3 Mar 2012

Up the Montcabrer: the ice, snow, mud and thumbs.

I can't quite seem to catch up with these hiking posts! I guess in a way I should be grateful I had a rough night last Saturday and decided at the last minute not to go hiking on Sunday 'cause that way I'm able to post this before another hike (tomorrow) gets added to the waiting list... :p

This is a tale of climbing a mountain. On a gloriously sunny Sunday. With ice and snow. Saved from breaking anything thanks to trekking poles and thyme bushes. But still managed to find myself with my ass covered in mud... and ended up with sprained thumbs! ;o)

So two weeks ago (Feb 19th) I headed out in a smallish group (4 cars) with the Centro Excursionista de Alicante to climb Alicante's 3rd highest peak: the Montcabrer (1390 m above sea level - 4560 ft). The Montcabrer is the highest peak in the Sierra de la Mariola, a mountain range (for lack of a better word) because of its important botanical richness and diversity. There are various paths up to the Montcabrer, the four main ones are from Alcoy (original path), Cocentaina, Muro de Alcoy and Agres. Originally we were supposed to climb up from Alcoy, but Luis -our guide- had gone up 10 days before to check out the route and discovered that the Alcoy route was going to be much tougher than usual because of the massive amount of snow along the path (result of a Siberian cold front that left snow in Alicante's mountains -and the rest of Spain- early in February). So he switched us to the "easier" route from Agres.

Here's a map that shows our route (amongst others).

We started at point 1, the Santuario Mare de Déu d'Agres (convent) which is at 789 m above sea level (2588ft). 

From there we climbed up through a pine forest and discovered that the snow that had fallen in Alicante's mountains a few weeks before wasn't quite gone... a part of it was still there, frozen on slippery paths.

To avoid slipping I walked on the crunchy vegetation to the side = thyme shrubs....  fabulous smell!

until we reached the mountain refuge Refugio de Montcabrer (point 2) which is at 1216 m (3990ft), so that's a nice little 427m (1400ft) climb in just 2.5 km (1.55mi).

From the Refugio we walked with the peak of the Montcabrer in our sights,

heading down (we lost a couple hundred meters in altitude) along a comfortable path until we came to a crossroads (point 3 on that map) with several other paths (from Muro de Alcoy and Cocentaina).

Isn't this peak pretty damn impressive? I love the fact that there's still so much snow on this face. Must have been even more spectacular a couple of weeks ago when it was all fresh snow! :o)

Easy path for a little while, but then of course the climb got quite a bit steeper...

And muddier! I guess that's what happens when the ice melts... icky but better than slipping all over the place.

Why must the final bits of a climb always be so bloody steep? Or does it just feel that way because your legs are tired from all the walking/climbing? 

Anyhow, the view up top while we were having our mid-morning snack was well worth the climb! :o)

looking South towards Alcoy and the Font Roja

North: Muro de Alcoy and the Beniarrès reservoir

East: Cocentaina at mountain base. Top trails meet (left ours, front one from Alcoy)

Weeeeeeeh! I'm at 1390 meters above sea level! 

One major drawback of hiking the Alicante mountains? Our lack of vegetation makes it hard to find a safe spot to squat down and eliminate excess fluids! Thank heavens for this big bushy tree: ;o)

We headed back down the same way we'd come up, and ended up crossing paths with a group climbing up from Cocentaina which included several hikers who usually hike with us! Traitors! :p

Just before we reached the Refugio we followed a path to the left which led us to one of the biggest snow wells in the province of Alicante, the Cava Gran or Cava Arqueada.

It was built in the 15th or 16th century and was in use until 1906 (and then sporadically in the 1930s). 

The exterior layout is hexagonal, the interior circular with a 14.9m (49ft) diameter and a 12m (39ft) depth. Its estimated capacity was approximately 1960 cubic meters (518 US gallons). 

Apparently the regional government in Alicante bought it several years ago and started restoring it, but I guess the economic crisis got in the way... :s
Anyhow, it made a lovely place to have lunch while basking in the sun and enjoying a fabulous view of the Montcabrer.

After lunch we backtracked to the Refugio and then continued on the a secondary peak, the Morro del Comptador, passing by a much smaller snow well.

We hung out by the forest fire watch house for a bit, admiring the views...


And then decided to try one of the possible paths back down to Agres (instead of the way we came up).

Unfortunately after descending a bit and discovering the next stretch was very steep and very ICY we decided to just turn back and climb back up...

and then head back over to the Refugio and hike down the way we came up, through this snowy forest you see here below:

A shot of the first steps down... less ice than when we came up, but still kind of dangerous (and other stretches were worse than this).

I followed the instructions I was given on the climb up (off the path, walk on the vegetation or snow, less slippery), but still couldn't manage to avoid a slip and before I knew what was happening found myself covered in mud... Same thing happened to 4 others. Fortunately no one got hurt!

We continued on down through the forest, until we reached the Convent and our cars (then finished up in a bar in Agres with hot drinks before driving home).

A challenging but thrilling hike! Here's an altitude profile I found on Spanish hiking site Andarines for the climb from the Convent up to the peak:

Approximately 12km (7.45mi) round-trip. Not too long, but with a climb like that and the added stress of the ice, well it was gruelling and I was exhausted when I got home! I thought I'd end up having a massive technicolour bruise on my ass and thigh the next day and so was very relieved to just have sore legs for a couple of days and no crazy skin colours! It took my legs 4 days to stop acheing (my bad, forgot to stretch properly when we made it back to the cars). Once they stopped I noticed my thumbs were still bothering me... the left one actually hurting whenever I bent it. WEIRD!!! 
So I got a consult with my personal physiotherapist via Skype (what good is having a fisio in the family when she decides to live in England???), and she told me that I had better get myself to a flesh and blood fisio asap since it wasn't normal for it to still be hurting 10 days later! Local guy told me it's probably a sprain, but really weird because only the lower phalange hurts. Anyhow he did stuff to it and told me to soak it in alternating hot/cold water... but I overdid it a bit: both too cold and too hot! 

Crazy sprain... probably won't be a good idea to use the trekking poles tomorrow... but I get the feeling I'm really going to want them at some point in the descent/climb of 6000 steps into Hell's Canyon... but that's a story for another day! ;o)

Question: have you ever sprained your thumb while hiking? I was holding on the those poles for dear life... and my thumbs are NOT happy about that!


  1. Nice pictures! I especially liked the one of you 1390 meters ASL. I sprained one of my thumbs once on a hike and it took (I hate to tell you) almost a year before it was totally normal again. Of course, I am a bit older than you... :-)

    1. A YEAR?! noooooooo! Were you able to use your hiking poles?

      Well hopefully this isn't really a sprain (we just don't know what else to call it, it's really weird!) so hopefully it won't be that long... I hate sprains. It's been almost a year since my knee last April, and sometimes it still bothers me while hiking! Thank heavens my ankle seems to be A-OK.

  2. Another wonderful hike. What's the purpose of the snow wells? Do they just hold the melted snow? I wonder if your thumbs are stressed from the pressure of using the hiking poles? Especially since its the lower thumb area. They may be internally bruised.

    1. This is why I need to find time to write a post on the snow wells! lol!
      They're ancient ice-making machines!!! Pack the snow in hard (it had a domed roof so sun wouldn't hit it) between layers of straw and then in the summer they'd cut out ice blocks to sell. Was apparently a very lucrative business! (that went the way of the dodo when electric iceboxes were invented)

  3. Wow, this hike seems no joke!! Cool shots; I've never been to this part of Spain. I'll be heading over to Spain again but this time to the Canary Islands ;)


    1. the Canary Islands?! ¡Qué pasada! ¡Son una preciosidad! Which one? I've been to Gran Canaria and Tenerife but didn't get a chance to see much as I was there for a conference. I need to go back! :o)

  4. Snow and mud. Que peligroso!!!

    Also: was that an octopus plushie? o_O


    1. What's that? And octopus you say? Better have your eyesight checked... ;o)

      That's Pol, my travelling companion. He's kind of like Waldo, hidden in some pictures. But in others he likes to be up front and centre. ;o)

      Here's a bit of a story about his namesake:

      And here he is playing in the snow:

  5. OMG! The scenery is breathtaking. Very nice account of the hike. Hope your thumbs heal soon!

    1. Almost a month later and I'm still "feeling" my left thumb, right one's 100% better though! :o)

  6. Amazing pictures i like your article keep writing about your journey and share pictures always with us

    1. A new commenter! Welcome and thx for stopping by! :o)

  7. November 17, 2013. I hiked up Montcabrer Summnit. After a heavy snowfall the path was difficult but the landscapes was wonderful.

    1. I REALLY wanted to go up one of the mountains that day!!! We could see snow from Alicante... But I had other obligations so couldn't get away... I hope there will be more snowy days this winter I will be able to escape to the mountains to and enjoy! ;o)


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