At a lofty 3482m Mulhacen is the highest mountain in mainland Spain. Apart from routes climbing its north face, Mulhacen is a walker's peak with mainly non-technical routes. Yet the Sierra Nevada are high serious mountains in winter, and although you can see the Mediterranean and the African coast on a clear day, they should not be underestimated. The area might best be described as like Cairngorm, plus altitude. That said it's sunny more often than not, and if you have the right skills, appropriate gear and a good weather forecast then you will be rewarded with some great mountain days.
There are five routes up Mulhacen that are accessible to walkers in winter, each of which is described below. All will require winter mountaineering experience and appropriate equipment. In addition the routes from Trevelez are long and tiring, and may need a night on the mountain depending on conditions. Once above the snowline expect the paths to be covered. There is almost no waymarking of paths in the Sierra Nevada, and few cairns. Good navigation is a key skill necessary for safe winter mountaineering.
NB. Please note the times given assume good conditions and do not allow for hours spent floundering about in deep snow. Conditions vary widely in winter and if you find yourself running out of time, be prepared to cut your route short.
"When snow falls in the Sierra Nevada it is usually accompanied by strong winds. The most reliable months for snow are December - April"
1. South Ridge from Hoya del Portillo (2100m)
Occasionally the forest road is open to Hoya del Portillo from the village of Capileira (though normally blocked by snow). If this is the case, it is possible to ascend Mulhacen’s South Ridge and back in a long day if the conditions are good.
Hoya del Portillo to Alto del Chorillo: 2.5 hours. Although open sided, there is a “visitor centre” at Hoya, which could provide shelter for a wild camp. Expect it to be cold.
Initially take the path from Hoya through the forest to the fire break, then to the viewpoint of Puerto Molino. Either take the ridge above or follow the dirt road to Mirador Trevelez and Alto del Chorrillo (2700m).
Alto del Chorillo to Mulhacen Summit 2.5 hours: From Alto del Chorrillo take the easiest line up Mulhacen’s South Ridge unless the path is visible (expect it to be snow covered). You will eventually arrive at Mulhacen’s lower summit (3362m). Note the way back for your return.
There is an emergency shelter, “The Machine Gun Post” about 400m up the ridge from the path junction that leads down to the Refugio Poqueira. It is marked by a prominent red and yellow post. There is a shovel tied to the post should you need to dig your way in!
From Alto del Chorrillo it is about 2.5 Km (50 minutes) to the Refugio Poqueira. Some marker poles and a big cairn help mark the way.
To the Refugio Poqueira 2500m for routes 2 and 3
It is possible to drive above the village of Capileira (1300m) to the deserted village of La Cebadilla (1500m). The road goes to a height of 1600m. If you do take this option be aware that after snow it is difficult for cars to get out.
Starting from Capileira it is a pleasant walk of about an hour to La Cebadilla. From here there is some signposting past the hydro plant and along the west side of the valley. Eventually leave the valley heading for the summer farm called Cortijo de las Tomas. From here a steep climb of around 1hr 15 minutes leads to the Refugio. Around 5 hours in total from Capileira.
If the snow level is high enough it is possible to drive up the forest track above Capileira to an acequia at 1960m, the Acequia Alta (grid ref: 702 914), which can be followed to the Cortijo de las tomas before a final climb to the Refugio: 3 hours. A good weather forecast is required if you are leaving a car here.
It is possible to ascend to the Refugio Poqueira from Trevelez by following route 4 to Alto del Chorrillo and picking up the path (some marker poles and a big cairn) heading north west. This route can be exposed in poor weather and is not so nice as the routes in from Capileira.
2. South Ridge from Refugio Poqueira
The South Ridge of Mulhacen, there and back, is the easiest option and given favourable conditions (no wind) and no navigation errors, it is a good walk. Some of the south ridge is usually clear of snow though crampons and an ice axe will be necessary for some slopes. After heavy snow, snow shoes may be required. These are available for hire at The Refugio.
Allow 1.25 hours from the Refugio to Alto del Chorrillo and 2.5 hours from there to the summit. Allow 3 hours for returning down the same route.
3. West Flank
The ascent via the Rio Mulhacen (snow covered), to the Caldera and up Mulhacen’s West Flank is a more serious undertaking. Though only a walk, the consequences of a slip on the icy West Flank could be very serious. That said this ascent is a classic winter mountaineering route.
2.5 hours to the Caldera bivi refuge and 1.5 hours from there to the summit. Descent is usually via the south ridge to the Machine Gun Post before heading across to the big cairn and the Refugio. 7 to 8 hours in total.
4. South Ridge from Trevelez
A steep path from Trevelez to Alto del Chorrillo which depending on the snow level can take from 3 to 4 hours with a further 2.5 hours to the summit (see route 1.) The path leaves Trevelez via Calle Charquillo in Bario Alto.
The descent to Siete Lagunas is a harder route, and a descent back down the south ridge is more straightforward. A long day.
5. East Flank from Trevelez via Siete Lagunas
It is a long slog up from Trevelez (1470m) to Siete Lagunas (2900m) and depending on conditions can take anything from 5 to 6 hours. The ascent of Mulhacen from there takes a further 2 hours. The summer path keeps well clear (to the south) of the exposed faces that are to your right (north) as you make this ascent. Navigation can be more complex on the upper section of this route.
There is a natural shelter under a large boulder at Siete Lagunas, though this fills with snow. It is possible to camp here, though you will be on snow.
The easiest descent back to Trevelez is easiest via Mulhacen’s South Ridge to Alto del Chorrillo and Mirador Trevelez. A very long day.
When to go
Although there is some likelihood of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada from mid-September, snow that early doesn’t settle for more than two or three days. However most years, some winter conditions can be experienced from mid-November through until early May. The most reliable months are December - April when there is always snow to be found above 2500m.
When snow falls in the Sierra Nevada it is usually accompanied by strong winds. Exposed ridges hold little snow though there are often snow bowls on the shallow slopes. Immediately after fresh snow, snow shoes are often essential to make progress into the mountains. This is followed by a lot of freeze thaw and slopes become very icy with hard compact ice. Notable for this is the 400m slope of Mulhacen’s West Flank from the Caldera bivi refuge. Although this is not a technical climb, it is a hard unrelenting steep walk up a massive sheet of ice, requiring good crampon technique.
From year to year and month by month the snow line varies. It can be as low as 1700m for several weeks at a time above the village of Capileira and occasionally above the “road head” of Hoya del Portillo at 2100m from late February.
Sierra Nevada Guides are always happy to advise on conditions. We can be contacted via our website
When planning you route be aware that at midwinter, it gets light around 8am and the sun sets just after 6pm.
The routes described here are all from the south side of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain, an area known as La Alpujarra. This area is easily accessed from Malaga (flights from all regional UK airports) and Granada (flights from London City). If using public transport it's possible to take a bus from Granada to Capileira, though a car offers greater flexibility. If you have a car, the spa town of Lanjarón has many hotels. There are also hotels and guesthouses in the villages of Capileira and Trevelez.
A word of warning: If you are taking your hire car above the village of Capileira (1300m) and leaving it for any length of time, do make sure that no snow is forecast, or you might be paying for the hire car longer than you planned. You might even miss your flights!
The Refugio is open all year, with a full 'hotel' service. They have a website with a button for an English translation - see here
It gets busy at weekends throughout the year and it is essential to book. Bookings can only be made by telephone (0034 958 343 349) and as only half the staff speak any English, it is best to have a translation of what you want to say ready prepared.
The Refugio will want the following information when you book:Name;mobile number in Spain; date of arrival and departure; number of people in group; meals you require (dinner, breakfast, picnic lunch); special diets? (allergies, celiac, vegetarian, etc)
Maps to the Sierra Nevada can be obtained in the UK from Stanfords. Sierra Nevada, La Alpujarra 1:40,000 from either Editorial Alpina or Editorial Penibetica both have their good points. None of the Spanish maps show crags or rock features, which can be problematic in this mountainous area. Mulhacen’s North and North West Faces are particularly craggy with big drops!
Useful grid references to help you locate places on the map:
The Eastings can be prefixed with a 4 and the Northings a 40 or 41. We have omitted these to maintain a six figure grid reference that most British walkers are used to.
Alto del Chorrillo 729964
Caldera (bivi) Refuge 712012
La Cebadilla 690938
Cortijo de las tomas 708971
Hoya del Portillo 705917
Machine Gun Post 731969 (approx)
Mirador Trevelez 733961
Refugio Poqueira 713982
Siete Lagunas (Laguna Hondera) 739004
About Michael Hunt
Michael Hunt is an International Mountain Leader and has been climbing and walking in the mountains for over 40 years. He is a former Vice President of the BMC and former Director of Mountain Training England. Together with his wife Jane (also an IML) they have been exploring the Sierra Nevada from their mountain cortijo situated at 1300m on the southern slopes of the range.
Sierra Nevada Guides is a partnership between the three British IML's based in the Sierra Nevada (Michael and Jane along with Martin Riley). The Sierra Nevada Guides website contains a lot of useful information for anyone planning a trip to the area and we can always be contacted for any specific information.