Having been around Asia, Africa, North and South America and much of Europe, rarely does a mountain range compare to the small, compact but terribly steep Picos de Europa. Even now the Picos feature in one of my top three places on Earth for its sheer beauty and relative isolation.
Visible from the sea of the North Coast of Spain, and hence how it obtained its name, its highest peak Torre Cerredo is only 2648m, but 2648m straight up. Rock, ice and general trekking are all available and hence is a must for European mountaineers.
Torre Cerredo itself, a steep pointed mountain hidden by subsidary ranges is an excellent climb which you will almost probably have to yourself. Technical in winter but soloable for a competent mountaineer, and standing on its extremely narrow summit is a buzz with some of the best mountain scenery on earth on offer. Bring crampons and axe, much enthusiasm and have a great day!
Approached from the west and east of Northern Spain, its probably best approached from Oviedo, not only a nice city but with wonderful cider which the locals pour from over their heads. You can of course drive but a couple of hour bus ride will take you to Arenas de Cabrales, a lovely village at the foot of the Picos. From here where you can leave bags if you ask nicely, a long walk to the famous Ro Carres which is popular for day trekkers due to its lovely waterfalls. It maybe better to hitch-hike, particularly on the way down when limbs are calling for an end.
From here it is the begging of the long walk up to Naranjo Bulnes, and if you've any sense a stop for the night in the mountain village of Poncebos before continuing on to the climbing hut below the mighty and impressive Naranjo de Bulnes or Uriello.
Look at about three hours walk from Arenas to Rio Cares, a further four hours up to Poncebos and a good six or so from there to the Naranjo hut. Coming down you can get from Naranjo to Arenas in about eight, but its a long tiring day - especially if you'e weighted with rock and ice gear. Remember from Arenas to the Naranjo base is about 2000m up and a further 648m plus all the up and downs of subsidary ridges before you get to the base of Torre Cerredo.
Red Tape and Wildlife
Nothing required in terms of permits. The Picos have some wonderful wildlife but you will probably only see plenty of deer on the higher slopes below the Naranjo. Apparantly bears and wolves still exist in the park area but these are confined to the remote and rarely visited Southern slopes. Good luck seeing one!
When To Climb
Winter will make things difficult and the climb will be quite technical. Easter (March - April) is a wonderful time to climb as there is still plenty of snow around covering most of the high peaks but warm enough to make for enjoyable easy climbing. Watch the melting snow and early starts are in order, particularly for the upper slopes of Cerredo.
There is so much of the Picos de Europa that is untouched that wild camping is possible as nobody will see you. However the 2600m climb from Arenas might make you consider the huts. There is a hostel type place in Poncebos (just dorm beds) ran by an odd mother and son couple and a hut below the Naranjo de Bulnes. The climbing hut is okay with dorm beds and good food but the caretaker was unfreindly when I climbed and wouldn't allow you to go to bed until 7:00pm for some reason. Means a cold sit out downstairs which is miserable when freezing fog envelopes Naranjo in the evening. There are other huts if you want to do a traverse.
Weather forecasts are available in Arenas de Cabrales. Try www.picosdeeuropa.net but its in Spanish. Its a high mountain range and weather can vary very quickly. The huts are unheated so any time bring warm clothing, particularly in winter and easter where fleece, down etc is recommended.
The Main Route
Probably about Alpine I/II if snow covered. If in Summer I suppose when the mountains will be dry you can leave at anytime but if in Spring and Winter an early start is essential (about 4 or 5 is good). Snow covers the range and hence will begin to melt about 9 or 10.
Leave the hut below the Naranjo and head west towards Cerredo. You need to cross a few subsidary ridges coming down off other high Picos peaks, sometimes involving exciting scrambling and easy rock climbing. Its a long walk to Torre Cerredo and don't mistake another peak for it.
Eventually Torre Cerredo will come into view and there is no doubt this is the highest peak. The peak looks unscaleable but follow it round to its north-east side and a snow slope comes into view. Follow this up going ever and ever steeper until ice-climbing techniques are necessary with step kicking and axe work. Occasionally you will have to climb over rock patches which is scary in crampons - bolts in the rock tell you its a place for ropes - and eventually stand on its beautiful narrow summit.
Getting down is tough work in snow and although routes seem to exist in different directions these all lead to steep precipitous slopes. Tread carefully on descent it will be a long fall and nobody about.
If snow covered then minimum equipment should include crampons and one ice axe. For many people a rope and a bit of rock gear will be necessary just for protection and security. Torre Cerredo is remote and it might be wise to leave your route with the hut owner below the Naranjo. If you've got the rock gear have a go at Naranjo - it looks a beauty.
Whats in a name?
One theory of the name of the Picos de Europa apparantly comes from sailors returning from the Americas and one of the first visible land points is of course Portugal and Spain (along with Ireland Europe's furthest countries west). They of course saw the high Picos de Europa and exclaimed in whatever language they spoke in "Ah! The Peaks of Europe". Simple really!
However (in an extensive debate) this has been disputed and other theories suggest themselves. The book "Diccionario Geográfico" by Martínez Marina says the name Picos de Europa is from early 1800s when "navigators came from North to reach Asturias, Vizcaya or Santander harbours".
The Sicilian historian Lucio Marineo Sículo refers to the range as Rupeas Europea in his work "De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus" back in 1530.
They also say the Picos de Europa were named after prince Astur married his lover Europa on Vindius mount, after carrying off her father, Phoenician king Agenor.
Naranjo de Bulnes - Uriello
Hopefully one day somebody will post a seperate page for this huge block of upstanding rock. If not, hopefully I will return with rock gear and a willing partner to ascend the 500m of pure beast and post a page myself. Although an entirely seperate mountain special mention should be given to this peak.
500m of precipitous slopes rise above the hut and a worthy climb if you have rock gear. Beware, weather can change quickly and people have been killed by lightning and rock fall. Not sure of the technical difficuly but think its nothing too severe but exciting. Do it!