Some folks see me as an adrenalin fuelled risk taker, sky diving, base jumping, deep diving, hard climbing big walling, winter climbing, dry tooling, mushroom picking mad man, and now big route rope soloing. That’s all crazy yes? No, no, no. Let’s look at viewpoints. I overheard a fellow climber talking about skydiving, why jump out of a perfectly good aircraft? Skydivers would look at climbers and say why not walk up the path? They would look at divers and say if we were meant to go under water we would have gills. A lot of the folk I know do something ‘adventurous’, are any of them crazy, no, they are trained and equipped for that environment in a way that makes it safe and fun…sometimes type 2 fun, but fun.
Ok so that’s viewpoints sorted, however yes, I do things that have more risks attached than say sitting on the sofa, but then that comes down to control. Control means looking at all the risks and mitigating against them – some things have more risks, some less, but you need to get them all under control and down to a level you are comfortable with. This means being aware of your environment and how it is going to impact on you, having knowledge and lots of it, and having plans, plan A, plan B, and plan C. You have to have the what if’s covered, if it all went according to plan it would be easy, but it won’t. You will forget things, drop things, the weather will not be as forecast, the visibility worse. These are the small things, you have to have the big stuff covered too – you lose a rope, you have a regulator free flow at depth, a parachute fails. Plan B, plan C have to cover these things, and don’t rely on anyone else. The reality is diving over 70m you are on your own if you weren’t already. On a big wall, odds on you will be dealing with issues on your own, skydiving you only get seconds or minutes to sort it on your own. When I pick a mushroom, dive, climb or skydive I check and plan, test and try, read and review again and again.
Before this current trip I had learnt to back rope solo i.e self-belay climbing. I had read and read everything I could. I started off with single pitches, then moved on to two pitches. In Yosemite it meant I could get a head start on a pitch before Helen arrived on the stance to belay me. Since then it had been in my mind to solo something bigger and with a trip to the Costa Blanca coming up, the Penon D’ifach, the limestone monolith towering over Calpe seemed ideal. Amenable weather, 200m routes, bolted belays, a smattering of fixed gear, 20 minutes from the road and a tourist path walk off. Even better I got a chance to do a route first to check things out – the approach, the rock, the likely gear, the summit and descent. Now the other bits, forecast perfect – don’t want rain, wind or early darkness. Time, I don’t know how long this was going to take – so I want as much daylight as I can get. Although I spend a lot of time climbing in the dark I really want to have every second of daylight available to top out so I needed to be ready to climb at sunrise, that would give me 12 hours of daylight. That means getting up, so many people don’t get up early enough and don’t get out the door (pack the night before and have breakfast ready).
Route selection. I knew I would be slower than a regular team and I didn’t want to hold folk up, be hassled into mistakes or have stuff drop on me, so nothing busy. I did want good belays, so nothing too obscure. Fairly straight and steep to cut down on awkward traversing cleaning and ropes dragging, and hard enough to be a challenge but not so hard as to mean I might have to dog pitches.
‘Same’, a ten pitch one star E1/6a fitted the bill. It had been logged 7 times on UKC in 10 years with no adverse comments and I would be unlucky to have company. The only traverse was along a ridge top that looked walkable and it finished up the same rock as a route I had already done.
I was well prepared to bail if things didn’t feel good; bail when the alarm went off and stay in the clutches of a warm bed; bail when I reached the crag, it would be easy to have a look and return; bail at the base of the route if I didn’t feel confident; bail after the first pitch, scared, slow, not willing to carry on; bail anywhere if I was too slow. Nobody would raise an eyebrow, sensible they would think (to prove the point, on my return one person asked “Was it was worth it?”) , and so would I as if I didn’t feel comfortable then something would be wrong with my skills, preparation, kit, choices, or environment.
My alarm went at 5am, out the door at 6am, 20 minutes to the parking. The roadside beneath the Penon was empty and dark, but the sky was already filled with the sound of seagulls wheeling about the headland. I gathered my prepacked bag and walked along the promenade under the dark looming bulk of the crag. To the right the moon hung over Toix and the villa I had left quietly, to the left the first tendrils of sunlight were creeping into the sky above the watery horizon. Up the scree past cactus and screeching seagulls, careful to avoid turning an ankle so soon in the loose rock. Alas there was no way down from the summit of the scree to my route, I back tracked and probed for a way down. Eventually I pushed past the dying cactus and across the rubble. Getting closer, was this it? Look at the guidebook this way and that, nope. Here? No again. Finally the starting ramp/steep ‘beefy’ crack came into view. I wanted an easy start so the ramp was my choice, struggling on the optional ‘beefy’ crack would be a harsh start, and near the ground! 40 minutes to walk in and find the base of the route. Next job was to find a ground anchor for a belay, this could make or break things, no belay would be a no go. Twenty minutes searching convinced me the best plan was to equalise the first two bolts which were easily reached. This also answered one of the crucial questions, what was the state of the fixed gear, and these bolts although not brand new were in decent condition. 20 minutes after sunrise at 7am I was climbing.
With a 70m rope I was planning on running pitches together so looked forward to getting in the groove climbing long and high in the cool morning. It was all going well, first pitch an easy ramp and the second a much harder smooth flaring offwidth/chimney that took some work. The bolts were as I expected well spaced (thus the E1 grade), so I backed them up with the odd bit of gear where I thought necessary (especially where there were ledges to fall on). Things came to a halt 10m from the belay as the rope feeding up from below jammed. I had decided to put a knot in it to stop it pulling through my gri-gri, however on the lower angle first pitch the knot had jammed as it came up the ramp line. Thankfully I was in a spot with plenty of trad gear to hand and I quickly put a belay together at which point the rope freed itself. I carried onto the bolt belay and the rope jammed again. Make mental note to figure out a fix for this, maybe knot with a plastic bottle slid over it when on low angle ground? Abbing back down and jugging back up to clean the pitch was straightforward with a short stop to retrieve half a dropped quickdraw and a balancing act to avoid falling off the ramp. First two pitches wrapped up by 10.30, sweet, and things should speed up from here. I felt happy and confident, everything was going well, the bolts and belays were fresh and I had the trad rack to back things up where needed. The conditions were ideal, the climbing fun, and by my reckoning I would be up in the daylight – or at least in a position where the dark was not an issue. I could see no reason to quit, and relished the route to come.
A short shiny offwidth pitch of 5+ led to grade 3 vegetation, the main hazard of which was abbing back down through the cactus. That over I was at the base of the two crux pitches, in a nest of bushes. This was the meat of the route, a soaring offwidth going up into a tube splitting an otherwise unbreached high vertical wall. Helen and I had ogled this line as we climbed the opposite face. I could see what I suspected was the crux straight above the belay, with a shallow peg at about 5m and a bolt at 6m.
Thankfully I could mount the adjacent bush and get a decent wire in just below the hard moves. The moves to the peg were 6a+, probably hard 5b/5c and then up into the steep chimney/offwidth. The climbing was excellent, arm bars and bridging, polished or shiny, exposed and steep. The very occasional bolt and threads protected. At one point I had an in situ thread at waist level, another at head level out to one side and I could see another one two metres higher. Aware I might run out of quickdraws and thinking of cleaning I decided to skip the middle thread. Something about the upper thread was odd. A piece of bleached pink 9 or 10mm rope protruded from a hole. I could not see what it threaded, out of sight maybe? As I moved up I could see the knot, I reached up and it moved freely in the pocket, what was holding this in? Nothing was the answer, I lifted it out, moving the knot out from behind the narrowing. The Czechs use knots for belays, but this wasn’t going to hold a butterfly, I clipped the middle thread.
Soon I was up into the tube, a vertical tunnel probably 2m in diameter with coarse
corrugations and holes along it’s sides making the climbing very easy and great fun. 15m of this led to the ‘claustrophobic belay’ according to the book. Not sure about claustrophobic but it was 2 bolts and a thread at the top of the tube with a narrow slit out to one side for an exit. Well placed ledges allowed me to bridge the void and arrange the belay. It was then strange to descend back out of the gloom and back into the bright sun where I had been 30 minutes previously, but this is one of the peculiarities of rope soloing, gaining ground and then returning to the start, a perpetual cycle of déjà vu.
Escaping from the tube was a challenge, out through a 50cm slot and straight into some English 5a gritstone-eque rounded cracks, awkward fun. The slab above was easier but with no bolts for the 30m to the ridge belay I decided a couple of cams were in order. The airy ridge position was a great change, sun and seagulls. Soon however I was back in the gloom of the tube wrangling to exit again, this time with a rucsac on my back, fun fun fun! From the ridge I could see teams on Diedro UBSA and Valencios, all these joining the ridge at the far end. Retrieving the ab rope to put it back in the rope bag involved freeing it from the smallest shrub ever, I knew this would happen as all ropes will always snag around any stick, a lesson learnt in the quarries of Derbyshire.
Rope stowed and hanging on the bolts I finally despatched what I hoped would be the last two pitches of climbing, the ridge and the 4+ pitch to follow. People watching must have wondered what I was doing as I walked first one way along the ridge, then walked back to the start, then back again. I hoped the seagulls would not take offence. Above the ridge was a slab and overhang which was fine in approach shoes much to my relief.
The guidebook suggested 2 more pitches but I recognised the area as the scramble off the top of Diedro UBSA, so I gladly I donned my bag, did battle with the angry seagulls, helmet repelling bombing runs as they clattered me with beak and talon, and finally joined the cats on the summit. 6.30pm, 11.30 hours since arriving at the base of the route, happy with that as I was never rushing, and half an hour till sunset. Helen had been in touch via text all afternoon and so I knew she was planning on meeting me on the walk off. With the relaxed pace of the climbing I still had the energy to sprint along the trail and meet her at the viewpoint 2/3 of the way down, just in time to see the sun setting over Toix.
So mad, no careful, very careful, there are too many good things in life to throw it away cheaply due to carelessness and inattention, bad planning and lack of foresight. Understand and weigh up the risks and if it can be done safely, enjoy!