Well then, where do I start?
The big challenge in organizing this year’s winter expedition was finding somewhere that lived up to the evolved aspirations of people joining one of our adventures. I have always tried to find somewhere new, somewhere interesting and perhaps, a little off the beaten track. This would be my 8th trip over 9 years and for a multitude of reasons, it couldn’t be a biggy! That meant that Europe had to contain our target. It was to some surprise then, that during my hours of web research, I learnt that the highest mountain in Spain was NOT in the Pyrenees, but hidden away down south in the Sierra Nevada.
Mulhacen, at 3483m, and covered in snow during the winter was to become a real gem.
Finding information on routes, conditions and gear was initially a little tricky. There really is not a lot in English for the area but in the main, the guys down at Spanish Highs have documented all of their built up knowledge and collected all the best material. I also looked in the usual places for some general info. All links below:
So, after announcing the trip for March 2011 and getting a team of 6, it was time to figure out the logistics.
Easyjet was used to get us there – Liverpool to Malaga
I wanted 2 hire cars to give us a bit of flexibility if people came down from the mountains early for any reason. After a bit of browsing, Malagacar came up with a pretty good deal.
We needed somewhere to stay on the first night and also upon our return to the foothills. It was here that Richard at Spanish highs sorted us out with a hotel in Lanjaron. The Hotel Central turned out to be ideal.
Our Morocco trip to Toubkal in 2009 taught me that we always needed a contingency plan for a delayed walk out. For this purpose I also booked a night in Malaga as a just in case. It would also serve as a nice last evening in Spain.
Although, 30mins walk from the old town, the Hotel Las Vegas was cheap and fit for purpose. (Although all reviews on miserable staff can be confirmed!)
The final Itinerary turned out to be:
Tuesday – Fly to Malaga, pick up hire cars and drive to Lanjaron. Night in hotel
Wednesday – Drive to Capiliera and then walk into Mountains. Night at Poqueira Refuge.
Thursday – Mountain day
Friday – Mountain day
Saturday – Mountain day
Sunday – Mountain day
Monday – Walk out and drive back to Lanjaron. Night in hotel.
Tuesday – Drive to Malaga, night in hotel.
Wednesday – Relax and then evening flight home to UK.
As can be seen from some of the links mentioned earlier, there is huge scope for routes of all kinds and also some overnighting in higher mountain shelters. I booked for 5 nights at the Poqueira but planned for 2 nights up in the mountains. For this reason we decided to take full climbing and bivvy gear. Easyjet luggage allowances are a little tight but each pair had a sports bag, extra to the one piece of hold luggage each. This meant the hold luggage was pretty light, being just filled with the usual winter clothing, and the heavy sports bags (which can go up to 32kg) were filled with all the climbing and bivvy gear.
Each pair took a lightweight alpine rope and half a rack of gear containing a selection of nuts, 4 x ice screws of various lengths, an ice hook, a warthog and a few misc. items.
For bivvying –Each pair had lightweight stove, kettle etc…Gas was purchased through Richard at Spanish Highs.
Each rucksack, for our walk up to the Poqueira, was approx 20kg.
Malagacar turned out to be just outside the airport but they pick you up and drive the 2 minutes round the corner in a minibus. We had a Renault Kangoo and a Seat Ibiza. 3 in each car and the Renault fitted 4 peoples gear while the Ibiza fitted 2.
They don’t advertise this (because it’s a con!)but they fill the car up to half a tank and then charge you for that amount upon collecting the cars – its more than what you would pay at the forecourt! You can then bring the car back empty. For all our trips we needed to put in another half a thankful per car.
Malaga to Lanjaron.
One we had picked the cars up, it was time for a spot of lunch and a few bits from a supermarket.
Near to the airport there are loads of places and also a Decathlon superstore for those needing extra gear!
We stopped off at the Plaza Mayor, which has a supermarket and a restaurant mall area.
The drive to Lanjaron took around 1h 45mins. I did start to get a little worried at one point as you stay near to the coast for most of the way and wondered when we would start to see some mountains. This highlights the fact that it was cloudy upon our arrival and the weather did not look good.
Lanjaron is a quiet little town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and appears to be less touristy than some of the others higher up. Once we had located the hotel and parked the cars up in the secure underground car park, it was time to sort kit and head off to a local bar to meet Richard from Spanish Highs and discuss weather, routes and options for the days ahead. I also rang the hut to confirm our arrival and get current ground conditions for the walk in.
What can I say about Bar Flower in Lanjaron, other than that we could have quite happily stayed in there for a very long time!!! (and on our return after being up the Mountain – we did!)
Richard and Kiersten gave us great info on what to expect up in the mountains and also about where to park up prior to the walk in.
The walk up The Poqueira Gorge
The drive from Lanjaron to Capileira is unrelenting and all passengers felt ill. It only looks a short distance on the map but takes nearly an hour. After Capileira, there are two sharp bends. At the second one, a smaller road (I say the word ‘road’, but mean track!) leads up to the Poqueira Electrical station. This is at a height of 1550m and we managed to park up no problems. If it is busy you just have to park further back along the road.
The weather was typical Scottish winter….but we were in Southern Spain! It was pissing it down with the freezing level at around 2100m and the hut at 2500m.
The Gorge though turned out to be a fantastic place – shame I had my head down for most of it.
Four and a half hours later we arrived at the hut. Damp, but nothing too dramatic.
A great hut which can sleep over 80 people. Although anymore than 30 and it must be a nightmare. We were lucky (or not) but for most of our time there it was just us…..because no one was stupid enough to come up probably!
You will need to present your passport upon arrival and you will be allocated a bed. Our group was all in a room for 8 and you will be given a key for a locker. If it’s busy – do not leave stuff around – the rooms are not locked and I nearly left a pair of trekking trousers lighter after another resident took a liking to them!
Its cold (if you are there in the winter). A good sleeping bag and a good jacket (down or Primaloft). There is no hot water and the bathroom is only just above freezing point – prepare to smell for a few days!
The food is great. Breakfasts are plentiful with a selection of bread, toast, cakes, biscuits, jam, honey, spreads etc…Evening meals start with soup, then a pasta dish. Followed by a meat and vegetable dish, then a dessert!
Mountain Day 1
The guardians at the hut know the weather better than anyone. When the posted forecast read that snow would be falling PM that day and our guardian agreed, we settled on having 4 hours of clear air before the front moved in. The guardians actually post Internet forecasts every evening. They are long range (5 day) predictions but we soon learnt that it’s only the first 24hrs that’s reliable. The weather changes so quickly and dramatically that it’s nigh on impossible to forecast ahead in the mountains.
The plan was to get up high and learn the area, what the snow conditions were like, and generally become comfortable with our unknown surroundings. The 24hrs of fresh snow was our main concern and for this reason we chose a small ridge behind and to the left of the hut. The steep snow slop directly behind was loaded with fresh powder and needed time to settle before it was deemed safe.
Picking a line up, through the rocks and avoiding waist deep snow was a laborious task but as the ridge slowly bent round to the right, we reached a high point of approx. 3000m.
The little trip upwards had given us a lot of visual confidence in the area and it was exactly for this reason that a quick descent was then chosen.
The weather had been brewing up all morning but in a matter of minutes the valley was engulfed in cloud. It was moving up like a tidal wave and if we had been caught out, finding our way back to the hut may have been an epic. A quick bearing was taken as the hut disappeared in the cloud. Within seconds we were in a white out but luckily only 200m from safety.
Note: Due to the amount of snow, it has been acknowledged that a lot of prominent rock features have been transformed. It is definitely NOT the place to start learning about micro navigation or having to dig an emergency snow hole (we did carry a shovel everywhere). I would not recommend venturing out unless you know the area very well. On our descent, we ended up in true whiteout. No visual reference at all, just a blinding white.
Mountain Day 2
Storm – all day! Wind, Snow, Whiteout…….
The term ‘death on a stick’ was mentioned once or twice and, when told we were staying in the hut, the guardian’s reply was, “probably a good idea”.
Take a book with you to the hut! – Just in case.
Mountain Day 3
We have learnt over the years that timing and planning go hand in hand. Although our plans had involved climbing routes, in particular the North Face of Mulhacen, we now had to scrap that and time our summit for a clear sky.
The forecasts had been analyzed and we felt our best chance would be an early morning ascent after a night in the high Caldera Hut. Due to ground conditions, we had no idea on how long it would take us to get up the valley to Caldera, as we did not have snowshoes or skis. Adding to the problem was that, upon waking, it was still snowing! The Sierra Nevada weather surprised us once again though and, within half an hour, the clouds broke up and the sun came out.
Approx. 20 Spanish climbers left in snowshoes and luckily they had chosen to go via the Caldera hut. We could hang back, let them break trail and compact the snow a little, before walking up behind them.
The slow walk up to the Caldera hut, at 3100m, was absolutely glorious. Great weather and stunning surroundings. It was just a shame that I had to preserve camera power for summit video – I could have filmed the whole thing. Due to the snow depth we had given ourselves 4 hours to reach the hut but ended up doing it in under 3! In good conditions of hard neve, it could probably be done in 2.
Just the top of the hut was visible, meaning that there must have been a good 10ft of snow! The door to the hut is a barn door, split style, and this had been partly dug out already. We dug out all the new fresh snow and made our way inside. The snow had filled the door opening, which required snow steps being cut inside the hut! The hut is pretty good with wooded bunks at the end and a big table to one side. Once the stoves were on the go and our kit sorted it was time to air some of our clothes and watch the Spanish team ascend the west ridge.
Our afternoon in the sun was short lived as the clouds moved in again and shrouded the entire area. It was also worrying that the wind had increased. Most of the Spanish teams who had raced up the mountain were unlucky and had to make do with a cloudy summit and no view.
I climbed into my warm sleeping bag as the light was fading and hoped that the forecast would be correct and we would wake to a cloudless sky.
Notes: It was around -5 in the hut that night but the cold wooden bunks make it feel worse. A good sleeping mat and bag is essential. My sleeping mat was only ¾ length and as a result I could feel the cold at my feet. Placing my jacket under the bag solved that!
Water will freeze in the hut overnight – keep it wrapped up inside your rucksack and it should stay fluid! The water in my kettle froze during the night.
Keep your camera battery in your sleeping bag overnight.
Spanish Chorizo is easy to chop up and throw into dehydrated meals. It adds a load more calories as well as flavour.
Mountain Day 4
Had we timed it right? Should we have gone up yesterday afternoon like the Spanish teams. Had we blown it and missed our chance. I spent the entire night checking the barometric trend on my watch. At around 11pm it started to rise and rise. The icon changed from cloud to sun…..but then at 3am it started to drop. I couldn’t sleep and kept wondering what was happening outside. At 5am, Phil left the warmth of his sleeping bag and ventured outside to answer the early morning call of nature. “Not a cloud in the sky” he stated, climbing back into the hut. That was what we wanted.
As conditions were favorable we planned to go up the Western ridge and then down the South. For that reason we couldn’t leave anything behind to be picked up later. After a quick hot breakfast (Dehydrated Berries in Custard – lovely!), we packed up and went out into the early morning air. Bitterly cold, but utterly fantastic.
The route up sticks on the steep western flank above the North face. It gets steeper as you get higher and due to the snow conditions we slowly zigzagged upwards. Unbelievably, we did not feel the need for crampons. The snow was just soft enough to easily place steps. (Looking back, crampons may have been a good idea. A slide down that face would hurt!)
I crested the main summit ridge and the sun hit my face. The only problem though was that I was also now in the full force of the wind. My god was it cold. It wasn’t a massively strong wind but I can’t remember being in a colder one!
With a full 360 degree panorama we reached the summit and reveled in the fact that we had timed it right (for once!)
It wasn’t a place to hang around, although I did find time to take a good look down the North Face. I will return to do that route, it looks fantastic.
The exposed broad ridgeline that connects the main to the south summit had been stripped of any soft snow by the fierce wind. This enabled a quick crossing in order to get out of the icy blast. We dropped down the South ridge and, as soon as we could see the Poqueira Hut way below us, we left the main ridge and dropped directly down the steep slopes. These were the slopes we had stayed clear of 2 days before. This time though they were solid, thanks to the sun of the previous afternoon and the freezing cold night. We arrived back at the hut shortly before 10am. Having left the Caldera just before 7am meant that we had dropped nearly 1000m in less than an hour! If I had had skis on….well, it would have been fast!
Within an hour of being back at the hut, the clouds rolled in again, and stayed in all afternoon. The few hours we were out and the brief spell we were on the top was the only clear break in the weather all week.
The walk out
To give you an idea on hut costs. It worked out to be 170 Euros each.
Four nights half board, wine with meals and a large amount of bottled water, tea, coffee and Hot Chocolate. Considering the location, that’s not bad.
To get current costs, the link to the hut site is at the top with all the info pages.
We walked out of the cloud after dropping a few hundred metres and the clear weather enabled us to really appreciate to wonderful Poqueira Gorge. As we arrived back at the car, the clouds had darkened and rain began to fall….just for a change!
After a lunch in a café in Capiliera and enduring the hour-long road trip back to Lanjaron our arrival back at the Hotel meant a well-earned hot shower.
By 3pm we headed off out for a beer and tapas, ending up again in Bar Flower with Richard, Kiersten and James. A brilliant night!
Now that I know the times, distances etc, for future trips I will not have a last night in Malaga. The last night will be in Lanjaron.
As we had a spare day, we drove out of Lanjaron and into Granada. A very nice City with a lot of history and overlooked by the huge Palace of Alhambra. We spent a good few hours wandering the centre and it’s well worth a visit if you have the time.
After a 2-hour drive we arrived at the hotel in Malaga. The sun had come out for our arrival by the sea and it was a lovely 30minute walk along the coast into the old town.
Most of Malaga appears to be a concrete mess of cheap apartments and hotels but the old town was a pleasant surprise. Another great evening spent eating, drinking and listening to the street musicians. We cheated and got a taxi back to the hotel. Four Euros!
Prior to our evening flight we spent the last day up in hills above Malaga, away from the hustle and bustle. Sitting in the sun, we chatted about the trip and all agreed that we have to return. A return trip will be 7 days instead of 8 and will probably have two possible objectives:
- Good snow conditions – North face of Mulhacen and gully routes up to ridges.
- Bad snow conditions – 3 day traverse of high peaks.
My Last thought…..
What makes a successful trip? I believe it’s having the correct mix of place, people and experience. We had it all, and the people we met made it all the more memorable.
Until the next time,
Remember: My Vids of the trip are on my You Tube Channel
Or start by watching this one!