A movement out of the corner of my eye, I lower the camera, ignoring the protestations of Maria as she poses for a photo, large granite boulders stain the pristine snowfield. It was nothing, back to the photo.
Then, appearing as if out of nowhere, a large male Ibex, horns curled in perfect symmetry outwards, leaves the safety and camouflage of a grey boulder and trudges out onto the snow fifty yards in front of me, over the shoulder of the still unaware Maria. Six others emerge, diligently following behind. Enormous black vultures soar high on the thermals above, two young males ‘play’ in the snow, horns clashing with alarming power, a mother tends to her kid.
We set off early from Madrid, hoping to avoid the throngs of people heading to the mountains to enjoy the snow. There is always a feeling of excitement, a sense of adventure, of the unknown, when we set off along the Autopista 6 out of Madrid and on towards the peaks and valleys of La Sierra. Sterile business parks and large, looming advertising boards mark the end of the city limits, then the scenery opens up into rocky outcrops and the mountains, looming larger and larger, drawing us in.
We snake our way up to Cotos, an eagle sits high in a pine tree, watching us as we pass by. The sky is watercolour blue and the white snow shines bright in the sunlight.
Heading for the Laguna Grande de Peñalara my ears pop us as we climb higher. Walking through pines, a layer of cloud hangs over the valley below us like ice crystals floating in the air. We reach the frozen lake, surrounded by the imposing granite peaks of the high mountains. We sit and watch the more adventurous climb the ice-packed slopes above the lake, ice axes and crampons to the fore.
As the lake shore begins to fill with people we head up, weaving our way between gorse, rocks and snow until we reach a snowfield high above the lake where Maria strikes a pose.
We sit in silence, just us and the ibex. A beauty and calm casts a spell on me when watching wild animals in their natural habitat, something that a zoo or animal park can never, try as they might, achieve. We feel a total connection to nature and our surroundings and a disconnection from the city, the rush, the noise. Time stands still, the animals ignore us – this is their home. After what seems a long time, but is probably only ten minutes, a low rumbling shakes us out of our meditative state. A glider appears out of nowhere, after the serene silence the noise seems deafening. The ibex are frightened. They start to run, bounding over rocks and careening towards us with an ease that makes me irrationally envious – how useful I’d actually find cloven hooves I’m not sure. They weave away and down the snowy slope, looking over their shoulder at this strange, threatening object in the sky. A sharp reminder of man’s unintentional or otherwise impact on nature.
I apply another layer of sun tan lotion, wary of the threat of sun and snow to my English skin and we carry on our ascent, struggling over the rocks with much less grace than our four-legged friends.