A Change of Scenery – Part 1

It takes a lot to get my skis and I out of our home ranges. The combination of the Rockies, Purcells and Selkirks is enough to provide me with an endless stream of inspiration for ski missions ranging from utterly boring to actually fairly adventurous. This March though, an opportunity to ski in a forgotten chain of 3000m+ peaks in southern Spain and pay a visit to the alpine mecca of Chamonix was enough to tip the scales. It turned out to be perfect timing, and with a 30 year avalanche cycle brewing here at home, I was packing my bags for a corn harvest in the Spanish Sierra Nevada.

I’ll spare you the details of roughly 23 hours of transatlantic travel, other than to mention that trying to sleep in economy class sucks, Transavia is not my favourite airline and an eight-hour layover isn’t so bad if it’s in Amsterdam. That night, having finally arrived in Granada, I nearly burned an entire day and forgot to set my alarm. In what I can only attribute to a minor miracle, however, I woke up just in time to make the second of the two buses to Sierra Nevada resort. The ski hill is by far the easiest way to access the snow in these mountains, and besides, I had a stop to make. The reason I found myself in Spain with skis at all was my girlfriend’s participation in the Freestyle Skiing World Championships, so before I got into any kind of exploring I skinned up to the ski cross course to say hello. With that accomplished, I spent the rest of the day skiing mini golf lines in all kinds of atrocious snow near a massive radio telescope at the edge of the resort.

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Sierra Nevada: a bit of a different look compared to the ski hills I’m used to.

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See? Giant telescope.

When I say the snow in this range is atrocious I really do mean it. Aside from pounding it into ice, the prevailing winds sweep sand from the Sahara desert into the area, giving everything an unappealing beige colour. The whole pack seems to cling tenuously to the scree, as if holding on by its fingernails while contemplating life in a river somewhere far below. Then, of course, there’s the scorching Meditteranean sun. Luckily, the location is unusual and spectacular, and besides, I kind of like bad snow.

Day two ran on a similar schedule. I enjoyed a solid morning tour – this time with the sun out to soften things up a bit – before wandering back over to the course to watch some racing. I don’t get anywhere near enough chances to see India race in person anymore, and despite landing hard on her back in a training crash, she laid down an excellent result.

After that a rest day was certainly in order, at least for her, so we figured what better place to rest than at sea level, in the ocean? A great bonus to skiing in the Sierra Nevada is being within an hour of the Mediterranean, so we took advantage and jumped on an inexpensive bus to the coast. Afer that, a few more of the subsequent days were spent enjoying the history, culture and tapas in Granada while the pain in India’s back subsided a little. Normally I’d be less than thrilled to be stuck in town, but Granada is a genuinely beautiful city, and as anyone who knows me can attest, it takes an awful lot to get me to say that.

With one full day left in Spain we shook ourselves out of tourist mode and got the ski gear back together. Still too cheap to buy lift tickets, we took a quick ride in a shuttle bus to the highest resort parking lot, where, away from the busy base area a small group of Dutch sounding splitboarders were living among the warm boulders. We skinned from there, enjoying sun, beautiful views and a surprisingly cold wind that I’m pretty sure had some sand in it.

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Not pictured: the bitter, slightly gritty wind.

We continued ascending until eventually, we reached the summit of Pico Veleta at 3398m. It should be noted, that’s not an impressive achievement at all, as the peak really isn’t very far from the lifts at Sierra Nevada. That didn’t matter to us though, as we sat soaking in views which stretched from the highest point on the Iberian Peninsula at the summit of Mulhacén, almost 3500m down to the Mediterranean Sea. The thought of working our way over there crossed our minds, but the round trip looked to involve several hours of icy sidehilling for a peak only 80m higher and a short, lousy ski descent. Instead, we contented ourselves with scraping down to a lower elevation on Veleta where the snow had softened and skiing there instead.

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Mulhacén is just left of centre, with the ocean far below on the right.

Back in Granada that night a uniquely Andalusian celebration was in order, featuring local cervezas, sangria, tapas and traditional African tea in the city’s ancient Albaicín quarter. The next morning we were back at the Malaga airport, ready to catch another flight, make some more turns and fulfill a childhood dream in Chamonix.

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