Adventures in El Chorro, Spain

Posted on: September 12, 2007


Czech climber Yaroslav Lebel pulls through the crux of Hakuna Mata (5.12a) on the Makinodromo Wall, El Chorro, Spain. Three more famous destinations in Spain—Mallorca, La Costa Blanca and La Costa Durada—tend to overshadow El Chorro, which offers everything from bouldering and single-pitch sport climbing to adventurous multi-pitch trad. The author sees El Chorro as a raw "Jewel of the Mediterranean." [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

My climbing partner, a Polish fellow I met this morning, and I stumble through a foggy blackness, feeling our way through an endless tunnel. The faint glare of the light in the distance somehow makes it harder to see. We each slide one hand along the dank stone wall and feel out the contours of the ground with our feet.

Bang!

My new friend lies on the ground, stunned by a low-hanging sign of some kind, invisible in the dark. I don't speak Polish so I kneel to help him up. Blindly groping with the best of intentions I stick one finger in his eye and another in his mouth. Since we don't know each other well, we pretend it didn't happen. I lean back, putting my hand on the railroad track behind me, to pull him up. That's strange. The track's vibrating. I reach to the side of the tunnel and feel the wall. There's not much space. "A train! A train!" I shout at my injured friend, but he doesn't understand until the train maliciously blows its whistle, ensuring that we're deaf before we get flattened.

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Scurrying like blind subterranean rodents we find a small hollow in the wall. We press ourselves flat just as the train roars past, whipping our hair into little tornados and billowing our clothes to within inches of the train's sides. He screams in Polish and I in English—we both sound like idiots.

That morning of my first day in El Chorro I deemed the most harrowing and fantastic climbing approach I'd ever had. Maciej, whose name was so utterly unpronounceable that I simply called him "The Pole," seemed to agree. Where else can you find such a rush—before even starting to climb—other than Spain's best-kept secret, El Chorro? After we calmed down, wiped the tears from our eyes and found our way out of the tunnel, The Pole kept saying "fen!"—which I interpreted as "fun." So we rappelled over the edge of the next bridge, clipped a runner around the underside of the tracks and rode out the next train, its thundering wheels inches from our faces.

I have long believed that traveling alone as a climber is the best way to experience new places; my first adventure to El Chorro always reminds me of the advantages of traveling solo. Having arriving partnerless, I woke up that first morning, grabbed my gear and visited an abandoned mud house, where I had seen Polish climbers milling about. I was intent on recruiting one of the Poles for an adventure. Rallying support in Polish was beyond my linguistic capabilities, so I jingled my quickdraws and cams until a pale body slimed through the doorway, recoiling from the sun like a vampire. It was Maciej.

The abandoned mud house on the hill, with its Polish inhabitants lounging outside. [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

Later, after we made it through the tunnel, narrowly surviving the train, we found our way to the infamous Camino Del Ray. The mile-long, legendary, dilapidated walkway runs the length of the lower gorge and is the only access for a number of El Chorro's cherished trad climbs. Sector Africa houses excellent climbs that rise 800 feet above the Rio Guadalhorce following long, even cracks. But getting to the Camino is a feat in itself. Gaining the walkway's start requires a balancing act on thin and rusty spars that once were merely supports. They extend perpendicularly from the wall with three feet between them and 100-foot drop below. We leaped across ten or more of these spars, with only the wall for balance, then scrambled up unprotected fourth- and fifth-class climbing to the bona fide Camino, where the scary part begins.

In over our heads but too scared to turn back, The Pole and I came face to face with the Camino Del Ray proper. It looked like a thirty-six-inch-wide slice of cement Swiss cheese glued to the wall with chewing gum. The Camino was built in the 1920s so the King of Spain could see the new water pipes that traveled through the lower gorge, carrying water to the costal city of Malaga. Since the king's single visit eighty years ago, the Camino has fallen into disrepair—huge pieces are missing, and metal supports are nearly rusted through or broken. This was quickly becoming the "death approach" of all time. Clinging to one another we inched forward, unsure of each step.

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