When is a big wall, not a big wall?
Let’s define what a big wall is first, Wikipedia says
" Big wall climbing is a type of rock climbing where a climber ascends a long-pitch route, normally requiring more than a single day to complete the climb. Big wall routes require the climbing team to live on the route often using portaledges and hauling equipment. It is practiced on tall or more vertical faces with few ledges and small cracks. "
Big Walling in Spain
So no time or length restrictions. Bearing in mind that for some El Capitan at 900m high and grade of 5.13 is an afternoons' cragging! The record stands at 2 hours 23 minutes.
Ok I don't have El Cap on my doorstep but I do have Puig Campana. Her vital statistics aren't that impressive at first glance standing at a mere 1406 metres above the sea. What is impressive is the south face a massive and incredibly complex buttress which is almost 800 metres high, full of pinnacles, cracks, corners, ridges and super clean walls. For a big limestone mountain, it is also remarkably solid.
This buttress is so complex that no single route actually summits the peak instead they are sectioned into huge features and strong independent lines.
About eight years ago a couple asked me what the longest route on the Costa Blanca was, I thought long and hard about it and decided that it wasn't a single route after all, but a mountaineering epic combining several routes one on top of the other. This is what we climbed.Aristoteles 500 metres 4+
At the very base of the buttress at the very lowest part of the cliff sits a large, clean and slightly intimidating wall which is over shadowed and often over looked by visitors by the main attraction of the upper cliffs. The line of Aristoteles takes the right hand side of this feature in 17 pitches. Winding its' way up an elegant arête which turns into an airy ridge scramble complete with an abseil mid ridge. The route terminates on an inescapable pinnacle! Well almost, a two pitch abseil accesses the amphitheatre at the base of the main cliff.
It is possible to walk with a short scramble to this point. If you feel the need to cache water or food, or just decided you've beaten off more than you can chew.
This is the most popular area on the mountain. From the amphitheatre a few dozen routes lead up, but the quintessential line has to be.Espolon Central 440m 4+
This line is so strong and so obvious it can actually be seen from the moon! In the centre of the main face a graceful arête soars in nine long and exposed pitches, to what appears to be almost the summit. But don't be fooled by this foreshortening effect, you'll have only done 940 metres so far!
At the top of the Espolon a makeshift horizontal Via Ferrata (therefore no need for VF lanyards) leads off eastwards to the gully feature in the centre of the mountain and a straight forward escape route should you need one. If you were thinking about a two day climb then doing the Via Ferrata in reverse and stashing your sleeping gear and perhaps food and water here, a few days earlier, would definitely save weight on the big day.
From here an easy scramble of about 200m, just left of the main ridge or on it for the fast and brave leads to the next line. You will know when you get there because you will want to put a rope on, the exposure to the left is truly biblical! The Original Finish 120m 5
Twenty metres of super exposed knife edge ridge crawling will see you at the base of the pinnacle. Climb the pinnacle slightly on the left, it is easier than it looks. From the top of the pinnacle abseil off to a large chock stone. The temptation now is to squirm your way up the gully, don't do it, it's pricky and loose! Instead stay on the blunt rib on your left which is easy and quite safe after the first protectionless 10m. The last pitch takes a right ward leaning line on brilliantly threaded limestone, this is one of my favourite pitches.
Follow a faint path into the nationally famous "Roldan gap". Legend has it that Roldan's lover Alda was fated to die when the last of the sun’s rays shone on her so Roldan cut out part of the mountain in order that the sun would take longer to set ensuring that Alda would live a few moments longer.
It is possible from here to escape Eastward again, with a 25 metre abseil and a short scramble into the gully, but we've come this far let's not show cowardice in the face of a big wall!
Looking at the far side of Roldan Gap there is a small wind battered tree down to the left (North) this marks the next pitch. An historic pegs encourages you up in two grade 5 pitches to the summit ridge. From here an easy scramble to the Col and the end of a seriously epic days' climb. The top of the mountain is only a ten-minute walk from here, and it would be rude not to summit, even if it is dark!
The escape ability and the lack of steepness of this combination of routes probably means it is not really a "big wall", but the route measures 1500 metres of climbing and scrambling. That's almost a mile!How do you climb a monster like this?
What do you need to tackle a monster route of 30 plus 60m pitches? Speed and more speed! But this doesn't mean risk and more risk, this mean efficiency and controlled risk management. I see many people every year getting caught out by inefficiency sometime on relatively short routes of three or four hundred metres.
Any big route requires a little planning and forethought. Let me try and put speed into perspective. Assume there are 12 usable daylight hours. Thirty pitches in twelve hours is twenty four minutes a pitch. I call this the "Pitch to Pitch Time". The time it takes for the leader: To lead the pitch. Build the belay. Call safe and take in any slack. The seconder to: strip their belay. Climb the pitch. Make themselves safe. Sort the rack. Finally, the next leader to leave the stance.
If you were to take five minutes to build a belay, seems reasonable, followed by five minutes for the second to sort and strip their belay, over the day this translates to FIVE hours! Almost half your usable time scale. Here are a few top tips:
Know your route. Not having to stop and read a guide book or consult a topo will save a lot of time and give you confidence to move faster. The route described above can be split into three days of independent climbing. Be prepared.
Only take what you really need to climb. Weight is your enemy.
Use a Camelback. Being able to drink without taking you pack off is priceless. Consider using IsoStar Carbo or something similar. It will help reduce any glucose lows.
If it's easy, run it out. Just because you haven't put any gear in during the last 50 feet of climbing does mean you have to if you're walking or scrambling on easy ground.
If you aren't belaying or climbing, we're doing it wrong! Background activities like eating and drinking, taking you feet in and out of rock shoes or rope management. Should all be done whilst your belaying. This will take a little practice to ensure you retain appropriate belay technique.
Be confident in the dark, no one ever died of "dark", but plenty of accidents have occurred because people have made mistakes or panicked in the dark. During the summer months I have climbed Espolon Central at night to avoid the heat of the day. Consider what the moon in doing and the weather conditions. Don't forget you head torch!
If anyone fancies doing this route and wants to email me for further info about other long routes on the Costa Blanca please use this address. email@example.com
Happy pseudo big walling.
"Escaladas en el Puig Campana" ISBN 8460635287 or the Costa Blanca Rockfax.