Where’s the highest mountain in Spain? Some would argue that it’s Mount Teide (3,718m) on Tenerife, but as this is in the Canary Islands, a self-governing dominion of Spain and strictly speaking an archipelago of Africa, Mount Teide does not qualify. Most people would therefore plonk for Aneto (3,404m) in the Pyrenees, a majestic mountain chain to rival the Alps. But they’d be wrong, for although Aneto with its glacier and crevasses is a far harder peak to assail, the highest mountain is in fact Mulhacén (3,482m), situated in the far south of the country in the Sierra Nevada range of Andalucía. The Sierra Nevada are part of the larger Betic Cordillera which run along the southern coast of Spain and which were formed by the collision of the Iberian and African tectonic plates. The central core of the Sierra Nevada is mostly composed of graphitic mica schist with occasional quartzite beds. These rocks weather easily and most of the mountainsides are covered with either loose scree or unstable outcrops and the upper slopes, once devoid of snow, resemble a Martian landscape.
There are two main ways to ascend Mulhacén. Many visitors take the southern route starting at Capileira (at 1,600m) and staying overnight in the fully serviced Refugio Poqueira (2,500m) before ascending the next morning and returning to Capileira the same day. The western route is better suited for those coming from Granada where a winding road (the A395) leads past the ski resort of Sierra Nevada (Pradollano) to Hoya de la Moya (2,500m). Past Hoya de la Mora the road continues over the watershed and back down to Capileira on the southern side. A barrier at Hoya de la Moya stops normal motor traffic on the mountainous section of the road, but in the summer months the Sierra Nevada Parks authority run a shuttle bus service from Hoya de la Mora to Posiciones del Veleta (3,000m) cutting off 5-6kms of walking each way. Many summer visitors do the short hike from the bus terminus to the summit of Mulhacén‘s twin sister, Veleta (3,396m). The road continues past Posiciones as a gravel track and this route is followed most of the way before the final ascent to Mulhacén.
Our climb up the mountain first followed the road to Posiciones and the watershed, but cutting off the bends in the road reduced the walk from about 8km to 5.5km with an ascent of about 700m. It took about 2.5 hours to reach the watershed where the small unmanned, stone built Refugio de la Carihuela is located (we met a group of middle aged British climbers descending the route who had stayed in this refugio overnight, who were full of woeful tales of how long and difficult the route had been!). From the refugio the route descends to 3,050m via a series of hairpin bends and then proceeds in a westerly direction beneath a ridge before sweeping to south and making a switch back to the north downhill to the unmanned Caldera refugio sited above a lough. In summer months it is possible to take some short cuts in places, but with unstable snow slopes we did not take the risk.
We took a welcome lunch break by the refugio which, like the Refugio de la Carihuela contained two wooden sleeping platforms, and a long table with bench seating, before leaving the road and the steep 400m ascent to the summit of Mulhacén, which we reached some 7.5 hours after starting. Unfortunately, whilst the sky was clear, views from the summit were not extensive due to the presence of dust in the atmosphere. On clear days it is possible to see as far as Morocco and the Atlas Mountains, but we couldn’t see Africa, instead it had come to us in the form of Saharan dust!! The long return from the summit back to the car at Hoya de la Mora took us nearly 6 hours, giving a total time of over 13 hours to do the climb with 30km of walking and 1,550m of ascent/descent. This was a very long and tiring day. In summer months, using the bus service to Posiciones would reduce the walking time to about 8 hours return (and save about 11km of walking and 500m-600m of ascent/descent) making the climb a far easier proposition.
When we did the climb in May 2015, large, deep patches of snow were encountered above 3,000m and many parts of the road were still buried feet deep under it. The majority of the snow patches were on the steeper slopes with potential slides of several hundred metres if you fell. Fortunately, we had brought half crampons with us which prevented any slips, especially as the snow started to become granular, sugary and unstable, as the day got progressively hotter. Despite there being snow on the ground, the day was unseasonably hot and the heat oppressive. The extensive dust in the atmosphere trapped the heat and this in particular made the final ascent of the summit slope (about 1:2) to Mulhacén in 25 degrees plus particularly taxing. By contrast, a week later, sub-zero temperatures and fresh snow were forecast for the summit, making full crampons and ice axes essential. Scrutiny of the weather forecast is highly advised before setting out to conquer this mountain, which can chill you to the bone or fry you alive, and which claimed the lives of 3 British climbers who succumbed to hypothermia in 2006.
Before the climb, we stayed the night at the Albergue Serria Nevada (http://www.alberguesierranevada.com/) which is run by the University of Granada. A twin room with dinner (including wine) and breakfast cost a reasonable €70 for two (although the manager was unwilling to provide breakfast before 8am which delayed the start of our climb the next day). We were the only occupants of the Albergue and when we asked to stay there after our climb we were told that ‘it was not possible’ – we got the distinct impression that the manager was too idle to facilitate us further than he already had! Nevertheless, it makes an ideal base for climbing the mountain and the rooms and facilities, although nowhere near as good as one would expect in the Alps, were passable, with a bar serving cold beer, a pleasant restaurant with decent food, warm rooms, comfy beds and clean showers with plentiful hot water.