Climbing in the Picos de Europa

Boy Meets Girl

The start of so many great stories and the start to so many great tragedies.

Despite spending 20-30 days a year climbing, I’m not a climber. I’m a skier who just so happens to regularly find himself wearing a harness, half way up a mountain, with a steady flow of terror-pee running down my leg.

Not being a dedicated climber, I never actually work at my climbing, so despite climbing for over a decade, I don’t exactly crank big grades. Traditionally, 5.7 has been my happy place with 5.8s doable and 5.9 being something that come with no guarantee of success.

But then I, the skier who climbs, started dating Christine - a climber who skis.

The first couple of months of our relationship where fantastic in that we got to cater entirely to my strengths – skiing. When ski touring, Christine and I are similar in speed on the way up, and I’m stronger on the way down.

But then it stopped being winter.

An Incentive to Climb More

All of a sudden I was acutely aware that I was a skier who climbed 5.7 on top rope, dating a climber who leads 11s.

Luckily, before we ever got a chance to actually climb together, Christine took off on an 8 month climbing trip, so I didn’t have to show her what a terrible climber I was – she knew I was a skier, but she hadn’t had to confront the true depths of my horrible-ness. I knew someday it would come up, but we were in the early days of our relationship so it was easily brushed aside as a ‘tomorrow problem’.

But then, in a moment of idiocy while trying to convince Christine to spend a couple of weeks of her climbing sabbatical with me, I suggested I take a couple of weeks off work later in the summer and we go climbing together. Possibly stupid.

After considering options literally all over the world since I was looking to burn some frequent flyer points, we settled on a region in Northern Spain called the Picos de Europa. We picked it because it’s predominantly big, long, multi-pitch routes up big, slabby, limestone peaks. I do my least-worst work on slabby limestone, so this would play to my very limited strengths.

The problem was, I was still a terrible, terrible climber. Luckily, I had a couple of months to train in.

What followed was the most intense flurry of climbing of my entire life. No scrambling, no trail runs, no hikes, no mountain biking. Every single possible minute was spent climbing. I was seriously into this girl.

Katherine Valentine has been dragging me up routes since the day she moved to Canada about five years ago. She gets that I struggle on lead and, despite being a climber on a similar level to Christine, Katherine really enjoys climbing long, easy routes that make me happy in a ‘Phil only weeps with terror a little bit’ sort of way.

Nursing a slowly healing ankle she broke the previous summer in a lead fall, Katherine couldn’t handle long approaches – so the next two months turned into a mission to climb every single easy, short access, preferably long, multipitch route we could find.

We started with the (not very) long Rundle Horn. Then in a one-month burst, we climbed Ha Ling, Water World in Revi, Gooseberry and Aftonroe. When we weren’t on long routes, we were cragging at Sunshine or cranking routes at the gym. Nearly imperceptibly I was getting better. For the first time in my life, all of a sudden I was seconding 10a routes cleanly so, Katherine, Mike and I climbed Beautiful Century. And then things kept progressing and all of a sudden I found myself climbing Sea of Dreams (10c/d) with Mike, Katherine and Matt with only minimal hauling on draws and only the tiniest bit of terror-pee.

I recruited others to the cause along the way. Rebecca shepherded me up Mother’s Day Buttress and Paul dragged me up Twilight Zone. I still couldn’t lead worth a damn, but thanks to great friends willing to drag me up stuff, I’d gotten to a point where I felt like I could make at least a halfway decent showing of myself in front of my shiny new climber girlfriend.

What Could Go Wrong?

It was only when I was on the plane about half way across the Atlantic, that it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, a two week climbing trip, on another continent, with a girl I’d been dating for only a few months, most of which she’d been away for and with whom I had never actually climbed with – might not have been my most brilliant idea ever. I spent the rest of the flight figuring the odds of us killing each other or her leaving me for dead half way up a route. Shit.

Christine had flown over a couple of weeks before me to climb Gorges de Verdon in France so I flew into Paris to meet her. We grabbed a rental car and we then did a two day, marathon drive down to Spain. The drive was punctuated by intense excitement at getting to finally climb with Christine and abject terror of having to keep up to her climbing.

I know that it doesn’t bother me to ski with people who maybe don’t have as much experience on skis as I do – but that didn’t do much to quiet that little voice in the back of my head that this amazing girl was going to dump my ass the first time I froze up on a 5.2.

Feeling the Destination Out, Feeling Each Other Out

 Las Arenas - it's got the whole 'quaint' thing down pat.

Las Arenas - it's got the whole 'quaint' thing down pat.

We spent a night in a hotel in Las Arenas de Cabrales – a town which would serve as our base of operations for the first part of our trip. The only English guide we’d managed to turn up in Canada was the aptly named “Climbing in the Picos de Europa – An English Companion for Climbers” by Millie Evans. This is not a guide book. It’s a collection of tips and suggestions which basically tells you which of the local guide books has the best route descriptions for various mountains, as well as where to find maps, supplies and other useful info like that. It was handy for giving us ideas, but it’s idea of ‘route descriptions’ was “all of the routes are 7 pitches long and each pitch is about 40m’. Super descriptive. Don’t even need a topo with a description that detailed. Nevertheless, we spent a futile afternoon looking for an English guide book and settled for a Spanish one – between our understanding of French and the magic that is Google’s Translate app, it got the job done.

The best guidebook we found was Cordillera Cantabrica by Miguel Angel Adrados (there's also skiing and ice versions, so make sure you get the rock guide). It has most of the major climbing areas in the Picos and while it doesn’t have route descriptions for every route it lists – it’s got a pretty solid selection – most mountains we walked up to we had a few different routes and topos to work with.

Our primary objective was the incredible looking Narnjo de Bulnes – a limestone spire jutting out of the surrounding hills. But before we got to that, we figured we should do a warmup on something a little tamer.

Since our ‘climber’s companion’ told us there was a collection of enjoyable routes (all 7 pitches long with 40m pitches) on the nearby Pena de Fresnidiello, we decoded the Spanish guide book and headed out.

Pena de Fresnidiello

The drive from Cabrales to Sotres was terrifying. I love to drive – like absolutely love it. I’ll gladly put down a 12 hour day of twisty mountain highways while Christine instantaneously falls asleep beside me. The more twisty the road, the happier I am. Except this. This was too much. The road twisted up a narrow canyon, the corners were all blind, and the road was two European lanes wide – which meant that every time a truck came in the other direction I nearly got run off the road. The drive to the base of the mountain was one of my most intense experiences in a car ever. Driving faster than I thought was entirely safe, I managed to get up to blazing speeds of 30km/h on a road with a posted speed limit of 90. Those speed limit signs might as well have said a million.

We abandoned our rental car on the side of the gravel approach road at the base of Fresnidiello and started up the approach, periodically looking over our shoulder at the herd of goats being sheparded up the valley, wondering if they were going to eat the tires off our rental car.

 Ideal weather for two people who have never climbed together to do a long, multi-pitch route.

Ideal weather for two people who have never climbed together to do a long, multi-pitch route.

The peak, and most of the route, was draped in cloud so we played the usual game of looking at the topo and trying to make it match what we were looking at on the wall. Eventually we got to the base and started climbing our first route together.

The Adrados guidebook is sort of a funny thing. If we could actually read Spanish, I think it would have been a lot more clear. Each area gets one of three icons – a bolt, a cam, or a nut with a smiley face. The bolt means it’s a sport area, the cam means it’s ‘long, adventurous climbs’ and the smiley face nut apparently means ‘long routes that aren’t super scary’. Further, areas are colour coded based on how difficult they are (green is easy, blue is moderate and orange is hard). Additionally, the routes all get an alpine difficulty rating which seemed to mostly follow the standard French system, but is in Spanish.

Elixir Para Calvos (315m, TD-, Mixed, Bolted Anchors)

Our first climb would be Elixir para calvos, for which the information we had was: it was 7 pitches and had rap stations so we could retreat if things went sideways. It was in an area the guidebook colour coded blue (moderate?), there was a nut with a smiley face pictogram on that page of the guidebook (long, but not terrifying?) the route’s rating was MD inf (TD-?). Further, the climber’s companion said stuff on this mountain was mostly 5+ to 6a+ (French system? Maybe that’s a 5.9/5.10 type thing?). So basically we had almost no idea what we were about to climb, but it was likely going to be the toughest alpine-y thing I’d ever done. With the girl I was trying to not look like a total idiot in front of. Awesome.

Christine blazed up the first pitch, periodically being enveloped in clouds and I wondered what the hell I was doing. Once on the route though, we slowly started to figure each other out and got into a bit of a routine. Christine would run up a pitch, I would follow at a much, much slower pace until I got to her. She’d flip me the rope, I’d hand her whatever gear I’d picked up on my way up, she’d take off.

 Christine, climbing off into the clouds, stuffing cams into eroded limestone.

Christine, climbing off into the clouds, stuffing cams into eroded limestone.

The route, was mostly trad, and was pretty indicative of what we’d find throughout the trip – deeply runnelled limestone. Placing cams was tough with minimal spots that were both deep enough and non-flaring enough that placements would inspire much confidence. There were a number of natural holes carved in the rock though that Christine could sling to supplement the cams.

 Bomber.

Bomber.

The route topped out just shy of the North summit, but it was an easy scramble to the top from there. I was almost shocked we’d made it without much issue. On the summit, we got some amazing European views. Super quaint mountain villages nestled in alpine valleys in almost all directions. The towns aren’t terribly big – it’s just that there’s a ton of them.

 Does it get more quaint than that?

Does it get more quaint than that?

The guidebook seemed to say the best descent was to rap - we’d figured that the words “descenso” and then “cuerdas de 55 m minimo” probably meant we would be fine with our 60m ropes and sure enough, we didn’t have any issues.

Okay, so the first route had been a success – and not only had Christine not killed me, she’d been super encouraging and awesome the whole way – I was actually feeling really positive about things. Given that, we decided to go after the big turkey – the Naranjo de Bulnes.

Naranjo de Bulnes

The approach to Bulnes was long enough that we were going to have to hike in with overnight packs and then camp near the Refugio de Urriellu – a 100 bed catered hut at the base of one of the faces. The trail itself is easy to follow and well maintained. You basically just wander up a valley a few kilometers while picking your way through herds of cows. The refugio is a big, impressive building and when we got there, we could smell the food they were cooking and I was looking longingly at the cold beer that people on the porch were drinking.

 A great path to an intimidating objective.

A great path to an intimidating objective.

Christine, being in dirtbag climber mode from already several months of living on the road and climbing, suggested that we bring a tent instead of staying the in the hut. Camping isn’t strictly allowed in the area, but our research indicated that it’s tolerated as long as you not set up your tent more than an hour before sunset and that it’s down an hour after sunrise. There was actually a fair number of climbers camping out with us and everyone seemed to just break down their tent and stash it in the corner of whatever rock-ringed campsite they were in while they went off climbing.

 No camping (officially) allowed - but there's perfect, rock ringed tent pads.

No camping (officially) allowed - but there's perfect, rock ringed tent pads.

Our campsite was gorgeous – we had this massive limestone monolith towering over us, amazing views of the valleys and the sunsets each night were staggering. We would stash a bottle of wine in a snow bank and when we got back for the day, we’d cook dinner and then drink a bottle of cheap wine while eating chocolate and watching the sun set.

 Our campsite below the Naranjo de Bulnes - the refugio is the white building to the right. Cold beer was 2.50€.

Our campsite below the Naranjo de Bulnes - the refugio is the white building to the right. Cold beer was 2.50€.

Sur Directa (250m, D-, Mixed, Bolted Anchors)

The first route we wanted to try was the easiest one up the mountain – Sur directa (250m, 6 pitches followed by a decent length scramble to the summit, green, smiley face nut, D-, 5-). It actually reminded me of so many missions in the Rockies – go find some big, scary looking mountain, take a photo to send your friends, then wander around to the much less scary backside.

 Hike around to the back and there's some shorter, less scary routes.

Hike around to the back and there's some shorter, less scary routes.

The route itself was mostly fine, though it was a lot more polished than I would have liked – I actually found it quite a bit harder than the much high difficulty rating route on Fresnidiello. The route was mixed with a few bolts in places and the guidebook recommending nuts (never used) and a handful of cams (awkwardly placed in runnels for the most part). I actually wonder if something like those link cams or even some Black Diamond X4 Offsets would have made for easier placements – though Christine seemed pretty happy with what she had.

 Okay, in some places the runnels are so deep that placing cams isn't too bad - but the steeper the face, the shallower the runnels, the more difficult the placements.

Okay, in some places the runnels are so deep that placing cams isn't too bad - but the steeper the face, the shallower the runnels, the more difficult the placements.

The last of Sur Directa was a little interesting. The route description seemed to say that we should trend to our right. Christine thought the obvious line was to our left, but followed our interpretation of the route description which promptly resulted in Christine finding herself 10m to the right of the anchors. She happily traversed over and then looked back and realized that I would probably freak out if I found myself faced with a 10m pendulum if I fell. So she did what any loving partner would do and told me she was back climbing to ‘protect the traverse’. You know those cams that didn’t sit very well in the runnels? She basically just placed a bunch practically just lying on the rock so that I would think I had a protected traverse.  So sweet of her.

I completed the traverse pretty happily thanks to the head gear and we topped out the route and stashed our gear and scrambled to the summit where we got more amazing views – and with less towns this time.

 Pretty good day.

Pretty good day.

The descent was just scrambling back down to the gear we’d stashed and then more or less rapping the route except for where I missed a rap station and ended up on what was literally a dozen shitty, rusted bolts slung together with stainless steel cable. Christine was super impressed with me when she got to my position but agreed that it was good enough to rap off of. Doubles were once again the name of the game for the raps.

Amistad Con El Diablo (420m, TD, Mixed, Bolted Anchors)

The next route we wanted to try was on the much taller East face - Amistad con el diablo (420m, 11 pitches, blue, smiley face nut, TD, 5+/6a) had been recommended to us by some other climbers we ran into. They said that while there weren’t a ton of bolts on the route, they were where you needed them and that the rock was like Velcro – after the polished South Face Direct route we’d done, some grippy rock sounded good.

We started up the route and things quickly became a lot less fun for Christine. Sparsely bolted meant ‘no bolts until you get to the anchor’. She got a grand total of one vaguely believable gear placement behind a flake – the rest of the rock was slab limestone with more runnels – but they weren’t deep enough and were too flared to get more than head gear in. The climbing was somewhere in the 5.7 range – but it was sustained, unprotectable and just not shaping up to be our definition of fun. I joined Christine at the top of the first pitch (enjoying my nice secure top rope after watching her nearly free ascent of 40+m of slab) and after a brief chat, we decided that were just weren’t feeling that adventurous and we backed off.

 Bolts where you need them eh?

Bolts where you need them eh?

Cares Gorge Walk

The consolation price of retreating to camp, spending the afternoon reading, spending time together and then having dinner and a bottle of wine while we watch a heard of goats graze in the alpine valley wasn’t so terrible.

The next day we got out of there, booted out to the car and then decided to go for a run. The climber’s companion had made special mention of the Cares Gorge Walk as being an amazing use of a day off from climbing, so we headed over and it absolutely did not disappoint. The trail follows an old mining road that was literally carved into the side of the gorge – it goes for about 7km linking to the town of Cains and it is absolutely worth an afternoon. We ran the length of it and then turned around and ran back out. Other than nearly melting in the heat, it was a super enjoyable down day.

 The path is literally carved out of a vertical rock face.

The path is literally carved out of a vertical rock face.

So we were about a week into the trip and we’d driven all the way across France and part of Spain, we’d attempted three big routes and bagged two major peaks. Time to switch it up and go sport climbing.

Valdehuesa

At the south end of the Picos region, there’s a sport climbing area called Valdehuesa. It’s nuts. You park your car about 10 minutes from the base of the crag and from there it’s a nearly uninterrupted wall of limestone that extends off into the distance. There’s apparently over 200 routes on the thing and other than running into one pair of climbers on our first day (who let us snap some photos of a couple of key pages of their guidebook since the Adrados book doesn’t have much), we had the entire place to ourselves.

Well, not really. We shared it with a herd of cattle that would wander by mid-afternoon escorted by some big, slightly unnerving dogs and then a legion of suicidal sheep would invade the crag (top, bottom, every perch that could conceivably fit a goat) in the late afternoon and would basically signal the end of the day since we weren’t wild about the idea of having a goat drop rocks or itself on us.

Each day we would wake up in the town of Bonar (in a municipal RV lot where you aren’t allowed to camp – but you are allowed to ‘park overnight’ for free). This was actually how we spent the entire trip – sleeping in the back of our rental car. Christine would spend half an hour each evening carefully sorting gear, folding the rear seats down and then using the bags to fill all of the holes to make us a nice big flat platform that I could almost (but not quite) sleep straight on. While Christine did that I would watch food rehydrate and open us a bottle of wine and just generally just not be very useful.

Anyway, after getting up in the morning, we’d drive out to the crag and then climb until around noon, at which point Christine was just warming up and I was getting so thoroughly murdered by the sun and heat that I’d force us to take a siesta. We’d find a nice comfortable tree then have lunch and sleep until the herd of cattle had wandered by at which point we’d climb until the goats showed up to lay claim to the crag.

We’d then drive back into Bonar where we’d hit the markets before the closed and stock on piles of fresh fruit that was so cheap it seemed free. I actually think my favourite part of climbing in Valdehuesa was the fruits and veggies.

Pico Torres

Once we’d had our fill of sport climbing and were ready to send Christine back out on the sharp end of some alpine routes, we looked around for options that didn’t have too, too long approaches and settled on Pico Torres – a super aesthetic mountain in the San Isidro area.

Finding the trail head was a little tricky – but it really came down to the fact that we were paying too much attention to gates. The gates seem to be there to keep cattle in, not climbers out, so once we were assured by a local (we think, our Spanish was improving, but still not great), that we were in fact at the trailhead, we headed off through herds of cows and fields of wild flowers in the direction of the prominent peaks of Pico Torres. The hike in was super pleasant – it’s mostly just wandering through super lush grazing pastures.

 Not the most obvious trail - but just ignore the cows and horses and walk towards the pointy thing.

Not the most obvious trail - but just ignore the cows and horses and walk towards the pointy thing.

Abraxas (190m, TD-, Mixed, Bolted Anchors until you go off route)

 Climb the pointiest pointy thing.

Climb the pointiest pointy thing.

The route we were shooting for was Abraxas – a super fun looking line that weaves its way in and out of a prominent corner system. Christine led off the first couple of pitches that were slightly vegetated face climbing working up to the corner system. Once in the corner, the route follows nice crack features for brief stints but mostly follows the face to the right of the corner – it actually doesn’t use the corner as much as we expected when we recced from the ground. Other than me pulling a handhold off and taking my one fall of the trip – the lower half of the route went super smoothly.

 Climb to the corner system and work the face to the right of it.

Climb to the corner system and work the face to the right of it.

The upper portion of the route leaves the corner system and is straight up face climbing. It’s mostly trad placements in the upper pitches and being a wide open face, route finding was a little interesting in places. This didn’t bother Christine in the slightest, but it was also the first time I’ve been belaying someone and run out of rope. Christine eventually found a single bolt and backed it up with a couple of placements. When I joined her, I was terrified and she just happily explained that she enjoys adventure climbing. From my perspective, if we go off route, we’re in trouble. From Christine’s, she’s on a wide open face full of possibilities and the route is really only a suggestion. Climbing with Christine, I’ve become much more comfortable with adventure climbing – she seems to enjoy it.

At the top, we coiled our ropes and scrambled to the top of the sub-peak we were on where we discovered it was windy. Very, very windy. Thoughts of hanging out on the summit enjoying the view disappeared pretty quickly – Christine cowered into me using me as a wind break as I took a couple of photos and we headed down the walk-off on the back side.

 Cowering from the wind on top.

Cowering from the wind on top.

Gilbo

Back at the cars we were sort of wondering what to do with ourselves. We’d now climbed alpine routes on three major peaks and checked out the biggest sport climbing destination in the area. We didn’t have a ton of time left before we needed to head back to Paris, so we spent some time looking for routes in the area that a) we had an actual route description for b) were in our pay grade and c) had short enough approaches that we could bang them in a day including driving to them.

We settled on Gilbo. The drive was longer than we were hoping for, but the approach looked reasonable and the route was only 200m. The approach seemed to be straight forward on a good trail that meanders initially on hiking trails and then cuts across some grazing pastures. We promptly took a wrong branch on a hiking trail and had to spend some finding a branch that would cross a drainage and get us to the grazing pastures and the base of the climb.

 Pretty unassuming, but it took us ages to get to the base of it.

Pretty unassuming, but it took us ages to get to the base of it.

Por Los Clavos de Cristo (200m, TD-, Trad)

The route we were shooting for was Por los clavos de Cristo. The route is 200m tall but the guide book warns that there’s another 90m of traversing back and forth. The guide book also labels it blue, and had the cam icon so it’s a mid-difficulty route that is long and adventurous. The guidebook let us know that there’s a few pitons here and there, but not much else.

We’d had a long drive to get to the base of the route and we spent way longer than expected on the approach so we were off to a good start. We racked up our gear and started up the route. Christine was climbing strongly as always, but the full-trad nature of the route meant that she was having to take more time to place gear – and it was definitely living up to it’s ‘long and adventurous’ billing, the gear placements were limited. By the time I joined her we were looking at our progress and the time and decided that it just wasn’t our day. We’d lost too much time on the drive and approach and now the clock was ticking on a route that would be really expensive to retreat off of.

Christine had built us an anchor at a piton we’d found, it seemed bomber so being the heavier of the two, I rapped off it backed up by a few gear placements while Christine watched the piton for any scariness. Suitably convinced it was bomber, she pulled the gear and Christine met me on the ground. Having retreated, we’d gone from having to hustle, to having time to kill. There was a beautiful rock with an amazing view of the valley at the base of the climb, so we spread out to have our lunch and relax in the sun before the way faster, detour-free, hike out to the car.

Slow Return to Reality

After one last night sleeping in our poor, poor, heavily abused rental car we started the drive back to Paris. We stopped for the night in the town of Biarritz at a totally forgettable chain motel. What wasn’t forgettable was having a shower. Two weeks of climbing in the blazing Spanish heat, two weeks of sleeping in the back of a car. Two weeks of casual runs in 30+ degree heat. All that sweat, dirt and grime melted away in a blazing hot shower. It was epic. It also meant we managed to get the smell adequately under control for us to feel that we were ready to see my family in Paris.

The next morning, we decided that instead of blasting down the express-ways the whole way, we’d take the side roads – and if we happened to take a break here and there checking out wineries, well, that would just keep the monotony at bay.

We finished out the trip eating, drinking and walking our way through Paris and visiting with my family for a couple of days.

 Showered and wearing clean-ish clothes

Showered and wearing clean-ish clothes

Possibly the most melancholic part of the trip was returning the rental car at the airport. That unassuming, humble, Fiat 500X had been our transportation, home and restaurant for the last two weeks. The vehicle had been absolutely brand new when Avis handed me the keys – the odometer read 4. Yep, 4km on it. We returned it with over 2000km on the odometer, smelling like a medium sized deer had died and festered in the trunk. I had frantically rowed between second and third gear (never wanted a dog leg so badly...) on terrifyingly twisty roads and then cruised high speed toll roads at her blistering top speed of 130km/h. The crumbs of several dozen baguettes littered the foot wells. This wasn’t just some car, she had become a part of our lives – a part we had mercilessly flogged and abused.

I was 100% ready to get assessed a fee to have the vehicle detailed – because it needed it. Instead, the guys accepting the vehicle at the airport were super interested in our well used waterproof gear duffels, mountaineering packs and miscellaneous kit and after asking us about what we’d gotten up to.

We got on the clinically clean plane, complete with plastic wrapped duvets, and took our non-breadcrumb-strewn seats and sipped on a couple of non-room-temperature pre-flight glasses of champagne before take-off – surreally dichotomous to the previous couple of weeks. Once Christine realized her seat reclined into a bed and fell asleep bringing our in-flight festivities to an end, I took some time to reminisce on the past couple of weeks.

 Getting the celebrations started with a pre-flight glass of champagne.

Getting the celebrations started with a pre-flight glass of champagne.

 Celebrations did not last long.

Celebrations did not last long.

The skier who climbs went climbing with the climber who skis and it was awesome. Not only did we not kill each other, but we’d picked an incredible destination. The Picos are a fantastic area to explore, we had great weather, a variety of climbing, good infrastructure. There’s tons of long, multi-pitch climbing options and some great sport climbing options for your down days. Food is super cheap, people are super friendly and the weather (other than around Valdehuesa) is actually pretty temperate – you can climb all day without melting and unlike a lot of climbing destinations in Europe, we regularly had the entire mountain to ourselves and never once felt harried by another party. Super highly recommended.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.