Outside the tapas bars of Lanjaron temperatures reached 30 degrees. 2500m above we donned our duvet jackets as an icy wind tore across the white snow filled plateau. Such are the contrasts this year in southern Spain’s Sierra Nevada, a legacy of the worst winter weather in living memory.
We run trips into the high Sierra Nevada covering all the major peaks throughout the summer. Normally this gives enjoyable high level trekking that provides a pleasant escape from the searing heat of the valleys below. You can travel light and fast. This year, due to the amount of winter snow still remaining things are different.
View Flickr Photo Gallery of this trip
We had planned a north to south crossing, starting at the ski centre and camping on the ridge between the Pico del Cartujo and the Cerro de Caballo, returning down to Lanjaron the following day. In dry summer conditions we have done this trip in a very long but hard 12 hours. Admittedly there is still much snow around but surely it would be possible in 2 days?
We were dropped off at the Hoya de Mora above the ski centre and proceeded to walk south just above the Borreguilles ski complex. Within half an hour and a height of 2700m we hit the snow. It was immediately apparent that there was much more snow than we first thought. In fact the ski machines were still working preparing pistes? Do they think the snow may last all summer and give them a good base for winter 2010/2011? One can still ski from the top of Veleta (3398m) with 1200m descent available!
We proceeded onto the Embalse de las Yeguas and Lagunillas de la Virgen, small lakes where mini icebergs had formed from collapsing ice. Snow depth here was about 3m. Then it was onto the traverse below the Tajos de la Virgen. A delicate rising traverse with increasing exposure to the right. Crampons and ice axe were necessary here in varying snow conditions, sometimes hard sometimes foothold giving away. This area is a notorious winter avalanche blackspot (see http://www.spanishhighs.co.uk/snais.html) but today all was stable and well consolidated.
We eventually reached the Elorrieta refugio perched at the southern end of the Tajos de la Virgen ridge at a height of 3180m. The ascent under a hot sun and in worsening snow, together with the altitude, had taken it’s toll and we were all quite tired. We decided to call it a day here and stay at the refugio rather than tackle the ridge ahead to the Pico del Cartujo, which looked great but daunting to our tired legs.
The Elorrieta hut used to be a hospital for TB sufferers and has a series of tunnels leading ingeniously into the mountain side. Today however the entrances were blocked by snow and ice so we stayed in the main hut. Here there are a few dirty rooms, some old metal beds and some cable car pylon protectors which can be utilised very nicely and comfortable mattresses! Inside the hut has some dripping water around and is very cold. It is like sleeping in a fridge! But when the wind got up as is normal late afternoon, then it became a convenient and welcome place to spend the night.
The hut has possibly the best view of any hut location in the Sierras. Alcazaba, Mulhacen, Veleta, and the ridge south to the Cerro de Caballo all look great from here. We sat outside and watched the sun sink slowly to the west and the colours subtly change on the mountain wall of the Tajos Altos to the south.
A bergschrund has opened up east of the hut and also some large ones of alpine scale on the rocks some 100m below the hut. The first time I can remember any such feature in the Sierra Nevada.
As the temperatures dropped to freezing I rang my daughter and she informed me that it was 30 degrees in Lanjaron! Before we turned in for the night we all agreed that the return over the Cartujo and Caballo to Lanjaron was far too ambitious for the current conditions. We changed plan and opted for the easier return over Tajos de los Machos and Cerillo Redondo to Puente Palo. However, rather than head down the long boring ridge south of Cerillo Redondo we decided to drop east from Tajos de los Machos to Las Alegas and via the Cebollar hut to Puente Palo. An interesting and varied return.
We started from the hut next morning at 7:30am and encountered great snow conditions. Our crampons crunched on the ice as we quickly made our way south along the ridge towards Tajos de los Machos. The western side of the ridge was lacking in snow cover and bouldery so we kept to the steep east side where we had continuous snow. This is an interesting way, much better than the normal summer route. In and around small obstructions and testing our crampon skills on the steep east face at times. All very interesting.
The summit of Tajos de los Machos is well known to us as we bring our ski touring clients here on a regular basis. The steep headwall made for an interesting descent that would have made an excellent glissade had there not been some rocks protruding from the valley below! There was now rapid descent of 500m in worsening snow and by the time we reached the col at 2650m the snow had run out, time had moved on and we were sweltering in high temperatures. Back to summer!
We contoured round below Las Alegas to the Cebollar hut which is situated on a lovely alpine meadow with running water and extensive views. It deserves to be better known. From here a path is picked up that drops awkwardly through pine forests down to the rampaging Rio Chico.
The Rio Chico must be crossed here. All of us ended up with wet feet and one of the party had a good soaking! We laid on the bank at the far side, listening to the sound of the water and taking in the hot sun. An idillic place. We could have stayed all day but our 4WD pickup was awaiting us at Puente Palo so we urged our tired legs on for the final few kilometres of forest track.
On the way back we met the only person encountered during our trip. A guy in trainers and shorts wanting to know where the “Sierra Nevada” was? He was wanting to walk to the ski centre and asked how many hours further. He looked most astounded when I said 3 days! We quickly moved on, as a celebratory pint of vodka and coke was waiting for us each back in Lanjaron.