Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Sea of Limestone and an Avon Epic

Saturday 11th August

Alex is sitting next to me. We are both attached to a small tree in the middle of a blank limestone slab. It slants steeply down, the cliff below towering some 50m above the ground. I am belaying Eric, who, for some reason, seems to be stuck somewhere down below. The rope has felt slacky for the past 15 min. Alex is belaying Heloise. He is actually waiting for her to start climbing up. He's been waiting for about half an hour. The slanting slab and the noise from the highway below precludes any attempt at communicating. Alex and I shout in vain, trying for find out what is going on with our respective partners.

It is a warm Saturday evening. It is getting close to seven. Our bus back to London leaves at eight sharp from Bristol Centre. Not knowing what might be wrong makes us feel uneasy. Little we knew then that it was to become a rather surreal weekend. Little adventures were awaiting us, and we were definitely not getting back to London that Saturday evening.

We are in the Main Wall of the Avon Gorge, a staggering cliff that rises at more than 115m from the
bottom of the valley. The river Avon flows slowly down below. The tide has been rising steadily, and from a small trickle in the morning, the Avon is now a large river. A big ship full of tourist sails slowly past us, they are all looking up the cliffs, perhaps at us, the four Brixton Climbers stuck high up the rock face. And we are still waiting . . .

Everything started rather unexpectedly on Thursday. Eric was mad about doing some trad climbing. So we improvised a one day crash trip to Avon Gorge. The plan was simply to catch a coach very early in the morning from London to Bristol. From Bristol Centre it would be a very short cab ride to the crags. On Friday evening we learned that Alex and Heloise had canceled their planed trip to the Roaches in the Peak District so they would be joining us on our expedition.

At seven in the morning we left Victoria station in London, and by 10am we were at the bottom of Morning Slab, in the Main Wall of Avon Gorge. The Gorge runs for several kilometres, bordering the west side of Bristol. Its most famous crags are the Sea Walls, the Main Wall and the Suspension Bridge Buttress. There are hundreds of multi pitch climbs on great limestone. Route grades go from Very Easy to Extremely Damn Hard and Dangerous.

Alex and Eric set about to start the leading session. Alex went for Clarion (VS 4c) and Eric for Sinister (HS 4b), both are famous climbs that tackle the right hand side of the massively imposing slab. I seconded Eric. The route is very elegant, although a bit polished, with loads of equilibrium moves. The first pitch stops at Lunchtime Ledge, a massive terrace high up on the wall. There we were soon joined by Alex and Heloise. From the terrace the view along the gorge is breathtaking. The Avon meanders cheekily, surrounded by forests and dark gray cliffs before joining the River Severn. From the terrace is another 20m pitch to the top of the cliff. The previous pitch was 50m, so this makes up for a 70m route! Easy leading leads to a park at the top, full of joggers, children, people walking their dogs, etc. The climbing feels so daring and adventurous but at the same time so safe and urban!

Back at the bottom it was my time to choose a lead. The superb weather and the nice setting invigorated me. I decided to go for Mike's Mistake (5b E1), according to the guide book "an old time polished classic". This route tackles the slab directly at its centre. A clean line with reasonable protection: a succession of ancient pegs, and the odd nut or cam placement! No cracks here, just the tiniest crimps and slopers, thin balancing moves to progress slowly up. I must confess that at the crux, some 15m up the ground, my legs started to shake. The sight of an old rusty peg as my closest piece of protection was not very reassuring. Some deep breathing and very delicate footwork allowed me to reach the upper slab. I smiled, the hard work was done! Although the last 10m to the belay exhilarated, the last bit of climbing being really easy (about 4a). I reached the bolts and set up a hanging belay. While belaying Eric up I took a moment to look around the massive wall. I was immersed in a sea of limestone! Above large overhangs and blocks towered imposingly. There is a variation of the route I was on, suitably called "Lost in Space", that continues straight up, losing itself into the upper reaches of the wall.

Eric and I at the hanging belay at the top of Mike's Mistake (5b E1).

Eric arrived and he led a short traverse up and leftwards, back to Lunchtime Ledge, where, again, we joined Heloise and Alex, who had just led another classic route. Because the upper reaches of Lunchtime Ledge are technically easy and offer bombproof protection, we decided that it was time for Heloise to lead. She did so quite confidently! However, she would put a piece of protection, climb up, put another one, just for the previous one to pop out and slide down along the rope and onto Alex hands! The final result: Alex only had to remove one piece of gear near the top when he seconded the route!

Eric led some improvised VDiff, and soon we were all at the top again, joking about Heloise pro placement style. Nonetheless this is a serious matter! Luckily nothing went wrong so next time we need to make sure that everybody is confident with their skills!

Back at the bottom and a quick glance at the clock showed that it was four o'clock. We had started climbing at ten. Six hours for only two routes! Taking into consideration the lunch break earlier, we were doing each route in about 2:30h, which is not too bad for long multi pitch climbs. Perhaps at this point we should have felt satisfied and headed to a pub before catching the coach back to London, but well, we decided to bag another route. Another 2:30h and we would be done by 6:30pm, with plenty of time to catch the 8:00pm coach.

Eric decided to do Great Central Route (5a HVS). I glanced at it, and high up, really high up, there was a dodgy looking overhang! Well, HE's leading that, not me, so there should be no problem. Alex and Heloise settled for a more sensible option, a nice arete running close to our intended climb. Eric went up really smoothly, the overhang seemingly posing no difficulties whatsoever. He reached the pink upper wall and it took him about half an hour to set up a complicated and delicate belay in a small stance. I followed up, and it took me several minutes to figure out how to overcome the overhang. It was really polished, and as soon as I managed to get over it, I found myself in a precarious slab with barely any footholds! That was a really impressive piece of climbing by Eric! Joined him, racked up and then set to lead the second pitch, which goes at about 4c VS. The wall here is very exposed. I had to do a short hanging hand traverse really high up which felt like and outer space experience, my feet dangling some 40m above the ground. I reached easier rock at the top, but Arrrg, again, a long unprotectable slab. Just as I was about to reach the tree belay, I put my hand in a solid looking hand hold, just for it to come off as I put my weight on it. In fractions of a second I managed to regain my balance and push the loose piece of rock back. A frozen chill ran down my spine. I was about 8m above my last piece of protection! I gained the tree and set up a nice belay, backed up by a bomber hex and a cam. Alex quickly joined me and we both set on to belay our partners.

Eric tackling the overhang in Great Central Climb (5a HVS).

Eric started climbing soon after, but after a few minutes we seemed to have gotten stuck somewhere down below. Alex was completely puzzled. He would shout again and again for Heloise to come up, but nothing, no reply, the rope lying dead onto the slab. Finally Eric came up. He said it was impossible for him to hear us because of the highway noise. I lowered him down to the lower border of the slab so he could get a glimpse of Heloise. She was right down at the bottom, patiently belaying Alex! Eric shouted to her to start climbing. She duly fixed herself and started up just to find that the rope would remain completely slacky. The rope was stuck some 10m above her, caught under a small protruding bulge! I had to lower Eric a further 30m so he could release the rope. The whole process seemed to take ages. The clock ticking away, munching our precious minutes to catch our return coach home. I believe this kind of situations are the most dangerous in climbing. The end of the day, everybody's tired, you feel in a hurry. The perfect recipe to make a silly mistake.

A few minutes later Heloise started to come up. My rope suddenly felt really loose. I thought Eric was coming up really fast, but I just couldn't keep up with him. I tried to take the ropes in as fast as I could, unsuccessfully. Suddenly it downed on me that he wasn't attached at the other end! I brought up the ropes, assuming that he had just unclipped himself, scrambled down, and was packing the bags and calling a cab to take us back to the station. Heloise finally appeared and confirmed my hypothesis.

There were some 5m of easy climbing to exit. We hastily gathered the gear and retreated in a manner that I'm still not happy with! We basically half soloed half belayed ourselves to the top. The sort of situation that easily could have turned sour. We ran back down to join Eric. It was 7:30pm. Surely a cab would pick us up and would drop us on time at the coach station. But it was not to be. As we approached Eric he broke the bad news. There was a gridlock at Bristol centre and no cabs would be available for at least an hour! We tried to hitchhike but to no avail. It was clear that we would have to spend the night there. There were no more coaches and a last minute train fare would be around £100!

As we pondered what to do with our lives, a procession of colourful balloons started crossing the sky. They were so close that we could see the people inside waving. There were dozens of balloons of various colors and slightly different shapes. The sun was setting and the cliff had turned golden. As the balloons flied by, they would go over and behind the flaming limestone. It was a breathtaking spectacle. In the meantime we started picking and eating the most tasty black berries ever (maybe because we were plainly starving!). The balloons kept passing by, all in a very surreal atmosphere. People were stopping to take pictures. The top of the cliffs became alive with bystanders watching the long queue of balloons, moving lazily with the wind. A total of 108 balloons crossed the sky that day in Bristol.

We walked to the top of the cliff. Into the park, and strolled along the posh part of the city. Bristol is actually very pretty, spacious, and has a healthy feeling that London lacks completely. Our priority was to find a pub. Heloise lived in Bristol four years ago so she became our tour guide. We saw the pink house were she lived, the hospital were she had some stitches, the place were she got her lip pierced, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. She also led us to an amazing pub with a huge terrace overlooking the gorge and Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge. The terrace was teeming with people. We sat down and drank our beers slowly, feeling the breeze and watching the darkness falling by. We sat there after making unsuccessful phone calls to the youth hostel and several other hotels. The plan was to spend a perhaps cold night in the park. Nonetheless we were so happy. The climbing had been great, the summer evening was gorgeous. We had a feeling of freedom and detachment. We just couldn't care less.

As it got darker the suspension bridge lit up. From the back of the hills fireworks were shot up into the sky. They were really impressive and colourful. I would swear that some would resemble happy faces as they exploded. Others would change into a myriad of colours, orange, red, blue and green.

At the other end of our table there was a couple chatting peacefully. Eric and Alex asked them if they
though the train station would be open so we could go and sleep there. We told them our story, and the girl, completely out of the blue, offered us her house to spend the night! We felt really embarrassed, but after a few more unsuccessful phone calls to more hotels we decided to accept her invitation.

We bought them some beers and cider, and had a very pleasant and long chat in her leaving room until late at night. The girl in question is called Grace, a scientist who is now studying medicine at Bristol University. The guy is Adrian, a tennis coach that's based in Dubai and that has met Roger Federer and other tennis legends. It is nice to see that such hospitality is still possible in this world!

We actually slept in a small office beneath her flat. Had a mattress, cushions, etc. Completely unexpected and very relieving. The next morning I woke up with pains and aches all over my body. Eric seemed very fresh, and completely mad about going back to the cliffs. After a small battle of wills, we decided that heading back to London was the sensible option. We gave our farewells to our kind host and returned to the Big Stressful City.

A truly memorable weekend in Bristol.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Falling off at Brixton Rec. This is a very hard route, Narrow Right, British 6a?

Mike, la larva (The Worm) Lopera doing some 'buildering'. Que tripeo.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A fast sloth!

The Roaches is one of the great four classic gritstone crags (the other three being Stanage, Froggat and Curbar). Its lower tier contains many true grit challenges, among them the super classic, and perhaps one the most famous roof climbs in The Peaks: The Sloth (5a HVS). A truly horrifying overhang with massive holds that is a must for any aspiring trad climber.

I had seen this route two years ago in my first visit to The Roaches, nobody was climbing it that day, and I could only dream of ever tackling something like that. But time passes by and we get stronger, and after having bagged one E1 and another E2, there was no excuse for me anymore not to do this route. So being at The Roaches again this weekend meant that I HAD to tackle it. I spent the whole Saturday morning pondering it, looking at it from far away, watching one candidate struggling and falling off, just to get back on and conquer it. What a route.

In the afternoon my moment of reckoning arrived, I had to do a route, and it was to be The Sloth or nothing. Like a doomed animal I approached the base of the climb, and slowly went up, getting closer and closer to the dreaded overhang. As it drew nearer, it became more and more terrifying, and my level of disbelief in myself kept growing and growing. Just at the bottom of the overhang there is a big 'cheese' block where one big sling can be put around. This is really sound protection, but being right at the bottom means that falling at the crux of the overhang implies a whipper and a big smash against the lower wall and ledge below. Indeed, stories abound about broken ankles and shattered egos, giving this climb a bit of a reputation.

At the crux point there is a wide crack where a bomber hexe can be placed, but you have to put this piece of gear while you are hanging in the 'sloth' position, while your strength is being drained away and your brain becomes increasingly unsettled. I tried three times to reach the crack to place the hexe, and three times I was unsuccessful and climbed down to the lower ledge. The fourth time would be the last try. My right arm was already pumped, and I would not have the strength for a fifth attempt. So it was all or nothing. Get to the top or fall down.

I took the biggest hex and put it firmly in my mouth, and set off to conquer the mighty roof. I tried to keep my concentration, placing my feet carefully, laybacking my way up the overhanging flake, jamming my left foot into a big block, and bridging with the right one. One pull up on my right arm and I was able to stretch and place the hexe, a truly beautiful placement. I kept my nerve and confidently took in some rope and clipped it to the newly placed runner. After that everthing happened in a flash. My left hand reached for the upper flake followed promptly by the right one. Big handholds kept appearing all the way, as I sprinted up. At the critical point I reached the famous upper crack, where a solid fist jam helps the final push. As I put my right fist into the crack it felt like melted butter, it wasn't going to hold, but I had no other chance. The hex at that point felt like it was placed miles below. With a final push of blind faith, I let all my body weight on the jammed hand, and thanks God, it did hold. My left hand finally reached the final jug and milliseconds afterwards I was finally over the roof, with my right knee firmly jammed into the upper off-width crack, panting like I had just ran a marathon. The rest of the climb was easy, and as I reached the safety of the belay, I could only gaze into the distance and admire the impressive view, the valleys bellow engulfed by the autumn mist. And there, relieved and happy for a job well done, you discover why trad climbing is so fascinating!

Yours truly on his little epic (The Sloth, 5a HVS):

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fast Grip - E2!

I'm psyched. Last friday went to Avon Gorge, Bristol, and lead my first E2!!!! Fast Grip, a fascinating 5b that climbs for about 35m following a groove system that is poorly protected, the hardest move being an awkward mantelshelf protected by three very dubious micronuts, and then a 5m runout to the next peg! Highly recommended!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Scottish misery

Some people argue that mountaineering is about pain and suffering, and that true mountaineers are those that can withstand or even enjoy miserable times in the hills. The week has just ended and I am back from a trip to Scotland, where I got more than my fair share of suffering, and I can truly say that I didn't enjoy it.

On Monday 20th February 2006, I headed with a bunch of friends to the North Face of Ben Nevis. We decided to tackle the classic, easy (grade II), Gully Number 2. We were pretty excited about the climb, and after about a 3-hour walk from the car park we were at the bottom of the gully, past a couple of climbers that decided not to go up for fear of avalanche. The snow was very soft that day, knee deep, very hard going. Nonetheless we headed up the gully, unroped. The couple decided to follow us after all. At the bottom a team of four German climbers just arrived intending to do the route as well.

The climb was pretty beautiful. We easily overcame a couple of small icefalls, and struggled a bit because of the strong spindrift. My french mate Pascal reached the top first. He stayed below the cornice waiting for me and our two friends to arrive. I was a couple of metres below him, when suddenly I started to slip. I tried to dig my ice axes firmly in place and kick my crampons in place but I kept slipping ... I looked up and to my horror I saw a crack developing and widening quickly on the snow all around me. The windslab I was standing on had collapsed. I managed to shout "avalanche" and a few milliseconds later I was sliding at full speed down this waste pipe of a gully. The Ben Nevis had flushed me down mercilessly. I slided very fast, trying to self arrest unsuccessfully. I kept trying until at some point I tipped over, my feet kind of stopping and my whole body whipping around, I started to roll wildly, hitting everything on the way down. The ride was so wild that I just thought that I would kill myself. Suddenly I stopped in the soft snow of the lower slopes, shaken but relatively unhurt. I lost both Ice axes. The four German climbers where still at the bottom of the gully and hadn't started climbing yet. They kindly came down to me, they had found one of my ice axes. They checked if I was ok. They draw my attention to two people further down the slope. My two friends had been avalanched as well! The German guys were pretty helpful and helped us down the slopes to the CIC hut. There we managed to recomposed ourselves and head back to the car park.

We found Pascal on our way down. We later lernt that the couple that was following us up the gully happened to be just below one of the little icefalls inside the gully and we just flied past over them! And it seems they didn't even realised! Went to the hospital in Fort William were we were checked over and found to be fine. We also lernt that the avalanche hazard for that day was grade 3 (considerable), with hight risk at North East facing slopes with unstable windslabs and snow over 900m, with special mention to gullies!

The rest of the week was filled with an easy traverse of a lower Munro and returning to Ben Nevis were Pascal and I tackled Castle Ridge (grade III). Beautiful but miserable. The wind at the top was hurricane like, and I kept climbing with visions of my body rolling down the hill and over the rocks, the snow slabs breaking underneath me! My biggest regret is that in these occasion I didn't manage to conquer the Ben's summit! I'll probably head back during the summer to do the easy 'tourist' route . . .

Gully Number 2 (red arrow) from the CIC hut:

The slab avalanche started near the top (top arrow) below the cornice, and I ended up well below down the lower snow slopes (bottom arrow)

About to be avalanched: looking down gully number 2

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Cacao e' Chuao

Durante la ultima semana de diciembre de 2005, Mike, Fuco y yo nos dirigimos al pintoresco pueblo de Chuao. A unas dos horas de caminata desde el pueblo, montana arriba, se encuentra una gran pared de arenisca (?) de unos 150m de altura, que forma parte de la garganta de uno de los tributarios del rio Chuao. En esta ocasion Federico tenia como proyecto encadenar en libre un enorme techo bordeado por una larga grieta (20m) en su base. La ruta fue preparada en artificial y Federico encadeno practicamente toda la ruta en libre exceptuando el paso crux justo al final, a un par de metros de la reunion.

La gran pared de Chuao vista desde el camino de aproximacion.

El Mike colocando una de las dos chapas en el inicio de la ruta. Esta seccion presenta roca descompuesta y poco posibilidad para colocar proteccion tradicional. Pocos momentos antes una de las piezas de proteccion fallo y Mike se dio un bollete bestial en el suelo, que resulto en una pequena fractura en la muneca derecha.

Preparando la ruta en artificial. Secciones de la roca estaban descompuestas, llenas de nidos de arcilla (avispas) o nidos de golondrinas. La proteccion fue dejada in situ para el posterior intento de encadenamiento en libre.

El Fuco despues del primer intento de encadenamiento en libre despues de un largo dia de preparacion de la ruta en artificial.

El Fuco en el crux. Una sequencia de slopers y dinamicos. Veredicto: 5.13a!

Er Fuco y su ruta ..., el gran techo sombreado que aparece en el centro de la foto.

Regreso a casa, el camion a traves de la plantacion de cacao.

La larva del Mikey y su ferula, despues de haber sido tratado por Flor Boscan.

Caco e' Chuao. (5.13a) Un solo largo de aprox. 30m. La primera seccion de escalada es de unos 10m hasta alcanzar la grieta y se proteje con dos chapas. La grieta se proteje con proteccion tradicional hasta alcanzar la reunion (dos chapas sin cadena).