Saturday, January 31, 2009

There Is No Bad Weather….

A friend of mine once told me, “There is no bad weather, only inadequate clothing.” This weekend’s excursion was a perfect illustration of that wise old saying. I suppose I should know better than to go hiking in the mountains in January, even in southern Spain. This weekend’s expedition was to Ventisquero, in the Sierra Sur de Jaén. For you geologists, this is the northernmost of the two mountain ranges which separate the province of Córdoba from the province of Granada (all of which are still in Andalucía). Sorry, there are no pictures this time; there was just no opportunity, as you’ll see.

Yes, southern Spain is mostly sunny and warm. There is snow up in the mountains, but I just haven’t seen anything too bad. When I was reading the weather forecasts for this weekend, they were predicting rain (a 25% probability, not uncommon at this time of year) and snow at the higher altitudes. Based on experiences to date, I was expecting slushy snow that would melt upon hitting the ground. I have a nice warm jacket which is not waterproof, so I brought a plastic poncho just in case. I also bought a pair of polainas (a sort of waterproof leggings), figuring that they would probably stay in my backpack. As always, I was wearing tennis shoes; I’ve never yet found a pair of hiking boots that I liked, either in Spain or in America. The polainas covered most of the top part of the shoes, so I figured my feet would stay dry through anything short of a continuous heavy downpour. All set, right?

I started walking to the pickup point at 6:30am , leaving Tonya blissfully sleeping. It was raining when we boarded the bus…not an auspicious beginning. I slept most of the way to the pueblo of Valdepeñas de Jaén, where we began the hike. It was raining, of course, so I put on the polainas and the poncho right from the beginning. The good news is that the rain stopped after we’d walked a few kilometers. The bad news is that it turned into snow. The worse news is that it was sticking to the ground, rather than politely melting away.

At this point, I was still doing fine. It didn’t feel that cold (my layered outfit was doing its job), and the poncho and polainas were keeping me reasonably dry. There was a fairly stiff wind, but it was at our back for most of the ascent. I tried to ignore that nagging voice that was reminding me that we’d be walking into the wind on our way down. The snow kept getting deeper and the temperature dropped; before long, we were walking on icy ground covered with a layer of fairly slippery snow. I was using both of my walking sticks, and this probably saved me from landing on my rear end in the snow a few times.

Francisco, one of my walking companions, pointed out that I’d put on the polainas backwards, so they weren’t covering my shoes as effectively as they could. At the next rest stop, I fixed the polainas, but noticed that my poncho had developed a rip; historically, this has been a bad sign. At this rest stop, about a third of the group decided to turn around and head back down. I took a deep breath and decided to join them; the weather was continuing to get worse, and I simply wasn’t outfitted for it. As it turns out, the rest of the group turned around shortly afterward. Nobody made it to the peak today.

The return trip went from merely uncomfortable to positively nasty. As I’d feared, we were getting sharp little granules of snow blown into our faces. The wind continued getting worse. The little tear in my poncho turned rapidly into a big tear, and then a second tear, and before long it was in tatters. One of the other hikers later showed me a picture he’d taken of me from the rear; I looked like a scarecrow, with shreds of red plastic poncho trailing behind me like pennants. At least the wind kept the front of the poncho pinned against my chest, so it was still keeping me from getting wet.

As we came down into the pueblo, the snow turned back into rain. Finally came the blessed moment when both the rain and the wind stopped for a time. I dumped the remaining shreds of poncho into the first trash can I saw. By the time it started raining again, there wasn’t any wind, and so the umbrella was effective. Thank goodness; otherwise I’d have been soaked to the skin! We found the only open restaurant in town (with radiators, which were highly appreciated!) and enjoyed one of those wonderful Spanish comidas with wine and bread and lots of dishes cooked in olive oil.

The lesson here is almost cliché for Oregonians: if you’re going to do foul weather hiking, don’t skimp on buying the proper equipment. In my defense, today’s weather was much worse than what I’d expected. I simply don’t do enough of these kinds of excursions to make it worthwhile to invest in the gear.

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