Spain's Sierra Nevada: Safety first in the mountains

Spain's Sierra Nevada has given British walkers the taste for 'sun rock'. But these peaks are less benign than they appear. Mark MacKenzie reports
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The Independent Travel

The mountains of Spain have proved increasingly attractive in recent years to those adventurous souls in search of rocky mountain highs in the depths of the British winter. A combination of cheap flights and favourable year-round temperatures has led to a burgeoning reputation among Britain's seasoned walkers and climbers. But as a spate of recent accidents suggests, conditions in a destination famed for its "sun rock" can prove less benign than they first appear.

Three Britons trekking in Andalucia's Sierra Nevada range froze to death earlier this month after being caught in a snow storm on the south side of the 3,482m peak Mulhacen. Reports suggested the three men, who had significant hill-walking experience in the UK, were inadequately prepared and may have underestimated conditions on Spain's highest mountain where, in winter, blizzard conditions can descend in minutes and plunge temperatures to minus 20C.

A London charity worker was rescued in February from the Picos de Europa range, in the north of the country, after enduring five days in sub-zero temperatures. And a British couple died in the same range two weeks earlier after the rapid onset of extreme conditions caused them to become disoriented.

So are Spain's mountains a challenge too far for all but the very best mountaineers? "Over the past 20 years, Spain has developed into one of the main rock-climbing centres in Europe," explains John White, a former mountaineering specialist in the Lake District National Park. White's company, High Point, has been providing climbing and mountaineering tuition in Spain's mountain ranges since 1992. "In winter, Andalucia and the Costa Blanca provide climbing at a time of year when the UK can be prohibitively cold," he says.

One reason problems arise in the Sierra Nevada, White believes, is that Britons are relative newcomers to the area, unlike other Spanish ranges. "It's well known as a ski area within Spain but otherwise it's not considered one of Europe's great resorts. The British do visit, but only in relatively small numbers."

The south side of the Sierra Nevada, the range known as the Alpujarras, which includes Mulhacen, looks towards the Mediterranean, but despite its southerly location, says White, the area endures a far harsher climate than the northern side where most ski resorts are located. "I've climbed there in the middle of winter and experienced some of the coldest conditions I've been in," he says.

White insists that despite recent events, Spain's mountain rescue services are as accomplished as those of any other European country and that information on local weather conditions is readily available. "Wherever there are ski resorts there will be daily updates," he says. "These will mostly relay information that is relevant to skiers - imminent snowfall, the likelihood of avalanches and so on - but it will also offer advice on any storm fronts that are expected. For anybody planning a trek, this is crucial information."

Nevertheless, at around 3,500m, the Sierra Nevada is recognised by accomplished mountaineers as a significant step up from climbing in the UK, where the highest peak, Ben Nevis, stands a mere 1,344m high. "It may not be the Alps but the height of the mountains and the snow generate conditions that are equivalent," says White. "The weather can deteriorate from a nice day to an awful one in 20 minutes. On the highest mountains, this can occur almost instantaneously." Despite such potentially treacherous conditions, climbers in the Sierra Nevada, as with the majority of other European mountain ranges, do not need the permission of local mountain rescue authorities in order to climb.

White's advice to anyone contemplating a trip to the region is to undertake a basic "snow skills" course, such as those run by the British Mountaineering Council, before setting off. "Digging a snow hole - the survival technique attempted by those who died on Mulhacen - works only if you have the right kit to keep yourself warm while you're in there. You also need to make sure you can use an ice axe and crampons correctly and that you're comfortable moving across steep snow fields."

Climbing in any of Europe's high altitude locations will always be an exercise in risk management. "Even with the best will in the world, and the right equipment, you can get caught out," White says.

For more information on climbing instruction in Spain with High Point: mountainguides.co.uk; 017684 86731. The British Mountaineering Council runs Alpine training courses for climbers and mountaineers intending to climb in the Alps, or equivalent. Courses, based in Chamonix, run from June to August. For an application form, go to thebmc.co.uk; 0870 010 4878

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