I spent last weekend in a beautiful snowy place just two hours from Madrid: the Sierra de Gredos. A friend invited me on an expedition to Almanzor, the highest peak in the Sistema Central, or the chain of mountains that crosses the Iberian peninsula from Lisboa to Valencia. Almanzor is 2592 meters tall, or 8501 feet, and my friend had been wanting to climb it for some time.

I knew nothing about the peak before he mentioned the trip, and I read a bit about it in the links he included in his emails. But for whatever reason, I didn’t fully digest the information. When, on our first day out, we arrived at Los Barrerones, a flat spot high above the Circo de Gredos (the Gredos Cirque), and my companions pointed out Almanzor — an amazingly beautiful peak, a rocky horn rising from the cirque — I thought, “How the hell are we going to get up that?”

It looked, for all means and purposes, like the Matterhorn. You know, one of those breathtakingly high peaks that you can’t even fathom how people climb. Much less you.

None of this is to say I am inexperienced in the mountains. I have spent plenty of time in the hills but, above all, climbing the 4,000 footers of the Adirondacks and completing long circuit hikes, like the Alps Haute Route and a circuit of the Torres del Paine in Chile. Ascending peaks in the winter is very different, especially when you have to use an ice ax and crampons and the vertical drops are enough to make your stomach flip.

We got a bit of a late start on Saturday morning from the Plataforma de Gredos, the parking lot that gives good access to the area. The original idea had been to walk to the refugio (about two and a half hours), drop off our heavier material (sleeping bags, extra clothes, etc.) and then continue up to the summit of Almanzor (another couple hours) before descending to a hot meal and bed at the refugio.

We arrived at the refugio sometime around three o’clock. After eating something and getting our gear ready to ascend, it was nearly four. Dinner would be served at eight. On the advice of several people sitting outside the refugio we decided to postpone our summit attempt to Sunday morning. We’d start early, the snow would still be hard, and we’d be well-rested. So we spent Saturday afternoon heading up the trail to Almanzor to practice with our crampons and ice axes.

But on Sunday the group was ready to give up: one member had awoken with a sore throat and another’s boots were completely soaked through. I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a real shame to not even give it a try. So I said that. The sore throater said he had no problem waiting several hours for us, so the remaining three departed uphill, over the snow-covered rocks, under a cerulean blue sky.

The landscape of this area is just fantastic. The refugio is situated at the southeastern end of the Laguna Grande, a beautiful lake (above) surrounded by the peaks of the cirque. It had been snowing the week before, so everything was covered in snow. But since the sun was shining all weekend, the snow got soft during the day and hundreds of little streams began running. One of the benefits of going in the winter is that there’s tons of water–and the sounds of it–everywhere. There are several waterfalls en route to the summit. In summer, apparently, it’s a bit of a rocky wasteland with not a drop of water in sight (except for what’s in the lake) and quite hot.

Shortly we were far beyond where we’d reached the previous afternoon, moving slowly and making sure that with each step the crampons and ice ax were in place. The trail just keep getting steeper and if I looked back, I started to fear the way down. One of my companions had commented on Saturday that she thought we had gotten quite far in our practice session. This was an illusion–it’s not much distance to the summit (a kilometer or two) but, from the refugio, you have to climb nearly 600 meters up in that distance.

Pretty soon we could see the Portilla del Crampón, the tiny pass one has to cross to reach the last pull to the summit. But there were still a hundred meters or more to that point. The vertical drop was making me really nervous, and I decided I’d had enough. Luckily, there was someone coming down and he didn’t mind at all having a little company on his descent. He calmed my nerves quite a bit and admitted that the mountain “está empinado” (is steep). The descent wasn’t nearly as harrowing as I imagined.

An hour after I returned to the refugio, the two who had headed on to the summit returned. They hadn’t summited, in part because one had lost feeling in his feet and also because they would have needed a rope to do the last bit. By the time we made it back to the car, we were exhausted and sunburned, but totally happy.

We’ll be back for you, Almanzor.

1 Response to “Almanzor”

  1. 1 Almanzor, take two « España Profunda Trackback on Tuesday, 15 April, 2008 at 4:06 pm
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