The Picos de Europa are a series of dramatic limestone mountains 300 million years in the making. They cross northern Spain between Santander and Gijón for about 20 km. A cavernous gorge runs through the middle. A paradise for mountaineers, the Picos contain the most famous climb in Spain as well as some of the world’s deepest caves. The area’s human population is around 1,300, including a small group of shepherds who maintain their bygone lifestyle. Moving up the valleys in the summer with their sheep, goats, and cows, they make fabulous blue cheeses that beat the best Stilton I ever had.
By happenstance we ended up in the Valdéon Valley which consists of eight small villages and hundreds of mountains. Representing 25% of the total area of the Picos, Valdéon is surrounded by the northern and western massifs of the Picos and by the Cantabrian mountain range to the east. Legend claims the mountains rose up as the result of a Titan’s mighty punch on the ground. It’s an almost insurmountable area that was the last stronghold of the Cantabrian tribes fending off the conquering Romans. There are no gentle slopes or wide valleys here. It is an epicentre for mountaineers and Spain’s land of the eagles.
We wandered into the Tobaventura climbing store just to buy a trail map. There was no one else in there. In fact, the entire valley was wonderfully devoid of people. The summer high season slows down in early August and is over by September. The two employees present both had special needs and I started liking this business all the more. One was a young man with Down Syndrome, who was moving small crates of equipment into the back room. The other was an effervescent young woman, Raquel, with cerebral palsy.
A TV playing a video loop of three guided adventures caught my eye. On show was canyoning with some rappelling, caving/spelunking also with some rappelling, and the pièce de résistance: climbing the local Via Ferrata. Raquel saw me watching and asked if I wanted to know more? I immediately said, yes. Her English was good enough that I got the gist of the adventure as well as the pertinent logistical points.
We thanked her and purchased our trail map. As we drove the short distance to our trailhead for the afternoon, I turned to Mike and said I’ve decided what I want for my birthday, let’s extend our car rental and find a hotel and do one of those adventures. He’d been asking what I wanted and I figured I’d double down on getting his buy-in by requesting this as my gift. Mike readily agreed and after hiking the Cain Gorge we went back and signed up for the next day’s guided Via Ferrata climb. I wanted to do what would challenge me the most. Even without the physical demands, with my huge fear of heights the Via Ferrata would assuredly do that. I hadn’t read anything about the route, it’s classification, or the physical requirements before we signed up. In hindsight that was a good thing because I might have chickened out. For the record the requirements are:
- Challenging, class 3 and (optional) class 4 route – huh?
- Very good to high physical condition – Yes, at several times in the past
- Steady footing and a head for heights – Hmm…being terrified isn’t a plus
- Power and endurance in arms and legs – See above
Since we hadn’t planned on a longer road trip, we pitched up the next morning dressed in the same dirty pants and cotton T-shirts we had on the day before (not recommended!). Having rained the night before, I was cursing myself for not yet having replaced my hiking boots. Half a tread on each boot was less than desirable. It was one thing to go on the trail hikes we’d been doing, but short of climbing shoes, you really want decent hiking boots as I later learned.
Our guide, Paola, fitted us with harnesses, carabiners, and helmets. Paola is built like a climber, wiry and strong, with a thick two-toned braid, big green eyes and heavy dark eyebrows. She has a fair share of piercings, several removed, and was sporting bright magenta patterned leggings that matched her climbing shoes. She’s young, but an experienced mountaineer and caver. We were joined by one other client, Olga from Segovia, up for a couple of days of adventure. Olga is in her mid-30’s, fit, and covered in artistic tattoos. Paola gave us a quick lesson in the importance of only unclipping one of our two carabiners at a time at the transition points. Makes sense, eh? With that we piled into a van and drove to the starting point.
Originating in the Alps, Via Ferrata is Italian for ‘iron path’. The idea is to give less skilled climbers access to dangerous routes without the risks of scrambling or the hassle of setting belaying ropes. A steel cable runs along the route and is fixed to the rock every 3-30 feet. Sections are equipped with different materials (iron rungs, pegs, chains, suspension bridges) to aid climbers.
Opened in 2016, ours was the first Via Ferrara in Picos de Europa and runs for just under a mile. Ascending 1000 feet, the route is broken into three stages. The first stage begins with a suspension bridge over a 300 ft gorge that goes straight into a 400 ft vertical rock wall climb. Once on top of that you enter the second section, considered the hardest part because it contains a significant section of overhang. Should the first two sections be enough, you will now have reached the first escape route. The third and final stage comprises some horizontal scrambling followed by the last 150 ft wall. It is here you gain the best views of the western massif.
My adrenaline started pumping the moment I stepped on the bridge. My heart rate jumped. Just craning my neck up at the first rock face increased it further. Paola gave us instructions and then agilely scrambled up. Hanging off rungs above she’d point out the best footholds and softly give encouragement. My racing heart would steady just a little with every “perfecto” she uttered. When we were near the first crest my foot slipped as I was stretching for a wide foothold. I swung 180 degrees sideways, feet dangling, clinging on with all my might. I held myself and didn’t have to rely on the carabiners to stop my fall. But the extra adrenaline almost put me over the top. I took a deep breath. Smiled. And refocused on the next holds.
At each stage we stopped for water and a brief rest before continuing on. It’s amazing what you can do with adrenaline coursing through your body. Though the temperature was cool, I was dripping with sweat. I didn’t realize how much exertion was involved until the following morning when I felt the soreness in my arms. We reached the summit in just over 2.5 hours. Even Paola was surprised by how fast we were. Then, we took a few quick photos and gave each other high fives before we picked up the trail leading us down the mountain.
Turning back to enjoy the silhouette of the three conquered peaks, we were rewarded with a Bearded Vulture soaring out just below us, its huge, distinct wingspan floating gracefully on the air. This beautiful bird of prey is indigenous to the Picos and was nearly extinct only a few years ago. While technically not an eagle it is the pinnicle for bird watchers here. Paola told us this was a rare sight. A perfect end to our adventure.