Recently I revisited Peñalara—the biggest mountain in Madrid’s Guadarrama range. I had already been to the mountain four times, but never before in the dead of winter. I doubted that there would be any snow at all. But I was wrong. The landscape was completely covered with snow and ice, smoothed slick by the wind. Rebe and I tried to climb to the peak, but we couldn’t even get halfway. The ground was too slippery, the wind too strong, and the fog too dense.
But it was still a lovely time. As a New Yorker, I sometimes find myself yearning for a proper winter in Spain. Going to the mountains gave me a taste of the cold without my having to live in it. It’s a perfect daytrip from Madrid. The only negative aspect was that, this time, I had to pay almost 30 euros round-trip to get there. Rebe, on the other hand, traveled for free, since it was included in her youth metro pass. Oh, the lost dreams of youth.
“I think that was the train,” I said to GF as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.
“Maybe we should have ran for it.”
“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”
The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartín train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.
“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.
We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t come for another hour.
“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk. We gave up and went home.
One week later: Round Two.
This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.
The ride to Cercedilla lasts a little more than an hour. This was two years ago, shortly after arriving in Spain, and so it was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid. Most striking, for me, was how parched is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.
Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. I have since gone back to Cercedilla a few times. It is an attractive town, popular as a cool getaway during the hot summer months; it sits up in the Madrid Sierra, not far from El Escorial and Rascafría. There are some very pretty hiking trails immediately outside the city.
But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt GF tugging on my arm.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.
“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”
“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just got off.
“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.
Three minutes later we were sitting on a quaint old wooden train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other.
The train creaked into motion. Immediately we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie, the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us.
The train to Cotos makes only one stop on the way there, at Navacerrada, which is a small town that mainly serves as a base for hikers and campers. Along with Cercedilla, it is also one of the stops along the Camino de Santiago from Madrid.
Finally the train reached Cotos. Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.
“Man!” I said. “It’s freezing here!”
“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”
“You only brought your t-shirt?”
“What were you thinking?!”
“But it was warm in Madrid!”
We wandered around, noticing that we had wandered into a national park. But the cold was overwhelming. I tried to warm myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing around, but it was al in vain.
“We really have to go,” I finally said to GF. “Sorry.”
“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”
“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”
And so, thanks to a small but very stupid choice on my part, we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.
Two months later: Round Three
We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat. In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.
Once again, we took the train from Chamartín; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.
But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—which, in Spain, is not the flour-based wrap of Mexican cuisine. A Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes, cooked in the shape of a thick cake and cut into slices. They are gooey, hearty, and delicious—easily one of my favorite Spanish dishes. But I found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin. (Nowadays I eat tortilla with bread every day, and I haven’t gained a pound.)
This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.
“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”
“Really? I feel fine,” GF said.
“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”
I felt strangely winded, perhaps from the altitude, but more probably it was all in my head. Yet I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.
We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range, otherwise known as the Madrid Sierra. These are the mountains that bound Madrid’s northern edge, separating the province from Segovia, and which provide some of the best hiking and most picturesque sights in the country. Peñalara itself rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over the peaks.
Soon the trees had all but disappeared. The only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud.
We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. This is the Refugio Zabala, an open refuge that was built in 1927 by the members of the Guadarrama Society. The door is always open and unmonitored, though two people could hardly fit in the available space (the rest of the building is taken up by material storage and weather-monitoring equipment).
We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.
“Hey hold on,” I said to GF. “I want to take a picture.”
“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”
So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.
We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears.
Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now. Some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter: we made it.
We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.
But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?
My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.
Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment?
Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost.
“Want a carrot?” GF asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.
I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.
We had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.