Millican Weekends are a series of stories that celebrate the people making big adventures out of small pockets of time.
'It felt like we were in the peaks of Europe for longer than two days. Perhaps it was the changing weather, which felt more like changing seasons, or the curious feeling of being on the beach in the morning and a mile high into the mountains by evening.'
Words & Photography by Bobby Mills | @mobbybills
If you were on a boat, travelling from America to Europe, before any kind of computer technology, you'd be looking out for the Picos De Europa Mountains on the horizon as you approached the European continent. The soaring peaks lay just 20km inland from the shoreline and were used as a navigational reference for seafarers crossing the Atlantic. The highest peak, Torre de Cerredo, reaches 2,650m above sea level and might have seemed as though it was coming straight out of the water.
We were spending some time on the northern Spanish coast close to the mountain range when we heard of an unseasonal late-spring snowstorm on the forecast. With a couple of days spare we decided to head up into the mountains for a chance to wander in the snow with views of the Atlantic.
By late spring, the peaks are well and truly thawing out from the deep winter months. The rivers and waterfalls are full and deep, not raging anymore, and the daytime temperatures are comfortable if the winds are calm. The nights can still get cold but nothing a few extra layers cant keep at bay. The brown bears are out of hibernation and the ice climbers are up in the highest reaches of the range where sheer altitude keeps the ice from melting.
Straight roads from the coast turned into gently rolling corners as we started to climb. Before long we are slowly moving along twisting roads beneath tall limestone peaks and ridges. It felt a world away from the beach where we were in the morning.
The highest permanently habituated village in the peaks is Sotres. The village is surrounded by peaks and sits above a deep valley. We walked some 6 miles over the course of the afternoon crossing the valley and climbing the other side. The air was still and if I hadn't heard it on the forecast, you wouldn't have thought snow was on the way. Before sundown, we headed back to Sotres for some local blue cheese and to find a place to stay. With the snowstorm due overnight, we settled into the van for a fresh one.
Sunrise saw the peaks and the windscreen coated with a soft layer of snow. The sun slowly moved across the landscape highlighting the mountains in golden pink hues. We had a route planned for the day that would involve making our way around the Macondiu peak. At first light and totally by chance the summit was drenched in the beautiful morning light.
We're not experienced mountain hikers, nor do we get to spend much time surrounded by mountains so this was a pretty breath-taking place to be. The snow made it feel like winter, but before long the spring sun was warming our backs. Whilst we ate breakfast we saw some early morning ice climbers prepping for some action. Ice axes, crampons, and bunches of different ropes are all things I'm not familiar with. We figured the route we had in mind might be passable, but it was impossible to say how much snow had fallen up there overnight. We had a circular route planned if everything played ball, and were open to the idea of turning back if things got a bit dicey. I certainly hoped we weren't planning on going where the ice climbers were headed; not with our lack of knowledge and rose-tinted fuzzy mountain eyes.
The ice climber's set off before us and disappeared into the scaleless landscape. We slowly headed up, tracing their footsteps.
The Macondiu peak was an impressive form as we followed the trail. When everything is so big it's hard to get an idea of scale with nothing to reference, and distance is impossible to judge. It was nice to be walking here. Moving along at a refreshing three and a half miles an hour, maybe less, given the terrain. There was time to wonder about what animal might have left certain tracks, or spot the 'Rebeco', a local species of mountain deer which are abundant in the area. A couple of hours passed and we reached a mountain refuge. This was as high as we planned to go, any higher and perhaps that’s when you need all that gear I have no idea about. From here our route traced around the belly of the Macondiu peak in a northerly direction. The peak towered above us on one side and dropped off completely into a valley on the other side. It wasn't long before we got the view we'd hoped for.
It was a beautiful place to be, standing on a snowy ledge a mile above sea level. The layers of mountains before the faint blue horizon. One of the nicest things was that there were no buildings, no roads, and no planes in the sky, no ships on the water. It was a totally natural landscape of just mountains, ocean and sky.
We descended along a long trail that eventually dropped below the snow line, from the limestone boulders and ridges to woodland and grazing pastures. Spring had seemingly sprung again. Fresh green shoots on the trees and the faint sound of trickling water coming from the mountains as the fresh snow began melting as quickly as it fell the previous night. By the time we arrived back at the van, some nine hours after we set off, the grass that was completely covered in snow that morning was green again, with only the odd patch left.
It felt like we were in the peaks of Europe for far longer than two days. Perhaps it was the changing weather, which felt more like changing seasons, or the curious feeling of being on the beach in the morning, and a mile high in the mountains by the evening. Either way, it was a great couple of days surrounded by an incredible landscape with a couple of good walks thrown in for good measure.