Our path is a minefield of large boulders, rocks and smaller scree. We choose the route that looks least likely to slide down the side of the mountain. There is a constant danger of falling rock and scree. We tread carefully.
We climb high. The going is slow, we stop repeatedly to catch our breaths, choose the next path and take in the extraordinary view. A wall of cloud threatens to spill over the peaks and shroud us in mist, yet it is held back by the natural barrier of the peaks, acting like a forcefield.
We reach a chute leading up to a high crested pass. We pass teams of people equipped with rope, helmets and other safety gear, urging each other on. We look at each other. Is this a good idea? As if in answer to our question a rock, the size of a football, is dislodged by the foot of a climber further up. I have no time to move and brace myself for impact, but the rock bounces away to my left and eventually regains its place back in the rocky path. My heart is in my mouth, there are apologies from above. Now I understand the rope and helmets.
We scramble up, slowly, carefully, and reach the high pass. Views open up in front of us, we can see for miles. There is no path now, just rocky ledges and steep, sheer drops below us. We befriend a group of Andalusians, we are all grateful to be in a group; safety in numbers. As we near the summit it gets even more difficult, we have to pull ourselves up onto ledges up to 2 metres high and inches wide, we shift along with our backs pressed as tight to the rock as possible. I imagine it looks like we’re trying to sneak up on the mountain itself. A slip up here could prove very costly. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’m scared.
Yet we make it up. The summit is tiny – just big enough for two people to stand on, we wait our turn. Not daring to let go of the summit marker we soak it all in: the views, the wind, the sound, the beauty. Well aware that we’re only half way through the day – we’ve been climbing for nearly 6 hours and still have to make it back – we begin our descent. As we lower ourselves down we pass a family pushing on towards the summit. The children are very young and, in spite of the helmets and safety gear, they are clearly not enjoying themselves. The parents on the other hand are having a great time.
After descending 50 metres or so from the summit we are given an unforgettable reception. A family of ibex surround us, leaping between rocks, I like to think they are there to congratulate us on our successful ascent and wish us luck for the way down. I wonder what they’re doing here with no food or water nearby, and then I think probably the same as us – drawn in by the thrill of being on top of a mountain.
Not being the most serious climbers the descent is mainly spent sliding down ungracefully on our backsides. We reach the mountain hut again by 3.30 where we reward ourselves with our first proper rest all day – 30 minutes for lunch on the lake shore. We watch frogs swim and fish leap, our backdrop is verdant green meadows and Almanzor, beginning to disappear in a shroud of cloud. I feel wonderfully alive, my legs however, are definitely starting to tire.
It is just over 3 hours back to the car, enough time for one more surprise. Camouflaged perfectly amongst the rocks of the path lies a viper, its head pointed like an arrow and its markings betraying its poisonous secret. I don’t see it until I place my next step, missing its tail by a whisker, the snake slithers away under a rock and is gone in an instant. I let out a (manly) shriek. My heart has returned to my mouth. Yet it seems a fitting finale to a day filled with adrenaline and emotion. Almanzor, we will be back.