the biggest event in my fifty-four years, and if it meant I was going to miss a bit of climbing, so what.

Clearly, climbing under any circumstances wasn't acceptable given the situation, so I booked a ferry from Caen in France to sail in two days. But with the speed at which things were changing, two days felt like a long way and a lot of deaths away.

The next morning, France went to full lockdown. People were told not to leave their houses unless they had permission to travel. While fuel stations, supermarkets and tabacs, (you have to love France) remained open, all shops, cafes, bars and gyms were closed. I was a UK citizen travelling home, so I hoped I would be OK, but the thought of being stuck in my van somewhere in France began to concern me.

Rich and I spent a reasonably quiet last day, but the updates kept coming: in Spain, Italy and France, regulations were being introduced all of the time as the death toll increased…

…I set off from Tremp at nine in the morning. After passing the town of La Pobla de Segur on the edge of the Spanish Pyrenees, I didn't see another car for what felt like hours. I could have been the last person on earth. But dropping into Del Pont de Suert, and onto the main road heading over the Pyrenees into France, I was stopped by a police road block.

"Where are you going?" A short, tough-looking Catalonian policeman asked. I said I was heading to the UK. His reply was brusque: "No." I then said ferry… Britain… England… Angleterre… "No." I tried one more word, "Home," and with this our language difficulties appeared to be crossed, "OK." He waved me on. Passing through the popular Pyrenean town of Del Pont de Suert, I saw one person walking a dog and one other heading to the supermarket.

I was stopped by the police again at a roundabout, and again passing the border into France. On both occasions I explained I was driving home to the UK, which appeared to be the correct response. Once in France, I relaxed a little, there were no more borders to cross apart from the one into the UK. Heading on empty roads through a usually-busy valley toward Pau, it made a pleasant change not to have someone driving a few millimetres from my bumper! I reached the autoroute north of Pau and breathed another sigh of relief.

The autoroute was deserted. I passed a télépéage and collected a ticket. Either side of the autoroute was marsh and green. Collected water reflected the blue sky. Two white storks were stood in a field – you made it! Stopping at a deserted service station I tried to enter the building but the door was locked. A man behind glass asked me what I wanted. "Les toilettes." He opened the door with a push of a button and I followed a corridor of red tape stopping me from walking anywhere else.

On the outskirts of Bordeaux, I came to a télépéage. Gendarmes stood waiting for drivers. I pulled up, payed my toll, and drove forward.

"Where are you going?" a gendarme asked.

"Home, the UK."

"Where is your permission to travel form?"

"I don't have one, I'm driving back to the UK."

"You may not know, but President Macron has to personally sign a form to say you can travel."

I think this statement was a little confused in translation!

"But what can I do? I was on holiday; I've now booked an early ferry home."

He laughed and so did I. The situation was surreal. He asked if I was going direct to the port, I said I was. He asked for my passport and after checking it, he said go ahead. I thanked him and continued.

On into a blazing, blinding sunset. To the right, a ploughed field the size of several football pitches. The earth was turned to light brown. A green tractor worked the earth, gulls and black-headed terns chopped the air with bent wings. Four wind turbines circled slowly, backed by a red-stippled sky. Change. I could smell change as clear as the freshly turned earth. The smell was invasive, uncertain, scary. The smell standing in the dusty alcove beneath the soaring overhanging corner of Coliseum only a week before, that smell had been one of hope. So quickly this feeling had evaporated.

Nick lowering from the top of Coliseum.  © Rich Kirby
Nick lowering from the top of Coliseum.
© Rich Kirby

I drove into the night, the dry grey of tarmac, two lanes disappearing at the limit of the van's lights. An hour and a half from the ferry port near Caen, I began to look for an aire to stop for the night. Then my phone rang. Brittany Ferries letting me know all sailings had been cancelled. I asked if any were sailing the day after, I was told the next would hopefully be in April. I pulled into an aire to book a Channel Tunnel ticket for the following day, but for some reason, the payment wouldn't process. Four more times, each time a feeling of increased desperation, but to no avail. I called Zylo. She couldn't get the payment to clear either. I started to imagine myself being stuck in this aire for weeks. But at last, she managed to get a ticket booked for early afternoon, and sent me the confirmation. "Please note the card used for payment must be presented at check-in by the cardholder" it stated. Zylo had bought it with her card. More uncertainty.

I didn't want to stop for fear the roads might close. I hadn't had anything to eat or drink since breakfast, but I drove on towards Calais. On past the lights and the glass and the reflections, both real and imagined. I drove past empty pavements and the slow-flowing river running through the centre of Rouen. I imagined the smell of the river; it was one of stagnation. No vehicles, no people, no dogs, no cats. Everyone holed up, sleeping, anxious, how many would be coughing like goats in the weeks to come? Bars in mourning, tabacs in mourning. Sometime after midnight I stopped in an aire packed with lorries, cars, campervans. I was an hour from Calais. I drove onto a grass flattening, ate a sandwich, and tried to sleep. I imagined myself stuck in France, isolated, living in my van, becoming ill and not being able to buy food. Ridiculous, but with countries locking down, planes grounded, ferries moored, roads blocked, shops shut, the impossible felt tangible. A few days before my only concerns had been of moves, grades and clips.

I woke to mist and the rumble of refrigerated lorries. Dew held onto the grass. The road had a few more cars than yesterday, but not many. Electronic signs above the road shone yellow warnings of COVID-19 blurred by mist. The wire fences either side of the road felt restricting. A red kite stood on a post, and on a post either side stood crows. The kite looked down at the crows in annoyance, while the crows looked devilishly up at the kite. Rows of white head stones marking the graves of soldiers killed in the Second World War filled the fields.

I entered the Eurotunnel terminal. Like almost everywhere else on this journey it was deserted, apart from the lorries queueing for the autoroute. I passed through the barriers (even without the card my ticket had been paid with!) and was soon entering the metal confines of the carriage.

When I drove from the carriage after thirty-five minutes underground it seemed like I had popped from the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. I had travelled from a crazy dystopian world, that in reality was not crazy, and into a sane world that felt bonkers. The roads were busy, people dressed in bright clothing and wearing hard hats worked in gangs or sat eating together in pre-fabricated sheds. At a petrol station people were filling up with fuel and paying inside, where a group of people were shopping and socialising. Supermarket car parks were overflowing. People sat eating outside and inside restaurants. A group of teenagers played basketball in a park and the takeaways were doing brisk business. Close to home, Pen y Pass car park was rammed and a large group of people sat near the window of the youth hostel, laughing and drinking beer. Driving down the Llanberis Pass is usually a joy, sun or rain, day or night, but this time I felt scared. The laybys were full. Five climbers squeezed together under Jerry's Roof to spot each other and give encouragement.

I pulled into the yard at Cwm y Glo at dusk. The streetlight turned on as I climbed out of the van. The house was empty, Zylo was in Nottingham helping her sister who is immunocompromised and has two young children, one still at school. The house was dark and cold, so I turned on a lamp and lit the fire. Sitting on the old sofa, I poured a large glass of wine and waited. I wish I could say I felt relieved to be home ... but I didn't. The smell of the place was different ...

Postscript: It was another five days after my return before the UK went into a similar lockdown to that of Spain, France and Italy.

6 Apr, 2020

A really good account. Thank you.

I had a broadly similar experience, driving across Spain for the ferry at Bilbao. Then confined to my little cabin for 27 hours. Finally back here, where things still seemed normal. Unreal there and unreal here. But then the unreality there overtook the unreality here.


6 Apr, 2020

Nice piece Nick. No one wants to kill Rich, he was a great person to spend some time flailing on a route with at the Terradets. Also Mick, glad to hear you made it home! Out of the frying pan and probably back into one that is just waiting to get hot!

6 Apr, 2020

I enjoyed this; it encapsulates many a climber's thoughts as the virus worsened. This bit is quality:

"I really didn't want to kill Rich. He was almost my only friend with a similar attitude to projecting routes of a similar grade!"

6 Apr, 2020

Well, time will tell, for all of us. Hope you're OK.

Heard you were out with the wads. I loved Rach's description of Pete's 'mileage' - onsighting some 8as. How the other half live!


6 Apr, 2020

An excellent read, captures the pure bizarreness of the way the world changed in a few short days,


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