A climb to the highest mountain on the Iberian peninsula, the Mulhacen (3,500m) on Boxing day.
Approach to the Poqueira hut
2006/Dec/26 : A beautiful sunny, yet cold day set among spectacular scenery in Andalucia. The sun shone brightly and directly overhead, without a cloud in the clear lagoon blue sky. Yet despite its apparent warmth, I shivered and felt the left side of my face starting to go numb. Knowing this was not a good sign, I stopped, pulled by Gortex jacket from by backpack and put it on, pulling the cords tight to cocoon my face almost entirely in the hood.
Such is the weather on the 3500m high Mulhacén, the highest mountain on the Iberian peninsula where conditions can be particularly deceptive. Due to its latitude and position within the balmy climes of Andalucia, the sun often shines; but up on the higher slopes of the Sierra Nevada range the weather as in any mountainous region can often change dramatically (the temperature range is one of the highest in Europe reaching in excess of 25ºC in July and sometimes as low as -35ºC in January).
The cold wind at this particular moment was whipping up over the North face across the final ridge to the summit, with a force that had caused a sudden alarm at not being able to feel my lips. I looked towards the summit which was only 100m away and turned back to see my climbing partner, coming up the ridge towards me. I decided to wait. The day before we had driven up from Malaga to the village of Capileira. This tiny picturesque village of petit whitewashed houses, sitting high in the Sierra range is the second highest populated area in Spain. The drive up here from the main airport is wonderful. Starting along the coast, the gloriously uncrowded road glides by the Mediterranean sea over newly built viaducts and through atypical Spanish towns towards Motril. Here the road moves away from the coast rising steeply, continually winding it’s way up through the hills towards Capileira at 1400m.
As time wasn’t on our side after a brief stop at the village we drove on towards the Hydro-electric power station where we had planned to leave our car. Here the road peters out into a bumpy track which requires careful handling to avoid any nasty mishaps. As we drove on, the last few kilometres became rougher and more dirty until about halfway we reached a point where the ground was covered in light patches of snow. Even at this altitude the snow can be heavy and having carefully examined the situation we decided to leave the car where it was and walk the remainder of the way towards the station (This area is the European continent’s most southerly glacial landscape and although the last remnants of the glaciers melted away at the end of the 20t Century, snow stays on the ground at this altitude for most of the year).
By the time we reached the Hydro station it was already past 3 o’clock and knowing darkness descended around six, with a good 4 hour hike in front of us, we knew we weren’t going to make it to the hut during the light. Being reasonably experienced in mountain environments we decided to push on and assess the situation in an hour, at which point we would still have enough light to return to the car and stay in the village overnight if necessary. We walked on up through the Poqueira valley switching back and fore along the track as we gained height along the gorge on our right, listening to flowing mountain water as it cascaded down through the valley. Other than this sound it was peaceful and were both glad to be out walking and absorbing the sights and smells of this wonderful pristine environment. The Sierra Nevada itself is one of the most important biodiversity regions of Europe supporting up to an amazing 2,100 plant species of the total 7,000 that are recorded in Spain. 10% of this total are endemic to Spain & 78 species are only found here, indicating why it is such a valuable region.
As we approached our decision point, the last of the suns rays cast a shadow on the mountain tops in the twilight as we carefully assessed the situation. The weather was clear and apart from a slight mist higher up indicated windless, dry conditions. The track being well trodden indicated that we were unlikely to lose our way. Although Simon had his head torch I had dropped mine during packing of my gear and despite much fiddling and cursing I had been unable to get it to work. Still with an ambient light reflecting of the patches of snow from an almost full moon we felt assured enough to carry on.
We trudged on upwards as the snow becoming more concentrated and deeper; Simons torch casting a beam of light in our path. As we gained altitude and it grew darker the temperature fell , but we continued on onwards deep in our own thoughts. After another hour, we had slowed considerably as tiredness and hunger took over. We had only one thought on our mind and that was now to reach the hut for a hot drink and food. By now we had ascended into the mist appearing as two ghosts in the gloom plodding ever slowly upwards. It was now completely dark as the mist blocked out any reflected moon light. The lack of light and our longing to be off the trail began to play tricks on our minds.
At every switchback we turned, above us there appeared a dark structural shape to which we consistently agreed could only be the hut; yet every time turned out to be a disused, dilapidated shepherds building or large rocks. Disappointed at every turn, we kept repeating “..must be round the next corner”, until finally after almost 5 hours we ascended over a crest to reveal a light in the near distance which could only be the hut !
Night in the Poqueira hut
The Poqueira hut stands at 2500m, has 87 ‘beds’, and is open to hikers all year round. A modern hut well built in a classic natural stone style it is clean, welcoming and offers a refuge point for those hiking in the area. We took off our boots at the entrance and walked into the lounge where we were greeted by the sight of a warm log fire which raised our spirits no end.
To our surprise the hut was very quiet with only a handful of other hikers venturing up to these heights in the middle of winter. As the warden did not speak English and I no Spanish, how I was glad of those evening language courses that I had taken as we conversed in the basic but useful French that I knew. The hut was well organised, sleeping 16 to a room, two rows of four bunk bed style mattresses common in mountain huts, with each hiker allocated a locker to store gear out of the way. The hut even has seated toilets and showers, which is quite uncommon but a welcome luxury that is so often absent in the mountains.
We quickly sorted out our gear, and raced down to warm ourselves by the fire and were greeted by one of the finest evening meals I can remember. A delicious vegetable soup with bread, followed by copious amounts of cheese pasta with a large bowl of Spanish meatballs. There was so much that despite our hunger we were unable to finish it. We spent the remainder of the evening by the log fire swapping mountain tales with fellow hikers from Belgium surveying our maps for the assault on the summit the next day. That night cocooned and warm in my sleeping bag, I slept like a log, waking fresh and ready for the long day.
Ascending the Mulhacen
2006/Dec/27 : After packing up along with a quick breakfast we were keen to get back out into the mountain air and tackle the steep slope behind the hut that led to the ridge and then the summit. The weather was glorious as snow lay all around, with the sun shining beneath a light blue cloudless sky. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were and ventured out in mid-morning, striking straight up the hill towards the North. As we gained height again, we looked back down the valley and were surprised to see how far we had travelled the day before. It was a glorious sight and feeling both fresh and full of energy after a quality nights sleep and fine meal it wasn’t long before we reached the ridge. The weather was superb for climbing, perfect visibility and a reasonable temperature although the soft powdery snow made the initial going along the ridge hard, as it often wouldn’t support our weight. Regularly, we would suddenly plunge up to our knees jarring our crampons into the hidden rocks below. Higher up the snow was firmer and easier to travel upon and it wasn’t long before we approached the final ridge to the summit. It was here that I waited patiently for Simon as the wind whipped over the ridge cutting the cold into me. Once he arrived we hastily made tracks up to the summit.
The wind was far less forceful on the summit itself and we spent over half an hour absorbing the views, shooting photographs and film and regenerating ourselves with food and drink. All around lay the white capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada range, dipping away to reveal the plains of Andalucia to the North. On a good clear day it is said to be possible to spot Africa to the South. Finally, before departing we took one last look around and pondered over the memorial to the three climbers who had died the previous year. This tragic episode where three British men caught in bad weather died of hypothermia, was again a reminder of how we are part of nature and the mountains, not distinct from them and that they should always be treated with the utmost respect.
With that in our thoughts, we headed downwards back along the same route that we had arrived. On this occasion we timed it perfectly, reaching the hut just as the sun was dipping below the far peaks casting its orange glow behind us on the snowy banks from which we had just descended. We stood there gazing in awe, not wanting the sun to disappear, so that the day would not end, until with a last flourish it finally disappeared. In the dying light, we trudged wearily but incredibly contented along the path to the hut for another filling meal and a night beside the log fire.