Edging the void on quivering knees

Last weekend, our hiking club Pasos Largos (large steps) arranged a 16 km climb of the Sierra de las Nieves. A national park and  UNESCO Biosphere since 1995, this snowy mountain chain has barely seen any snow this winter. Years ago, ice was transported down the mountains and sold for refrigeration, though I cannot possibly see how they managed to pass the drops, shafts, caves and vertical falls that these mountains are known for.

I am no couch potato, but trekking along with twenty of the province’s most adamant mountain enthusiasts does make on feel a bit on the wimpy side. Granted some of the older members have hiked here all their lives, but they are decades older than myself, and yet they plug along as if it was a walk in the park. Which it is…

As one would expect from a proper Andalucian trek, the day started with a solid lard-and-salt-on-bread breakfast in two consecutive bars en route. Then, at what they called 9 am ‘Spanish time’, as opposed to la hora inglesa, we took off.

The mountains displayed a colourful flora and our fearless leader and most informative guide, Rafa, would whoop every time he saw another type of wild orchid or other rare mountain flower – and call out their names in Latin. Sadly I did not retain a single name, though I did manage to snap a photo of a few of these incredible plants, while trying not to hold up the line of eager hikers, drop the camera or fall off a cliff…


Talking of cliffs, I can climb almost anything, as long as I go straight up, and I will walk for hours without complain, but when the mountain continues straight up above, and falls off almost straight down beneath one and one has to scale along a narrow path with loose rocks and a few lonesome straws of dry grass to hold onto, should one happen to get dizzy and need to ‘hang on, well, that is when I get vertigo…

So, in the midst of our hike, about 4 hours along, when one is getting sweaty and hungry and thirsty (with no tree in site) and a bit light-headed – just as we had past the signs saying ‘dangerous path’ and Peligroso! with exclamation mark in at last two different languages, with a drawing of a stick man falling, I freeze. I cannot move any longer, and worse still, I am holding up the eager hikers. I tell my husband that NO, I can absolutely not walk any longer (the other hikers eagerly waiting to pass over and around me, in spite of sheer cliff). As we would never had found our way back and half the group is in front and we cannot force them all to turn around, though I would have gladly crawled back on my knees, I have to continue. My husband coaches me along, telling me to stare at the blue backpack of the woman in front, who strolls carefree along the path, as if she was going shopping. Step by step I proceed, not even thinking about looking to the side where the cliff falls. Not letting my eyes deviate from the pack. Finally, I get to a slightly less step incline, where the plants are somewhat more solid looking, possibly all of a foot high, (though with nasty thorns), should I have to hug them for my life, to not slide off the mountain.

Rafa tells us that the worst part is over, though I should have known better than believing him. Foot in front of foot, we edge around the entire mountain. At lower levels we had seen the fog, being told that it would blow away to display the amazing mountain formations. Instead, the fog gets thicker. While the other hikers moan that they cannot see the magnificent view, I thank all higher powers and meteorological phenomenon that fogged us in. Somehow it feels safer to scale along a white void, than seeing the sheer fall.

We stop for lunch on yet another cliff, the Andalucians bringing up knives and starting to cut loaves of bread, whole sausage, wolfing down Spanish omelettes and opening canned sardines. Our Scandinavian style sandwishes suddenly seem so small and inadequate. An opening in the fog allow ghostly impressions of the mountains in front and above us, then the fog is back full force. Rested, fed and (for me) a bit less wobbly legged, ‘we’ pocket our knives and continue.

The trail starts descending, and we come to what looks like a Jurassic Park meets Star Trek lunar landscape. Next comes a plateau where huge bodies of what looks like dead trees cover otherwise barren ground. (I always think that if I had art directed this, the director would have told me that it looks completely fake and insisted I redo it immediately!) Passing fog make it look like a title page for Sleepy Hollow, a faded title page. Along dead branches and dusty earth, we slide our way down to level ground, a greener path and finally a tree with enough foliage to allow the female members of the group to go and ‘spend a penny’.

Back at the parking lot, next for the traditional post-hike bar visit, before heading back home, some 12 hours after we started this adventure – Some of us just grateful just to be on tierra firme



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