Monthly Archives: August 2011
In both of my previous trips to the Picos de Europa I have flown from Liverpool to Madrid (Easyjet). From Madrid I have taken either the train or the coach -about 5 hours travel either way. This time I flew Stansted to Asturias (Easyjet).
Train Travel in Spain: The national network, RENFE run a decent service with different levels of train. Express and stopping services. Their website has full (and up to date) information. http://www.renfe.es A quick look has suggested that currently a ticket is about €50 (one way) from Madrid to Oviedo. It is then €7.50 by coach to the city bus station (Airport is 50km out of town!)
Coach travel in Spain: This is a much more comfortable option than coach travel in the UK. ALSA run an excellent service both nationwide and within regions. Their coaches are clean, comfortable and air conditioned! They have several levels of service, some coaches having 3 seats to a row instead of 4, voucher for food at the rest stop on a long trip. Another quick check suggests that a one way ticket for the coach is €32 for the economy (6 hour) trip or €51 for the Supra+ (which includes WiFi) and is direct from the airport terminal. http://www.alsa.es
However you arrive in Oviedo onward travel is probably easiest by coach, again its ALSA here. Cangas de Onis, Arenas de Cabrales and Panes are all served directly (these are the three main towns at the northern edge of the Picos) Other parts of the national park can be reached by local services from these towns (Potes and Fuente De for example).
The coach to Cangas de Onis is about 1hr30 and cost €6.25
Getting into the National Park: From Cangas de Onis there is a frequent bus service to Los Lagos de Covadonga (which takes out a 20km hike with a massive ascent) running from about 9am until 7pm. €7.50 return (the only ticket sold at the bottom) Getting out again is about €3.50 from the ticket office in Buferrera car park. To my knowledge there is no bus service from Arenas de Cabrales to Poncebos. It is about 1hr30 to walk to road head at Poncebos from where it is a couple of hours walk to Bulnes (Since I last visited this part of the range the Funicular to Bulnes has opened to there may well be a bus to Poncebos to support this).
At Fuente De there is a cable car which speeds you up to the mountains. Its not cheating, its efficient! This gets you to within a short walk of Horcados Rojos.
Accommodation: Cangas and Arenas have plenty of hotels and hostels. Cangas isn’t that cheap though. Both also have camp sites (Cangas is at Soto de Cangas, about 4km away)
On the south side of the mountains Cain, Posada de Valdeon and Fuente De have Hotels, Hostels and Albergues.
Within the mountains Bulnes has a couple of places to stay also there are mountain refuges and bothies marked on the maps. The refuges are very reasonable for accommodation though eating does put the cost up considerably. For example, Refugio de Vegarredonda is €12 per night or about €35 with evening meal and breakfast too. -This is the maximum price, BMC membership or membership of the Spanish or Asturian equivalent knocks quite a lot off the price. All refuges have about the same prices.
Bothies are free but can get crowded and have no facilities beyond shelter.
Camping is only permitted above 1600m, ‘bivouac style’ which means tent up not more than 1 hour before sunset and down not more than one hour after sunrise though in practice as long as you’re not taking the mickey no one seems to mind. Refuges have a ‘no camping’ sign outside them though on the wall of one there was a document stating a law says the number of campers cannot exceed 10% of max capacity of the refuge.
Today was the end of my journey. A few hours walk from Vegarredonda would bring me to the lakes and the bus back to town.
After a heartier-than-usual breakfast of porridge and coffee I packed and set off. My pack felt light and I felt unusually fit and strong. It felt as though I was racing down the mountainside, the going was very easy. I stopped occasionally for water and to check the map. A navigation error at this point would have been unforgivable. And embarrassing.
The landscape here reminded me very much of the Yorkshire Dales, Limestone everywhere. Just the Swaledale sheep had been swapped for the brown Asturian cows.
After 2 hours I was done. What a great trip it had been I thought to myself as I sat and drank in the view for the final time. I’d not made any error navigationally, I’d not injured myself and I’d met some great people. Even the missing climbers turned up safe. Fantastic.
I wonder when I’ll be back…
Elsewhere on this blog the contents of my rucksack are detailed. Out of all of the kit I brought very little wasn’t used: Sunglasses -my brimmed hat did the job fine. First aid kit -was only opened for the knee support bandages and (when I remembered) my antihistamines for hayfever -which never actually bothered me. The ‘spares and repairs’ bag was opened to get out the box of matches when my lighter died on me.
Navigation-wise the route cards I had prepared at home were a handy reference each day, also the making of them and the study of the map that they required got the route in pretty good detail into my head. -I’d never planned navigation to such detail before but I certainly will do again. On a day to day basis, I’d get the map out many times, check the compass a few times and look at a grid reference from the GPS once or twice. I made perhaps half a dozen GPS way points each day, in case of getting lost or needing to retrace my steps due to weather -mist was my major concern.
It was easy to see where slack navigation would have led me astray, after all I have been lost in the Picos before, but I’m older and wiser now! (maybe).
Carrying a 20+kg backpack through the Picos is hard work. My daily distances were short and the hours walked each day were between 2 (final day) and 10 hours. Going hut to hut would certainly make life easier but I would still want minimal bivi equipment, just in case.
I was very fortunate with the weather. Only one day had ‘bad weather’ -this wasn’t the case on previous trips. Mist rolls in frequently and rapidly.
Morning came and still no sign. I took the names of the missing men and set off to Refugio Vegarredonda, my next stop. I was to ask if the men had been seen. The other three set off as a search party. Our paths coincided for the first part. The other three rapidly overtook me as they were only lightly burdened and I had my full pack. We entered a bowl of scree. They turned North east towards the expected descent route for the missing men. I headed North towards another horcado.
Slipping and scrambling upwards I eventually reached the pass. I’d heard Jesus shouting for his friends but never a response. Looking back to where I’d come from I saw three men leaving the area. Saddened I assumed no one had been found.
Moments later I saw another 2 figures. Reaching for my binoculars I saw 3 familiar people and 2 strangers. I had to assume it was the missing men. It was too early for anyone else to be in this part of the mountains. The five re-grouped at the opposite pass and headed out of sight.
What a relief.
My journey took me over another few passes, around a few ‘Hoyos’ -depressions/bowls in the limestone caused by weathering and finally down into easy country and to the Vegarredonda
The next day would be my last in the mountains so I ate very well at Vegarredonda to lighten my load for the final day. The hut was very pleasant with accommodation in the main building and in the smaller building where I stayed.
I spent the afternoon reading, enjoying the views and generally wandering about relaxing. Occasionally the warden would come out brandishing a large stick to ‘shoo’ the cows. They’d always come back though!
Time to leave the comfort of the albergue and head back into the mountains. I expected the next two days to be the most challenging. The route was through the high mountains over a series of passes in fairly blank terrain.
I began with a walk through the village roads then onto a track to the next village. I passed the remains of the former camp site. Turning north onto a path up a long spur leading to a forest I began to climb and the views opened up. I have never been to this part of the range before so every view was new.
The path took me through beech trees then oak trees. All around were interesting fungi, I didn’t take pictures because I’d have been forever stopping and I wanted to make Vega Huerta in good time. Towards the end of the forest it opened into a clearing and I got my first view of the mountains close up. It was incredibly beautiful, I stopped for a while just to enjoy it.
Stopping at a fountain for a quick drink I admired the scenery some more. I was happy to be re-entering the mountains proper. A few Km further on and I was at the Chozo de Llos, a small foresters cabin now used as a bothy. I stopped for some lunch and collected another 3L of water from a nearby fuente. My map said that in Vega Huerta, where I was planning to camp, there was a ruined hut and a hard to find spring. In case I couldn’t find any more water I felt it prudent to carry the extra burden.
Shouldering my pack I set off for the collado de Frade (col, or pass) which marked by entry into the higher mountains. At the top of the col there was an unusual barrier, an electric fence! Thankfully it had a plastic handle and a hook so it could be opened and passed. Reconnecting the handle from the other side I checked the map and studied the view. There was a smart looking refuge below me, not much of a walk way. Sadly it was not the direction I was heading.
My route took me higher and over ever steepening ground, mud and scree slopes, to another col. This one was called an ‘horcado’ which means a col with difficult access on at least one side. I was genuinely worried on a few points on this crossing. The ground kept slipping away beneath my feet and I had to rely heavily on my walking poles for support. I was glad when I had crossed the scree and got onto more certain ground.
After the Horcado the views changed dramatically. No more grass. Just bare limestone. Jumbled, broken limestone. The path was convoluted but a lot of fun. Quite easy going compared to the scree.
Vega Huerta was a welcome sight. I’d stopped for a break, taken off my pack and had struggled to pick it up again! The hut at Vega Huerta had been recently rebuilt (as a bothy) and the fountain was about 20m away down a path. Dead easy to find.
Staying in the hut were three Madrileños. Two of them were off climbing on Torre Santa de Castilla and the third, Jesus, a taxi driver, remained at the hut. I relaxed in the sun until it became chilly.
Jesus was becoming bored of waiting for his friends who said they’d be back in 3.5 hours, several hours ago. Time went on and they still hadn’t returned. Two more climbers joined us at the hut. Darkness came and Jesus’ friends were still missing.
Night fell and still nothing.
The night was cold inside the hut, and I was in a down-filled sleeping bag. I’ve no idea what it was like for the missing men.
Sunshine in the morning. Breakfast of coffee and badly made porridge (thin enough to drink!) I had pre-measured and mixed enough porridge, dried milk and sugar to last the whole trip but had neglected to record how many spoonfuls of mixture per day. D’oh!
As the weather was good there was no reason not to go down the Canal de Trea. I packed up and put support bandages on both knees,hoping to avoid knee injuries that have plagued me in the past. I followed the path through the boulders same as yesterday to the head of the canal. It was a totally different experience. I could now see how the twists and turns fitted together and there were things in the landscape I’d had no idea of yesterday!
I noticed the scout group with whom I shared a camp site were following about 10 minutes behind me. The guide book says that no map accurately represents the Canal de Trea and I could see why. Twists and turns over broken, rocky ground. Zig-zags next to steep drops, scree slopes and boulders. It was quite a path!
As the hours past and the altitude decreased the path become more difficult. Scree slopes giving way under my feet, my towering backpack knocking me off balance. Above me the scouts would occasionally dislodge rocks which came skittering and bouncing down the slope. Whenever I heard a rock slide I’d turn and check if I was in danger. Thankfully the scouts were a sufficient height above me I had a few seconds to move if needed.
At the end of the canal the bare slopes gave way to woodland. A couple of guys climbing the canal told me it was only an hour to go until the bottom. Shortly the path along the Cares gorge came into view. The people looked tiny beneath me. I had been descending for over three hours now and was getting tired. A few times I stumbled and slipped, never quite falling over. Every time I’d caution myself to be more careful as the drop was still significant.
The end of the canal greeted me with two goats intent on eating my map. I was down. At last.
After a short break I turned south and headed for Cain and lunch. Just before reaching the village I stopped at the river to take my boots off and cool my feet. Bliss. Lunch was a € 10 menu de dia. Coke, Fabada and the most delicious roast chicken and chips I can remember tasting. Dessert was a ‘natilla’ a kind of custard. I scoffed the lot rapidly, bought a bottle of water and set off on the long hike up the road to my camp site. The road walk was only about 10km but with a 500m climb.
It started to rain shortly after I left Cain. I didn’t bother with waterproofs as it was still warm and the rain was refreshing. After an hour or so I stopped to check the map under the shelter of a tourist information hut. The girl inside asked me where I was headed. I told her that I was going to a camp site marked on my map, another 6km away. She told me that it no longer existed but I could find accommodation in another village, a little closer. I thanked her and continued on my way.
Climbing up and up, the same taxis passing me again and again -their drivers beginning to wave at me as they passed me for the third or fourth time. As I reached Los Llanos de Valdeon I saw an ‘Albergue’ (Bunk house) at the roadside. A man on the balcony, whom I took to be the owner invited me in. He wasn’t the owner, but a guest. The albergue was € 10 per night. A bargain!
The clientele were a mixed bunch. Some Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 Poles (living in Spain) and a Belgian lady who, like me was travelling alone in the Picos.
After dinner Natalie, the Belgian and myself wandered around the village. We stopped at a bar for a drink and found Dietrich and Regina so we joined them. Shortly after the Poles Andre and Alexandra joined us. Conversation was varied and in a range of languages, with English, Spanish, German, Polish and French being spoken at various times!
The staff at the bar were the same as in the restaurant in Cain.
After the bar we went back to the albergue to continue our chat and to eat a little supper. The man from the balcony joined us and proceeded to explain that historically ‘Castilla y Leon’ had been separate provinces and that Leon was better. I think…
A notable characteristic of the Picos de Europa is the weather. The mountains lie only a few kilometres from the Atlantic ocean. The weather in the UK is often of the same source as the weather in the Picos. This makes for plenty of rain and cloud and mist. Every evening of the trip the mist closed in, obscuring the views.
On the second day in the mountains there was nothing to see but mist. I didn’t fancy the long, steep descent of the Canal de Trea, almost a vertical mile down a scree covered, vertiginous track to the Cares gorge. Instead I went to climb Jultayu (1950m). In two previous trips to the Picos I’d never made the summit of anything, partly because of the routes we took and partly because of the weather.
The path to Jultayu and the path to Trea were the same for the first kilometre or so, so it made a useful recce of the route. The path was only visible as paint marks on the rocks. There was no ‘path’ as such, just a route over, across and through limestone boulders, past caves, holes and precipices.
The path meandered its way through invisible scenery, only the compass and GPS gave me any certainty that I was on the right path. The path to Jultayu climbed up a long spur towards a series of false summits until finally there was nowhere else to go up. To one side of me, a view described as ‘surprising’ of the village of Cain at the bottom of the gorge, the other side a long drop of the mountainside. I could see neither, just the narrow ridge on which I perched.
At the summit there was a cross with a plaque identifying the peak and the altitude and a small box containing some hair and possibly a tooth! All very odd. After a minute or two resting I descended the same way I came up.
I returned to camp at midday. Three of the caving team had descended with some of the gear, the remaining four were packing up and stashing some equipment in nearby caves, ready for next year. I helped them carry a few odds and ends to a cave and then left them to finish and went to the refuge for a coffee and somewhere to read.
Later that evening the mist finally cleared and I went out to take some more photographs.
After a breakfast of Cafe con Leche and a Bocadillo de Lomo y Queso (White coffee and a ‘baconish’ and cheese sandwich) the hunt for fuel began. The ferreteria (no, it doesn’t sell Ferrets, its a hardware store -or an ironmonger if you translate directly) was open. I went in and asked if they had kerosene, paraffin or something similar. “No” came the answer. “Hmm” thought I, wondering what was going to become of cooking this week. In my best dodgy Spanish I said to the owner “I need some flammable liquid for cooking, but not alcohol” He looked at me and perhaps thought me odd. He thought and brought two products to the counter, The first was a toluene based solvent. I wasn’t particularly keen on carting a bottle of toluene about the place with me. The other was ‘Aguarras’ a brand name for a paint thinner. This was turpentine with sulphuric acid. Again, not keen on putting Sulphuric acid in the stove. He brought another Aguarras. “Mas puro” he said. I checked the label. Turpentine without the acid. I couldn’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work and I hadn’t read any contra-indications on the MSR website. It was €3 for a litre, or about €2 for half a litre. Never having used it as fuel before, I opted for the litre bottle as I didn’t know how quickly (if at all) it would burn up.
Back at the hotel room I opened the turps bottle and filled my fuel bottle. I’d forgotten just how much turps smells. Its a smell I’ll not forget in a hurry as by the end of the week a lot of the contents of my backpack smelled of it!
I thought it prudent to check that it actually worked in my stove before I head off to the middle of nowhere. But where to test it? When a pressurised stove like this is lit it needs to ‘prime’. That is heat up to build pressure in the system to produce a vapour which burns more efficiently. Priming often produces smoke, soot and a foot high flame.
My hotel room was carpeted (unusually) so that was out of the question. Lighting it in my room was certainly going to end in tears, and possibly arrest. Where to go? Somewhere outdoors, out of the way.
A short while later I had checked out of the hotel and was sat at the side of the bus station’s car park, reasonably out of the way, where I could cause no damage.
Picture the scene. I’m sat there, cross legged on the kerb with a fire in front of me. Coaches and buses are passing, the drivers looking at me as if I am a crazy person, wondering what I’m up to… The test was a success. Turps was difficult to prime but it did work. I cooled the stove and packed it up just as the local Police pulled into the car park. “Nothing to see here” I thought as I had thankfully tidied away when they passed.
The bus ticket to Los Lagos de Covadonga was €7.50 for a return ticket, they didn’t sell singles to keep the (rather large) queue moving quickly.
The bus ride was about 45 minutes and very enjoyable, sights that I hadn’t seen for 10 years passed by evoking memories of the first trip and the long hard slog up to the end of the road. Bus travel certainly was an improvement!
Disembarking a the car park de Buferrera between the lakes I arranged my equipment ready for the hills and marked the spot on the GPS. Checking the map I set off. The journey had finally begun!
The path began along a well-used tourist trail. Through an arboretum, past the old mines (and now museum) and to Lago Ercina. At Ercina car park I spotted a right-hand-drive car and said hello to the family who were getting their walking gear on at the rear of it. A brief stop at Ercina to check the map, take some compass readings and then I was off to Vega de Ario, my first night’s stop.
Signposts at the start of the path to Ario said 3 hours and, unusually, in my experience they were about right! The path began very muddy and my boots were soon caked but it, and they, dried after a few Km. The trail was well marked with white and yellow paint marks.
Before long I reached Las Bobias, a small Majada or collection of stone huts where the Pastors (cow-herds) stay. One hut was in use, judging from the smoke rising from the chimney. There was a fuente (spring) at the end of the majada where I stopped for a bite to eat and to enjoy the views.
The terrain now became more challenging, less grassy and more rocky. The trail was quite popular, there was even a couple carrying a baby of only a few months of age. The kilometres passed and began to tire. I found myself stopping to ‘admire the view’ more and more frequently. It has been several years since I’ve carried a pack of this weight.
A few hours in and the ‘steep climb’ mentioned in the guide book appeared. At the top of this col the central massif (Macizo central) appeared. Peaks rising high above me, bare limestone with sheer drops into the cares gorge. I remembered being awestruck when I first saw it 10 years ago. It hasn’t become any less striking in that time. Familiar peaks, Torre de Cerredo, perhaps El Naranjo towering high. All the more impressive as the ground I was standing on is higher than any point in the UK. Vega de Ario appeared not long after, the refugio (Mountain hut) at the far end. A few tents were camped at the near end, close to some pastors huts of the only bit of notable flattish ground in the whole vega.
I stopped at the refuge for a coke €3! (only fair as it arrives by helicopter!). A British couple were outside the refuge packing up their gear for the descent. They had been in Ario for 2 nights and had walked up to the summit of Jultayu that day. They told me that another couple had climbed the canal de Trea (my descent route into the Cares gorge) and had nearly been hit by a rock which fell from the mountain passing between them as they climbed the path!
I crossed the vega to where the few tents were pitched. I looked around for a piece of flattish ground away from them to pitch my own tent but it was all too uneven. A patch of yellowed grass behind a boulder close to their camp is where I pitched, nicely sheltered and obviously used before. The tents belonged to members of the Oxford University Caving Club who were here on a seven week expedition to explore some of the region’s deeper caves.
There were a number of cows and a solitary donkey here to keep me company with their incessant munching and the clanking of their bells.
Evening came and I prepared my dinner -one of the dehydrated meals I’d brought with me. I think I added too much water as it didn’t taste as good as I’d hoped.
A Spaniard appeared over the rocks close to my tent. He looked exhausted. He told me he’d just climbed Canal de Trea with his friends, they’d started from Cain at 8 in the morning! Minutes later the rest of his group appeared, about 11 or 12 in total. The men went off to collect water from near the refugio leaving the women, about 6 of them, behind.
I sat on the rocks enjoying the sunshine and my dinner. The women, about 15 metres away, began to strip off. I’ve seen people change a t shirt at the end of a hot walk but they were stripping, to their underwear, and some even beyond that! Being a gentleman of good character I didn’t look, of course. (well, not open mouthed staring anyway) I couldn’t believe it, shirts, shorts, bras, knickers all discarded on the ground. One or two used a towel to hide in but the others just turned to the side a little. I really thought I had got summit fever, I’ve never seen this before on a mountain!
(Dear reader, you’ll be certainly reassured/disappointed to note that I didn’t take up my camera to record this spectacle).
The English family to whom I had said hello in the car park wandered over, they were staying in the refuge for the evening. In that ‘small world’ sort of way I discovered they lived not too far from me and even more unlikely the father of the family worked, until recently, for Lancashire council as a ranger -the same people I work with as a volunteer!
Later that evening the caving team re-appeared, they had been taking some equipment down the mountain as their expedition was nearly at and end. I spent some of the evening sat in their kitchen shelter chatting to them.
The route followed on this trip has been taken from ‘Walks and Climbs in the Picos de Europa’ By Robin Walker (pub. Cicerone).
Day 1: Arrivals.
The flight from Stansted departed within a few minutes of schedule. Almost fully loaded. Heading south the channel islands and the coast of France came in very little time. The snack trolley came past offering the incredible selection of cheese sandwich -hot OR cold!
The flight landed right on time and the baggage appeared shortly after. Aeropuerto de Asturias isn’t close to any major city but, as the taxi driver told me on my way back there, it has much less mist than anywhere else in the region. Outside the terminal (and to the right) there is a small coach stop from where you can go to Oviedo and the other Asturian cities.
The woman who was sat next to me was also waiting for the same bus. We got to chatting and she told me she was returning home after a month of (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to find work in London. She’d bought a box of cakes as presents, they’d got mostly crushed in the journey. “Would you like a banana?” she asked. “No thank you” I replied. “Would you like a kiss?” I looked up surprised. “Cookies?” She repeated, holding out a packet of biscuits. Smiling, I took a slightly crushed bourbon cream.
In little time we arrived at Oviedo’s main coach station. My Oviedan friend had received bad news about her grandfather on the coach so she went to buy a ticket for Salamanca to visit him in his sick bed. I bought my ticket to Cangas de Onis from the machine and went off in search of a beer and food. Across the road I think I found the street where the small bus station was years ago, though there was no sign.
Travelling east from Oviedo the green montes give way to grey montañas. When I was 40 minutes from Cangas de Onis the views just kept getting better and better. I rearranged the various bits of travel information in my small bag and found my hotel reservation. Hotel Monteverde C/ Ramon Prada, Cangas. I’d been to Cangas before and knew it wasn’t a very big town (though technically, not a very big City -for historical reasons) Out of the bus station and over the bridge towards town and the first building on the first corner, Hotel Monteverde. Dead easy. I booked in and dropped my pack. After changing from boots to sandals I set off to look around.
The town was quite busy as it was early evening in the summer holidays, the bars busy with tourists eating tapas and watching the spectacle of the local Sidra (cider) being poured (with varying levels of accuracy) from a height into their waiting glasses and onto the floor.
My main task in Cangas was to buy some fuel for my MSR multi fuel stove. It’ll run on most flammable hydrocarbons with exception of alcohol -which can damage some of the parts. On the main shopping street I found a mountain sports shop, still open and with a similar stove on display in the window. Fantastic! I thought. That was easy. I went in and asked and they didn’t sell any kind of liquid fuel! Did they know anywhere that did? No. But the hardware store (closed until the morning) might do! Helpful eh?
I left the shop and went in search of a supermarket to get a few provisions and to see what flammables they had. In the local supermarket I bought a chorizo (extra picante) and a large chunk of cheese (semi curado). Couldn’t find any likely fuels though. (On my return to the UK I checked in my local Morrison’s. They had White spirit and Kerosene -both of which would have worked).
Dinner time was fast approaching (ie it was nearly 10pm, crazy Spanish) so I went in search of sustenance. Restaurante Abuelo was around the corner from my hotel. The food looked and smelled good and the ‘Menu del Dia’ was about €13. A bottle of beer (I think it was Mahou) and Fabada were the start of my meal. Fabada is the local speciality. A white bean stew with belly pork, chorizo and black pudding. It is to be recommended. (See Rick Stein’s Spain program for more detail!) The main course was a disappointment, Merluza con Patatas (Hake and potatoes). The fish was small and none too crispy and the potatoes were boiled. I was hoping for chips. Dessert was flan (or Creme caramel to French speaking Brits!).