Size, they say, is no guarantee of quality. Having trekked through the Picos De Europa, Spain’s first national park and a miniature masterpiece of dramatic jagged peaks shoehorned in between three mighty river gorges, ActivInstinct adventurer Peter Moss agrees.
The Picos are not the highest mountains in Europe, or in Spain for that matter. They rise to a shade under 10,000 ft. High enough, but not quite Everest. No range though is more breathtaking. Where else to encounter buzzards and golden eagles, wolves and ibex, whilst peering thousands of feet down into a deep, forbidding chasm that seems to go on forever? Just 20 km inland from Spain’s northern coast, these are astonishing peaks: tall and razor sharp. Starting from the sleepy village of Cain, our first day in the mountains took us through the Cares Gorge, the most celebrated route in the Picos. It didn’t disappoint: eight hours of trails and paths hugging the sheer drops that fall heaven knows how far to the river below, while ibex challenge all perceived gravitational wisdom by grazing at improbable angles between us and the basement of the gorge. The beauty of the landscape was breathtaking at every twist and turn as we edged our way with fully loaded backpacks towards the tiny and remarkably peaceful hamlet of Bulnes, which is little more than a tumbledown collection of barns, cowsheds, chicken runs, and the alberge where we holed up for the night.
Onwards & upwards
The next day was seriously tough. We climbed and climbed, with all meaningful views lost in a sea of clouds that appeared from nowhere and broke the promise made by the brilliant red sunrise. From our base at 2,000 feet we hauled ourselves up to 7,500 feet, high enough to burst through the cloud line some six hours later, into a world of blue skies, icy white snow fields, and a granite bracelet of the tallest peaks in the Picos, crowned by the massive, monolithic Torre Naranjo, a brute of a rock towering a further 2,000 feet above the Refugio Urriellu. Then we embarked on the roughest, toughest five hours of trekking on the trip. The sun was fearsome and the terrain more so; a particularly mean cocktail of scree, rocks and snow, some of it several feet deep, something you notice only once you’ve fallen through it. We dropped 1,000 feet, climbed 2,000 feet, dropped another one, climbed another two, until we were presented with a truly surreal sight; a tiny silver structure that, from a distance, looked for all the world like a lunar module. It was a refugio and it stood on top of the next mountain, beyond which lay a carpet of perfectly white fluffy clouds. Beneath the clouds it was night. Above we had a further hour of light by which to climb, every last minute of which we needed. We arrived in twilight, forty minutes short of midnight, enveloped by a stunning natural beauty.
Room with a view
We slept the night in the little one-room dome, along with the manager, an intrepid lunatic who has given 20 years of his life to this extraordinary isolation, bereft of real ‘facilities’, but invariably with the company of similarly lunatic climbers. A three-tiered bunk and tiny stove is what he calls home. This night we numbered seven – three in the bunk, two on a fold-down table, me on the floor, and the seventh… well, actually
I don’t know. We awoke to see the whole of the Picos De Europa in one glorious 360-degree sweep, which confirmed this as the most wonderful, peculiar and downright compelling place I’ve ever holed up for the night. Refugio Veronica. Make a note of it next time you’re wandering across the Picos. The descent from Veronica was arduous. We dropped 8,000 feet down ravines, gorges and stick-thin gullies to ground level. The pattern was unyielding – peak, valley, peak, valley, and an air of supreme indifference is required to cope with the endless cuts and grazes you pick up from the jagged rocks that line your route. The terrain changes so suddenly in the Picos. Just when you think you’re
through the worst of it, the worst of it jumps up at you from around the corner and over the ridge. Even on the relatively benign final push around the side of the mountain we found ourselves hovering precariously on a path of loose scree that was at best two foot wide, yet offered the mother of all views in an immediately vertical direction. Taking on the Picos is a real challenge. It demands stamina and a bit of grit, but any hardship is eclipsed by the Picos’ unforgettable beauty.