Hiking in the Sierra Nevada

It was early evening on a warm September day in the Sierra Nevada and I had not found any running water since a small spring 2,000m lower down the mountain. I had swapped out the bike and panniers for my brother’s backpack and sunhat to explore up high for a couple of days. My litre water bottle had run out long ago, and I was desperate to reach the Laguna de Caballo: the lake where I hoped to camp and rehydrate. Worryingly I had passed a few dried out lakes already, with nothing to show for the blue nameless blobs on the map other than shallow bowls with a bit of vegetation. But the laguna I was heading for was named, so it must be a year-round waterbody right? Clinging to this theory, I lumbered on through the rockscape beneath dozens of griffon vultures circling overhead. Perhaps dehydrated and exhausted hikers are a staple of theirs. Eventually I rounded a corner to see a stone refugio (a simple shelter not unlike a bothy), with a hollow behind it where the lake should lie. 

As I drew nearer and crested the small hill I saw the shimmering emerald waters of the laguna reflecting the evening sun and I was overjoyed. My fragile hypothesis gained some traction. I began to wonder how Innominate Tarn in the Lake District impacted my hypothesis. It is by definition nameless, yet paradoxically it is named. I then stopped wondering as my cognitive capacity had reached its limit, so conveniently decided it was beyond the geographical remit of my study and therefore irrelevant. Not only was there water in the lake but it was deep! The first thing I did was jump in, then struggled to clamber out onto the scree slopes which plunged steeply into the water. Maybe this was what the vultures were banking on. Disappointingly for them I was soon dry and drinking a litre of freshly brewed green tea. The natter of Spanish men floated on the breeze across to me - I did not have the lake to myself; there were three other tents on opposing shores, which was a shock after seeing no-one besides a shepherd all day.

The walk up to the lake had been long and dry, through spectacular scenery and distinctive ecological strata. The lower slopes at around 1000m were dedicated to almond, olive and chestnut plantations interspersed with pockets of native pine forest. The plantations themselves were dissected by a myriad of gravel access tracks, absent from my topographical map, and it was on these I started the climb. My brother Giles had instructed me that morning to “just keep following them up, they keep climbing and eventually reach the ridge”. I thought it would be careless to ignore the advice of my wise older brother who lives there, but it wasn’t till after I learnt Giles had never been all the way to the top. When the plantations petered out so too did the gravel tracks, giving way to scrub. Bushwhacking my way through gorse, sea holly, juniper and countless more spiky plants I didn’t recognise (there are around 1200 species of vascular plants in the Sierra Nevada) was painful, but Giles knows best! The hillside was scattered with holm oaks amongst the scrub, and the air was thick with the scent of wild thyme. According to my diary there were also “funny things with large basal leaves covered in fur”- I wonder if naturalists like Darwin had such vividly detailed descriptions in their notebooks. I doubt it.

As I climbed higher, the sward shortened, the scrub thinned and gave way to rocks. Lots and lots of them. There is a moment distinct in my memory when the slope slackened and I could see for the first time the distant Cerro del Caballo – the peak for which I was aiming, overlooking the laguna of the same name. Rocks and more rocks, and perhaps some lichen-clad rocks, extended far into the distance, to the peak about 5km away. I took a photo on a fresh roll of film and it ended up being one of my favourites, with the characteristic ‘first of the roll’ light burn down the left hand side. 

The landscape turned out not to be as bare as it first looked – some tussocks of grass, prostrate mats of juniper and plenty more nondescript spiky plants (I’m really not cut out to be a botanist) found a home amidst the boulders and crags. In fact there was enough grass for a shepherd and his flock to be moving through the landscape nibbling away (as far as I know the shepherd wasn’t nibbling). The rocks also concealed plenty of wild animals. The Iberian Ibex were indistinguishable from the rocks, until I startled a male with large recurved horns and he made haste, along with his herd of fifty. Swifts tore overhead displaying their aerobatics in the wind ripping over the ridge. In contrast the vultures would lazily float over the ridge on outstretched wings, keeping a careful eye on proceedings. The odd kestrel hunted below the crags in the lee of the wind. 

That evening after dinner I climbed up onto the nearby ridge to watch the sunset, for the lake was east facing. I found myself a nice large boulder to provide shelter from the wind and read my book, as the sun sunk lower into the thick haze and smothered the hillsides in honey. Back in my tent I didn’t sleep well – my legs were scratched and shredded by the sharp plants that have received far too much attention already in this blog, the pain compounded by sunburn. My broken tent (a story for another time) billowed in the wind, boulders pinning down the flysheet. It was a fitting send off, our highest European camp to date, for the last outing of this (quite) trusty tent before it was retired. It may not be the most reliable bit of kit, but more importantly it looks great in photos, a splash of orange in my landscape shots like the one below. 

The following day I summited the peak, Cerro del Caballo, at 3,011m before descending much the same way I came up. Again I startled the Ibex, was watched by vultures and in awe of the creeping carpets of juniper. I did however follow the ridgeline track all the way to the GR7, which traversed the hillside back to Giles’. It was a pleasant walk back free of spiky things. What’s more I was back in time for lights out at Monza.