Day 116 – A Ridge too Far?

Wednesday 7th November 2018

There is a mountain ridge that provides a lovely backdrop for those happy tourists on the Costa Blanca coast from Altea to Benidorm. Well, at least to those folk capable of looking beyond their next alcoholic beverage and imaginative enough to face the opposite direction to the sea (or their satellite TVs). This impressive rocky crest is called the Bernia Ridge or, to give it its Spanish name the Cresta de Bernia.

The Bernia Ridge seen from the North

The ridge rises to a height of 1,126 metres (3,694 feet) and way back on day 93 Mrs P and I took a walk around this beast which took us 8 hours, all told.

There is a climb along the most interesting (read: “lumpy“) section of the ridge. It is long. 3 km. It has some technical climbing and an abseil or two. It is described as “airy” and was recommended by some climbers we met a week or two ago. It is also horribly badly described in our guide book.

This is what we know…

The Bernia Ridge seen from the South. Serra Gelada, Altea

The guide book gives some extra information but it is pretty light in detail:

One technical section at grade 4+

One 20 metre abseil

One additional abseil of ? metres

“? metres…” Not helpful! Our lightweight rope is only 50 metres so, maximum abseil is 25 metres. This “abseil of ? metres!” Fine, if it is less than 25 metres but not so good if more. Attention to detail please.

Timings: 5 – 10 hours car to car

5 – 10 hours car to car. Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with?

Our Spanish guide book with better pictures

So, we buy a new guide book. The pictures are better and it at least gives the length of both abseils. Our 25 metre rope will be fine.

It suggests 50 minutes to the start and 1 1/2 hours from the finish back to the car with 5 hours for the climb. I only know this because it’s in pictures.

One evening I was poring over this book staring blankly at the Spanish text when Mrs (I cant speak a word of Spanish) P, takes the book off me and starts happily translating pretty much the whole thing!

Staring agog at this person who I thought I knew, the person who lets me flounder away in Spanglish in shops, bars and, well everywhere, Mrs P spots the question in my startled look and says: “Well, of course I can read it. It’s a bit like French.”

I think she’s a spy. If we go to Russia will she suddenly start jabbering away fluently to all her spy mates? I’m snitching on her to MI5 if she doesn’t buy me nice things for Christmas.

Anyway, happy with this new found information we decide to have a go. I pack a rack of gear that would see us happily along most Alpine ridges, just in case and we set off from Gandalf at 09.10. 8.5 hours of daylight. Best get a move on…

Mrs P route marching to the start of the Bernia Ridge

The locals don’t seem too impressed with our plan…

The Statler & Waldorf of the goat community deriding our chances of success

It takes us a little over an hour to get to the start of the ridge and all kitted up.

Now, the tricky bit. Condensing 5 hours and 45 minutes of climbing and scrambling into half a dozen photos. I’ll give it a shot but I won’t do it justice. I suggest you go try it for yourself.

Mr P trying to look like he knows what he is doing at the start of the 3km ridge

There is a very narrow section between the two abseils with vertical drops in excess of 100 metres either side. Before we started climbing we saw two goats (not Statler & Waldorf) looking down at us from this section of the ridge. Evidence of them was available on the ridge by way of their scat but, no goats. Where did they go? Paragliding goats. That’s the only explanation.

Mr P on the lookout for goats

Much of the ridge is unroped scrambling at about grade 1 & 2 (anything beyond grade 3 is classed as climbing not scrambling).

No goats here either

Mr P does 99% of the ridge in approach shoes. A sort of mix between hiking and climbing shoes. Perfect for this sort of thing.

Mrs P on the narrow start of the ridge

Mrs P on the other hand prefers scrambling in her hiking boots. My hat (helmet) is off to her. I would hate to be on this kind of ground in hiking boots.

Mr P surveys the first half of the ridge and wonders what the second half (out of sight) will be like

The weather is perfect. Not too hot, not too windy and the rock has dried nicely after the rain of 2 days ago.

The first abseil is only about 16 metres long and bypasses a section of grade 2 scrambling. With a risk of death factor positively off the scale we opt for the abseil.

Mrs P on the first abseil

The next section of the ridge is still pretty narrow though some bits you can actually walk along. Mostly however it is delightful, hands on scrambling.

Eventually we get to an obvious abseil anchor, bolted to the rock alongside a big painted red arrow pointing down and over an abyss.

Mr P setting up for the 20 metre abseil ( You can see the huge rack of gear he is carrying)

I set up the abseil and chuck our 25 metres of doubled rope off the cliff. By hanging on to the anchor bolt and leaning out I can see that the rope is long enough. Always a bonus as I then commit to the drop…

I think I can see a sandwich spot

Closely followed by Mrs P…

Good, because I am starving

A spot of lunch overlooking The Costa Blanca coast and we are off again. Climbing first back up to the ridge.

A long relatively easy section of scrambling ensues culminating in a descent to a col where a short but technical piece of climbing enables us the regain the ridge.

The following picture shows three narrow fins of rock. The third from the left must be climbed to regain the ridge above the enormous cave.

The second half of the ridge looks interesting
Mrs P swaps her walking boots for climbing shoes to climb the fin (4+)

The second half of the ridge is probably a bit easier than the first but, maybe we are just getting used to the terrain and the exposure. We certainly know that all the technical stuff is over.

Looking back along the ridge with not a goat in sight

About 2/3rds of the way along the ridge, near a col, there is a box with a book in which happy climbers can write their names. Mr P does the honours…

The finished article

Books like this are usually at the end of a route so, psychologically, once the book is completed so is the climb but, not in this case. There are still 2 more hours of climbing ahead.

Looking back along the ridge

If you zoom in closely on the above photo you will see 3 climbers on the ridge behind us. Centre of picture there is a tree on the ridge. Follow the ridge left. One climber is silhouetted on the ridge. The other 2 are to the right of him and harder to spot.

About 1.5 hours to go with the summit of the ridge in sight

We did go off track briefly but it was fortuitous as we think we found some orchids. I can’t find anything on the interweb to prove it so, any budding (excuse the pun) flower experts out there like to tell us what it is?

Possibly an orchid?

More lovely, easy, grade 1 scrambling on perfect rock finally sees us on the summit of the Bernia 5 hours and 45 minutes after we started.

Mrs P on the Bernia summit (1,126 metres)

Just 1.5 of descent to go. In total our time was 8 hours 45 minutes, Gandalf to Gandalf. This includes one lunch stop, 2 snack breaks and one minor detour.

We are well pleased with ourselves particularly as we arrive back before dark. Time for a nice cup of tea.

ASIDE: Back in September I published a post called, Day 75 – Fear – Mr P gets all philosophical, in which I tried to explain why a particular Via Ferrata near Annecy in France has scared me so much. It was all about exposure etc. It was deep stuff. Mrs P can’t understand why I was afraid on the Via Ferrata but not on the Bernia Ridge since the ridge was way harder and more exposed. The answer? Not sure, but she is right. I wasn’t scared or nervous on this climb. I will have to think about it and get back to you.

Day 113 – A little rant & A big climb

Sunday 4th November 2018

The following photo was actually taken on Saturday 3rd November but I was too busy wittering on about Magdalenas to post anything remotely sensible. It is a one photo lesson in bad climbing practice…

How not to belay

Climbers reading this will (I hope) concur with my guess that this man has never been belaying someone who has taken a lead fall. Non-climbers will be thinking, “belaying?”, “lead fall?”.

It’s Mr P explains time again. The man sitting down, enjoying the sun and seemingly taking no notice of the rope he is attached to is the only thing between his partner, 15 metres up on the other end of said rope, and, if she falls, death. His sole job is to manage the rope as she climbs and, if she falls, arrest that fall by use of the belay device he has attached to the rope and his harness.

My biggest issue with this is not so much that he is not really paying attention, this is not such a big deal, we all look around a bit while belaying (though he barely ever looked up). My issue is with the fact that he is sitting down.

Climbing ropes have a certain amount of stretch to reduce the fall factor but a lot of the force involved in any fall must be absorbed by the belayer as well as the rope.

Comfy it may be but, if your partner falls the pull on the rope can be immense. A few weeks ago we saw a climber take a lead fall and his much lighter female partner, who was paying attention and was standing up, shot about 6 feet up in the air before the fall was checked.

If this man’s partner falls, no matter how strong he is (unless of course he comes from the planet Krypton), he will be dragged sideways and upwards across sharp rock, dirt, grit and prickly bushes before his weight can slow down and stop the fall. If however, at any point during his brief, violent and unexpected journey he inadvertently lets go of the belay device his partners fall will continue unchecked. He will not be able to stop it.

Now, there is a device called a Grigri which will arrest the fall even if you do let go. He wasn’t using one and, even if he had been, it certainly wouldn’t stop him being dragged across the ground and his partner falling an unnecessarily long way down lumpy, bumpy, sharp rock.

Ironically this mans partner was wearing a t-shirt from a climbing safety convention. Even more ironically, she belayed him in exactly the same way.

Lead climbing by the way is where…

…the rope runs directly from the belayer to the climber who clips the rope into bolts fixed to the wall or removable pieces of trad gear.

On this “sharp end of the rope,” the lead climber must move above a bolt or piece of protection in order to move up the route. If he or she falls before clipping the rope into the next bolt or piece of equipment then the fall will be at least twice as long as the distance above the last piece of gear. E.g. A fall 1 metre above the last bolt mean a fall of two metres, plus a little bit more due to rope stretch.

Abridged from an article on the REI website

I have very rarely fallen lead climbing. Mostly because I am way too scared to ever let go but, on the couple of occasions that I have fallen Mrs P has checked my fall in exemplary fashion.

She always stands, she always pays attention and she is always the prettiest belayer at the crag (Christmas is coming. Got to get that brownie point count up).

The prettiest belayer at the crag

RANT ENDS

So, Sunday 4th. We went multi-pitch climbing at our favourite crag so far in the Costa Blanca region. Sierra de Toix.

Picture the scene. Sunrise…

Any excuse for a pretty picture

…and Mr & Mrs P are eager to go climbing even getting up early enough to take a picture of the sunrise. They rush around, drinking tea, eating breakfast, drinking more tea, faffing… drinking another cup of tea. Driving the 20 minutes to the crag (stop en-route for a pain au chocolat). Park up. Eat pain au chocolat. Walk 10 minutes to bottom of climb. Finally arrive at 12.30! What happened to the morning!? The slowest we have ever got ready. We are strangely proud of ourselves.

Mr P at the bottom of the climb. Is it lunchtime yet?

The climb is called Oma Sus (I’m sure it means something to someone). It’s four pitches long, grade 4+/5 (not too hard) and a total of just over 100 metres high (about 330 ish feet in old money.)

The only way is up. (Can you see Mr P? He’s up there somewhere. Pretending he knows what he is doing)

The bolts (protection) on this climb are few and far between. From 8 to 10 metres apart in some places. I had some trad gear but only managed to place one piece in the very compact (no cracks) rock.

…and up (this time looking back towards Mrs P)

There are some pretty shoddy, old, sun damaged bits of tatt along the way to clip on to. More psychological than real protection…

Hmmm. Should I trust it? Yeah. It’ll be fine.

More stuff in a generally upward direction…

Mrs P cruising up one of the lower pitches

And, eventually, the top.

At the top the following brief conversation took place. I only include Mrs P’s words since Mr P’s can easily be deduced;

Now, how do we get down?

Where’s the path?

What do you mean; ‘there is no path?’

How many abseils?

I haven’t had lunch!

Well, at least the rope eating tree is above us.

ASIDE: If you want to read some funny stuff about multi-pitch climbing, how not to abseil and the rope eating tree check out the Gandalf on tour blog from way back on day 11.

So, down we go. Love these next 2 shots.

Mrs P, in close up, starts the descent
Mrs P smiling because her head is back in proportion
Mr P bounds down the rock like a bald Bear Grylls on junior Asprin

That evening we found a great spot for free camping on the edge of Altea and right by the sea.

Check out the reflection in Gandalf’s window in the below picture. I can assure you that this was luck not judgement.

Cool, free camping

Tomorrow. It rains. I’m sure I’ll think of something to talk about.

Days 106 & 107 – To be the man who walked a thousand miles…

Sunday 28th & Monday 29th October

I would just like you to compare the following 2 photos and kindly explain to me, “What in the name of tarnation happened!?”

Good thermometer, nice thermometer
Bad thermometer, naughty thermometer

Did you spot the difference? Did you? Exactly! A drop in temperatures of more than 26 degrees centigrade (43 degrees Fahrenheit for our US readers)!

These photos were taken just 3 days apart. The second, as if to add insult to injury, was taken at a more southerly latitude!

Yes, we have moved further south for climbing. It is however, colder here, in the Murcia region of Spain than it was on most of our early morning starts in the Alps at high altitude, on glaciers, wearing crampons!

If you read the link for Murcia, you will see that…

This region boast[s] over 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, and its coastline is bathed by the warm waters of two seas. In fact, its coast is known as the Costa Cálida (the balmy coast)…

Sounds lovely doesn’t it? Sounds toasty warm. Sounds like climbing weather…

Well, not today it ain’t. Today it’s like a bloomin’ fridge. Why am I complaining? I hear you ask…

I would like to refer you to the following average annual temperatures for Murcia

Check out October, or even November. It says nothing about temperatures of 6 degrees centigrade with a maximum daytime temperature of 10 degrees.

Mrs P had to have a hot water bottle!

Ok, so I may be over egging it and I may be overusing the exclamation mark a tad but, jeepers. We’re freezing to death here! (Look, there’s another one.)

On Monday we brave the elements and go for a walk. The photos may look sunny but, I tell you, it was hell out there. Our sandwiches nearly blew away, we couldn’t wear shorts… need I list more hardships? The locals are pretty close to declaring a state of emergency. We may need the army to airdrop blankets and chicken soup.

Colder than it looks

We joined up 2 local walks from the campsite we are staying at in El Berro. One of 10km, the other of 7km.

The walk is unfortunately pretty disappointing. No great views, not much in the way of up and down, scrappy paths. Certainly nothing to write home about… erm… Oops!

The best part about the walk is perhaps the comma vs decimal point anomaly. Let me explain; In the UK we use a period as a decimal point i.e. 5.4km. In much of Europe however, they use a comma i.e. 5,4km. Generally speaking this goes pretty much unnoticed. Round these parts however, and some would say with typical Spanish carefree abandon, they like to add some entirely unnecessary zeros. So, you get signs like this…

This could take a while

This is great because it looks like we walked one heck of a long way.

As the walk lacked views of note my eye was drawn to the minutiae of my surroundings. So, for want of photos of stunning vistas, I will leave you with the following images…

This tunnel used to be part of an ancient irrigation system
Acorns on a Holm Oak tree
Olives and olive tree (what else?)
As M.C. Hammer would say, “Can’t touch this”
5,400 km later…
I like to think we deserved this after more than 17,000 km

Days 104 & 105 – Gorgeous Gorge & Film night

Friday 26th & Saturday 27th October 2018

Friday morning we woke all set to go off climbing again but, as I explained yesterday, this campsite, far from the tourist factories on the coast, far from the great whites, is home to a different breed of over-winterer (did I just make a word up?).

As we idly munched on our muesli and contemplated the sunny day ahead we are visited by a chap from England who is staying here till March. He and his wife are the vanguard of a group of like minded folk who spend the winter here. Let’s stick with convention and call him Mr S.

Mr S says (I do hope he will forgive me for paraphrasing): “Would you like to join me for a walk?”

Mr P: Oh, yes please. Where’re we going?

Mr S goes on to explain a 27km circuit taking in a visit to some donkeys (Mrs P is immediately sold on the idea), a look down a big hole, a visit to a Refugio (refuge/hut/elaborate garden shed. Call it what you will) and a scramble down a gorge.

He then says: “How fast do you walk?”

Mr P: “Eh?”

Mr S: “How fit are you?”

Mr P (thinking, ‘This man is 12 years older than me!’) stifles a derisive laugh and says; “Well, we just spent 3 months in the Alps.”

“Good.” Says Mr S, “See you at 10.”

Another day, another Gorge (Actually, it’s exactly the same Gorge as 2 days ago)

Now Mr S is a sexagenarian (late sexagenarian at that. Oh, ok, he’s 67. But don’t tell him I told you), dynamo powered, (like the Duracell Bunny), speed demon. He certainly isn’t powered in the conventional way. You know, food, water, that kind of thing. In 7.5 hrs I think I saw him eat 2 fig biscuits and drink a thimble full of water. Mrs P and I can’t go more than 3 hours without recourse to numerous snacks, a proper lounge by the trail lunch and, of course, something sweet to take the taste away.

We set off at a rate of knots little known in our stop every few minutes to take a photo, change layers, point at things, answer a call of nature, world.

Mr P briefly manages to get in front of Mr S to take a photo
Down at the bottom of the Gorge I assume Mr S will slow the pace as we are now facing a 300 metre climb over less than 1 km but no, if anything, he speeds up!

Along the way we whiz past some great views and visit a few interesting sights like a donkey sanctuary…

Donkey sanctuary interloper

I know, it’s a goat but, in my defence, he was way more photogenic than the donkeys.

We also got to look down into a 50 metre sinkhole called L’Avenc Ample, and watched some spelunkers (apparently they prefer the term cavers, but it’s not their blog so, tough!) climbing out.

The sinkhole L’Avenc Ample

The sinkhole apparently leads to a short series of squeeze tunnels and then into a huge underground cavern. The above link has some great photos.

“Which rope did you say I shouldn’t let go of?”

After the first ascent I develop a ploy to slow Mr S down, or at least arrange it so I don’t have to speak and walk at the same time. At the beginning of each climb I ask him questions like, ‘précis your last 6 holidays’ and ‘Name your 100 favourite films. In alphabetical order’.

Our journey along the Barranc de L’Infern was spectacular and we got in some great scrambling and general messing around.

Mrs P enters the Gorge
Mr S’s favourite bit
The only way is under…
… or over…
…or,… Oh, do stop messing around!

All in all the hike was 27k (16.2 miles), over 7 hours, with 1,457 metres (4,781 feet) of ascent and descent and all done at an average pace of 600 kph (373 mph). It was a great walk, a great day and great company. We cannot thank Mr S enough for dragging us along in his wake. All hail!

Saturday 27th and I was overjoyed to be visited by Mr S who popped by to tell us that his legs ached after our outing. Result!

We use the inclement weather (temperatures dropped by 10 degrees overnight and there are rain showers all day) as an excuse to relax for the whole day. We visit the coffee shop, the bakery, clean Gandalf and watch a film.

Before…

The previous and following photos are the Gandalf version of one of those before and after shots where the before shot shows an overweight, unsmiling, badly lit, unattractively posed person and the after shot shows exactly the same only they are better lit, smiling and have been allowed to wear underwear appropriate to their stature.

…and after

GRATUITOUS ADVERT: Use GLEAMO cleaning fluid for that sun shining through the window look!

Yes, you heard right by the way. We watch a film. Some DVDs have been left behind in the communal area of the campsite. The place where paperback books go to die. We fire up the laptop and watch our first film, tv or anything of that ilk for more than 3 months. Feels weird. The film is called Wakefield. A dark drama. Mrs P and I can recommend it.

Clocks go back tonight. Extra hour in bed. Tomorrow we drive South. Heading for warmer climes and climbs.