Exped Adventures in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain
Most people have never heard of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain. Unlike their cousins on the French border, these mountains are empty and rather forgotten. All the more strange considering they are so close to the Costa del Sol and popular tourist spots. To top it all of, the Sierra Nevadas include the highest mountain in mainland Spain. No, not Aneto: Mulhacen - named after the Moorish King of Granada who is supposedly buried on the summit.
I spent 8 days walking in these mountains. My trip was linear: starting in Trevelez and ending in Lanjaron, so I needed to carry everything on my back. Although the hut system is nothing like the Alps, there was at least one manned hut en route. Sadly, this was shut due to the pandemic. I had to be completely self sufficient for the duration.
The most succinct way I can describe the Sierra Nevadas is like the Cullin, but hotter and with no midges. It was averaging 30 degrees C at 3000m - although we were having a heat wave. There are no plants in the high mountains, no trees - barely any grass. Just barren spines and bowls, built out of piles of umber rock. The night I camped in the shadow of Mulhacen, I could hear tiny cascades of rock falling down its steep slopes. You could quite literally watch the mountain erode, if you sat for long enough.
The other thing I'll take with me from the Sierra Nevadas is the sunsets and the red-gold mornings. I was on a Guinness World Record attempt to climb the most 3000m mountains in a week, so most of my memories involve being very hot and very tired. And with eight days of food on my back, the lighter I could make my kit the better.
Fortunately, Exped stepped in to help me go light and fast (well, fast-ish!), as well as testing out some items from their ultralight range in the process.
Exped Lightning 60L Rucksack
I am a chronic overpacker. Give me a volume and I will fill it until it can only just close. Regardless of the fact that I have to carry the bag. If I can squeeze in something extra, I will probably try. So it always is and so it was on this expedition.
Because of this, I felt like I was rather missing the point of this bag, treating a sports car like a transit van. The Exped Lightning rucksack felt very much like it had been designed for Alpine light and fast. Never mind the clue in the name. And yet - although I'd failed on two of those fronts, I was at least doing Alpine.
The slimline pack was essential on the scrambly ridgelines of the Sierra Nevadas. And I mean that. Their idea of a path is like drawing a friendly green-dashed line along Striding Edge. Fine if you're expecting it. But if I'd had a wide and bulky 60L pack, it would have really got in the way. It's hard enough hauling yourself up overhanging rock with 20kgs on your back, without it snagging on every rocky edge you pass.
The bag fitted well, was very comfortable and had a very clever adjustment system on the back frame. There are no side zipped pockets, but the netting pockets on either side and hip-belt pockets should be enough for most people. As you can see from the picture, you can easily fit a 1L water bottle in each net pocket.
Exped Synmat HL
The Exped Synmat HL was excellent and I do not say that lightly. I have previously used Alpkit Numo and several bulkier Thermarests (and of course an assortment of closed cell foam mats and other questionable floor protection). I was very struck with how well thought out this mat was. It was clear that whoever made it has spent a long time sleeping in tents.
For example, the outer fabric has friction to it so that it doesn't slide down the tent, nor you off the end in your sleeping bag. The underside is a thicker fabric than the top to avoid pesky punctures. It packs down incredibly small, but the bag provided is not such a close fit that you have to fight every morning to get it back in.
Then there's the inflation system. I'll be honest, I've always thought that inflating a mat with a custom-made dry bag was a bit "look at me I'm so fancy". You know, kind of a gimmick for people who couldn't be bothered to just blow into their mat. But I take back my scorn. It is incredibly quick and doesn't leave you panting into a valve or sounding like Wheezy from Toy Story. The provided ultralight bag has a simple valve at the bottom and a roll top. Attach it to the mat, catch some air and squeeze. It took me less than 2 bags-worth of air to fill the mat each time.
I could carry on raving about this mat but basically: it does everything you want it to and incredibly well at that. It's instantly replaced my previous roll mat of choice.
Exped Lyra II Tent
The Sierra Nevada is well known for being generally windy and very rocky. I mean you're above the grass-line a lot of the time, simply because of the altitude of the peaks. I camped every night for 7 nights (including in a rather ant-infested campsite in the valley) in the Exped Lyra II tent.
The tent was sturdy, even in some very high winds. The groundsheet and other fabrics seemed solid enough and fit for purpose. It was very easy to pitch and spacious inside. I was a bit sceptical about the all-in-one pole, but very much came around to the idea. It can be a bit of a faff juggling multiple tent poles when you're pitching alone, particularly in high wind. The Exped Lyra II has none of that. I soon got the hang of the mono-pole and quickly stopped looking like someone waving around an flexible TV aerial.
There are two good sized pockets for stashing gear and a very tiny one on the ceiling, that felt rather like the token pockets you get in women's hiking trousers: too small to hold anything useful. Perhaps I am missing the point. Although you might be able to squeeze in your car keys or a glowstick - or something similar. It would have been nice to have an inner zip that opened on both sides, but I'm nit picking.
The inner and outer are completely separate, so you can pitch with just the inner for star-gazing or tent-cooling purposes. I didn't, but I can imagine it might be quite nice. Again Exped have clearly thought about their features, including small, built in pouches for storing guy lines without creating a tangle.
Some minor modifications
I am glad I swapped out half the plastic pegs for metal ones, borrowed from another tent. Although neither could make much headway on the rock floor of the Sierra Nevada, the plastic pegs simply bent on hard exposed ground. If you're going somewhere that isn't predominately grassy, swap out the pegs. Sure it makes the tent less ultralight, but for a few grammes I'd say it's worth it.
I also swapped the long, thin tent bag for unceremoniously stuffing the combined tent into a dry bag - keeping the pegs and poles separate. This worked just fine and fitted my packing system much better!
All in all, some great pieces of kit that really helped keep my pack weight down. The Exped Synmat HL is a firm favourite and I've been raving about it to people ever since. The Exped Lyra II is great for ultralight backpacking and summer conditions, although the pegs are much more effective in places with grass. The Exped Lightning 60L rucksack is a smart and efficient alpine-style bag that can take a good beating!
For more information about Exped and their products, visit exped.com