Men at Work on Pico del Tajo de los Machos

At the cairn on the southern summit of the Loma de Canar ridge

IN a clearing among the pines high above the village of Cañar a man lies asleep on a mattress. Two horses graze on thin grass. A large, jowly dog lounges by the remains of a fire. Nothing stirs in the early-morning air except the birds in the branches.

I pull on my boots and close the car doors. I’m at a place called Puenta Palo, a high-altitude picnic area on a dirt track that snakes up the Sierra Nevada many winding kilometres from a little white chapel known as Emita del Padre Eterno.

As I shoulder my rucksack, the dog looks at me through big brown eyes. The horses continue to graze. The man remains asleep.

Walk No 15 in my tobacco kiosk guidebook possesses the most understated title in the history of publishing: “Route Around the Zona Recreativa Puenta Palo”. This means a walk around the picnic area, more or less. Only when you delve into the text does it become apparent that the circuit takes in one of the highest mountains in Spain. My destination is the 10,121ft (3,085 metres) Pico del Tajo de los Machos, the highest point on a ridge that runs south from the Refugio Elorrieta on the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

After ascending through scented pine woods I emerge at Cañada del Tajo de los Machos, where there is a large, block-built shelter for sheep, one wing of which serves as accommodation for a shepherd. The sheep are panting in the shaded bits of the courtyard. One doorway has a curtain hanging over it to keep the interior cool. Presumably, this is where the shepherd dwells. The view from his front door is a vast panorama that looks down on the forests and valley and across to Sierra de Lujar and the Mediterranean. I would imagine that, on a clear day, north Africa is visible. Now that’s a room with a view.

The sheep and shepherd shelter, with Sierra de Lujar and the Mediterranean in the background

My guidebook (which is also available at all good petrol stations) says: “Approximately 300 metres down the track, take a path which leads towards the Loma de Cañar. The path leads up past Cerillo del Redondo (3055m) to the top of the Pico del Tajo de los Machos (3085m).”

There is no path – and I was sort of half expecting there not to be. So I lurch into the herbage and embark upon two hours of purgatory. It’s reminiscent of the Loma Pau ridge on Veleta – 20 paces then stop for breath; 15 paces then stop for breath; ten paces then stop for breath and a bloody good curse in the knee-deep, prickly vegetation. God, it’s hard going – a relentless slope carpeted with scree, spiky grass and wild herbs, with the sun beating down continuously.

I’m heading for the southern summit of the Loma de Cañar ridge, and when I reach it I collapse in the shadow of its prominent cairn and devour the remains of a bar of chocolate-coated Kendal mint cake – courtesy of Rydal Mount last November – which has been floating around in a rucksack pocket.

In more favourable conditions, a man with perfect vision can behold the mountains of Morocco from the Sierra Nevada. But today there is a watery blue haze and a smudge where Europe ends and the Mediterranean begins. But up here in the ripping warm wind, in the solitude of the mountains, this is reward enough.

Cerro del Caballo – the hill of the horse – across the Lanjaron valley to the west

Cerillo del Redondo

On the silvery-shale ridge that wends north-east into the wind – which is blasting progressively stronger and cooler – I meet an hombre sitting patiently on a rock. He is waiting for a friend. Have I seen his amigo, he asks in quite good English? Unfortunately, no, I reply. I have seen no one all day except the man asleep in the forest.

There is something wild and rustic about this chap. He has no pack that I can see, just the drab and battered clothes he stands in, and these smell so strongly of wood smoke that even at a distance of several feet I catch the aroma. I bid him good day, then 15 minutes later, while crossing the final, blustery col between Cerillo del Redondo and Pico del Tajo de los Machos, I meet his amigo.

If the first hombre looked wild and rustic, a bit like Sancho Panza, this one is a gnarled and weather-beaten Don Quixote, with his dangling clothes, long black hair snaking in the wind, chestnut skin, angular features, and yellow teeth separated by dark gaps. His voice rasps like trickling scree. He, too, has an odour of wood smoke.

We pass the time of day as strangers do, then the amigo informs me that the summit I am about to climb is called Cerro del Caballo – the hill of the horse. I know this to be incorrect. Cerro del Caballo is over to the west across the Lanjaron valley, and is next on my expedition list. This undermines my notion that the amigos are a couple of goatherds or shepherds with an intimate knowledge of the mountains. Or perhaps they are, and they are up to mischief – having a laugh at the expense of a wandering Englishman.

“You climb Therro del Cabayo?” he rasps, pointing to the nearby summit of Pico del Tajo de los Machos. He sees the look of bewilderment in my face and says: “Therro del Cabayo, that eez eets name, no? Therro del Cabayo?”

“Si,” I say, meaning yes, I am about to ascend the summit at which he is pointing.

We say adios and Don Quixote melts into the silvery boulders, taking with him the sound of his rasping voice and the scent of a hundred fires, and leaving me to labour to the summit of Pico del Tajo de los Machos and collapse behind the cairn in the roaring wind.

The vast bulk of Pico del Tajo de los Machos, taken from Lujar, with the town of Orgiva in the middle distance

Veleta to the left and Mulhacen to the right, from Pico del Tajo de los Machos

I descend the steep and shaly south-east ridge (Loma Casilla de los Moros) to the green and extremely agreeable summit of the 8,868ft (2,703 metre) Pico de Las Alegas. Far below lies the ruined Refugio del Cebollar, but before I reach it I meet another mountain hombre – this one a shepherd with a staff and a large unfriendly dog. He watches me from a distance as I pass the refugio – one door of which is open but has a padlock hanging on the latch. I suspect this is where he spends his nights.

The long descent to Puenta Palo is made even longer when I take the wrong path immediately after the refugio, adding an hour to my walk and causing no end of confusion – and at one point, in the ravine of the Rio Chico, almost a panic attack. But it allows me time to dwell on the events of the day.

I’ve just finished reading former Genesis drummer Chris Stuart’s marvellous book Driving Over Lemons, which is a must for anyone visiting the Alpujarra side of the Sierra Nevada, where the author lives on a remote farm. In fact, I think there is a Spanish bylaw that says you have to read it. One of the many things that struck me is that even now, in these times of mass communication, there are people in these mountains who live and work in the manner and conditions their great-great-grandparents lived and worked.

A few days ago I ventured up the mine track on the north side of Sierra de Lujar (see previous post). A couple of miles up the track, at an altitude of several thousand feet, is what I had previously taken to be a ruined shepherd’s hut perched on a hillock. But this time I passed, blue smoke was curling from the chimney and I could hear voices within. There were no window frames in the windows – just gaping holes. But there were plant pots on the windowsills and clothes on the washing line. It wasn’t – isn’t – a ruin. It’s someone’s home.

The Sierra Nevada are living, working, mountains. They appear, to the visitor, to be vast and empty. But wander off the beaten track, get away from the picturesque villages of Trevelez and Capileira, the spa town of Lanjaron, and the belt-and-braces, weirdly wonderful working-class bustle of Orgiva, and after a while the signs appear like broken sticks on a forest trail.

Those two amigos I met high on the Loma de Cañar ridge – I’ve no idea who they were, but they weren’t up there for the view. The shepherd with his unfriendly dog near the Refugio del Cebollar – he was in his working environment and I was an intruder. The block building at Cañada del Tajo de los Machos, and the doorway with its curtain to keep out the sun – someone was living in there at an altitude of 7,300ft. Living there with nothing but sheep and a view to another continent.

So I get back to my car at the clearing among the scented pines, and I pull off my boots and take a long swig of warm water. And the man who was asleep on the mattress has moved on with his two horses and brown-eyed dog. And I think: I’ve absolutely no idea who that sleeping guy was or what he was doing up here, but he was living his life and was part of these mountains. He was going about his business in the same way we go about ours in whichever town or city we live.

And on the long, winding, dusty, bumpy dirt track back to the chapel of Emita del Padre Eterno and the blessed tarmac road, I think I have discovered another reason why people climb mountains. It’s not just because they’re there. It’s because they are part of our lives. They are, to some of us, still the factory floor and the office desk, they are the world we know and the world in which we live – and they have been that way since we wandered out of Africa. They are in our blood.

  • FOR details of Casita La Luz, the perfect base from which to explore the Sierra Nevada and Alpujarras, click here.

About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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