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.
The green seems to appear out of nowhere. We have been driving through Castille Leon for 2 hours; the Spanish ‘meseta’ in July is dry, yellow and featureless.
Occasional clumps of trees or dried up river beds provide a welcome, if brief, change of scenery. Suddenly we are transported into another world: dense forest, tree-covered hills transforming into bare mountain tops, speckled with snow.
Approaching the Sierra de Guadarrama from Madrid there is always one sight that takes my breath away. That is the first glimpse of La Maliciosa as you drive towards Navacerrada.
Rising almost 1000 metres directly from the reservoir of Navacerrada, its granite bulk looms over the pretty, alpine village below.
Note: Some of the photos used are taken from our previous trip canyoning in Extremadura. The cover image and photos from Extremadura are not my property.
High canyon walls surround me, the sound of rushing waters overwhelms. Moisés, our guide, shouts in my ear and points to a pool of clear, cool water 6 metres below, encircled by cascading rapids. I inch closer to the edge, trying to keep my footing against the flowing water and slippery rock. I turn around, the group give me a thumbs up, Maria looks like she’s going to be sick. I jump.
The wind is relentless, ferocious and bitterly cold. Standing on the peak of Monte Abantos the enormous, austere palace of San Lorenzo El Escorial looks like a miniature lego playset. The view stretches on for miles, grassland dotted with lakes and low trees sweeps on towards Madrid, bathed in a haze its 4 high towers rise like tiny fingers out of the pollution-induced mist. Far to the south, the shadow of the Montes de Toledo forms a distant barrier. To the north the high, snow-covered high peaks loom forward, shrouded in cloud. I can’t feel my face. We seek shelter.
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.
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 stillness is overwhelming, no wind, no noise. Enveloped in a blanket of white, the snow smothers everything. The ground is dotted with tracks: human, dog, rabbit, deer, and many others I don’t recognise. Each path is a mystery, a traveller writing their own story. I choose the deer and follow the tracks off the path and into the forest.
It has been snowing all morning, the softest, purest, whitest snow I’ve ever seen. The top layer of snow falls through my hands like flour through a sieve. We are in Cercedilla, in the forested valley of Fuenfria. Today it feels more like Narnia (no Mr Tumnus, sadly). The heavy snowfall has put off visitors, we get a look of surprise at the information centre and are warned to stay by the river, not to climb any higher. We nod politely and then set off up, high into the mountain.
Snow falling softly
Boots crunching, birds singing
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.