STANDING on the summit of Montardo a couple of years ago and gazing south to a horizon of snow-capped rocky ridges and unknown valleys, it occurred to me that the highest mountain in Spain must lie in the immediate vicinity – in the Pyrenees. It came as something of a shock to learn later that night – while sitting in a bar in Arties, in the Val d’Aran, watching Spain whup Germany in the Euro 2008 final – that the highest mountain was several hundred miles to the south and just inland from the Mediterranean.
And so began a quest to climb the highest mountain in Spain (okay, mainland Spain) and explore the Sierra Nevada. First step was to purchase a decent guidebook: Andy Walmsley’s Walking in the Sierra Nevada (Cicerone), which I discovered on the internet. This seemed to be all that was required, and having read it from cover to cover I decided to buy a map once in the country.
First lesson: get a map before you leave your house.
The introductory expedition was a breathless and dehydrated jaunt up to the San José mines on Lujar with the owner of our casita, Bruce Mac Nally. Bruce had a colourful map that showed the Cañada Real – ancient rights of way for goatherds and shepherds when moving their flocks. What it didn’t show was the summit of Lujar, which was our final objective. To this day I have yet to find a map that shows Lujar’s summit. But if you want some goats moving, I’m your man.
The next day I searched every bookshop in Orgiva and Granada for a decent map of the Sierra Nevada, and after giving up hope found exactly what I needed in a tobacco kiosk while buying a paper. This is the Editorial Penibetica National Park Sierra Nevada map with floppy guidebook. There’s an English version, it’s as cheap as papas, and there are routes for walkers and mountain bikers. The map is more than adequate at 1:40,000, but is a little flimsy. The guidebook it very basic and not too reliable, but it’s all that’s needed for planning walks. So with the Editorial Penibetica in one pocket of the rucksack and Andy Walmsley in another, I set off up Veleta from just above Capileira.
Second lesson: as in the Father Ted sketch about the difference between toy cows and real cows (“Okay Dougal, one last time. These are little cows. Those are far away”) the Sierra Nevada are big mountains a long way off. From the environs of Granada and Orgiva they might look like Roseberry Topping standing cheekily above Teesside, but they certainly don’t feel like it when you’re slogging up them.
A third useful source for all sorts of things is the Sierra Nevada News website. I shamelessly pillaged a couple of routes from the site – one to shorten Walmsley’s marathon expedition up the Camino de la Sierra to the summit of Cerro del Caballo, and the ascent of Mulhacen from Hoya del Portillo. I did, however, draw the line at the suggested scrambling routes across the north-west faces of Mulhacen and Alcazaba. Another time, perhaps.
I borrowed a copy of Charles Davis’s Walk the Alpujarras (Discovery Walking Guides), which also follows the website route to the summit of Mulhacen but has an alternative descent via the Rio Mulhacen and the Refugio Poqueira. So Mulhacen was a bit of mixing, matching, and making bits up as the need arose. Which is the best way to walk.
Third lesson: make sure the fridge is well stocked with Alhambra beer and someone’s got your dinner ready, because the last thing you feel like doing, having slogged all the way up, round and down Mulhacen, is going out again for the shopping.
Finally, Chris Stewart’s book Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia is rich in the flavours and humour of the Sierra Nevada and the Alpujarras. And it’s a bloody good read.
There’s snow on the ground as I upload this. Can’t find my turnips on the allotment, so no dinner tonight. Back in Orgiva, I am informed, it’s still a pleasant 16C. With a bit of luck I’ll return next year to climb Alcazaba and the summits to the east. And perhaps have another three or four stabs at Lujar.
- FOR details of Casita La Luz, the perfect base from which to explore the Sierra Nevada and Alpujarras, click here.