Every mountain I’ve ever climbed has taught me at least one enduring lesson. The most memorable I learned in the Serra de Tramuntana, looking from my map to a mountain ridge, lost under a glaring Mediterranean sun.
Last July, I packed a 50-litre backpack and boarded a plane to hike the G221, a 135 km trail spanning the Northern coast of Mallorca. From the ancient port of Andratx, the trail weaves a crumbling stone pathway through the mountains, climbing steeply towards Pollença on the North Eastern tip of the island. I’d planned to hike three sections of the route- one, my guidebook warned, more sensibly done with a mountain guide. It was this stretch I’d hike alone on July 12th.
I arranged my gear on the porch of a backpacking hostel in Esporles early that morning, swatting lazily at the clouds of midges already gathering in the cool dawn. Hiking from town towards a dense cluster of pine, I took stock of my surroundings: the mountains stretching as far North as I could make out, the gnarled olive trees and abandoned lime kilns nestled on their rugged slopes, the last vestiges of Majorca’s agricultural history.
I lumbered up the trail for a few miles, following a questionably reliable GPS app. I climbed in silence, taking measure of my breath as it heaved from my lungs. With time, the path tapered to a shallow trench barely thicker than my backpack, then disappeared altogether along with the battery on my GPS tracker. Now navigating largely by dead reckoning, I wandered hesitantly onwards, keeping the deep ‘V’ of the valley to my right and searching for a path through the tangle of wild olive scrub lining the mountain to my left.
By my hazy comprehension of the hurried route notes I’d taken in the dim light of the hostel porch, a steep scramble would connect me to a marked cattle trail, which I’d follow North to the coastal village of Deià. Unable to determine a clear path upwards, I decided to cut up the ridge directly.
Pulling at the baked rocks and heaving my pack up behind me, I wheezed upwards, trying not to think about the height I’d reached or the difficulty of reversing. In the blistering heat I stooped, at times using my hands to grasp thick handfuls of dry grass. I pulled over the uppermost ridge and squinted at the ill-defined trail twisting ahead of me through a tangle of hostile scrub. My face burned with the first traces of panic.
I was lost.
Not the ‘#getfound’ lost. The ‘how do I get to where I’m going?’, ‘what happens if I run out of water and die out here?’ and ‘what if I never get out of this thick, maddening jungle of pines and rocks’ lost.
‘I’m ok’ I mumbled, dropping my pack into a cloud of dust and sitting uneasily beside it. A pause. Then I began to cry.
A number of thoughts came to me and I sat on that stone baked mountain, staring at a vast pine forest I couldn’t find my way out of. I imagined what a cold shower would feel like if I got back to my hostel, my arms and legs marked with thorn scratches and sunburn to match where my pack sat. I imagined Nathan receiving the news that I’d been found, mummified and clutching my dead phone on the side of a Majorcan mountain. Mostly, I cursed myself at having been so stupid as to underestimate the dangers of wandering into the mountains with little more than an iPhone and scribbled paper notes to navigate with.
I looped back on myself in that maze of rock and pine for the bulk of the afternoon, scanning hopelessly for a way-marker. With the light fading to the soft bronze of early evening, I stumbled into a clearing under the wary observation of a tethered goat. It trampled nervously, bleating a high pitched ‘maa’ as I dropped my pack onto the tyre track, sunburnt and disorientated. As I struggled to release my water bottle from it’s netting, relief dawned slowly then all at once. Tyre tracks meant vehicles as surely as vehicles meant roads and I broke into a frantic jog. Tears of relief streamed down my pink cheeks as the thick yellow road markings of what I now knew to be the MA-10 came into view.
Sipping on a beer in Deià hours later, I took pause to reflect on my misadventures. The lessons of Tramuntana would dull in time. The white noise of cicadas would be replaced by the sounds of people laughing in bars. The sunburn would fade and the blisters would heal. I would leave these mountains, but their lessons would stay with me for a long time to come: that the consequences of underestimating them can be devastating. The rearing peaks and contorted pathways of the Tramuntana range don’t care for complacency, and I was lucky they’d let me off this time.
I let the overwhelming gratitude settle. The cool can of beer in my hand, the faint smell of salt blowing in from the coastal path, the steady buzz of insects rising to a crescendo in the bush to my right; the smells, sights and simple rhythms of life going on in the shadow of that beautiful and hostile wilderness.