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Mulhaçen, King of Mountains

We visit Spain's highest peak and are treated like kings at the Poqueira Refugio.

We set out for the footpath to take us to the Poqueira Refugio on Sunday afternoon. It was a long and rather hair raising drive in the campervan, along dirt tracks skirting the mountain sides, deep ravines to our left hand side. Feeling a little late to be ascending we hasten to pack up the rucksacks and get on the trail. We have taken food, clothes and sleeping bag liners for the stay at what we anticipate will be a typical mountain hut. We also have ice axes and mini crampons as we know there will be snow, but we don’t know how much. We are taking a route ( both up to the Refugio and down) that is recommended for it's wild beauty in the book 'Walk! The Alpujarras' by Charles Davis.

We pass an impressive electric station, and then the rocky track zig zags steeply up the valley and we have that feeling of adventure beginning. We don’t know what to expect just that we have a 3 or 4 hour uphill plod ahead of us. Far up the valley head in the distance we spy a couple of low buildings and we hope this could be the refugio. There is no other building to be seen. The switchbacks take us endlessly upwards sometimes beside streams and even a water logged field. The air is silent but the scenery dramatic, red and brown rocky outcrops of schist, pines, herbs and several species of spurge and sedums. In dark damp crevices near the water courses the spurges produce bright flowers, looking like they should be in a garden rather than this wild valley landscape.

The buildings we had spied so far above us turn out not to be our rest for the night but partially abandoned small farmsteads. Momentarily down cast at the prospect of more climbing and no sign of our destination we walk on. We soon see the track ahead of us and realise it disappears over the col. Another 45 minutes of climb through grand and wild scenery brings us to the refugio and the snow line. The wild ibex are grouping near the building in the evening light. We are greeted by smiles from strangers and soon we are seated in front of a fire with beers. We are now at 2500 metres and tomorrow we have another 1000 metres of climb. We listen to the excited talk in the hut, everyone planning their route tomorrow and speculating on equipment and timings. Some are reliving past ascents of bigger mountains. For me this mountain will be 500 metres higher than I have ever been before.

In the morning we leave late but eventually catch up with groups from the night before. The going feels slow, one foot in front of the other, pausing both to catch our breath and the view. We are on the more demanding but scenic of the possible paths. As we ascend we look over at the neighbouring peak of Valeta and contemplate making it over there after Mulhaçen. Mulhaçen summit is still nowhere to be seen. Crampons go on and off several times and we are glad we have the lightweight Katoonas, so much easier than the full spiked and heavy crampon on this terrain. We cross a large snow field that must take an hour, but the angle is not too steep.

The air is bright with the sun striking the snow and also warm - we shed more layers. We are now on to the slippery scree and shales of this west side of the mountain.

It is a joyous summit to reach. We meet people who left for the summit earlier than us. Everyone shakes hands and biscuits are shared round. We chat again to the Austrians and Canadian from the night before, bonded by the achievement. Our circle widens as we include a couple of young Scandinavians, everyone discussing equipment and the route down, even next challenges.

Retracing our footsteps, we head over towards Valeta. Here we enter a great bowl of deep snow. Our mini crampons are not quite a match for the terrain but we go on with John cutting steps ahead of me. We contour to keep the gradient less steep. Then my foot slips away and in a microsecond I am off my feet and sliding helplessly to the bottom of the bowl on my stomach. John shouts instruction and I jab the ice pick into the snow and after what seems like ages, stop the slide. He then cuts steps for me back up to the point at which I had left our self made route.

We reach a snow covered hill top and eat chocolate. Deciding Valeta is not achievable in the hours of daylight we have left, we drift back taking a walk of wide plateaus that gradually descends us back to the Refugio in time for beer before dinner. The landscape is silent, we see no-one. The crags near and far erupting from deep beds of snow are dark and jagged as the light slants into evening. On the way we visit two unmanned mountain huts, each with a platform for a bed and construction built to survive harsh wind and deep snows.

Reluctant to leave the friendly Refugio, we take our time setting off to go back down the mountain. We take a longer route higher up the valley sides. This route follows ancient acequias, waterways built to bring water to the arid terraces. Water for olives and almond trees to flourish, even here. There was at least four waterways running horizontally around the sides of the steep rocky hillsides, contouring with every fluctuation of the landscape. In places they were disintegrating. Cows had damaged the sides in their relentless clambering. They had made elaborate pathways through dense thickets of esparto and holm oak. Sometimes we follow the cow paths. Gorse tears at our clothing and other thorny plants ensnare us. It wasn’t the easiest of routes to follow. Occasionally we came across a cow with huge horns, benignly watching our progress.

Following the acequia into the deep ravine of a hillside, we are startled by two partridges bursting into the air, squawking in alarm. As we walk a few more yards, we see lying on the earth, still fluttering in a hopeless attempt to fly, a small bird, it’s neck broken. We must have surprised a hawk just at the moment of making a kill. It was nowhere to be seen, and we hoped it would return to finish its meal. The image of seeing the sharp knife of nature so clearly, stays in our minds for some time.

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