Travelling is made up, like most things, of lots of little moments. Some destined to fade and escape your memory forever whilst others reach that pinnacle of moments. That one moment that whenever you think about it, brings a smile to your face. It starts your head, and your heart, off on its travels again. You might not be there physically but in every other way you are experiencing it all again. That glazed over look in your eyes, as your companions click their fingers trying to make you snap out of it.
I had many moments on my trip to Spain and then Morocco that I know will be with me for a long time, but I think that one special moment where I truly felt the country and its culture in its purity was high on a riads rooftop in Marrakech, overlooking the medina on a breezy, balmy Moroccan evening. My eyes are glazing over as I type. It sounds all too romantic to be true but sometimes those unplanned moments are just like that. A long day visiting the museums and archeological sites around Marrakech had me about as tired as I could be and about as full of culture as I thought I could be.
All that was needed to finish off the evening after our usual stroll through the Djemaa el-fna and our meal of chicken, potato and olive tajine was a sweet, sweet mint tea on the rooftop of the riad we were staying at. Like many of the riads in Marrakech there were many little corners where you could get just a little bit higher than the other riads in order to have an uninterrupted view of what lay below. And there I was. A sea of twinkling lights, faint distant music from the square and the knowledge that the crazy never ending movement of human bodies and lives, bustled and scurried through the maze of souks and streets below.
Sipping on my tea, enjoying the breeze and overlooking Marrakech, I heard the beginning of the call to prayer. Nothing new there – it’s a constant every day and it pleased me as it always did. But as I stood there and let it waft over me, I heard the beginning of another call to prayer, and another and another. Each one starting within seconds of each other. From around Marrakech all of the mosques were starting their call to prayer. Usually I happened to be down below within the throng of people and streets and would hear only the call to prayer that was in my vicinity. This particular time, up above it all on that perfect evening, I heard them all. It was a beautiful, spiritual musical moment of the call to prayer sung in rounds. Surrounded by it, the heart lifted and the goosebumps grew. And then one by one, each one ended before the next until the last few words of prayer were sung as it had begun. In singular.
I was hoping that upon my return from Spain I would have files full of the routes we climbed, posed mid sequence, with that steely look of determination in our eyes. As I noted – I was hoping. I have some bum shots. I also have a bum shot plus. A bum shot plus is so much more than the usual bumshot. There is a slight twist to the body so at least it looks like you are more than just a behind and more importantly, people know it is you. You were really there. After all, there probably aren’t that many people who would recognise you by your bum. Anyway, I digress. I was supposed to be telling you all about El Chorro and the fabulous climbing to be had. This would be highlighted by the myriad of spontaneous climbing shots! Lets just talk about the fabulous climbing to be had.
Like all the other places in Spain we had been travelling to, we were surrounded by rock. On our first day we climbed at Sector Castrojo at Frontales. With it being a bit of a suntrap, we needed to get our climbing in quick and then move out before the searing sun burnt us.
The following day we visited the Los Albercones area. A great little selection of climbs to keep you busy for a good part of the day. Gabi and Zulu express 6a and 6a+ respectively were great fun. Although our day would be shorter considering the sun factor. Still we did our best to tick as many as possible. Along with a young american guy who was on R & R from Germany, we gave our forearms a bit of a workout on the deceivably pumpy little routes. All the while chasing the shade along the cliff. Thank goodness for the shade below to belay in. If it wasn’t for that, we would have needed to leave a lot earlier. Early starts are best in this part of the world when climbing in the warmer seasons.
Tops for me though in the cliffs that we climbed in the El Chorro region, was Desplomandia. A good 20 minute drive from where we were staying, Desplomandia sits above a green hued lake, making for a fantastic view and dependant on which cliff you are at – that elusive requirement of warm day climbing. Shade. It was bliss. From the rock quality, the routes on offer, the view and the coolness to bask in. Saying that though, the first two warm up routes we jumped on at the Bueno Sombra sector were totally missable. Polished like you wouldn’t believe and the climbing awkward. Halfway through the second one, I thought – “Stuff that for a game of soldiers” and lowered off. Better things to do/climb with my time. A bit further up the cliff line we jumped on some great single pitches such as Alobeitor, a 6a with lots of lovely pockets.
We climbed again the next day at Desplomandia but at Poza de la Mona. Again in beautiful, beautiful shade. We had some friends with us this time. A young german couple (the very couple that had alerted and averted me from the Alhambra disaster!)
The drive throughout El Chorro and surrounding villages is stunning. Gorgeous rock, green fields, olive plantations and little villages perched on high points and winding down. The days were drawing to a close and our time in El Chorro was up. It had been great to settle for a week and develop our own el chorro rhythm.
The drive ahead to Madrid was long and it would be city life for another couple of days before we jetted off to Morocco. Spain was also drawing to a close. I felt like I had a good bash at it and was feeling content with my travel. But the desire to return was also there and still so much to see. So, a farewell with a bang. Sangria, flamenco dance, my beloved Picasso – it was all in Madrid, ready to bid me a fond farewell. Hola and Adios!
Granada is only two hours away from El Chorro so whilst it would have been lovely to stop at Granada and stay the night, doing so would have cut into more climbing days. I wasn’t going to miss visiting the Alhambra though. I have gazed lovingly and longingly at it for many years through the glossy pages of coffee table books, historical and architectural digests. Full of history and an absolute feast for the eyes!
So thank goodness then, for a chance conversation with a young german couple staying at La Finca La Campana. The young girl was studying in Granada so of course the discussion headed towards the Alhambra. Fancy my horror, when they said that you needed to book well in advance in order to buy a ticket. Some parts of the Alhambra are free, some parts are a general visit ticket which you can often buy on the day but the Nasrid Palace which is the jewel in the crown so to speak, had limited entry per day. And your ticket only allowed entry at a specific time. Get on the website they said. Aargh, I was planning to go in two days. When I logged onto the site, my disappointment was palpable. The next available day to visit the Alhambra with the Nasrid Palace included was another week and a half away. We would be in Madrid then and ready to fly out the following day to Marrakech. I kept rereading the page, refreshing it, hoping that miraculously it would present a vacancy available.No such luck. Then a little glimmer of hope – albeit a more expensive glimmer of hope. Missed out on a ticket? Click here for guided tour where there could be vacancies. And there it was – 3 spots left in the 4 pm Nasrid Palace visit. Total tour would be 2.5-3 hours, needing to be at the Palace entry by 4pm. Three times more expensive but basically, this was it. Don’t go (not an option) or pay the price. Who knew when I would be back in Spain and what my itinerary would be when I was. Being so close, I couldn’t just drop it and not go. So out came the credit card and in a blink of an eye, our plan was set. Thankyou Cam for actually not blinking an eye to my Alhambra despair and going along with it like it was always planned that way.
A glass or two of Sangria further cemented my happy feelings of the outcome and I could also tell that One Ear Malloy was truly pleased with my happiness. Just to share the love I gave him and his tagalongs an extra ear rub ( or what was left of it) and cracked open a tin of tuna for their celebratory enjoyment.
We headed off to Granada mid morning with a plan to arrive, find best parking and then have a nice civilized lunch, quick wander around the town itself before meeting the tour guide for the tour. I generally much prefer to visit places and wander around on my own steam but was heartened to hear from a number of people before our visit that the Alhambra was probably one of those places that could benefit from a guide. So extensive – the information a guide could present ,would help with the understanding of the site, its history and culture.
Granada’s history has an interesting mix of the Spanish, the Moors with their islamic culture and the Jewish community. Granada was long under the rule of the Moors, where the Jewish community also flourished. In 1492 this was to end though with the taking of Granada and other Moorish strongholds by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Enter the Spanish Inquisition.The Moors and Jews were given the option of conversion to Christianity or expulsion from Spain. Right. There you go. My one little foray into the history of Granada.You will of course need to fill in the huge amount of gapsThe old jewish quarter next to the Alhambra is a promoted area to vist. This older quarter of Granada certainly contains a charm to it and wandering about it’s small streets and alleys, one could get lost for a good part of the day.
After lunch, we joined the masses eager for a viewing of one of the most beautifully decorated historical places in the world. As I noted above, this is a history lesson that I won’t go into any detail here – far too much over such a long period of time to do it justice. There are numerous sites that can fill you in on the rich history that the Alhambra has. Instead some photos that hopefully show the beauty, that for me was breathtaking. The details in the carving – someone must have had some mighty big blisters from chiselling away at that with such control. Colours. Shapes. Viewpoints. Everything had been thought about for maximum effect. This was coupled with the beautiful light in this part of the world. The carved windows, glass work, arches and doorways that seemed to lead to another doorway and yet another all within view of each other, all vied for another photo on the camera card.
My brain had definitely reached overload by the end of the day and was screaming out for rest. Eyes were sore, feet were aching, tired of being around so, so many people. Having said that though, it was worth it. By the time we reached home late that night, there were no visits from One Ear and his cronies – and just as well. Cam and I stumbled into bed. I had a swirling mess of geometric patterns, fountains and arches trying hard to keep me awake. Cam just stumbled. The drive home had wiped out his remaining brain cells and it was all he could do to stay on the right side of the wrong side of the road for us. More rock tomorrow.
I love travelling from place to place and it suits my propensity for boredom – doing one thing for too long. Having said that though, I am a homely creature in many ways and love to find a spot to settle in and call home even if for only a little while. It’s a constant fight in my head really. So the opportunity to stay still for a little longer was appealing and El Chorro in Malaga was it! El Chorro is a small village in Andalusia, southern Spain. Being located next to the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes (“Gorge of the Gaitanes”) means that rockclimbing is pretty high on the things to do list in the area. No denying that we were there to sample that but there were other delights of the area and the the Camino del Rey (being a climber helps) was a definite for me. More on that later.
Granada, which houses the Alhambra (design obsession coming to the fore again) is two hours away so rather than stop and stay overnight there, we decided to do a day trip from El Chorro. Stay tuned for my Alhambra experience – look away if you don’t like architectural and archeological design! More of that in another blog post.
We had obviously timed it just right as the roads in the area had only just opened after being washed away from the floods over the past couple of days we were in the Costa Blanca. There were tell tale signs as we drove closer, of mud washed houses and deep ruttings in the olive plantations situated on the steep hillsides. People had been working diligently in order to get these narrow roads open. For many of the smaller villages in the area, these roads are vital. I am glad we drove in whilst in was still light. It allowed us to see the washed away and collapsed sides of the road. This meant that we were at least aware of them when driving along them in the dark for the following week. Always important to know when the road is really only wide enough for one car. My girly protestations of not playing chicken with the other oncoming car were thankfully taken on board by Cam.
We stayed at La Finca La Campana which I have to say was a great choice. A choice of accommodation options is on offer, camping, bunkhouse etc but we chose one of the great little bungalows. I am an interior and design obsessed climber so whilst I am more than happy to just camp wherever there is a bed, I do love to stay where my eyes can feast on interesting details. So indulge me here for a moment. A cute and quaint little bungalow with Spanish and Moorish little design details, painted white stone and shuttered windows to lock out the hot midday sun. A private courtyard with wrought iron doors. Nothing fancy mind you – just a rustic moorish feel to the residence. Perfect for whipping up a quick meal after a day at the cliff, sipping on a Spanish red and planning the next day by spreading guidebooks across the hand hewn table. A pool with slackline about 10 metres away, a number of shared community recreation areas, bar, kitchen, small shop and regular visits of resident cats that will either give you the attention you want or leave you alone. I’m a cat person so loved sitting down with my glass of wine whilst attending to the needs of the finca’s cat population.
First morning saw us waking up to a sunrise fighting it’s way through the low lying mist. There was a lovely calmness about it and I just knew that we were going to have a great week. We chose to start off our climbing adventures in a nearby area that was home to a variety of climbs from 4a up to about 7a. Once again, after a few quick warm-ups which were pretty unmemorable, we jumped on a couple of 5b+ and 6a’s. These were much more enjoyable but the sun was starting to develop it’s bite for the day so it was time to head off for less strenuous activity. When I say less strenuous, I don’t mean, chilling out on the lounger by the pool. I mean climbing and walking along the Caminito de Rey. (the Kings little path).
This was a path built along the gorge walls in 1905, that gave access to a hydro-electric plant and took its name after an official visit by Alfonso X111 of Spain in 1921. In quite a dilapidated state, it was officially closed to the public in 2000 by removing some of the path access at the start. There are numerous reports that people have died on the walkway but from my research, whilst people have died, it hasn’t been because of the state of the walkway, or from it collapsing. More from human error such as a tyrolean traverse that went wrong.
Being a climber, and also someone who has no issue with heights, my experience would no doubt be different to someone who doesn’t climb much and who does feel nervous at heights. I am not going to go into too much detail about the complete access as that would be a complete blog in itself but basically, the first part is the sketchiest. You need to access it via a number of steel posts that stick out from the cliff. There is a thin cable that has been installed so you can use it as a via ferrata of sorts. This first section does require you to hug the cliff face and take steps of about a metre apart to reach each steel post. Once you have passed this section and up a number of stacked blocks you reach the walkway proper. As you can see by the photos, some sections of path are ‘solid’ whilst other bits are ‘holey’. Another missing section of path requires you to step long and reach long.
For long limbed ‘ape factor’ people like Cam, not a problem. For short limbed normal people like myself it was reachy. Still not an issue for me though – I loved it.
As the day was hot, walking the path was a cool adventure. Both in terms of temperature and of awesome rating. For me, I would recommend doing it if you had the chance. From reports, it appears that the pathway will be rebuilt to make it safe and accessible for all. Inevitable I suppose, considering the interest in it, but no doubt the element of fear or adrenaline that people may experience in its current condition will be lessened.
For those interested in the history of this kind of infrastructure, it really is a great spot to visit. Walking along it and seeing the various little caves and tunnels that were used by the workers throws your mind back to the goings on of the time. And might I say, there are a couple of cool looking climbs you can access from there. Just a couple of grades out of my current reach though. Next time……
Boy, was I tired at the end of that day. One glass of red, plate of rice, beans and chorizo, a pat of the brutish but friendly beaten up tomcat that I named One Ear Malloy and the bed was calling my name. I collapsed. And I think there was a smile on my face.
The drive from Siurana to the Costa Blanca was indeed a long one. Due to rain and some flooding, there were numerous closures along the various freeways and highways so a certain amount of backtracking was inevitable. Whilst driving along the coast on smaller roads was probably more scenic, this also added some extra time. Cam and I amused ourselves about alien stories on how the endless, endless, endless sea of plastic greenhouses in the Almeria coastline area came to be. Yes, these are the things you do on long roadtrips. There is a certain delirium to it when one starts to amuse themselves to while away the time. The reality of it though is not quite as amusing. It really is quite unbelievable. Hundreds of square kilometres of plastic structures. As far as the eye can see. It certainly doesn’t make for an attractive sight and the piles of disused plastic are everywhere. This is where the bulk of the fruit and vegetables for the UK and elsewhere come from. It has obviously brought some prosperity to the area but the stories of underpaid migrant workers living in slum conditions abound. Compared to some of the other areas of Spain we had driven through, this did look like people having a hard time living. There were little pockets of villages that looked pretty and were trying to look after themselves but for many of the people that live here, that is probably a low priority.
By the time we reached The Orange House at Finestrat on the Costa Blanca we were well and truly worn out. The Orange House is a great set up run by climbers pretty much for climbers. Or those interested in outdoor pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking canoeing etc.While they do run organized activities for groups and those wanting some training, we were there to do our own thing. They were really helpful in providing an overview of what was on offer and suitable climbing areas. Unfortunately the two and half days we were there were the only days that we experienced rain on our entire trip. They had been having some unpredictable weather and some flooding from there down to Malaga. This flooding was quite bad – made the news in Australia! This didn’t mean however that we didn’t get any climbing in. We just needed to make sure that we chose shorter routes reasonably close to where we were staying. Sella looked like it was the pick of the bunch and with drizzle and sun in equal quantities, we headed off that morning, fully prepared to climb as well as fully prepared to just do some scoping around whilst getting soaked. And we received equal quantities of both!
The first day we started off on a small contained section called Culo de Rino. Good selection of do-able grades once again. The grades seemed to feel a little harder than those we had previously climbed on. Granted they were quite polished and we had just come from the Siurana needles experience where the friction ground your fingertips off. Or possibly, it was just one of those days and I was climbing crap. Equal measures again, of enjoyment and frustration. A few routes under our belt and we were starting to get the hang, and slide of it. The skies above though had other plans and the drizzle started again. No problems, it’s only a bit of drizzle – keep climbing. By the time it came around to my turn though to lead the route, the drizzle wasn’t quite drizzle and the thought of polished rock coupled with added water wasn’t that appealing. So I wimped out. Call me a fair weather climber. As it was quite warm and we were already soaked, we decided to go for a nice stroll along the track and check out possible climbing options for the next day. On the other side, we came across just that. Endless options. Damm the weather, damm the weather. Having said that though, there was a group of about 6-8 english climbers there on their holiday for the week who were not fair weather climbers and were beating off the rain from their foreheads in between clipping the bolts. My justification for them climbing and myself not, was that as they are english and they would of course be used to climbing in crappy weather and the rain. Right? Ok, they were being hardcore and I…. well, I just wasn’t. So drenched as we were, we remained in our hardcore recce mode checking out the routes for the following day. We were hoping to get on a route called Marion which is a real area classic in the Sector Marian ( has it’s own sector name so it’s got to be a classic.) Only a 5a, it was a 3 pitch 70 metre climb with 2 abseils included to descend. Tomorrow’s weather would need to be suitable. Not too much rain(yes wussing out again) or not too much sun. The list was growing as we walked along the cliff base. What we would warm up on – when we would climb this one – then we can jump on these ones etc, etc. Excitement. The day was set and it was starting to near grazing time for us so we headed off back to The Orange House to eat, drink sangria and be merry about the next day ahead.
And……..we awoke to drizzle and thunder murmurings. Ever hopeful though and not wanting to wuss out over a little rain, we packed our racks. Well, our quickdraws, rope and harness anyway. It was a bolted climb after all. Off we drove to Sella, fingers and toes crossed and no backup plan in place. We were going to climb. Oh yes we were. The day appeared to be changing for the better. The sun was out, skies were blue and the way it was warming up, we thought that Marian might end up being too exposed to the sun(noted in the guide as a suntrap.) There were a number of lovely looking routes that were in the shade and after doing some of the easier warmup routes we planned to spend the rest of the day thrashing about on those. Hmmm….best laid plans hey? Happily climbing away on the last warmup I turned to look over my shoulder. Oh dear. Black skies. We had unfortunately climbed one warmup too many and our window of opportunity was gone. There were no more days to play with. We were booked into some accommodation in El Chorro the next day. The positive side of it was that it was another reason we would need to return to Spain again. In order to climb more on the Costa Blanca.
So, El Chorro? I hear you say. Yes, a little more climbing heaven in the famous El Chorro area in the Malaga region. A long drive ahead….
So I didn’t get to add my next instalment whilst on holiday. You know how it is. Wake up, eat breakfast, go climbing, eat lunch, have a nana nap, sorry, siesta, go climbing, eat dinner, drink sangria. Upload some photos for home and plan to write your next instalment the following evening. Shame though that this was a continuing theme. Shame for the next instalment obviously, not for the climbing, eating schedule. There were also occasions where I inserted gallery gawking instead of the climbing. I called these rest days except that there really was no rest happening. Wore me out more than the climbing I reckon.
The last promise was to write of my adventures in Lleida and Siurana.
From Montserrat, it is a couple of hours to where we had decided to set up hostel in the Lleida region. Dot on the map said Cubells. As we drove up the highway over the hill the hostel shone its best roadhouse sign. Almost like it was just out of an american road trip movie….except in Spanish. Hostel Roma.
It was in fact the only roadhouse. Which as we discovered later, meant that it got very busy and very noisy both in the evening dinnertime and at morning breakfast. The spanish are energetic and passionate talkers. Having only minimal Spanish in my vocabulary I really wasn’t able to decipher what they were talking about most of the time. Whatever it was though, they often seemed to disagree wholeheartedly with each other one minute and then…disagree wholeheartedly with each other the next. All part of the charm of travelling on the road in Spain.
Wanting to engage in, and experience climbing situations quite unlike we have in Australia and especially Victoria, we thought we would throw ourselves into it and hit the roadside crag experience – Camarasa and the Marcant Estil sector When I say roadside, that’s exactly what I mean. Drive along the road. Stop. Get out of car. Take a few steps. Climb. As you would imagine, being limestone and ridiculously accessible, there was an issue with polished holds from so much climbing traffic. Being my first time on limestone, it was a little disconcerting putting a foot in a sloping polished pocket but like everything you get the hang of it. Despite this, I did enjoy the climbs at Camarasa. We were looking at climbing most things in the 6a/a+ region but wanted a few lower grades to warm up on. There was a decent enough selection of 5’s on offer to keep lower grade climbers happy for a bit. The climbing was interesting. Although the lower tier cliffs are only around the 25m mark, some would vary quite markedly. Starting off with technical balancy moves, moving into an overhung crank, you could then find yourself moving up a slab with one finger pockets and small pinch grips. We managed to get about 6 climbs in before the heat of day pushed us off. What I could imagine with this crag was climbers visiting it to do a couple of laps before heading off to work for the day and equally the same at night. That I could definitely get to like! There is a huge range of climbs also in the upper tiers that range from a 5 min to 25 min walk.
The namesake crag of where we were staying, Cubells, was one of the first cliffs developed in the Lleida region and since the hordes have moved onto newer pastures to develop, it was a great opportunity to jump on some rock that didn’t suffer so much from the Mr Sheen effect. We had a great time at this cliff despite the heat of the sun. We started quite early as there was no real shade. Friction was perfect and we had the whole place to ourselves. Again a cliff to suit all with climbs starting from 5’s.
In the downtime – when clever Spaniards have their siestas, Cam and I took advantage of our air conditioned car and visited some of those cliffs where the big boys and girls play. Just to look. Just to dream. Oliana. Cova de Gran Santa Linya.
Siurana, whilst close to Lleida, is in the Tarragona region. But like Lleida, an endless stream of rock. We were staying at the Siurana Camping which is owned and run by climber Toni Arbones and his family. We stayed in one of the self catering bungalows which was great but there are a variety of accommodation options, from the bungalows to just beds. Communal kitchen, as well as a cafe which serves a pretty mean Paella. Perfect for an end to a great climbing day. Siurana had it’s own version of Camarasa. Not so much on the side of the road, more like to the side of the summit carpark.
Can Melafots. Walk in time. 0 minutes. Afternoon sun. Grade range from 5 up to about 8a. Good selection of climbs in the 6-7 region. Perfect when you only have a couple of days there. Of course being so accessible it did look a bit polished. We once again did a recce of the area so that we were well prepared the next day when we finally hit rock. As it goes, we didn’t end up climbing at Can Melafots as the next mornings climbs on another tier down, had us experience more polish on a couple of climbs. We decided to hunt for a more out of the way cliff for the afternoon in order to get some friction. After lunch, we headed into the little hilltop town of Siurana for a wander before at last collapsing like a local come the afternoon heat.
Once awoken from our nana naps, sorry, siesta, we headed down past the popular cliffs to find a friction crag. We were not disappointed. I think we stumbled upon a cliff which was in the early stages of some development. New bolts, new rocks, needles for friction and very little traffic appeared to have come its way. We had a fun afternoon on climbs nothing harder than 6a. After dodging a few small pebbles that seemed to be falling regularly, we then gazed around us and saw a selection of broken rock pieces. We were right. It hadn’t seem much traffic. We at once felt warm and fuzzy that we were engaged in community service. Helping to clean the cliff from useless, loose rock. Ensuring that others after us could climb in peace. Despite the falling rock (I like to call it adventure), it was once again a great session. So the day tally ended up:. 6 morning climbs. 1 visit to local village and summit area. 1 nana nap. 6 afternoon climbs. Sangria. Yay! The next day it was time to head off. Siurana was unfortunately, a very brief stop on our climbing journey. I like to think of it as just a taster. There will most definitely be a return trip!
Excitement was already building for the next stop. Costa Blanca.
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since I first climbed in Thailand. Of course back in 1992 Phra-Nang was nothing like it is today. Tonsai was completely undeveloped with just a few rough huts set back in the jungle. Railay had a bunch of basic bungalow systems and it was only the Dusit Rayavadee that was regarded as upmarket (in 1993 we watched Mick Jagger and his entourage arrive by helicopter). Karen and I spent our very first night in Thailand at Sand Sea Bungalows, which, for less than two dollars, provided us with an open bamboo hut that could easily have featured in the movie Apocalypse Now. On nearby Phra-Nang Beach, King and Tex were dragging hapless beginners up The Money Maker (6a+, 18) for 30 baht ($1) a pop and we were busy cranking It’s a Boy 7b (25-26) through the spectacular Princess Cave (and which is now quite rightly closed to climbing). Over the next few years I wrote a small guide to Phra-Nang for Wild Publications (in Australia) and my articles and photographs appeared in a variety of magazines including Climbing, Rock and Ice, Rock, Outdoor Australia and Action Asia. Combined with the efforts of a small group of other climbers (such as Sam Lightner) it wasn’t long before Thailand was seen for what it truly was, that is one of the most remarkable climbing destinations on earth.
Of course all this came at a price. These days climbing at Railay and Tonsai during the peak season can be uncomfortably crowded. Popular cliffs such as the Keep, Fire Wall or Monkey World are often packed and it’s not uncommon to have to wait in queue. Tonsai Wall and Dums Kitchen are overflowing with muscular brown torsos, writhing tattoos, jostling guides and some of the most polished routes you’ll ever have the misfortune to slip off. As for 123 Wall at Railay East, do yourself a favour and get there early (well before 7am) and make sure your off your climb and heading for breakfast by 8.30am. After that it will be wall to wall chaos.
So is there anywhere in Thailand that you can still climb and avoid the crowds? Indeed there is. Koh Yao Noi is an island about an hours long-tail ride west of Railay Beach and is situated smack bang in the middle of Phang-Nga Bay. Koh Yao Noi means Small Long Island and its southern (larger) neighbor is called Koh Yao Yai (or Big Long Island). The two islands are separated by a narrow channel. Koh Yao Noi is home to about 4000 people, mainly Muslim, most of whom earn their living by fishing, farming and agriculture. Unlike nearby Phuket, Koh Yao Noi is a very quiet place and is more like the Thailand I remember from 20 years ago. There are no glitzy resorts, no traffic, no nightclubs and no crowds. Here the locals are much more relaxed, friendly and with smiles as wide as an Andaman sunrise.
There are about ten cliffs currently under development, all of which are located on the northern tip of Koh Yao Noi and its nearby islands. The area has been developed mainly by Mark Miner (and his mates Drew Spalding, Justin Day etc) who co-runs (with his wife, Heather) the Mountain Shop in Tha Khao village. These guys have put in one hell of a lot of hard work, having spent a small fortune in bolts and glue. There are currently about 160 climbs. Most are single pitch but there are some that reach four pitches. Almost all of the routes are protected with titanium bolts combined with Hilti RE-500 glue. To be honest the climbing isn’t anywhere near as convenient as Phra-Nang as all of the crags on Koh Yao Noi require some form of transport to reach them (either by boat or by scooter). Forget about cliffs towering above white sandy beaches, here on Koh Yao Noi the cliffs rise from either the jungle or directly from the sea. The payoff is that you will enjoy some superb climbing, no crowds and barely a polished hold in sight. Here is a quick overview of three of the better cliffs on Koh Yao Noi.
This remarkable orange and gray cliff is arguably one of the best ‘more moderate’ crags in Thailand. Grateful Wall hangs over the sea, which means it requires a boat to reach it. A bamboo ladder provides access to a narrow ledge that runs the length of the cliff about 10m above the water. Grateful Wall is also blessed with shade all day. It doesn’t get much better than this.
There are currently ten routes here, ranging from 6a (17) to 7a (24). Every route is an absolute pocket-pulling classic of between 25m and 60m. Bring along a 70m rope to be safe (and tie a knot in the end of the rope). Standout climbs include Candyman (6b, 20), New Speedway Boogie 6c+ (23), Monkey and the Engineer 6b+ (21) and Franklins Tower 6a+ (19). The two pitch Fire on the Mountain is also well worth ticking, if only to experience the trouser-filling exposure and exquisite moves on the final 6c (22) pitch.
This steep white wall looks vaguely like the side of a collapsing wedding cake, rising straight out of the jungle and literally dripping with massive stalactites. The Mitt has around 30 climbs ranging from 6a to 7c. Here you will be confronted with the most concentrated collection of harder routes on Koh Yao Noi. Most climbs require at least a 60m rope with some routes requiring 70m and 80m ropes. Remember to tie a knot in the end of your rope.
Of the easier routes Daddy Long Legs (6b, 20) is a standout classic. The route overhangs 8m in 25m as you swing from stalactite to stalactite. Watch out for nearby Black Widow, which is a sandbag at 6c! Spiderman 6c+ (23) is a 30m endurance marathon at the grade. You have to approach the Mitt via a very rough 30min scooter ride up the spine of the island to the Paradise Koh Yao Resort. From the resort it is a 15min walk up through the jungle. To avoid the scooter ride (which can be dangerous in wet weather) you should consider renting a long-tail boat for the day.
Big Tree Wall
In some ways this is Koh Yao Noi’s answer to Thaiwand Wall over at Railay. True, Big Tree Wall isn’t quite as impressive, but what it does have is a dozen or so mega-classic routes of between two and four pitches at grades that are generally more ‘tickable’ for the majority of climbers. Big Tree Wall is accessed as for the Mitt and requires a 25min jungle walk. You can also approach Big Tree Wall from the sea via a long-tail boat, which is generally much quicker and easier.
There are plenty of bungalows and resorts on the island, most of which are concentrated along the southeastern coast. A lot of climbers seem to stay at Namtok Bungalows, which charge between 450 and 1300 baht ($15 and $43) per night. For those looking for a bit more comfort you could check out Lom Lae Beach Resort or Sabai Corner Bungalows. For the last two seasons Karen and I have stayed at the rather more upmarket Koyao Island Resort, which (like many resorts) have good deals before the start of high season on 01 November. Rooms here are upwards of 5500 baht ($180) per night.
Get yourself a Thai sim card for your phone. We have had great results with the local carrier AIS, which has a surprisingly good service throughout the Andaman islands including Phra-Nang and Koh Yao Noi. You can purchase a 3G sim card from the arrivals hall at Bangkok Airport and top it up at any Seven Eleven or Mini Mart. I usually go for a 669 baht ($22) card which allows for 1GB of internet data as well as plenty of free local calls. If you just want local phone calls (no internet) then purchase a sim card from any Seven Eleven or Mini Mart. Note that there are different sizes of sim cards depending upon your smart phone model.
Rent a scooter for your entire stay on the island. Scooters cost around 200 – 300 baht ($7 to $10) per day. You will need a scooter to access some of the crags (if you don’t decide to rent a long-tail) and you will need it to get to cafes, restaurants and visit nearby villages.
Some of the best cliffs are accessible only via a long-tail boat. The daily rental of a long-tail will set you back about 1800 baht (about $60) per day. The Mountain Shop can arrange everything and will also help organise other climbers that may want to share the cost.
The Koh Yao Noi Rock Climbing guide is available only from the Mountain Shop. To be honest I’ve so far been unable to purchase a copy as they always seem to be out of print. Luckily, during my last two visits to the island, I’ve been able to borrow a copy (on both occasions we left a donation for the use of the guide, which will go towards more titanium bolts and glue). If you’re heading over this season I’d suggest dropping the folks at the Mountain Shop an email and asking if the guide is currently available. If you have the King Climbers Thailand Route Guide Book then you at least have the descriptions for The Mitt and for Grateful Wall.
Take a few spare ‘leaver biners’ and slings. Quite a few of the lower-offs at Koh Yao Noi are just opposing carabiners, many which are showing signs of advanced wear. Do the right thing and replace any biners or slings when necessary.
There are lots of cafes and restaurants on the island. A few of the better places that I’ve eaten include La Luna Pizzeria (the owner, Romano, is a climber and his pizzas and pastas are simply amazing), Je T’aime restaurant (sort of a Thai, French and Danish fusion!), Good View Restaurant (great sunsets, tasty Thai seafood) and the Para Bar (super Thai food, fantastic atmosphere).
You can reach either Manoh or Tha Khao Piers (both on Koh Yao Noi) via speed boat directly from Tha Lane Pier on the mainland, which will cost you about 250 baht ($8). A taxi between Krabi and Tha Lane Pier will cost you about 800 baht ($27). Boats also leave from Ao Nang (near Railay), which can be more convenient for climbers. This trip via speed boat will take about 50min and cost you maybe 500 baht ($17). The most convenient option though (if you’re coming from Railay) is to simply rent your own long-tail boat for 4000 baht ($130), which will take you directly to Tha Khao Pier on Koh Yao Noi.
Having promised to write some blog posts for Open Spaces during my travels, I thought it was about time I did. Otherwise it will end up like all the postcards one promises to send, where your loved ones receive them after you have returned. Come to think of it…postcards??
So where was I? Oh, that’s right. Sunny Spain. Cameron and I have planned a 5 week adventure to Spain and Morocco, traveling to see the sights and climbing whenever we can at key climbing areas.
After a quick two day stop in London to catch up with friends, we flew to Barcelona for a 3 day, 4 night city visit. Long before Spain was a climbing destination for me, it was a must visit soul feed of Gaudi and artistic interests. Can’t say I was disappointed. A buzzing city full of visual delights, the only downfall was having to share those wondrous Gaudi spaces with others. We were lucky that we missed queues but to find an empty corner without other human content was not the easiest. Still there were moments where I lost myself in the fantastical organic swirls, whorls and spirals of nature inspired shapes that Antoni Gaudi is so famous for. After a few evenings of tapas and Sangria, we finished off our visit with a trip two hours out of Barcelona to visit the Salvador Dali gallery/museum/theatre. Too many people in large groups took away much of the enjoyment with many of the visitors appearing to just be moving around the gallery rather than observing any of the work. Possibly just a stop on their tour program or maybe overwhelmed by the a mount of people and quantity of works on display. Still, regardless of whether or not you are a Dali fan, the sense and theatre of Dali was definitely tangible.
Time to head out of the city and away from the cultural activities and indulge in some fresh air and….climbing.
Montserrat. Only a 50 minute drive from Barcelona and one is completely surrounded by, in awe of and inspired by the endless rock. Spending the rest of the day scoping out the area and planning our two day attack on suitable climbs, we aimed to start on a few shorter routes on day one and then finish with a long multi-pitch on the Gorro Frigi day two.
The first day didn’t quite go as planned, but all for the better anyway. We came across an area close to one of the walking tracks that looked like it had some shorter routes that we could climb. We only had a couple of topos to the Montserrat area and this wasn’t one of them. Anyway, long story short – 6 pitches later we topped out. So much for the short route. Fantastic! The next day dawned, and by hook or by crook I was determined to get on Badalona on the Gorro Frigi. As we didn’t want to build up our leg muscles too much by climbing the steep stairs for 45 mins in order to access the route (we were in sport climber mode after all) we chose to cough up the dosh and ride up in style via the funicular. Good choice I say.
Badalona was an awesome day out. I loved the unique experience that Montserrat provides with its wild conglomerate rock. So many choices of what embedded rock or pebble to grab. Will it be good, will it hold, will I have to yell out “below”? One thing I can say for certain is that when climbing at Montserrat, pack your helmet.
Two packed days at Montserrat and it was time to move on to new rock pastures. Lleida and Siurana. More on that next installment.
Last night New Zealand’s Mt Tongariro erupted for the first time in 115 years. The eruptions appear to have occurred at Te Mari Crater, which is not far from the Ketetahi Hot Springs on the northern side of the mountain. It will be interesting to see exactly what impact these eruptions will have the 19.4km-long Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and spectacular daywalks. For those unfamiliar with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing here are a few images to set the scene.
Mt Tongariro, along with Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu, form a chain of active volcanic peaks within the Mt Tongariro National Park. This world Heritage site is New Zealand’s oldest national park and one of its most visited.
A few years back Karen and I walked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as part of the longer Tongariro Northern Circuit. We spent six days on the trail and wrote a feature story for Outdoor Australia magazine.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was certainly the most exciting part of the walk as it allowed us to walk around smoking craters, see into their gaseous depths and even step over jets of hot steam.
The landscape is almost totally barren and very rocky. If it wasn’t for the large snow patches on nearby Mt Ngauruhoe you could easily imagine yourself walking on the surface of Mars.
In 1982 Chris Baxter and I had been guests of the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) at the Buxton Conference. After all the excitement of the conference and long hours (spent mainly in the pub) it was something of a relief to load up our hire car and head off for a couple of weeks climbing in North Wales and the Lake District. Joining us was local resident Dennis Kemp and one of Chris’s old Plas y Brenin instructing buddies, Miles Martin. We arrived at the Tremadog carpark on a rare perfect Welsh summers day and we were pleased that Eric Jones (owner of the famous Eric’s Cafe) came out to meet us and point us towards a few of the crags great climbs. We climbed a bunch of classics that day that included Vector E2 5c (21), Falcon E2 5b (20), Silly Arete E3 5c (21) and Vulcan E4 6a (23). However, it was the first route we did that I remember most vividly, possibly because it was the only climb on which I took any photographs.
PincushionE2 5c (21) is one of Tremadog’s most popular outings. It follows a subtle line up through a series of smooth slabs and overlaps and offers an amazing variety of moves on close to perfect grey stone. In truth the only thing I remember about Pincushion was the warmth of the sun and me pulling through the overlap on the second pitch (photo below). Maybe this was the crux.
The other thing I remember was Dennis smiling at me when I took his photograph. It was a good day. Here is the Rockfax description of Pincushion.
*** Pincushion E2 5c 58m (190 feet)
A route of contrasts – it has roofs, slabs and cracks, wide bits, thin bits and blank bits.
1) 4a, 12m. Climb up grooves and easy rock to a tree at the base of a wide chimney.
2) 6a (sic), 40m. Climb the chimney to the roof then make a testing move left across the slab. Pull up over the roof then climb a crack until a short distance below a roof. Move right to another crack and then right again at another roof to a final crack.
FA. P.Davies, M.Harris, R.Chorley (aid) 1956, FFA. H.Barber 1973
Looking at the photographs I can see that I led the second pitch using double ropes. When I look at the images of Dennis following that pitch he is on a single rope. This probably means that either Chris or Martin followed the pitch first (and carried my camera up). The cam just above Dennis is an original ‘Friend’, one of three that I purchased off its inventor, Ray Jardine, in 1979 from the back of his van in Yosemite Valley. I used these cams until the late 90s.
Dennis died at the age of 67 in an accident after climbing Birdman of Alcatraz (23) at Mt Arapiles in Australia. Chris died in 2010 after a long illness.
Click on these images for larger sizes. Most of these images appear in my Climbers Portraits & History collection on my SmugMug site here. These images cover my personal climbing experiences stretching from 1975 to the present and is an ongoing project.