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A "Peak" Experience
Hiking and Climbing Spain’s Hidden Picos de Europa

As I carefully pick my way over the rocky ledge, seeking a safe spot in which to drop my weary body, I consciously avert my eyes from the incredible scene just beyond the edge. Only after I'm perched comfortably, with my back and feet firmly planted on the sun-warmed rock, can I gingerly look down at the unbelievable white rock wilderness below. More than a thousand feet down lies the vast Jou Santu, a scoured glacial depression devoid of any vegetation and filled with piles of rock and rubble reminiscent of scenes from the movie Zabriskie Point. Across from this immense basin and against one of the bluest skies I've ever seen stands the imposing mass of Pena Santa de Castilla (8,515'), one of the impressive pinnacles that make up the Picos de Europa of northern Spain.

I can't shake off a general feeling of disbelief as to where I am and what I'm doing. We ten climbers are rock climbing up Pena Santa Maria de Enol, an 8,128-foot peak. None of us have any climbing experience to speak of, but here we are roped up, grappling our way up this beautiful peak with the support and encouragement of our two guides, Erik Perez and Miguel Angel. To my surprise, I was not the only one who harbored secret fantasies of learning to rock climb "sometime, some day." Although some of us had been doubtful and hesitant about attempting it, after a practice session the previous day and with Erik's approval, we were now halfway to the top.

Although I started this morning with a slight feeling of trepidation, I realize suddenly that I'm having the time of my life. The slight shakiness in my legs is not due to fear, but excitement! It's an exhilarating feeling to scramble up these limestone cracks and ledges. The feel of the textured rock under my hands is wonderful. It's almost sticky in its roughness and I feel like it's almost impossible to slip once contact is made. On our hike up to the base early this morning, we had seen many chamois peering curiously at us over the tops of rocks and marveled at how they could scamper around without slipping. Now I realize how the high friction of the limestone allows their hooves to cling to the rock.

Whenever I pause for a rest, or to wait for others on the rope, I gaze out over this fractured, tortured landscape with a feeling of amazement. I don't like to use the word, but one has to admit that these mountains are, yes, awesome. The Picos de Europa, with its three major massifs, would often be the first glimpse of Europe that seafarers would see as they returned home from voyages; thus their name, the "peaks of Europe." We'd been hiking in and around these massifs for the past week and climbing this mountain has proven to be one of the high points of our tour.

Picos de Europa
Hiking in the Picos de Europa (Photo: Dena Bartolome)

We are almost completely alone in this stone wilderness; only a small party of Dutch climbers shares the mountain with us. They overtake us quickly and soon again the welcome feeling of isolation descends upon us. The supreme quiet and absolute stillness of the day gives pause for quiet reflection, punctuated only by shouts of encouragement or "piedra!" called out as a warning of rock fall. There is no idle conversation. All of us are intent on the task at hand. In between moments of intense effort, we all reflect on the wild and magnificent mountain scenery, and on a newfound sense of personal accomplishment.

At the summit, we grin at each other proudly and say things like "wow, great view!" It's impossible to say anything but the most inane things, it's really too much for words. Ridge after ridge of mountains like giant upturned saws fall away from us in all directions. To the north is a narrow ribbon of blue that is the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles away. After the obligatory round of picture taking, we suddenly find that we're famished. Miguel begins to haul goodies out of his pack: Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, fresh bread, bananas and oranges, and the inevitable chorizo. We laugh when he pulls out a huge can of pineapple rings and holds it aloft triumphantly.

Descending from the summit is just as fun as the ascent. Right at the end we have to rappel down a short pitch of about 50 feet. One by one, we descend on the rope. As each of us reaches the wide ledge from where we started, congratulations are shouted out. We all feel that we have accomplished something pretty fantastic today. Although the degree of climbing was not difficult by mountaineering standards, climbing Pena Santa was way beyond what any of us had ever encountered. It's a marvelous feeling to extend yourself and accomplish something you thought you could never do. But what made it even sweeter was that it was a shared experience. Supporting and encouraging each other had bonded us together as fast friends in a way few other experiences allow. We were one. Book an exciting climbing adventure in Spain just like this one with Expedia.

By Dena Bartolome

Courtesy: Mountain Travel Sobek

Dena is Mountain Travel - Sobek's writer and editor. Of all the Mountain Travel - Sobek trips she has joined (about 15 to date), she rates Hiking Hidden Spain as one of the top three. Part of what makes this trip so special is that the province of Austrias in northern Spain is relatively unknown to outsiders. It's a unique area, unlike any typical image of Spain one might have (no castanets or flamenco music here).  The people are Celtic in origin. In fact, their music is based on bagpipes and sounds quite Scottish or Irish in tone. They are Austrians first and Spaniards second, and are warm, friendly, and helpful to outsiders.

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