Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Mulhacén: King of Mountains, Sierra Nevada, Spain

The Sierra Nevada soar into an impossibly blue sky above the ancient city of Granada. They are living up to their name all right: snow capped, they gleam in the hot spring sunshine. It’s mid May and I’m in Andalucía, the former Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus in southern Spain. Everything here appeals to my senses: the melodic language; the warmth of the Spanish sun; the sun-kissed coastline bathed by the warm waters of the Mediterranean; the high, narrow streets of ancient cities, their whitewashed buildings clustered around crumbling fortresses on hilltops that rise above rolling plains; the Arabesque architecture with its intricate zellij tile work and dripping alabaster that reaches its apogee in the magnificent Alhambra Palace of Granada; the incredible gastronomy with more than a nod to the region’s Moorish past; the divine wines and craft beers; the passion of flamenco guitar and above all, the palpable sense of history that emanates from the very ground. Granada is the resting place of two of Europe’s most remarkable rulers: the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who, in the dying years of the fifteenth century, united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and reclaimed Granada, the last bastion of the Moors, for Christendom. This seismic event created a fertile seed bed from which grew an assertive, expansive new Spain that set its sights across the Atlantic, paving the way for the Conquest of the Indies and the birth of a global empire which has left its mark on countless countries and peoples across the world today. I simply love Spain, and the southern part of it in particular.

This brings me back to the Sierra Nevada, the mighty mountain range that straddles the provinces of Granada and Almería, formed 66 to 1.8 million years ago during the collision of the African and Eurasian continental plates. I have long harboured a desire to climb the highest mountain in my favourite European country, which is what has brought Martin and myself here. We have our sights set on Mulhacén (3,482m), the highest peak in Europe outside the Caucasus Mountains and the Alps. Its also the third most topographically prominent peak in Western Europe (after Mont Blanc and Mount Etna) and ranked 64th in the world by prominence. Being in Andalucía, it is no surprise to discover that Mulhacén has a Moorish connection: it 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.

Although it’s only around 9.00 am, the sun is surprisingly hot on our shoulders as we leave the Albergue Universitario at Peñones de San Francisco, a mountain lodge run by the University of Granada. We are the only people staying here, 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 below 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.

We climb steadily uphill passing by the triangular masonry shrine to the Virgin de las Nieves under a powder blue sky streaked by wispy white cloud. Here and there we spot bright patches of spring flowers, welcome dots of colour amid the stony, arid landscape. 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.

Less than an hour into our climb, a silver haired man in shorts with heavy pack coming down the trail hails us loudly. I instantly recognise the accent as being from the South East of England. He relates how he and his group climbed the mountain yesterday and have just spent the night at the Refugio de la Carihüela. “It’s a bloody long way”, he says, brow furrowed, shaking his head, when we inform him we're planning to summit and return the same day. Doubts began to crowd my mind as ‘Jeremiah’ describes in great detail how much snow was encountered, the debilitating effects of the altitude and the time it took his party to summit. Moreover, this was their second attempt – last February they had failed in their task due to the alpine conditions. I felt somewhat deflated as we walked away and wondered whether it was wise to try and climb Mulhacén in one day. Perhaps we should have stayed overnight in one of the refugios too…

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 leaning heavily on their walking poles and 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 radiotelescope and around 3,000m encounter the first snow, which lies feet deep on the road, slowing our progress. Below us is the partially frozen Laguna de las Yeguas. As we approach the Refugio de la Carihüela, we disturb a herd of 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. Outside are two other trekkers, a couple of Swedish brothers, who are also aiming for the summit in a day. At least we are not the only fools to be attempting this! We have reached the refugio in around two and a half hours from the Albergue. But it took Jeremiah nearly that much time to cover the distance from the refugio to the point where he met us on the trail. Read into that what you will!

We sit on the stone benches in front of the refugio soaking up the view towards distant Mulhacén and the even more distant peak of La Alcazaba. My eye follows a thin white line where snow lies on a gravel track, the old Sierra Nevada road, once drivable but closed to traffic in 1999, that leads towards Puerta, a gap below the Crestones de la Río Seco which do indeed resemble the comb of a cockerel, angled sharply upwards into the hazy sky. Beyond, the old road weaves its way round Loma Pelada behind which Mulhacén towers. It does indeed look a bloody long way off! The atmosphere is full of Saharan dust, giving the landscape, which appears sharply etched, 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, large snow patches dot 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. Suitably rested and refreshed, we set off following the tracks made by the Swedes who are several minutes ahead of us.

The snow is soft and sugary and I’m instantly glad of my crampons as I traverse the steep snow covered slope leading away from the refugio. Below this we follow the old road as it makes a couple of hairpin bends below a large outcropping shelf of rock where water is cascading down from the melting snow above in a series of mini waterfalls. 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, a nick in the rocks between the crags of the Crestones de Río Seco and the equally rugged Raspones de Río Seco. Through a gap in the Crestones, we shudder at the vertiginous drop into the blue-green Valdeinfiernos valley.

Passing through the narrow, snow choked cleft of rock aptly named ‘Puerta’, another vista more barren than ever unfolds before us, 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 stop to remove our crampons as the worst of the snow is now behind us. We decide to follow the old road rather than take a path shown on our map that traverses the ridge above the Luguna de la Caldera, as we are not sure how steep and snow covered the terrain is above the lake. Although this adds a couple of extra kilometres to the route, we feel it is better to be safe than sorry and make good speed round the snow-dappled basin, 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.

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 a herd of Spanish ibex, several sporting impressive sets of curled horns, that seem totally unperturbed by our presence. We arrive to find the Swedes eating their lunch. The refugio inside is identical to Carihüela: two wooden sleeping platforms one above the other running the width of the building, and a long wooden table with benches either side complete the furnishings. A series of hooks run along one wall for hanging up clothes, there are some candles on the table and, for a well-used remote refugio, it’s fairly clean and comfortable.

Martin fires up our gas stove for lunch and I potter off down to a small lake fed by snow melt. In the summer this will disappear, but today the surrounding patches of snow are reflected in its shallow green water, above which Mulhacén rises majestically. We have a steep climb of over 400 metres ahead of us so we fill ourselves up with a highly calorific meal of freeze dried food.

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. 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. I worry for Martin who does not like the heat at all. He’ll suffer making this climb at altitude and he has already slowed considerably. 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 over 3,000m high!

We push on ever upwards crossing a couple of patches of dirty snow clinging stubbornly to the trail. 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, endemic to this mountain chain, flowering amid gaps and crevices in the bare rock. The pretty mauve and white flowers dance in the breeze on their delicate stalks and seem curiously out of place in this bleak and arid landscape. I stop by these to wait for Martin slogging his way upwards. The Refugio de la Caldera is but a minute dot barely visible above the two, now tiny, metallic green lakes we had passed by earlier. The larger of the three, Laguna Caldera, was not visible at the level of the refugio and is still hidden under ice and snow, nestled in the bottom of the scalloped basin below the shattered rocky ridge of Puntal de la Caldera. Beyond, Veleta shimmers grey blue in the heat haze. Another party of climbers now appears about a hundred metres below us amid the shattered rocks on the steep side of the Loma del Mulhacén. Their progress is also painfully slow in the fierce heat and altitude.

I mop the sweat from my brow and suck the last vestiges of water from my bladder and we begin the final push for the summit, passing the Swedes who have begun their descent. With their words of encouragement echoing in my ears, we cross a deep patch of sugary snow and are at last atop the broad rocky ridge leading to the summit cairn. This finally comes into view, a small outcrop standing a couple of metres higher than the surrounding rock, sporting a concrete pillar and what looks to be a gated shine carved out of the rock which is covered in scarves and items of clothing that have been tied on to the metal grille, including a rather garish bright orange tee shirt. It’s almost impossible to see what’s inside the shrine due to the clutter, but I think I spy the Virgin Mary amid the candles, bottles, plastic flowers and wooden crosses, devotional offerings left by umpteen climbers.

After the obligatory summit photo, we take some time to admire the view, clambering the final couple of metres onto a concrete platform sporting the concrete pillar. 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 great experience, even on this dusty, heat hazed day, and 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, pimple like, from the ruddy, parched face of the landscape. The rocky ramparts of nearby Al Alcazaba rise majestically, a rectangular, unroofed stone walled building, apparently once a chapel, stands sentinel near the summit, while in a valley far below, tinged the faintest of green, is a long thin lake, the final of seven in the Cañada de las Siete Lagunas.

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, stopping briefly to take photos for the climbing party we saw earlier, a group of young Spaniards who have just arrived at the shrine. 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. I can see the Swedes crossing over the first patch of snow ahead of us, but poor Martin is still struggling with the heat so we move more slowly than we otherwise could do. Coming to the snow, we stop to don our crampons. Hair stiff with sweat and dust, I’m now totally out of water and looking forward to a good drink at the waterfalls we passed earlier. The sun is sinking lower in the eastern sky, it isn’t quite as hot now and I can see ahead that some of the route lies in shade which will make the going easier for Martin.

After what seems like an eternity, we come to the small waterfalls beneath the almost sheer southeast side of Veleta where Martin, suffering from mild heat fatigue, cools down in the crystalline cascade. The water is freezing but tastes divine to a sun parched, dusty mouth and throat! Now out of the sun and refreshed by the water, we move rapidly up the snow slope to the refugio. Here we remove our crampons before setting off towards the tarmac road down to the Albergue. 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 and stop to put on our Rab generator smocks for the first time. As we descend along the trail, the white dish of the IRAM radiotelescope is silhouetted against a sky turned orange and apricot in the setting sun, 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.

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 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 we are sitting, showered and refreshed, in a plush hotel suite in Granada sipping a delicious cool Mammoth Granada Imperial Stout and wolfing down a selection of tasty tapas. I walk out onto the balcony, the ceramic tiles beneath my bare feet still warm from the sun, and 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 pages of 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.

Watch the video of our climb at