It started as a passing fantasy, turned into a joke, progressed to a 'what if', became 'well perhaps', grew into a possibility and emerged a challenge. NJM says it was my idea. I say it was his. 'Norman Finlay' just gives both of us one of those looks. Maybe Cielo himself was responsible. He sat at the end of the street and dared us. Where ever we went there he was looking over the tops of ridges, lurking behind cloud, or disguised under snow; saying 'You? Get up here? Never!'
Finding the way.
During the first stay at Nerja1 we found dirt roads that ran into the foothills of the Sierra de Almijara. The foothills fall south from the Sierra to the Mediterranean in rock covered slopes of rosemary and pine. They form lines of sharp edged ridges and deep barrancas, sometimes dropping steeply into the sea and sometimes flattening into wide plains. One dirt road to the Pinarillo recreation area ran along the side of a deep barranca on the west of the Romero ridge2, west of Cielo. Another, in the next valley to the east, led to the Nerja campsite and its resident flock of tinkling goldfinches. From the campsite, more tracks led beyond the olive groves towards the top of the valley. Cielo's dome shaped head became a familiar landmark.
The following year came the discovery of the right hand turn off from the recreation area road up the Romero ridge. The turned-off track climbed in a series of hairpin bends through forest where pine martins occasionally scramble through the trees or ibex burst out of undergrowth to bound down impossibly steep slopes. The track led over the top of the ridge and on out of sight. Standing at the top of the ridge, the ruined buildings of the Guarda de la Civila, sitting at the bottom of Cielo's slopes and tucked in behind the first rank of Almijaran ridges and valleys, looked tantalisingly within reach. As the crow flew. Or, in the case of the recreation area valley, Bonelli and Booted Eagles flew.
It took the third return to track down the illusive route3 to the head of the campsite valley. From there it was possible to see a parallel path up the valley to the west, and a track travelling west to east between Romero and the Guarda de la Civila. It looked as if the parallel path might be the even more illusive route to the ruined mill, La Molinera4 and it appeared to join the track running from Romero to the Guarda. What was definite was that the path we were on didn't go to the Guarda any time soon.
In the fourth year an all day trek in the sun, cooled by winds blowing from a snow covered Maroma, proved the existence of that even more illusive path to La Molinera. (You line up this pylon by the track with a particular palm tree on the coast at Maro, turn your back to it and follow your nose.) This illusive path from the campsite via La Molinera did indeed join the track that did indeed link Romero to the Guarda. Sitting triumphantly under the deserted Guarda's almond trees, a faint winding trail up the side of Cielo was visible. 'Next year Cielo!' someone said. As a joke.
But the fifth year, when he sat and dared from the end of Carabeo, or above the Burriana beach, or on coming out of the fruiteria with bags of avocado and artichoke, familiarity bred boldness. In the sunshine the Guarda de la Civila showed like a small scar, two thirds of the way up his sides. A mark that was within reach - almost impossible though that seemed, gazing at him consideringly from the doorway of the fruit shop.
So we went, via the recreation area, not La Molinera which would be more scenic but meant more walking. Leaving at 9am with three picnics each, water, sun cream, hats, cameras, binoculars, spare socks, swiss army knives, sticks, books5 etc we drove as far as the right hand turn-off and then set off on foot along the zigzag track up the west side of the valley. An old mule path shortcuts the hairpins, but it's meant for mules and should be avoided6. We followed the track over the ridge and around the head of the campsite valley; reached the cortijos of the Guarda de la Civila at about noon and stopped for elevenses. After which we wound up the south west flank of Cielo to the top of the southern end of the ridge that leads to the summit. We stopped there for lunch and a short siesta in the sun, then followed the ridge top, occasionally dropping down on the west side to skirt around outcrops of rocks. Norman Finlay nearly gave up here7 but was revived with a handful of marie biscuits and a ten minute break under a rock buttress.
At the northern end of the ridge the ground rose steeply for the last forty odd feet to the top. The paths, if there were any, were difficult to find here. It was impossible to tell possibly helpful cairns from piles of scree. We climbed up the west side, keeping to the rock to avoid the loose gravel and dirt. Norman Finlay spotted the mirrored cross that stands on top of Cielo, made a beeline straight up the rock face for it and was first to the summit - much to NJM's surprise who'd taken a different route, involving no hands, and who had not expected Norman Finlay to go rock climbing. We were at the top at about five o'clock and couldn't afford to stay long. As it was the sun was close to setting when we got back to the car. The round trip took almost exactly eleven hours8.
Climbing Cielo's 1508m is, apparently, the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis. If that fact had come to light sooner the thought of climbing Cielo would never have got to the 'what if' stage.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely. For many reasons:
Sitting drinking orange juice in the Guarda de la Civila's orchard, while watching the mountain goats pick their way among the ruined walls and the finches visiting the water tank.
The scent of thyme and lavender crushed underfoot on the path above the Guarda.
The green hairstreak butterfly seen flitting about the gorse, half way up the slope.
Sitting eating choriso and drinking sangria on top of the ridge; the south coast of Spain laid out below the feet we dangled over the edge, the blue Mediterranean disappearing in a haze into the sky, and being buzzed by crag martins as we sat.
Finding tiny daffodil-like plants flowering in the dirt.
The sun burst crystals among the rocks.
The first sight, without binoculars, of Cielo's mirrored cross. Seven to eight foot high, reflected sky blue, it is stunning from just below the summit. The story goes that a shipwrecked captain set it there in gratitude for guidance9.
The slightly scary final rock climb, to emerge at the foot of the cross.
Standing on this weather flattened roof in the sky 10, steep drops on all sides, while Red Admiral and Swallowtail butterflies chased at speed over the stone.
The views from the roof, of the Mediterranean and the hills and mountains of the Sierras De Tejeda and Almijara, blocked only to the north by Navachica.
The achievement in having got there. In April 2002, we three, 'Norman Finlay', NJM and LatelyLoosely, climbed Cielo!
The sixth year we looked at Cielo with doubt. 'We'd got up there?' And glee. 'Who're you lookin' at?! Are you looking at us!? We've sat on you!'
Before you go...
... should you go... climbing to the sky: Cielo can get lost in clouds - it's probably a good idea to take a compass. And sun cream, hats and water, with the cooling winds from the Sierra Nevada it's easy to get sunburnt or dehydrated. We've never seen them but there are scorpions in the hills, so be wary of turning over rocks. There are snakes too. We've never seen those either but we were told to make a bit of noise around the rocks to warn them to get out of the way. Presumably they did. And there are those very poisonous processionary caterpillars... but they're easily avoided. You just need to know not to touch the silky looking overgrown spiderweb nests in the pines, well you wouldn't, would you? And to give a wide berth to any marching bands of caterpillars. Which we've also never seen. Maybe next time...
This was written for NJM, who thought a two line journal entry I had wasn't enough. Guess what? It's still not enough. Proper directions, he said, proper directions are needed. He's the map studier, is he going to write them?
Well I gave it a go. They made this even more too long than it is already, so they're
here should you want them. They may still not be sufficient but there's nothing improper in them.
translates as Hill of the Sky.