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!
It’s been five years since Simon Mentz and I released our Arapiles Selected Climbs guide. Although well-received by the climbing community, the guide did have one major problem. Weighing in at a hefty 715g meant that this was not something you could easily carry up The Bard or Skink. Great for bench-pressing but not really practicable for hauling up multi-pitch climbs. So, about three years ago, Simon and I started work on a pocket-sized version. The idea was to create a guide covering all of the Mount’s multi-pitch classics, yet would slide easily into your Prana pants back pocket. As the guide took form we also decided to include a good selection of popular single-pitch cliffs. Suddenly we had a guide that would appeal not only to the Mount’s regulars, but also to visiting dirt-bag climbers on flying visits and tight budgets.
Initially we made quick progress, but unfortunately other projects got in the way. Simon was giving birth to the Natimuk Cafe and I was having to finish off a couple of ‘real’ projects to keep the wolf from the door (not easy as the GFC descended and, coincidentally, the world of printed media began to crash and burn). Recently, however, we managed to find some time to revisit our pocket companion concept and it’s with a certain amount of pride (and relief) that I can announce that we are now nearing completion.
The Arapiles Pocket Companion will be published in an A6, full-colour format and weigh a very svelte 115g. Its 96 pages will describe over 750 routes and have around 50 detailed topos. The Pocket Companion will also be stitch-bound for strength and have a clear plastic cover for durability. There will be NO advertising in this guide as we figured that pages dedicated to advertising could better be used for cramming in more routes and topos.
The Arapiles Pocket Companion will retail for $19.95 and be available in the shops (and on our online bookstore) before the end of June.
I bought my first copy of Mountain magazine at Bushgear in Hardware Lane. It was the January 1974 (no 31) edition which, due to a six month sea voyage, didn’t reach our shores until almost September. It cost 30 pence in the UK, $1.25 in the United States and $3.50 here in Australia. I remember pointing out to Reg Marron (who worked at Bushgear at the time), that as a 15 year-old school-boy there was no way I could afford such a high cover price (this in an era when Simond steel carabiners were regarded as expensive at $2 each). He took pity on me, gave me a 50% discount and a handful of tricounis*, which suited me very nicely.
On the train home I pulled the mag out and carefully studied the cover photo; Chris Vandiver leading Outer Limits (5.10) on the Cookie Area in Yosemite Valley. At that moment I knew that I would one day go to Yosemite and do that climb. I turned each page and read every single word. Interestingly there were only four major articles. Pondering the Improbable, a literary critique by Mike Pearson, was essentially a review on the literary style of some weird-ass book called D’haulagirideon by Michael Charles Tobias. Blowing in the Wind by Leo Dickinson described an adventurous ski across the South Patagonian ice-cap and an ascent of two active volcanoes. Joe Beige Meets Godzilla was an hilarious cartoon adaption of Joe Brown and Don Whillans’ recent ascent of a spider- and snake-infested sandstone prow in the jungle’s of South America’s Roriama. It had been written by Ian McNaught Davis and illustrated by an E. Lovejoy Wolfinger the third (!).
But the article that really captured my imagination was Jim Bridwell’s Brave New World. Seven awesome pages recounting in detail the hardest new climbs in Yosemite. It was packed with spectacular images, Californian skies, smooth granite walls and even a list of the Valley’s hardest routes. I was 15 and loved lists. The photos of Nabisco Wall’s test-pieces, Waverly Wafer, Wheat Thin, Butterballs and Butterfingers, were nothing short of inspiring. The American grades meant little to me, although I knew that 5.11 was nails hard. There were even a couple of photos of local rock star, Rick White, seconding Outer Limits. The magazine had, in essence, everything an impressionable boy required to change the course of his life.
Mountain magazine was born of the genius of Ken Wilson, a London architecture student and climber, who brought a whole new level of professional publishing design and layout to a market long accustomed to crappy standards. Mountain quickly became an international success, was published ten times a year and ran from 1969 to 1991. It really was the benchmark for all other climbing and mountaineering publications that followed.
A few years back I donated all of my Mountain magazines to Simon Mentz for public use in the Natimuk cafe. The only one I couldn’t part with was Mountain 31. I still occasionally pick it up and flick through its black and white pages. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at the outdated advertising and bad fashions, but the truth is Mountain was like no other magazine. And for me Mountain 31 started it all.
* Tricounis are steel nails, once used on the bottom of leather-soled boots to provide better grip on smooth rock or ice. The story goes that the then owner of Bushgear (who mistakenly believed they were still in vogue) bought tens of thousands of them at a ‘great’ price from a European distributor. Of course they never sold a single one and legend has it that there are still sacks of tricounies gathering dust in an attic somewhere.
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.
California-based climber Mike Graham first visited Arapiles in 1980. He and his partner, Wendy, flew into Melbourne and stayed at my parents house in Lilydale. I think it was a relief for my parents to see that I actually had some ‘normal’ friends rather than the weird riff-raff that usually crashed on our lounge room floor.
Mike was a member of the legendary Stonemasters, a group of talented southern Californian climbers that included the likes of John Yablonski, Tobin Sorenson, John Long, Rick Accomazzo and John Bachar. At Arapiles Mike and Wendy immediately fitted in really well with the locals, who, in the fashion of the Stonemasters, were busy rewriting the history of Australian climbing.
I shot these photographs of Mike leading an early ascent (in 1980) of No Exit (25, 5.12a). I remember that day really well because both Kevin Lindorff and I also led the pitch. Mike, Kevin and I took turns in belaying each other. Peter von Gaza, another visiting US climber was also with us. Kevin and I had both previously led No Exit and Kevin had also seconded Kim Carrigan when he added the superb second pitch.
No Exit was put up by Chris Peisker in May 1979 and it quickly became a classic test-piece. The first clip is a really crappy dowel thingy, a style of bolt that was quite popular in the US at the time. Some thin bouldery moves lead into a flaring bottomless crack, which quickly relents. At the top of the crack, and just when you figured No Exit was in the bag, a desperate mantel does its best to ruin your day. This final awkward move has seen more than a few climbers come unstuck. Interestingly, it’s the grade 23 second pitch which I reckon is the real standout. Unfortunately it doesn’t get done all that often, which is a shame.
Notice the cool harness that Mike is wearing. It was made by Chouinard Equipment and is constructed out of a single length of white webbing. I can’t remember its official name but it was actually a great bit of kit. I went through at least three of these units. It was one of the first real harnesses developed for rockclimbers (as opposed to the Troll Whillans Harness which was used by rockclimbers but was in fact designed for high altitude mountaineering.
We spent the afternoon bouldering in Central Gully. I took a few pics of Mike doing Guillotine (V3) on the block right of Pebble Wall. I think Mike really enjoyed the technical nature of Arapiles and it seemed to suit his strong ethical nature, which formed the basis for much of his climbing.
Mike later teamed up with Mark Moorhead and in May 1980 he led the first ascent of Ride Like the Wind (25, 5.12b), one of Araples’ now classic bold wall-climbs. Mike returned the following year to lead the first ascent of Breezin’ (24, 5.11d) another bold on-sight effort.
In 1982 Mike created Gramicci Products, a climbing, surfing and lifestyle apparel brand set in Southern California. He is also credited with designing the first collapsible portaledge, which he sold under the Gramicci label in the early 1980’s.
We were walking down the trail from Taipan Wall when Michael abruptly stopped, dropped to his knee and pointed excitedly into the trees. I crouched down next to him and after a few moments I could make out something moving in the boulders. Two small faces, beanies pulled down over their tiny ears, large brown eyes scanning the rocks above them. My heart skipped a beat as I realised we were seeing a pair of elusive marsupial mattress backs (Matterbackious dynocranker).
Like most people I’d only ever seen mattress backs in the gym, playing with themselves in dark corners, swinging by their arms and waiting for feed time. Of course I’d heard their distinctive vocal calls and even stumbled upon their empty caves, but seeing them in the wild was a first for me. Here in the Australian bush mattress backs were once an endangered species, but are now thought to be increasing in numbers. Easily identifiable by the large mattress which they carry on their backs and the woolen beanies they wear on even the hottest of days, mattress backs are among our most elusive and secretive creatures.
What makes this species so unusual, however, is the elaborate rock dance that they periodically perform. Experts believe the rock dance is some form of complex mating ritual. The male, usually the shorter and stockier of the species, steps carefully onto the rock, twists his body into a variety of contorted positions and then, after just a few brief seconds, falls heavily onto the mattress below. These rock dances must require a great deal of effort as the male then rolls over and falls asleep.
Interestingly, if a female of the species is within sight, the male will immediately get up, shake his hands and step back on the rock. This process is repeated many times in a row. The female pretends not to notice the dancing male as she checks her Facebook account, applies her lip balm or changes the wallpaper on her iPhone for the umpteenth time that day. Her tactic appears to be designed to enrage the male mattress back who launches himself into ever more contorted positions accompanied by loud grunting. If there is still no reaction by the female (who may be playing Angry Birds by this stage) the almost exhausted male mattress back will resort to stripping to the waist in a final desperate bid for attention. Observers who have been lucky enough to have witnessed this part of the ritual have reported that after adjusting her Prana pants the female pulls on to the rock and imitates the same dance moves. This results in a sudden wave of interest among the nearby males who all stride forward with outstretched arms, the palms of their trembling hands just millimetres away from the female’s buttocks. As she dances her moves the males all yell in delight, crowding around her in a sort of group-sex rugby scrum. Eventually she collapses onto the mattress and the males all start wailing and pointing at the rock in apparent despair. This highly sex-charged atmosphere now triggers the males to pull on their beanies and launch themselves in a mad frenzy at the rock.
Occasionally a female will begin her rock dance and actually reach the top of the boulder, at which point all the males immediately lose interest in her, fall silent, put on their shirts and walk off in various directions to brood by themselves. The female then retires back to her mattress where she posts her ascent on Facebook.
Unlike other marsupials, mattress backs, both male and female, carry their pouches on their backs. These pouches are filled with a white substance, which they use to daub across the rock to mark their territory. Males also use urine to mark their territory, a habit that females rarely seem to do.
A sub species, the bearded mattress back (Matted dynocranker) can also be occasionally seen. This sub-species tends to be less energetic than their clean-shaven tribal brethren and are usually physically larger and more bombastic. Their rock dance ritual is also much less complex and only lasts for a second or two, after which they spend the rest of the day sitting on their mattresses, softly grunting to themselves.
Lone mattress backs are another enigma. Almost only ever spotted accompanied by a tripod and Go-Pro camera, it appears that lone mattress backs can only perform their complex rock dance routines when videoing themselves. Zoologists originally considered that lone mattress backs were a separate sub-species (lone mattress backs tend to be balding and wear glasses) but now believe that they are the result of a serious psychological impairment, having an inability to perform when observed by other members of their tribe.
And so it was that after a minute or so the two mattress backs noticed our presence and quickly vanished into the boulders. Michael and I walked over to where they had been sitting. All the tell-tale signs were there. A couple of old worn toothbrushes, bits of finger tape and some daubs of chalk on the rock. The acrid smell of urine indicated that we had just witnessed two young males at play with each other. We felt very lucky indeed to have seen these mattress backs in their natural habitat. I even stepped in a mattress back stool. Now how cool was that?