The Valley of the Tears

March 11th, 2020

The plan had been brewing for over three years, since January 21st, 2017. That was when I first set eyes on the infamous Valley of the Tears. It was then just a road on a map that led down to the coast. I was the navigator and took us along this vertiginous little mountain pass during an exploration of Gran Canaria. My companion, driving our cheap rental car, wasn’t too impressed with the choice, terrified at the prospect of meeting something coming up the other way, as well as the snatched views of the drop from her side of the road. Fortunately, at least 99% of visitors to this island go no further than its narrow ribbon of highly developed coastline. The interior, by total contrast, remains a relatively undiscovered gem for walkers and cyclists. The cycling is especially good—if you’re fit enough. Whether you happen to be going up or down, the roads here are not for the faint of heart. This one felt long in the car. It was hard to credit how far it dropped.

A few days later, on my own for the last segment of the holiday, I was able to enjoy some cycling and I was drawn back to the Valley of the Tears. I felt like I didn’t have enough miles in my legs to climb it on this trip so I descended it again, able to get a much better feel for the terrain than I was able to get from the car. I was left in awe of its steepness and length. It wasn’t hard to reverse the direction in my mind and imagine the difficulty it would present going up the other way. I can’t answer the question as to why such extremes of endurance prove so attractive to me. I remember finally reaching the valley bottom and being sorely tempted to stop, regroup and climb straight back up again. That intuitive, instinctive, irrational half of me was totally up for the challenge, trying to persuade my more sensible self to ignore the madness of the proposition. It wasn’t too long before common-sense eventually asserted its authority—for once. The legs were already tired from the previous few days cycling. I’d not got enough miles in them before leaving from a wintry England. I wasn’t fit enough. I vowed that I would come back better prepared and take it on another day. And that was going to have to be sooner rather than later. At sixty-one, the power available to my legs was diminishing year on year. If I left it too long, I wouldn’t be able to generate enough watts to keep the wheels turning on the first steepest ramps.

There was little opportunity to do anything about it for a couple of years. Nonetheless, I kept doing Google searches to read about the experiences of others. People come from all over the world to ride this one. With every description of how hard it is, the desire to find out for myself deepened. Things like … 

… just INCREDIBLY tough, the hardest climb I have ever done and I have done a lot. Relentless draining power sucker of a climb.  Andy Clark, Manchester

two words for this: f*cking madness! This climb is by far the hardest thing I did – and will do – in my life.  J-W B, Belgium

The VOTT was certainly the toughest climb I have ever experienced. Normally it’s a question of how fast I can make it over a climb but where the VOTT was concerned I wondered would I actually make it over the top.  Jamie Busher, Ireland

I thought that when I had climbed the “Mortirolo” and “Zoncolan” I had done the toughest climbs in Europe – but no !!! The VOTT beats it all.  Bjarke Andersen, Denmark
One of the hardest climbs in all of Europe.  Charles Bennett, US

Roll on three and a bit years and I’m back in Gran Canaria with my two sons for a week of cycling, walking, running, some sunshine and more than a few beers. It was a holiday we’d been promising to have together for way too long. The day chosen for me to climb the Valley of the Tears was Wednesday, March 11th, 2020. Forrest was set to drive the rental car. Roam was in charge of photography. It may not have been the most sensible idea to go for a run with Forrest before we left that morning, to the top of a local summit from the town of Santa Lucía, but it seemed only fair as he was going to be stuck in the car for most of the day. It served as my warm-up, short of not riding to the base of the climb.

Before the start of a challenge like this there is only excitement and a bizarrely uplifting sense of anticipation. There is no consideration of the agony laying in wait for me on the road ahead. I’m able to feel the adrenaline starting to pump. That’s probably because of the uncertainty. The buzz comes from not knowing whether I’ll be able to complete this. That’s what makes it worth doing—taking on something that’s going to push me to the limits. I’m writing a story for myself and I don’t know how it’s going to end. That’s the whole point. I’m desperate to get on the bike and find out. 

As with any good story there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to this climb.

The Beginning: Fear and Resignation

The first part of the climb is ridiculously steep and fear soon clicks in. I’m immediately out of the saddle and struggling to generate the power I need. My body is soon riddled with discomfort. I’m barely moving forward at walking pace and I’m still in massive oxygen debt. I’ve been fooling myself. The heart is racing and all my excitement has been replaced by a resignation to defeat. I don’t see any way of being able to sustain this effort. I’m going to fail. 

I reach a very short downhill section where I actually choose to apply the brakes in order to be able to descend for as long as possible. I need to recover, get air in the lungs, get the heart rate down. I dawdle along the flatter section that follows, which doesn’t go on for nearly long enough. The road ramps up again and the pain and doubt creep in once more. Just as I again resign myself to defeat, I spot my sons parked up ahead. Their cheers and encouragement spur me on. I manage a smile for the camera. 

The Middle: Trust and Belief

A third of the way up the climb and the fear or not completing is receding. I’m beginning to trust in my training and get some belief back, hopeful that I might just be able to do this. The game is on. I’m past the steepest sections and the intensity of effort required has lessened—only to be offset by the fatigue that’s now set in and starting to build. This is a more familiar experience to me. My mind is accustomed to overcoming tiredness. I have the mental tools needed to grind my way up a long hill. It’s easy now to smile back at the boys wherever they find places to stop, which is getting easier for them now. Seeing them regularly spurs me on even more.

The End: Euphoria and Confidence

I’m now holding an expectation of being able to finish, confident in my ability to endure the fatigue in my legs and keep twiddling away. It’s not going to be fast but that doesn’t matter. It was never about a time, only getting to the top without having to take a break, without the feet ever touching the ground, one continuous effort of turning the pedals.

The gradient starts to ease and, in the sure knowledge that I’m going to complete, I realise I’m actually having fun. I’m in control. I can take in the scenery properly, able to appreciate this other-worldly landscape. I’m feeling good about myself and my fitness for my age. I’m moved to label it as a feeling of euphoria. This is why I’m here. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I watch the boys drive past to wait at the signpost that signifies the top of the climb. The road has a few ups and downs now and I’m able to ride the last rollercoaster section to the finish line in some style.

It was the coolest thing possible to have my sons waiting at the end to cheer me home. They’ve not had much opportunity to see me doing my ‘thing’ like this before. They were mostly too young, or I was on my own, too far away. This side of my life has, I think, always been a bit abstract for them. It was certainly real enough today. More than my own achievement, what was most special was seeing them so clearly proud of their old dad. I felt proud of myself, for sure, but I was just as proud of them for honouring me in the way they did. I could also see in their eyes that they wanted this euphoric feeling of mine for themselves one day. I suspect, in a few years time, they’ll be smashing my rather pedestrian time, although I’m betting it’s going to be harder than they think.

I hope this account will inspire others to seek out this spectacular and incredibly rewarding climb. Just go do it. You know you want to!

Photography by Roam Hamilton.

Postscript: A couple of days later, we only just made it back to England before the pandemic took hold of the world. If I’d left this attempt even a week later, it’s likely I would never had got the chance to do it.

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