About Ronald

outdoor writer and photographer based in Dumfriesshire, Scotland

The Spanish 3000s

The Welsh 3000s make a fine, fine walk. The ‘Ruta Integral de los Tres Mil’ is the same thing in Spain – but in metres rather than feet!

Link to my route guide here . You’ll need to write this in the box: AlcAzAbA .

However keen we may be on Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat, Granada is every bit as deserving of its World Heritage status, even ignoring the way the Sierra Nevada are Arthur’s Seat a lot larger. They’re Europe’s highest hills outside the Alps and Caucasus, and they loom above the Alhambra as a compelling four day walk with wild flowers, lakes and humble stone bothies, snow and a bit of scrambling.

The Alhambra Palace, Granada, with Sierra Nevada rising behind

The Alhambra Palace, Granada, with Sierra Nevada rising behind

Various routes in the Baja Montaña seemed suitable for a warm-up, until I realised that in late June it’d be a warmup altogether too warm – and also only reachable by way of a hire car. So the morning after our day at the Alhambra, with the snowy Sierra Nevada looming in the distant high haze, it was off up to Spain’s third highest hill…

At 9.02 (yes, scheduled departure time is 9.00) the little bus suddenly fills up with young people in slightly casual clothing and dangly foam mats. There’s also a gnarly old gent who’s pretending he’s not with them but he’s obviously the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ responsible adult.

The bus grinds slowly from 700m to 2500m over an hour and a half, with views into deep greeny-brown valleys with reservoirs and radio masts and giant iron bull cutouts advertising brandy.

The Sierra Nevada road, high on the side of Veleta

The Sierra Nevada road, high on the side of Veleta

At 2500m the sun is cool and Scotlandlike, and so is the terrain, with hawthorn and dog rose in the lower woods (can’t be says Clare, they don’t flower together) gravel and scrubby broom bushes above. The little path winds gently up the ridgeline. After a couple of hours, cliffs rear overhead, and the ridgeline, while still gentle, takes to bare rock. The easier way is to follow the road, which here slopes away to the right, all the way across the western slope of Veleta, to the Collado del Veleta. Here there are sudden new views southwards over the Alpujarra, with the stone Carihuela Hut just below. The snowfields make it like a mountain, and so do the long views back all the way to Granada, the Alhambra a pale speck at the town centre. (Meanwhile the big white radio telescope makes it not so much mountain as something from a sci-fi film set.)

Tajos de la Virgen from Veleta col, with Carihuela hut and a lot of snow for late June

Tajos de la Virgen from Veleta col, with Carihuela hut on the middle-distance low col, and a lot of snow for late June

The road turns up Veleta’s southwest ridge in sweeping zigzags. Small paths head more directly to the summit, with its small building in scruffy concrete. Clare settles comfortably against the survey pillar before suddenly noticing the 200m vertical drop immediately beyond.

Altitude 3400m feels to the unacclimatised just like very, very tired. So the gentle angle of the Veleta roadway can be a welcome start to the descent. It sets off northwards, before sweeping left in several bends, passing the top of a T-bar ski lift.

Veleta is not only the most interesting easy-ish hill walk from Granada – but also useful acclimatisation to altitude, and a snow survey. The aged and rather heavy crampons I’ve brought out on reports of late snow will indeed be carried over the four days of high walking ahead, rather than a pointless (albeit pointy) piece of extra luggage for Clare into Cordoba.

Fritillary at Veleta summit (3200m)

Fritillary at Veleta summit (3200m)

Day 1

Guejar-Sierra, bus stop and start point

Guejar-Sierra, bus stop and start point

The 3000s are more often started from Jerez del Marquesado, northeast of the first summits, at 1300m. This will let you get well into the eastern tops, perhaps to Cuneta de Vacares, on the first day. However the  approach from Guejar-Sierra is on my (Alpina 1:40,000) map, is convenient for Granada, and will let me experience the full range of terrain from valley through forest to the tops. With any luck, too, I’ll gain height (1100m to 2800m) faster than the day gains heat.

 

Charcuterie at Guejar-Sierra: salchichon sausage and goat-n-cow cheese for four days

Charcuterie at Guejar-Sierra: salchichon sausage and goat-n-cow cheese for four days

The road, more walked than driven and more cycled than walked, runs along the valley side, gradually descending to reach river (Rio Genil) at Estadion de Maitena. At the Bar Chiquita (642107), the last hot food: potatoes greased in enough olive oil to turn them primrose yellow, with chewy Serrano ham that stays between your teeth for an emergency reserve later on…

last hot food for four days

last hot food for four days

In another quarter-mile the Vereda de las Estrellas turns off. ‘Vereda’ means a well engineered path, terraced and even carved into the rocks, formerly serving some mines. It runs easily and pleasantly to right of the river in its deep gorge, gradually rising quite high up the valley side, easy and often shady as well.

A signed path arrives from up right, and in another couple of hundred metres, watch out for a path forking down to the left, signed for ‘Peña Partida’. This junction is actually the first of the two marked on the Alpina map, but the second doesn’t exist – I already had doubts about the map, it marking no crags but only smooth contours, and giving hill names interestingly different from the guidebook.

The path, rougher than before, zigzags down to a wooden footbridge over Rio Genil. (The guidebook has this a concrete bridge, and a ruined Badillo Hut – hmmm, guidebook matches map, not in content as they differ at many points, but in being also not entirely sound.) The path zig zags up through woods, to reach the lightly-wooded crest, fairly gently and pleasantly (it’s not got too hot yet). Some Spaniards coming downhill  want to know how far to the bridge. Assuming they mean the one that isn’t Puente de los Burros, I give them an hopeful ‘quarante minutos’. As for the Piedras Partidas hut, ‘todo recto’ is gratifying not just for being straight out of the phrasebook so’s I can understand it, but also in that the map makes paths seem complex and doubtful rather than any nice ‘straight on’.

path gets rougher on Cuesta de los Presidiarios above Rio Genil

path gets rougher on Cuesta de los Presidiarios above Rio Genil

A man in blue comes down the path, then a man on a horse. And that’s it. For the next two days there’d be plenty of wild mountain rebec. People, no.

The ‘todo recto’ is confirmed by a signpost at the ridge crest. Here you join a long-distance route GR240. Peña Partida is still 6km ahead – surprisingly as since the previous ‘6km’ signpost, an hour and a half ago, you’ve gained half a km in the upwards direction alone.

Clare thinks some sort of pyracanthus - flowering along with hawthorn and dog rose at 2000m

Clare thinks some sort of cotoneaster – flowering along with hawthorn and dog rose at 2000m

The path ahead runs up the ridge crest for 5 minutes, then bends left to contour, at about 2000m level, through dog rose and yes hawthorn (I photographed the flowers) and a yellow flowered shrub up the valley called El Chorro (honestly, this Spanish is just as expressive as Scottish Gaelic: the name means ‘Stream Valley’). It crosses two streams (seasonal ones, according to the map) to a footbridge over the main one, Rio Barranco de Piedra Partida, in a grassy, flowery hollow.

Dwarf broom above the treeline, 2300m at the end of a long day all uphill

Dwarf broom above the treeline, 2300m at the end of a long day all uphill

The path turns upstream, then zigzags up under pines to the top of the tree line. A big brown bull was on the path, avoided by shortcutting a zigzag. The path emerges into stony ground of dwarf broom scrub, and slants up and to the right, to reach the stone hut Pena Partida on the broad ridgeline above. (On the map it’s Refugio Piedra Partida: guidebook plays safe by not even mentioning it.)

A tide of sheep swelled across the gravel ridge, with two huge and rangy dogs; one of them ambled over towards the hut to see if I seemed like a sheep-stealer. Simple stone floor, the usual bothy broom with its broken handle, but no bothy spade, this sophistication has yet to reach Spain. Who needs one, when large boulders with handy hollows start right above the hut terrace. (Careful how you tread when taking hut photos from the boulders… )

I dozed on the hut doorway in the evening sun, moving indoors at nightfall once the flies had fallen asleep. I’d been expecting a Spaniard or two in the hut to supply the traditional snorer and also useful hints on getting onto Alcazaba. So I was pleased to hear a footfall on the stones outside. But the footfall was a clumsy rebec – mostly they move silently even over scree.

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Day 2 Monday 1 July: to Lagunas de las Caldeteras (2900m)

 

Lavadero de la Reina

Lavadero de la Reina, the ‘Queen’s Laundrette’

From the hut a faint path runs east, up across the ridgeline of Loma de los Cuartos. (NB alternative placenames are available.)

The path fades at the rim of the wide grassy hollow Lavadero de la Reina. Here a bank of old snow gave a downslope steep enough to require my crampons, dragged up through 2000m of vertical height gain already, but it was simpler just to walk around it. The hollow is grassy floored, with the streams (seasonal ones according to map) babbling merrily, occasional boggy bits, and gentians unfortunately not yet open under the early sun. Attractive camp grounds here, with the rockface of Los Cervatillos rising above the little streams  – the map has a small tarn too, a bit further up.

Fairly gentle stoneslopes lead up to Picon de Jerez. This isn’t a summit, but a survey post beside a cairn on the northern shoulder of Cerro Pelao (Puntal de Juntillas). The broad gravel ridge runs gently up south to the cairn on Cerro Pelao (3140m) itself.

A mile to the south is Horcado de Trevelez. At 3182m it’s the  highest point at this end of the range and the first real 3000-er. With an inkling that strict 3000-bagging is going to be abandoned along the four days ahead – I take the half-hour wander out and back to bag it anyway, on the basis that (mostly without rucksack) it is a lot more relaxing than the chunky looking stuff ahead.

The chunky stuff starts with a snowy crest, and then there’s a short scrambly section (not exposed, difficulties avoidable down left) before the tall cairn of Los Cervatillos.

Los Cervatillos

Los Cervatillos

The continuing ridgeline southeast then south is a tumble of giant boulders, so it’s slow clambering – or much easier walking along the top of the snow banked alongside. The guidebook refutes the map’s ‘Puntal de los Cuartos’ saying it’s actually La Buitreia (Vulture Hangout) but the summit doesn’t actually exist, so you can call it what you like: the second fine cairn you come to is La Atalaya, or watchtower.

gentians at 3000m

gentians at 3000m

Ahead, Puntal de Vacares is the most formidable peak so far. More small cairns led me across the right flank to pass below another pinnacle. The ridge top rises in a rocky tower. Just keep contouring, following small paths and cairns, on terraces across the foot of the rocks, then head directly up in broken ground, to reach the rocky summit.

La Alcazaba

On Puntal de Vacares, heading for Alcazaba

On Puntal de Vacares, heading for Alcazaba

Various routes are offered up onto La Alcazaba, the direct one being a formidable cliff. Mine was the ‘wimpy way out’, turning down left on moderate snowslopes to the floor of charming Cañada de los Calderones with its many tarns. (Probably this descent would be nastier without the smooth snow cover.)

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Thus I reached the Barranco del Goteron below its tarns, at around 2700m altitude, at grassy stream banks below a sizeable waterfall. By Scotland standards I’d done 5 or 6 hours worth of ground: in fact it had taken 9. It was 4.30pm, but crossing Alcazaba from this wimpishly low altitude would take another 3 or 4 hours, and the weather was hazy gray, with several spots of rain even. Green and lush was the vegetation, a good inch deep, its main problem being the clearing away of old but well dried cow pats. I justify my diversion to the crag feet by a long afternoon eating some of the weight out of the sack, and a comfortable night in the thicker air of the 2700m contour line.

 

under Alcazaba

under Alcazaba

Day 3 Tuesday 2 July: Alcazaba, Mulhacen, Refugio La Carihuela (3229m)

In stead of the expected stony slog, a small, cairned path slants up the steep screes, southeast, onto Lomo de la Alcazaba. Once on the wide, smooth ridge you can go up anywhere, on schisty gravel with wild flowers and rebec. It may be 500m of height to gain, but with gentle going and widening views – and even that opened-out gentian that I’d been too morning-early for on Day One.

rebec on Loma de la Alcazaba

rebec on Loma de la Alcazaba

A tall, slender cairn with layers of quartz marks Alcazaba’s summit. Though only the second highest, it’s the craggiest and least accessible of the range, and a worthy companion to Nanga Parbat and Lakeland’s Glaramara. (Alas, a day and a half always, many Mars bars and bananas, as a chap walks far Alcazaba. Check out the vowels.)

Descend southeast along the ridge, then veer left towards Peñon del Globo. From the saddle before the Peñon, turn down right, southwest, on stones and rocks below the formidable crag of the Peñon itself. At the crag foot, you could contour right, across steep ground, to regain the main ridge line above Cañada de las Siete Lagunas. The usual route onto Mulhacen is by a scree chute, steep and loose, immediately to left of the main ridge line.

However, with steep old snow in the scree chute, again I chose an easier way. The open gully below Peñon del Globo leads down to the floor of the wide Siete Lagunas (Seven Tarns) corrie. I crossed its snow and gravel floor, past a tarn like a blue eyeball at the foot of Mulhacen’s east spur (733012). Round to the left are open, stony slopes to left of the crag complex. Happily, this was moderately angled old snow rather than loose stonefields. (The loose stones did start higher up, however.)

Cañada de las Siete Lagunas (Seven Lochans Corrie)

Cañada de las Siete Lagunas (Seven Lochans Corrie)

Two parties were descending here: the only walkers I would meet on the mountains. It was hard to explain the snow conditions lower down: I’d used iceaxe for half an hour or more, but maybe they’d find some strips of nasty loose stones alongside the snow.

A faint aeroplane rumble broke the afternoon stillness. “Hai, tormentas!” I’d been mugging up on my phrasebook’s weather section; ‘tormentas’ aren’t miscellaneous discomforts, but thunderstorms. A bit surprising, given the hot sun, still air and clear blue skies …

shrine at Mulhacen summit, with candles, broken walking poles, and brandy

shrine at Mulhacen summit, with candles, broken walking poles, and brandy

But as I emerged above the crag tops, I saw gray cloud swirling up out of the northern corries of Alcazaba, and the thunder rumbled less distantly. A dozen flakes of snow were further evidence that the Sierra don’t just do sunny and hot. For a good 10 minutes I was walking in cloud, along the boulders and jaggy rocks of Mulhacen’s short summit ridge. Rather than the candles, broken walking poles and votive ribbons of the summit shrine, I trusted in a quick up and down to the survey pillar and off down the less lightning-likely broad western flank.

Descent from Mulhacen

This is the normally busy standard route to Spain’s summit (accessed by a National Park minibus to the 2700m contour line on Alto del Chorillo). The path zigzags down the scree flank, with Spaniards being disciplined enough not to destroy it with shortcuts as would happen in the UK. At the slope foot it joins the Sierra Nevada ‘road’, a dirt track running right across the range.

This offers a stretch of leisurely walking, over the next 5km to Veleta col and indeed up Veleta itself: a welcome break from the ruggedness of everywhere since the start of the 3000s ridge. Well, it would do, except that the road is mostly covered over with snow. The snow is quite steep, and although there’s a well-trodden way, it’s still comforting to have crampons underfoot and iceaxe to poke into the slope. The first short snow stretch has plain rubber footprints, and puncture marks of poles both above and below the trod. By the second, much longer, stretch, the prints are spiked ones, and the little holes are above the path only, indicating ice axes.

Refugio de la Caldera

Refugio de la Caldera. With the human habitation, this was the one water source I bothered to sterilise.

Above the dirt track or snow trail, as the case may be, rises Puntal de la Caldera: a sharp-edged scramble summit that would certainly embellish the 3000s crossing if one were up there on it. (But variety is also important. Down here on the easy bit is an important new type of terrain for the traverse.) Another possible peak, Lomo Pela, is steep and stony on the front, but reachable by gentle slopes from behind. To include it would be to omit a charming alternative hut, the Refugio Viele Vientos, superb above the southwards views. The road then runs along steep slopes below the Crestones de Rio Seco, a succession of loose and tottering rocks.

Los Machos is sometimes counted as the fourth mountain of Spain. But it’s just a sticky-out shoulder of Veleta, with a mere 28m of drop between it and the main peak. Well, given that its approach will be a scree slog from the southwest, and descent the same way again, I decide that it’s a mere sticky-out shoulder. (The direct continuation from Los Machos to Veleta would involve two pinnacles and some very steep rock – a worthy embellishment to the 3000s walk for those up to such stunts.)

The dirt road passes along Veleta’s steep south face, for a short zig-zag up to the base of its very unsteep southwest ridge. The Carihuela hut stands where the track crosses the ridgeline, below a little rock wall that you’ll have to clamber up to get a mobile phone sightline to any girlfrield in Granada.

I left my luggage in the hut, and feeling rather stronger than three days ago, rambled up the road and gravel to Veleta’s evening summit.

The Carihuela hut is comfortably appointed, with a large wooden table, benches, and a double sleeping platform partly upholstered with a luxurious foam mat. On the other hand it is currently sunken three feet deep in the snowfield, with a slot around the walls filled with empty plastic bottles (litter makes excellent insulation) and with a puddle of meltwater in a corner of the floor. One tiny window, and a heavy metal door that clanks like a dustbin lid. Just one hour by car plus two on foot above Granada, this place is well used: it would be the second and last place on the ridgeline where I’d meet people rather than wild goats.

At least one Granadan uses this a high altitude hovel as an unlikely love nest. Well, the double sleeping bag on my right emitted three full hours of whispering and giggling – with one brief spell of silence. Well that’s if heavy passionate breating counts as silence; you have to be well acclimatised to make love at this altitude without a lot of extra air…

mobilephoneLate in the evening there comes a whooping sound from outside the hut. The third Granadan has just discovered that after the afternoon of light drizzle, haze and gray lighting conditions, the sky has cleared to a splendid sunset. Mobile phoning from the rocks above the hut (his girlfriend being presumably still down in town) silhouettes him just right for my photo.

Day 4: western ridges

Carihuela hut at Veleta col

Carihuela hut at Veleta col

“Puerta abierto – o cerrado?” In common with bothy-dwellers world wide, they wanted the darkness, and the comfortable overnight fug: they wanted the dustbin-lid door firmly closed behind me. (Even the ones who’d confidently been going to arise at 5, two hours ago, presumably to get to work in Granada …)

Outside, meanwhile, the snow was cold and crisp, and the sunrise was etching the folds and shadows of the Virgin’s Tajos. (chasms, it would seem.) Two thirds of my food was eaten; my water bottles were empty; even the kilogram of crampons was on my feet rather than my back. And with the crunch of those crampons into firm, down-sloping snow, I felt myself a mountaineer rather than a load-bearing mule. The pinnacles above have been described variously as “an easy ascent on good clean slabs and blocks”, as “particularly dangerous: I would highly recommend doing it with someone who already knows the area…”, and as whatever’s Spanish for “scare-ey!!”. The cop-out option is a wide, wellmade path on the northern flank – except that this year, the well-made path is a whole lot more snowslope to crunch up in the crampons.

Radio telescope on Lomo de Dilar, looking down towards Granada

Radio telescope on Lomo de Dilar, looking down towards Granada

From Carihuela hut, a sign points down the Olimpica (a red run, so should be easy enough in crampons rather than skis… ) Out on the right, the radio telescope glows like a giant white buttercup: facing not the sun but whatever ultimate black hole or quasar may have its current attention. During the day, the 30m antenna turns slowly – or rather, stays straight as the earth turns underneath it. It operates at centimetre wavelengths, so for it the atmosphere is almost transparent, but it’s still good to get up above some of it: nowhere else in Europe has so benign a climate above the bottom 3000m of the air, plus road access and a handy hamburger stall.

At 3000m the ground levels off, with a stream and a couple of tarns (if snowcovered, the lower Yeguas reservoir may offer water supplies.) On the slight rise behind the tarn is the wide, well-made Vereda path. It slants uphill below the rocky ridgeline, southeast. Being well snowcovered, though, this stretch offers some more ice-axe excitement. Eventually path, iceaxe and me arrive on gentle scree slopes near the ruined Refugio Elorrieta.

Roofed tunnels run into the hillside, there’s a handsome window and remains of a tiled floor. But the window has no glass or shutters, and  you’ll have to shovel aside the snow to sleep there.

I headed down a gentle stony slope to join the narrow ridgeline towards Pico del Cartujo. This becomes quite rocky, with a pair of stubby pinnacles, passed first on the left, second one on the right. (There are small cairns, and even a couple of red paint spots.) There follows a section of giant boulders, like the eastern part of the route over La Atalaya. This time the chunks and chasms are only brief, before the ridge rises in a rocky tower.

I could strap crampon on again for the steepish snow and boulders on the right. However, the direct assault is okay up to the top left corner, where there’s a couple of moves of very exposed scrambling above the tremendous drops along the rim of the upmost Lanjaron valley. A rebec heads up before me, apparently without needing to stop and rope up: and trodden scree and small cairns are more reassurance. In the event, after a gentle rocky slab, the scrambling moves turn out to be a narrow but walkable ledge leading onto the easy ridgeline above.

That ridge continues as a fine high-level walk, with stony slopes on the right flank and vertical drops on the left. There’s an intermittent small path marked with cairns. The ridgeline rises over a fine triangular peak, with a rocky and exposed crest but easy ground a few steps down to the right. The contours on my map don’t name or even show the triangular summit.

the apparently unnamed or even nonexistent trianglular peak, with the final 3000, Cerro del Caballo, beyond

The apparently unnamed or even nonexistent trianglular peak, with the final 3000-er, Cerro del Caballo, beyond

After the next col the ridge gets wider, with outcrops and hollows, so it could be a bit awkward in cloud. After a couple of hours, there’s a dip in the ridge, a little stone hut and its blue-green tarn down on the left. And ahead, a small path leads up slaty slopes of the last of the 3000s, Cerro del Caballo. A whole herd of mountain rebec are lounging about here, ready to form decorative foreground for photos looking back along the ranges.

looking back along the range from Cerro del Caballo

looking back along the range from Cerro del Caballo

It was too early to overnight at the hut below, and anyway it seemed more natural to continue across the summit. (I had been hoping fellow residents might drop hints on the path down to Lanjaron. But the rebecs have even worse Spanish than I do… ) Rounded gravel ridges run down to the good path alongside the ruined Lanjaron hut. The good path spirals down around a hollow, then zigzags downhill, and abruptly becomes not-good as it contours across the top of a slope of screes, stones and dirt, keeping along the foot of more craggy ground above. The path here even the rebec may find a bit minimal, presumably recreating itself each spring after the snows.

Eventually the path and I reach slopes browny-green with dwarf broom. Here the path is clear, slanting very gradually downhill along the flank of the Loma de Lanjaron.

With a few modern distractions, such as aqueducts, the path runs roughly where the map says it should, down to Refugio Ventura. The path passes above the hut, which has no door and a cracked roof but appears rainproof. It better be, as about 20 young folk with big backpacks are clearly planning to lie around in it giggling and whispering until the small hours of the morning. Stopping would make sense, for a half day of further descent and no hurries over buses at the bottom. But last night already revealed that whispering in Spanish is an uninteresting way of staying awake, and I carry on down towards the treeline.

Looking back up to Cerro del Caballo from just below Ventura hut

Looking back up to Cerro del Caballo from just below Ventura hut

The path is now much clearer, and is occasionally marked by milestone (or gravestone) like slabs of schist alongside it. After some zigzags it meets the top of a wandering track. But there’s an older and nicer path, not marked on maps, and in the guidebook in uphill direction only and including, at the top of some rather rambling route description, the ominous ‘the next section is navigationally the most difficult’. Knowing it existed, I aimed in its general direction – and by happy chance plus a couple of signposts, hit it off.

Another gravestone marker points a sidepath down to a white building with corrugated roof. It labels itself as the Casa de Tello. Casa de Tello appears in my (uphill only) route description – and even on my map, no more than a kilometre downhill from the very place where I now stand. (The actual Casa de Tello is on the map as a square dot named ‘El Vadillo’. It is a staging post on the GR path, but locked up with no indoor accommodation. There is a welcome water trough.)

A signpost indicates the stony path continuing downhill for Lanjaron, with steep zigzags to a wooden footbridge over Rio de Lanjaron.

Just to counter any complacency the path turns uphill and upvalley, but soon curves back above a house. This is the old Camino de la Sierra, and as you descend you’ll find stretches of pitched stonework in it. It runs down to left of the river all the way, along the rim of the river’s gorge hollow, and is the closest path to the river, so if in doubt fork right. At 1300m level you cross a main aqueduct, Acequia Mesquerina, with an interpretation board explaining it all in Spanish.

At 2km short of Lanjaron (the distance is on the fallen-over signpost), the path joins a driveway track; then runs out as terraced path across a steep craggy slope – Lanjaron now in sight down ahead. Don’t take a path turning back down right to a chained gate; but at the next junction, keep ahead. After 1500m descended on serpentine wiggly ways that go gently uphill as often as not, the path now hits the tired bootsoles with some steep, pitched zigzags.

But steep zigzags eventually reach a lane where one hopes the evening pushchairs have good emergency breaks on them. And the lane leads to the bridge at the eastern edge of Lanjaron. Here is a fuente or water trough, where you can wash and drink – simply elbow aside the various small dogs.

The first bus stop on the right gets you to Granada: the bar opposite is full of expat Brits. ‘You look shattered,” they tell me kindly. But the four Spaniards down off the Sierra never found the dog-bowl fuente, and are scruffier even than I am. The bus is air conditioned even: and high above the craglets and limestone gorges and (eventually) Granada high-rise, the snowy tops look a long, long way up and above.

The Alhambra Palace, Granada, with Sierra Nevada rising behind

The Alhambra Palace, Granada, with Sierra Nevada rising behind

They look different when you’ve been there!

Much extremely useful information (and pictures) on the Sierra Nevada and the 3000s ridgeline is at this website www.spanishhighs.co.uk. This Lanjaron based company offers guided walks and climbs throughout the range and nearby.

Another ‘Ruta Integral’ blog is on Chiz Dakin’s website.

I intend shortly to add a route description for the 3000s walk.
Link to my route guide here . You’ll need to write this in the box: AlcAzAbA .

Talking the walk

“It hardly rained at all. We walked every day and my feet didn’t get sore and I was quite impressed with myself really!”

The Cumbria Way was devised by the Ramblers’ Association – ie by real walkers – and it’s a real walk. The paths go from slightly too smooth and surfaced to challengingly rugged. Two Lakesides, two rivers, a hill and a high pass; the full length of Langdale, the full length of Borrowdale; a couple of waterfalls; woodland, farmland and moors. There’s a satisfactory succession of cafés. And only a single sewage works in the whole seventy miles.

The scenery, of course, is superb. And it’s superb in several different ways. On just two stages the route takes to the heights. But one of the walkers was especially impressed by the low country around Little Langdale: something you don’t see when you do the normal fellwalk from a car. Another felt the best day of all was the undulating countryside on the first day, before even entering the national park.

Criticisms? Not enough notices. Those piles of slate at Chapel Stile are presumably some sort of industrial archeology rather than just rubbish. There was an interesting sign at Stonethwaite explaining the Herdwick sheep. Did you know that a two year old one was called a twinter? Or is it twintie – I didn’t read the notice all that carefully.

Too many notices. The notices that were, were prohibitions. Grown-ups don’t need to be told Do Not Touch The Wood Burning Stove. Isn’t there something more interesting to say about the mysterious minerals of the northern fells than, there’s a £500 fine for taking any of them away?

Waymarking. This isn’t a national trail, and the waymarking is patchy: in the high fells there isn’t any at all. Some of the footpath arrows and signposts are marked as Cumbria Way: it’d be better if all of them along the C Way were marked as such. The Stake Pass originally had wooden marker poles, hence the name. I personally wouldn’t want to see them put back there, and the National Park Authoritiy agrees with me on this. (I wouldn’t  want more interepretation signboards either: I like my landscape uninterpreted.) The Cumbria Way needs you to use a map, and also a compass – not in any technical way, but to keep track of the general direction of travel. A basic ‘just a bit east of north’ gets you across Torver Common, while plain ‘north’ is needed off High Pike, especially when the weather closes in.

Beacon Tarn

Day 1: Beacon Tarn, with Coniston Old Man ahead

The start? Arriving by train gives you the idea of Ulverston as a seaside town, but coming  from Coniston doesn’t. The way should really start at the fake lighthouse, with the wide view over Morecambe Bay.

Honestly, I’d end it off at Dalston. It’s a lovely village, complementing Ulverston. There are only occasional trains to Carlisle, but plenty of buses.

Alternatively, there’s a path from Buckabank Mill on the east side of the Caldew that’s presumably not tarmacked. North of Cummerside, my older map marked the east bank as the actual Cumbria Way. It’s untarred, but enclosed between a fence and riverside scrubland, only mildly enjoyable.

There are plenty of B&Bs, some of which will do pick-up and return. Coppermines youth hostel is worth the extra mile and a bit (each way!) Skiddaw House would be special, but even booking four months ahead we failed to get a bednight. If you don’t have David and me, several commercial firms will carry your baggage.

Side House Langdale

End of Day 2: Side House Farm, Langdale, to Langdale Pikes

For a walk of 70 miles, taken over five days, it’s hard to think of a better one. It’s a whole lot wilder than Hadrian’s Wall: less bleak than the West Highland Way and also more interesting. The feel is quite like Wainwright’s Coast to Coast in terms of charm, variety, and frequent surprises; but a bit easier and less than half as long.

Parts of the path are pretty busy – for something with solitude you’d need the Pembrokeshire Coast Path or Offa’s Dyke. If you already know Lakeland well, that spoils some of the surprises; which is an argument for doing it straight away, before you know Lakeland any better. It’s a fine choice for a first-ever long walk: just so long as someone’s prepared to cast an occasional eye at a compass.

There’s no official website (it’s not an official trail). But the commercial Sherpa Van website is a good first click into the planning process.

Carlisle Old Town Hall

Carlisle Old Town Hall: endpoint of the Cumbria Way (on some maps)

Miles to Carlisle

limestone stream

limestone stream enters River Caldew

For its last 14 miles the Cumbria Way follows the River Calder downstream to Carlisle. It has left the National Park; it’s left the hills; it’s left the tough grey mountain geology. These last 14 miles are going to be different. The question is, are they going to be any good?

At the edge of Caldbeck the Way passes its first sewage works. But then it rises above the river, with green fields decoratively dotted with cows rising like a toy landscape to the rain-pale hills behind. Hmm – some of these are even more decorative, being ornamented with horns. And that brown one at the back, isn’t he a bull? I sneak around the field edge and into woods of wild garlic and bluebells. The path drops to the riverside, murky green and muddy. These particular non-Lakeland rocks are limestone: and on the riverbank opposite, a stream emerges from three small grotto caves and sparkles down six inches into the river. Yes, this is just as lovely as the Lakeland bits.

After a redstone bridge (Penrith sandstone), Cumbria Way wanders along field tracks, then is simply a fingerpost pointing along the rivervbank. Field edges and six miles of riverbank lead down to Dalston. It’s not great, and it’s certainly not Lakeland, but it’s okay.

At Dalston, a sign says Carlisle 5. More sinisterly, it also says Caldew Cycleway. Yes: from here on the path will be bend-free, bump-free, and tarmac. It skirts around an industrial estate, and is squeezed against the river by a railway line. No, this isn’t Lakeland: and it’s nasty.

A dirt footpath bends away alongside the river. Slightly less nasty, but on the other hand slightly longer? The dirt path has the advantage also that I can poke my poles into it to shove myself along; pretending it’s a proper rural river and ignoring the industrial hinterland.

Carlisle closes in. On my map, the Way forks away from the riverside into an industrial estate behind the station, where it peters out between two tall blue gasometers. Well, the industrial estate behind the station is at least convenient for the station: and Carlisle’s Botchergate does contain a superb selection of five takeaway food outlets.

That’s a fine anticlimactic ending. But there’ll be one more posting: was it a good walk, did we think?

Day 5: Satisfying sheep

Cumbria Way

Cumbria Way path heads towards Skiddaw House around the side of Lonscale Fell

The day starts with David’s birthday breakfast. He receives Kilimanjaro themed gifts such as socks for his forthcoming expedition with his daughter. The day ahead has somewhat limited socks appeal, as Julia needs to catch a Carlisle train mid-afternoon. An end point at Whitewater Dash Beck (rather than Caldbeck) will assure this – but Jane has an even more radical suggestion. Given the little black car as mechanical yak, why not ride it up to the high car park at the back of Latrigg? After all, as she points out: “We’re not chaps, and we’re not the product of boarding schools. So we don’t have to complete every step of the route.”

But as me and David are both of us chaps, we are obliged to cross High Pike. Which works by us leaving both of the cars at Whitewater Dash Beck, a place called Peter Hall; walking the quick exit route in reverse as far as Skiddaw House; walking the proper route up and over to Caldbeck; and everybody meeting up at the tea room there.

We walked up beside the waterfalls, to see three figures hanging around Skiddaw House the former youth hostel (and now England’s remotest independent hostel) lonely in the wide hill sweeps under Skiddaw itself. Our three walkers had already arrived more than half way into their walk; and David and I would have to hurry to avoid keeping them waiting at Caldbeck.

The  Back o’ Skiddaw is unlike the rest of Lakeland. It’s grassy, and heathery, and smooth. Given that it’s not so spectacularly good as everywhere else, not so many people come here: which solitude is such a desireable quality in some eyes as to make Back o’ Skiddaw the best of all. One unfortunate outdoor-writer colleague, looking for a new way to express this thought, came up with: “The back of Skiddaw is where sheep outnumber people; and the walkers you meet wear smiles of quiet satisfaction.”

We strode away down the gentle paths here in the heart of the northern fells, with such ease underfoot free to discuss the difficulties of future forays to Kilimanjaro and the Atlas Mountains. Then the Cumbria Way turns abruptly up the hill slope, and becomes a rather pretty, somewhat boggy, and surprisingly small path alongside a beck of small falls and the occasional rowan tree. Are most Cumbria Way walkers lost at this point – or taking the easier way out – or simply beelining through the heather for the Lingy Hut, a boxy waypoint on the skyline high above? When we reach it, the hut has a rare CW waymarker pinned to the gable and a dozen walkers lurking inside.

High Pike is actually only 658m high, barely overtopping the 337m Caldbeck radio tower a couple of miles away. But it’s still the high point of the Cumbria Way, and also of the Northern Fells at the back of Skiddaw. In the latter capacity it has wide views across north Cumbria to the Solway and my home hill of Criffel above Dumfries. And like all these hills, its gentle grassy slopes give an easy and fast descent to Caldbeck’s tea room.

Despite its 337m mast, Caldbeck has no phone signal. A text picked up somewhere in the heights says our walkers have gone to see the osprey at Bassenthwaite – but no way for us to tell them it’s teatime in Caldbeck. Anyway, Caldbeck has no tea. The tea room has three tables, all of them already sat at, and a queue.

Our walkers arrive from the osprey viewpoint – one of them indeed having actually viewed the osprey. We find Caldbeck’s Number Two tea room: remarkable as the least tea-supplying tea room ever. The menu is short: but most of what’s on it is even so not available. Sticky toffee’s off today, they do have two slices of hot Belgian chocolate slab cake – with cream or ice cream. With chill drizzle starting up outside, cream seems preferable. But only ice cream is available. I consider ordering both the available slabs, but what will any later customers then enjoy?

As a male personage, hence with completion fever, my plan has been to carry bivvy bag for the remaining 14 miles to the path’s end at Carlisle. But it’s only 3pm: and the chill drizzle just stopped for a moment. Is it possible to reach Carlisle tonight, in time for the last train home?

High PIke

Descending north from High Pike towards Caldbeck

Living on Borrowdale Time

Langdale to Keswick is often done as a single day … but on a Sunday, the earliest you can get by bus from Keswick back to Langdale to start doing this is at 12.20 pm. Would it be fun – or even feasible – to attempt it in an afternoon?

The day started once again with before-breakfast photos, in what would be the trip’s last sunlight. Those who conformed to the B&B’s strictly 8.30am breakfast missed the shiny time. Meanwhile I got some photos – ones, what’s more, which I don’t already have – of Stonethwaite in nice light. Dipping my right ankle into the stream to sort out a sprain from two days before, I found the real reason why Julia had refrained from swimming in the Langstrath Beck. There are in fact deep pools, of striking beauty, particularly beloved by both the painter Heaton Cooper and large format photographers David and Angela Unsworth. I’ve even taken a pic of them myself. But even a single extremity dipped into them becomes unendurable after 4 minutes and 50 seconds.

Then David set off for Glaramara, the walkers set off for Keswick, and I took the little black car to Keswick also before the inefficient bus journey back to the beginning of (technically speaking) yesterday. Ambleside’s a place I avoid; but a 30 minute inter-bus interval let me find a rugged little cafe above a climbing gear shop. Big coffee cups and photos by Bill Birkett – though none of Langstrath. For that, I’d have to catch that bus back to Dungeon Ghyll … leap out, walking poles a-waggling … stride brisky up Mickleden … step up all 800 or so steps of the pitched path to Stake Pass … and descend the 12 or 15 wiggles of the subsoil path. No pics here. You have to believe Langstrath was worth the work. Dull light may be ideal for the Unsworths and Heaton Cooper but I just shove the camera in the sack and walk through unencumbered.

On past Stonethwaite, and into Borrowdale proper. Borrowdale proper is high green slopes frothy with oakwoods, and wrinkled grey crags, and meadows in spring green. But above all Borrowdale is the River Derwent, golden over its pebbles. Alongside Derwent Water, the sun was breaking through here and there. Actually the sunbeams were there and there. None of them were on me: but better, they were selecting various well-known bits of Borrowdale. Castle Crag; Lodore Hotel; Troutdale Pinnacle so boldly led by David in the rain back in days when rock also meant Buddy Holly.

I arrived in Keswick enjoyably exhausted, but still in time for supper – Indian, as it happened, as the others had found a discount offer voucher at the B&B and it was right beside the one Keswick car park that stops charging in the evenings.

Keswick youth hostel has computers, just £2 for half an hour. Did I post this posting? Did I bloggery. After 15 miles rather fast, and large oriental eats, I had a shower and went to sleep.

Shepherd's Crag Borrowdale

Shepherd's Crag and the head of Derwent Water

Raising the Stake

Free of the pestering photographer, the three walkers headed on up Mickleden, took a break at the turnoff for Stake Pass, and took another break half way up. What with the breaks and the gentle zigzags, the 400m ascent was less tiring than they expected. Stake Pass is (if you don’t do High Pike) the high point of the walk – literally, but perhaps also metaphorically, as the lonely path arrives at the brink of Langstrath, the southward extension of Borrowdale.

A new built “subsoil” path winds down in gentle bends that aren’t quite the same bends of the original pack-pony path. Down in Langstrath itself: “Big boulders and little lambs,” is Clare’s summary. They rated Langstrath Inn as the best meal of the trip: simple, well-cooked, and plenty of fresh veg.

Stake Pass

descending the zigzag path from Stake Pass into Langstrath

Langdale to Keswick is often a single day: but they split it into two, allowing those who wanted to to wander up to Watendlath in the late afternoon, and those who didn’t to play Scrabble at Stonethwaite. (Part of our duties as porters was to pack in the Scrabble.) And for the following, Borrowdale, day, they diverted from the Derwent to take in Cat Bells. A place more crowded than any of the riverside paths below.

They enjoyed the Derwent Water shore for a couple of miles: enjoyed even more the café at Nicol End boat yard. “The scones are the size of half bricks,” Julia testifies. Tasty? “Oh, I couldn’t have eaten one…”

It seemed like even more fun to take the lake ferry for the last stretch into Keswick. Now, what’s become of Ronald?

Day 3: Tramping along …

Cumbria Way along Langdale, with Side Pike and Pike o' Blisco

Day Three dawns clear and cold, and although I’ve got a few dawn photos of the Langdale Pikes already it’s always worth getting out before breakfast to grab a couple more … Above the hotel, perfectly lit, gleam the crags of White Gill where David and I climbed ‘The Slabs Route Two’ in our teenage years. David sets off Pikewards to enjoy a sunlit Jack’s Rake. I accompany the Cumbrian wayfarers up Langdale for some more photos.

At Mickleden, though, I turn back. For today I am obliged to be singing in a choral concert at Thornhill parish church. Specifically, the first bass part in Bob Chilcott’s Requiem, along with Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands – six numbers celebrating the fun of shooting at chamois. Come from the valleys wide, come from the mountain side, see how we muster strong, tramping along!

Which, of course, is exactly what I’m not doing.

At 11pm I drive back into Lakeland, to hunt down the lonely light at the end of starlit Stonethwaite, tucked under the vertical oakwoods of Borrowdale.

 

Yaks go backward

The triangle of low ground between Coniston, Skelwith Bridge and Ambleside: a lovely place of oak woods, and waterfalls, and slaty rock outcrops, not to mention Tarn Hows and Elterwater. And it’s a place you don’t get to see when you get out of a car in a car park, go up some hills, and get back into the car again.

Not seeing the lovely low country is the day’s fate of me and David. Transport of overnight gear and two cars to do it in: one efficient way of this is to take the red car and the luggage to Dungeon Ghyll, return on foot, and then redo the original journey in the black car. And in this way we do the section of the Cumbrian Way not only in the wrong direction, but also not on the Cumbrian Way.

Through the morning we cross the pass of Red Tarn between Pike o’ Blisco and the Crinkle Crags. “Very disappointing,” says David: “It’s not red at all, it’s grey.” Along with everything else, as the cloud scoots past a hundred meters over our heads. We descend to the Three Shire Stone, then walk along the Swirl How ridge with a brisk northerly wind at our backs.

Everybody arrives at the New Dungeon Ghyll (in our case, for the second time) at once. At Skelwith Bridge there’d been proper circular chimney stacks, in stone, looking properly Lakeland rather than Coniston Hall monstrous. There’d also been the Checkers Café with a pavlova of utter magnificence that’d remained untasted because of more-than-London prices. And at Langdale the sudden emergence from under the trees to see the fells all lumpy overhead.

Chapel Stile at the foot of Great Langdale, winter sunrise

Basic hostelling

Coniston Coppermines Youth Hostel

Coniston Coppermines Youth Hostel

I’d planned some bloggering about by putting £1 coins into the computer at Coniston Coppermines. Coniston Coppermines, no computer! Its listed with ‘basic hostel’ status – but has breakfast, hot showers, a few books to read including even a back issue of tgo magazine with an article about Rannoch Moor which I spend a tired half-hour re-reading. A particularly mindless activity as I already knew exactly what was in that article, seeing as I wrote the thing.

Apart from computerlessness, which is surely an advantage, the basicness of Coppermines consists of not having a road to it. The track is so steep and rough that concern for exhaust pipes and sumps means that it makes perfect sense to walk the half hour from the hostel down into Coniston, with a choice of the delightful track to left of the stream with its woods and waterfalls, or the equally delightful path to its right.

After bar meal at the Sun (indeed, in the Sun lounge), very slightly less delightful is the same streamside path in the uphill direction…

Day 1: ugliest building ever?

Cumbria Way north of Ulverstone

“You know,” Julia says after a moment, “that is the ugliest building I’ve ever seen. It looks like Battersea Power Station.”

“But Battersea Power Station is magnificent!”

“Well, this thing isn’t. Not even an inflatible pig in the sky overhead would do anything for this one.”

The flying pig isn’t just a random hallucination caused by 15 miles of hot Lakeland hiking – for those less than half a century old, it references a classic Pink Floyd album cover of 1977. Meanwhile, “Battersea Power Station” is the building currently known as Tate Modern; while an “album” … this could go on for ever.

A comment that might also apply to stage one of the Cumbria Way: Ulverstone to Coniston? Well, perhaps not. We did first have to overcome the problem of the prearranged car park spot – Harvey’s walkers’ map is first rate for walkers, not quite so superb for motorists trying to navigate the one-way streets and pedestrianised precincts. And having pinned down the pointy art thingie that marks the walk start, we didn’t linger over the attractions (or otherwise) of Ulverstone, except to note that it has a lighthouse-like monument that was built to commemorate Stan Laurel’s father, who for reasons the guidebook no doubt would explain wasn’t called Mr Laurel, and which monument takes rather a long time to vanish into the heat haze behind as we walk determinedly northwards into the warming day.

Field edges with bluebells begin the long walk. And a stony high track, with first rock chunks poking out of the grassland, and views of green fields and forests, and Coniston Old Man blue grey in the skyline ahead. After three hours: “I think we must be in the National Park now,” says Clare. Reasoning: the gates have started opening with a finger-click rather than a piece of blue string and a heave: instead of comfortably scruffy farmyards we just passed a large glossy horse being shined up ready for a horse show. Perceptive Clare: studying the map, we crossed the dotted line just five minutes earlier, at main road through Gawthwaite.

Half a day in, and the walk, in the style of any of the best walks, changes its nature. It rises to moorland still in winter brown, and a blue-grey Beacon Tarn lying under a large sky. A couple of hours of that, and we drop to Coniston Water, with a bumbling path under trees and over tree roots.

The ugly building? Coniston Hall, with its chimneys rising like broken pine trees. Not a pre-planning laws Victorian extravagance of someone with lots of money but no artistic discrimination. Well, the tasteless wealthy chap was actually in the 16th Century. But the critics fall abruptly silent when, rounding the over-chimneyed corner, we find that the maligned building contains a hidden doorway where they’re selling ice cream…

why Sir John Barrow wasn’t called Mr Laurel

Sir John Barrow, explorer and founder of the Royal Geographical Society, wasn’t called Mr Laurel because when our guidebook said ‘Best Known Son is Stan Laurel’ it meant son of Ulverston, rather than son of the previously mentioned son of Ulverston Sir John B. In fact Stan Laurel‘s father was an actor and showman called Mr Jefferson. Glad we worked that one out!

Coniston Hall