El Ocejón

I have set myself a challenge this year – to climb 30 of the highest or most important peaks in Madrid and Guadalajara before I myself turn 30 (on June 30th). One of the great things about this challenge is that it is forcing me to explore places I’ve never been to, so, after nearly 4 years of living in Madrid, I finally head to the neighbouring mountains of Guadalajara – the Sierra de Ayllón.

This area of Spain, just a 2-hour drive from Madrid is one of the most sparsely-populated areas in Europe. The mountains here stand out like an island amidst the flat, castillian plateau. Semi-abandoned villages dot the mountainsides, forests sweep the valleys. If you are looking to get away from city life I can’t imagine a more perfect setting.

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Our base for the weekend is the picturesque Valverde de los Arroyos, named as one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, it is nestled beneath the vertiginous north face of Ocejón and stands above a deep valley of oak forest. Ocejón itself, rising 2,049m high, is the highest peak in this area and towers over its neighbours.

We set off from Valverde de los Arroyos at 10am, it’s a crisp, clear morning with not a breath of wind – perfect weather. Dew glistens in the morning sun. The valley is alive with colours; from deep pine-green to smooth yellow and fiery orange as the trees here ready themselves for winter. We crunch through fallen chestnuts and breathe in the balsamic tones of wild lavender.

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After 25 minutes we reach the Chorreras de Despeñalagua; a dramatic succession of waterfalls cascading 80 metres down the cliff face. We are here in November, so the falls are not in full-flow. Spring surely is the best time to visit and I am told that in winter it is not uncommon to see the falls frozen solid.

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We sit and take in the view, completely alone. Rocky (our dog) is happily playing in the pools below the falls. He emerges clean and smiling and proceeds to roll around in the muddiest puddle he can find. Retracing our steps slightly we take a path that takes us steeply up above the falls. Ocejón emerges into view from behind a dense pine forest.

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The path leads us alongside old dry stone walls, everywhere we look there are signs of man’s influence here now long abandoned. There are very few villages in this area that are still populated during the week, most now solely cater to weekend tourists (like us). I can understand why people are saddened by this, we’re losing our heritage. Yet, as more people move to cities, it is a great chance for nature to have a comeback (much needed here in Europe) – wolves have recently returned to the mountains of Madrid, and this area is famed for its biodiversity.

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Our path winds through dense undergrowth, we jump over running streams and duck under low trees. Eventually the path emerges into the open and we see the pull to the summit – a steep, exposed face, littered with shrubs and rocks rising 500 metres to the summit. On either side, rocky shoulders cage us in. Through occasional breaks in the rock we see the mountains of Guadarrama far in the distance, shrouded in cloud.

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After an hour and a half of constant uphill, including a steep final push, we emerge onto the summit crest and the landscape opens up before us. We are rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views as the ground falls away dramatically. Vultures circle below, their brown plumage contrasting with the green of the forests beneath us.

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Sheltered amongst the rocks below the summit lies a memorial to a man who loved this mountain so much he climbed it 200 times in his life. A true testament to the impact landscape can have on one’s life and the pull of the great outdoors. However, 200 to me seems excessive; there are endless more mountains waiting for me, including many more that need to be scaled before my next birthday.

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