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.
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.
> I had travelled from a crazy dystopian world, that in reality was not crazy, and into a sane world that felt bonkers.
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.
I had a similar experience while out in Cham for the season. Covid gradually went from a distant rumble which popped up in the news about far away places to something more immediate and real which was increasingly likely to impact us in some way. There was a step change when the lifts in Italy closed, shortly followed by Northern Italy and then the rest of the country going into lockdown. We figured it was only a matter of time before the lifts in Cham would close but hoped that the French would not do a lockdown and thought we’d get a few more weeks at any rate. In the end, the lifts closed a week after those in Italy and lockdown came two days later.
We had planned to do a route on the Petites Jorasses which was going to take three days with the approach and the descent. Rumours swirled round the valley that the lifts might close. However in the evening of Friday 13th the lift company emailed to say that there were no current plans to do so. Thus reassured, we took the Montenvers train on Saturday morning as planned, wondering how fast things would develop. We had a bit of phone reception as the Leschaux hut and got the news that evening that lifts along with non essential shops would be closed from the following day. We figured that we might as well do the route as planned and all went well as far as the climbing was concerned.
On Monday morning, we had a surreal experience skiing down from the Leschaux in perfect weather but with the Vallee Blanche and the James Bond track deserted, apart from a few tourists walking up the track. Returning from a few days in the mountains to the hustle and bustle of the valley is always a bit strange but this was just plain bizarre. Cham was a semi ghost town, with few people out on the streets and one in, one out at the supermarket. It would have felt a bit creepy if we hadn’t already been aware of the new restrictions!
Still, there were no movement restrictions yet, though some rumours circulated about it. Our next planned route was the Ginat, which was going to be harder work without the lifts and huts but still feasible. We debated whether it would be socially responsible to get on a big alpine route in the circumstances. In the end, Macron made the decision for us by announcing that evening a nationwide lockdown from noon the following day. My climbing partner and I initiated Project Frexit and drive through most of the night to catch our ferries. I was queueing for passport control as the lockdown went into effect. The French border police didn’t bother checking anything and instead three of them sat in a small booth - not exactly setting a good example!
On the British side, things were largely carrying on as normal for the time being. The most bizarre moment was when I got pulled over for a customs spot check in Dover - after I told the guy I had been in Chamonix in France, he asked whether I was going to go back there. Perhaps he had not seen the news...
Update: your PM is infected with Covid-19 and in the intensive care unit. As someone in the US, I'm concerned that our countries are going to pay a heavy price for the fact that our "leaders" don't like to listen to scientists, particularly when their recommendations have negative consequences for the economy. It will be a sad chapter in our history.
It was good to read that, Nick. That week you arrived home there were suggestions from some I met that the French/ Spanish/ Germans/ Austrians were 'being weak', and some refused to believe we would soon be under similar conditions. I was meanwhile watching my Ecuadorian/ German/ French language teaching colleagues desperately trying to arrange passage home, just as you were. Everyone home now, but only just. Take care. I hope you find a way to abuse your finger tips to the same extent in Cwm a Glo...
Hey, cheers everyone, thanks a bunch for the above. Tough times. Hopefully we can all have a big glass of wine or three at Kendal later this year. Take care. PS, yeah Tom, fingertips being abused, but not as much as I would like
at least you got the ferry! ours was cancelled. Both Spain and France were virtually totally deserted, we couldn't believe what it was still like in the UK once we got off the ferry. Having not seen any news for months, we were also astonished that the PM was on live TV saying things 'you SHOULD' and 'if POSSIBLE' and 'I URGE you' when only across the channel places like France, Spain and Italy appeared to be taking things much more seriously.
I'm currently just starting week 4 of the lockdown in Catalunya having driven down from Sheffield on the very eve of the crisis deepening here.
I'm at 'home' with my Catalan wife in the small town of Tàrrega from where, in more normal times, within an hour's drive I have access to dozens of the best sport cliffs in Europe.
Unfortunately, my current physical activities are limited to visits to the supermarket and a thrice-weekly walk with a borrowed dog!
With so little to occupy my days I spend an unhealthy amount of time on the BBC website and, from what I've seen, the difference in attitude between how seriously the general public in the UK are taking the situation and how seriously it's being taken here in Spain is absolutely staggering.
Every supermarket in this town has a 'cleaning station' at the entrance, with freely provided hand sanitizer and disposable plastic gloves and the vast majority of people also wear masks. The streets are so quiet it's like Christmas Day at 3pm!
Speaking on the phone to friends back in Sheffield it seems that this level of precaution is almost unheard of unless you're a front-line health worker. Do you wear a mask in the supermarket? I ask. "No, people would look at me funnily if I did that.." is the usual sort of answer.
Fortunately there have so far been very few deaths in Tàrrega (3 or 4, I think) but 50km along the road towards Barcelona, in the small city of Igualada, the toll is now well over 100.
> Speaking on the phone to friends back in Sheffield it seems that this level of precaution is almost unheard of unless you're a front-line health worker. Do you wear a mask in the supermarket? I ask. "No, people would look at me funnily if I did that.." is the usual sort of answer.
Dronfield, not Sheffield, but close enough. Both times I've been out to do the weekly shop over the last two weeks I've seen people wearing masks. On Monday when I last went out, Aldi had got plexi glass booths up around the checkouts to protect the workers which was good to see. They have someone on the door letting one in one out so the shop isn't too busy inside. He was also giving everyone a wipe to wipe down their trolley handle. People queuing calmly 2-3 mtrs apart around the car park to go in. Marks on the floor for till queues to keep social distancing. Almost everyone is wearing gloves. I used a makeshift mask (a buff with a coffee filter paper in it!) last time, following the US CDC instructions although it didn't work very well and I see the issue that people are talking about that if you end up fiddling with it to keep it up over your nose, you are missing the point. I think I will try getting the sewing machine out and making a more classic surgical mask style one for next time.
Anyway, I think people are on the whole taking it pretty seriously now in the UK. When you do go out, it is very quiet. I compare the UK situation to Finland, my former longtime-home. The Finnish government have done some pretty heavy things - (sort of) sealing the capital region off from the rest of the country using the military for example. But at the same time they only passed legislation to close pubs and restaurants last weekend, 2 weeks after the UK.
Glad to hear that the people of Dronfield have got it right... I'll tell my friends to drive across town and come shopping in your neck of the woods.
Re face masks: it's a sign of the times that the western world is apparently suffering a shortage of something so incredibly easy to produce — the simplest type must be one of the most basic manufacturing procedures on earth and doesn't require anything more than a bog-standard sewing machine. I reckon that with the kind of setup we had with Podsacs a few years ago, just me and the missus could have knocked out 500+ in a day.
So get your machine out — there are plenty of good tutorials on You Tube currently. If you have an old goretex garment you're no longer using that would probably be the perfect material...
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