Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Dream Realized (if only for two days)

Ardales from above
We came in on the flat road until it hit the hill that went up into the village that sat there, below the ruined castle and the small church at the top and the tiny chapel above that up on the hill just beyond the row of windmills turning along the ridge that ran toward El Chorro. It had been a dream of mine to climb in El Chorro since I saw photos of the narrow gorge-turned-reservoir ten years ago. Then, with the El Camino del Rey, that famous, derelict walk affixed to the edge of the cliff and built for the king's workers to access the gorge during construction of the dam, still in use, I gazed at the photos of the towering, steep walls and wondered if there was any climbing there. The El Camino del Rey is a walk, now forbidden due a the number of deaths the past few years as a result of the decrepit state of the walkway, but the rock around it, and the exposure of the towers rising above the small town cuddled just above the river, was what opened my eyes. Not only did I find that there was climbing there, but I discovered that it was one of the top climbing destinations in all of Europe.

The Frontales sector of El Chorro
Ardales is only 15 minutes away by car, and with only 2,000 inhabitants (and shrinking), it is small and difficult to get around. Our rental car whined up the narrow roads until it nearly cried of exhaustion at the very top, just above where our rented casa was, until we settled it in a steep parking space made for peasants from another era who would have needed blocks to keep their wagons from rumbling down the cobblestone streets. Thankfully we had a parking brake and a standard transmission. We checked into the house and unpacked for what would be a three-night stay in our retreat from the real world that was many miles away, but in terms of distance and culture.

El Chorro
(photo by Nivea Bona)
With the heater left on in the cold casa, we raced off on a grey, rainy afternoon toward El Chorro just to see what the hype was all about. It took us no more than 10 minutes to approach the out-of-nowhere mountains that nearly shell-shocked us on first site. We couldn't believe our eyes and the white, red, and grey limestone that rounded and jagged out from the needled earth beneath us. We stopped when we saw the path, and by that I mean there is only one path, that famed bridge spanning the narrow gorge and the waterfall below it. We had heard of guards keeping people from accessing the walk, but there were two parties on the path and one coming off the via ferrata at the bottom when we exited the car to take in the beauty of the vista in front of us.

El Camino Rey in El Chorro with the Gorge beneath
and beyond
Surrounding us were long layers of thin towers rising 800 meters up from the river, forming perpendicular gorges to the one that everyone came to see. The river, which starts from the lakes to the north and is squeezed out between the boulders at the base of the cliffs, which are no more than a few meters apart, fans out to the south toward Malaga and the waters of the cold, Gibraltar Mediterranean. It had rained the day before and was still wet that morning, so we scanned the hillsides for our routes and decided upon the Frontales and Arabe Escalera sectors, both teeming with a mix of easy-to-difficult routes. We returned to a warmer casa and shared a single caipirinha over pasta and veggies. Two hours later, after nodding off to an episode of Poirot, we were all fast asleep in our beds upstairs and anticipating in our dreaminess the days to come.

A beautiful day at Arabe Escalera
(photo by Nivea Bona)
The next morning came and "Lady" was still battling a sickness that had slowed her for days. She stayed behind to explore Ardales while "KITT" and I headed back into the rural outpost of El Chorro and the Frontales area for our first of two days of climbing. Due to efforts to develop my art I hadn't climbed in over six months, so I was worried about my endurance, but "KITT" had been climbing regularly and was confident he could climb us out of any situation. We started easy on some fours (French grades) and worked our way up to the sixes. There was a three-star 6a that we were gunning for, and "KITT" headed up only to find the bolts chopped four bolts up. Some Spanish folks to our right told us they had heard the bolts had been chopped, and the bolts were still there just a few days before. "Nice to know now," I thought.

The hard stuff at Frontales
(photo by Nivea Bona)
It didn't matter, however, because "KITT" proceeded to only hang at the final bolt of the 6b+ that splits off to the right of our original route. I hung twice on toprope, but I was really happy with my performance. In spite of my lack of ability to climb and with the sharpness of the limestone pockets and sidepulls, I was climbing well quite literally off-the-couch. Our next climb was another three-star 6a with a pumpy section only two bolts up. "KITT" sailed it while I couldn't pull off clipping the crux third bolt. So many times we had cut our teeth together at the 'Gunks and in New Hampshire where I had bailed him out of difficult situations. Now it was his turn to return the favor, and not only did he do it by climbing up and climbing the crux bolt for me, but he did it again after I had clipped the fourth bolt and was too pumped to go on. That's the great thing about good climbing partners - they do what they have to do when the time comes...without complaints. I felt bad, but was still happy to have him there and with how I had climbed that day. We finished on a pumpy three-star classic on the other side of the train tracks and called it a day, both tired from what amounted to a strong day for me and a fairly average day for him. A few picked limes from the side of the road later and we were again eating pasta and drinking caipirinhas in a warm casa with a roaring fire.

Ardales, from the roof of our casa
(photo by Nivea Bona)
We all awoke the next day with "Lady" feeling better. She's a bit new to the sport, so we headed to Arabe Escalera to match up everyone's skills. I have my art and she has her Ph.D., so like me she hadn't climbed in months either. Still, we all cruised the early routes and "Lady", who has struggled with a fear of heights early in her career, was as fearless as I had ever seen her. I was proud of her efforts - never once swearing in her native Portuguese, and "KITT"'s too, because as he had climbed a couple of grades harder than intended the day before, he was at it again on the second day, too. It was supposed to only be a 5+, but it was definitely more than a grade-and-a-half harder than that. Just as he did the day before, too, he one-hung this route and was satisfied with his efforts to climb the truly unknown.

It was cold in the morning
(photo by Chris Urban)
Unlike the day before when most people were bundled until the later afternoon sun came out, t-shirts were in full force across the crag most of the day, but jackets made occasional appearances when the wind picked up, including puffy down jackets when the clouds floated between us and the sun's rays. Such as it is in El Chorro in January; it's likely the best rock you'll get on in all of Europe but that doesn't mean it's baking in desert-like heat. We knocked off a couple of other climbs before getting "Lady" on a 4+ to see if she'd be able to go up on her first-ever multi-pitch climb with "KITT" and I for the final climb of the day. While she technically aced the climb, her lack of climbing the past six months had caught up to her and she was done for the day, with her knees aching more than her arms. "KITT" and I looked up at the 11-pitch route above us and decided to give it a go. We were saddened to learn that we needed to rap after only five pitches or walk off the top with the full eleven. There wasn't enough time to do the eleven and get back before "LADY" turned into a lonely frozen icicle at the base, so we linked pitches together and were up and down in less than two hours. Two hours for a five-pitch climb, up and down, is likely a record for me. We could have climbed more, but we knew our limit for the day, even if our bodies were telling us that we could go on.
The sunset walk out was cold, and we collected kindling for the fire back at the casa. I, ready for more and longing for rock and partners, looked at "KITT" and said, "Now we know," and he looked at me and agreed. There's no need to ask about a future trip - we're coming back and next time we staying even longer.

The region around Ardales and El Chorro at sunset
There's no sadness in this finish for the three of us, but there is in Ardales, however. We ended the day at a local, quiet restaurant named Falco (which, with "KITT" being German, raised a few snickers about the original Der Kommissar single by the singer of the same name, despite he being Austrian) and slowly ate away the layers of Spanish seafood that the chef brought out to us, with all of it drowned down by Cruz Campos beer and white wine. The sadness? We were the only ones there...and the food was excellent.

Bustling Ardales city center
(photo by Nivea Bona)
Spain is in a world of hurt these days. Is it their fault? Probably so, but that doesn't negate the 50% unemployment rate amongst those of working age under 24 years old. It doesn't take away the new-found homelessness, and it doesn't dilute the fact that when banks foreclose the inhabitants both must vacate the house and continue to pay for it. Ardales is no different. Only 15 minutes by car from one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I've ever played in and it's population is shrinking, it's people are selling and moving on, it's restaurants are closing, and, quite likely, in ways that maybe they aren't showing, it's spirit is fading. For your next winter vacation, fly into Malaga, rent a car, rent a casa for the week in either El Chorro or the surrounding villages (things do book up quickly around the new year), and climb on some of the most magnificent rock you'll ever find and dine on even better food in a country where the people not only need it, but are willingly and pridefully offering it as well.

Three Friends
(photo by Nivea Bona)
Click here for all 2012 Spain climbing photos


Nico Jah said...

Great post Greg! Now I'm interested in seeing El Chorro.

GM Burns said...

Thanks Nico - the place is more than sweet!

manny said...

Excellent report, now I have to visit Malaga. I heard the rock was polished. What did you find?

GM Burns said...

Hi Manny,

Sorry for the late response: Definitely polished in areas, especially where it's been climbed a lot. But I also found that there are good feet simply because it's limestone (at least in El Chorro). It can be quite sharp a bit at times, too.