In the morning my tarp is dry and the grass around is dry as the valley bottom has frosted over. What a huge difference a short distance can make in the camping experience and how much nicer it is to pack a dry shelter.
I take a deep look at the crest section I’m not taking. Part of the skipping is due to potentially difficult terrain, part of it due to the extra effort that’d be required and the psychological burden of the slow progress. I know, I’ve been very strict with the route choices so far and I have no clear explanation as to why now I feel perfectly fine taking a lower level alternate. I think I just need to make my main activity a relax thing, if only for a while. To hike worry free and turn the hiking into this lovely flow where body and mind blend in with the place. I needed a break. Not from the hiking, just from the thinking.
This was about the perfect place and time for that: I’ll be going down a beautiful valley that I visited (for the first time) just a few weeks ago and crossing paths with what was my route back then. A near perfect mix of beech woods, green meadows and towering limestone walls, peaceful and impressive at the same time. It was my mid-route gift and I consider it well deserved.
I make my way downstream through the woods. As soon as I get to the valley bottom, I feel the embrace of the cold air but now I’m moving and it’s not a bother. The frosty forest duff adds to the peaceful stillness. I can’t tell how much I love the beech woods. It’s the most beautiful forest imaginable.
Frosty meadows too. The sun’s part-way out and it’s already melted out the areas where it’s been shining.
I get down to the very meadows I visited the previous month. I remember the place well. All the flowers are now gone. The main difference though is my understanding of the place: back then I got here on a touring bike, with no topo map and with the simple mission to make it to a nearby, straightforward pass. Now I’m coming down from the headwaters, I have detailed maps and I get a much better perspective of the geography. I can understand where I headed to with the bike and where I’m going today. Joining the dots again: I love this process.
The cattle shed is empty today. I’ll be meeting the cows as I head up the grassy slopes that will take me over a spur off Ten mountain.
It’s a long, steep climb. Near the saddle, the terrain levels out on a perfect example of this fantastic mix of grey and green that are the limestone and the meadows on a natural terrace over the valley I just climbed from. A Shepherd’s hut blends in.
A final push to get over the saddle and get a fantastic view of the Picos de Europa massif, a huge limestone barrier like you’ve never seen before. I was able to spot the Picos de Europa in the distance from the very first day but the view’s got definitely more impressive as I get closer:
Down from the saddle, I keep south of the divide and come down to more meadowland wonder. Ten mountain looks more massive, less of a pyramid shape from here. This is Cantabrica at its best. I can’t be happier to be here.
It’s time to get back up to the very crest and what a traumatic event it is: grass disappears and low bush takes its place, mostly heather. As much as I can appreciate any kind of vegetation for what it is -and heather is beautiful- this is a major letdown. The bush is obviously not as nice to walk onto but it’s more than just that: the matted color feels gloomy compared with the green grass brilliance. It affects my mood.
The crest is also less walking friendly than the hill-base meadows. It takes me straight into a rocky, narrow and airy peak that feels intimidating even though it’d be considered easy for mountaineering standards. Upcoming crest section looks beautiful but equally imposing:
So far for my lovesong relation with the High Route. It’s back to work now.
There’s still a factor that makes a difference: I’m coming into familiar ground and this is comforting. The Picos de Europa, now just in front of me to the north, are a massively popular mountaineering playground and I’ve been hiking here many times in the past. The “Secret Valleys” (I like to call them that) lie at my feet now, cut away from the world by the Cantabrian divide on one side and the Picos de Europa on the other. It’s the first time that I see the Sajambre valley from this perspective and I can distinguish some familiar features.
The crest loses height dramatically on a slow progress, rocky traverse in the usual scheme of north side verticality, south side plain steepness. It gets as low as to allow a brief patch of beech wood on the very crest. The trees are beautiful but stunted at this height and location and progressing through them requires some contortions. I’m happy to get back up and out to open terrain.
The following crest section is much gentler and all the upcoming terrain looks easy, both on the map and as seen on the terrain. Next milestone is El Ponton pass and this one feels like home: it’s a road pass and it’s just a month since I last rode my bike here coming up from the deep valleys.
There’s one last visible obstacle between me and El Ponton: the perfect pyramid of the Pozua peak. It appears vegetated, which would suggest walkable slopes but the map shows it could be just too steep for safe climbing and the view from the distance confirms the map reading. I leave the problem for later as it’s still several miles away but nothing remarkable happens in between so my narrative gets to the base of the peak straight away…
I must keep telling myself slopes appear much steeper than they really are in a frontal view from the distance. Pozua is steep enough to squeeze one more heavy sweat out of me but it’s technically nothing. The prominent, conical summit provides ace views all around. I could add yet another stunning image of the rock walls of the Picos de Europa now that I’ve come right in front of them but I won’t. I like this view east instead:
Most of my high route for the next couple of days is in view there but let me focus your attention on the beech woods down below: their late fall flavour, with the trees devoid of leaves, is not their most colourful but I’m amazed at the eagle-eye view of these magnificent, primeval forests and the size they get in these regions. It’s the mountains around the “secret” valleys of Sajambre and Valdeon, closed-off by high peaks all around, virtually inaccessible from the north until modern times even though they both drain north. It’s the first time I get this view and I can’t stop picturing all the great times I spent hiking down there among those woods.
I can see the road down below, way down! Getting there is bound to be steep. The only foreseeable issue in the descent is the route finding once into the woods but I’m good at that so this time I don’t panic and expect a quiet end of the day for maybe the first time in the whole trip, even if there’s no track.
Once again, wrong expectations are the source of all frustrations.
First part of the climb down is steep but otherwise easy: I’m still in the open. I then get to the tree line at roughly the worst conditions possible: over a steep, narrow ridge with big drops on both sides and where the stunted trees leave not much room for moving through and the ground is mossy and bouldery.
I carefully look for any hint of a track. It’d be my lifesaver. I honestly expect one as this area is up from a road access to a very scenic peak. It takes a bit of suffering in the jungle but I eventually find the faintest of tracks, worth its weight in cold beer.
I must take care of not losing it and cross fingers hoping it doesn’t fade away. At least, not before I get to easier ground.
If it faded away or I lost it, I’ll never know but be sure I looked hard for it. I backtracked to the latest known track bit several times, I tried both sides of the crest, the steep one and the yet more steep. No track anymore.
At this point, daylight time was getting over and I knew I couldn’t have a quiet end of the day today either. I set the gregarious mode on.
I managed to untangle myself out of the steepest section onto a gentler crest slope. Gentler terrain also means more water retention, hence bigger trees and much, much easier walking. Saved? Not yet from my own bit of incompetence: most probably as a consequence of not paying attention due to the stress, I started coming down the wrong ridge but I fortunately realised about only 5 minutes later when I got a glimpse of the valley below through the trees and I could recognise I was not heading down to the pass. I backtracked up the slope and produced my compass to make sure I was not making more mistakes.
Once on the correct ridge, everything went well and I reached El Ponton pass shortly later.
Not much time to enjoy the view or recall previous epics as it’s starting to get dark. And cold. On the plus side, I know the area and I know where I’m going. I know where I’ll get water and I almost know where I’ll camp. Most of the hard work is done for today.
I actually just need to follow the road down on the south side for 400 yards to meet the side road that climbs to the next pass on the divide. I could take the actual crest but it’s all forested, no trail, it can be tough walking and it runs parallel to the road roughly 30 vertical meters above.
I faced exactly the same situation in this same place and time frame one month ago while on a cycling tour. It’d have been cool to get to the same meadow for a camp but walking doesn’t get me as far. I easily find some other flat grass, out of view from the road in a field where two beautiful horses roam.
I try my best to get away from the valley bottom. It’s gonna be cold and wet.
Maps & Track