7.30 in the morning. Sleepy and bleary-eyed we arrive at the car park, ready to begin our hike. Our aim today – climb Almanzor. At 2592 metres it is the highest peak in the Sierra de Gredos and the highest point in Spain’s Sistema Central. Our guidebook gives the climb a difficulty rating of muy alta (the highest it gives) and recommends for experienced climbers only. I’m feeling confident.
The air is cool and fresh, the forecast looks good – not too hot. We set off through a steep-sided valley, the rocky peaks look down on us, caving us in and keeping watch on our progress.
We are alone, leading the vanguard for the climbers yet to appear. We reach a high meadow, a ridge rises imposingly before us – our first challenge and a statement from the mountain: this won’t be easy. The landscape is bare and barren. A rocky, man-made, path guides us onward, showing the way.
As we climb higher we are transported into another world. Below floats an ocean of cloud, mountain tops rising like islands. I’m almost tempted to dive off the edge and swim. We rest, watching the sea of cloud rise, forming like an immense white wave. High on a ridge to our left a lone ibex stands, silhouetted against the mid-morning sun.
After two hours walking and nearly constant ascent we catch our first sight of Almanzor. The view is breathtaking; countless jagged peaks encircle an enormous glacial bowl. In the far corner, Almanzor sits locked in gloom, its peak rising high into the sky. I feel like we are about to descend into Mordor.
Descend we do, deep into the glacial bowl. The path clings to the safety of the ridge. A large rodent scurries across the path in front of me. We reach the shores of the Laguna Grande de Gredos. The peaks are reflected perfectly in its crystal clear water. The stillness is broken by a fish, leaping out of the water to feast on the insects flying low along the surface of the lake.
We reach a mountain hut on the lake shore, our first contact with people since we started the trek. Almanzor looms over us, it seems to have grown twice as high. We follow small cairns of white granite through the rocky, boulder-strewn valley. Passing serene pools of impossibly clean water, a frog propels itself away from us and into the safety of the water. A Fire Salamander crawls lazily under our feet, not worried by us or the numerous birds circling overhead; its black and orange markings give ample warning – Caution Toxic Material.
A snow drift, stubbornly refusing to melt away even in early August, marks a welcome change in scenery from the lunar-esque landscape we’ve been climbing in. Above the snow a worryingly steep scree slope, leading up to an even steeper narrow funnel that disappears into the mountain. This is our path. Deep breaths, and up we go.
Part 2 coming next week