Having hit the ripe old age of sixty in October, I thought that a good way to kick-off my early retirement would be to spend a fortnight on the Costa Blanca. Images of sun-loungers and bingo in Benidorm may spring to mind, but figuring that my friends would not be interested in such desultory pursuits, a climbing trip was planned instead. Sadly, a persistent knee injury kept Chris from joining us, so Shirley, Wardy, Phil and Erica made up the team, although only Wardy and me were present for the whole fortnight.
Thinking that we would be six, I had booked a nine-seater for the first nine days, but was a bit taken aback when presented with a long wheelbase Opel Vivaro, measuring 17 feet in length and 7 ½ feet in width – admittedly very comfortable for the passengers, but not ideal for some of the terrain that we would be likely to encounter. The owners of the villa that we were staying in looked equally surprised when just three of us rolled up in it to take up residence.
After a very leisurely start, the venue for day 1 was Toix Este, where we climbed the 5 pitches of Horst. Pitch 1 is the F4+ crux, and in the afternoon sun I was sweating buckets by the time I reached the belay. Shirley and John were both in agreement that it felt tough for its grade, but with easier pitches ahead, and the crag dropping into shade, progress felt more comfortable as alternated leads to the top.
Continuing the theme of leisurely starts, on day 2 we made our way to Abdet, which was a new venue for all of us. Unfortunately our explorations of the base of the crag seemed to stir up a wasps’s nest, so that ruled out a few of the easier routes. Keeping as far away from the irate insects as we could, we warmed up on El Placa Ocultado 2, which is actually an F4 (I’m not so far into my dotage that I’m seeking out F2s!) and provided a pleasant line up a rib and slab, with just one tricky move low down. Costilla del Jabali felt pretty stern at F5 with technical moves on a steepish wall, so we thought that we’d finish with some easier fare on La Paz, another route graded F4, but I’ve done easier F5s. I’d like to say that Abdet is harshly graded, but maybe that’s the way of things in retirement when everything feels hard for its grade.
Phil and Erica joined us on Saturday evening, and it seemed only fair to allow them a decent lie-in, so another leisurely start ensued on day 3. The vagaries of work pressures and domestic upheaval had led to the ladies of the party being in rather a fatigued state, so we sought out the ultimate roadside crag of Pego, which rivals Witches for the length of its walk-in. Taking advantage of the space provided by our cavernous vehicle, we added two sturdy wooden garden chairs to our climbing kit, along with padded cushions. Locating these in the shade, Shirley and Erica took their positions while the boys toughed it out on Plaqueta, an F4+ with a steep start leading to pleasant rib. Happily this felt about right for the grade, and I thought that I’d climbed it well, but the audience were clearly unimpressed as I found that, having removed the padded cushions from their chairs, they were both asleep, face down on the ground. Wardy seized his cue to occupy one of the vacated chairs, leaving me and Phil to size up Spare Rib, a steep F5. Rather too steep in fact, as I ended up resting on it. Can’t remember that having happened on an F5 before, and Phil getting it clean first go just served to rub salt into the wound. By this time I was looking longingly at the vacant garden chair next to Wardy and considering what type of pipe would go best with my slippers, but alas, my conscience got the better of me and having worked the moves on a top rope I finally managed to redpoint Spare Rib. At least Phil agreed that it was tough for the grade. Meanwhile the rest of the crew had returned to life and were making use of the rope that we had left in place on Plaqueta. As a finale, we climbed Mosquera, another tough F5 (bit of a trend emerging here) which brought a smile to our faces as the steep crack was a joy to climb and felt more like a beefy trad route than the usual Spanish clip-up (except for those handy bolts of course).
Day 4 dawned and the rather slothful climbing party made its usual lunchtime getaway, this time to Toix, starting on the Far Oeste sector. With no padded cushions in sight, Erica teamed up with me to ensure that she would get nice long rests between climbs as I made my leisurely progress up the routes. Eve went smoothly at F4, but a slight error in judgement on my part saw me 45m up the crag on Bernd, also F4, which led to Erica having to second the route before being promptly lowered back to the ground. Two abseils later and I joined her, only to discover that she had spotted shade and was retiring for a nap. A quick reshuffle of the team saw me and Phil heading up the hill to Toix Placa, where we encountered a blunt Lancastrian lurking beneath a wide-brimmed hat. Appearing to be of a Whilensian disposition, we carefully negotiated our way around him and set up shop beneath Thalia, F6b+, a route that I first tried last year, but without success. Perhaps now, with greater experience and a clutch of F4s and 5s behind me on this trip, I might stand a better chance. No breeze and the blistering afternoon sun had other ideas though, and combined with a general lack of technique, power and flexibility, I was dogging the crux again. Recognising the difficulty, Phil elected to use a top-rope but fared no better, so it was back to the villa to lick our wounds.
Day 5 saw us away at the relatively early hour of 11.00 to the delights of Echo Valley, with Echo 1.5 as our chosen crag. Me, Phil and Wardy started on Bicton itc 08, a pleasant F4, then me and Phil headed up the hill to a new buttress with three routes on it. Bad Biscuits at F4+ was rather tasty, Luke’s a Big Bumblebee was no pushover at F5, and thankfully we were fully warmed up for Am I Bothered (F5) – well I certainly was as it was at least F5+! Returning to the main crag we found that the blunt Lancastrian was on our trail again, but when he offered Erica a top-rope on X.M.A.S. (F6a), she quickly put him to rights by telling him that she didn’t appreciate a tight rope and didn’t want talking up the route. Suitably admonished, he could only gaze in awe at Erica’s deft footwork. While he was distracted, me and Phil wandered up to the upper crag for a look a Marian Jones, a rather fine F6a once the initial shrubbery had been left behind. The only route that we hadn’t done on the upper crag was Sin Chapa (F6a+) which starts fairly easily before a very thin section allows you to teeter up to the crux bulge. The appropriate method seemed to involve using an undercut to gain a crimp, then stepping up to launch for a jug. Sadly, the crimp was rather small and despite several tries, holding on to it while moving through just wasn’t working. With the on-sight still intact I spotted an alternative sequence that would allow a big span to a lay-way before going for the jug. However, a lack of upward momentum saw me on the thinner bottom edge of the lay-way and then gravity took it course. With the on-sight now blown I managed a proper rest and then went at it with a spot more dynamism and managed to latch the jug – relief! I think my fall must have put Phil off because he chose to top-rope it, and unusually for him, was on the crux for ages, but with no more joy than me. Bit of a bugger really because two years ago we both managed clean ascents of the hardest route at the crag, but then that is a slab………..
Day 6 and we were in the van at just gone 10.30 for another visit to Toix Oeste. Shirley led the very pleasant and very long (50m) single pitch of Ralf (F3) before we embarked upon the 4 pitches of George (F3+) which took us to the top of the crag. Subsequent ascensionists would be well advised to ignore the Rockfax topo, which is wrong for pitches 3 & 4, and instead, follow the arrows painted on the rock. From the top of the route, a short scramble leads to the 4th belay of Horst, down which we abseiled. Unfortunately the rope got stuck, so I had to climb back up a bit to free it, but thankfully it was on an easy section of the route so it didn’t hold us up too much.
Marin was our destination for day 7, and we made a scandalously early start by leaving the villa at 9.45, which meant that we were on the rock before noon. Climbing with Phil and Erica, I started out on Hurly Burly (F5) which is nicely but inappropriately named as it’s more of a slab with a thin crux section. The burliness was to follow on Super Jose, a steep F5+ that proved to be an efficient warm up for the rather more sturdy Conginipollas (F6b). In 2014, when rain stopped play on all but the steepest of ground, we had deployed the clip stick to set up a top rope on this route which climbs up out of a cave, and so stayed largely dry. Just clear blue skies today so I set about leading it, and all went well until the final bulge where the holds firstly became less friendly, then seemed to disappear altogether. Employing the same tactics as on Sin Chapa, my up and down strategy paid off this time with a committing move right to a flake, followed by a crafty right heel hook, which allowed me to crest the bulge and reach the chain. Clearly there’s something to be said for pensioner power. Phil similarly despatched the route on top rope, but without the heel hook, and Erica declined as she had her eyes on an on-sight attempt at Aniversario (F5+), which climbs the groove and arête just left of Johny on the main face. This proved to be the highlight of the day, and for me, the best single pitch route of the trip. It’s a climb of three parts, with the first involving a long but easy run-out to the first bolt, followed by a tricky off-balance step up and left to gain the groove. It all feels pretty intimidating as the rock beneath you disappears into a series of large caves and hollows. The next section is steeper and more blocky, where thoughts of giant Jenga spring to mind as you tap the blocks to make sure they’re secure. This section in particular feels more like something lifted from a Pembroke HVS, and the spaced bolts only add to the atmosphere. The final rib is really exposed and feels quite steep, but is on very positive holds that make for a great finale to a brilliant route. It had been on my reserve list for a while, insofar as it looked good, but also rather scary, so good effort from Erica for getting on it and showing the way.
The morning of day 8 saw us at Crag X, which is described in the Echo Valley section of the guide, but actually sits on the eastern side of the road, away from the main valley. Climbing with Shirley and John, we did Boquete (F3+), The Lekker KerKerKer (F3+ with an echo!), both of which had their first bolt hangers removed, which was rather mean, but didn’t dissuade us as the starts were pretty easy. We then climbed Por Encima de Todo (F4), while Phil was getting stuck into Derecho Surco (F6a) which proved very enjoyable to above the fourth bolt, but then he discovered that the hanger had been removed from the fifth, so faced with a monster run-out on unknown ground, he did the sensible thing and lowered off, leaving behind a maillon. Phil being Phil, remained calm , if slightly perplexed, but I was quite angry – it’s bad enough taking hangers from the bottom of routes, but from half way up – where’s the sense in that? So, saying goodbye to Crag X in rather bad humour, we headed across the road to Paret de la Bassa, where Shirley tried her hand at redpointing Fallora (F5). This is a really nice route that climbs a slabby rib with a number of slight variations on the line. Shirley tried all these on top-rope before committing to the lead, and then surprisingly went with the steeper but more juggy variation. On the crux move the outcome looked in doubt, but remembering to step uo on the key footholds gave her enough height to reach through to a very comforting jug. After that it was a smooth cruise to the top, then high fives all round. Meanwhile Phil and Erica were making sure of their F6a for the day with ascents of Arandelon, this time with all bolts in place. With Erica, Phil and Shirley going home the next day, Phil prepared one of his outstanding paellas for our evening meal, which was a fitting finale before leaving me and Wardy to our own devices.
With airport drop-off and change of vehicle and accommodation looming, day 9 was a rest day. On the way to the airport we called in at the Orange House to drop off our bags and survey the accommodation. It’s fair to say that our bijou two person bunkroom put more emphasis on size (very small) rather than elegance (not immediately obvious) but it would suffice. Then it was on to the airport where we said goodbye to the Vivaro (although as it transpired, I’d not heard the last of it, as the Spanish police are currently trying to track me down in relation to a speeding misdemeanour, which is a bit rich given how sedately I was driving for the whole trip). We had lunch together, where Phil took a backward step on the gastronomic front with a Burger King double whoppa, then we said our goodbyes. Now free of the socializing influences of more refined friends, me and Wardy could let rip, but first, time to collect our hire care. Sticking with the bijou theme, our nine-seater was to be replaced by a Fiat Panda. Looking me up and down, the car hire official immediately offered me an upgrade on account of the fact that he thought I wouldn’t fit in it – and he’d yet to catch sight of Wardy. Recognizing this as a ploy to get more money out of me, I declined his offer and we hastened to the parking to inspect our steed. First impressions were a little disappointing, as with 58k on the clock it’s best days looked to be behind it, but then considering my latest life stage, I felt that the odd imperfection could be looked upon as a sign of knowledge and experience, and indeed, the Panda proved to be a fine companion with plenty of room for two and go anywhere driveability. We did look like poor relations at the Orange House though, once we’d parked up next to all the shiny new hire cars.
Bijou bunkroom notwithstanding, we were ready for more adventures on day 10 and what better venue than Toix Este and the very appealing Super Kulore – 260m of F4 in 8 pitches that girdle the majority of the crag – guaranteed to make you popular on a Bank Holiday. In fact, we hadn’t seen anyone else climbing on our three previous visits and so it proved today. The Rockfax is rather coy about the line as it only depicts pitches 1, 6, 7 and 8 on the topo, leaving you in tracker mode for the bulk of the route as you follow arrows and the painted initials “SK”. There are also plenty of in-situ threads and the odd bolt for company, so what could possibly go wrong? Wardy had done the first 15m with Phil and Erica as it shares the start of Kulore (F4) that they’d done earlier in the week, and so he was insistent that I lead the first pitch as he claimed it had hurt his fingers. Given his senior partner status on the team, I deferred to this request and set off up the finger shredding pitch. 35m later, and with some skin still remaining, I was happy to tie into the belay. Having seconded the pitch, wardy completed a comprehensive digit check, and finding everything present, launched off into the unknown. There were sufficient threads and arrows to mark the way as the route changed into traversing mode. It’s not horizontal though, as it generally continues as a rising traverse, with the odd bit of down-climbing to keep you on your toes. All went well on pitch three, then Wardy took over for pitch 4, which is only given F3, but a recent rock-fall had left the holds covered in a sandy dust, which made for a rather unnerving passage, and in its present state, felt like the crux of the route – good lead Wardy. I may have got a bit carried away on the next pitch, and probably ran two together, as we ended up completing the route in seven pitches. The last two were uneventful, other than for the fact that Wardy’s led was becoming a bit painful. Moving across to the anchor that would get us to the top of Hortst, and it’s twin abseil, Wardy stepped up and felt a sharp pain in his calf, which meant he couldn’t push up on his toes. This made for a slightly sombre end to what had otherwise been a good outing, but at least the abseil was trouble free with no stuck ropes. Over dinner, Wardy thought it would be best to avoid climbing on the next day, but was happy to belay me on one of my “harder” routes, so Sella became the destination for day 11….
Got up early and left the Orange House at 8.15 to give me time to get warmed up and then get on Wagageegee (F6a+), my nemesis from three previous trips, before the sun got on it. The Panda played its part by bouncing up the track to where Costa Vertical (owners of the top of the gorge) have their premises. Sadly the plan failed as the route catches the sun quite early, so I did a couple of ascents of Legally Bolted (F5) and another couple of Macha (F6a). Couldn’t load the Costa Vertical topo for the new sectors on my phone, so picked a couple of lines which may or may not have been Status Quo on Speed Dial (F5), and Traditionally Bolted (F4+). The hope was that Wagageegee would go into shade as the afternoon progressed, but when it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen, I decided to call it a day with an ascent of Solo Sun Rise (F5+) which has a slightly run-out slabby start, leading to a steep and juggy rib, which looks intimidating, but climbs brilliantly – definitely one to recommend.
Day 12 and Wardy was still resting his leg so we had a 7.45 departure for me to have another attempt at Thalia. This time my target was in the shade, and wanting to keep it that way, I had a quick run up Alasdair (F3+) to warm up, then donned my 5.10 Prism’s to give me a technical edge, but I still couldn’t make the crux move. Tried it repeatedly on a top rope, changed my shoes to a more flexible pair, but all to no avail. Somewhat disconsolate I wandered further along the crag looking for something steady that I’d not already done, and settled on Hafa (F4+). To be honest, it didn’t look too inspiring with slightly broken rock, spaced threads, and a fluttery heart symbol in the Rockfax, but an on-sight is an on-sight. It wasn’t long before I was wishing that I hadn’t left my wires in the car, as the rock was slightly unnerving, and some of the ancient threads looked like thick bootlaces – definitely not a route to fall off. Eventually I was rewarded with a couple of bolts, but no lower-off, so I sacrificed a screwgate to make a rather relieved descent to terra firma. Still seeking another on-sight, we wandered back down to the Far Oeste Sector where I ticked Darola (F3+) and called it a day. I must record my thanks to Wardy for his sterling belaying efforts, it’s just a shame that I couldn’t capitalise and bag one of my “harder” objectives.
Day 13 didn’t quite work out as planned, with a false start at El Castellet in the Echo Valley. Our chosen route of The Wasp (VS) was taken, so we sized up the The Scorpion (HS), but a total lack of fixed gear and only one set of wires with us persuaded us to retreat to our regular haunt of Toix Este, where we climbed the 4 pitch Espolon Arta (F4). Wardy had previously done the first two pitches, so he elected to run them together as his fitness test, which he passed with flying colours, then I led pitch 3 and Wardy took us to the top. Abseiled back down Horst again, and as usual, had the crag to ourselves.
Day 14, and the last day of climbing. Via Pany on the Penon de Ifach was our chosen route, and one that had been on my list for quite a while. Given British VS overall, with seven pitches where the hardest is rated at F5. In deference to Wardy’s (recovering) leg injury, we agreed that I would lead all the pitches, but I have to say that the sight of the introductory pitch had me wishing that Steve Wilson was in the party, given that it was an intimidating looking chimney. Wardy adopted a phlegmatic stance that clearly spelled out that I ought to get on with it, so I did, and was rewarded with a plethora of natural threads, each of which was slinged with much appreciation. Emboldened by the gear, I kept out of the beast’s maw by bridging up the outside (I can hear Steve shouting “sacrilege” but I didn’t want to dirty my new Rab top!). In fact, the climbing was very enjoyable and all too soon I was climbing the rib that led to the belay. Pitch 2 was a scrappy affair involving much vegetation and the odd hard step, but it did advance us another 50m up the climb. Pitch 3 is graded F3, but clearly by someone who hasn’t climbed it, because it has a move on it that’s as hard as anything on the climb! Wardy resorted to Cornish tactics on his ascent, but I don’t think he’d noticed that I had witnessed his sleight of hand when he declared that it wasn’t really that hard. Pitch 4 is supposedly the crux, and climbs a steep chimney (Steve, this is a must do route for you) which again succumbs to elegant technique rather than brute force (“shame” cries the man from Saltaire) and again gives excellent climbing. Pitch 5 was very gentle at F4+ and nothing special, and it was starting to look like the route was in the bag. But hold on, pitch 6, graded F4, comprised of thin, technical slab climbing on smooth rock with lots of side-pulls and precious few jugs, which for me made it the crux pitch. By paying too much attention to the guidebook description, I tried to go off route at the start of pitch 7, but Wardy kindly pointed out the bolt that I was studiously ignoring, which got me back on track and soon saw me belayed a few metres below the summit. For his sterling belaying, Wardy got the honour of topping out, and celebrated by dropping a sling round the summit monolith to belay me up the last few moves. Having shivered in the shade most of the day, it was great to be in sunshine on the summit, where we joined a mixture of tourists in t-shirts, arguing seagulls and a couple of cats – mother and child by the looks. The graunchy climbing symbol in Rockfax is ill deserved, as just a bit of nous will outwit anything thuggish, but then, if you’ve been training hard on beer and pies, you might just fancy a tussle! Either way, I’d rate the climb very highly and it made a grand finale to the trip. We had planned to eat out that evening, but not getting back to the car until well after dark and feeling rather fatigued, we called in at the Masymas supermarket and treaded ourselves to two tins of Heinz tomato soup and two bread rolls – yes, we know how to live.
Our journey home was uneventful, although on being handed back, the Panda was subjected to a most rigorous check, including, under-body, roof and interior – do I look like someone who would go off-roading in a rented car?
Safely back in Britain, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve made a good start to life as a pensioner, and plan to have many more adventures in the future – keep watching this space…………………….