Sleeping on a snow-covered mountain summit isn’t everyone’s idea of a good night out. Throw in a six hour ascent with a heavy pack, the possibility of altitude sickness and your evening meal out of a packet and it seems even less attractive. For me though, a bivouac on the summit of Mulhacén had been on my ‘to do’ list for quite a while.
A trip report from Ian Tupman
The prospect of seeing both the sunset and the sunrise from the highest point on the Spanish mainland was tantalizing so when Richard and Kiersten from Spanish Highs invited me to join them recently, I jumped at the opportunity. We were accompanied by our friend Pepe and the Spanish Highs dogs, Khumbu and Kyra.
Our starting point was the Hoya del Portillo, the ‘end of the road’ above Capileira. We set off at 3.00 pm and after climbing steadily through the forest we reached the open mountainside to be greeted by a refreshing breeze. Richard was carrying his skis and boots on his pack, his objective for the next day: to ski the east face of Mulhacén. He drew some puzzled looks from the day walkers that passed us on their descent. After all, it was the third of June and winter was over months ago….wasn’t it?
I had never managed to summit Mulhacén on the same day as leaving my home at sea level, twice having had to turn back due to the effects of ascending too quickly. However, our steady, almost snail-like progress and regular drinks stops made for a comfortable ascent, first to the south summit and then, after almost six hours, to the main summit. A moderate westerly wind was blowing and we searched for a suitable spot to set up our bivouac that would be protected from it. The various stone walls and ruins of the old cartographers’ huts were barely visible, such was the depth of the accumulated snow but just below and to the north east of the summit we found the perfect location. Facing due east, sheltered by rocks and relatively flat; there was room for all of us. Before we left the cars, we had debated whether to take the snow shovel and ice axe but when we had to level out the frozen, lumpy snow, I was glad I had strapped them to my pack.
It didn’t take us long to get our gear set up for the night: sleeping mats, bivi bags and winter sleeping bags were laid out and our down jackets were donned as the temperature dropped. By now it was almost ten o’clock, the sun was sinking quickly and the sky was taking on magical hues of red and orange. Camera shutters clicked away as we tried to capture the changing scene before us. Although photographs allow us to share things with others, they cannot capture the feelings of tranquillity, insignificance and even vulnerability, which I felt as the sun disappeared below the horizon.
We ate, drank and chatted for a while, enjoying our shared experience. We were guests for the night in the highest ‘hotel room’ in Spain. We thought it unlikely that there would be anyone on the summit of Mount Teide on Tenerife, some 236m higher.
I drifted in and out of sleep for the next seven or eight hours, always warm and comfortable, with the occasional glance upwards to the star-filled sky. Satellites and shooting stars appeared and disappeared as they passed across the black sky. No light pollution here.
At around six o’clock, I looked out to the east as a narrow band of orange light appeared above the horizon. Another day was dawning for us to enjoy and as with the sunset the night before, photographs are no substitute for actually being there. I have been fortunate to experience several sunrises in the mountains, but this was the best by a long, long way.
We gradually emerged from our sleeping bags to the cool, morning air. Richard wanted to give the sun time to soften the surface of the snow before his ski descent so there was no rush to pack up. The dogs were fed and watered and we breakfasted at a leisurely pace. By around nine o’clock we were ready to move off and we left Richard on the summit to prepare himself. The rest of us walked down to a vantage point from where we could film Richard, maintaining communications by radio. Richard made his descent in stages, allowing us to move ahead of him each time to keep him in view.
He successfully reached the Siete Lagunas and will no doubt share his experience in due course. Safe to say though, that when we joined up with him, he had a grin from ear to ear!
Our return route to the cars brought us from above the Siete Lagunas along the ‘traverse path’ to the south ridge and back the way we had ascended, save for the last 7km or so where we moved to the west side of the ridge and followed the marked path around to the top of the forest. With hot feet and dry throats we made our way back to Lanjarón for some very welcome beers and tapa.
This was a great experience in the company of good friends and provided two, never-to-be-forgotten mountain moments.
Why don’t you get up there yourself, you know you want to!!
Spanish Highs are the most experienced, active and knowledgeable mix of foreign and spanish guides operating in the Sierra Nevada and the only ones fully insured and licensed for both guiding activities and for operating as a travel agency.