I recently returned from a challenging week in the Picos with some friends I’d met last year on a snow shoeing trip in the French Alps. We’d planned to spend the whole week snowshoeing but also carrying crampons & ice axes, so that each day along the way we could tackle a few interesting ridges & peaks. You get the picture: hardcore high level snowshoeing with some winter mountaineering thrown in for good measure!
Sadly although there was a lot of snow, the temperature had increased during the previous week & there had been rain, so the upper slopes we were headed for were very heavily loaded & potentially unstable. Shock horror the prospect of low level snow shoeing beckoned – the equivalent of walking round a tarn on a really bad day in the Lakes.
Estate Agents live & breath location, location, location. I now swear by the more complex mantra of location, flexibility, & local knowledge! You need a location that has the scope for different activities, you need to be willing to be flexible, and most of all you need someone with the local knowledge to adapt your plans but still keep you challenged & fulfilled. Fortunately for us we were on a privately arranged guided holiday, staying with an independent English mountain guide called Mike Stuart, who has lived in the Picos for over 20 years. He was more than able to adapt our itinerary, so despite the snow conditions we still had a great week.
I last stayed with Mike 3 years ago & our frequent starting point had been a 1600 m pass called Puerto de San Glorio. This year the pass & the area above it was something of a maelstrom, & definitely not a safe bet for a good day out. However Mike simply drove us round to a neighbouring valley 30 minutes away with a different aspect but similar altitude, & we were back on track for a challenging day in the great outdoors. On another day he took us to the far North East of the range nearer to the coast with no intervening high mountains, as it tends to be free of cloud when the more southerly areas are bad, & again he came up trumps.
To mix things up & really challenge me, he took us on a brilliant scrambling adventure on a mini peak & rocky ridge below the snowline, which from a technical perspective was similar to the North ridge of Tryfan. We also spent a day trekking through the magnificent Cares Gorge along precipitous cliff side paths dodging feral goats.
An added bonus was Mike’s knowledge of bars within a 10 minute drive of wherever we had left his Landrover, no matter how remote we appeared to be. A beer after a long day in the high mountains is undoubtedly the best beer ever.
Then to end the week the temperature dropped & the cable car at Fuente De beckoned & shot us up to 1,834 m for our final day, spent snowshoeing up to Cabana Veronica at 2,325 m. It was originally a gun turret from an old battleship & is shaped like a metal igloo. It sleeps 6 & is strapped to a small peak & used by climbers as a basecamp. After our packed lunch out of the wind in the cabin, we trekked to a col & buried our snow shoes, donned our crampons, & hefted our ice axes to climb a fantastic & quite exposed 2,506 m peak with amazing views. Mission accomplished, but only through the knowledge & flexibility afforded by our brilliant guide.
As if to underline the point we had a couple of hours to spare before we flew home from Asturias airport near Santander, so Mike took us to a lovely seaside restaurant 10 minutes from the airport, where we basked outside in the sunshine eating paella. What a chilled out way to end the holiday, rather than the usual hours spent wasting time waiting for your departure.