I think we should be as unprepared as possible…
These were the words that came out of Sophie’s mouth just before we jumped into her VW and drove down to the car park below Frontales. It was 10:30 on my last night in El Chorro.
Eight days earlier I had flown down to the south of Spain from London for a sport climbing holiday. I was supposed to be in the English countryside with my fiance but she ended up having to work, leaving me with nothing to do for over a week. So I decided to go down to El Chorro because I heard that it would be easy to find partners and that I would not need a car. Good decision!
After the usual bout with planes, trains and automobiles, I ended up at the Olive Branch, a climbers hostel in the hills of El Chorro. Gary, the owner of the hostel, picked me up at the train station and drove me up the winding narrow roads to his home below some of the biggest limestone walls in the country. He and his wife had bought the hostel a few years back, and although Gary himself is not a climber, he assured me that I would have no problem finding people to climb with. Martin, Carl, George, Soapy Dish… the list went on and on. “Soapy Dish?” I thought, “What kind of a name is that?”
Turns out, “Soapy Dish” was the nickname that Gary had given to Sophie, a British climber and writer who had decided to stay down in El Chorro for the season, working on the garden in her spare time in exchange for a free room at the hostel and some spending money. We met early in the week, and spent a few days climbing together at the best spots. Sophie had been in El Chorro long enough to know the ins and outs of the area, and seemed happy to show me around.
Like all climbing campsites/hostels, it’s typical at the Olive Branch to stay up late drinking wine. Telling stories, thumbing through the guidebook, talking about the areas you want to see next; normal stuff. Then, inevitably, someone blurts out “we should group solo this route” or “everyone must dress like a superhero tomorrow!”
One night near the end of my trip I was looking through the book and saw a route by the name Amptrax. 7 or 8 pitches, 5.10ish, mostly bolted… CLASSIC!
“I’d love to do this route, but it’s probably too hot this time of year?” I looked around to see if anyone had an opinion. No one answered. It was April though, and the season was coming to an end. We weren’t even climbing single pitch stuff in the sun and there was no way to scale a thousand foot south facing limestone wall in the heat of southern Spain.
“We could do it at night” slipped out of my mouth. No one was paying attention to me anyways. For all they knew I was reading about the history of climbing in Malaga or some 5.14 that I’d never have a chance at sending.
“I’d be up for that” Sophie said quietly, looking at me with a devilish smurk.
“Dammit Ryan!” I thought. “You almost finished a climbing trip without agreeing to go on some half cocked adventure. But no, you had to go and open your mouth.”
See I have a habit of getting myself into those kind of hopeless situations that are doomed from the beginning. Whether it is traveling in an old longtail boat across the Andaman Sea with a bunch of drunk Russians or being the crash test dummy and repeatedly (and purposely) falling on old rusty bolts by the sea, I always end up agreeing to do things that just can’t possibly end well.
So here I am again, committing to something that I haven’t really thought through.
Actually I was excited about the prospect of doing some moonlight climbing, and wasn’t too worried about the route. Amptrax is, for the most part, a bolted sport climb that is well below my limit. Sophie had done the route before, I have plenty of night climbing experience, and we wouldn’t be committed to the top until we were past the two crux pitches. After some talking, we agreed on a 10pm start on the next day.
I slept in the next morning, and had a late breakfast. I confirmed with Sophie that she really wanted to climb the route, and then spent most of the afternoon eating, reading, and organizing my stuff for the trip back to London. I didn’t think much about our climb. After all, what is the point of going over things in your head? I had read the blurb in the guide book and I’m too lazy to do any more research than that so I figured I’d leave everything to Sophie. Like I said, she had done the route before.
It began to get dark around 9:30; my signal to start getting ready. I met Sophie in the kitchen where we made coffee and scrounged up some snacks from the communal corner. I began to think out about what we should bring along. “Is it going to be cold? Do we have enough food? Have we told anyone where we’re going? What if…”
“I think we should be as unprepared as possible” said Sophie, in that kind of way that makes you realize it’s time to shut up and get on with things.
“OK,” I said with a laugh, and out the door we went.
Apparently I am not a coffee drinker because when we got to the parking area Sophie had to tell me to stop talking. I remember her saying “I think it’s funny what caffeine does to people who don’t regularly drink it.”
After making sure we both had headlamps and climbing gear, we decided on how much wine to take. I believe the final verdict was “all of it!”
Off we went, up the dark wooded trail. Naturally, it took us a while to find the start and we then had to solo up some easy 5th class terrain to the first belay. We found some old tat on a small perch that Sophie remembered as being the start of the real climbing.
Sophie began to describe the route: “The first two pitches really wander, so I’ll lead those. I’ll try to link them. The 3rd and 4th pitches are the hardest, so you can lead them. You should probably link those as well.”
“Yea, I think we should link as many as possible. Are the crux pitches hard? What is route finding like?”
“They are straight up, and there is nothing tricky.” Sophie gave me a detailed description of each pitch, and each of the two cruxes. I felt solid and ready to climb, but I really needed her to start leading the first pitch so that I could take a piss. Damn coffee!
Sophie started off kind of slow. The climbing was all over the place, and surprisingly insecure. I’m glad that I didn’t lead the first pitches… it would have taken me a while. But all that I could think about while belaying Sophie was that she needed to hurry up and get up the wall so that I could pee without her noticing. I didn’t think she’d mind, but I didn’t want to freak her out!
Peeing, by the way, while you are belaying a leader at a semi-hanging belay, is not an easy feat. I’m just glad that it wasn’t too cold!
After a while, Sophie and I were standing on a big ledge at the top of pitch two. She had linked the first 180 feet of the climb into a single pitch, getting us off to a good start. I complimented her on the lead, and pulled out the water bottle that we had filled with cheap Spanish wine.
“So these two pitches go straight up right?”
“Yep, there’s the first bolt. You’ll cruise up them both.”
“OK, I’m going to link them… see ya soon!” And off I went.
I clipped the first bolt, climbed above it (this is a sport route, but it is certainly not tightly bolted), locked off, and made a long reach with my left hand up to an apparent pocket. Instantly, a swallow flew out of the hole above me, grazing my fingers as he took off. Considering that it was midnight and we were in the middle of a 1000 foot face, the noise the bird made was incredibly loud. I flinched but held on, and before I knew it we were both laughing that silly sounding laugh that you do when you are scared. A fall there would have put me directly on top of Sophie, probably injuring us both.
I got my shit together and noticed more noise coming from the pocket that I was hanging onto. I figured, correctly, that the swallow had left it’s partner behind to deal with whatever giant monster was encroaching on their home. Sure enough, there was another bird in there, and it took me a few brushes with my other hand to get it out. Finally, it flew away and I carried on.
The cruxes of the route were delicate but straight forward, and soon Sophie and I were standing atop pitch four. I again commended her on her climbing; for she followed the crux pitches faster than I had led them. She gave me praise for not ass-hatting her and we turned our attention to the traverse pitch.
Since we were swapping leads and Sophie remembered the traverse pitch being a bit tricky, she said she’d lead that one.
“Isn’t this the pitch that you were leading when a giant thunderstorm released it’s rage on El Chorro?” I said.
“Yea, but even without the rain I think it will be tricky.”
Sophie walked the traverse pitch, and as I followed it I imagined leading this thing, on-sight, in an afternoon thunderstorm like we get in North Carolina. “Easy climbing!” I said, “but seeing how the pins on this pitch are decades old and you led it in a storm, I’m sure it was pretty spicy!”
The final 500 feet of Amptrax are traditionally protected and the very top is mostly 4th class with a few easy 5th moves. Our plan was to each lead a long traditional pitch and then solo to the top.
“We did bring the stoppers right?” I asked.
“Here you go sir.” Sophie handed me a rack of stoppers, two cams, and promptly lit a hand rolled cigarette. “Try not to drop anything,” she said jokingly.
As I led the pitch, Sophie directed me around some horrendous choss and through a sort of exposed traverse move. The climbing was mellow enough but limestone isn’t always easy to protect. I felt safe, but I think I only placed about 7 pieces over maybe 140 feet.
It’s surprising how well your voice carries at night, when the air is still and no one else is on the wall. Over the last two pitches, Sophie and I were able to have conversations about her previous job with DMM. She is a staunch supporter of this company, saying that they are only in it for the love, unlike big companies such as Petzl or Black Diamond.
“It’s a shame that DMM haven’t come up with a wide runner for their sport draws” exclaimed Sophie, “because they make the best biners in the world. They are lighter and stronger than the Petzl Spirits, but everyone buys Petzl ‘cuz of those wide runners. I’ve already told Paul about this… I think a new runner is in the works.”
It just so happened that one of the owners of DMM was staying at the Olive Branch with us. I asked Sophie, “Paul was telling me how DMM actually manufactures Wild Country Helium biners. THOSE are the best biners in the world! What is the deal with DMM and Wild Country anyways? Are they the same company?”
“Well a lot of stuff has gone on between those two companies… a lot of dirty secrets,” said Sophie.
“Well tell me! I’d be an internet hero if I knew what was going on!”
“Well, that’s exactly why I am not going to tell you!”
For some reason when one starts placing gear, they begin to talk. I don’t know why, but I’ve noticed it with a lot of my partners, including Sophie. When we climb sport, we are generally quiet, going about our own business. But once you have to start thinking about how to protect each other, the brain seems to get a kick start and you just start spouting out everything from how that stopper was only OK to the fact that you probably should have brought along another number 1. Even on the hardest pitches I’ve climbed, I run my mouth at every placement.
God only knows how long it took us to get to the summit. The last hundred feet were mostly that weird angle where you probably don’t need your hands but you use them anyway just incase your foot pops. It went on forever!
We finally arrived at the top of the ridge and were able to see into the next valley. El Chorro really is a beautiful place, and it’s amazing how much open space there is just a few miles inland from the overdeveloped tourist traps of the coastal region.
After a cigarette and a drink, we headed down. In my normal fashion, I had elected not to bring approach shoes along, and opted instead for a crappy pair of canvas sandals. Never the best option, but I refuse to clip a pair of shoes to my harness just to walk off.
Sophie had the same idea, and descended in flip-flops. The trail was long and hard to follow. We were dehydrated and a bit drunk, and lost our way several times. Once I got stuck above a vertical cliff, and I actually had to jump into the top of a tree and sort of ride the branches to the ground. Thank God I always climb in pants!
By the time we were back at the Olive Branch everyone was asleep. It must have been really late because I know some of the Welsh guys had been staying up until 2 am.
We went straight to the kitchen, pounded some water and ate anything we could find. We barely had the energy to congratulate each other before we retired for the night, Sophie to her room and I to my tent.
I woke up the next morning a bit hungover, but also with a sense of accomplishment. I was under the impression that Amptrax was the longest route in El Chorro, and doing the longest route, no matter what the quality, has always been a goal of mine for every area that I go to. As far as I know, Amptrax IS the longest route in El Chorro, and I’m positive that with a good partner, a full moon and a little red wine, it is the most fun route as well!