WINTER CLIMBING IN SPAIN – PART II

I guess not climbing also teaches you things. I was anxious to climb ice, couloirs, north faces. “It is Europe, it has stable weather, reliable mountains.” Poor me, so naive… Northern Spain has seen one of the worst snow storms of the past many years, and that meant a lot more snow than what I´d like, being dumped all over the Pyrenees and making it impossible to climb in the range. I still got to do some exploration around, but eventually I had to change my plans.

 

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CANAL DE ROYA, IN THE ARAGÓN PYRENEES

 

I guess most of my friends here agree that the best place to do alpinism in Spain is in the Huesca region, more specifically in the Pyrenees of Catalunya and especially Aragón. There´s a huge number of steep, challenging mountains in that area, and therefore many good couloirs, a good concentration of waterfalls and some very interesting routes on north faces.

Mikel, whom I met in Peru in 2014, invited me to go for some ice when the storm gave us a break. I had a pretty bad cold the week before, and shouldn´t go, but I´m too stubborn to say no. Along with us came his friend Andrés who had never climbed ice before, as well as an all around strong couple, friends of him. On a Saturday afternoon we left Pamplona and headed to Jaca, in the Huesca region, to then reach a place called Canal de Roya, a channel that sits under the west face of Aynet, a beautiful mountain that wasn´t yet in condition. Roya is reachable by entering one of the largest ski stations in Spain, called Formigal.

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Aynet, one of the most beautiful mountains in the Pyrennes, as seen from the start of our routes.

 

This was my first trip in a furgoneta, the adapted, dirtbagger-style van that every Spanish climber seems to own. Mikel´s had swivel seats, a small stove, a convertible bed, and heating, as well as other minor interesting details. We parked in front of Formigal´s entrance, and had a super comfy and warm night of sleep, amid falling temperatures and super strong winds that shook the van all night.

It all didn´t last long and by 6 am we were up for breakfast and gearing up. Temperature was at -7 when we started heading up on the ski slopes, and it didn´t reach much more than that during the day. Worst of all, as we reached the base of the waterfalls, not only we got away from the sun, but the wind also picked up, making it even colder. Mikel seemed to be rejoicing in all this, but Andrés and all were pretty affected by the cold.

So Mikel took the first lead, and as I belayed him, I quickly went super cold with the shivers and all. By the time it was my time to climb, I went up flying like there was no tomorrow, which did warm me up, but also gave me the worst case of screaming barfies I ever had. Indeed, for the first time in my life, the cold made me want to vomit. I felt weak, shivering non stop, with the wind burning the skin on my face. Andrés could hardly finish this pitch as it was the first time he had the barfies and was pretty cold himself. Once in the belay station, we ended up lowering him, as he was close to agonizing but wanted us to continue. I had my doubts if I should go, but I definitely could not lead. The cold was too much for me to even think.

Never been this cold in my entire life. Hard enough smiling for the camera.

Crossing avalanche slopes on the way back to the car.

The Midi of the Pyrenees, another mountain with legendary couloirs.

 

It was a pity because this second pitch was even more fun, with a lot of tool switching and some fun moves. Ice wasn´t great but much better than the one in Pedraforca, in New Year´s. Again, I raced to the belay, and as I soon as I arrived, Mikel noticed my suffering and we quickly descend. It was a relief to be down, and to finally start heading back towards the sun. Lesson learned here though, that although I´ve created a lot more tolerance to the cold in the past years, I still haven´t had that much contact with true extreme cold conditions, and for my future projects,  I do need to work on that tolerance.

As we headed out, I felt my throat swelling again, and I knew my cold, which was already bad, would get a lot worst. In fact, the week after I headed to San Sebastian to try to surf, but not only weather was crappy, I also heard that what I had seemed more like pneumonia than a mere cold, so I decided to chill.

 

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A COLD CARNIVAL IN GREDOS

 

After exchanging about 900 thousand messages with our group in Whatsapp, we changed our original plan of climbing in Riglos and the Pyrenees to climbing in Gredos. Weather and conditions were just too bad up north, and Gredos was just too good to take for granted. So, the Ama Dablam Cordada (rope team) would finally meet and climb again since our chance meeting in Nepal.

Aside from many options of well-formed waterfalls, the forecast predicted lots of cold and a small 4 mm snowfall on the first night. Alfonso came from the south with José Antonio, picked me up in Madrid, and then we headed to Navaluenga to pick up Dani. Because refuges in Europe are quite expensive, we decided to camp, which means we would be heading up absolutely packed. We reached the parking lot and quickly organized everything to start heading up.

The day was clear with light wind, but as we ascended, we could see some pretty sketchy clouds in the distance. On the higher part of the way towards the refuge, an area called Los Barrerones – very exposed to wind and quite icy – we had the first bad incident of the trip. About 2 minutes after I voiced I was going to stop and put my crampons, Alfonso took a slip, sliding over his elbow and hurting it pretty bad. Since we were halfway up, we thought “that´s it, holiday is over and let´s get this fella to a hospital”, but he decided to keep going and wait until the next day to see if it´d feel better.

Gredos or Siberia?

 

We got to the refuge pretty late and decided to just check the possibilities for the next day instead of climbing, since there wouldn´t be enough daylight for it anyways. As the sun started going down, the wind started picking up, and worst, the snowfall. We retreated early but couldn´t really sleep well because the tent was shaking so much and the snow was accumulating outside like crazy.

In the morning I had to cave out a tunnel in order to get out of the tent. Weather was so crappy that no one climbed in the morning, although we did have to dig the tent out a few times. Alfonso had lots of pain in his elbow and was appalled that we weren´t climbing, so at one point he said “dudes, if you want to climb in places like Patagonia you gotta get out there and get used to climbing in crappy weather”. Not that any of us want to climb in Patagonia, but that definitely brought shame onto us, so we got out to climb.

Sunrises on Almanzór, covered in verglas.

 

Our idea was to do two waterfalls, and then head back. Normally it´d take 15 minutes to reach the first one, but there was so much snow that is took us almost one hour of breaking trail. Snow was soft, powdery, and weather awful, which made me question what the hell I was doing there. We got to the base of Araña, a 2 pitch easy water fall that is a classic in Gredos. José Antonio would lead the first pitch, myself the second, and Dani, the more experienced one, would lead the other fall which would be the hardest. Off José went, and while we waited, that came the familiar feeling of freezing again, wanting to vomit and just generally feeling my energy evade my body. It was a long pitch and I just felt like crap, but followed on. When I got the belay, again I was feeling as shitty as in Roya, and questioned if I should go down. But after carrying the big load all the way to the refuge, and even the whole 6 hour trip from the north to Madrid, I just had to climb something, to make it worth it. José lead the second pitch, we finished it, and quickly descended.

José leading the second pitch of Araña.

 

Looking happy, but not. Very cold!

 

Again I felt really bad about the whole situation. Cold is not something someone is immune to, but I believe that up to a certain point you can learn to layer better for it, eat better for it, and somehow deal with it in a more efficient way. I´ve been close to the 7000 m mark in Nepal and didn´t feel this much cold, so I was pretty pissed. Fact is, I came here not only to improve my technical skills, but also to expose myself to aspects of alpine climbing that I may not have been aware before. Being this cold this close to a refuge is fine, but would not be in an isolated mountain, at extreme altitude. So if I´m writing this, means I´m learning something.

I decided not to climb the next morning because of a slight altercation with one of the boys. So Dani and José went on with plans to do 2 climbs, and in the end they were involved in a small accident which I will not comment on, but that left us all quite scared. After everything was resolved we packed and headed back to the parking lot. We did everything in a hurry so that Alfonso could see a doctor in Navaluenga. That meant I had to rush to catch the last train to Madrid and then head back to Pamplona.

A group sets off to help Dani and José.

José is stuck in the belay without a rope, while Dani can be seen lower down.

 

Climbing wise it was a decent weekend, although overall it was quite tense, but even situations such as these serve a purpose. For the previous weeks I had been utterly disappointed and almost depressed with my unfulfilled expectations about Basque Country, and I knew that running into Dani and Alfonso would help me find some answers and direction. And as predicted, it did.

Dani, myself and Alfonso after our intense days of small accidents, not much climbing, and closures in Gredos.

 

 

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A CHANGE OF PLANS: “PA EL SUR!”

 

The Pyrenees were out of conditions, and would remain so for several weeks to come. It was impossible to climb in Etxauri with the incessant rain and eventual snow. I was defeated by the lack of opportunities to climb or even train (it was impossible to even go outside), the endless rain, and the overall coldness of Basque land and most of its people. I was then easily convinced by Alfonso to head south, see the “real” Spain, and recharge the batteries under the warm weather and welcoming people, aside from climbing on some of the best multi-pitch spots in the country. How do you say no to that? You don´t.

An under brushed Alfonso and a sleepless me after our interview in the local radio station.

 

The day after I arrived n Bullas, a 14.000 folk town near Murcia, Alfonso took me to the local radio station to talk about our climb in Nepal. There´s not many alpinists in the region, so he´s sort of a local celebrity. Aside from that, he´s also done a lot to develop climbing in the region, and so, two days later, him and his crew took me to Castellar de Bullas, a small crag some 10 minutes drive away from Bullas.

 

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SPORT CLIMBING IN CASTELLAR DE BULLAS

 

Castellar has some 20 something routes, up to 20 meters high, ranging in grade from 3rd to 7c (french), all of them equipped by Alfonso, who´s been working on this site since 2011. There´s still another part of the wall clean and ready to be equipped with potential for harder routes. The place used to be an old Arab settlement, and there´s even some ruins on the top of the hill where it sits. Rock is sandstone, but because of the arid characteristics of the region, it really isn´t that slippery.

The crag.

Carmen on Gitana, a 6b+.

 

I spent an entire day there hanging out with his friends, people of all ages, shapes and sizes, part of a mountaineering and climbing club that has been formed recently – also by initiative of Alfonso – and that aside from rock climbing, also do many outings on the nearby hills.

On a given Friday, we were lucky enough to watch a presentation by Sir Chris Bonnington, who´s gonna receive a Piolet D´Or Lifetime Achievement this year. Quite an awesome guy, with great stories to tell.

Sir Chris Bonnington on his presentation in Murcia.

Sir Chris Bonnington on his presentation in Murcia.

 

div-blackTRAD CLIMBING IN (LIMESTONE) LEIVA

 

A week later it was time to head to Sierra de Espuña, where Valle de Leiva sits, one of the most important trad climbing areas of the province of Murcia. Climbers started opening routes here in the 50´s, and today there´s over 200 trad, mixed and aid routes on the south wall – the main one – topping out at over 200 meters in length. The rock is limestone with many cracks, and because it is farther away from the coast, it is dry and solid.

The south wall in Leiva.

The south wall in Leiva.

I teamed up with Marisa and Carmen to climb “America”, a V+ 4-5 pitch route with fixed belay anchors but otherwise trad. Both girls are more used to sport climbing so I was in charge of leading all pitches, which although tiring, is quite rewarding when you´re in a route with so many cracks and possibilities. We don´t have this in Brazil, so I felt very creative throughout the climb. It would be my first time climbing trad on limestone, so I was a bit apprehensive.

First two pitches were more complicated than I expected though. Although there were tons of cracks, they were quite irregular and not that easy to place good pro. Nuts seemed to fit better in most places. Being it limestone, it had many good, big, fat hand holds but terrible and slippery foot holds, so it was a climb of using strength non stop, which wasn´t easy considering I had my first cross fit session the day before and was “a little” sore…

Nuts or cams?

View from the second belay.

 

After some tension on a dihedral on the second pitch, and realizing the girls weren´t doing as great as expected, we arrived at the third belay, where we could spot the crux of the route: a V+ very vertical dihedral, with a very thin crack and no footholds. One of those climbs that looks exciting, but “not today”. Another option would be going further right for a slightly easier climb, so after deliberating, we decided to got he easier way, which was quite a relief.

Setting off on the third pitch. The end of the tough dihedral is on the top of the “Tower”.

On the summit, myself, Carmen and Marisa.

 

We finished the last two pitches on easy and fun 4th class rock. It was a great opportunity to practice leading, especially with the different aspects that limestone presents in relation to granite, as well as to enjoy some fun climbing in pleasant weather. We finished the day about 1 hour away from there, on Calblanque beach, int he Mar Menor region, Mediterranean coast. How chill is that!

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Written by Cissa

Fanatic alpinist, rock climber, and wannabe surfer. Sports and travel content writer and graphic designer in the meantime. Self sponsored, based out of a haul bag.

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