Vergin' On A Mountain

on Sunday, 12 February 2012. Posted in Alpujarra Information

It was a silly idea from the start. I knew that, and I was to find out that I had left it a bit late in life to take on so much exertion in so short a time span. Spanish fiestas are numerous, noisy and can be rather routine. They follow a formula of rockets, mass, procession, band, bar, rockets, pasadoble, pasadoble, pasadoble, pasadoble, dawn, sleep. It was with this in mind that I am disposed to show a bit more interest in any fiesta that has a tradition to it, something different, something to encourage. Having lived in the Alpujarra for a good few years I knew of the August fiesta celebrated by the village of Trevélez in honour of La Virgen de las Nieves, but had never until now been on the spot at the right time, in order to take part.

virginoutsidechThe fiesta has some of the usual ingredients: religion, procession, rockets, mass, but it is the proportions of each that are rather different in this case. The procession component is extended into a 16 to 20 hour expedition, to the peak of the Sierra Nevada. The object is to process La Virgen from the village church (1550m.), to the peak of Mulhacén (3482m.) in order that mass may celebrated by all who can arrive there at 1200 hrs on the 5th. August. Now, as a resident of the village my heart said it was right to go, but my brain was reluctant.

The tradition component dates back to the summer of 1813 when a worthy of Válor crossing the sierra, on what would have been the normal summer access from Granada to his home, was caught in the mother of all storms, something that still happens on August afternoons. Believing his end was nigh after hours of struggling, disorientated in fierce blowing hail, he prayed to The Virgin Mary and offered to build a shrine in her honour if she thought him worthy of saving. His port of last resort, welcomed him with open arms, the clouds suddenly dissolved and from a sea of light La Virgen de las Nieves appeared extending her arms in invitation. The traveller was saved and was true to his word. A hermitage was constructed on the mountaintop and recognising the miracle, an image of La Virgen was donated by the bishops of Granada.

The peak of Mulhacén is a vicious place and no building is safe for long from its rigours. After a few years of deterioration it was decided to remove the image to the church nearest to the peak. Hence to Trevélez she came, but with the promise to return on one day each year, which is what we were about to do. In fact we were carrying a copy. In Trevélez church of San Antonio there are two images of La Virgen de las Nieves the original slightly larger, heavier and much more valuable stays safely in her new home. It's the plaster copy that climbs the mountain each year.

This is not the only Virgen de las Nieves, there are many scattered through the Hispanic world, but this of Trevélez must be the hardiest, having withstood two hundred years of climbing Mulhacén.

So the facts I more or less knew, We were to meet at the church for a few prayers and speed on our way at midnight. "Why midnight? It's dark then!" Because it's the tradition, it's always been done that way. You could leave earlier but 12 hours to get to the peak is more than enough so why leave earlier?

It's 9pm and I'm in the village shop buying last minute picnic supplements. There's a feeling of anticipation, excitement, uncertainty. People are wondering if they dare, excuses are trotted out: "No, can't, I've got to work." Another customer wants torches and batteries but there are none left.

11pm and I think I'm ready. I'm waiting for a sign. A sign of something happening, and worrying about whether I've got enough, too little, too much, of food, clothing, strength. Anxious moments. It will be dark and cold. But how cold? I don't know what route they will take.

The sign of something about to happen was a rocket going up, the standard form of communication at fiesta time. 1 Rocket tells you something is about to happen. 1000 or more tell you you've just missed it and the town hall has just burnt up a good percentage of its annual budget.

Preparing to box the virgen after the mass

Outside the church door La Virgen was posed on a stand surrounded by flowers and devotees. A small image, about 3 feet tall and with baby Jesus in her arms. After a longish delay, the priest was in the bar, some prayers were said and solemn words spoken to underline the religious motive behind the fiesta. All this in the street where devotees mixed with the curious and "shushed" without effect while the crowd tried to avoid the horses which stamped and reared impatiently. All creating a bit of danger, fun and chaos, essential elements of a fiesta. A song in honour of Maria was sung by an informal cluster of ladies and followed by a spontaneous burst of song by a single brave man in the depth of the crowd. A voice strong enough to hold its own and raise applause. All done; La Virgen was whisked away again into the church, which surprised me as I expected her to mount up. She emerged 10 minutes later packed away in a wooden case that was loaded rather ignominiously onto horseback. The priest announced that next year a way would be found for her to be carried by anda. This raised much applause from the ladies who too, must have felt distaste for the La Virgen's treatment.

I had no idea looking at the crowd, who was going except that there were a couple of horses, their minders, a few over prepared foreigners like myself and some rather under prepared looking walkers with empty looking rucksacks. I am used now to the local people making all sorts of expeditions with apparently no preparation or precaution. Shepherds who spend all day on the mountain with an umbrella and a small satchel in areas where I wont go without about 20 kilos of kit. But perhaps this is why they sometimes need miraculous interventions.

The whole crowd moved off following the lead horse carrying La Virgen. Many were visitors and knew less than I did about what was going on. Most followed on through the village streets but stuttered and stopped, rather surprised as we left the last street light behind and continued, with eyes not yet used to the dark, up a steep wet cobbled path . A rather chaotic few hundred yards ensued with the unknowing and half-hearted returning, and the true pilgrims stepping it out determinedly.

Amongst our party it transpired were a couple of armed environmental police, I had seen them at the church and assumed they were there for crowd control purposes. I asked one of them if they were there to protect us from the environment or to protect the environment from us. I am not sure that my Spanish was good enough to convey the subtlety but he replied "a bit of both". Since no amount of bullets would do much to stop the mountain having its own way I assume they were there to protect the environment. Also, as we stepped out the first kilometres I noticed a mother and daughter who did not look as they would stand the pace, two couples on holiday from elsewhere in Spain, A Trevélez family with their two young children and packhorse. Come to that I didn't think I was going to stand the pace either. The walking-horse pace to which the Treveleños have accustomed themselves from the cradle was a bit too fast for me especially as I knew our first main target was 1.5km. vertically above and 10 kms away.

Our leaders-cum-Virgen-bearers made the first rest stop after about half an hour. And I began to see some logic behind the fast pace. Discourage and send back any that were not up to it! However at this first stop, it didn't work, we all continued. They also chose this point to have a count of the party. 24. This prompted discussion of previous years and the numbers. If the 5th of August falls on a weekend there are likely to be 4 or 5 times as many.

"Remember the cold year? Over 100 started."

"How many arrived"

"About a dozen. It was so cold"

"What happened to the others?" No one seemed to know.

"Frozen?" Someone joked. Laughter followed. No but seriously... You have got to look after yourself on this jaunt. An attempt was made to advise the struggling mother and daughter and I wonder now if the preceding story was for their benefit. "We are going to sleep on the hill. Its warm here but it will be much colder where we rest and you haven't got a blanket, gloves or coat. It would be better to stop now than struggle on and be too cold higher up." They decided they would go on but asked for a slower pace. No promises were made. I think the custom that made us leave at midnight led to a custom of arriving at the favoured bivouac spot; Las Siete Lagunas at about 4am and this time table dictated the pace. This plan gave time for a few hours sleep before continuing on the more dangerous section at first light. Las Siete Lagunas in years past was also the spot where shepherds congregated with flocks in the summer and time was left for them to do homage to La Virgen. Consideration for wobbly tourists was way down the list.walkindark

We continued. Into the dark walked the 24, their 3 horses, a dog, and a boxed Virgen de las Nieves.

The moon came up about 1 hour into the walk and torches were turned off. I persisted with my head torch, confident that in my overweight but well prepared pack there were spare batteries. This was my first experience of walking the hills after dark and it took me a few hours to learn that even half a moon was sufficient to see by. In fact the torch could be a hindrance since your eyes concentrate on the pool of light and see nothing of the general surroundings. I learnt this lesson as I walked blindly on following the good path. After a while I noticed a lack of noise and chat and realised that the others had taken a side turn. I would have noticed by the general light of the moon, whereas the focused torch light left me ignorant. The mistake was soon rectified and from then on I only used the torch when my body cast a shadow on the path.

Catching up with the tail end of the party I found them recovering from a mishap. One of our guides had stumbled and twisted an ankle. He was going to go back with his horse. Fortuitous really because we were able to persuade the struggling couple to go back with him. I went on to catch up with the leaders to relay this information. It caused a bit of panic.

"He's got our coats and blankets!"

"Yes, yes, don't worry he is waiting for you to get them. He's 300 metres back."

Then we were 18, 2 horses, a dog and a boxed virgin.

After about 2 and a half hours we began to see glimpses of moonlight shining on waterfalls of the Rio Culo de Perro high above. This is a rather unfortunate name for a very attractive river. Those who are not Spanish speakers will need to know, or might prefer not to, that the name translates as "Dogs arse river". As time went on the moon also began to show patches of snow on the hillside that added somewhat to our sense of excitement and made us think that we were now really getting somewhere.

We are very lucky with the weather even for August; warm enough to walk in shirtsleeves and shorts, but immediately chilling when we stop to rest. Most of our warmth is being generated from within. Gradually the tourist contingent opted for long trousers and fancy fabrics and our guides their knitted woollies. The climb is constant, about 1000m in the first 3 hours, and another 400m. to go, we are told, before we get more than a smoke break. Our rests seem to be governed by our leaders vices. A smoke and pass the wineskin every now and then.

"Well... go on then, just to be sociable. Nuts?"

" No thanks the wine is my petrol."

0330. 3 hours into the walk and at quite a good rate. 3 hours of walking in a little void, a tiny little world delimited by the pool of torch light at my feet. The gradient increases but our leaders maintain their inexorable pace. They seem confident that we will be ok although we are now spread over the hillside more or less on the path, and separated into various sub-groups each with their problems:

One of the armed men with his son. The lad has stumbled and knelt on a "cushion" of herbage which here inevitably manifests itself as a viscous herbaceous hedgehog which has made his knee swell and slowed him down. We sprayed it liberally with anti-histamine and he's going to struggle on.

Then we were 16, 2 horses, a dog and a boxed virgin.

One of the couples has temporarily run out of energy and have sat down to sleep and eat.

Then we were 14, 2 horses, a dog and a boxed virgin.

I am finding that at about 2700m. my lungs are working harder to find oxygen. I have to slow right down, but keep going watching the others maintaining their pace and disappearing into the vague moonlight ahead.

Then I was alone.

In the dark, alone at about 2800m the night has more magic. It's perfectly clear, all the stars seem touchable, there is no wind and the moon spreads a soft light. Stopping to snack a little I saw shooting stars, more than one, falling apparently just about where I imagine our leaders are heading for. The place where La Virgen is to rest for what remains of the night.

I knew they had arrived. There was a sign. Apart from The Star, there were rockets, and faint cries of

"Viva la Virgen" answered by a chorus of

"VIVA",

"Viva La Virgen de las Nieves". Again

"VIVA, VIVA" wafted faintly down El Culo de Perro.

Following the various signs I arrived at the plateau at about 2900m. on which sit various tarns covering about a square kilometre and named las Siete Lagunas. The path brought me to overlook the lowest and biggest of the tarns which was black, out of the line of the moon, and surrounded by flat soft turf ideal for the various small encampments. Many people it seems have arrived here at a more sensible hour and made camp.

I rejoined our group as they were just settling down into their own nooks and crannies. The best places already having being taken, they were making the hard places soft by clearing stones. The horses had been relieved of their burdens, and gave vent to their sense of humour by relieving themselves on the best camping spots before setting about grazing silver moonlit, grass. Our leaders were soon only visible as lumpy blankets scattered here and there amongst the rocks. A voice from one of the lumps shouted as an afterthought, "We leave at 8". Which gave 3 and a half hours to try to get some sleep.

I had a carrymat and a 1-2-season sleeping bag. Since it was a dry warm night I was going to get away with it. Even so I needed to be fully clothed with a heavy fleece to remain comfortably warm. It could have been very much worse.

I didn't sleep well. The truth is I didn't sleep. But I rested well and was warm enough to enjoy the night sky which gradually turned from black to midnight blue, to a hazy grey tinged with the yellow of dawn.

Emerging from a half sleep, I realised that it was dawn and I should really get up and enjoy the spectacle.

7lagdawn

In good summer weather no tent is neededBeing warm and comfortable, I wanted to take advantage of every scrap of rest time. The same feeling as on Monday morning after the alarm has gone off, but a very confusing place to have this Monday morning feeling. I could hear a strange crunching nearby, and tried to guess its source without turning over to look. It got nearer and more worrying so I did. One of the horses was scrunching grass a yard away and looking as though I was lying on the best bit so I decided to give up, get up, and start the day.

The day was already started. On this high plateau the sun was shining; upward! It was shining up from the sea and spotlighting today's target. Mulhacén which was last night a dark invisible lump, was now a spot-lit rocky lump, with ochre scree slopes falling down to our feet and turning abruptly black as they met the shade. The nearest tarn, was also still black and forbidding in the shade, but looking south the sun now hit the rivulets feeding out of the tarn, turning them a beautiful early blue. Where the plateau ended, as if at the end of this flat world, the blue streams fell off, into the invisible void.

My romanticising had to stop as I now saw that crossing the blue rivulets and already on their way was our group of pilgrims. La Virgen had been remounted, blankets and breakfasts stashed in panniers we were on our way.

It became apparent that there was a relatively easy path up an impossible looking scree slope and it led to some pleasant, verdant paths. This morning's task was to climb the remaining part of the mountain between the tarns at 2900m. and the peak at 3482m. This was predicted to take us a comfortable 2 hours, leaving time enough at the peak to prepare for the mass at midday.

horsesky

Knowing the peak was to the NW my legs found it very disappointing to be walking SW but this was the route more tolerable for the loaded horses. The terrain soon turned to barren rock-strewn tundra with only the hardiest, most tenacious vegetation able to survive the contrasting enemies of intense cold, pressure of snow, the very long winter, and the short desiccating summer. We were now skirting the remaining snowfields and I can imagine that in different years the route would vary to avoid them or be forced to cross them.

We met the main shoulder of Mulhacén that gives a slow easy access from the south to the peak and began to meet with many more pilgrims approaching from all directions. A stop after about an hour for breakfast, with the obligatory passing of the wine skins, set us up for the final stretch, the remaining 150m. Vertical that is.

Well its 1030 and gratefully we have arrived at the top. There are probably about 300 people here and 30 or 40 horses a totally unexpected hubbub in such a place as this.

Legend has it that the penultimate Moorish king of Granada asked to be buried here on his death so that his heart could rest for ever in a place he loved without fear of disturbance. How wrong can you be?

It's 10 hours since we left Trevélez, 2000m below. I dont feel too bad but I am trying not to think of the return trip, the distance, the constant descent and my poor old knees. But for now, I can join in the elation of arrival, eat, drink and rest while the hundreds of gathered faithful mill about taking pictures of each other with La Virgen de las Nieves. She is now more dignified, out of her box and perched on the peak protecting the inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada from the dangers of mountain weather.

mass

It's a long way to come to church. I'm not going to do it every Sunday. A possy of priests arrived in the nick of time and like supermen in reverse they change, with a twirl, out of bright mountain gear into sober white surplices. The mass was a nice Spanish mixture of piety and irreverence as those who were there for the show chatted and joked whilst more serious messages were chanted. We sang songs in honour of La Virgen and priestly jokes were thrown in. The chief priest telling us he was pleased to see so many young people at the mass, (well we know the reason for that!) and recommending his profession to all. He got to go on jaunts like this one and although the pay wasn't that good he didn't have to support a wife and kids.

At 1230 we were packing up to return. I toyed with the idea of abandoning our little group and taking a shorter route home, but in the end decided on solidarity with my new friends. So the same again in reverse.

Looking from above with the sun now high Las 7 Lagunas were bright blue in an emerald setting, beautiful and dramatically contrasted in their amphitheatre of scree slopes.

The descent to the tarns took 1 hour and it seemed like racing to me. I was struggling and I suppose it showed. Once at the lakes one of our leaders with amazing consideration, pointed out a path to me that would cut a few kilometres off the horse route. They would catch me up later. I must have looked bad.

culofalls

The path I took wriggled down with the waterfalls formed where the tarns emptied off the edge of the world. I was able at last to trudge wearily, at my own pace for an hour or so before they all caught up with me at a point 2 hours walk from the village. The two children of the family in our group had been freed to go on ahead and passed me RUNNING.

With a great effort of will I was able to keep up, marching behind the horses in a small dust cloud, occasionally treading out the smoldering cigarette butts discarded by our leaders. We didn't want them to be shot by the environmental police, did we.

Eventually I got left behind, but my arrival was not in much doubt. If I can walk for 18 hours, cover 30 kilometres, climb 2000 metres and descend 2000 metres I can do the last 2 kms. Can't I? I think I can. I did.

I could tell that the others had arrived back. There was A Sign. Rockets and the church bell. When I arrived it was all over bar the shouting, just time to say goodbye to new friends, all nursing their various problems after such unusual exercise. All that is, except the Treveleños. How do they do it? They don't even look tired. I console myself with the theory that yes, they are as tired as the next wimp but they are much better at hiding it.

I don't know about the rest of you but towards the end of a walk I allow myself to fantasise about what treat is in store for me. The fantasy is in proportion to my degree of knackeredness. It might be of a rather boring cup of tea, it might include alcohol, it often includes coffee, sometimes something sweet. Today my body has confused my brain with many signals and I can't be sure what is required. To be sure to cover all angles I went to the bakery for a cream cake and a slice of cheesecake, thus taking care of the sugar angle. I waited impatiently as they were "gift wrapped" as is the Spanish custom then took them with me into the bar opposite where a coffee (automatically strong) and a brandy (automatically large) were ordered. Taking alternate sips, slurps and bites I gave my brain what it thought it wanted. What it really wanted was sleep, and as my bed was only about back up30 more, very slow steps from the bar it didn't take too long to get there. I woke up 12 hours later and found that I had remembered to take off my rucksack and 1 boot. The wife was away.