Weather is something that we always have to consider when we are heading out to the mountains, and some times due to complacency we relax a bit especially in warm countries. For instance, when I am walking in the UK, I naturally expect rain, fog, cold… etc, but when I am walking in Spain, as I know Spanish weather is quite stable, I’m not that worried. That was a mistake I made at New Year and it reminded me why you always have to be prepared for the worst.
Feeling a bit old for partying, instead of going out on New Years’ eve and drinking lots of alcohol, I opted to go to bed early and walk the following morning. Having done the highest peak in Madrid last year and not having crampons or an ice axe with me this time, I decided to do a walk leaving from Cotos’ carpark towards La Bola del Mundo through Cabezas de Hierro.
The walk starts at the same carpark as the walk for Peñalara, it was a very cold morning with ice on the ground, the sky was clear with no hint of wind. I set off at 8:20am with a very light backpack, and as previously mentioned I didn’t pack goggles, crampons, my ice axe, long johns or a cover for the map. My thought was: “this is Spain, it is not going to rain or be very cold”.
From the west corner of the carpark, the route starts heading south up the hill into the forest, this route is part of what is called PR, pequeño recorrido (small route in Spanish), marked with yellow and white rectangles all the way. The ground was covered in a thin layer of snow making the views really pretty and not too difficult to walk on.
After 400m, the path divides to the left or right, you take the left path to Ref Pingarron. The path crosses the road to Valdesqui ski center and carries on towards the refuge. You can avoid going to the refuge which is a bit off course by skipping to the path below when you are next to it (you can see on the map).
From that point, the route starts going downhill for a bit till you cross the river, then, it climbs steadily uphill to km 2.7 where the path divides again. This time we get the right path towards Cabezas de Hierro. All this part of the walk is in a beautiful forest that now and again gives away the lovely views of Peñalara being illuminated by the sunrise.
After the junction, the path fades a bit and after crossing a few streams it disappears completely and cairns mark the way for a bit. We soon reach the base of the mountain, and the main ascent begins. Up to this point it had been a typical walk in Spain where there was snow, but nothing too worrying. It was a bit chilly, but visibility was good, there was no wind, almost perfect conditions.
As the altitude increased the temperature rapidly dropped and the wind picked up significantly. The snow was getting harder, making the walk uphill without crampons quite tricky in places. I had to put my 3rd layer on and get the winter gloves out. That was the first moment I missed my gear. Crampons or some shoe spikes would’ve helped a lot and made the way up safer.
The route goes straight up following a small stream almost to the top. You reach a small flat bit, from there you can spot the top. The views are beautiful and although the wind and cold were hitting harder, there were still no signs of the bad weather. I reached the first summit, 5,6km in under 3h.
At the top the wind was unbearable, and the cold made the task of taking pictures a real mission. It was literally blowing me off my feet, snow was getting in at the bottom of my trousers, and I was sliding about on the ice without the crampons..
Cabeza de Hierro Mayor was done and next would be her little sister, but I couldn’t risk going to the top in those condition as I could have slipped at any time, so I took a lower route which ended up being just as bad. It was steep and in sections the snow was very hard and I had to walk sideways kicking the snow to find solid foot holds.
I was so focused on getting away from that section safely that in the 15/20min it took me to leave it behind, someone flicked the switch on and the low cloud was around me. At the beginning I tried to speed up a bit thinking that it might clear up, but I soon realised that it was pointless as it had set in and didn’t to go away.
So, in the last hour after getting to the top of the mountain, what had been a lovely walk on a sunny day with spectacular views, turned into a very foggy, cold and windy day. Navigation skills were necessary to carry on and thank god it didn’t rain, because then I wouldn’t have been able to use my map or my phone to navigate the way down. Marks on the route were hidden by the snow, there were no cairns around and I had that feeling for a second when you think, what am I doing here?? why did I come without all the gear? am I getting the bearings right? nothing seems to appear….
Fortunately, the area is well known and popular and soon I started to see the fences for the ski center and the ski lifts.
Although I have some experience and managed to get out no problem, I still didn’t have the confidence to do it calmly, and in that moment the only focus I had was to get off the mountain as soon as possible, so I didn’t pay attention to the land marks or anything. I passed Cerro Valdemartin 8,4km in just over 3,5h and carried on towards Ventisquero de la Condesa where one of the paths turns north and starts the descent.
From there the route follows the ski center’s fence for a bit and as the snow got shallower the path came back in to view again. The visibility improved as I descended and the weather progressively improved as I walked into the forest.
4,5 km from the point you start the descent, you will get to the first juction you left behind at the beginning. There was nothing remarkable on the way down apart from a little snow man I found under a tree.
Although at the end it was another walk with no issues, it reminded me why even if it is or looks like an easy walk, it is always necessary to have the right gear and know how to use it. The consequences could’ve been bad if I didn’t have a map and a compass when the visibility decreased to around 40m.
It was an easy walk with a total of 15,2 km that I covered in 5h 16min with an altitud gain of 1006m.