145 – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

In this slightly late guide to eastern León, we have already covered some roadtrips (here and here),  some easy hikes (and here) and some cycling. Now it’s time to talk about some proper hiking. While popular (and generally easier) trails are often very well signposted, tackling the more demanding peaks requires some orientation skills or alternatively, this day and age, technology. Hikers in Spain generally use Wikiloc – I recommend paying for the premium version as it allows you to download the trail on your phone or GPS device and track your position against it, so if you are following a difficult or unmarked path, it prevents you from wandering too far off it. Very handy for scarcely frequented DIY hikes. Most times even the most deserted trails are marked with coloured dots or little cairns, but they are not always easy to spot. Alternatively, the National Geographic Institute offers a great, if not very user friendly, search engine and apps for trails, but once you learn how to use them, they are by far the best and most reliable orientation tools available in Spain (obviously, spanish only). Still on the same website, consult Iberpix for detailed maps of Spain (incl. the islands), with elevation and terrain indications. Again, not the most intuitive software to use, but you can create, download and/or print your own maps there. 

Pico Susarón at sunset viewed from the reservoir of Porma

Today I’ll take you through three classics of the region. Well, two and a half, as the ascend to the third one was aborted mid-climb due to incumbent thunderstorms. General tip: Bring enough water. There are fountains in every village (and even though they usually state that the water is untreated, it’s perfectly safe and delicious), sometimes there are springs or watering places for cattle along the trails, but they may be dry in summer, so just plan your hike a little bit. It’s not fun to run out of water when it’s hot. 

Reservoir of Riaño in the morning light

Pico Gilbo (1679 m) – when you look towards the steep peak towering above the bridge of Riaño, it seems almost inaccessible, like you would not guess there is a path that gets you to the summit without any need of climbing equipment. The first part is easy, the wide flat dirt road follows one of the fjords of the reservoir. Take the path on your left hand side after roughly a kilometre and start climbing through the oak forest Hayedo de Vallarqué towards the meadow Collado de la Pedrera. You will see the peak in front of you. Keep climbing to the other side of the crest, where the first views over the reservoir open in front of you. The trail then leads you on the side of the mountain just below the summit, where you take a narrow channel that will take you to the top. The trail is not always perfectly visible, but it’s intuitive, as there is no other way to go. The slope is very steep at this point, so you have a wall at one side and emptiness on the other. Maybe do not attempt this hike if you suffer from vertigo. The hike is not long (about 9 km / 720 m vertical climb overall), but the final ascend is rather demanding. You will be rewarded by most amazing views from the peak. To descend, you retrace your steps to Collado de la Pedrera again, and cross leaving it on your right hand side, then descend through another centenary oak forest Hayedo de las Biescas. You will soon get back to the flat dirt road, and follow it along the water all the way to the bridge. On an nice summer day you can even go down to the shore and swim in the reservoir. Wikiloc trail here, to have an idea. There is also a away to ascend on the steeper crest from the opposite face of the mountain, but you will need equipment and an experienced guide for this. Most adventure agencies in the area can organize it for you. 

The views from the summit are just stunning, but don’t let them fool you. The closure of the valley and filling of the reservoir was an enormous environmental and socioeconomic disaster with irreparable consequences for the life in the valley. The construction of the dam began in 1965 under the franquist regime and the project subsequently froze during the transition to democracy in the 70s. Out of Spain’s total 1.225 dams, more than 500 were built under Franco, often by bloodshed and fire. But while this practice may be unsurprising during a dictatorship, one would not expect it to happen in a democracy. This was not the case of Riaño. The project was resuscitated after PSOE won the general elections in 1982, as the labour party was trying to capture the votes of the small landowners of Tierra de Campos (the fertile leonese lowlands) and win over their gratitude by promising irrigation. The intention was met with protests not only in the directly affected villages in the valley, but also in big cities like Madrid, Bilbao and Valladolid. Finally, the government decreed the construction of the dam a of public interest in 1985 and send the military to overlook the expropriation and demolition of the villages destined to be flooded. The works were completed on 31st December 1987, just one day before coming into force of a relevant EU environmental directive that would have made closing of the dam illegal. There has never been any official inauguration, there was nothing to celebrate: 9 villages buried under water, a couple of suicides and many destroyed lives. On top of everything, the irrigation of the lowlands never really worked, as to this day only 10% of land exploited for agriculture in Castilla y León depends on artificial irrigation that brings water mostly from the system of reservoirs on the river Duero. They could have as well built an airport never intended for processing passengers. For the spanish speakers among you or those simply interested in seeing some historical photos of the region prior to the construction of the dam, read this and this article, or watch this documentary (in spanish only).

Pico Susarón (1878 m) – from Puebla de Lillo. You simply cannot get this wrong. The majestic peak towers above the village of Puebla, there is no way you can miss it. Just follow the dirt road that leads towards it. After roughly two kilometres, cross a meadow on your left hand side and start climbing up a channel between the peaks of El Piñuelo and Susarón. There are two ways of tackling the summit, I’d recommend the one we did. Once you arrive to the pass, take a small path on your left hand side that leads just below the crest. It’s marked by tiny cairns. The ascend is gruelling, for several reasons: there is no shade, it’s steep and you see the summit above you for the entire time and you are not getting any nearer to it. The reason I think this is the better way is that the terrific view from the top is concealed until you are there. But when you reach the summit, the entire reservoir of Porma is at your feet, it’s the most rewarding feeling. Certainly rewarding enough to make me instantly forget the previous two hours of swearing under my (short) breath. Because after years and years of hiking I still don’t really like walking uphill. Yet I somehow seem to forget that bit every time. Only joking. The view is magnificent and totally worth the effort. To descend, take the trail on the opposite side of the mountain (it’s marked by blue – maybe yellow, I cannot remember now – dots). This will take you back to the pass, where you can decide whether you want to retrace your steps through the channel or rather walk around El Piñuelo for a longer and gentler descend through the oak forest and back to the dirt road that leads back to Puebla. Wikiloc trail here

Pico Yordas (1964 m) – from Liegos. This was supposed to be the final and maybe the hardest (certainly the longest) hike of the three, but unfortunately we had to retreat and abandon mid-ascend due to abrupt change of weather, strong winds, and imminent thunderstorms. Wild mountains are no place to brave the elements. If you are blessed with more clement meteo conditions, this is the trail to follow (only my intention was the opposite direction, harsher ascend, longer descend, and more importantly a possibility to refill water bottles at Fuente de Tejal roughly two thirds into the hike). 

Some photographic evidence that I actually made it to the top (almost killing my friend and co-hiker Pete in the process. Thanks for the pics by the way). How to attempt an injury in a terrain accessible with extreme difficulty. Do not try this at home, kids. Or anywhere else. But damn, that’s a fine pair of legs…

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