Central Picos Traverse

Picos de Europa, Spain

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

There are various ways to cross the central massif; this version has been refined by climber and adventurer Geraldine Westrupp.

You start in the lovely and unspoilt village of Espiñama a few kilometres down the valley from the roadhead and cable car station at Fuente Dé, heading north up a small road, then up steep tracks through delightful mixed forest, catching occasional glimpses of pastures and approaching cliffs and high country.

After a couple of hours, you reach the red-tiled summer hamlet of Joyo de Iquedri, nestling in the steep meadows below the first of the cliffs.

Turning west, you wind up into a glorious high valley between parallel, dramatic cliffs. We passed a herd of goats with their accompanying dog (glad not to be on my own there), then started the long, steady ascent to the Valdecoro col. Our mounting excitement was truly justified as we reached the crest, the immense bowl of cliffs around Fuenta Dé inducing gasps and giddy exhilaration.

After a ravenous picnic out of the wind, just back below the crest, we traversed back to Pico del Valdecoro, the first great bastion of the Picos, with tremendous views southward across the lower Cantabrian mountains, the plains of Castile shimmering through its passes.

Then back past our col, round the northern cliffs and through a gap into the huge Aliva bowl, an area of cracked limestone and small pasture descending to a central stream, and all surrounded by tremendous cliffs, to our left the vast tower of Peña Olvidada, an offshoot of the high central ridge. We have our first glimpse of a group of the delightful local chamoix, the rebeco, circling warily behind us, then an enthralling sight – a series of huge griffon vultures flap clumsily out a little gully behind a nearby ridge; there is clearly a swarm of them in there around a corpse and we tiptoe up, but they continue to take off, and when we crest the rock there is only one left; they circle reproachfully above us until we have trudged away down the rough but beautiful southern side of the bowl. After an hour or so’s walking, we reached the Ref. Aliva, more a hotel, really, with plain but comfortable rooms. We enjoy a cold beer on the terrace, reveling in the beauty and drama around us.

Day 2 starts with a steady but somehow tiring hike up a good track to the col immediately below the Peña Olvidada, passing an old royal hunting lodge with an unfortunately bright red roof.

Rounding the corner into the northward gorge heading up toward the heart of the Central Massif, the fireworks really start. The track is good, leaving freedom to revel in the wonders around you: the enormous cliffs of the Peña Vieja and other peaks of the central ridge, with endless scree-slopes below them, loom immediately over your right. West and south is the smashed devastation of the Hoyo Sin Tierra, a deep limestone sinkhole which is a classic of the area, a great ring of cliffs and spires marking the skyline behind them.

A long, steady climb gets us to the Hdos Rojos pass at the very heart of the range. We agree that the steep 40 minute climb on the Torre de los Hdos Rojos for lunch is a necessity, so we heave on our packs and set off. It is hard work, with brief exposure at the very top, but rewarded us with one of the best picnics of a picnic-rich life, on top of the great spike, with extravagant views all around: peaks, cliffs and exiguous high meadows basking under a cloudless sky.

Back at the col, we tackle the expedition’s heartstopper (for some), a 300m cable-assisted descent of a broken cliff, starting with a traverse, then a descent down a series of steep fissures, then directly down the slightly less precipitous lower slopes. A fall could easily be fatal, but it isn’t that dangerous in good weather.

At the base, you skirt another couple of great hous in the long valley bottom, dry at first as all water disappears into those great sieves, heading northward, past that famous tower El Naranjo de Bulnes, and eventually out of the range toward the sea. This is fabulous walking, with magnificent cliffs and high, serrated ridges on both sides.

At a final ridgetop, the magnificent, smooth western face of the Naranjo comes into full view, glowing in the afternoon sun on our gloriously clear day.

We are lucky, as the mist rising from deep but invisible valleys evaporates just short of the great rock, which rises ethereally above it in bright sunshine. The Naranjo is a world famous climbers’ mecca, as is the whole region. Nestled below it is the Ubeda refuge, in the most spectacular of settings, a (relatively) level patch of meadow on the valley bottom surrounded by spires. Although crammed in upstairs – rows of cramped together bunk mattresses – the downstairs is gemütlich enough, and cold beers and hot chocolates – never an easy mix – slide down in rapid succession.

Day 3 starts clear again: general rejoicing. We leave, again at a civilized hour (8.30?) after a relatively perfunctory breakfast, stopping for a supplement on a big rock in the first patch of sun we meet, 40 minutes down the valley. The path drops quickly, between vast boulders. A small group of rebeco hop over the riverbed rocks delightfully close by.

We then traverse the magnificent eastern cliffs of the deepening gorge, with increasingly exciting views back up to the Naranjo standing proud of all around it. Around a corner from the final viewpoint, we are suddenly in a very different world – forest and meadow, with the sound of cow bells jangling up to us and a really delightful steady traverse down to a tiny refuge in a summer hamlet.

A picnic under a walnut tree, then we descend cropped grassland, through a scattering of summer steadings, then drop into the forest for long and after a while tedious descent over old but very uneven cobbles to the delightful Bulnes, unviable but for a recent furnicular tunneled straight through the mountains separating us from the bottom of the Cares Gorge (a very pre-crash EU project?) which has brought ersatz restoration, cafes and high heels.

We have descended more than 1,300m and sorely needed lemonades are quaffed before we continue on for another hour and a half through the outstanding Canal del Tex gorge, once again frequently on ancient mule and cattle tracks high in the cliffs. We emerge at the base of the even more extraordinary Cares Gorge, crossing a perfect old Roman bridge spanning the Cares stream from a perfectly placed pair of rocks. But first, though, a painfully refreshing dip in its montane waters. Marvellous……

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