A wild camping adventure on Mulhacen, mainland Spain’s highest mountain
“Was it a cold night for you?”, I asked. “I was running around and doing press-ups at 2am to save myself from hypothermia”, replied Joe, my trekking companion, whose sleeping bag was woefully thin for these temperatures. I couldn’t help but laugh, as I yawned and stretched from within my positively toasty winter sleeping bag. We had just bivouacked (sleeping in a giant plastic bag, effectively!) at an altitude of 2,200 metres in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in southern Spain. An inspiring scene of craggy ridges, boulder fields, a zigzagging river and a valley stretching out to the coast greeted us, as we slowly rose the day.
Less than 24 hours earlier we had touched down at Malaga airport, surrounded by holidaymakers donned in sunglasses and flipflops, on their way for some late season sun in Marbella. It would be an understatement to say we stood out from the crowd. Kitted out with gigantic backpacks, Berghaus fleeces and sturdy walking boots, it was clear we were headed for somewhere a little more remote and rural than a Costa del Sol resort.
The high peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains were our desired destination. This range, which is often overlooked by British walkers in favour of the Alps or Pyrenees, forms a long, curved ridge of peaks topping 3,000m – including mainland Spain’s highest mountain, Mulhacén. It is an area of jagged ridges, glistening tarns and expansive views, where adventure and solitude can be found in equal measure. Cabra montés (mountain goat), a type of Ibex, roam freely and the climate is gloriously sunny for most of the year. However, above any of these appealing features, it was the Sierra Nevada’s accessibility and affordability that attracted us to the region. With a shoestring budget and just five days available to us, an authentic trekking experience was not beyond our reach. All it took was a cheap Ryanair flight, a quick three-hour drive in a hire car from the airport and we
were tramping the trail in no time – and with money left in our pockets.
We started from Capileira, a small village in the foothills of the range’s southern side. With a spring in our step the afternoon’s hike, which followed a meandering river upstream past abandoned shepherds’ huts, rocky slopes and glimpses of dispersing Ibex, led us to our lofty bivouac spot for the night. Our exertions, however, were merely a warm-up for days two and three, which we had set aside to reach the 3,479m summit of Mulhacen and the 3,398m top of Veleta. The former was a trudge of a climb, a real treadmill of a path up a scree slope that seemed to go on forever. But the views, the sense of achievement and a well-deserved nap in the mid-afternoon sunshine made it all worthwhile. Remarkably, we were on the highest mountain in Spain on a beautifully sunny day, and yet there was not a soul in sight – a welcome change from the crowds of Snowdonia and the Lake District. As I put it to Joe: “If this was in Britain we’d be surrounded by a loud and obnoxious group of Duke of Edinburgh students right now.”
That night we chose the “luxury” option and stayed at Refugio Poqueria, a mountain hut south of Mulhacen. A massive meal, a warm bed and a warmer welcome from the staff geed our spirits, while the company of seven fellow trekkers made for a social evening. Rested and refreshed, the following day we took on Veleta, Spain’s third highest mountain, and the walking was a pleasure. Serrated ridges broke the blue sky, small mountain lakes shimmered in the sunshine and majestic, horned Ibex leapt past us, treating the rocky terrain like a walk in the park. Yet the summit was a little bit of a disappointment. On the north-western slopes of the range overlooking the city of Granada there has been considerable development, including a large ski resort, and for me these buildings were a blot on the landscape. A tarmacked road, metal ski lifts and high-rise hotels in the distance are not what I want to see when out in the high mountains.
This minor blip however did not detract from a memorable trek and we were soon away from it all again. Our route southward was quiet and peaceful, with uplifting views of the valleys below, and a night under the stars, warmed by a roaring fire, gave us our final dose of adventure before heading home. Cocooned in my bivvy I thought I need to promote the Sierra Nevada mountains to more outdoors enthusiasts. It is perfect for a short expedition abroad, with impressively high peaks – just make sure you remember a thick sleeping bag for those cold winter nights.