The old Sierra Nevada RoadMartin passing beneath the Crestones de la Río Seco
“It’s a bloody long way”, says the silver-haired man with a South East of England accent upon hearing that we are making our summit attempt in a day. “Our group stayed the night at the Refugio de la Carihüela to break the climb," he continues, barely pausing to draw breath. "Last year we didn’t even get close to the summit because of all the snow and ice. It's brutal up there.” It's mid-May and Martin and I are about an hour into our climb of Mulhacén, the highest mountain in Spain’s Sierra Nevada range which straddles the provinces of Granada and Almería in the south of the country. Doubts begin to crowd my mind as ‘Jeremiah’ proceeds to describe in great detail how much snow was encountered, the debilitating effects of the altitude, and the time it took his party to summit. All that is missing is his basket of figs, and I feel somewhat deflated as we walk away, wondering whether it’s wise to try and climb this 3,482 metre mountain, the highest peak in Europe outside the Caucasus Mountains and the Alps, in just one day. Perhaps we should have stayed overnight in one of the refugios too…
Knowing it would be a long day, we set out early from the Albergue Universitario at Peñones de San Francisco, a mountain lodge run by the University of Granada. We were the only people staying there, but just a fortnight earlier the place would have been bursting at the seams with skiers and snowboarders eager to enjoy the last of the winter snow. Now, the large car park at Hoya de la Mora and the vast ski village sprawling across the mountain slope surrounded by retreating patches of dirty snow and motionless ski lifts, are eerily deserted, as desolate and bleak as a northern England seaside resort in mid-winter.
Although it’s only around 9.00 am, the sun is surprisingly hot on our shoulders as we follow a thin trail worn bare by the passage of countless feet that undulates its way ever upwards, occasionally crossing an asphalt road, the highest in Europe, that switch backs its way towards Posiciones del Veleta (3,100m). Taking this trail rather than following the road cuts off some 5-6 km. In the summer months, the Sierra Nevada National Park authority runs a mini bus service to Posiciones del Veleta from where people make the short climb to Veleta and the more adventurous set out for its twin peak, Mulhacén.
The trail weaves its way along the top of the Barranco de San Juan, at times hanging perilously close to the edge of this rugged ravine where one slip could result in a fatal fall. As we ascend, we pass the rest of Jeremiah the Englishman’s group slowly making their way downwards. Red faced and leaning heavily on their walking poles, they are grumbling loudly about the distance and the steepness of the terrain. Mountain gazelles these are not!
We soon spot the Sierra Nevada Observatory and the white dish of the IRAM radio telescope which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. At around 3,000 metres we discover that there is still an awful lot of snow about for mid-May, and the Laguna de las Yeguas below the road remains partially frozen. As we approach the Refugio de la Carihüela we disturb a herd of Southeastern Spanish ibex that are perfectly camouflaged against the rocky terrain; they melt away as soon they spot us. The refugio is just as well camouflaged, a low semicircular structure constructed of the surrounding rock that blends perfectly with the landscape.
Refugio de la CarihüelaThis mountain hut is situated in the pass between Veleta and the Tajos del Tesoro
We sit on the stone bench in front of the refugio soaking up the view towards distant Mulhacén and the even more distant and exotically named peak of La Alcazaba (The Citadel). Such names might have been lifted straight from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights. As Andalucía was the last stronghold of the Moors it's no surprise to discover that these mountains have Moorish connections. Mulhacén is named after Abu I-Hasan Ali, or Muley Hacén, as he is known in Spanish, the penultimate Muslim King of Granada who died in 1485 and, according to legend, was buried on the summit of the mountain that came to bear his name.
My eye follows a thin white line where snow lies on a gravel track. This is the old Sierra Nevada road, once drivable but closed to traffic in 1999. It leads towards Puerta (meaning door or gate), a gap below the Crestones de la Río Seco which really do resemble the comb of a cockerel angled sharply upwards into the hazy sky. Beyond this the road weaves its way round Loma Pelada behind which Mulhacén towers. It does indeed look a bloody long way!
The atmosphere is full of Saharan dust, giving the sharply etched landscape an odd, glassy hue. The dust has also trapped the heat making the day abnormally hot for the time of year, and we are extremely warm in just short sleeved woollen base layers. Despite the heat, enormous snow patches cling to the bare brown mountain slopes and we can see that the route crosses several of the steepest of these. Fortunately we had the sense to pack a set of half crampons. The snow is soft and sugary and I’m instantly glad of them as I traverse the steep snow-covered slope leading away from the refugio. Below the old road we spot the small Laguna de los Vesares swollen by the snowmelt. There now follows a long plod across snow and scree slopes towards Puerta. Through a gap in the Crestones, we shudder at the vertiginous drop into the blue-green Valdeinfiernos Valley.
Snow covered slopesMulhacén still looks a bloody long way off!
Puerta, a narrow, snow choked cleft of rock is aptly named, beyond which another vista more barren than ever unfolds, with the old road clearly visible as it sweeps round the bare and lifeless Loma Pelada. The cluster of small tarns named Lagunas de Río Seco that should be visible below the old road are completely buried beneath snow, their presence only betrayed by the slightest depressions and hint of aqua. With the exception of the snow, the landscape reminds me of a scene from Mars, made all the more Martian by the strange light caused by the dust in the atmosphere which affects the Rayleigh scattering, so that the sky does not appear to be very blue.
We decide to follow the old road rather than take the direct ridge track above the Luguna de la Caldera, as we are not sure how steep and snow covered the terrain is above the lake. The snow-free road ensures that we make good speed round Cuenca de Río Seco below Loma Pelada. Where the road turns sharply downhill towards Laguna de la Caldera, we pass a small rectangular building perched on a shelf of rock with fabulous views down the Seco Valley which we later discover was the Refugio Pillavientos. We finally spot the Refugio de la Caldera, which, like the Refugio de la Carihüela, is built of local stone and is therefore almost invisible against the barren landscape.
Refugio de la CalderaThis refuge makes a great base camp for climbing Mulhacén
As we approach the refugio, we pass several small patches of white rock rose (Helianthemum apenninum), the first flowers we have seen since we hit the trail above Hoya de la Mora. Between the refugio and a small lake are another herd of Southeastern Spanish ibex, several sporting impressive sets of curled horns. These wild goats, endemic to Spain, seem totally unperturbed by our presence. The brooding hulk of Mulhacén is reflected in the shallow green lake, reminding us that we have a steep climb of over 400 metres ahead of us. Until now the route has been fairly benign, mostly consisting of a gentle upward ascent. All that changes as we begin the slog up Mulhacén.
Southeastern Spanish ibexThis goat is endemic to Spain
The sun is beating down relentlessly as we pass by the Laguna de la Caldereta and commence the ascent of the dusty trail up the western flank of the mountain. The heat, trapped by the dust in the atmosphere, is suffocating and I can feel it being reflected off the rocks and bare soil as I struggle upwards against the altitude. Although we did expect there to be snow on the higher ground, neither of us predicted such unseasonably warm weather and for it to be in the mid-twenties at an altitude of over 3,000 metres! Here and there, tufts of wiry yellow grass break the monotony of the stony landscape and I am delighted to spot some clumps of Viola crassiuscula, the Sierra Nevada violet, flowering amid gaps and crevices in the bare rock. The pretty mauve and white flowers, endemic to this mountain chain, dance in the breeze on their delicate stalks and seem curiously out of place in this bleak and arid landscape.
View from the western flank of MulhacénThe Refugio de la Caldera is now a barely visible dot on the landscape
The Refugio de la Caldera is now but a minute dot barely visible above the two tiny metallic green lakes we had passed by earlier. Laguna Caldera which is nestled in the bottom of the scalloped basin below the shattered rocky ridge of Puntal de la Caldera, was not visible at the level of the refugio and is still hidden under ice and snow. Beyond, Veleta shimmers slate-blue in the heat haze. After crossing a deep patch of sugary snow we hit the broad rocky ridge leading to the summit cairn. A small outcrop of rock rising a couple of metres above the ground which is crowned with a concrete pillar finally comes into view. A small, gated shine has been hewn out of the outcrop. Its metal gate has been garlanded in football scarves and shirts and it’s almost impossible to see what’s inside the gloomy recess, but I think I spy the Virgin Mary amid the devotional clutter of candles, bottles of holy water, plastic flowers and wooden crosses.
Mulhacén (3,482 m)The highest point of mainland Spain
When the weather conditions are right, the views over the Sierra Nevada are extensive and it’s possible to see more distant ranges including the Sierra de las Nieves north of Marbella, the Sierras de las Cazorla to the east of Jaén and even the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. But today we cannot see much beyond the immediate mountains, let alone Morocco, as Africa has instead come to us in the form of Saharan dust! But standing on the highest point in peninsular Spain is a wonderful experience, even on this dusty, heat-hazed day. My stomach churns as I eye the near perpendicular 500 metre plus drop to the snowy Hoya del Mulhacén with its ice encrusted lakes, and admire the broad sweep of the sharp ridge above the diminutive Refugio de la Caldera standing proud and pimple-like, of the ruddy, parched face of the landscape. The rocky ramparts of nearby La Alcazaba rise majestically into the shimmering sky and a rectangular, unroofed stone-walled building, apparently once a chapel, stands sentinel near the summit. In a valley far below which is tinged the faintest green, is a long thin lake, the final of seven in the Cañada de las Siete Lagunas.
View from the summit of MulhacénThe near perpendicular 500 metre plus drop to the snowy Hoya del Mulhacén
It’s a very long way back to the Albergue where we have left our car, and mindful of the time this will take, we pull ourselves away reluctantly from the roof of Spain. We progress speedily down towards the Refugio de la Caldera, taking care not to slip on the trail pounded to bare earth by the passage of countless feet. Before long we are back on the old road sweeping between the two metallic green lakes we saw from the summit and we’re soon approaching the bend above the Refugio Pillavientos. Upon rounding the corner, I feel slightly deflated looking at the distance we have to cover to pass through Puerta let alone that to the Refugio de la Carihüela, a tiny protuberance in the pass between Veleta and the Tajos del Tesoro.
The old Sierra Nevada roadHeading towards Puerta
After what seems like an eternity, we are finally climbing the snow slope to the refugio. Rounding the corner from the refugio, an incredible vista unfolds of the Tajos de la Virgin snaking away to the south-west, but we are instantly blasted by a very chilly wind which comes as an unwelcome surprise after the heat of the day. The white dish of the IRAM radio telescope looks otherworldly, silhouetted against an alien planet-like sky turned orange and apricot in the setting sun which is hanging in the dust laden atmosphere like a Chinese lantern. Underneath this magnificent sky, an endless sea of brown peaks streaked with snow retreat into the distance, fading to smoky grey and sepia before being swallowed in the haze.
Sunset over AndaluciaThe dust in the atmosphere made for a sunset out of a sci-fi movie
Night falls as we are about a kilometre from the Albergue and far below on the darkening plain, I spot the shimmering pin points of thousands of lights betraying the location of Granada which is some 25 km away to the northwest. We arrive back at our car in one hour 50 minutes from the refugio, after completing the summit attempt in about 13 hours, covering over 30 kilometres with some 1,500 metres of ascent, despite 'Jeremiah the Englishman's' doubts that this could be done!
Two hours later, showered and refreshed, we are sitting in a plush hotel suite in Granada sipping a delicious cool Mammoth Granada Imperial Stout and wolfing down a selection of tasty tapas. The ceramic tiles on the hotel balcony are still warm beneath my bare feet. I stare towards the Sierra Nevada, snows silvered by the light from a hazy crescent moon and a scattering of stars that float above their jagged peaks. The night is still, serene, the scene mystical, magical, like something from the Arabian Nights. Indeed, it almost seems that the crescent moon, symbol of Islam, is pointing towards Mulhacén, the final resting place of the penultimate Moorish King of Al-Andalus, a mountain truly fit for a king, whose summit we have just conquered.