Steve Gill - Cycle tourist.
The Highest spot in Europe
Text and photographs © Steve Gill - reproduced by permission.
Steve Gill faces the ultimate challenge for any cycle tourist by riding to the summit of Veleta in Spain.
Click the photo to see larger image.
Photograph © Steve Gill - reproduced by permission.
If you cycle into the centre of the city of Granada, you will arrive at a roundabout. From here, direction signs show the ways out to various exits and destinations all over Spain. Amongst other signs which may be followed is one labelled in slightly smaller lettering, almost as if it is an afterthought. It reads: 'Sierra Nevada'.
Just two words, nothing more. For once the Spanish, usually so eloquent in praise of their country, are masters of understatement. 'Sierra Nevada'. Such a simple introduction - but follow those signs and you will be led to the climb of a lifetime, a climb of climbs, in scenery beyond your imagination, a climb by which you will judge all others and rarely, if ever, find an equal.
It is the climb to the summit of Veleta in the Sierra Nevada, 35 uphill miles out of Granada and rising to nearly 11,500 feet above sea level. Different surveys give different altitudes, but Veleta is the second highest mountain in Spain, topped only by its close neighbour, Mulhacen. It is the highest point to be reached by road in Europe: an ultimate challenge for any cycle tourist.
I have been lucky enough to enjoy meeting that challenge three times now, and it is the last journey to the summit which I wish to describe here. Let me share with you, if I can, a little of the feeling of what it was like.
The time was the summer of 1982. I had been heading south from London and through France for twelve days, covering 1,414 miles to arrive at the campsite in the city of Granada; tanned, tour-fit and close to realising one of the main objectives of the tour. It was the day I was going to camp at the summit of Veleta. On two previous occasions I had dragged a full kit up to the top, but the thought of using it had never crossed my mind. Now, since some time last winter, back in England, I had thought of nothing else. What an adventure it would be to go there, to the summit, just once more - and stay there! To watch one sunset and one dawn from the highest bivouac in Spain! The idea had obsessed my imagination for months. I had geared all other trips in the year towards it. Everything else had been done to keep in trim for this single goal. And I had rehearsed what it would be like over and over again from my memories of the route in other years. I had begun to worry that something was going to happen to prevent me from achieving such an ambition. I had scarcely dared to tell anyone and when I did, I had always superstitiously 'touched wood'. Summer had arrived. I had put my gear together, checked my mileage at Tower Bridge, from which I measure all distances, and set off. Now, with another trail of incidents and memories behind me, I was one climb away from fulfilling the dream: 35 miles to go!
A climb repeated for the third time is not a climb of discovery. It is one of rediscovering memories as it reveals itself once more, unfolding step by step in reality as it has been relived so often in the mind. Associations of what it was like to be there on other occasions come pouring back, and because they too were occasions of such thrilled excitement, the pleasure of the present journey is increased immeasurably. Also increased because I now knew what was involved, what was to come, and could pace myself for each stage, thus enjoying it all the more. Sheer length means that the ascent falls into several different sections. Only one thread of continuity runs through them all, and that is the ceaseless gain in altitude. In only two places, and for less than a total of half a mile in all thirty-five, does the gradient relent. Otherwise, once begun, it climbs; sometimes steeply, sometimes relatively easily, but always it climbs. It climbs long after your neck has begun to ache from craning to see that summit, long after your protesting legs have thickened and threaten to go no further, long after your arms feel wrenched from their shoulder sockets and your grip on the handlebars has numbed, long after you have given up hope of reaching the summit, long after you have given up belief that there is a summit ..... It climbs. It climbs.
But there is a summit, and a road that reaches it: and there is only one-way of tackling: with great patience and much stamina, section by section. It all begins easily enough as a long, straight run along a valley floor out of the city, the houses on either side soon thinning out and ending. Then, as the village of Pinos Genil is approached, the road takes to the right hand side of the valley, climbing steeply and rapidly with many twists and turns. The whole ride is reduced to a snail's pace in bottom gear, catching the rider before a settled rhythm has been found. Height is gained quickly. Pinos Genil and the floor of the approach valley soon recede into the glimpsed depths, but the sharp ascent winds on and on. The 1,000 metre altitude sign is passed and with it the last, isolated private dwellings - do you feel envy for their owners' position, or pity for the journey which awaits them every time they venture forth? On and on, with many changes of direction but no lessening of the gradient. This is one of the hardest parts of the route, until the final miles, but just as it seems there will be no end, the hill's rounded back is reached, the bends become less frequent and the road flattens a little.
At eleven miles or so - it seems so much more! - the road is evidently satisfied with its height and sets off at a more easy angle along the hillside. Here, with a third of the distance and height behind, it passes three or four hotels and cafes, perched precariously on artificial shelves; a chance for a well-earned rest and to refill water bottles - only two more hotels much further on provide such an opportunity.
Round one more corner after the last cafe, 'Los Puentes', come a couple of hundred yards of descent. Paradoxically it is not a relief, but much resented. Height lost has to be regained a second time, and appears a betrayal of all the effort. It is very short though, and climbing resumes before there is really enough time to change gear. At this point, as the only petrol station on the road is passed, the road's character changes dramatically. A fork in the road is reached. The branch to the right swings up and over, out of the valley, across and into the next valley. Instead of the open panoramas being seen to the left, they now appear to the right - and what panoramas! Rocky, white and dusty-grey peaks stretch in range after range against the foggy, smudgy-brown horizon which is so typical of a hot Spanish afternoon. Ahead, ribbons of road can be seen snaking gradually upwards in a now barren, treeless landscape. No longer a valley route, this is now a mountain road in every sense. From the junction onwards, snow poles, some ten or twelve feet in height, are placed at regular intervals. At more exposed bends, crash barriers provide a little extra security. They click and creak in the sun's heat.
Throughout this section there are continual deceptions in the view. Landmarks spotted ahead seem so close to the eye, but to reach them often takes an age, as previously unseen loops in the road appear. Unsuspected lengths lie in wait round corners, hidden in the ground relief by distance and mirages of heat. However, it is now that a significant point is reached. For nearly eighteen miles the toil and sweat have been accepted on trust, a belief that the road knows where it is going, even if you do not! Halfway into the journey, concentration on the immediate efforts required by the next hundred yards has caused the summit to be forgotten. That the road will end somewhere seems irrelevant; a resignation has set in that it will lead upwards for ever. Then, at 1,750 metres, a corner is rounded and ahead is a small cutting. The rock is covered in wire mesh to hold back falls of stone, and through the gap - the first view of the summit. To be accurate, it is a 'false summit', formed by the last convex ridge leading to the peak, but so near as to make little difference in position or altitude. It is a view which makes the knees buckle. The summit is so far away! A curved, blue silhouette rising up against the sky. Anywhere else, even in the Pyrenees, the effort already made would have been enough to reach the top of any pass. Here - it is nothing, nothing! That summit seems in another world, impossibly distant. It looks now as though the ascent has hardly begun.
The summit remains in view most of the time now, though for mile after mile it appears scarcely any nearer. On and on the road leads through those deceptive loops and windings along the hills, always upwards and gradually nearing the crest of the long ridge which was crossed so far below. Just before this crest is reached comes another junction, and the reason for the high standard of road maintenance becomes plain. Prado Llano, the 'sun and snow' purpose-built ski village, clings to the hillside, stripped to bare concrete bones without its clothing of winter snow. It looks as awkwardly out of place as a boat beached on high ground. The summit road twists sharply away on to the ridge. Here is met the highest national 'Parador' in Spain, naturally enough called the 'Sierra Nevada', complete with helicopter pad outside and beautiful wood-panelled interior. This, or the other hostel built close by, is the last luxurious stop for rest and water before the final assault. From here is nothing but shattered rock and snow.
At first it seems incredible that a road could be engineered any further towards the top, but it has been done. In a tortuous series of hairpin bends, it weaves back and forth up the spine of the ridge. A statue placed on an arch astride an altar and dedicated to 'Our Lady Of The Snows', which has been in view for some time, is left behind. The turns become even tighter and closer together. Back and forth, back and forth, each time gaining a little more height, now completely and dangerously exposed to heart-stopping drops on the outer edge. There are cracks in the narrow surface and signs of subsidence. Legs plead for more and more rests. Breathing is laboured in the thinning air. In some places snow lies on either side and water runs from underneath and across the road. Back and forth, to and fro. The summit has gone again. Looking back, the Parador has dwindled to the size of a matchbox, the statue a speck and beyond, strips of road which seemed so high before now look foolishly low. Seven or eight miles creep by, with heart pounding, lungs gasping, teeth gritted, looking, looking for the top. The road climbs into the very sky. Surely it is impossible to fit more twists and turns into the space? And then, without warning, the road swings in a wider arc and there, fifty metres off, are the radio and meteorological masts and, atop a final pile of stones, the survey column. The summit!
How do I describe those last seconds of the ride? All tiredness fades away, a tingling sensation runs down the spine, power surges from nowhere into aching legs and there is room for only one thought - it's done, it's done, it's climbed: this is it! There is nothing left to do now except lift and push the bike over the stones to the survey column, prop it against the base, sit down and take in the view.
Mere words could never convey that view nor my feelings as I sat and looked. For one who loves travel and wild mountain scenery as I do, reward for my labour was repaid a thousandfold. The grandeur of such spectacular vistas is beyond dreams. To try to describe it is but to sketch a rainbow in black and white. No justice could be done to the awesome scale of heights and depths, the all-embracing realisation of humanity's insignificance, its hopeless, pointless struggle against time when contrasted with such serene, powerful, eternal beauty. To stand at such a spot is to be given a rarely afforded privilege. It is a humbling experience.
When I arrived a handful of people were already sharing the scene. They had all passed me in their vehicles, all had waved and shouted encouragement. I had watched their windscreens catching the sunlight as they wound noiselessly left and right, right and left, far away in the distance, knowing I was going to have to struggle after those specks in my own time. Many smiled now - and how I smiled back! - and we exchanged words as best we could. I took my own set of photographs, feeling a little chilly now that the cycling had ceased. I dug out another sweater and put it on. I had timed things well, climbing steadily through the afternoon, using my efforts at compiling a complete photographic record as short resting periods. Now it was getting late. Darkness was perhaps an hour or so away. Soon everyone else had departed for the descent to Granada, lying buried invisibly under the haze somewhere to the north. I was left alone to the view and my own thoughts.It was time to set up the bivouac. I searched out a flat area of loose stones and levelled out a space. A Karrimat underneath the bivouac tent made it surprisingly comfortable. Fortunately, only three guys needed to be secured, and this was soon done in true mountaineering fashion, tying each one to a stone which was then buried in a cairn to anchor it. I sat outside, using the last daylight to write some postcards, then watched as the sun quickly reddened and sank behind the jagged ridges to the west. I watched the view with a satisfaction I can never forget. As soon as the sun had disappeared it was dark and cold. I slid into my sleeping bag, zipped up the door of the tent and dozed. But it was not quite the end of my experiences for the day. Maybe two hours later I awoke and for some reason thought I would like to take one more look at the moonlit landscape. I pulled on a jersey and jacket, eased out of the tent and stood up. Whatever caused that impulse shall never know, but I shall be eternally grateful that I followed it. As I looked over the tent I beheld a scene so magical that at first I thought it was still a dream. Only the cold wind convinced me I was awake. In the clear night air I could see Granada. It was as though a thousand sparkling diamonds were scattered before me over crumpled black velvet. A glittering, glistening, glinting fortune strewn at my feet. With all sense of distance and depth lost in the shadowless dark, I felt I could have bent and scooped the treasure by the handful into my pockets, but I made no move. There was no need, for I had the treasure already. The memory of that jewelled night is mine forever.
I woke with a start and looked at my watch. It was just before seven: nearly dawn! I put on all the clothes I had, took out my camera, unzipped the door and scrambled out. The effect of moving rapidly from the close, claustrophobic confines of a bivouac tent to the boundless airiness of a mountain summit was stunning. One second, vision and movement were so closely restricted, the next instant there was no surrounding boundary at all, nothing but cold, quiet emptiness. I felt my head might explode. It was cold, very cold. There was ice forming round the sides of the water bottle, but I had remembered to leave it upside down, so that the stopper and neck were clear. A few mouthfuls and the remains of sleepiness were washed away. I stepped half a dozen paces to a ledge, overlooking a sheer drop of some hundreds of feet, and looked towards the east. I was just in time. The sky beyond the peaks in that direction was pinkie-red. There was a glowing tint in the air. Little by little the horizon became lighter, casting shadows into the heavy, cool air of the valleys. The outline of each range of mountains looked razor-sharp. The sun rose steadily into the silent morning. I watched those first minutes of a new day and stood fascinated, as the crisp, fresh air filled with sunlight, hope and promise. Though every day has a dawn, in such surroundings it was a special, mystical experience, for which a price could never be set. Oh, that tingling sensation again!
So we arrive at the question ‘why?’ ‘Why climb a mountain?’ The famous traditional answer is ‘because it’s there’. True, and I hope I have some inkling of what is there for those who seek it. Two more answers I give here.
If my travel and cycling are partly escapism, then the climb of a mountain is escapism in its purest form. When I left Granada for the summit I was lost to the world in living for the moment. It was as if all I knew about cycling, touring and camping, all my training for fitness and strength, everything I had ever learned, all had been done to bring me to that moment. I was conscious of nothing else: nothing I had done before or might do in the future mattered. The ambitions and demands of the instant were a total commitment, completely absorbing. It was pure selfish escapism, ecstasy and wonderment. For those moments I was totally free.
The final reason ‘why’ is an extension of the other two. I go up so that I can go down again! Sounds flippant, smart? Ah yes, but what truth hides within the jest. I go up empty and return full. Full of memories, full of experiences, full of satisfaction that I have done something which I shall be able to reflect upon for the rest of my life.
I am down again now, but my mind often goes back to the events of that ride. I relive it over and over. It has become a part of me. No matter where I am or what the future brings, I can fall to thinking of Veleta. When I do, I cannot but feel again a thrill at the memory. Before I left the summit on this third ride I did one more thing. Underneath a stone, at the point where I spent that magical night, I placed the ring which I used to wear on my little finger. Whenever I look at that finger now, I am reminded and I smile. I know where that ring is, and I remember.
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