Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
For this week’s blog post, I’d like to share with you the events of Sunday 7th December 2019. My Google Maps timeline for the day sums them up rather succinctly:
Home – 8:06am
Driving/Train/Driving – 49 minutes
Home – 8:54 to 9:02am
Driving – 1 hour 27 minutes
Rascafría – 10:30 to 10:38am
Walking – 9 hours
Rascafría – 7:37 to 7:43pm
Driving – 1 hour 25 minutes
Home – 9:08 to 9:20pm
Driving – 12 minutes
Majadahonda – 9:33 to 11:01pm
Driving – 10 minutes
Home – 11:11pm
Admittedly, it appears to be quite an eventful day based on that list alone. But let’s dig a little deeper and put some meat on these numerical bones.
While living near Madrid, Husband and I decided we’d try to hike up all the mountains in the Sierra de Guadarrama over 2000m. We never managed to complete this mission due to the pandemic, but even before Covid-19, there was one route that repeatedly eluded us.
Most of our walks were circular. We arrived at the mountains in our little red Fiat 500, called Holly, and returned to our noble steed to get home again several hours of walking later. However, we also made three unsuccessful attempts at a linear walk that would have ticked six peaks off our list (Bola del Mundo, Cerro de Valdemartín, Cabeza de Hierro Menor and Mayor, Navahondilla, and Bailanderos). For this route, we had to take three trains, including a very rickety mountain train, to the start point and be collected by some kind friends at the other end of the ridgeline.
The first two attempts at this route were abandoned due to bad weather. Our third attempt took place on Sunday 7th December 2019. We got up early and drove to Las Rozas train station for the first leg of our three-train journey. For some reason, the ticket machine wouldn’t let us buy tickets all the way to our final destination, Puerto de Navacerrada. As our Spanish was particularly rusty early in the morning, we thought “fuck it”, bought tickets to the station where we’d make our final change (Cercedilla), and decided to work the rest out on the way.
Some frantic in-transit internet searching revealed that the ski season had affected the usual procedure for using this trainline. In order to take a trip on the rickety mountain train that formed the last leg of our journey, we should have booked it several weeks in advance and left our dog at home. We had done neither of these things and therefore didn’t have a chance in hell of getting on that train. So, we hopped off the train at the next stop (Las Matas), crossed to the opposite platform and returned to Las Rozas station, where we had a quick conflab in the car park and came up with a new plan.
Part one of this new plan involved returning to the flat to pick up another guidebook, in order to formulate a new route. We’d already ticked off the closest 2000m peaks (apart from those on the elusive ridgeline), so we had to go further afield to find a new peak to conquer. We decided to head to Rascafría, which was about an hour's drive away from our flat. Or nearer an hour and a half after we missed an exit somewhere in Madrid city centre and got a bit lost.
We’d intended to start walking by 9:30am from Puerto de Navacerrada. We actually started walking at 10:38am from Rascafría. We still thought we had enough time and daylight to complete what the guidebook said was a 7 hour/23km hike, so we set off in reasonably high spirits considering the frustrating start to the day.
We found our first smattering of snow at 12:02pm and, as you can see from this photo of Husband, we were pretty excited about it. Little did we know we’d be cursing the wretched stuff in a few hours' time.
The next obstacle came in the form of a fallen barbed wire fence that our dog, Amber, was adamant she wanted to be on the other side of. We often let her off the lead in the mountains of Spain (much to the horror of some overly opinionated and chatty people) so she could stretch her ever so lengthy legs and have a good zoom on the wide-open plateaus. For this part of the walk, we had to keep her tethered, lest she skewer herself on a barb. Whatever was on the other side of that fence must have smelt like the blood of a thousand rabbits because she was determined to go find it.
Hiking up that hill in several feet of snow was quite tricky in itself. It was even trickier with 25kg of dog trying to drag us sideways. She may look skinny but she’s a determined little bugger when she latches onto a good smell.
After an hour or so, the fence vanished and we reached our first peak (Flecha, 2077m), which signaled the start of a beautiful snow-covered ridgeline. The photos don’t really do it justice. Trust me when I tell you it was one of the most spectacular views I'd seen while hiking in those mountains.
We hadn’t seen another soul since we left Rascafría, which was fine by us. We loved having the mountains to ourselves to soak up the snow, sun, and scintillating silence.
By this point, we were making reasonably good progress and weren’t significantly behind schedule, despite having to wade through snow. We were even discussing how strange it was that nobody else was up here enjoying the magnificent scenery on such a glorious day.
Towards the end of the ridgeline, the flat surface mutated into more uneven terrain. It was hard to tell under all the snow, but the majority of the ground was covered with thick heather-like plants. This, combined with the snow covering, made the path that we assumed was somewhere underneath it all completely invisible. At times, Amber was up to her armpits in this potent combination of thick plant life and deep snow and well out of the comfort zone of a dog bred for sprinting. Considering she would have been much happier running for five minutes and sleeping the rest of the day away, she really was extremely tolerant of miles of hiking we put her through on that day and many others while living in Spain.
The heather/snow swamp suddenly took a turn for the worse and transformed from uneven flat ground into uneven almost vertical ground, leading up to our next peak (El Cancho, 2042m). This section of the walk was relatively short. The vertical distance we covered was a mere 100m, and the horizontal distance was only around 200m. But the steep angle, combined with two or three feet of heather and snow made this section of the walk absolutely brutal.
I’ve often said that I’m better at going uphill than downhill. It’s easier on the knees, slightly less frightening if you fall over, and activates the stubborn plodding part of my brain that refuses to give up until I’ve reached the top. But this uphill was hard frickin’ work even for someone who likes determinedly plodding upwards. When I eventually stumbled my way onto level ground and looked back to see how Husband was getting on, I honestly thought he was going to cry. He was about three quarters of the way up and looked absolutely miserable.
I tried to take a photo to convey how steep this section was. I can’t look at this photo without seeing an intimidating monolithic monster rising up before me. However, when I showed it to Husband, he said it could just as easily look pretty flat. It may be a case of “you don’t man, you weren’t there!” You’ll just have to take my word on this one. It was chuffing steep and bloody awful to climb!
At the top of this torturous tower was more relatively flat ridgeline, which was a very welcome sight indeed. One lonely set of footsteps appeared in the otherwise pristine snow ahead of us, indicating that some other idiot had been this way before. This was somewhat reassuring and made trudging through the snow a little easier as we didn’t have to carve a completely new path for ourselves.
Our problem then became the sun, which was heading towards the horizon at an alarming pace. By the time we reached the end of the last ridgeline and our final peak (El Reventón, 2072m) it was starting to get decidedly dusk-like. Witnessing a sunset at 2000m on a snow-capped Spanish mountain top was definitely one of the most incredible moments of my life. However, it quickly became clear we’d be finishing this walk well past Amber’s dinner time and, more crucially, in the dark.
We located the path that took us back down towards Rascafría and set off at a determined rate of knots. The snow thinned out and revealed a wide and gently winding track that we could stride along relatively quickly, especially compared to our previous pace on the snow.
As the sun went down, so did the temperature. It was December so we’d dressed for cold and packed plenty of extra clothes to keep us toasty warm. Unfortunately, each time we stopped to put another layer on, Amber decided she was done for the day and bundled up under the nearest bush for a nap. Our svelte and speedy sighthound had reached the end of her tether with all this long-distance bullshit. It took quite a bit of cajoling to extricate her from her various sleeping spots and persuade her to keep going just a little bit longer. Poor doggo.
As the sun vanished completely and we found ourselves in total darkness, we entered a deep forest and Amber suddenly found some energy. Her prey drive kicked in hard. Amber is a galgo, a breed that has been selectively bred for its speed and hunting ability, so once this drive kicks in it’s extremely difficult to snap her out of it. Every sound in the distance or trick of the light that only she could see convinced her there was something worth chasing out there amongst the densely packed trees.
Husband was leading the way, GPS in hand, trying to keep us on the somewhat ambiguous path. I followed close behind with my phone in one hand, lighting the way with the inadequate torch, and the dog lead in the other, trying to stop Amber legging it off into the distance after what were probably fictional prey animals.
For me, this was the most frightening bit of the walk. For the forty-five minutes or so that we ploughed through that forest in the pitch black, the spookiest scenes from all the murder mysteries I’d ever watched and true crime podcasts I’d ever listened to kept flashing through my head. I had visions of stumbling across a dead body or becoming one myself and not being found for days. Amber certainly wouldn’t have been much help if we’d needed rescuing. If previous experiences with Amber and corpses were anything to go by, she’d probably eat us.
Somewhere in the forest, I received a message from the friends we were supposed to be having dinner with that evening asking if we were on schedule to eat at 8pm.
No. We were not.
Thankfully our journey through the forest remained corpse free and we emerged into open fields roughly a kilometre outside of Rascafría. With the trees gone and very few clouds in the sky, we could see significantly further than we’d been able to for the last hour. This still wasn’t very far though and there was now a fair chance that we’d accidentally wander into a cow minding its own business on a lovely crisp winter’s evening. I didn’t fancy trying to explain to a farmer in our far-from-fluent Spanish why we were in the middle of nowhere harassing his livestock in the dark depths of night.
The path eventually led us out of the wilderness and back onto the consoling concrete streets of Rascafría. We arrived back at the car at 7:37pm, approximately nine hours after we’d left her, and collapsed inelegantly into Holly’s soothing seats. They’d never felt comfier.
Via WhatsApp, we begged our friends to forgive us for our extreme tardiness and order a truly colossal amount of pizza that we would be desperate to devour upon arrival at their flat in Majadahonda.
With boots removed and Amber safely bundled on the backseats, we set off home. Ordinarily, when we return from a walk, Amber gently snoozes in the back of the car but also keeps an eye on the passing scenery. She especially enjoys standing up when we go around sharp corners and roundabouts. Our theory is that when we slow down for these obstacles, she thinks we’re arriving somewhere fun and wants to get out. After this walk, even though we were very late for her dinner, which would usually illicit squeals of rage and protestation, she fell into the deepest sleep I’ve ever seen her fall into. She was flat out for the entire trip home and didn’t make a single complaining peep about not having been fed. She clearly had bigger problems than an empty stomach.
Once Amber was safely deposited at home with a big bowl of food and a comfy bed and we’d changed into some less fragrant attire, we headed out once more. We were presented with cups of tea and huge amounts of pizza by our very generous friends, while we regaled them with tales of the day’s adventure. After just about managing to stay awake for one episode of The Mandalorian, we bid them goodnight and headed home for one of the best night's sleep of our lives.
Upon reflection, we were pretty dumb for attempting that walk considering how late we started out and the depth of snow we should have anticipated we’d encounter. However, in some ways, it was actually one of our most successful walks. During the hike itself, we never got lost or strayed off course. We never ran out of food or water despite being out for significantly longer than anticipated. No portion of the walk was spent looking for Amber because she’d run off to eat something dead and disgusting. We didn’t come back to Holly to discover a parking ticket. And all three of us topped all the peaks we’d planned on topping. We certainly couldn’t say this about all our other 2000m peak bagging treks.
Though I’d rather not repeat this exact experience, I hope we’ll have the chance to return to Spain and finally complete the hike that got away. Our mission to top all the 2000m peaks was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic and left us with unfinished business in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Fingers crossed we’ll get back on that rickety mountain train on the right day, with the right ticket, and it will be fourth time lucky for that wretched ridgeline ramble.