Veleta or Bust

From MBUK magazine, a tale of miss-adventure

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“Donde Esta Torremolinos?“ After being questioned by about ten different groups of bemused Spanish skiers as to our motives we decided that looking for Torremollinos, with our bikes, half way up the black ski run, was an infinitely more digestible answer to their questions than the even more insane truth. That truth was that we were heading for the summit of, then hopefully crossing, the Veleta pass, which is the highest road pass in Europe. Now this is a tough enough task during the summer, and has at that been claimed by many to be a true feat, being as it’s just short of the height of Mont. Blanc, and three times the tallness of Ben Nevis.

But this was March, and they’d just had the heaviest snowfalls of the whole ski season, leaving several meters of the freezing white stuff to completely wipe out any signs, or indeed means of crossing the pass. But, I suppose, at least the skiing was good.

And so there we were, knee deep in the stuff, climbing the highest mountain on mainland Spain, with bikes on our backs, and, well very little else in the way of winter mountaineering gear. Just a flask of warm coffee, a towrope, and builders pick axe, in case things got seriously dodgey. Big bad joke springs to mind. We’d talked off the cuff about doing this for months, but had only planned it at about 12 hours notice, sorry, did I say planned....

The staff in the Sierra Nevada tourist office had refused point blank to let us on to the ski lifts, which meant that the only way up to the summit of the Veleta was to start walking, and being as it was already mid morning we had to get moving if we had a cats chance of getting over it, on summer weather estimates that was.

Where exactly to go was a serious problem, as there were no tracks heading upwards, just a great white wall with a huge jagged point on top of it. We thought it would probably be best to avoid the main ski slopes, and to head for a mixture of icy outcrops, to kind of string our way up the near vertical slope. The ski station it’s self was at 2500 meters, and the summit is 3280 meters high, which is like climbing one serious mountain in anyone’s book.

When we rode out of the resort laughing and joking we had totally different thoughts in mind. Mark had done the Veleta numerous times during the summer, and figured that it may just take us a little longer, and had already told his wife we’d be home later that afternoon. Me, on the other hand, I had a little more experience of carrying bikes through snow, and quietly thought we had absolutely no hope of even reaching the summit, and was looking forward to a night of apres ski fun. That made for a potentially deadly cocktail, and a devil may care mixture of bad judgement.

After a whole five minutes of riding the road disappeared in to the great white abyss. Time to start walking. Not too far away we could see some kind of stone monument, and decided to make our way there. It only looked to be around a kilometre away, but that single kilometre took us an hour, and when we got there we realised that we hadn’t even gained any altitude. But hey it was still early, and we had all day to get up the mountain.

The sun was beating down like crazy, even if it was ten below freezing. All we could do was to head straight up, so we shouldered the bikes and set off once more. It was steep, real steep, but the biggest problem was the fact that we were sinking knee deep in to the snow with every step. Then of course there was the altitude to deal with, it was tough. Progress was painfully slow. After three hours of plodding we were in some kind of bad state, like a couple of long lost arctic explorers. The talking had long since stopped, and the tension was building.

This deep powder was draining us rapidly, so we decided to take the firmer, even if steeper option, of heading straight up the black run. The slope was so damn steep that we couldn’t actually go directly up, we had to weave our way back and forth to keep traction. My calves were burning like crazy, and breathing was near impossible. Every few steps we had to stop to recover, it was evil.

Every few minutes skiers would come past and either fall over or stop at the sight. This kind of spurred us on, as if we were upholding the eccentricity of a whole nation. It seemed like an eternity scaling that piste, but we eventually topped it and scrambled our way on top of a ridge just bellow the summit.

This was one of the most amazing vistas I’ve ever seen; it almost made the effort worthwhile. Behind us was the winter wonderland of this spectacular ski resort. On the other side was a stunning great boulder field of sugar coated mountains, gently fading their way down to the shores of the Mediterranean. It was one of those rare crystal clear days too, which honoured our efforts with the gift of a peep right across the waters of the Med and on to the hazy distant peaks of North Africa, a rare treat indeed.

For a while we just sat in the snow, sipping coffee and generally basking in our sense of achievement. Not realising that we had another hours worth of gravity defiance just to get around the peak. The only way to get around the summit was to go straight across every ski slope in the resort. I had nothing but my normal Diadora SPD shoes on, which made the off camber sprints across the busy slopes totally mad. I couldn’t really believe we were doing it; literally running half way across, stopping and praying not to get hit, then sprinting across the second half of the slope, it was the ultimate game of chicken, one slip and we’d have been human toboggans, sliding right on down to town.

OTT 

Passing through the final high rocky outcrops I peered down to a baron and desolate landscape, one which was several meters deep in snow and scree. There was no track, no nothing, just this huge and desolate lunar landscape. Oh well, that was it, straight back down the way we came then, I assumed. But no, Mark reckoned that after maybe half an hour or so of vertical slope traverse that we would be able to get on and ride the last couple of hours down from the mountain to the next town. I somehow didn’t trust this judgement, but went with it anyway. After all we had a flask of coffee and some food, we’d be okay if we did get short on time.

Our only serious hope was to follow an estimated line of the usual track off the mountain. But this meant a few kilometres of traversing a loose 45-degree snow wall. We’d only been going a couple of minutes when we stumbled on a massive great crevasse, with nothing but a sheer drop beneath it. Roping up seemed the obvious thing, but instead we decided to just hop across and then pass the bikes over. This was mad, Mark looked very worried, and I really couldn’t blame him. We looked at one another with great trembling grins, then moved on.

That half an hour turned in to two hours, then three. And things sure weren’t getting any easier. The slopes were getting steeper, the snow looser, and we were heading further and further in to it. By now we were so seriously tired that logical judgement was fading fast. The sense of danger on the slopes had turned more to desperacy, which was potentially very dangerous. We stopped in a rocky gap for shelter, that was when I realised that we’d run out of coffee, before we’d even started the true descent, and that all we had was an energy bar between us.

The pair of us sunk to a real low at that point. I noticed a snow bank, which could have made for an emergency snow cave. Mark wanted to push on, so we headed off down the mountain, me without any hope or belief that we would get off it that night. All that was going through my mind was sleep; I just needed to get to sleep. Every SAS survival technique I’d ever heard was buzzing through my head, even snaring rabbit cloudily drifted through.

We had to gently descend six valleys on the way down, each of them hidden from the next. We’d convince ourselves that the next one would be clear, but it never was. We were trudging something like 100 meters apart by now, and I know that I was certainly talking to myself. By now the sun was almost gone, and a storm was brewing. The clouds were swirling around us; it was getting seriously scary. We stumbled across a mountain refuge, a god forsaken stone shelter without light, water, or anything for that matter. I’d resigned myself to spending the night there, hoping that the storm would have passed by morning and that we would have a better chance of continuing the descent. Mark almost freaked at this; he couldn’t bear the thought of a long dark night alone with me. No food, drink, heat, or even satellite TV, nada

Okay, one more valley, if not we’re coming back. That was the bargain we struck. That next valley was treacherous, the scariest of the lot. It was just about dark, then we came across a group of mountaineers. Mark told me that they’d said we’d be able to ride after the next valley head. As we scrambled our way on our backs across the next valley, which was seriously wall like. I just couldn’t help pounding the question of a non biker’s idea of rideable, over and over I puzzled. Then it struck me; there were no footprints across this valley at all. Because they hadn’t even been this bloody way, had they. It was just another ploy from Mark to avoid the terror of a refuge night.

From here on in there really was no turning back, to retrace to the refuge in the dark would be suicidal. Luckily for us the clouds were clearing, and at least we had some decent moonlight to navigate by.

Gradually the snow eased, and we were able to ride more and more, dodging crevasses and scree slopes by the grace of the moon and a gut sense of survival alone.

I was on a rigid bike with semi-slicks on, which made the whole thing that bit more tantalising. We were a couple of hours in to the darkness when we hit the darkened veil of a forest. We were now running totally blind. But we were so damn knackered and elated to be nearing home that the seven miles or so of Russian roulette that made up that last hour just flew by. By the time we finally reached the village on the other side of the Veleta it was gone midnight. But somehow we’d done it, even if it did defy my own belief. Never again...

Don’t forget the sun screen

If there was just one piece of reliable advice I could give to you, it would have to be don’t even think about it. The Veleta is for seriously fit riders at the height of summer. To attempt it during the winter is sheer madness, so just don’t.

If I could offer just one more piece of advice it would be sunscreen; for some reason both Mark and myself forgot it. Which when exposed all day to the sun on a snowy slope, and at altitude, is mad. We both got seriously burnt me to third degree extent. It was not fun, I had to stay inside soaked in cream for a week, and it took a month to get rid of the scars.