Camplife on the High Sierra

My friend Mick and I are just back from the Sierra Nevada. Not the Ansel Adams one, the other one… the one the Californian range was named after. The idea was to traverse the range east to west before turning south, crossing as many of the 3000m peaks (of which there are about 30, plus another dozen or so subsidiaries) as possible. We managed most but not all of the 30.

Both of us have been visiting this part of the world for about a decade - on and off - Mick more than I - and it has personal, political and cultural significance for us both, but this was mostly new and chewy ground. These are still fairly untamed mountains; intermittent paths, no signage and plenty of wildlife, much of which is endemic to the range. The Spanish Sierra Nevada are the highest mountains in western Europe outside the Alps, but are much less busy and burdened with far less infrastructure.

Here’s a few throwaway snaps. Not the best pictures of the trip - to be honest, they’re some of the worst… but they already have some kind of emotional resonance for me. This is the material you don’t get from the big commercial operators (yadayada). An actual journey, yo. 7 days only, but at times in some challenging weather and some intense terrain. It’s a place where the lines between backpacking and mountaineering can get all fuzzy if you choose the right (or wrong?) line. A traverse of the Sierra Nevada is compact but sustained.

 How a journey starts - our drop at 2000m by friend and local guide Richard Hartley. This isn’t him, it’s some dude fixing up the ski tour place ready for the coming season. Cool and pine scented, anaemic and slightly surreal.

How a journey starts - our drop at 2000m by friend and local guide Richard Hartley. This isn’t him, it’s some dude fixing up the ski tour place ready for the coming season. Cool and pine scented, anaemic and slightly surreal.

 Cloud clearing the morning after the night before, on the eastern plateau, reminiscent of the eastern Cairngorms but around 1500m higher and covered in tufts of very sharp, spikey grass. A desert tundra.

Cloud clearing the morning after the night before, on the eastern plateau, reminiscent of the eastern Cairngorms but around 1500m higher and covered in tufts of very sharp, spikey grass. A desert tundra.

 Night 2, and we were settling in. So was the weather.

Night 2, and we were settling in. So was the weather.

 The practicalities. This was the first time I’ve carried tupperware and an ultrasonic motion sensor into the mountains. I was using an open tarp so the remainder of the food was stored in dry bags and stashed in my doorway. Foxes (Zorro!) have been known to shred tents to get at food, so better to be a good neighbour, not set bad precedents and keep the place a bit wilder for everyone.

The practicalities. This was the first time I’ve carried tupperware and an ultrasonic motion sensor into the mountains. I was using an open tarp so the remainder of the food was stored in dry bags and stashed in my doorway. Foxes (Zorro!) have been known to shred tents to get at food, so better to be a good neighbour, not set bad precedents and keep the place a bit wilder for everyone.

 Mick attempting to cram 10 days worth of kit into 5 days worth of rucksack, while my Spanish topo turns to Papyrus second by second.

Mick attempting to cram 10 days worth of kit into 5 days worth of rucksack, while my Spanish topo turns to Papyrus second by second.

 Mick later said he had an urge to return the head, which we found a few metres from the rest, to the body. He didn’t though, and that’s when the rain started.

Mick later said he had an urge to return the head, which we found a few metres from the rest, to the body. He didn’t though, and that’s when the rain started.

 Trying to dry everything out after a day of mixed weather - rain and hail. To think I nearly didn’t take a map case and waterproof trousers. The horror.

Trying to dry everything out after a day of mixed weather - rain and hail. To think I nearly didn’t take a map case and waterproof trousers. The horror.

 Later that same night. A sloppy photo with an overly long exposure but in an impressive location. Our stay was accompanied by lightning flashes and distant booms for several hours, but from many miles away, bouncing around abstractly in the high cirque.

Later that same night. A sloppy photo with an overly long exposure but in an impressive location. Our stay was accompanied by lightning flashes and distant booms for several hours, but from many miles away, bouncing around abstractly in the high cirque.

 Another evening, another cirque, another sloppy exposure…. and finally calm and clear after another all day soaking.

Another evening, another cirque, another sloppy exposure…. and finally calm and clear after another all day soaking.

 After that, conditions improved. Sunset on the lower flanks of the highest mountain in mainland Spain.

After that, conditions improved. Sunset on the lower flanks of the highest mountain in mainland Spain.

 … and the morning after. A ridiculous place to spend the night, and with fantastic photographic potential.

… and the morning after. A ridiculous place to spend the night, and with fantastic photographic potential.

 Mick still wasn’t quite feral by this point, and took some persuasion to assume the pose with this Ibex skull. His professional instincts (he’s a senior nurse) kicked in this time though, and he returned the upper jaw bone to it’s rightful owner after the photo. You won’t believe me (and he didn’t either) but this is a sincere ritual for me, and a mark of respect. We are all animal. See - told you - sounds like BS.

Mick still wasn’t quite feral by this point, and took some persuasion to assume the pose with this Ibex skull. His professional instincts (he’s a senior nurse) kicked in this time though, and he returned the upper jaw bone to it’s rightful owner after the photo. You won’t believe me (and he didn’t either) but this is a sincere ritual for me, and a mark of respect. We are all animal. See - told you - sounds like BS.

 My personal favourite doss of the trip, a place with a real and tangible resonance. Some places just ring like a bell, you have to stop and listen. It gets even better just around the corner.

My personal favourite doss of the trip, a place with a real and tangible resonance. Some places just ring like a bell, you have to stop and listen. It gets even better just around the corner.

 Not much of anything to anyone who wasn’t there, perhaps. Pre dawn light from my bivy bag on the final morning camped outside an old forester’s building, being slowly consumed back into nature. I love the heightened sense of life and growth after time in high places - the smell of damp earth, the noise of insect cities, the colour of flowers and the smell of herbs. We even had blackberries for breakfast.

Not much of anything to anyone who wasn’t there, perhaps. Pre dawn light from my bivy bag on the final morning camped outside an old forester’s building, being slowly consumed back into nature. I love the heightened sense of life and growth after time in high places - the smell of damp earth, the noise of insect cities, the colour of flowers and the smell of herbs. We even had blackberries for breakfast.

Richard Hartley (that guide I mentioned - who has literally written the book on the area) and I are thinking of running a week’s guided photography trip in late Spring, 2019.

We’ll steer clear of the more severe scrambles and the weather should be much more stable. A Spanish High Sierra photo tour has the advantage of being off the beaten track and can be run affordably. The group size will be no more than five. I’ll share more on it once we’ve finalised the details, but if you are interested, please get in touch by email.

hasta luego