Monday, 5 December 2011

Snowshoeing in Spain’s Sierra Nevada Mountains

Do you have a map? Yes.

Do you have a compass? Yes.

Do you have a GPS? Yes.

Do you have an ice axe? No we are staying in the forest.

Do you have crampons? No, we have snowshoes!

Paco was clearly going through a list drawn-up by someone else but found our reasoning acceptable and let us pass.

Although Spain’s Sierra Nevada contains the highest mountain in mainland Spain (Mulhacen 3472m), there is only one downhill ski resort in the range. Essentially, this is an undeveloped wilderness in winter where you can get away from it all and experience some genuine backcountry snowshoeing. Each day you can access a different part of the range from the relatively warm southern side with its pretty villages built hundreds of years ago when the Arabs ruled Spain. Dirt track roads lead to high starting points. It’s also possible to stay high in relative comfort at the Poqueira Mountain Refuge at 2500m or fend for yourself at one of a number of unmanned bivouac refuges to make a multi day trip.

The appeal for us running snowshoeing holidays there is the undeveloped nature unlike so many European alpine resorts whose association with skiing, après-ski, and chairlifts spoil the wilderness experience.

Above Capileira

Leaving Paco to continue his questioning, we set off into the trees. The forest above Capileira is our favourite starting point when introducing people to snowshoeing or to this area. Capileira at 1300m is usually just below the snowline and breakfast of coffee and “tostada con tomato” can be had in one of a number of bars before heading up into the snow.

The usual summer road head of Hoya del Portillo is unobtainable, but it provides a good highpoint for a first day out on snowshoes. Up through forested valleys we tramped, passing numerous rocky outcrops, which gave us views of the valley below. The route that day would take us to the summer road head, which in winter was blocked by many feet of snow. We return partly through forest clearings and recently thinned trees, which offer ideal snowshoe terrain. One of the highlights in spring as the water starts to flow again is crossing an “acequia” one of the many water channels built by the Arabs who settled here in medieval times. Although, the Arabs are long gone, their legacy in these water channels and village architecture still remains. The style of building in the high mountain villages here are similar in style to the Berber villages of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains.

A Trip to the Poqueira Refuge

An alternative is to continue above Hoya del Portillo, which offers a good circuit up to the Poqueira Refuge at 2500m. Not easily possible as a day trip, the refuge does provide a “hotel” service 365 days a year. This modern refuge sleeps up to 84 and can be busy at weekends. Booking is advisable though at anytime of the year.

From Hoya del Portillo it’s possible either to ascend through the stunted pines or easier up the fire break with its stunning views above the Poqueira gorge up to Valetta the second highest mountain in the range. Forty minutes above Hoya we come to the viewpoint of Puerto Molino. It’s from here that we get our first decent views of Mulhacen, mainland Spain’s highest mountain. An undulating ridge leads from here to Mirador Trevelez 2700m where we begin our descent down towards the hut. We skirt the hill of Alto del Chorrillo where we can see a huge cairn about 1km in the distance. This marks the way to the Refuge, which can be seen from the cairn.

A night in the Poqueira Refuge is a great experience. Although the food is basic mountain fare, there are usually four courses and plenty of it. The log burner in the dining room provides plenty of warmth though a down jacket and sleeping bag are useful for upstairs.

By spending two nights at the Poqueira refuge it’s possible to ascend Mulhacen. This is a more challenging proposition, and really only the South Ridge from Alto del Chorrillo is suitable for snowshoes – the West Ridge being steeper and requires ice axe and crampons.

If choosing the West Ridge route, the ascent from the refuge to the Caldera bivouac refuge is up through the valley of the Rio Mulhacen. There is some avalanche risk here and starting early is a must as is having avalanche transceivers, shovels and knowing how to use them. Despite the difficulties, the summit on a clear sunny day offers some great views, of the entire range, and well beyond.

Returning to the valley from the Poqueira Refuge can itself be interesting. It’s possible to complete a circuit by either returning along the path running under the west side of the ridge we ascended back to near Puerto Molino or by descending down to Cortio los Thomas and by following the acequia, which brings us out onto a trail (driveable in summer) beneath Hoya.

Caballo, Europe’s Most Westerly 3000m Peak

Caballo is our favourite mountain and has been the source of many adventures. It’s a nice – though hard day – out from Lanjaron. Driveable dirt tracks take us up to near the road head at 2100m just short of the old ruined Ventura Refuge. Where the snowline starts varies, but it’s usually possible to reach the road head and have snowshoes on within 20 minutes of starting the ascent.

It usually takes around four hours to reach the summit this way. Last march we were able to drive most of the way in a friend’s four-wheel drive and a group of us, including six-month old in a backpack, enjoyed a day of warm sunshine exploring the southern flanks of the mountain. From the old refuge we headed northwards ascending gradually until we hit a forest of stunted pines. An ascent to the top of the forest before leads to a diagonal traverse up to the ridge, which is then followed to the summit. The safest way back avoiding the avalanche risk of the Rio Lanjaron is to retrace your steps, which on a clear day gives views across to the mountains in North Africa some 150Km away. Allow three hours for the descent.

If the snow conditions allow access to it’s possible to drive high, onto the West Ridge of Caballo, which provides the easiest and safest ascent. We’ve found it to be a nice route in April and early May – a four- or five-hour round trip.

Puerto De La Ragua

This is a cross country ski “resort” situated at 2000m. The road to this point is usually kept clear and it provides a good starting point for both easy snowshoe itineraries and for some more serious mountain itineraries. Parking with a café bar, restaurant makes this more of a traditional style alpine resort and good base for circular routes.

Following on from our Poqueira trip, we decided to head off to Ragua. We resisted the temptation to have a coffee, as the forecast for the afternoon was not so good. Instead we skirted the prepared cross country ski tracks and took a big loop to scale the easy rounded summits of Morron de la Cabanuela 2223m and Morron del Hornillo 2375m. From here we dropped down through the trees to follow the track for a short way back to base.

Care should be taken when returning through the forest, especially near the Baranco del Hornillo as there is some avalanche risk here. The more adventurous may wish to extend this itinerary to include the Morron del Mediodia 2753m though a cautious eye should be kept on the weather and time. On this occasion we just managed to enjoy the open tops before the wind got up by which time the café beckoned and we returned to the warmth.

Conditions and Technical

Spain’s Sierra Nevada lies a long way south relatively close to North Africa. Its height attracts the snow and there is usually reliable snow cover most years from 1900m in January, February and March. That said, we have found acceptable snow well into May, and the ski resort has remained open into May for the past three years.

The area can attract very high winds and because of the high altitude the climatic conditions can be very adverse. If contemplating the higher routes you will need experience in survival situations and be able to navigate well in snow. There are plenty of lower more sheltered routes in the forests for those windy days. The Guardian and staff at the Poqueira refuge are always happy to advise on conditions in the higher mountains.

The maps are for the most part accurate in what they show. If it’s on the map it’s usually there on the ground. However, none of the maps show craggy features; so much caution needs to be exercised if following a compass or GPS device in poor visibility as you may be walking off a cliff.

To make the most of a trip to this region you should consider hiring a car. We hire small vans for the extra ground clearance negotiating the dirt track roads. Hiring four-wheel drive vehicles is better though expensive. Capileira is the best base if you do not have a car though you will have to walk an hour to the snowline. The Spa town of Lanjaron is a good base for access to a variety of routes, but you will need your own transport.

Mountain House Holidays will be running seven-day snowshoeing holidays based from the spa town of Lanjaron in February and March 2012, though we also take clients for daily-guided trips at other times.

There is some information on our website for those wanting to plan their own trip, but we are always happy to share our experience with anyone who gets in touch.

There are other guides available locally, but please be aware that only acceptable qualifications for snowshoe guides in Spain (and most of Europe) are International Mountain Leaders or IFMGA Guides.


There are few places left in Europe’s mountains that are undeveloped for skiing and winter sports. Spain’s Sierra Nevada remains one of these giving a truly wild backcountry feel. A higher level of commitment is needed though because of this lack of development. Rescue can be problematic with no dedicated rescue service; maps not including obvious features such as cliffs; and the combining of altitude and possible high winds giving sometimes arctic conditions. We have got to know the area over many years, sometimes turning back when conditions have dictated it. We expect to spend many more years further exploring the range.

These days Mountain House guides are well known and Paco doesn’t bother going through his checklist with us, rather we engage in pleasant conversation about the mountains, weather and environment. As he says, “you know it all.”

Spanish suburbs transformed into land of shattered dreams


When Magali Quezada began working at a remittance office in suburban Madrid four years ago there were long lines of customers -- now she waits patiently for someone to walk in. "It used to be swarming with people, there were long lines of people who wanted to send money back home," the 34-year-old Peruvian said as she looked around the empty office at Torrejon de Ardoz. Like other Spanish suburbs, Torrejon saw a huge influx of immigrants during the years of a profitable real estate boom as millions of foreigners arrived seeking jobs in construction and the service sector. Immigrants account for about one-fourth of Torrejon's population. They come mainly from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe and have helped keep the town's bars, cafes and beauty salons busy during the good times. But with immigrants especially hard-hit by the collapse of Spain's real estate bubble in 2008, stores are now deserted. "For sale" signs dot the windows of flats, and the suburb is plagued by unemployment and shattered dreams. "We got used to the good life, we had leisure time, we could buy a plot of land in our countries, we brought over our families. Now all of that is over," said Quezada who arrived in Torrejon a decade ago. Spain's unemployment rate soared to a 15-year high of 21.52 percent in the third quarter, the highest among major industrialised nations. But among immigrants the joblessness is even higher, standing at 32.7 percent. Many now struggle to meet repayments on car and and home loans given out with ease by banks when times were better. When Luis Mendes arrived in Spain in 1997 from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the West African coast that is one of the world's poorest nations, he thought he found his land of opportunity. The 40-year-old worked long hours on a farm and then as a construction worker and got a bank loan for 100,000 euros to buy a 70-square-metre flat in Torrejon. "I earned a good living, I earned 1,800 euros a month because I would often worked overtime. It was enough to help my family who stayed behind," he said. "Today I don't work anymore. I received jobless benefits during a year but now I am not entitled to them anymore," said Mendes, who shares his apartment with his two brothers who are also out of work. He is facing eviction from his flat because he has not been keeping up with his mortgage payments. The street where Mendes lives has been nicknamed "eviction street" because several other people risk losing their homes over missing mortgage payments. Last month a group of about 60 activists who fight against home foreclosures tried in vain to prevent two bailiffs from evicting Consuelo Lozano from her first-floor flat in Torrejon. The 40-year-old unemployed cleaning lady had already sent her two sons and daughter back to her native Ecuador with her husband but she cannot walk away from her 200,000-euro mountain of debt. "It is a fight against giants and I am nothing beside them," she said, her eyes welling with tears, after she turned over her keys to the bailiffs. Lozano would like to go back to Ecuador but if she leaves Spain the debt on her flat would pass on to her sister, who is a guarantor of the bank loan. "I could go back to Ecuador but where would I leave my conscience which torments me?," she asked. Other immigrants, like Mendes, have no desire to return to their homeland. "It is very hard, I live very badly now. But it is even worse in my country," he said.

Yard detectives investigating Maddie disappearance travel to Spain and Portugal


SCOTLAND Yard detectives investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann have flown to Spain and Portugal, it emerged yesterday. Three officers met colleagues in Barcelona last month. It is believed the visit was linked to reports Maddie may have been smuggled into the country after being snatched just before her fourth birthday on a holiday in Portugal in 2007. Advertisement >> Investigators hired by parents Gerry and Kate earlier uncovered a child porn ring in the city. A Met Police spokesman said there had been “good co-operation” between the forces. Scotland Yard was called in to review the case earlier this year following a request by PM David Cameron. The McCanns praised cops and added in a statement: “We are pleased that the review is making progress.”

Speeding was identified as a possible cause of what is believed to be one of the world's most expensive ever road accidents

Ferraris and a Lamborghini – plus a Toyota Prius – were among the vehicles involved in the crash, which witnesses said happened when a speeding car slid across a wet road surface.

Television footage showed mangled Ferraris – many of them racing red – and debris spread over some 400 metres of the eastbound side of the Chugoku Expressway, the main trunk road in southern Honshu.

A pack of about 20 supercars was travelling in convoy on Sunday morning on a stretch of wet highway when the leading Ferrari slid into a guardrail, police said.

Those behind slammed on their brakes, but for many of them it was apparently too late.

"I've never seen such a thing," highway patrol lieutenant Eiichiro Kamitani told AFP by telephone. "Ferraris rarely travel in such large numbers."

Kamitani said 10 people – five men and five women – sustained slight injuries, in the accident. "It is highly possible that they were driving in couples."

"Many of them were probably on their way to Hiroshima," some 130 kilometres (80 miles) to the east, for a gathering of supercars there, said Kamitani.

"Speeding was possible but we have yet to determine the exact cause," he added.

The Prius and a second Toyota also caught up in the 14-car smash were not thought to be part of the supercar pack. The three other vehicles involved in the accident were all Mercedes-Benz.

An unidentified male eyewitness told the TBS network: "A group of cars was doing 140-160 kilometres (85-100 miles) per hour. One of them spun and they all ended up in this great mess."

The speed limit on that section of the highway was 80 kilometres per hour (50mph).

"The front car crashed into the left embankment and bounced off toward me," another man told public broadcaster NHK.

The highway was closed for more than six hours while authorities removed the wrecked cars.

A 36-year-old self-employed man, who did not want to be named, described a scene of chaos as he was driving in the opposite lane at the time of the accident.

"Cars were making a tremendous noise," the man, from Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, told Japanese media.

One of the Ferraris was reported to be a F430 Scuderia, a model with a top speed of 320 kilometres per hour.

Kamitani said the lead Ferrari was being driven by a 60-year-old self-employed man from Chikushino, near Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu.

Japanese media said the total cost of the pile-up could run to 300 million yen ($3.8 million), with new Ferraris retailing at more than 20 million yen each and Lamborghinis costing anything up to 30 million yen.

Supercars are not necessarily owned by the super-rich in Japan. Many owners are young people who save up their earnings to satisfy their dream, according to media.

No one has been yet been charged over the accident.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Rich Egyptians weigh emigration as Islamists surge


For decades, Egypt's Westernised elite kept the country's growing religosity at arm's length, but a projected Islamist surge in the first post-revolution polls has driven many to think of moving abroad. Sporting the latest fashions and mingling in upmarket country clubs, Egypt's rich fear a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafis in the first phase of parliamentary elections presages change ahead. "I hope they don't impose the veil and ban women from driving like in Saudi Arabia," said coquettish fifty-something Naglaa Fahmi from her gym in the leafy neighbourhood of Zamalek. In a nearby luxury hotel, Nardine -- one of Egypt's eight million Coptic Christians who are alarmed by the prospect of a new Islamist-dominated parliament -- is pondering a move aroad. "My father is seriously thinking about sending me and my brothers elsewhere because he thinks we won't have a future in the country with the Salafis," said the banker in her twenties. Ten months after a popular uprising ended the 30-year autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak, millions of Egyptians embraced their new democratic freedoms earlier this week at the start of multi-stage parliamentary elections. The preliminary results to be published on Friday were expected to show the moderate Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant force, but with a surprisingly strong showing from the hardline Al-Nur party. Its leaders advocate the fundamentalist brand of Salafi Islam, rejecting Western culture and favouring strict segregation of the sexes and the veiling of women. They say they have been the victims of Islamophobia and sustained fear-mongering by liberals in the Egyptian media. Nevertheless, the fear that they will try to impose their values on the rest of society has driven Angie to consider leaving her comfortable Cairo life behind. "My husband recently got a job offer in Dubai. In the beginning I was hesitant, but now, with all that's happening, I'm encouraging him to take the job and I'll join him with our daughter," she said. "The Gulf has become more liberal than Egypt," she told AFP. For Ahmed Gabri, having the Islamists in power means having his freedoms restricted. "I will leave the country," said Gabri, a Muslim. "I will not stand living in a puritanical climate. Why don't they just let people live the way they want?" The next parliament will be charged with writing a new constitution and the idea of an Islamist-dominated assembly has sent shockwaves through some segments of society. Many stress the difference, however, between the different Islamist groups. "They don't scare me. We have democracy now which means we'll be able to remove them if they don't suit us," said Manar, a tall blonde in her 40s. "It's the not the Muslim Brotherhood that worries me because they want to appear in the best light, it's the Salafis that I'm concerned about," she said. Iman Ragab, a shop assistant, has resigned herself to the election's likely outcome. "This is democracy, you have to accept the results of the ballot," she said.

Royal Navy comes to the aid of Spanish trawler under pirate attack


The British Royal Navy has arrested seven suspected pirates after helping a Spanish fishing vessel which was being attacked in the Indian Ocean. The British Ministry for Defence said the Royal Auxiliary Fleet Ship Fort Victoria, carrying Royal Marines, carried out the rescue on the 28th of November between Somalia and the Seychelles. The RFA Fort Victoria is a stores ship with is designed to carry ammunition, food and explosives to replenish naval vessels at sea. The vessel’s navy helicopter fired shots at two suspected pirate vessels which were then searched by the marines. They pirates were taken to the Seychelles where the suspects will stand trial.

Málaga port's new attraction closed after seven hours


The new Muelle Uno has been closed as building works are continuingThe Muelle Uno development - EFE After much fanfare about the opening of Málaga port to the city, and the opening of the Muelle Uno on Tuesday, the Málaga City Hall decided to order the closure of the new street just seven hours after it opened to the public. A public statement was sent out which said that, for reasons of safety, and because the building work was still continuing, they were ordering the street to be closed and called on the tender owner to close the shops. Just five hours earlier the Mayor of Málaga, Francisco de la Torre, and several councillors went to the reception prior to the inauguration of the new attraction in the Marina de la Farola. The owner of the concession was reported to be considering what to do on Tuesday night, and whether to remain trading anyway, but that decision has been overruled by the guards placed on Wednesday at the entrance to the zone, stopping the public from gaining access. The City Hall has made a new statement saying the area will not open until all the building works are fully completed.

Three tons of cannabis seized from Alicante drugs yacht


The haul has a street value of more than 5 million €A previous haul of cannabis resin .. Three tons of cannabis have been seized and four suspects have been arrested in a joint operation by the Customs Authority and National Police which took place off the coast off Alicante on Tuesday morning. The operation was on the high seas some 70 miles off shore, where a Customs patrol boat intercepted a yacht which was visibly sailing low in the water and was later found to be carrying 100 bales of cannabis. Diario Información puts its street value at more than 5 million €. The three crew were arrested and a fourth man was taken into custody on shore. It’s understood that three are Spanish and the fourth is a foreign national who has lived in Spain for some years. The operation remains open and further arrests have not been ruled out.

British man dies, strangled in a ponche


A 32 year old Briton died on Mallorca around 1730 on Wednesday afternoon in a domestic accident in a property in Cami de Son Choix de Lloret, Lloret de Vistalegre. He was strangled when a poncho he was wearing got caught in a generator which he had just started up. 061 emergency services arrived at the scene and found the man seriously injured, but there was nothing they could do to save his life.

British paedophile arrested in Almería


National Police have today arrested a 66 year old British man who is wanted on four charges of rape and on twelve counts of sexually abusing his step-daughter when she was nine to 13 years old, and then later the granddaughter when aged six. The arrest took place in Los Gallardos, Almería, and the man has been named as L. Morris. The search for him started in July 2010 when the granddaughter finally told her both that she had suffered abuse on two occasions, and an arrest order was then issued with the suspect fleeing to Spain. Meanwhile a man wanted in Sweden has been arrested in his home in Málaga province. J.F. Ask, aged 56, is wanted on tax evasion charges and is accused of not paying tax between 2001 and 2005.

Hundreds of metres under one of Iceland's largest glaciers there are signs of an imminent volcanic eruption that could be one of the most powerful the country has seen in almost a century.


Mighty Katla, with its 10km (6.2 mile) crater, has the potential to cause catastrophic flooding as it melts the frozen surface of its caldera and sends billions of gallons of water surging through Iceland's east coast and into the Atlantic Ocean.

"There has been a great deal of seismic activity," says Ford Cochran, the National Geographic's expert on Iceland.

"There have been more than 500 tremors in and around the caldera of Katla just in the last month, which suggests the motion of magma. And that certainly suggests an eruption may be imminent."

Scientists in Iceland have been closely monitoring the area since 9 July, when there appears to have been some sort of disturbance that may have been a small eruption.

Eruption 'long overdue'

Even that caused significant flooding, washing away a bridge across the country's main highway and blocking the only link to other parts of the island for several days.

"The July 9 event seems to mark the beginning of a new period of unrest for Katla, the fourth we know in the last half century," says Professor Pall Einarsson, who has been studying volcanoes for 40 years and works at the Iceland University Institute of Earth Sciences.

Start Quote

It means you actually see the crust of the earth ripping apart”

Ford CochranIceland expert, National Geographic

"The possibility that it may include a larger eruption cannot be excluded," he continues. "Katla is a very active and versatile volcano. It has a long history of large eruptions, some of which have caused considerable damage."

The last major eruption occurred in 1918 and caused such a large glacier meltdown that icebergs were swept by the resulting floods into the ocean.

The volume of water produced in a 1755 eruption equalled that of the world's largest rivers combined.

Thanks to the great works of historic literature known as the Sagas, Iceland's volcanic eruptions have been well documented for the last 1,000 years.

But comprehensive scientific measurements were not available in 1918, so volcanologists have no record of the type of seismic activity that led to that eruption.

All they know is that Katla usually erupts every 40 to 80 years, which means the next significant event is long overdue.

Smoke billows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokull on 16 April 2010Eyjafjallajokull's relatively small eruption in 2010 halted air traffic across Europe

Katla is part of a volcanic system that includes the Laki craters. In 1783 the chain erupted continuously for eight months generating so much ash, hydrogen fluoride and sulphur dioxide that it killed one in five Icelanders and half of the country's livestock.

"And it actually changed the Earth's climate," says Mr Cochran.

"Folks talk about a nuclear winter - this eruption generated enough sulphuric acid droplets that it made the atmosphere reflective, cooled the planet for an entire year or more and caused widespread famine in many places around the globe.

"One certainly hopes that Katla's eruption will not be anything like that!"

The trouble is scientists do not know what to expect. As Prof Einarsson explains, volcanoes have different personalities and are prone to changing their behaviour unexpectedly.

"When you study a volcano you get an idea about its behaviour in the same way you judge a person once you get to know them well.

"You might be on edge for some reason because the signs are strange or unusual, but it's not always very certain what you are looking at. We have had alarms about Katla several times."

Changing climate

He says the fallout also depends on the type of eruption and any number of external factors.

Iceland fissures 1 December 2010Iceland is the only place where the mid-Atlantic rift is visible above the surface of the ocean

"This difficulty is very apparent when you compare the last two eruptions in Iceland - Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 and Grimsvotn in 2011.

"Eyjafjallajokull, which brought air traffic to a halt across Europe, was a relatively small eruption, but the unusual chemistry of the magma, the long duration and the weather pattern during the eruption made it very disruptive.

"The Grimsvotn eruption of 2011 was much larger in terms of volume of erupted material.

"It only lasted a week and the ash in the atmosphere fell out relatively quickly.

"So it hardly had any noticeable effect except for the farmers in south-east Iceland who are still fighting the consequences."

Of course, volcanoes are erupting around the world continuously. Scientists are particularly excited about an underwater volcano near El Hierro in the Canary Islands, which is creating new land.

But Iceland is unique because it straddles two tectonic plates and is the only place in the world where the mid-Atlantic rift is visible above the surface of the ocean.

"It means you actually see the crust of the earth ripping apart," says Mr Cochran. "You have an immense amount of volcanic activity and seismic activity. It's also at a relatively high altitude so Iceland is host to among other things, the world's third largest icecap."

But the biggest threat to Iceland's icecaps is seen as climate change, not the volcanoes that sometimes melt the icecaps.

They have begun to thin and retreat dramatically over the last few decades, contributing to the rise in sea levels that no eruption of Katla, however big, is likely to match.


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