It wasn’t on the itinerary, but the mountain was there, perched behind our beautiful Hotel Finca Los Llanos and thanks to Travel Department for adding on the extra and making it happen. Our walking holiday in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range has come to a spectacular conclusion with the gang making it to the highest point of continental Spain, Mulhacén at 3,478 metres (11.411ft) above sea level.
The bottles of wine that were always included at dinner, went largely untouched the night before the climb, as we all discussed who was going to make the attempt and whether we’d be up to the challenge. Our guides promised an even, regular pace along a steep but steady incline and a long day with approximately 6hrs’ walking. The organisation for the hike was excellent, with special permissions for our bus to drive us deep into the Sierra Nevada National Park – allowing us to make the attempt in one day.
Tumbling out of the bus and heading for the rocky trail we all felt the shimmery brightness of the air, so fresh and thin at this altitude, and we quickly picked up a steady pace, judging our breathing and getting a comfortable walking rhythm for the group. Jesus our walking guide showed years of experience in both the mountain and in leading groups to the summit; he set an excellent pace, making good progress, with two stops along the way to the top. We learned that his first trip to the summit was in the company of his father. He was just nine years old and he held onto a donkey’s tail for support, as his family climbed the mountain for a local festival.
Sierra in Spanish means the ‘teeth of a saw’ and the peaks of the range are impressive, with sharp, rugged ridges jutting severely into the brilliant blue sky, before rolling down to the greener, gentler, irrigated slopes below. We’ve had some wonderful walks over the past week, through the brilliant white villages of the Poqueira Valley and the ‘La Taha’ region. However I really don’t think I got to know the Sierra Nevada until today, when we pushed beyond the tree-line. On such a day, this range, bathed in sunlight with vivid blue skies, was breathtakingly spectacular; with views across to the Mediterranean and further to Africa, with perhaps just a glance into to heaven itself.
We were followed in the distance by a flock, or ‘volt’ of vultures, who glided effortlessly on thermals far above us and caused great amusement for Jesus, who kept pointing at us, grinning and commenting ‘Irish food’, before pushing further up the hill.
After three hours walking steadily up the south face or ‘normal route’ for the mountain, warmed by the sun and chilled by a stiff breeze, we finally saw above us a rocky shrine that marks the summit, with brightly colored prayer flags fluttering among amid the stones. There were smiles, laughter, clapping and congratulations for the entire group, and the sound of a familiar ‘pop’ as one of the most enterprising of the group produced a bottle of Spanish bubbles and paper cups. We pulled out our rolls of bread and cheese from the hotel and no picnic ever tasted so well.
Making our descent later down the steep zigzagged west route, we were treated to even more stunning views of the spectacular Sierra Nevada ridge line. Not having a great head for heights, I was more than a little surprised to find myself following Jesus out onto a jagged rock-formation high above the valley, for the ‘photo-shoot’ of the holiday. It was scary but our guide’s assuring confidence dissolved my fears as he took my hand and stepped across the divide, and after all, Jesus is unlikely to lead a girl astray…
The ‘walk-out’ traversed the mountain, high above the parkland and the valley below, with sweeping views towards the Mediterranean. As we chatted, Jesus told us the mountain is a popular tourist destination for winter sports, hiking with crampons on one side and a ski resort on the other. I’m definitely going to be back. Perhaps next time I’ll stay in the basic, but artfully crafted refuge hut and take more time to fully appreciate this beautiful mountain.
With the last few kilometers to our bus ‘extraction’ point, I found myself jogging among the stones and the sunlight and the shiny air. Feeling happy, feeling strong, and feeling wonderful. There’s something about a mountain that makes you feel alive and I’m heading back for our celebration ‘goodbye supper’ with a heart bursting with new friendships and new memories.
Teena is currently staying at the Hotel Finca Los Llanos in Capileira. Her walking holiday in the Sierra Nevada is booked with Travel Department www.traveldepartment.ie and includes hiking, culture and sightseeing to the beautiful coastal castle at Salobrena, and an excursion to the Alhambra in Granada (World Heritage Site).
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