Mulhacen and Capileira, Sierra Nevada, Spain

A Journey to the Wall Part 2 – The Struggle, The Wait, The Storm

Then there is no power in my legs, no air, frequent coughing. I drop further behind. I cough uncontrollably again, and my head spins. Ten more paces; every step is one less; ten more paces …

Thursday 2nd March 2006 – Capileira to the Poqueira Refuge

2006_401004 - Setting out

Wayne and Dave at the start of the trek, Sierra Nevada, Spain

It’s time to go up, and it’s a mountaineering day to dream of. Mulhacen and Veleta are gleaming pure white out of a rich blue sky, and yesterday’s glowering clouds have burned away to leave an anticipation for the climb. I would normally feel huge excitement in that anticipation, but today I am nervous about how I’ll perform with this chest bug persisting. Dave drives us up to Capileira in his old Seat van, and we get geared up in the warm sun. The map shows little detail of our starting route – surprising, but then we are spoiled by the quality of UK o/s maps.

I’ve been here before, of course, and I follow my nose out to an overlook on the route down to Puente Buchite. It is familiar yet surreal. My last walk down this cobbled street and track had been the day after an intensely emotional experience at Cortijo Romero several years before. I felt disorientated that day, as if floating adrift in a calm sea. As we stand on the overlook, my mind is distracted by all thoughts of Kim, Jude, Jeanette, Tim and the others with whom we shared so much that week …

We set off down the track, but after half a mile downhill it doesn’t feel right; we should be gaining height surely. Although this will get us to the hydro-electric station at La Cebadilla, it is a longer route via the Poqueira river, so we retrace and, with the help of a man digging the road with a hand-tool, find the correct sendero up out of the village. Everything is sparkling under this blue sky: traces of snow and ice, the delightful, energetic bustle and gurgle of the acequias, the imposing presence of the main ridge ahead, near but yet so far off.

Goats cross our trail above Capileira,

Goats cross our trail above Capileira, Sierra Nevada, Spain

A herd of goats stumbles across our way, bells filling the valley with sound. Day walkers exchange greetings, and we chat with a friendly Irishman. We reach the Poqueira hydro-electric power station in good time, and I’m coping well so far. Our pace is steady and gentle, but then so is the gradient; we have all the hard work still to do.

Our first stiff climb zigzags up from the hydro and then flattens into a pleasant, contouring route high above the ravine. We pass a number of small cortijos, and have a clear view to the obvious dark block of the Refugio Poqueira on the slopes way above. We are passed ourselves by two guys with skis; they’re moving quickly (probably at our normal pace I should imagine). Then we descend again to meet the river and wind gently through pleasant woodland in the upper reaches of the ravine. I’m moving well, if a little slowly, behind Wayne’s compromised pace. There is no fatigue in the legs at the moment, but I am needing to stop more often than usual.

We meet the Irishman again. It is 3:15pm. I am encouraged to hear that we could be at the refuge in another hour and a half. What I didn’t know then was that the next four hours would seem longer than any I have ever spent in the hills.

Gaining height near Cortijo Las Tomas. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Gaining height near Cortijo Las Tomas. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Out of the woods the views become more expansive, and Veleta towers above us suddenly as we cross the ravine tumbling down from its heights to the left. Suddenly the ground changes. More snow, no path, hacking up through scrub, steeply. Have we missed the track?

Then there is no power in my legs, as if no fuel is getting through. No air, frequent coughing. I drop further behind Wayne, forging ahead. We cross another acequia – Acequia Baja – giving some respite from the ascent, and then sit for a few minutes to consume food, gazing back down the ravine towards the now distant Sierra de Lujar.

Above us is the cortijo Las Tomas – 500m still to climb to the refuge. Part of me wants to stay just here in this delightful place; part of me steels up for the ensuing grind.

Deliberately steady, counting paces, I begin to gain height. Wayne disappears over the next crest. We pass the Las Tomas, and a sign tells me it is 45 minutes more. Ten more paces. I hang over my walking poles. Ten more paces. Wayne is out of sight. I am so slow; what is he thinking? Can I make this?

I cough uncontrollably again, and my head spins. For a while I consider pitching the tent just here (and learn later that Wayne had the same thought). Never before in thirty years of mountaineering and trekking has it been this much effort. Ten more paces; every step is one less. The light is changing. It’s getting cold; a long shadow has crept over the slopes and a chill is embracing me from the ground up. I stop to change and shout to Wayne, who does the same. On with the fleece and Rons, hat and gloves. Shit it’s getting dark! How much further?

2006_401021 - Sunset over Sierra Lujar

Fading light on Sierra Lujar from above Las Tomas. This was my last photograph on a traumatic day. My energy level at this point was -10. Sierra Nevada, Spain

I’ve even neglected my photography today. There is a golden glow now over the slopes flanking the valley, and I make a couple of shots. No careful compositions, no moving to find foregrounds, no care. Just a snap or two, and my arms ache as I hold the camera to my eyes.

Ten more paces; every step is one less. I aim for a spot on a rocky bluff where Wayne last disappeared. It takes an age to reach it.

I pass over the rise and Wayne is coming back to me without his pack. Why? I hang over my poles yet again. Just over the next rise, he assures me, is the refuge. He takes my pack. I steel myself again. Ten more paces; every step is one less. And then a red flashing light!

The dark, angular shape of the refuge building appears against the deep blue of the mountainside less than half a mile away. Bloody hell! I take back my pack, and we complete the last traverse of the shallow bowl that has hidden this visual motivation from me for the last few hours. I stumble into the hut and fall into an embrace with Wayne. How did I make it here?

We find some rubber hut shoes and book in, just in time for supper. It is eight o’clock now, almost dark. Shit, it took us four and a half hours from where we last met the Irishman. I am not wearing a watch, so was oblivious of the time. Eight hours for what should have been a four to five hour ascent?! My mood is light. Why, I wonder. There is still no fatigue in my legs, and now I’m in the comfort of the hut, I feel no worse than I did this morning. I’m coughing, yes, but otherwise content, and I chat a while with some German skiers.

Supper is huge: soup, pasta and tortillas, followed by what became known over the next few days as poncey custard. Then we fall into our sleeping bags. Was that walk the hardest thing I have ever done? Ask me again tomorrow, or next week. For the moment, absolutely it was, and it was only a 10km trek up to 2500m!

Poqeira Refuge. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Poqeira Refuge. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Friday 3rd March 2006 – Watching, Waiting, Rising, Falling

Sleep was fitful, as always the first night high. We sit for breakfast of french toasts, copious jam and coffee, watching the rising light on the mountain landscape around us.

I reassure Wayne that I do not want him to feel in any way constrained by my incapacity, and that he should do whatever he wants to whilst I stay here at the hut. It is a fine day, and Mulhacen beckons, especially as there is a severe weather forecast for Saturday. Wayne packs up a sack and I watch him depart across the snow-covered road that normally serves this place. He’ll be back by mid-afternoon I suspect.

What to do? I consider sitting in the sun, but outside a cold wind is blowing, unlike yesterday. So I find a pleasant corner inside, and read the map and a series of Spanish walking magazines. The clock on the wall says 9:30. It could be a long day.

As on the first day in Tijola, though, I relax and daydream as best I can through the persistent coughing, reflecting on the previous day’s efforts. I can make no sense of how rough it was, and how easy it would have been just to sit down, to give up. Now I’m here, it feels something of an achievement in itself.

The wind rises quite significantly, and a thought passes of Wayne on Mulhacen. The clouds are ominous to the north. At the front of the refuge, there is now some shelter and the sun is direct, so I sit outside for a while with a party of English trekkers and their female guide. She reminds me of Mich, an old friend from SMF days. Some lenticular clouds form, for which the Alpujarras are renowned, and watching their gentle shifting movements passes at least an hour.

2006_401026 - Lenticular Wave Clouds over Sierra de Lujar

Lenticular Wave Clouds over Sierra de Lujar

More thoughts pass as to why people would choose to be guided here. The peaks are high but not technically difficult. Of course, bad weather and inexperience combined could be significant dangers, so maybe they are inexperienced in alpine conditions; that’s fair enough. There is a good social atmosphere among the group, which provides another appeal, if you’re up for that kind of thing. But I notice quite a lot of unconscious posturing among the men, maybe to establish their credentials with each other and particularly their female guide.

Now I’m a sucker for a genuine group experience of the Scott-Peck kind, but here in the mountains I am comfortable with solitude, and the company of someone I have come to value more in the last two days than ever before.

Wayne on Mulhacen summit.

Wayne on Mulhacen summit. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Wayne returns at 4pm ish, having summited on Mulhacen in difficult conditions, with ice and strong winds. I’m thrilled for him. In previous years we have both been defeated on the highest peaks of our treks, for example the Wildspitze and Pico Posets. He has also had to deal with a partner’s fall in the Pyrenees, and suffered himself with altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro. So a success here is well deserved.

It is cold in the refuge now. The fire doesn’t kick heat out into the room at all, so I sit right in front of it, as close as possible. It’s not like Austrian huts, which always seem so warm and friendly. It is comfortable enough, but slightly bare and stark, though I imagine in the height of Summer it would be much different.

I’ve felt reasonable all day, but now I’m beginning to shiver. My coughing will not subside and I’m falling slowly down a slope it seems. Food is wholesome and full again, and I gorge on albondigas, my favourite Spanish meatballs. Quite why I’m eating so much I’m not sure; I’ve done nothing today. Perhaps the body is demanding fuel to cope with attacking this intrusive virus.

Saturday 4th March 2006 – The Storm

Wayne sets out on the Saturday morning of the storm for a short walk to La Caldera. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Wayne sets out on the Saturday morning of the storm for a short walk to La Caldera. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Wayne heads out again today, and I’m happy to sit and chew cud. The guardian has reiterated what we already know, that severe weather is heading in this afternoon from 2pm. Wayne knows he will not be able to summit, so heads off up towards la Caldera.

In the calm of the morning, there is no sign of what is to come, other than an occasional gust. I decide to take a wander, and venture a few hundred yards towards the lip of the bowl to view the valley we had toiled up on Thursday. The snow is hard, and it feels good to have my boots on. I know I was physically in good shape before this trip, and despite the attack on my respiratory system, the walk has had little if any effect on my muscles.

By noon, Wayne is back, and we’re into an afternoon of weather watching. More lenticular wave clouds begin to form over the Orgiva-Tijola valley, and I wonder if they are a prelude to the approaching weather. 2pm passes and the sun is still shining.

The English party return with their guide from Mulhacen and describe how it was rather too windy for comfort, but they seem to be excited by the experience. As they head off, a large group of Spanish arrive in dribs and drabs for a Saturday night out.

Winds rising on the Sierra crest.

Winds rising on the Sierra crest. Sierra Nevada, Spain

Weather watching is fascinating. Following the familiar pattern of an approaching front, firstly the sun becomes veiled. Then the light levels drop with increasing cloud. Then the wind increases and the clouds begin to descend towards us.

Sierra de Lujar disappears, Alto del Chorillo and Alegas to either side of the Poqueira valley disappear, and then there is no view at all. It has taken two hours, slowly, almost indiscernibly changing. Now we are in the grip of a full-blown blizzard. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Scotland or North Wales, or in the Pyrenees or Sierra Nevada, mountain weather has its ways.

Behind the back wall of the refuge is a stores building. The wind clatters through the passageway bringing with it clouds of spindrift at high speed and a chilling howling. Snow hammers in through the outer glazing on the stairway, and doesn’t melt on the stairs. On the roof is some form of a gadget, probably connected to the chimney, which clanks and rattles loudly.

The fire suffers a backdraft as wind gusts down the chimney and the salon fills with smoke. Someone opens the windows to clear it. It happens again and the hut staff dampen the fire. Now we have no fire and a room filled with freezing wind and choking smoke. God that’s all I need. I wish at this moment I could swear in Spanish, but settle for a muttered “Shut the fucking windows!” I get my hat.

It takes a long while, seemingly longer than it should feel, for food to arrive this evening. We eat quietly. I am increasingly fearful, uncomfortable, cold and beginning to wheeze. How long will this storm last?