The “Warm-up” Route
“Watch me here, Geoff!”. It was an inauspicious start. This was the second time I’d uttered the phrase in the last ten minutes. We were on the third pitch of our so called training climb at the start of what was supposed to be a relaxing climbing trip in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. Even the first two pitches, which on paper should have been pretty easy, were strangely unnerving. We weren’t really saying much to each other about the underlying unease but after years of climbing together both knew what the other was thinking. At the top of this first tricky pitch, the angst finally manifested itself. “Do you think maybe we should abseil off?” A horrible mix of thoughts and emotions went through my head. We’d been planning this trip for months and, OK, although the training regime hadn’t exactly been ideal, we’d managed to get a few routes in and had been looking forward to returning to the beautiful sun-kissed Picos limestone after a gap of six years. So here we were at last – the sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the rock was bone dry and warm to the touch – perfect. However the reality was we weren’t enjoying ourselves at all. “Look, the next pitch doesn’t look nearly so bad and we could bale out then if we’re still not happy”. I wasn’t so much trying to convince Geoff as convince myself. I knew he was right. We were clearly out of our depth and the crux, two pitches ahead, was a full grade harder than what we’d just struggled to do. Then again, rock climbing is ninety percent mind games and success or failure often rests on a metaphorical knife edge based on your confidence level.
This can be significantly boosted by something as simple as one good wire or executing a couple of good moves and totally destroyed by just a single slightly negative comment or thought. Standing on the small belay stance, the delicate exchange continued, neither of us sure of our own real instinctive desire, never mind that of our climbing partner. The process of coming to a decision to either fight the negativity and push on or succumb to reality and escape unfolded gradually, first one way then the other but edging reluctantly towards the escape option. If there had been a decent bolt or chain at the stance that would have been it - decision made. However the whole pitch had been a rising traverse therefore we’d be descending into unknown territory coupled with the fact that, although the belay was adequate, it wasn’t something you would abseil off without a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach and a very dry mouth. As so often happens in mountaineering, the decision came down to a selection of the lesser of two evils. In this particular case that meant continuing with the route. Sure enough Geoff led up the next pitch without difficulty and, as I followed up, the subtle mind games continued to play in my head except by now, little by little, they were starting to move in a positive direction rather than negative. The pitch after was the crux but by now my mental state had completely altered and, to my own surprise, I was starting to enjoy myself. (This was possibly assisted by a couple of in-situ bomb proof pegs along the way!) The climb still had a couple of aces up it’s sleeve with a slight route finding error at the crux resulting in a tension lower back onto a ramp leading to the belay ledge. After another couple of very delicate and exposed pitches with more tricky route finding we could sense that the top wasn’t too far off. Just then we heard the dulcet tones of Jim and Waneeta, our two companions who were doing the ridge of the mountain that we were climbing the east face of. The four of us had set out together that morning, splitting into two separate teams at the base of the mountain. After the tensions of the day, it felt good to hear them again, signalling both the imminent end of our route and the reunification of the squad. Arrival on the ridge brought return to the sun, an incredible view over the surrounding mountains and the welcome sight of Jim and Waneeta about a pitch ahead along the ridge. As Geoff joined me we slipped into the classic retrospective pleasure mode exhibited by all climbers who have been slightly over extended and instantly forgot about the scary moments. “Some climb eh?”. “Yeah, bloody amazing!!”.
We soon joined the guys, swapping accounts regarding the vagaries of the Picos grading system. A few easy pitches along the ridge then a couple of abseils down a scrappy gully later and we were all back on terra firma. The sun was setting as we made our way back down to the hut, casting an incredible pink hue over the rock spires surrounding us as we descended. “There’s no way we’re going to get fed tonight” I said, ever the optimist. The previous evening there had been a massive argument between the hut custodian and someone looking for food who had arrived from the valley only half an hour after the serving time. “Maybe they’ll take pity on us seeing as how we’ve been climbing today and we’re basically a bunch of stupid Brits” Jim volunteered hopefully. “Yeah maybe but even if that was the case, the best we can hope for is probably a wee bowl of tinned fruit.” Geoff added. That had been last night’s pudding. We were all starving and it looked like the best case scenario was going to be the remains of the hill food plus a wee bit extra. However we hadn’t reckoned with the incredible Spanish speaking talents of our very own Bolivian expat – Waneeta. The combination of his South American Spanish and wily Dennistoun charm secured us a late meal. R-e-s-u-l-t. The fact that, as we arrived, the apparently violent hut custodian was just leaving to go down to the valley for a few days, leaving his wife in charge, may also have had something to do with our good fortune.
As we sat down, four plates and a gargantuan bowl of steaming paella arrived. You can imagine the total natural high we were on. The boys were seriously enjoying themselves now. “There’s no way he said that he’s away down for a wank”. We’d already experienced a few problems with Waneeta’s translating skills. Something to do with the South American aspect. “No, I’m telling you” Waneeta insisted “That’s definitely what he said”. “Really? Bloody hell!!”. Normally the implausibility of this would have shone through but under the circumstances we’d have gone along with anything. We’d only met the custodian the day before, had spoken about two words to him and now he was cheerfully telling us that he was away down to civilisation for a bit of self relief. After twelve hours on the hill, a totally unexpected feast and a few glasses of wine this all seemed perfectly reasonable. A couple of days later after a bit of reflection and a consultation with the Spanish-English dictionary, Jim enlightened us to the fact that what the hut custodian was really saying was that he was serving his penance by suffering the long walk out to the trail head. A somewhat different interpretation. This was to become something of an abiding theme during the rest of the trip.
By all accounts Jim and Waneeta had also had a harder first day than expected. We were finally getting round to discussing what to do the next day. It was unanimous – nothing too hectic. We’d all noticed a really majestic peak towards the middle of the Western Massif and a quick map and guidebook consultation confirmed this was the Torre De Santa Maria, the second highest in this area. The easiest route up and down was graded at PD and was reasonably short. This seemed to fit the bill perfectly. The only slight fly in the ointment was the fairly enormous walk-in however we knew the views would be good. This time we all stayed together (very close together since the main problem on this occasion were huge piles of loose rock) and reached the summit without any major traumas. Sure enough the views were incredible and the atmosphere relatively relaxed. There were a couple of options for the descent but in the end we chose to go back down the same way we had come up. Better the devil you know we reckoned. A bit of judicious deliberate rockfall by the first man down (Waneeta seemed to enjoy this just a little too much) at the only gully section reduced the danger to ourselves considerably. This left only one remaining slightly tricky move or two before reaching the descent path. It was that kind of ground where it was hard to decide whether moving together on a rope placing gear or taking belays was the best option. We were now well into the second of two really big days out and the strain was j-u-s-t beginning to tell. A small altercation developed about what exactly the hell we were doing but we knew that basically we were all pretty fucked so, with this in mind, worked our way through the problem.
Soon we were back at the col, friends again and happy to get back to the sacks because that meant one thing – water. Thirty seconds later the water was all gone. To say we were thirsty would be a bit of an understatement. Despite the long trudge back, we had a bit of time up our sleeves before dinner this time and wouldn’t require any grovelling. On the way, there was a well with a good stream of water emitting from a hose. Jim, Waneeta and I stripped to the waist and had a really good scrub down – God it was incredibly refreshing. Unfortunately the magic of the moment was slightly marred when Geoff decided to partake. Let’s just say he likes to take maximum advantage of these opportunities for a bit of a wash. We reckoned they could probably hear the shrieks down in the refuge which was just visible in the distance.
R & R
The next morning we set off for civilisation. This always induces a good feeling, especially after a strenuous session in the hills. There was a great mood of anticipation of the imminent appreciation of the finer things in life – beer, beaches and restaurants. The road back down to the bright lights was really tortuous – a long series of hairpin bends with enormous drop-offs, often with no safety barrier. “Ach your OK Jim, there’s not much driving on this holiday”, the rest of us said, in turn. This was the continuation of an ongoing running joke ever since Jim had lost the toss at the airport to see who would get the dubious privilege of driving the hire car. Actually it had started off as a serious comment because indeed the distance from Bilbao to the Picos is quite short. The problem is the roads among the mountains are a bit crazy. “Oh good. Thanks for the encouragement.” The sweat was by now dripping off Jim’s brow and his knuckles were turning ever whiter. By way of a diversion, Geoff was holding the centre spread picture of a certain magazine we had somehow acquired against the windscreen. The idea was that the large number of cyclists toiling up the hill in the opposite direction would look at the picture and this would give them a bit of welcome light relief from the hill climbing cycling agony. In the event, I think we were getting more amusement from all this than they were.
One of the great things about the Picos (and there are many) is that the north coast of Spain is only about 20 miles away and full of beautiful beaches, bars and restaurants. In short, perfect for a bit of rest and recreation. We headed for Llanes, a town we knew from a previous trip. Things had changed a bit since our last visit and it took a bit of searching before finding the campsite. “Can we put up our marquee? It’s quite a small one.” Waneeta’s dodgy Spanish was making its presence felt again. In fact we later found out that, as well as marquee, the word he was using for tent could also mean fish!!! The campsite owner was extremely authoritarian and a total control freak. The language barrier wasn’t helping things much either. Another twenty minutes of negotiations followed by a tour of the campsite in the car following the commandant who was on foot, using hand signals that didn’t make any sense either, finally got us established. The inevitable first port of call was the beach (It’s OK, there was a bar at the beach).
Diving into the big Atlantic rollers after days of sweaty toil in the mountains was truly invigorating. It was hard to decide which pleasure to indulge in between a leisurely swim, lying on the beach admiring the “scenery” or sipping cool lager on the terrace at the adjacent bar. A mixture of all three was the inevitable result and the stresses and strains of the hill days gradually melted away. A strange facet of the pursuit of mountaineering is that one of the most enjoyable parts is getting away from it! This then begs the question – why bother? Why not just do the R & R and forget about the mountaineering? This however is a little over simplistic since the beaches and bars can really only be truly appreciated after first suffering in the mountains. The apparently warped logic here really comes down to that bizarre thing called human nature. More on this later. After one more day of R & R, the emphasis was now beginning to shift away from the “Rest” and move in a fairly major way towards the “Recreation”. This included a night on the town starting in a reasonably civilised fashion with a few tapas accompanied by a couple of small glasses of lager in a traditional Spanish bar frequented mainly by the locals.
Things rapidly went downhill however and later, when entering the only Irish bar in town, we knew that effectively any last remaining vestiges of civilised behaviour were about to disappear. The downward spiral continued, ending in a salsa dancing nightclub to which we were dragged by an Irish girl living in Bilbao, visiting her boyfriend for a few days. Needless to say salsa dancing was a bit beyond us by this stage (or at any stage for that matter) so we decided to introduce the local Spaniards to a little known dancing phenomenon called “The Windmill”. This involves fairly extensive use of the arms and requires a considerable amount of space, particularly for Jim, our main choreographer. On reflection, a small crowded basement nightclub was perhaps not the ideal venue for this activity. The salsa dancers ignored us as best they could, distinctly unimpressed. The recollection of the walk (crawl?!?) back to the tent is very blurred with only two vague memories. The first is that we got completely lost at one point and could see the campsite in the distance on the opposite side of a deeply indented bay. The shortest distance back as the crow flies would have been across the bay but fortunately nobody suggested swimming.
The only other memory is of Jim lying outside the tent, unable to manage the last ten feet to his sleeping bag having miraculously negotiated the previous two miles. We’d managed to avoid even mentioning the mountains for the first day and a half of our rest period however it was now the second evening and the plan had always been to head back up into the hills the following day. Somehow there was an underlying feeling that as soon as we started seriously discussing climbing plans, our short spell of nonsense would be over. Then again, we needed a plan.
So inevitably, somewhat reluctantly, the maps and guidebooks came out and discussions commenced. Years earlier, on a previous trip to the Picos, Geoff and I spent quite a while admiring the view from the top of Torre de Cerredo, the highest peak in the range. It is located in the Central Massif. Dominating the view to the west was the highest peak in the Western Massif, Pena Santa de Castilla with its huge south face forming the skyline. Previous research had revealed that there was a classic eighteen pitch route up this face followed by a complicated and technical decent all set in a very remote location. It was one of these routes that always seem like an excellent idea from the comfort of your own living room. On that occasion circumstances dictated that we never managed to get into the Western Massif so this route remained on the “not hit list” as Geoff likes to call it.
For the uninitiated this basically means you pretend to yourself that you don’t really have a list of routes that you’re keen to do because you’ve got such a laid back attitude to the whole business of mountaineering. The reality is however that deep in the psyche of all climbers lies an agenda, usually evolving over time, of routes that you would quite like to do one day. When this current trip was arranged the above route inevitably came to mind again although we knew it was reasonably ambitious and success would depend on our climbing form and of course the weather. The particularly distinctive features of Picos limestone are the “canalizos”. These are water worn vertical channels in the rock which vary greatly in width and depth. They can be a really useful means of ascent and are indeed sometimes key to progress but conversely take a lot of getting used to, are often very unnerving and typically do not offer much in the way of protection. The guidebook description of our potential route indicated that a considerable number of pitches involved low to middle grade climbing on poorly protected canalizos. This was precisely the same as the first couple of pitches of our warm-up route which had caused unexpected difficulties. On the one hand I kind of knew that given our “canalizos” problems on the first route, going for an eighteen pitch route of a similar nature had epic written all over it. However, things did improve a lot during the warm-up route and I also had a feeling that the difficulties may have been caused purely because of our unfamiliarity with the rock. In theory, now that we had that route under our belts, we should perform better on the canalizos.
The obvious alternative choice for a route was something on El Naranjo, a stunning peak in the Central Massif, vertical on all sides and arguably the most famous mountain in Spain on account of its aesthetic beauty and rock climbing potential. The routes on the south and east faces were of a more reasonable length (about ten to twelve pitches) and experience from a route on it that Geoff and I had done on a previous trip meant that I knew the rock was particularly amenable. While perusing the guidebook, I felt myself inexorably drawn to this second option, perhaps reflecting my innermost instinct that the long classic route on Pena Santa de Castilla may not be the right choice for now. It’s a common theme in climbing circles that often when you are doing it you wish you weren’t and when you’re not doing it you wish you were. This leads to all sorts of humour based round the premise of giving up climbing, selling your climbing gear, taking up stamp collecting and so on.
Typically this type of chat occurs straight off the back of a trip in particular where the participants have been pushed a bit either in terms of technical difficulty or physical endeavour or both. I’m now coming back on to that human nature theme again and, in tune with this, the almost universal reaction to this situation is that after a remarkably short time, say a couple of days, the hardships are forgotten and the old enthusiasm returns. The guidebook perusals, map inspections and general discussions continued. In the midst of this Geoff announced that he didn’t fancy any more climbing and would prefer to go walking instead. At first I took this to be part of the above mentioned phenomenon but it fairly quickly became apparent that he was serious. The truth is we had been severely extended on that training route and whereas I’d managed to get my head together a bit during the climb, Geoff’s psyche was fairly severely damaged. Nevertheless I was a bit gob-smacked and I couldn’t help feeling that he would ultimately regret the decision if he carried it through. I tried to remind him of our previous success years before on the route on El Naranjo and how the rock had been quite friendly, the route finding reasonably simple and the propensity of in-situ gear if an abseil off the route was required. However his mind was made up. His heart and head were telling him to chuck the climbing for now and at the end of the day you have to go with your instincts.
As it turned out, Jim was happy enough to do a scramble or walk with Geoff and Waneeta had been keen to get a route in on El Naranjo for years so that more or less settled it. The teams were easily reshuffled and everybody was agreed on the evolving plan. We would head into the Central Massif with Waneeta and I attempting what looked like an excellent route called “La Cepada” that I’d spied in the guide and Geoff and Jim coming round to the idea of doing a large circular walking tour in the same area. Geoff was still looking a bit preoccupied however and appeared to be continuing to wrestle with his decision. With the plans made, we headed into town for a couple of quiet drinks. This was a classic case of bad timing since a festival was just getting started in the town and it was reasonably obvious that a large proportion of the local populace would be clutching their heads in agony the next morning. (The locally fermented cider is particularly brutal in that department!) It was not easy keeping the sensible heads on and leaving early however we consoled ourselves with the thought that we’d catch the end of the festival on our return in a few days time.
El Naranjo de Bulnes
We duly set off the next day, heading back to the mountains. Up until this point the weather had been more or less perfect to the extent that it wasn’t really an issue any more. “I suppose we better get a forecast” somebody suggested as we arrived at the largish town where we intended to re-provision. We split the party to save some time, with Waneeta and me heading to the tourist information office for the forecast. Things were looking distinctly dodgy. I was looking at the wee pictures of black clouds, raindrops and lightening bolts while Waneeta was getting the details from the girl behind the counter courtesy of his South American Spanish. The gist of it was afternoon storms today, rain all day tomorrow and back to possible afternoon storms the following day. This didn’t look good at all. We seriously considered extending the “Recreation” (we were fully “Rested” by now) but with the number of days we had left before flying home, this would effectively rule out getting to where we wanted to go. “Fuck it. Let’s just go for it.” I suggested. “If we hang about down here, we’ll just get pissed off. At the very least we’ll get a wander about the mountains. Then again the forecast might be wrong and we’ll get lucky for once.” It was still blazing sunshine at this point so despite the forecast, there was an illogical mood of optimism about the party.
The mood changed shortly after our arrival at the valley cable car station. As the dark clouds were gathering, we were all hastily rearranging our rucksacks, moving the waterproofs from the bottom to the top. Nearing the front of the queue for the cable car, we could hear the first rumble of thunder in the distance. “What the fuck are we doing here?” Geoff asked. I had to agree it did seem basically stupid to be boarding a cable car that was going to hoist us straight into the gathering storm. However our destination was a large refugio via well established paths with only one fairly high col to cross. We decided to stick to the original decision at this stage and press on. Astonishingly enough we completed the four hour walk to the hut without being rained on and on our arrival the weather seemed to be improving very slightly.
The forecast for the next day was however still really bad and I was more or less convinced that we’d be lucky even to get out for a short walk. With the forecast in mind we knew that a couple of contingency plans were needed. The obvious rock climbing “B” plan was the original ascent route up El Naranjo which goes up the shortest part of the east face, leading to the lowest part of a large amphitheatre. This consists of only four pitches of climbing followed by about six hundred feet of scrambling to the summit. It is also the standard descent route and is therefore conveniently provided with a gleaming set of shiny stainless steel abseil chains at the stances. This contrasted sharply with our original “A” plan, “La Cepada”, which, although an apparently superb route, was more than twice the length and two grades harder. As time passed without any change in the forecast the easier option was rapidly heading towards becoming the new “A” plan.
That evening in the hut we met a group of eight lads from the Birmingham University Mountaineering Club, all looking young, fit and maybe just a bit too enthusiastic. It transpired during the conversation that they were all intending to climb the route that hitherto had been our new “A” plan, that is, the easier option. This was a major disappointment. I can’t say I particularly relished the prospect of battling up a climb with that much company. We were in a state of indecision again. My underlying feeling was that it was really all academic anyway as we would probably end up not climbing at all, given the expected weather. We resolved, in time honoured tradition, to defer the final decision until the morning. Normally during the night before a reasonably serious undertaking, I struggle to sleep soundly and am awake much of the time with short bursts of sleep. As I crawled into my sleeping bag I had a fleeting memory of the last time I had been in this same refugio six years previously, the night before Geoff and I embarked on the only other climb I’d done on El Naranjo. On that occasion we had virtually no prior experience of Picos climbing and my sleep that night was very fitful to say the least. This time, being fully convinced that the rain was going to put paid to any climbing aspirations, I quickly sank into a deep and restful slumber. This again harks back to that strange human nature phenomenon where, although the whole reason for being there is to go climbing, when circumstances dictate against that, an illogical feeling of relieved contentment supplants the subtle tension associated with mountaineering.
Waking briefly in the middle of the night I decided to check the weather, assuming the rain would have probably arrived. Instead I was greeted with the sight of an incredibly clear starlit sky complete with the moon just edging its way over the horizon. “Bloody hell!”. This was a real surprise. Time to readjust the head once again. It looked like the climbing might be on after all. Next morning we were up pretty sharp and managed to get ready quite quickly. The previous evening Waneeta had got talking to a small group of Spanish climbers. It turned out they had climbed “La Cepada” a couple of days before and had photo-copied a detailed topo diagram of the route which they gave to us just as we headed off. This almost seemed like an omen towards doing the longer, harder and better route but, despite the fact that the weather was still excellent, I was concerned about the forecast.
We knew that if we were going to take the easier option, we had to get established ahead of the Birmingham team to avoid a potential nightmare. This much at least we had succeeded in doing because, as we left, they were showing no signs of being ready to leave, apparently suffering from the large group inertia that often slows people down when trying to get organised.The approach path was steep and in places loose. We were moving as fast as possible, acutely aware of a couple of the Birmingham lads now on the move but still far below. “OK. Which route is it to be?” We still hadn’t decided. “Well the weather looks pretty good just now and the guide does mention something about abseil bolts about two thirds of the way up “La Cepada”. “Yeah, but what if we don’t even get that far. The forecast is shit.” By now we were really struggling, trying to hold a conversation while still attempting to power on up the slope. We’d already agreed that we couldn’t stop for a discussion given that the Birmingham team were getting closer. We had to make the decision on the move if the shorter route was to remain an option.
After a few minutes we were reaching an agreement. “The short route is definitely the sensible option under the circumstances. We still get a route in and if the weather craps out we’re more or less guaranteed a straightforward retreat.” “Right. We’ll go for that”. This seemed like a good compromise. However as often happens with a compromise I felt a small tinge of disappointment not to be going for “La Cepada”, the original “A” plan. By now we were directly opposite the base of that route and it looked amazing. I consoled myself with the thought that it wouldn’t look quite so good from half way up with water streaming down it. I was sweating profusely now with the effort of staying ahead and was aghast to realise that suddenly one of the Birmingham boys was now apparently effortlessly overtaking us. Fuck. Soon another three had cruised past. I was beginning to feel very old. It was becoming clear that, despite our best efforts, these eight other guys were going to get to the start of the route ahead of us. We stopped for a desperately needed rest. “Oh well. I guess we’re stuck with the crowd ahead on the route” Waneeta sighed. “Doesn’t sound like much fun. It’ll be slow going as well” I added, somewhat despondent.
We took the opportunity to have a good look around, having spent the previous hour heads down in a stream of sweat. It really was an incredible situation surrounded as we were with huge limestone spires reaching into the sky, the whole view dominated by the soaring east face of El Naranjo. Inevitably our gaze was drawn towards “La Cepada”. It looked awfully inviting but also a wee bit scary. “Maybe we should just go for it” I tentatively volunteered. I knew this flew in the face of the logical decision we had made ten minutes earlier. “If it’s in any way similar to the route Geoff and I did last time, it shouldn’t be too difficult to escape from if need be.” It’s interesting how you can construct the logic behind any argument depending on what decision you want to end up with. Waneeta continued to look up and down the face. “Well it would certainly be a lot more enjoyable than being stuck in a crowd of BUM club members”. This is what we had jokingly started calling them, not to their faces of course. (Needless to say this isn’t the official title. That’s University of Birmingham Mountaineering Club or UBMC for short. It’s easy to see why they went for this word order.) “Ah fuck it! C’mon, let’s do it!”
We made our way across to the route, a small knot of added excitement forming in the belly and were ensconced at the bottom within five minutes. “This is either going to be the scoop of the century or the epic of the century” laughed Waneeta, slightly nervously, as we got the harnesses on and began sorting out the gear. “Aye, probably the latter” ,I replied, “knowing our luck.” Conversely, as we got established on the route, it appeared to be heading more towards the former. The rock was excellent, we were both climbing well and before long we had several pitches under our belts and were really enjoying ourselves. Needless to say we were keeping a very close eye on the weather but so far it was holding up well. The crux however was still to come and in fact was near the top of the route. An important milestone on the way was a narrow terrace with an abseil chain. This is the high point of a number of adjacent sport climbs and was the possible descent we had noted previously in the guidebook. This was about two-thirds of the way up the route and by this time some reasonably innocuous looking white clouds were beginning to gather.
Given the forecast however we couldn’t get away from the idea that they could be a portent of worse things to come. “Will we keep going, or ab off?” I asked although pretty sure in my own mind that I wanted to carry on. “The weather still looks basically OK. I think we should head on up.” Waneeta had also got caught up in the general optimism engendered by our progress up to that point. It was agreed after a thirty second discussion – we’d press on. A few more enjoyable pitches later we were standing on a reasonably comfortable belay directly below the crux. The weather was still holding but the climbing did look hard. At the start of every climb there is always the decision about who’s going to take the first lead. This can depend on a whole number of factors but, assuming the leads are going to be shared, it’s inevitable that climbers try to work out who is going to end up getting the crux or the majority of the harder pitches. This sometimes openly manifests itself leading to generally light-hearted banter at the start of a route. It had happened in a small way on this occasion although with the crux so near the top of a reasonably long route, we weren’t paying too much attention to this aspect since often the individual pitches do not work out exactly as per the guidebook. As it happened (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) the crux pitch turned out to be Waneeta’s lead. I think he was secretly glad as he had been climbing well throughout the day and with increasing confidence.
During the previous few months he had gone through a bit of a bad patch so this day’s success had an added edge of satisfaction for him. There was a considerable amount of in-situ gear in a crack at the crux, perhaps a testament to the level of difficulty. I had half jokingly suggested that the gear could be useful not only as protection but as aid of things got really bad. Waneeta was in puritanical mode however and was keen to do a clean ascent. After a couple of goes and a bit of thought working out the moves, Waneeta was up – without pulling on the gear. We’d cracked it! I quickly followed using a somewhat different ethos and was using anything and everything to assist progress. I justified this approach in my mind on the basis that I was second on the rope anyway and that, for the sake of the overall venture, speed was of the essence. (The real reason of course was that I probably couldn’t have got up it in any other way).
The next pitch was also hard but satisfyingly brought us out onto a miniature ridge at the edge of the east face, overlooking the large amphitheatre above the south face. I could barely believe it – what a scoop! I knew we would finish the route now because the next and final pitch was common to the route Geoff and I had done years before and I remembered it being reasonably easy. The view had really opened out now and I could see some slightly darker clouds gathering in the distance. They were pretty minor though and I felt fairly certain now that we would get well established into the descent before the weather broke. The view into the amphitheatre was incredible and its size and scale was accentuated by the sight of the BUM club lads who were just starting their abseil off. “That’s one of the best routes I’ve ever done”. “Yeah, me too,” I had to agree, “Not bad considering we nearly never even came into the mountains yesterday.” Added to that was the fact that the only reason we ended up doing our original “A” plan was being overtaken on the walk in. It’s amazing how often your best days in the mountains come about by a quirky series of events. We were sitting on the top of El Naranjo now, basically happy as pigs in shit. It was tempting to lie around for a long time basking in the glory of success but there was the small matter of the descent to deal with before relaxing. The scramble down and first couple of abseils went off without a hitch. Due to the total success of the day so far, the general mood was still fairly light-hearted. This was about to change considerably.
We should have known that things had been going just a bit too well. whrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRR!!! It was that distinctive hideous sound of a rock falling from way above. We never actually saw the rock, just hearing it as it whizzed past. “Fucking hell, that sounded big”. I could feel my heart pumping, responding to the adrenalin rush. It was just a one off though and we continued setting up the third abseil. Waneeta went first then, as I was half way down, the first echo of thunder rolled around the surrounding mountains. First rockfall and now a storm brewing. Things are beginning to get interesting I thought to myself. By the time we got to the end of the third abseil the atmosphere had changed completely. Apart from the rockfall and thunder, we had abseiled over a small overhang onto a really tiny stance and the anchor point was a fairly old looking ring of wire attached by an equally old looking set of bolts. The one saving grace was an adjacent new stainless steel bolt. It was however a far cry from the succession of brand new looking bolts and chains we had been using up till now. I now had a feeling that we’d drifted off the main descent route. This was partly fuelled by my memory of the last time I’d been here, six years before. I was convinced it had been big new chains all the way down but six years is a long time and it wouldn’t be the first time my memory had been a bit fickle, especially in recent years. An added complication was that the ground we were ultimately aiming for was sloping away in the direction that I felt we were too far over towards.
This further accentuated my growing feeling of unease. Waneeta attempted to placate me. “Look, we’ve come straight down and this is definitely an established abseil point, even if it’s not quite as good as the previous ones.” I knew he was right and resolved to carry on with the job in hand. There was little else we could do. I started pulling the rope through. It jammed. “Oh fuck, this is all we need” I said flicking the rope as best I could from beneath the overhang. The thunder continued to rumble and the whole situation was rapidly deteriorating. I tried again. Still stuck. I pulled the other rope a bit then flicked again. Still stuck. I was starting to get pretty worried now and didn’t relish the prospect of attempting to climb the rope. One final go and this time it started to jam then came free. “Yes!!! Thank fuck for that!” I exclaimed continuing to pull the rope free. At last things were going our way again. When Waneeta threw the rope down for the fourth abseil the steepening of the rock lower down meant we couldn’t see if it reached the bottom. It still looked quite a long way off. Waneeta set off. Half way down he shouted up “The rope just reaches the ground!!” “Fucking wonderful!” I shouted back, really glad now that this would soon all be over, given the recent complications. Back at the sacks we demolished three litres of water between us in a couple of minutes of frenzied gulping. Once again we were incredibly thirsty having carried just a little water on the route to keep the weight down. The route had indeed been an unexpected accomplishment.
Walking back to the refuge, although tired, we were carried along by the natural high induced by the success of the day. There was plenty of daylight left, the weather had improved again and we were in no particular rush, happy to enjoy the moment. Just as we arrived back at the hut, Geoff and Jim appeared with Jim thrusting a bottle of beer into each of our hands. The fatigue kicked in and it was really pleasant just to loll about, indulging in a bit of banter and supping lager while waiting to be fed.
All Good Things Come to an End
The next day we headed back out the same way we had arrived. This in itself was a really scenic walk with the Picos limestone peaks and spires together with the very distinctive “jous”, gigantic crater like depressions between the mountains, providing really breath-taking views. We were all really knackered by now so anything that took our minds off the toil was a welcome relief. The chat was split between marvelling at the scenery and once again anticipating the hedonistic pleasures to come. We headed straight back to Llanes, this time with the intention of catching the final night of the local festival which was just getting started when we had previously left a few days before.
Once again the ritual with the slightly mad campsite commandant had to be endured. We had noticed during our previous stay that this rigmarole was applied to every single new arrival. The entrance drive was on a really steep slope, probably about 1 in 5, this just adding to the difficulties. Typically those arriving would proceed about twenty metres down the slope to the reception building. The commandant would then insist that they reverse back up the slope to a branch off as he strictly applied his totally arbitrary one way system that was completely unsignposted. We had prior knowledge this time of course so at least avoided that part of the procedure. The strange thing was that during our actual stays there he was bizarrely quite friendly. After the obligatory swim and couple of beers at the beach we headed into town. Sure enough there was a huge temporary stage set up in the town square with lots of people busily working away on the lighting, rigging and loudspeakers. It took us about five minutes to realise that these guys were dis-assembling rather than assembling. We had a closer look at one of the hundreds of posters distributed throughout the town advertising the festival.
We had made what seemed like a reasonable assumption that the last night of the festival would be on a Saturday. The poster revealed that it had in fact ended on Friday, the night before. “Ach well, I guess we’ll just have to make do with the night clubs again”, I said, only a little disappointed. And so it came to pass. Another night of frenzied debauchery which was, if anything, slightly more debauched than the mid-trip R & R since this was effectively the last night of the holiday. Strangely enough none of the locals were doing the “windmill”. We could only assume this new dancing sensation hadn’t quite caught their imagination.
The next morning (very late morning) the inevitable moment of de-camping was drawing ever closer. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I dragged my weary body into town to get some presents. This was a major struggle against an almost overwhelming desire just to lie down and go to sleep, hopefully waking up about twelve hours later once the pain had gone away. When I got back the lads were beginning to move and after what seemed like a Herculean effort things were just about getting organised. As usual, the campsite commandant was sitting sunning himself outside the reception building, no doubt looking forward to greeting his daily collection of victims. “I’m going to shout wanker out the window at that guy as we’re leaving”, Geoff suddenly announced. We shouldn’t have been surprised by this.
Geoff quite often comes up with these kinds of suggestions, sometimes resulting in surprising comic effect. “OK Waneeta, tell me again, what’s Spanish for wanker?”. “It’s p-a-j-e-r-o” Waneeta explained, carefully intonating each syllable. “P-a-j-a-r-o”, Geoff copied. “Not quite – it’s p-a-j-e-r-o”, Waneeta repeated, this time emphasising the middle syllable, presumably feeling that this was where Geoff’s slight error was. Geoff continued quietly practising to himself as we finished off packing up the car. Finally we were ready to go. “OK Jim, not too fast now. We just want to cruise by for maximum effect.” Geoff was winding his window down as he spoke. “Then again if you stalled that would be pretty embarrassing” I added from the back, anticipating the big moment. “P-A-A-J-A-A-R-R-R-O!!!!!” Geoff yelled at the top of his voice. As we reached the public road Jim put his foot down, while we all rolled about laughing. “You’ve just called that guy a bird”, Waneeta informed us. For once it was somebody else’s turn to screw up the Spanish language.