Monday, March 5, 2007

in which we attempt a winter ascent of Mulhacen

from John:

¡Holá! Buenos dias,
We are currently making the most of being almost fluent in the local language - delighting in the joys of shopping at the market, finding the toilets at the bus station, joking with the drunks in the park, and discussing post-modernist architecture and its effect on Spanish society over a copa or two in a crowded smoky student bar with earnest intellectual types that talk through their beards and over the loud thrash metal music. Well, sort of.................

After some warm-up walks up and down the heavily-graffitied streets of Granada (it must be a degree course here), and stoking up on chocolate, we headed off to Las Alpujarras - the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The mountains form a picturesque backdrop to the Big Al in Granada at this time of year. There´s a dusting of snow across the tops and we´d read that there´s lots of good walking to be had in the foothills at this time of year. So off we trotted.

The bus journey led us through many small towns and villages. An Englishman, Chris Stewart, has written a couple of books about coming to live here as a sheepfarmer ("Driving Over Parrots", I think is the better known.) In rather an ironic way, several English have followed sheep-like to the area to live. On the journey I got to thinking of the British who died in these mountains last year in the snow. A little while later Gayle mentioned it. We camped in Trevelez, at around 1400m, the second-highest village in Spain, and immediately got chatting to the campsite owner. She asked if we were going to go up the mountains - perfect weather, not too much snow etc. We asked about the British family that were caught out by the weather. Her and her husband were friends - they had left the campsite and gone for 5 days. Unfortunately only the son got down alive after a white-out in a sudden snowstorm. Despite this, and perhaps because of the forecast of sunshine and blue skies, we decided that instead of some low-level walks between villages, that we´d go upwards instead.

The very next day we took a path up to The Seven Lakes, just below Mulhacén, which is the highest mountain in mainland Spain. It was a lovely walk following a well-made farmers´path and then climbing up to and following an aquifer running across the hillside. This area is famous for its Berber-style villages and irrigation and terraces built by the Moors before they were finally ejected from Spain. Much of it remains, and the aquifers run for miles the length of the valleys to distribute water across as much cultivable land as possible. Eventually, we climbed through some stunted pines to reach a high pasture, now snow-covered. We followed someone´s footprints across the snow. They had been wearing crampons and eventually we reached a point where the path crossed a steep valley side covered in snow and ice. On the other side, the snow had melted, but frustratingly, we couldn´t reach it and nor could we cross the side we were on. After a bit of toing and froing and plenty of tentative steps we gave up and could only follow the footprints with our eyes up to the top of the ridge. We enjoyed the return walk.
The next day we awoke to snow. "Just like a schoolteacher", Gayle said, when I shook my head and predicted it wouldn´t stick. The day stayed cloudy and cold and we rested our weary legs and chatted to the only other camper - a fella from Bath who had just walked the Cotswold Way, and who was preparing to walk the Pyrenees. Richard had walked to the campsite through some of the lower villages, and camped wild a couple of nights. He´d been gazing at stars the second night and not spotted the fox wander into his tent. The fox´s scream was louder. Richard was travelling on the cheap - made us look like Alan Whicker and Judith Chalmers - and was full of plans for his fortnight in the hills. He too had been caught up in the possibilities of climbing some of the bigger mountains and talked about all the options. Meanwhile, I had come down with a cold and spent the day snivelling and coughing in a self-pitying manner. There was good reason for this - as Gayle had no sympathy for me whatsoever. Rigorously determined not to have plans deferred by my hyperchondriac tendencies, she suggested we still go ahead with our idea of climbing up with our tent to a 2700 metre ridge to "see what it´s like for camping" the next day. I agreed, between racking coughs, but only because there is a refuge 200 metres lower on the other side of the ridge. If all went well, we might even try to bob up to the top. Richard wanted to come too - keen to try several of the peaks.

The next day was sunny, bright and cold as we struck camp. We waited a while to see if the sun would melt the ice on the tent. It didn´t. The path climbed steeply and for a while there wasn´t a zig or a zag to be found. Super-fit Richard led the way and we puffed up behind him. It took us a couple of hours to get near the top of the ridge and then we hit a frozen snowfield which none of us wanted to cross. We decided to backtrack and walk through the rough. The wind was strong and cold. We had put on our rain jackets and gloves, and it was with some relief that we found some shelter for lunch, just below the top of the ridge. We could see the sea, and those with good eyes the ships too. After a quick lunch, and feeling like soldiers climbing out of a trench into the unknown, we set off. The wind had got stronger and we were having to walk into it. We reached the broad exposed ridge and a wide track running along it and disappearing under snow. Ahead of us lay Mulhacén and a long rocky ridge to Veleta. But the wind was too strong for us to stop and admire the scene, despite the sunshine and blue sky. Sometimes it felt we were going to be blown over with our packs. We staggered, crab-like, unable to speak to one another, the snot freezing on my face and my fingers turning numb, wooden and useless almost immediately. We spread out, and stumbled onwards, thoughts turning to finding the refuge that we knew was not far over the other side. We passed a bus stop. A bus stop? Ricardo at the campsite had told us that in the summer tourists could take the "Mulhacén Express" to this point, 2700 metres (about twice the height of Ben Nevis) and walk to the top in their espadrilles. He dismissed it with a sorry shake of the head "It´s not walking". This passed through my mind as we walked - feeling like an astronaut in an alien world - along with plenty of other thoughts: we're dressed for a summer´s day in the Lake District; I have a kilo of dried figs in my rucksack; is this what it feels like on the South Col?; Richard seems a long way away; why can´t we see the refuge?; glad I´ve got my wind-proof underpants on; does the bus never come up here in the winter?; I should have had another biscuit at lunch;my fingers don´t work - I´ve got frostbite; is this what Gayle means by a "walk in the foothills"?; don´t fancy cooking pasta in this wind................We had begun to descend along a broad track, but couldn´t see the refuge until we climbed over a small ridge. For a minute we were sheltered and could speak again. The red roof of the refuge drew nearer, and after an hour walking in the strongest wind I´ve ever known, we finally arrived. The place was almost empty, and it felt almost colder inside then out, but a log was burning in the dining room and the sun shone directly into the entrance porch which was completely still. Everything was quiet and normal again. My fingers stung as they thawed. Richard contemplated carrying on to a higher refuge, but changed his mind. We shared our tea with him and had hot drinks and sat by the fire with three uncommunicative Spanish walkers who were all planning to ascend Mulhacén the next day. Richard was going to follow them, whilst we decided the sensible option for us was to descend another valley to one of the other villages. After toasting ourselves by the fire we slept well that night.The morning was peaceful and sunny and the refuge surrounded by ibex. With some relief, mixed with a little disappointment, we took a path that descended down another valley with lovely views of the mountains behind us. The day was far more relaxing than the one before. From another white village we caught a bus returning to Granada. The next couple of days we could hardly see the mountains for the weather, and we left wondering how Richard had got on.