You may be thinking that this post is about an ice cold beer after a long hot bike ride on a perfect Andalucían summer’s evening. I cycled past cascading scented jasmine and lush colourful bougainvillea crowding the hedgerows. The sun was a golden orb dipping in to the greeny blue ocean. Except that none of these things happened.
What was supposed to be a leisurely 3,000m. trek last weekend in Andalucía’s Penibetico mountain range turned out to be a freezing cold trudge through snow, hale, rain and rolling thunder. As my long term walking companion Andrew Wallace said “Not quite what I was expecting when I woke up in Sotogrande this morning”.
Better known as Sierra Nevada this stretch of the Cordillera Penibetica has the highest point in continental Spain – Mulhacen – which stands at just under 3,500m. glowering over the mediterranean to the south and the vast dusty plains and olive groves of Granada, Cordoba and Jaen to the north. The northern flanks of Veleta (3,389m.) are home to the country’s busiest ski resort and its proximity to the coast make it famous for the opportunistic ‘ski in the morning, surf in the evening’ brigade. I have heard it talked about often but I am the only person I know who has actually done it. Fun yes but it did involve a lot of driving and the sun had set by the time I got on a wave at El Palmar.
Summer is a quite different proposition, the snow has long since melted and this is the only place in Andalucía where walking in high summer would be considered to be reasonably pleasant. The valleys and plains are roasting at 35º plus and the only cool might be the air conditioning in the hospital waiting room while recovering from heat stroke. The drive to La Hoya de la Mora throws up occasional glimpses of the craggy north faces of Mulhacen and the Alcazaba, a very different aspect from the south where the famous Alpujarras mountains, historic home to bandits, vagabonds and Gerald Brennan culminate in gentle slopes where until recently it was possible to almost drive to the summit in the days before it was declared a Parque Nacional.
In true dictator fashion Francisco Franco made a bizarre attempt to create Europe’s highest asphalted road and surprisingly succeeded. The A-351 courses neatly from the city of Granada all the way to within 100m. of the summit of Veleta. This road then joins a dirt track that links the north to the south faces at the mountain village of Capileira in the Alpujarras. Happily these days the road is blocked off on both sides and a park bus transports walkers who want to save themselves the 20km. trek to the Carihuela pass. Bearing in mind the potential warmth of the day and the early start we too jumped on the bus, hands gelled and masks on. Bandidos heading for the hills!
Las Posiciones de Veleta is the starting point for most high level treks on this side of Sierra Nevada. This steep escarpment made of micaceous slate is a nightmare on a warm winter afternoon when I have been witness to the loosening of the mountain as the snow melts and chunks of rock come cascading merrily down the cliff looking for unwitting climbers to decapitate. The height of summer is quite different, the whole scene is quite bucolic with swathes of green in the moraines and the occasional mountain goat ambling along searching for tasty mosses and unfinished sandwiches. Southern Spain’s last glaciar disappeared here at the end of the 19th. century, but still patches of snow slowly melt in the afternoon heat filling up the numerous lagoons that sprinkle the mountains.
Our route for the day would take us from the Veredon superior de Veleta, dropping down to the Rio Guarnon, climbing the Veta grande, down again to the Laguna Larga. The aborted route due to bad weather took us up the Raspones de Rio Seco to the main track that would lead us on to the Carihuela Refuge and back down to the Posiciones. All in about 13km at over 3.000m., a reasonable hike on mixed terrain. The star of the day was 12 yr. old Alba Perez who is in training for the ‘Integral’ a 3 day, 46km. trek across the whole of Sierra Nevada with around 3,600m. of climb during the hike. Even in the heaviest rain with thunder cracking around her she was quite calm, usually ahead of the group and told me afterwards it was the best route she’d ever done – “Muy divertido!”.
When you’re so used to being a guide it’s such a relief to have somebody else leading. “Lucky you” said Andrew, “someone else to blame this time when we get lost!”. Our group of seven was made up of Carol Cardell, an old friend of mine and a geologist who kept us well informed of the type of rocks we were tripping up on. Her husband, Andy Kowalski, a meteorologist – most useful except that not even he would predict the storm we were eventually caught up in. Alicia Perez who guided us across the route, her daughter Alba and Eduardo Guerrero, a Sierra Nevada veteran who led us up over the Raspones in the storm saving us an arduous return over the route we’d just walked. As we joined the track we were joined by a few other dispirited trekkers coming up from the Alpujarras side. One old fellow looked as though he’d lost his goats and kept up a stout march overtaking almost everybody shouting vainly to the hills all the way. Perhaps he’d lost his dog, or his wife. Either way he didn’t wait for anybody when we got to the top.
I’ve had some of my best times and some of my worst times in Sierra Nevada. The best climbing and skiing new routes and the buzz of great companionship in the mountains. The worst being caught in a horrific gale and white out, we’d lost our compass, the GPS didn’t work and we were on completely unknown terrain trying not to fall off the north face of the Alcazaba. How different the same mountain can be depending on the weather.
I wasn’t sure whether my swimming training would do me any good at this altitude but both Andrew and I completely unacclimatised coursed through the day without a wheeze. The occasional stream was perfect for a refreshing drink but I was warned off swimming in the Laguna Larga for environmental protection reasons. Apparently all of the 50 lagunas have slightly varying ecosystems and the National Park rangers are particularly worried about the effect of all the hand gel we are so used to using now being washed in to the fragile waters. Anyway by the time we got to the Laguna Larga it was starting to hail. “Ha!” said Andrew, “these locals are running for shelter and look at us Scots, this is a good summers day for us”. The last laugh was of course had by the Andaluces as by the time the heavens really opened they had picked the best shelter.
Of course we all thought this was going to be a brief shower but soon the thunder rolled in and the rain lashed down interspersed with bursts of hail and snow. There was no more room for any more Hobbits under the only shelter visible so I ended up rather lonely my legs wedged under a rock desperately trying to keep my boots dry. After an hour my neck was so stiff from the angle I was lying at I built a pillow of rocks (nice and flat my geography teacher Carol told me afterwards – good for building, not so good for resting). We could have trudged on through the storm but nobody was really prepared for such bad weather and Andrew’s only concession to high altitude trekking were his boots. His shorts and shirt were better suited to Puerto Banus and a round of G&T’s at the golf club.
After almost 2 hours of rolling thunder we ventured out from our craggy holes. The sun was vainly trying to make itself felt, something I would have really appreciated as although it was probably 10ºc. my hands were bitterly cold. No gloves, no protection. Foolish me I told myself as the last time I climbed Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms with my girls I insisted they pack gloves and a hat. “But Daddy the sun’s shining and we’re wearing tee shirts!”. Well this morning the sun was shining and we were wearing tee shirts. Duh! (Maria and Isabella thanked me afterwards as we sat shivering on the top. They were wearing hats and gloves – I’d left mine behind!!!). Although the storm was unusually harsh for the time of year Eduardo explained that the extreme heat rising from the Granada plains mixes with the colder air above the sierras (literally above us as elsewhere on the mountain it hadn’t rained at all), condenses and then pours out from the clouds. It was just our unlucky day and the opportunity for me to give Andrew a new sobriquet – “Storm catcher” as this was the second time a violent storm out of season in Andalucía had chased him off the mountain.
We squelched along the graded track that joins the Alpujarras to the north side, skirting piles of hale and snow trying to imagine the view down to the hazy Mediterranean we were promised. Gradually we were joined by other walkers, everybody very amiable. The great advantage with Sierra Nevada is you know that there will always be sunshine somewhere on the other side of the mountain. Sunshine, a cold beer, a plate of jamón. Andalucía in the summer, you can’t beat it.