My girlfriend, Aisling is always telling me that I when I write on this blog, it’s not personal enough and when I’m recounting journeys, I don’t talk enough about how I feel. Now in this blogpost, I’ll definitely be talking about how I felt and what I thought while I was hiking in the Sierra Nevada a couple of weeks ago. Because on this trip, I pushed myself a bit too far and got into situations that in hindsight should have been avoided… But let’s back up a little and start at the beginning!
I decided to pack my gear and head off for a three-day hike through the Sierra Nevada, shooting photos, exploring and climbing some of the highest peaks. The plan was about 60-70 km over the course of the three days and I’d stay in the free-to-use mountain shelters. I carried a sleeping bag and a mattress, and I of course also had my gas cooker and a hefty amount of photography gear, including a tripod for night photography. It would be impossible to carry enough water for such a long trip, so I had water purification tablets and I just filled up my water bottles from streams.
I took the bus up from Granada to the Sierra Nevada ski resort and started the hike from there. From the bus stop, it’s a good bit of elevation up to Veleta, which was the first peak I hit during the trip. I’ve already been up there before, but I could certainly feel the difference between carrying a daypack vs. lugging all my crap up the mountain on this trip. Nevertheless, I got up pretty easily, met some cute dogs along the way, saw mountain goats and all that good stuff.
From Veleta, I climbed down to the Refugio Vivac de la Carihouela where I had my lunch and I continued onwards towards Mulhacén. That was a super easy hike, as it is mostly flat, the path is wide and easy to follow. But I talked to a couple of people who said that the Refugio Vivac de la Caldera was completely packed – that’s the mountain shelter I planned to sleep in. The map said there is another forestry shelter nearby called Loma Pela, but it also showed it as being in a ruined state, not to be used. Luckily as I arrived there, it turned out that it is in fact in great condition and I managed to get a place to sleep there. But even if I didn’t, I still could have backtracked to Carihouela, although that would have messed up the rest of the trip.
The shelter had a big bunch of Granada Uni freshers staying in it, as well as two other smaller groups of hikers. The uni students were really nice and they spoke great English! They invited me to join them on their morning summit of Mulhacén. In the evening, there was a beautiful sunset that I could watch from the doorstep of the shelter, sitting above the clouds. I also took some night photos with the tripod.
We were up before sunrise and started our climb of Mulhacén with the university group. While the distance wasn’t too crazy, there was a lot of elevation to cover to the summit, so I have to admit, my legs were a bit tired by the time I got to the top! Mulhacén is the highest point of mainland Spain, with an elevation of 3478 meters. We took a bunch of photos, had snacks and eventually we had to say our goodbyes because I was hiking down a different path to continue my journey.
I had to re-plan some of my route, because the path I originally selected on the map was too steep to climb down with a 70L backpack on my back. This was something I didn’t really mind, because there was another route going in pretty much the same direction, just instead of straight down from Mulhacén, it circles around another hill and slowly winds down into the valley of the river Genil, where the second night’s mountain shelter was. The route was much less steep and the route descriptions that came with the map didn’t make it sound too difficult – and until now, the descriptions have proven to be very accurate. But as you can guess from the title, that was not the case here…
From Mulhacén, I took a pretty easy path down along the Loma del Mulhacén and around another high peak called Alcazaba. It was a very eerie and desolate landscape, it almost felt like walking on the moon. But it was a pretty chill route and the path was not too difficult to follow. The trouble started when I arrived to Laguna Hondera, a lake below Mulhacén and Alcazaba. From there the path around Alcazaba just started disappearing, but I always managed to find my way.
Then the surprises started… I knew I had to cross a valley and get onto the ridge on the other side of Alcazaba to continue my trip. As I arrived to the point where I first saw where I had to go, I knew I got a bit more than I bargained for on this trip! The valley was quite big, with the cliffs on the side of Alcazaba towering over it. I honestly felt like I just walked into Mordor. There was also a beautiful waterfall situated at the “gates of Mordor”, so I had a snack sitting above it where there normally is a lake in the wetter seasons (Laguna del Goterón). However, from there I realized that the path simply disappears, and I was stuck in a pit full of massive rocks and debris rolling off the hillside. I could see perfectly well where I needed to go, but I didn’t want to just attack a steep hillside covered in loose rocks head-on. However, after wandering around for quite a while, I just decided to go for it and climbed the ridge.
It wasn’t actually that bad, but the happiness of reaching the top quickly turned into a steady stream of swearing as I realized where I had to continue my journey. The route description with the map said “walk along the ridge”, making it seem like a casually Saturday evening stroll, when in fact there were a bunch of bloody huge rock peaks blocking the way with steep hillsides (sometimes borderline cliff-like) lining both sides. So the “walk” in this case meant climbing and scrambling over the rock peaks. For those of you more geographically inclined, these peaks were Puntal de El Goterón, Puntal de las Calderetas and Puntal de Vacares.
Now it’s not like they are crazy huge or scary peaks, but when you’ve already been marching for 20 kilometers with a 70L backpack on you, the last thing you want to do is to climb over boulders. Not to mention that I was alone with spotty phone signal, so if something happened, nobody would find out potentially for a day or two… Oh and the sun was already on its way to setting and I was nowhere near the forestry shelter! So yeah, this put me into a really splendid mood… Turning back was also not an option, since the nearest mountain shelter was about 20 km away, I didn’t have a tent and it was already getting to sub-zero temperatures at night at this elevation.
So, screw it, I just decided to push on, clambering, crawling and jumping over the rocks with a massive heavy backpack on me, hoping that I would not fall. I carefully made my way along the ridge, using up all the swear words I knew in every possible language. If I planned for this and I was with a group and without the heavy bag, it would have been fine, but this way, it was just dodgy… Eventually I got down the other side where I was ready to join the super easy trail down to the bottom of the valley. I knew it was still a long way and it would probably be dark, but it was at a lower elevation with less steep of a hillside.
Of course, at this point I could have expected to be disappointed again. The hillside was indeed less steep, but there simply was no trail. I climbed up and down and all along it trying to join the path, but there was no trail anywhere near where the map said there would be. And it was not that I didn’t know where I was – I could tell that perfectly well. The problem was that the map was shit and showed paths where there were no paths. Also, it doesn’t show cliffs, major rock formations, forests or pretty much any usable navigational landmarks, making it pretty annoying and sometimes downright dangerous. But I guess I just got very comfortable in the UK with the superb quality Ordnance Survey maps…
So, since I knew where I was, I just decided to walk along where the path should be, following animal trails where possible, but it was still very slow going. At this point, the sun was already setting, and I was still at least two-three hundred meters above and several kilometers away from the forestry refuge. The sunset was quite beautiful, but I was mainly concerned with not breaking my ankle and coming up with new ways to swear at the Spanish map makers. Finally, I spotted the shelter from say two kilometers away, far below me in the steep valley. At that point, I decided to just give up trying to follow the route of where the trail was supposed to be and make my way down there.
At this point I don’t really need to describe in more detail the pickle I got myself into… The main point is that I somehow made my way down. The last bit was through a forest (of course not marked on the bloody map) which was exceptionally steep. The next morning when I looked back to where I came down, I wasn’t sure how I made it. But at that point, I simply didn’t give a fuck. I was tired, hungry, my legs were shaking from the almost non-stop 30 km walk and it was almost pitch black, but I knew I was super close. Nevertheless, I made it to the shelter with my headtorch! Victory!
A proper dinner, a nice hot tea and a lot of stretching later, I felt a bit more human again…
During breakfast, I started chatting to a group of three friendly hikers who were telling me how there was bad weather arriving soon to the area, with a lot of rain. They asked me if I want to join them for the first half of my planned hike and they could give me a lift with the car for the second half. I wasn’t in the mood to have to walk 20 km in a rainstorm, plus they seemed like great company, so I joined them!
I really like how in these mountain and forestry shelters there is automatically a camaraderie between the people there, sharing food, stories, tips and helping each other out, as well as finding people to hike with on the next day’s hike!
Our hike took us along the eastern side of the Río Genil valley as the sun was rising, then we joined the popular hiking path called Vereda de la Estrella on the other side. My companions were really into trees and plants, so they were teaching me all the Spanish names of them – sadly I don’t remember that much of it! There was a lot of dramatic light on the hillsides, but I knew the rain was going to hit us soon.
About 8 kilometers into the 10-kilometer hike and despite the quick pace we were going at, the rain hit us. First, just a drizzle, but by the time we reached the end of the path and hopped into the car, it turned into a full-on rainstorm, one that would count as crazy even in Ireland or England…
Since I had an hour and a half to kill until my bus arrived in Güéjar Sierra, I sat down with my newfound friends for a drink in the local bar, chatted about hiking and biking adventures and waited out the worst of the rain!
It was an epic, crazy hike through a beautiful landscape. I met a bunch of awesome and kind people who I hiked with and I now look back on this as a funny adventure. But I have to admit, the second day, right then and there was tough… I pushed myself a bit too far and I should have prepared better. Now I know that I need more thorough research and trust these damn maps less. But I’ll be back again soon – there is plenty more to explore in the Sierra Nevada!