Yesterday’s last effort was more than a last push for the sake of performance, it was also a statement.

It’s often easy to skip crest sections by joining saddles along the slopes or the base of the hill. This is fine as it is all part of what a High Route means: the idea is to follow a coherent line along the divide. Then there are cases like yesterday evening’s: the road to the ski resort runs parallel to the divide crest and leads to a gentle climb back to the top on a service track. I could have done all that in less than a couple of hours. It is not cheating, it’s just the -in this case- easy way.

Yesterday evening I chose to climb right away from the divide low point and with that I chose to avoid the easy way. I’m happy to keep it as an option and sometimes I’ll take it but it’s definitely not good to always take the easy way.

On the other hand, traversing the crest took me several hours for the same amount of progress. Tough, memorable hiking, indeed.

The ultimate crest hike: day 3 of my Cantabrian High Route

Joining the dots

One of the great things about the long distance hiking is this thing about joining the dots. This is what happens when you hike in areas that you’ve previously visited in a different fashion. I had been here before: driving or riding a bicycle on the roads or even hiking across -but not along- the Cantabrian range. I had been before in and across the Pajares pass, my starting point on this trip two days ago, and I had been before in the San Isidro pass, the next major road upcoming. So far they felt like two separate entities with no relation to each other. Now I have travelled in between the two and this gives me a whole new understanding of the land. It’s’ a feeling I know so well and that I highly appreciate. Hiking is a great way to get to understand the land.

This is all too present in my mind as soon as I get up to the very crest in the morning of this day 3 and I get a clear view of the valley that leads to the San Isidro pass from the north. I know that one: I was hiking and cycling around there a few years back. I used to turn my eyes up to this very crest from there below back then. Now I’m up here and I can see where I was. Silly simple but enlightening at the same time.

The terrain ahead

I can also look back to where I come from (I do this all the time) and try to eye-find my course. I look forward and try to recognise features I’ve checked in the map or that I know in the flesh. I love all this.

Knife’s edge

The crest between Vegarada and San Isidro passes is prominent and obvious. It offers wonderful views north enhanced by the angled sunlight which in turn consistently ruins the views south. Very different geography, as usual, either side: to the north, the Aller valley runs roughly parallel to the divide, deep, convoluted and framed by the spectacular vertical limestone walls of Pico Torres. The road to San Isidro pass appears from the depths at some point.

To the south, the silhouette of the Mampodre massif blocks the visible horizon. It’d be a pretty view with its pyramidal, grey limestone peaks, but the sun-in-your-face makes a black wall out of it.

The crest is narrow but very walkable. I enjoy this section deeply while I keep an eye glued to the very last stretch before the descent into San Isidro where the terrain becomes rocky and steep. It doesn’t look passable on simple foot but it often doesn’t from the distance. Meanwhile I enjoy the ride and fantasize with the possibility of some kind of a pub being open down at the pass and the hefty meal I could have there.

The crest is narrow but walkable

As I approach the tricky section, the prospect doesn’t get any better. For a short length, the crest is rocky and vertical, the northern slope is as steep as usual and the southern side is hidden behind a steep spur. Right after that the top of the ski resort lifts is visible, meaning once there everything will be easy down to the road and the possible pub meal. It’s comforting and maddening at the same time.

I keep on forward for as long as there is a track on the ground, no matter how faint. It means hikers actually go through. I wonder where it will take me.

I’d had expected a short climb to a somewhat weak point on the crest to come down to hopefully easier terrain over the now invisible southern slope. Instead, the faint track takes leaves the crest to the north. Glups…

It’s very steep here. The slope is bushy and above 50 degrees. The track is more like a set of footsteps on the ground vegetation slightly slanted towards the abyss. It’s not difficult but it is hairy. I can’t fall. A fall here would probably be unstoppable. It’s a confidence and balance affair. Carrying a heavy pack doesn’t help.

I look forward ahead to where the footsteps get back to the crest, hold my breath and count them all. It goes fine.

This is the kind of excitement I don’t like. That’s surely why I played a poor rock climber and I feel much better touring the easy, “boring” slopes when on my skis.

Looking back to the critical section

I reach the next peak and can finally look down on the road pass. There are certainly lots of buildings there belonging to the resort but the place seems dead. There’s not even traffic on the road. Monday afternoon blues.

I come down the rather desolate ski runs to the saddle. Nobody on sight but there are a few parked cars and trucks in front of one of the buildings which turns out to be the expected open pub.

My fixation was really not so much about the food but about a plug. My phone’s battery had drained dramatically after basically no use. I’m fine with not using the phone in the mountains but it’d feel awful to need it for any emergency and find it dead. As as much as I dreaded stopping for anything more than 30 minutes, I went in and asked for the daily specials.

The promised lunch

Lunch is the big meal of the day in Spain and this region is famous for the particularly hefty rations of the very filling food linked to the harsh environment. The traditional bean stew is served in a bowl valid for 3 or 4. I refill 2 times.

Bean stew remains

Then it’s crumbled sausage with eggs:

The red thing is the crumbled sausage

Despite my thru-hiker role, I can’t finish it all. I didn’t need to eat anything else that day either.

All batteries charged

I leave the pub and pass with the feeling that the time spent was well worth it. Batteries fully charged, phone and hiker. In fact, my mood is quite improved too.

The way out requires a bit of route finding through the myriad of cattle trails but it’s not difficult and the area is the most loved mix of grey limestone and green meadows. The route as I had drawn it on my paper map takes me just below the impressive walls of Pico Torres before turning back east.

The crest is not at all prominent and the obvious way goes over the meadowy foothill. Good cattle trails to follow. It’s great times.

Easy walking for a change

Just before dusk I meet two hikers in their way back to their car who express their concern about my upcoming overnight:

– Do you know any hut in the area?

– No. But the weather is lovely and I’ve got my tent (I point at my pack)

– You’re a brave man!

Camping out is certainly not the most common thing among local outdoors people.

The mountains get higher again and I aim for the crest, only briefly as I have identified a lovely cirque on the northern side that appears accessible and sheltered and I rush to get there before dark. The way down is steep but eventless and I stop as soon as I reach the flat meadows and a huge spring comes out the ground nearby. Mountain goats quietly retreat moving gracefully over steep, rocky terrain. That’s what goats do! I feel a bit sorry for the unintentional displacement but I’m sure the goats will find shelter. They know the place.

Good night

Maps & Track

View route map for Cantabrian High Route Stage 3: Fuentes de Invierno – Majada Vallin on plotaroute.com

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