Camping out in the mountains does not have to always be reserved for those long summer days. With careful planning and foresight great experiences are to be had during the winter months. We recently had a client who wanted to try out camping in the snow clad mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
N.B Remember that certain rules apply to camping in the Sierra Nevada National Park (see foot of article)
Setting off from the spa town of Lanjarón in the Alpujarras we headed in 4wd vehicles for the forests around Puente Palo. Fresh snow lined the upper roads and soon after starting our walk in we had to put on snowshoes to aid progress.
As we steadily gained height through the forest the tree branches became heavy with fresh powder snow. An amazing sight. Signs of wild boar and fox but ours were the only human tracks. A glace around could convince anybody this was Alaska and not southern Spain!
The weather was steadily worsening. We had known this was going to be the case and had been part of our initial risk assessment for the trip. In fact we were relying on bad weather coming in. Our client was looking for tips about winter camping. To gain knowledge about the difficulties involved. Why do it then in fine, dry and stable conditions? For those of you who are no doubt thinking that taking people into a winter blizzard is irresponsible let me ask you a question?
Where does experience come from? From books? From a cosseted training course?
As planned, we set up camp at the very upper limit of the pine forests. The last row of trees provided a barrier to the ever increasing gusts and we dug into the banks of snow in the lee of these trees. By flattening out a platform in the snow bank we had automatically created a snow wall augmenting the natural wind barrier above us.
It was late afternoon and snowing heavily so we retired to the tents to prepare hot drinks and evening meals. We talked about the design and effectiveness of various types of snow wall design, drawing from our own experiences in Patagonia and Kamchatka.
The snow and wind kept up it’s intensity throughout the night, the tents rattling like machine guns. To be fair, two of us hardly slept. Maybe because we had brought along our husky and border collie dogs for company (and warmth)? The client slept like a baby!
At 3 in the morning the snow turned to rain . Then temperatures dropped and all was quiet. We woke to a cold still morning. From the door of my tent I watched the sun slowly arrive over the eastern Sierra Nevada. Rays of light bathed the tents. Africa lay on the southern horizon. What a beautiful morning to be in the high mountains.
Crampons were required due to the overnight freeze. The winds picked up and we knew bad weather was again coming in by lunchtime. We hastily packed our gear and headed down through the snowy forests with the strong gusts at our backs. An adventure in itself. By lunchtime we were back in Lanjarón sat outside a bar in the sun having a well earned late breakfast. The temperature was 22C. And that I guess is the magic of the place. The contrast with the icy wastes above.
Some tips for winter camping in the Sierra Nevada
- Plan, plan and plan. Do your homework beforehand. Check routes, camp locations & escape possibilities. Full risk assessment
- Weather – essential to have a good all round idea from numerous trusted sources
- Snow conditions – make sure you have good awareness of avalanche risk assessment
- Don’t over extend the group. Keep well within both physical and mental capabilities
- Make sure all gear is checked before departure
- Read and apply the “National Park Rules for Camping in the Sierra Nevada” – summarised below
- Choose your pitch carefully. Think about wind direction: not only when you arrive, but is it going to change overnight?
- A cheap and lightweight method of guying-out is to fill carrier bags with snow. Securely tie the guy lines to the handles and then bury the bags in the snow. Your trekking poles will not be needed while you are camping so they can be used for guying-out. Slip the guy line over the pole to its middle, cut an angled, deep slot in the snow at 90 degrees to the guy line, bury the pole in the snow and stamp snow down on it.
- Be methodical. Keep your kit dry and packed away if not needed. This will save time if it becomes necessary to bail out during the night and seek a more sheltered location.
- If, like mine, your tent doesn’t shed snow, make sure you regularly push it off from the inside to prevent a build-up of weight
- Take a bivi bag. Your tent may well be waterproof but in full winter conditions it’s likely that some moisture will get in. Whether it be condensation or penetrating snow/rain, a bivi bag will protect your down sleeping bag and keep you nice and toastie!
- Take a pee-bottle. There’s nothing worse than having to put all your gear back on and go out into a blizzard for a pee.
National Park Rules for Camping in the Sierra Nevada
Camping is allowed in the National Park but there are rules and restrictions. The following apply to small groups of 3 or less tents (max 15 persons). Larger groups apply to National Park (see below)
- You must notify the National Park office of your intention to camp by post, fax or e-mail (see below)
- You can only set up tent 1hr before sunset and taken down 1hr after sunrise
- You can only stay 1 night in the same place
- You can only camp above 1600m (in summer, above treeline due to fire risk – about 2200m)
- Not within 500m of guarded refugio or public vehicle track
- Not within 1km of tarmac road
- Not within 50m mountain lake or river
- Not on private property without written permission from owner
Sierra Nevada National Park
Address: Ctra. Antigua de Sierra Nevada, Km 7, 18191 Pinos Genil
Phone: +34 958 026300
Fax: +34 958 026310