PICOS DE EUROPA MOUNTAINS
DAY ONE – FUENTE DE TO DIEGO MELLA REFUGE (5 hrs 30 mins)
You meet quite a few Dutch folk in the Picos and there is your instant dichotomy. Flat Holland and mega steep Spanish limestone. Should you ever listen to the advice of a Dutchman in the mountains ? Well, to be fair, Ireland isn’t exactly legendary for its soaring peaks – but at least we have a few bumps ! We did listen to Dutch countenance one day and within minutes we were in trouble – but more anon.
Our first day’s excursion was a rugged and precipitous route from the base of the Fuente De Cable Car to the beautiful refuge of the Collado Jermosa, otherwise known as the Diego Mella, and it sits close to the Western extreme of the Central Massif of the Picos. Getting going was a relief. We had spent the early part of the day hunting Potes, a small town which is the hub of the Picos, for gas. Brilliantly, we had forgotten that you cannot take gas on airplanes, even in your checked in luggage. You see crafty Muslim extremists hide in the hold waiting for the chance to cause mayhem with a cooking canister. You can’t be too careful. I once had my toothpaste confiscated at security thereby foiling my plan to break into the cockpit and brush the Captain’s teeth violently until he handed over the controls.
We arrived on a Sunday when Spain enjoys a whole day of Siesta. Or so it seems. Any useful shop is shut. Including the Decathlon in Santander – open Monday to Saturday 10am to 10pm but not on the Sabbath and we were missing a crucial component.
We had to wait until Monday morning to begin our pursuit. Incredibly Potes is very shy when it comes to gas. They are excellent though at selling you plastic tourist tat. Every other shop is crammed with traditionally crafted souvenirs which are all made, if you check the small print, in the nearby village of China. Eventually we found a “Ferrerata” or “Household Essentials” shop called “Electrico Domesticos” This was proof that Spanish is just English with an “O” at the end and showed how close to the truth the “Scorchio, Scorchio” Fast Show sketch really is.
The owner, instead of proudly displaying his gas on the shelves, which you would expect in an area famous for camping, kept them hidden underneath the counter – like pornography. When I asked for gas he made a shushing gesture and, looking furtive, produced a couple of big ones. Like embarrassed pubescent teenagers we made quick purchases and scuttled out. If you want to be a millionaire take my advice. Open a camping shop in Potes. You will have a large yacht in about a fortnight.
As a result of this prelude we made a late start on the hill and eventually set off across the gently sloping meadow towards a switch back mule track that rose almost impossibly through a narrow gorge. It looked endless and that is exactly how it felt. After about two and a half hours of slow and torturous climbing in baking windless heat we reached the Vega De Liordes a vast grassy plain which signalled the end of the first section. Thank God for the gas ! Our first cup of tea and a sandwich made from ham and cheese we had pilfered from the breakfast buffet at our first night Hotel/Refuge – the Parador Nacional. As an entrance point to the Picos the Fuente De Cable Car, which is about 20k West of Potes via a superb mountain road, is one of the best. You can park the car for the duration – for free ! You can sort out the gear at the Hotel – or camp if you prefer. There is a quality campsite about five minutes walk from “El Cable”. Another advantage of this way in – is the way out ! After six days of breaking your balls you can enjoy the delight of taking the cable car down the final section. Why finish the week with exploding knees ?
After the relief of a bit of flat ground at the Vega De Liordes, and there isn’t much flat in the Picos, we continued over mixed ground towards the refuge. There were plenty more tough sections but it is all well tracked and marked with cairns. One slightly nervewracking semi scramble onto a reasonably narrow ridge caused a few moments of concern. In good weather the odd study of the map and a check of the compass to confirm direction should be all you will need because the main paths are well tracked. In bad weather ? Bad weather and the Picos are familiar bedfellows and it is a living hell trying to navigate here in those conditions. I will come to all that later but back to the conclusion of Day One. I found the altitude a minor problem towards the end of the trek. A little nausea, light headedness and weak legs punctuated the last hour or so and it was wonderful to at last see the refuge perched on a plateau close to a cliff. We stopped at our viewpoint, a col which sat a hundred metres or so above our Day One target, to take in the superb views and to admire the awesome setting of the Diego Mella Refugio.
We had pre-booked the refuge. A good idea. It helps you feel secure as you set off knowing that there is a space for you. You want the week to begin hitch free. The Diego Mella has a web site with details and a phone number. It’s a smallish hut, sleeping about 20, and fills up quickly. They sell beer. Just what we needed after a sweat lashed and dusty journey. There is no toilet, just a little rock pit a short walk from the refuge where you can admire turds in various stages of decomposition. But in terms of the vista it probably ranks amongst the top ten latrines in the World. No washing facilities either, though there is one tap which produces cold water via a less than torrential and antiquated pump system. It takes quite a while to fill even a small Camel Back. The food was good though and, in true refuge style, plenty of it. Steve though was less than happy with the huge steaming bowl of “Calamari In a Thick and Gooey Black Ink Sauce”. Our host explained that it was the Fish of the Mountains. Very funny people the Spanish. The bunked eaves of the refuge were our sleeping quarters which was reached via a flight of dodgy, rickety stairs. Another tough climb to finish the day. See I told you – everything is steep in the Picos. One of our catch phrases of the week was, “The Picos always has one more surprise” We would get our first real evidence of that on Day Two …..
DAY TWO – REFUGIO DIEGO MELLA TO REFUGIO URRIELLU via CABANA VERONICA (9 hours 30 minutes)
Remarkably, in a refugio filled close to capacity, there was very little in the way of nocturnal disturbance. Maybe, like the Queen, the Spanish don’t snore. The Diego Mella was certainly very peaceful. Breakfast was jovial and hearty – lots of bread, jam and hot coffee. Then we sat outside, clutching our bog roll, waiting our moment. You didn’t want company in the little rock pit.. so you perched, vulture eyed, hoping for a break in the traffic and solitude for your morning ablutions.
The clientele in the refugio was mostly Spanish. When it comes to the language I am like Manuel in reverse but we did manage to get across the nature of our planned route for Day Two via the Llastrias at 2,621 metres. The locals advised against it saying that the high pass was too dangerous and was partially blocked with snow and ice. Even in late June there was a considerable amount of snow around.
We heeded the warnings of the leathered locals and set off on a different route which would still lead us to the planned destination for our second day. First we re-traced our Day One steps back to the Sedo de la Padierna until we came to a large-ish cairn. Then we hung a left and went off piste. There were two huge “Hoyos Giganticos” to get into – and out of – which were lined with vast scree slopes and steep ascents to narrow saddles – the only apparent exit points. The day turned into nine and a half hours of sheer hell across sharp edged limestone pockmarked with deep sink holes and ravine after ravine after ravine. Throw in a couple of seriously dodgy long sloping snowfield traverses and you begin to get the picture.
The going was torturously slow. It took us over five hours to reach the Cabana Veronica after negotiating a high col below the Madejuno peak at 2,513 metres. Several times we re-traced our steps pondering descents, ascents and possible alternative routes. Now we know how the Ulster Protestants felt on the Garvaghy Road. Sometimes there seemed to be no way forward. In bad visibility you would need to be a very, very experienced navigator to get out of the Barrancas of the Picos. In perfect vis, which we had, it was demanding and confusing. Parts of the Picos are famed for their lunar like landscape. It is extremely difficult going. Be warned.
In this territory even the best equipment does little to give you a leg up and let me tell you Steve has “All the Gear”. A Power Monkey which charges your phone via solar panels. A Power stove which turns snow to boiling water in something like 0.00000000003267 seconds and a little plastic pocket called an “Overboard” which keeps sailors ipods/cameras floating and dry if they drop over the side during savage seas. I asked Steve what chance he felt there was of us capsizing at two and a half thousand metres.
In terms of the day our troubles were only half over. We grabbed a Fanta at the wonderful and tiny Cabana Veronica Refugio – it is a converted warship gun turret and sleeps just three. It’s silver casing glints wildly in the radiant Spanish sun and the “Veronica” is a great marker buoy in the heart of the Central Picos expanse. Just below the Cabana is the main tourist path up to the plateau below the impressive ridge that finishes with the summit of Horcados Rojos. Fit day trippers can make it to the top of “The Rojos” in about two hours from the cable car. The steep final ascent makes it a rewarding and challenging climb. But that was not our goal today. We stopped on the plateau and it felt a little odd to be surrounded by hordes of the unwashed. During the first part of our second day we hadn’t encountered a single soul. Now there were cameras and picnics and people in silly shoes. We didn’t stop to rest though. No – remember we are Big Boys of the Mountain. We stopped to put on our harnesses and the Via Ferrata “Lobster Claw” gear for a long cabled descent onto the Hou Les Boches which would lead us to the Urriellu Refugio. There was a problem though. The cables on the traverse which lead in to the drop were frozen solid under snow and ice. They were in place to help you across a brace of steep snowfields which sat above a long tongue … which lead to a funnel…. and then a cliff. But we had NO protection, nothing to hold onto, and, to make matters worse, there was an egg shaped rock bluff between the two traverses which needed about four decent bouldering moves to bypass. We made it though, edging across slowly and nervously, trying not to think that, in a few days time, we would have to come back this way. The return journey culminated in the scariest moment of the trip.
After about 45 minutes of careful descending we made it onto the lower plateau. Relief. Ahead lay about 90 minutes of reasonably straightforward hiking…. but, of course, the Picos kept up her reputation for last minute surprises by throwing in a tight and steep gulley climb and a nasty and steep downhill scree section. If scree is your passion then the Picos is for you. There is a lot of it. It’s always a joy !
At last, with the ten hour mark fast approaching, we stumbled into the 96 bed Urriellu Refugio which sits underneath the incredibly beautiful central beacon of the Picos – the Naranjo De Bulnes peak – a true mecca for rock climbers who made up the majority of the population at the refuge. The inside of the Urriellu is a bit like the set from “Porridge”. The stairs and walkways are open meshed iron. It’s all a bit prison like but very comfortable and hospitable with a cracking climbers atmosphere. It was quiet enough on this occasion though. Maybe 20 people staying. All we wanted was a mattress and a good feed after a hike that had been very demanding both physically and mentally. Steve, after basically doing a diagonal crossing of the Picos in one hot day, sat with his knife and fork in the attack position waiting for dinner. A huge bowl was set in front of him. The steaming main course was “Calamari In a Thick and Gooey Black Ink Sauce” Sadly there is no photo of Steve’s face. The camera had failed to charge on his Power Monkey !
DAY THREE – URRIELLU REFUGIO TO BULNES (5 hours 30 minutes)
The day didn’t start ideally. I shuffled along my bunk, still encased in my sleeping bag, and took a peek through the small refuge window to check the weather. Rather miserably the legendary local fog “The Orbayu” had enveloped the hills. It’s the result of moist air drifting in from the Bay of Biscay and is usually the sign of an anti cyclone. Our route was down, right into the belly of the cold and cloying mist, but we found out later that the fog had smothered the summits too. On this occasion there was no escape no matter which way you went. The Picos has a reputation for this type of quick change in the weather. What else can you expect from a range that lies so close to the coast. The combination of sea and mountains usually leads to rather freaky local patterns. As a veteran of the Mournes neither of us was a stranger to this sort of thing ! Day three was supposed to be an easy one after the technical traumas and sheer exhaustion of Day Two. As you will see it didn’t quite work out like that.
The route looked straightforward enough though taking us to the tiny split village of Bulnes with its enchanting upper and lower hamlets. We had hoped to take a direct if rather steep route towards our goal but the change in the conditions forced us to alter our plans. Again the locals were a great source of information. They told us that our planned route to Bulnes would be very difficult in the poor visibility and that it would also involve the negotiation of several steep, rocky and now very slippery pitches. Wet limestone ? Not pleasant ! So me and Steve took the other option of an Easterly descent via the Refugio Terenosa.
A Dutch guy (from the no bumps at all and certainly no mountains whatsoever country called Holland) and his French chum were going that way too. They looked and sounded confident and set off just before us. We soon caught them and the bunch of us quickly realised that we had veered slightly off the main route. The paths from the Urriellu Refuge run above and below the hut like tangled strands of spaghetti. It’s hard to pick the right one especially when you cannot see ! Mistakes can be made in a flash. Our vis had dropped to about 20 metres. The problem, as I mentioned before, is that so much of the terrain looks the same and, in terms of correlating with the map, there are very few major features or attack points to help you. Just gulley after mind numbing gulley and big grey limestone bluffs and cliffs.
In Mexico many men have died from Canyon Fever in the crazy maze of Barrancas in the Sierra Madre. The repetitive, brutal, sheer sided ravines combine with the heat, lack of hope and water and people literally go mad. The Picos has a similar feel. There is a story of an Englishman who was lost in the Picos for seven days. He eventually found a road and, starving and thirsty, he slumped down semi conscious his energy spent. Luckily a woman in a car came his way. She revived him and saved his life. Later, quite a bit later to be honest, they married ! Whether the romantic bit is true or not I cannot confirm but the “lost” bit would not surpise me in the least. The Picos is unforgiving.
Anyway back to Day Three and the Dutchman. The four of us came to a small fork that was not on our map. They went left and we went right. They were right and we were wrong. We corrected soon enough though. The steep topography and the fact that the compass was beginning to swing too far to the South sounded obvious warning bells and we retraced our steps. A 40 minute detour that was more irritating than anything else and we again caught up with the Franco/Dutch duo. “Know all of the Netherlands” took just a little too much pleasure from our error ! We all regrouped at the Refugio Terenosa for a much needed and warming coffee.
The Terenosa is set lower than the path amongst a few farm buildings. It would be very easy to walk straight past it. From my pacing and timing I knew it should be “sort of here” and, thankfully, it was. Our reward was a mug of hot coffee and a lovely wee sticky bun. The route to the Terenosa finishes with a contoured traverse on a high, narrow path which juts out like a swollen lower lip from the cliffs above and below. There are some big drops. Luckily we couldn’t see them ! Half way along the path I stopped to check the map. A goat sneaked up behind me and started licking the salt off my arm. I almost had a heart attack. Steve thinks animals behave strangely around me. I see myself as more of a Dr.Dolittle. Except that he talked to the animals. They didn’t regard him as a light snack !
Onwards from the Terenosa. Now the fog was at its most dense. Steve wasn’t happy with my route choice which was a badly marked path about 200 metres left from the refuge. So we walked on looking for another Northerly turn a little further along heading in the direction of Sotres. Now we were in the middle of Spain’s version of Dartmoor. Featureless moorland like plains and ghostly shapes. All we needed was a howl from the Hounds of the Baskervilles. We were getting lost. Steve made a great call and instead of fumbling about looking for something that might match up to the map we went back to the Terenosa and asked the hut attendant for some directions ! It was a good lesson. Never be afraid to ask a good source even if it does mean swallowing a bit of pride. He told us there was a sign post a kilometre or so up the path. Right for Sotres and left for Bulnes. We set off again and out of the mist came a Spaniard pulling two loaded mules. He confirmed that we were close to the way marker. But the man in the hut had warned us that the descent into Bulnes would be tricky. He hadn’t been joking. We ended up in broken forest and scrub and several times the path mysteriously disappeared. We battled on traversing steep mainly untracked slopes… which were muddy and slippery. Below us we could hear the sound of furiously rushing water so we knew that we were going in the right direction. The water was in the gorge that lead to Bulnes. We knew that there was a big defined path somewhere around here. We also knew that there were cliffs into the gorge. Now we were falling down often and without warning sliding for many yards on our mud polished backsides. It was as if we had been caught in sniper crossfire. Finding purchase was extremely difficult. Would we tumble onto the path … or over a cliff. In this visibility it was a real concern. Even down in Bulnes the mist was thick..but with great relief we hit the cobbled path… almost literally ! We looked as if we had just competed in the All Spain Dung Wrestling Championships.
Drenched and dirty we stumbled into Bulnes and straight into the first Bar that faced us. I felt a bit like Joseph, “Do you have a room ?” Steve did his best impression of the Virgin Mary and, with sympathy in his eyes, the owner, Alberto, waved a key. He had some rooms in an absolutely sensational little house just up the road in this bite size but gorgeously appointed Lilliputian village. The room had a shower…. Heaven. Our first proper wash in three days. Grime and slime filled the shower basin. Food was served back in Alberto’s place where we met a Portuguse guide called Tiago Costa. He had been advised by his company not to go down the cables from the Horcados Rojos because they were buried under ice and snow ! Whoops !
DAY FOUR BULNES REFUGE TO URRIELLU REFUGE (5 hours)
It was like being back in the womb. An all enveloping soft gurgling. My bed was at the open window no more than ten metres from the spot where the fast flowing water of the gorge flowed through Bulnes. It bounced and weaved its way through the rocks and boulders. The sounds caressed the tired minds of the two explorers into the most delicious of slumbers. And boy did we need it. We already knew that Day Four was going to be a beast of a slog because the route back up to the Urriellu Refugio was the route down we had planned to do on Day Three. We were well aware of exactly what lay ahead. Five hours that began with steep snaking grasslands that took us quickly away from our pretty Bulnes base. After that seemingly never ending funnels and fissures that teased us. Maze like tendrils that crept away into the mist. Hang on a minute ! MIST ? What ! Please not again.
We had cracked on early in good conditions. The sun was breaking through puffy fair weather clouds and for the first couple of hours all was well. The terrain was relentlessly steep but it was also relentlessly beautiful. Magnificent cliffs banked our climb on all sides and even a tight section of cable on what looked like a dry waterfall was negotiated without blasphemy. But here it came again – that ghostly, suffocating Picos fog.
The night before we had made several new best friends. Tiago the Portuguese guide who told us exciting tales of his Nepalese expeditions. Young and fit with a burned mahogany complexion that just screamed mountain adventure. And then there was Alberto who owned our little Bulnes hostelry. We had a few beers. It was all back slaps and bonhomie and sound advice from our local bartender. Alberto was no doubt born and bred in Bulnes and for all we knew he may never have made it further than the village. I had already heard tales of veteran residents of Potes who had never in their lives been down the Hermada Gorge and into the civilised world. There is a little bit of “Deliverance” about Potes. Watch the movie. It stars Burt Reynolds. You will see what I mean.
Alberto obviously knew every contour of the surrounding hills. I showed him our route. He shook his head in a knowing (or was it smug) and confident (or was it supercilious) way. In English that was more shattered than broken he told us not to take the recommended marked route but instead to break East about halfway up the trail onto an alternative path (Garvaghy Road again !). It would be marked with a yellow + white cross. In the Picos a yellow + white cross, according to the trailside marker maps, means “Don’t go this way you lunatics”. But of course Alberto, with that warm smile and local knowledge, had us convinced. “It means you will avoid about two kilometres of cambered scree… it’s hell ….!!!” That was enough for us. “Alberto’s Trail” took us into a long, narrow and almost vertical gulley which then forked out into various unsavoury options. The route, to be fair to Alberto, was reasonably well marked and we added to the cairns… so that others following later could also end up lost and confused. We are responsible hikers. We fiddled about for a while. I set off ahead to scout branches on the, by now, faint path. Small canyons fanned out ahead offering false trails – and false hope. All the while the sticky veil of mist grew thicker. Sensibly Steve had slowed the pace right down. As a practicioner of sports medicine he understands how the body works and how best to make it work for you. Keep the pace aerobic. Keep the lactic acid out of the muscles. There is an impulse when under pressure to go faster. To find out what is “up there”. To “get there now”. That impulse can increase with panic. Read “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales… a book which explores the psychology of survival in extreme wilderness situations. It is all about “Who lives, who dies and why”. Slowing down helps conserve energy and contributes to better decision making.From the map we knew that a basic Easterly heading would eventually take us across the path we had used to descend on Day Three – the route to Terenosa. After a tense hour or so we hit it. Huge relief. But was the Urriellu Refugio above us or below us. We could not be definite. The Picos had given us a little nip on the buttocks. White fog. White limestone. Ravines and chasms so similar looking they could have been photocopied. Then we heard voices. Three young Spaniards were coming down the path. A chance to use the local lingo. Fortunately we were prepared and had written down an emergency phrase “Donde comienzo camino a Refugio Urriellu” (Can you show me the path to the Urriellu Refuge) This we felt would be more useful than the only other Spanish phrase I knew … the rough translation of which is “An octopus has eaten my toilet” The local trio pointed uphill and said, “About five minutes” We almost kissed them. Me and Steve abandoned our plans to camp beside the refuge. It would have been too wet and miserable. Better to take advantage of the adjoining accommodation. The fog was thicker now. More of a pea soup. But, as Steve pointed out, anything is better than “Calamari in a Thick + Gooey Black Ink Sauce”. We had a cup of tea at the refuge where we met another Ulsterman, Fergal Duffy, the Forrest Gump of Fermanagh. Fergal, a wind farm project manager, of sharp intelligence and humour, had travelled the world, apparently on his own, walking vast distances along the way. He regaled us over dinner with stories of bizarre overnights in refuges. Delightful children spewing projectile vomit over the floor of the bunkroom and a man described by Fergal as “showing psychopathic traits” sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night shouting murderous threats while brandishing a machete ! Steve slept with his Leatherman under his pillow.
DAY FIVE URRIELLU REFUGIO TO ALIVA REFUGIO (6 hours)
No serial killers. Not one. All night. We were both alive. I woke first and twisted to the front of my bunk to peer through the tall narrow window of the refuge. It was just after six a.m and I watched a fabulous technicolour sunrise. The fog had gone and ahead of us lay a day of uninterrupted sunshine. We were back to the dead calm oven we had “enjoyed” on the first two days. We reckoned it was about a ninety minute walk from the Urriellu Refugio, back across the Hou Les Boches, to the base of the cabled cliff below Horcados Rojos.
Fergal revealed that he had walked up to the ridge just after sunrise to check out the route. A quick ninety minute jaunt before breakfast. Good old Forrest. Fergal had more tales to tell from his global travels. There was the morning he woke in a very dodgy Las Vegas Hostel to discover the dead body of a knifed woman outside. Worse still. On another trip he had booked the window for a long haul flight from New Zealand to find that the sumo wrestling Champion of Germany was in the middle seat. Fergal pleaded for a move and got it. The unpleasant option ? Thirty hours with his head clamped under the sweaty armpit of a vast Deutch destroyer. Nasty !
“Desayuno” (or breakfast – see I’m fluent now !) in the Urriellu came in the strange form of a little basket filled with hard bread croutons, dozens of cheap rich tea like biscuits and a small tasteless bun. It was more like the rations you might get in solitary confinement but the contents were, at least, carbohydrate. Fergal turned Ferret and emptied about 30 rich tea bikkies into a napkin and stashed them away. The boy Duffy is not a man to waste food. Fergal wolfed away his uninspiring breakfast and set off. We followed shortly after and with a smooth first 90 minutes behind us we reached the bottom of the cables. Up on the higher slopes we could see the small speck that was Fergal gingerly crossing the unprotected section that had caused us so much alarm on the second day. He was crouched and bent in towards the snow slope. Even from this distance you could tell that Fergal wasn’t enjoying the experience. Steve wanted a tea break and out came the magic stove. He brewed up in a new World record time of 0.000000000000000007862 seconds. Better to be mentally and physically set for the twitchy climb. Steve wandered off to test the snow in a small pit nearby. As we prepared our squeaky bums seven Spaniards appeared in two groups on the path below us. I must say I wasn’t happy to let them get ahead of us. I wanted a nice clean run at the pitch. But now we had no choice so we slowly finished our tea to give the hombres in front plenty of room.
The ascent, as expected, was long and slow but the cables were in excellent condition with a rubber sheathing that helped the Via Ferrata claws slip along easily between bolts. We tried to keep our brains well iced knowing that we had the delightful double snowfield + rock bluff combo to come. Part of the reason for the cuppa was to allow the sun enough time on the snowfields to soften them up a little. We had no crampons and didn’t much fancy the idea of having to walk, like elephants on a tightrope, across frozen hard pack. Ideally we wanted a slightly softer base so we could dig our boots into it as deeply and firmly as possible. But now, with the snowfields our final remaining bridge between the cables and the safety of the Horcados Rojos plateau, we saw that there was a BIG problem. One of the Spaniards, who was in a group of three, was virtually super glued to the rock bluff. Despite encouragement from their lead man he was unable to move his fingers and feet more than a few millimetres at a time. You could see that the third Spaniard, who was waiting for his turn on the outcrop, was also in an agitated state. I was now behind him with Steve behind me. We had run out of snowfield and it was softening fast under the furious sun. The third Spaniard was standing on a little rock shelf and as I tried to squeeze up tight to him to get off the slushy stuff my right foot slipped away. I swear that I actually did hear my bum squeak !!
I recovered quickly and shuffled up the shelf behind my new chum. My heart was beating hard. Steve was now left exposed on the 45 degree snow slope, his face the colour of cement. The long tongue of ice to his right dropped away over a high cliff. You may not be surprised to hear that this was the single most scary moment of the trip. I knew that if the middle Spaniard failed to get moving we were stuck. He was one more mental error away from seizing up completely. There was no route past him above or below. I thought about quietly levering him into the ravine but, apparently, though unfairly in my view, disposing of foreigners in this way is still a felony in some countries. Also I hear that the prison food in Spain is worse than the breakfast at the Urriellu refuge. No thanks. So I focused on making him move with my mind. I clearly have the power of Uri Geller because he eventually crept his way, sweating profusely all the while, to the far side of the bluff. After three or four careful bouldering moves we were across it too. Safety was one more snowfield away. It seemed easy by comparison and soon we were sitting on the plateau. After a check of the pulse rate we walked down to the Fuente De cable car and took the four minute ride down to the car park we had started from five days earlier. We swapped the 18kg ruckie, or grand mochila, for a lighter day sack. We wouldn’t need the tents and heavy gear now. The two of us went back up in the cable car for the 45 minute walk round the jeep track to the Aliva Hotel/Refugio which sits above the busy village of Espinama.
Rest and recovery were at the forefront of our minds. But I was already thinking ahead to our final day. I had a personal goal. To climb the summit of the conical volcano shaped Tesorero. In Picos terms a big mountain. A meaty climax to the trip at almost 2,800 metres. As we have said before “The Picos always has one more surprise” and this story of two Irishmen abroad would carry a sting in it’s tail !!! ……………
DAY SIX ALIVA REFUGIO TO EL CABLE VIA TESORERO (6 hours)
It had been nagging at me for a couple of days. Should I tell the world that I had encountered the Loch Ness monster of these hills – the Yeti of the Picos. Would anyone believe me ? That could wait. First there was the small matter of a mountain to climb. The exceptionally well placed Tesorero peak. From its small summit you get tremendous views of the range especially the Western extremes and the focal point, the Naranjo De Bulnes itself.
Our final day of hiking was probably the hottest yet. A breathless dusty day would test the endurance with 1,000 metres of vertical to complete. A hearty breakfast would have helped. Michelin do stars for good food but to be honest their tyres taste better than the cuisine on offer in the Aliva Hotel/Refuge. Ok …. our dinner after Day Five included a tasty starter of peas in garlic but after that the quality descended quicker than a runaway toboggan on the Hahnenkamm. The kitchen staff looked strangely like the cast from “League of Gentlemen” and to be honest there is a touch of Royston Vasey about Potes – full stop. Breakfast is one slice of tungsten toughened toast (already buttered !) and see through ham slices (kinky !) washed down with lashings of what tasted like the warmed up contents of a muddy puddle. The jug did say coffee on it but I demand a chemical analysis. All the while the bear sized local watched us out of his left eye – it appeared to work independently of the other one. I noticed that quite a few Potes residents were gifted with this quirky talent. The bear knew the drill. Poor starving hikers like us would time their moment before making a surreptitious move for the breakfast buffet in an attempt to ferret away (in the style of Fergal) as much food as possible for consumption on the hill. The trick was to do it while the Bear was serving new arrivals in the dining room. You didn’t want to catch his eye – the left one of course – you were safe from the right one as it was fixed in place and stared glassily out of the window. This made for a nerve wracking start as I am sure our host has murdered and desiccated many guests in the past. In fact that might explain the fingernails in our chicken dumplings.
We survived breakfast. The Tesorero climb is one of the Picos classics and can be accessed easily from the Fuente De Cable car station. You should make the summit in about two and a half or three hours from there. It’s a long and slow climb and it’s a good plan to do what we did. Stay at the Refuge and get up early to avoid the deluge of humanity that pours out of the first few cable cars. So hit the hill before ten. Just before the Horcados Rojos plateau you swing east. The Tesorero sits proud and beacon like with it’s enchanting almost symmetrical shape dominating the skyline. Really you can’t resist trying to climb it. The one problem is that the smart route up it is not an obvious one. We met a man from Donegal who had gone up the day before via a couple of horrendous looking snowfields on the Southern slopes. We looked at that option. Our bottoms squeaked again – this time in harmony. It’s at a time like this that you need a crusted local to pass by. Ideally he should be carrying a rope and have deep and darkened wrinkles that look as if they have been hand carved out of redwood. This instills confidence. If he is called Miguel all the better. The very man turned up guiding a small group of fellow Spaniards. We followed them up some scrambly stuff. There really didn’t appear to be a straightforward way to the top but our friend beckoned us to a very steep and narrow chimney and gestured with his hand that the summit was “one minute” from the top of it. At least I think that’s what the gesture meant. It looked nasty but up we went and after a bit of heaving we popped out onto a (quite) wide ridge above the eastern cliffs and then onto the summit. The views were as advertised but more cliffs dropped away sharply to the west. Do not break dance to celebrate your conquering of Teseroro. The summit is a bath mat. You will fall off.
A couple of days earlier I had been pacing quite a bit behind Steve across yet another snowfield when I saw them. Perfect BIG humanoid footprints in the snow. I was about to yell, in the style of a maniac, “The Yeti of the Picos ! Proof at last” when I noted that Steve was wearing funny shoes. The Vibram Five Fingers. Basically a rubber glove for the feet. Remarkably on the sixth day he had climbed the sharp rocky slopes of Tesorero in them without transforming his feet into two lumps of bloody mince. In fact the Five Fingers had given him great comfort and grip on the rock with each toe working individually. Like a monkeys. Steve had given me a book for my birthday. “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall. A great tale about the endurance runners of the Mexcan Tarahumara tribe. In fact, like some fevered American evangelist, Steve had been trying to sell the wonders of the book’s contents to anyone who would stop and listen. Of course the invention of the Five Fingers and their attributes feature heavily in the book. No historic Yeti discovery for me – but the shoes ARE worth further investigation !
We climbed down from Tesorero and off the hills via the Fuente De Cable Car and booked into the Parador Nacional Hotel/Refugio once more. It was where we had started. Over 40 hours of seriously demanding hiking across unforgiving ground … tiring but a blast. The following day we were driving to Santander Airport when we noticed a man with the eyes of a deranged Koala flapping his arms wildly at the side of the road. It was Fergal. He had missed his bus. The Sunday timetable had said the bus to the airport was at ten. It had gone at half eight ! … and there wasn’t another till half past five. One thing we did learn during the week was that when the Spanish put something in print it is probably a lie. And that includes their bloody maps ! Lots of inaccuracies. Anyway Fergal doesn’t use a map … or a compass … he does though seem to have the instincts of an Arapahoe tracking scout. On his final day he had walked to the Diego Mella Refugio .. and back again – as you do ! Eleven hours. It was nice though that the three of us finished the trip together and the car journey was a blizzard of tales from various adventures. It capped the week nicely. We had criss crossed the main spine of the Picos enduring crazily precipitous hiking over one of the most demanding landscapes in Europe … and we hadn’t capsized once !!!!
Picos De Europa: Macizos Central Y Oriental
Mapa Topografico Excursionista Escala: 1:25,000 by Miguel Angel Adrados
HELPFUL WEB SITES
http://www.thepicosdeeuropa.com (Good details on all the huts including individual web sites + phone numbers)
Picos De Europa Walks + Climbs by Robin Walker (Cicerone)
In the Picos De Europa by Vicente Ena Alvarez (Edilesa)