Getting fit in Northern England for rock climbing is never the easiest thing when you don’t like climbing walls. A cold spring had reduced trips to the crag to one day a week. Help was on the horizon - a long weekend trip to El Chorro in southern Spain.
A 6:30 flight meant getting up at 3:30 to comply with modern security arrangements and to allow the airport to make more money out of us. Just as well really, as Steve had not noticed/remembered the one free piece of checked baggage and had brought two bags. A little rearranging and redistribution (“Did you pack this bag yourself sir?”) and we are set to go. Except we aren’t:
In his hurry to sort out his checked baggage, he has left some slings and, horror of horrors, a nut key in his sack. Security want a word (or several). Half an hour later he makes it through to the departure lounge having had to surrender the kit for retrieval on his return.
Finally the tedium of modern jet travel arrives and we settle down to reading and avoiding the on-board duty free sales, until the last twenty minutes are spent trying to spot the crag on the approach to Malaga - I reckon we flew directly over it so we wouldn’t have seen it.
With bags retrieved and car hire sorted we are soon wending our way to the small village of El Chorro. Our base for the weekend is La Finca Campa which lies a couple of kilometres outside the village itself. A couple of friends, Craig and Alex have been there for the previous week and are taking a siesta awaiting our arrival.
A quick change and grab of climbing gear and we are off to get some hot rock action! The closest crag to the road is Los Albercones, one of the many areas that make up the huge, and I mean huge, area of rock known as Las Frontales. A route is chosen: Puitferia (F5+), so with a dozen quickdraws I set off. After 20m of easy but constant climbing, I realise that half a dozen 8m routes at Giggleswick isn’t the best preparation for such routes and it is with relief that I get to the lower off. In fact I had to unclip one bolt to be able to clip the belay for lowering, there were that many bolts in the thing.
Once Gaz had led it, we turned our attention to a fine wall to the left which contained a F6a - La Chica Pelirroja, again a full 30m pitch it was no harder than the previous route but with interesting route finding as it moved left and right between bolts. Next up was a shorter supposed F6a+ Er Vuelo de los Puelos to the right of our first route. Mike and Steve had both led it and hadn’t exactly flown up it. Gaz’s turn:
Things went easily until the first bulge, this had two bolts within a couple of metres, quite unusual. A couple of tentative probes then he committed to the move, got the second clip then dithered, a moment or two passed then he got established in the scoop above. The lower-off was still above yet another bulge and required more awkward moves to reach. My turn. Again, easy to the first bulge but figuring out how to pass it was not. Eventually the hand sequence was worked out and I get the holds from which to clip the upper bolt. Now what? To get into the scoop required a near mantle and was very precarious. The upper bulge was devious but on good holds. The whole thing felt like hard F6b+.
Having tired of this sector we moved further rightwards and upwards to Sector Suiza with some accommodating looking corners and cracks. Mike set off up Superpotencia F6a, a steep corner line with big holes for hands and edges for feet. All went well until he moves out of the corner as there are no bolts above, the nearest bolts head up an overhanging wall. A couple of attempts see him hanging on a bolt before lowering off.
Gaz has a go and after a fall and a rest gets to the lower-off. I decide just to top-rope it. Pleasant climbing up the corner leads to a sloping ledge, the wall above looks blind. A bit of groping around finds a hold. Continuing like this gets me a few metres before I come off and swing around on the rope. Now I can see the holds, finishing isn’t too bad. However the route is more like F6b+ than F6a.
The others are on a wall behind where we have been playing(?) and we watch an Australian flash a F7a+ - it doesn’t look too bad until he lowers off and finishes 6m out from the foot of the wall!
By now our super early start is taking its toll so it’s back to La Finca for a shower then out for something to eat.
Suitably refreshed after a good night’s sleep, Saturday morning has plans for Desplomilandia, a series of crags above the gorges. These have the advantage of being north facing (indeed one crag is named “Good Shade”). Twenty five minutes of driving later (supposedly 15 according to the guidebook) and the crag is just a couple of hundred metres from the road. It’s busy.
To the right of the main wall is a trio of F6a/F6a+ routes around 20m in heigt. Mike chooses the left hand one and is soon lowering down from the top and before too long we have all led it. Half the team now turn their attention to the longer routes to the left while Mike and Gaz, tiring of the crowds, head to a crag to the left. Eventually, I decide to join them. Just in time to lead the first route before switching the quickdraws to the route on the right. This bit of crag is quite British in character being well featured and the routes follow natural lines rather than the usual continental straight line of bolts. The second route is quite tricky with one clip being mid rockover/mantelshelf.
By now there are other teams on the buttress and they are occupying the other routes we wish to do so it’s back down the hill to Buenos Sombre. By now the crag is quieter and Gaz and I get the other routes on the right done, one of which: Vaya Pieza is really good wall climbing. Quite crimpy, which is unusual so far for the routes we have been doing, and pretty sustained for most of its length. The best route so far.
There follows an interlude with an unbalanced route further to the right of the crag before we finish off with a long pitch near the centre of the crag. We had seen a big fall from the crux of this by a British climber earlier in the day so were a bit wary of what lay in store. It turned out to be more good wall climbing on reasonable holds before jug pulling through the roofs at the top of the crag.
By now we were feeling the effects of so much climbing and were feeling the call of the bar!
Next morning the temperature had risen. This combined with a drop in the, to now, constant breeze, made things stifling for a bunch of lads more used to near freezing temperatures. An alternative plan was called for.
The Caminito del Rey! This is a suspended walkway that traverses the gorge walls and was originally built to facilitate access for the dam and hydro-electric plant workers. It got its current name when it was used by the king of Spain to view the workings.
Unfortunately in the intervening seventy years much of the walkway has fallen, literally, into decay and there are now several gaps in the path. Following a series of deaths in recent years, the first fifty metres or so of the Camino have been removed to try and prevent people from going along it, however there is a via ferrata style access to it and there is also a wire handrail to provide some security.
Suitably kitted up, we passed the guards preventing access to the railway tunnels (€6000 fine for trespassing on these!) and began the approach. Almost immediately the exposure began as the ground fell away and by the end of the first section we were over 50 metres above the ground. As we headed into the gorge proper we rose ever higher.
The path moved towards the narrowest part of the gorge and promptly disappeared! Well for about 2 metres, you had to shuffle across, feet on the rail on the outside, hands on the security wire. Just a hundred metres of space below! The gorge was spanned by a bridge carrying a water pipe. From this point on most of the walkway is is good condition but still very exposed, it looks and feels like something out of a computer game. Eventually the gorge opens out into a wide valley with further crags littering the hillside.
Half the team wanted to carry on and explore the upper gorge while the rest of us wanted to go back and get some climbing done. Heading back wasn’t as bad as we had got used to the feeling of the walkway so we made much better progress.
First objective of the day were to be some of the routes around the Poema de Roca cave. A long steady plod up the hillside got us to the area - the place was massive! Once we had got our bearings and figured out what was what, we settled on the F6b+ first pitch common to a couple of routes. There was one problem - the pitch was 37 metres long, so lowering off could be a problem.
Mike set off and soon came to an intermediate belay - obviously used for splitting the lower - above this the rock steepened and was absorbing sustained climbing. Gaz also led the route, I just followed it as the heat was getting to me and I felt quite tired. By now the sun had gone from the Poema de Roca cave itself so we moved round to try something in that area.
Big problem! The routes are all steep and hard! Except for a couple on a subsidiary buttress. One, a F6b up a crackline looks reasonable and well bolted. My turn, so I head on up. The climbing is awkward but on big polished holds, it looks like this is the warm up for the area, hence the close bolting. What isn’t polished though is the crack itself - jamming must be a UK/US thing - so a series of finger locks and handjams makes the whole thing quite pleasant. The belay chain is just out of reach and I’m starting to get pumped, the route is steeper than we thought - obviously fooled by the steepness of everything else around. I figure it out eventually and lower off.
Gaz and Mike lead it as well. Mike had been further right to check out another area and nearly been hit by a large falling rock probably knocked off by sheep or goats. We decide to avoid that section and head back down to Sector Suiza.
Our target here was the first pitch of Frente Popular de Judea which was reckoned to be an excellent F6b+ in its own right. Steve had done this on the first day while we were struggling on Superpotencia just below.
Gaz went first heading up the initial easy pillar then stopped at the first bolt: “I’ve forgotten my chalk bag! Can you pass it up please?”. Chalk and climber reunited, he continued. There looked to be some long runouts on this - in fact there were only eight bolts in the 30 metres rather than the seemingly usual twelve. One such runout appeared to be to the lower-off -gulp!
My turn. The climbing really was excellent, on Verdon quality limestone, a technical move by a bolt followed by easier climbing between bolts lead to the last bolt. By now the wall had steepened and tiredness was setting in, feet up and reach. Nothing! Sort out feet a bit higher and reach, and reach ... jug! Big jug! More of the same led to the lower-off.
Mike now fancied a route up the buttress to the left but tiredness was taking its toll and he came to a halt at about half height. Gaz led the rest and Mike took a top-rope. I just lazed around. It was obviously time for the bar!
The last day. And it was just as hot as the previous day. So another trip to Desplomilandia was called for. However the team were decidedly jaded and we didn’t manage very much. After climbing the F5+ in the centre of Buenos Sombre, I played belay bunny to Mike on a supposed F6b on La Boda. Eventually he bailed from the next to last bolt. Gaz and Steve also struggled on it and reckoned that it was F6c. It was time to go home.
Somehow on the way back to the airport we managed to avoid genuine Spanish food and ended up at Burger King for something to eat! We were the first to check in, but this only meant that we had longer to hang around the airport. For once the flight left early. It was still 3:30am by the time I got home though. The following day I had an attack of Stevieness and put my passport into the washing machine!