"See that crack in the cliff?" says José, pointing to a barely discernible slot 400 feet above us. "That’s the pass." On the third day of my quest, José and I are hiking up the area’s highest peak, 5,128-foot Sierra de Aitana. So far, we’ve climbed Sierra d’Aixorta, marched for several hours over Sierra de Serrella, and eaten half our weight in paella. Now we’re hoping to traverse Aitana’s long alpine ridge. But to get there we have to access the cleft–and from here, that looks close to impossible.
Once we’re climbing, though, it’s easier than it looks. We scramble across boulders, airy ledges, and tilted slabs, then step through the shoulder-width mail slot, emerging onto a plateau carpeted with brilliant wildflowers: purple-flowered Cistus albi, wild thyme and rosemary, and the golden, sofa-like cushions José calls "nun’s pillows." To every horizon stretch white, gold, and gray limestone buttresses rising high above valleys terraced with almond and olive orchards.
As we hike, José explains how 10 years ago he envisioned a multiday trek across the mountains between the villages of Castell de Castells, Guadalest, and Sella. And how he used interviews with old sheepherders, as well as GPS and Google Earth research, to link trails built centuries ago by farmers, traders, hunters, and nevaters, who harvested ice blocks from stone wells (still intact today). Steep, rocky, and largely forgotten, the paths often take the most direct lines over peaks with 3,000 feet of relief. Which explains, at least in part, why we walk for hours without seeing anyone.
The wild boar tracks grab my attention, but José assures me that the 300-pound feral porkers do their rampaging after dark. Then the cliffs come into view, and I forget about kegs of ham with dangerously pointy tusks. On the fourth morning of our trek, crossing the mountains between Guadalest and Sella, we’re approaching the Piña Roc–literally "rock rocky outcrop," according to José. (Don’t laugh: The redundancy seems appropriate to the ocean of limestone spread out before me.)
With necks craned skyward, we walk below a series of vertical walls and amazingly thin fins, some 400 feet or taller. Their chalky faces spring from a lush carpet of low trees and bushes. José, a longtime climber, gets a beatific expression and looks for a moment like he might break out in song. Ten hours and eight technical miles later, at a restaurant in Sella, we tuck into fistfuls of Marcona almonds, wash them down with a local Merlot, then binge on a dinner of steak and potatoes in a Roquefort-and-pepper sauce served on a platter with the diameter of a California redwood.
Afterward, I’m too full to stand up and too buzzed to remember how many miles or vertical feet we’ve logged. But one thought burns through: This is one of the most gorgeous treks I’ve ever taken–and I still have several days of climbing and biking ahead of me.