Steep and Meaningful at El Chorro

Steep and Meaningful at El Chorro

Spanish radio is great. I don’t understand a word but when the news comes on, it always sounds like they are announcing a revolution in some distant land. It lets me imagine great people performing heroic acts. How would I fair in such a thing? The reality is, maybe not so well.

As a climber, it’s easy to fancy yourself as a rebellious, independent and adventurous soul capable of handling many diverse situations. Truthfully though climbers are good at one thing, going up steep bits. Aside from being a skill that became superfluous with the invention of the step ladder and absurd after the arrival of pulley systems, in general we are not even that good at it. Think of the most difficult climb you ever climbed, now think how easy it would have been if you had let yourself drill a few holes and pull on a few bolts. No, as climbers we pride ourselves on upward progress by the most awkward manner we can accomplish, with ropes to protect us if we fall and as much lightweight gear as we can carry strapped to our waist. Not very useful in the midst of a revolution. No the heroes of the revolution are the heroes of now, firemen, nurses, paramedics. People who, when the revolution comes will be doing the exact same thing they are doing today (though presumably they will be a mite busier). The climbers will be, well, probably climbing, far too self obsessed with their latest project to notice. They will be busily trying to scale an insignificant piece of rock in a manner consistent with the local ethics. Ethics are another peculiar thing, the apparent freedom of climbing comes with many, many rules as to what makes an acceptable ascent. All of which make climbing that piece of rock more difficult than it need be.

David climbing corner
The author clipping every bolt on a perfect corner crack at El Torcal.

A recent trip to El Chorro (you can envision a revolution happening in El Chorro “La gran historia está en el chorro” or the less enigmatic “the big story is at the spurt”) had me contemplating such things. Mostly how little the Spanish worry about these self-imposed rules. Climbing in El Chorro, like most of Spain, is almost all bolted. Clip sticks and pulling on draws abound. Climbers redpoint or top rope to their hearts content, with no fear of judgement or self-loathing at having missed an on-sight attempt. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a plot to start bolting our own precious crags. I started as a trad climber and have no desire to stray fromthat righteous path. However, the down side of that is, my Irish-catholic upbringing provides a strong sense of shame while sitting on bolts at sunny crags. The Spanish-catholic seems to be much less encumbered, climbing-wise at least. El Chorro epitomises this.

The climbing is centred around an impressively steep and narrow gorge, which is the highlight of a small national park. In the early part of the 20th century, a walkway called the Caminito del Rey was built. It is high above the gorge and allowed workers access for the construction of a hydroelectric plant in the area. The walkway fell into disrepair and after several deaths at the turn of the 21st century was renovated (it’s worth noting that nobody died during its construction). At least it was called a renovation, but actually they built a completely new walkway on top of the old one. The Caminito provided a boom for tourism in the area with punters flocking to pay the 10 euro it costs to walk along it. So much so that you have to book months in advance if you are planning on going. It has not been so bounteous for climbers. Before the renovation climbers used the old dilapidated walkway to access the gorge and many lines were established. Now, climbing is strictly banned in the gorge due to the amount of traffic the Caminito gets. However, intent on ignoring that ludicrous decree, some ardent enthusiast has built a Tyrolean traverse to span the bottom of the gorge. A via feratta can then be followed to access the Africa area and the classic climb of the same name. You climb up close to the Caminito and if you time things well (the Caminito closes at 5) you can stroll out along the the kings little footpath and hop over the locked gate at the end. Needless to say, this is against the park rules.

Another highlight of the park is the Escalera Árabe or Arabian Steps, an historic attraction built circa 1500, presumable by some Arabs. These provide a nice hike for those of a mind and also a significant climbing area. There are no problems climbing here, but you are supposed to walk in from the main road below along the forestry road (20-30 mins depending on where you want to climb). It being Spain and the forestry road being a road, this is largely ignored making the Escalera Árabe a roadside crag.

There is a seemingly endless supply of quality climbing at El Chorro with probably the best being accessed through the train tunnels that run alongside the gorge. Of course walking through the tunnels is forbidden and comes with a hefty fine if you are caught. However, (you may begin to observe a trend here) on our visit we didn’t come across anyone who had actually been fined or knew of anyone who had been. This really epitomizes the Spanish way, they have as many rules as the rest of us, but to their credit, are much better at ignoring them.

Via Ferrata
Sile Daly grappling with the fixed ropes on the approach to Africa in the gorge.

This lackadaisical relationship with the rules makes you wonder if this is why bolting is so prevalent in the region. No doubt when bolts first started to appear, traditionalists besmirched them as they do in this part of the world. But that would not have stopped anyone. “Spanish crags are suited to bolting” I hear you cry, and yes that’s true, particularly at the higher grades. That said, it is not difficult to find lines that would go on trad gear. It is harder to find people (myself included) willing to ignore the bolts running along side them. Yes, the Spanish bolt a lot of their climbing, but simultaneously they are not worried about leaving them out at times. This is particularly true on longer routes. On multi-pitch climbs it’s not unusual to find yourself run out, wishing you had brought a few wires, or your entire rack! Spanish climbers have their own rules and dutifully ignore them when inconvenient.

One of El Chorro’s most famous climbs, Zeppelin, is a prime example of this. Síle and myself had it at the top of our list of things to do on a recent trip to El Chorro. However, our guide book and the internet only provided dismay, as the approach was through the railway tunnels and strictly forbidden. The German proprietor of the local climbing shop was genuinely aghast at the thoughts of anyone contemplating such a trip. But salvation was at hand, as speaking to local Spanish climbers, any concerns were dispelled by their nonchalant attitude and a wave of their unbothered hand. I suspect it may be a translation problem, where “estrictamente prohibido” should actually be “just don’t get caught, nudge, nudge, wink, wink”.

The locals gave information on the best way to enter the tunnels, what to do if a train comes rattling past, and where to climb down to the start of the route. All very normal to the Spanish and very liberating for myself as we made our way to the base of the climb one morning. By the time we reached it so many rules had been cast aside I felt every bit the revolutionary I had imagined. This fever reached such a degree, that even my staunch traditionalist morals were momentarily cast aside.

The crux pitch passes through a massive roof where I couldn’t quite reach the finishing holds. A couple of good efforts were made but as it is a long route, I claimed expediency was more important than virtue (Síle may claim I said “F#*k this for a game of soldiers”). Then, putting my Irish-catholic-traditionalist conscience aside, I stepped up in a sling. A more virtuous version of myself would have missed out on the splendid pitches above one of which was on trad gear (the existence of which probably has more to do with the price of bolts than any Spanish climbing scruples).

The result of breaking all these rules, those climbers impose on themselves and those of the Spanish rail system, was one of the best days climbing I ever had. Don’t get me wrong, rules are important, they make you feel iconoclastic when you ignore them. Sadly however, this is only true if you are well used to following them.

David belay zeppelin
The author happy to be have made it (by any means) to the belay above the impressive roof on Zeppelin.