A couple years back two longtime friends and I tried to plan an overseas trip together. We'd met in Spain as students in a prior decade, and while life's chance circumstances eventually led to us all to living in New York City, the proximity also made us lazy in how adventurous we were. Across the East River was often the extent of our travels. Maybe the rare trip Upstate. To address the situation, we planned a trip to Scotland. Then that fell through. A year later, we stoked the embers again.
One of us had PTO to burn, another planned to leave a job. The timing seemed right. But to me, the original plan didn't. The logistics were wonky, the weather untrustworthy, and I craved something more heedless than traipsing around Highlands villages (i.e., going to pubs). It seemed portentous that it was now 10 years since we'd all met in Spain too, so I ran a search for "hut trips near Barcelona" and found a route in the Catalan Pyrenees that looked manageable.
I knew the Austrian and Italian Alps were famous for hut-to-hut hiking. But Spain? I also knew that convincing these two friends to sign on for this new plan was a long shot, but that this was the type of adventure we needed. I'd have to sandbag them.
Some character background: Both of these friends live in big cities—New York, London—and while they've both done some hiking and camping, neither of them are people you would describe as "outdoorsy." (One of them will take offense to that and one of them won't, and I don't have to identify who will and who won't because, on the off chance either of them read this, they'll both know.)
I put together a plan for the entire trip; a backpacking checklist, hotels, huts, driving times between locations, alternate options for everything. I also made a detailed outline of the three hiking days with distance, elevation, and estimated time on trail clearly, boldly noted. I knew that these numbers wouldn't mean much to either of them but they'd create trust in the plan—the necessary foundation of a good sandbagging.
Tickets were purchased, hut and hotel reservations were made, wool socks were purchased. We met at the Barcelona airport on an afternoon in early October, got in a rental car, and headed north. First, a night on the coast: cervezas by the sea, a sunset swim to wash off the economy class gunk, papas bravas, mariscos al ajillo, tortilla, croquetas, y más cervezas. Siempre más cervezas.
The following day we didn't leave the (Salvador Dalí-themed) hotel to start the hike until mid-morning, after a backpack packing demonstration and a grocery store supply trip. This wasn't in the detailed itinerary, which, it turns out, neither of my friends read in much detail anyway. Neither was the dull-edged hangover we each harbored; an Estrella-induced headache isn't ideal for tackling ten miles and 4,600 feet of elevation. There is some camaraderie in a collective hangover though, and camaraderie is conducive for a long first day on the trail.
In October, the Pyrenees look rather dull from afar. Awash in hazy sun, they're made up of mostly brown midtones. From the alpine village where the trailhead for the Travessa dels Tres Refugis begins, however, it's green and lush. The way climbs up through a forested canyon, past waterfalls and views back down over Iberia. The scenery buoyed our spirits and carried thoughts away from aching heads. It's steep, too though. The first signs of discontent in our party came after I mistakenly identified and announced the "final'' switchback of the first big ascent. Good-humored expletives were yelled toward the canyon's opposing wall as we zigzagged up a few more.
But soon after, a glimpse of the sublime: traversing the side of a cliff, we came through the canyon's narrow head and rock gave way to grass as a seemingly endless valley unrolled itself into the distance and around a far corner. If the rugged climb had stoked any malcontent in the ranks, the lively stroll along the river at the valley's center snuffed them out. We passed plenty of cows and marmots but not a single other person. One of my companions marveled more than once that he'd never been alone in a place so expansive.
This was my goal from the start, to show them something I knew they'd never seen. These payoff moments are pivotal in balancing out the pain, physical and emotional, inflicted during a proper sandbagging. Without them you're just being masochistic, and your friends might never accompany you anywhere ever again.
It also prepared them for what I knew, having looked at elevation charts while making the detailed itinerary, and what they didn't really, having not read it: The final push was the biggest push. Unlike our walk up the canyon where views were constrained, we could see up the side of the valley to the saddle we had to reach, and it was far away. Instead of dirt switchbacks, the way was a choose-your-own-adventure up a lumpy grass hill with an unyielding grade. Partway up, one friend (the one with more hiking experience) admitted that perhaps he wasn't as prepared for this as he'd thought.
It crushed them. Methods of exacting revenge were contemplated; murder was openly considered.
Then the geography turned on us; the crest we'd viewed from the bottom revealed itself to be nothing but a bump, and this false summit mutated my friend's brief moment of self-reflection into a barbaric verbal malevolence directed wholly at me. I expected this, and perhaps even deserved it. The wildly incorrect time estimates on trail signs didn't help. We reached the top of the saddle, the real top, just in time to prevent potential disaster. Twenty minutes later, we were sipping beers in plastic chairs outside the Refugio de Ulldeter, waiting for the dinner bell.
The second day—roughly 15 miles with 4,200 feet of elevation gain—played out similarly to the first, starting with a brief climb from the hut to a nearby col and into France. Then, a long wander down through a valley where the scenery and the sounds of cowbells and the stream flowing through its center could trick you into thinking you were in Austria. The Pyrenees could do with a bit more credit, I thought.
At the bottom we found Refuge de la Carança, the second hut along the "Route of Three Huts," and from there we turned to walk up another valley and back into Spain. The second day of any hiking trip is always the hardest day and the unending climb back to the alpine in the hot Catalonian sun made this second day particularly hard. Energy and spirits shrunk but the way to the ridge only seemed to lengthen. It walloped my friends, mercilessly toyed with their psyches. Here, a picturesque glen; then, a 400-foot rock stair to the next shelf. But above that, a pristine alpine lake; and beyond that false summit after false summit after false summit.
So we found ourselves in the crux of the sandbag, exactly where I expected it. It crushed them. Methods of exacting revenge were contemplated; murder was openly considered. What I didn't expect was that I was right there with them; I'd accidentally sandbagged myself.
So many remark on "the power of the mountains" that it's become a cliche, but how else can you explain what drove us, upon reaching that ridge, bodies and minds wholly depleted, the chance of making it to our next hut by dinnertime already slim, to drop our packs and climb to the adjacent summit, and beyond it to another lookout after that? Golden hour in the mountains will do that.
The way down was long, but all negativity had been dissipated in the early evening light. We did make dinner (by something like six minutes), and the Refugi Coma de Vaca was packed with happy people from Spain and France and elsewhere. The room was full of cheer as everyone ate and swapped stories of where they'd been and where they planned to go tomorrow. There was no telling who'd been brought and who did the bringing, our small party included. Three months later, one of my friends called the experience "one of the craziest trips I've ever done."
A happy ending is how you know the sandbag worked. When they can reflect how "that last climb sucked" but do so with a smile. Even during the most difficult moments, I'd been confident we'd come out the other side alright; I've been pressured into enough adventures that sucked in the moment but were fun in the end, impactful even. This is how you know it works, that it can benefit a friendship rather than destroy it. Sometimes a little coercion can be a good thing.
If you ever successfully sandbag your own friends, just don't be surprised if they never let you plan a repeat trip. There's always a chance of this. (End your trip at the beach to reduce the odds.) And know that etiquette insists that you accept the invitation to do their off-kilter thing when it comes.