Sunday, 17 October 2010

Walking in the high peaks of the Picos de Europa

Late summer is an excellent time to go walking in the high peaks of the Picos de Europa and this September I managed to do two two-day walks in this stunning mountain landscape.

The Picos de Europa are sliced into three distinct areas by deep gorges running south-north, these area; the Western Massif, the Central Massif and the Eastern Massif.

The first of these two day walks was in the central massif which is the most abrupt of the three massifs. The central massif is home to the highest peak in the whole Cordillera Cantabrica – Torre Cerredo, at 2648m – amongst several others over 2600m; plus the most famous of all, Picu Urriellu, the Naranjo de Bulnes, at 2519m.

The high dry karst landscape taken from the summit of Torre de la Palanca with Torre Cerredo in the background.
Chamois are very common and well adapted to this high mountain terrain.

On this walk in the central massif I explored an area less known for me; the “Llambrion sector” on the southern side of the Picos. I started at the Pandetraba pass near Posada de Valdeon climbing the Torre de la Palanca (2614 m high) and staying the night at the very spectacularly situated Collado Jermosa Refuge.

The spectacular setting of the Collado Jermosa refuge

Tracks and paths in the lower peaks range from being moderately well way marked paths to minor animal tracks but the higher you go up the passes and routes tend to be much more difficult to find and follow. Apart from knowing how to use a compass there is a definite need for mountain sense when walking in the high peaks, as well as experience of walking and navigating in the mountains.

Good waymarks on the lower mountain paths

The path leading to the Collado Jermos refuge

The high mountain paths can get quite difficult!

The second walk was in the western massif. This massif covers the greatest area of the three massifs which form the Picos de Europa and climbs relatively gently from the hills of the Covadonga area, becoming an almost lunar landscape across its high rocky plateau, centred on the wide depression of Hou Santu, and peaking at the 2596m of Torre Santa de Castilla, before plunging 1500m into the narrow Cares Gorge. On this second walk I started from Pan de Carmen near the lakes and did the complete circuit around the high peaks of the western massif including Torre Santa de Castilla and through the Hou Santu depression.

The impressive Jou Santo

Walking along the rocky slope of Jou Santo.

Geologically what is so special about the Picos de Europa is that they are a unit composed almost purely of limestone, and are the largest single mass of mountain limestone in Europe. The limestone dissolves in rainwater by a process known as karstification, the most visible sign of which is the vertical fluting of rock-faces. Also notable, and typical of karst landscapes, are the sink-holes or “jous” (or “hous” in Asturian), formed by lakes having drained through underground passages. The largest of these seemingly-lifeless jous are over 1km across, and are just as dramatic as the peaks surrounding them. The passages through which they drained have formed an extensive and complex cave system. The high dry karst landscape is typical for its lack of surface water, but infrequent springs do arrive at the surface, though not for long, and they are notorious to locate.

Vertical fluting of rock-faces on the Karst landscape.

A good network of mountain refuges exists in the Picos de Europa, allowing multi-day walking routes. Most refuges are manned and provide meal services, sleeping bags are necessary, and some don’t have washing or toilet facilities. Opening times can vary, and it is advisable to contact the refuges themselves before planning to stay in the. Other refuges are unmanned, such as the one at Vega Huerta. I stayed at this refuge whilst doing the circuit in the Western Massif, it only sleeps four but there is a cave near by to sleep when there is over booking!

Mountain sunset taken from Vega Huerta

The unmanned refuge at Vega Huerta with the highest peak Torre Santa de Castilla in the background.

Opportunities for walking in the Picos de Europa are limitless, with something for everybody. Not only are there high mountain circuits like these two walks but there are also gentle valley strolls, gorge walks, and even easier walks at the 1000m level such as the short walk around the lakes! It’s also possible to visit the impressive Jou Santo on a (longish) day walk. Information on these walks is available on the section on self-guided walking on our web page.

“Gentler” terrain just above the lakes with the higher peaks in the background

Walking up towards Jou Santo from the lakes

There is also much more detailed information on the Picos de Europa on our web page, covering a range of topics including such as flora, geology culture, driving itineraries, walking etc.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Very well written and informative. Thank you!


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