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Travessa Fever

Inter-Comm, autumn 1995

Travessa Fever

by Peter Dunkley

In the first of our reports on the Travesses, Peter Dunkley tells us what it means to go on a Travessa  – and how he lived to tell the tale!

If a court sentenced you to a travessa, you’d probably want to appeal on the grounds that it was a “cruel and unnatural punishment” . In Andorra though, people of all ages sign up for an entire season of these events – and cheerfully pay entrance fees to do so.

The summer traverses have been an institution for over a decade, ever since the Federacio Andorrana de Muntanyisme came up with the notion of an annual foot-race across the mountains. It soon developed into a series of races, every two weeks, from late June to early September. Working separately with the seven comus, the Federacio designed routes that would take competitors through some of the most beautiful – and formidably challenging – parts of each parroquia. This year, there were six events; Andorra la Vella and Escaldes-Engordany rolled their previously separate courses into one.

To attract as many entrants as possible, the Federacio decided on six categories. They ranges from infantile – eleven to fourteen years old, who race an abbreviated course – to Super Veterans of fifty years or more; there’s even a sprinkling of competitors in their late sixties-early seventies. Prizes are rewarded in each class as well as for different categories of entrants; all-female, mixed, youngest, etc. The coveted top prize is a Championship Cup awarded to the person who accumulates the highest number of points during the season.

For safety reasons, people compete in pairs, with both partners having to finish within a hundred metres of each other. It’s not a good idea for husband and wife to enter as a team. Close finishes have been known to result in quite unforgivable insults being hurled by one party at the other, in the heat of the moment.

Travesses are not for everyone. Most of the sixty or so people who line up at dawn on a Sunday morning, poles in hand, ready to propel themselves up the  side of a mountain are the same, immediately-recognizable types you see on TV at the start of a marathon: sinewed, wiry specimens with muscled thighs, calves of steel and an expression of grim determination. To be honest, not until you’re lolling around the finish, watching the rest of the clapped-out field crawl in after you.

Why am I doing this?

A travessa always starts with a steep up-hill trek. It sets the tone for the affair and eliminates, almost instantaneously, anyone misguided enough to have signed up in the belief they were participating in an agreeable, Sunday morning doddle. The Encamp has a why-am-I-doing-this, one thousand metres to the Collada de Prat Primer. The most gruelling start, though, is La Massana’s, a hyper-ventilating, one thousand six hundred metres straight up the side of the country’s highest mountain, Coma Pedrosa. The figures are ‘verticles’ . of course; total distances vary from fifteen to as much as twenty-two kilometres.

After the crippling initial climb, competitors are offered some modest relief; a partial descent of a few hundred metres. It’s followed typically by a second up-hill segment of anything from three to four hundred metres. The final section is always a long slog down to the finish. “Down” isn’t necessarily good news; the Escaldes descent, for example, includes three kilometres of sometimes wickedly-steep, ankle-wrenching, loose stones and boulders.

You’d think that a course of some twenty kilometres which took you past limpid lakes, alongside tumbling streams, through evergreen forests and flower-strewn meadows, would afford ample opportunity for meditation on the glories of nature, the eternal verities or the ruinous price of a good bottle of cognac.

Not a bit of it. With heart pounding, a red mist in front of your eyes and a gaze fixed on the next few metres of trek, the only thing you’re really likely to reflect on is your chance of reaching the finish before stricken by a medical emergency. It’s brutal. One – younger and fitter – CIA member who competed in the La Massana travessa confided afterwards that her knees hadn’t trembled quite so much since the time when she … but we digress.

Despite the pain, or perhaps because of it – so perverse is the human condition – traverses can be habit-forming. The same people who trotter into bed on a Sunday night, comprehensively knackered and swearing that THAT was absolutely and positively their last travessa, are usually among the first at the tourist office a few days later to collect their programme and sign on for the next one.

It’s true that performance improves with practice. And by the end of the season, you’re lost weight – and become intolerable smug about it – and you never miss an opportunity to steer the conversation around the subject of mountains, so that you can name-drop the peaks you’ve climbed. But you’ll probably never reach the form achieved by the people who regularly take the first few places.

The winners of the twenty-two kilometre Escaldes travessa covered it in an amazing two hours, seventeen minutes. The knee-trembled lady made it in just over four. The writer – a nice little mover along the straight, but hitherto unknown for doing mountains – took nine hours. He never intended to compete, though. He was just along for the ride, taking photographs and composing notes for his piece about travesses. At least that’s what HE says.

Travessa Day

by Kay Kay

And now, Kay Kay tells us of her experience on a whole season of travesses

I don’t know how I ever became involved. I enjoy exercise, but not punishment. Traverses are punishing.

Travesses are mountain races organised throughout the summer by each of the Parishes, and I’m sure there is fierce competition to see who can set the most difficult and demanding course. They range from fourteen to twenty-two kilometres with several climbs along the route totalling, on average 1,400 metres of ascent, including the highest peaks in Andorra. The views are spectacular!

Competitors are classed by age and sex. Groups range from juniors, sometimes as young as ten or eleven, to Super Veteran. This latter are group starts at fifty, and the oldest competitor is usually a Persian ski instructor who’s seventy! One of the great things about the traverses is that both the youngest and the oldest competitors receive a trophy – simply for entering.

In my second race, the winners finished in under two hours, the average was between three and four hours, my husband and his partner (both Super Veterans at sixty and seventy respectively) finished in a little over three hours, and my partner and I sneaked in with a time of over seven hours. A little embarrassing since the delicious meal at the end of the race will not begin until all competitors are safely in.

The events are well organised. Maps are provided and at certain points along the routes there are controls where the competitors check in. These serve several purposes. Firstly, the check-points are often on the peaks to ensure that no one takes a short cut and avoids the climb; secondly, it enables the Mountain Rangers to keep track of everyone so that nobody is lost on the mountain; and thirdly, it is where the Creu Rioja (Red Cross) provides nourishments, first aid and encouragement.

On my first race, I was crawling up to the peak of Foree dels Soldats (2,761 metres) when I found myself at the feet of a handsome young Red Cross worker. He kindly offered me, in English, some chocolate or a drink. “How about a helicopter?” was my desperate plea. Little did I realise that in a real emergency, a helicopter would be on hand within minutes. A comforting thought.

Don’t let me put you off. If you enjoy walking and thrive on a challenge, there is no better way to spend a Sunday. Everyone travels on their one speed. Some of the youngsters actually run great part of the course, while others walk, and others merely stagger.

On one occasion, I went with a friend from England. We were soon at the back of the field, chatting to the police who ‘sweep’ the mountain behind the last competitors. Once or twice they pointed us in the right direction. Strictly against the rules,  but it was patently clear that we weren’t contending for the first prize.

We were treated to a round of applause when we finally made it for the celbrational meal at the Hotel Rosaleda in Encamp. The meals are usually excellent, nutritious and fun, ranging from al fresco barbeques to sit-down meals in local hotels. The wine flows freely, as does the water for the more serious athletes. The meal is followed by the Prize-giving. A Trophy is presented to the first three couples in each category, and also to the youngest and oldest competitors in the race. Many of the Parishes also present commemorative tee-shirts and some have a free raffle with such splendid prizes as mountain bikes or tennis rackets.

I have now completed my first full season of races. I’ve met some wonderful people, my Spanish, French and Catalan have developed beyond the mime stage, and I feel fitter and healthier than I have for years. As the “Veteran Women” category is not very well supported, I’ve managed to win quite a few impressive Therapies to add to the family collection – and I’ve put them high up where no one can see the engraved, tell-tale word ‘Veteran’.

Published in the Autumn Inter-Comm of 1995