Spain is the land of hard sport climbing, wine and olives. It’s limestone cliffs dot the countries lands and there seems to be a crag for every season. On our trip to Spain in December, we spent the majority of our time in El Chorro. This little climbing village rests above the Guadalhorce River and is home to a handful of restaurants, cottages and hotels and a host of barking dogs. Located in Southern Spain in the province of Malaga, it is a mild climate during the winter with little rain and is the perfect getaway for those seeking to avoid the cold and snow.
It was a wonderful trip complete with lots of rock climbing, family time, running, eating and a host of emotions. It all started in early December. We flew from Salt Lake City to Paris and then caught a flight to Malaga. From there, we picked up our rental car and navigated ourselves (with the help of a GPS) through the windey and narrow roads to El Chorro. It was dark by the time we arrived and we quickly got ourselves comfortable in our rustic, little cottage at the Finca Compana.
During our first week in El Chorro, we got ourselves acquainted with the steep but featured limestone walls. Life was an easy pace – wake when our bodies were rested, climb until dark, make dinner, read my book and go to bed at a rather civilized hour. It was an easy existence and truly felt like a vacation.
We quickly found ourselves a project at Sector Castrojo in the Fontales region. The crags on this limestone buttress all face south towards the river. It is a really short walk to the crags and you have a host of grades to choose from. After a couple tries over two days, we both sent our project! Little Brown Baby (7a+ or 5.12a) is about a 100 foot overhanging endurance challenge with a powerful crux in the middle and a couple key rests on distinctly colored brown rock. For me, it was a relief to hit this goal so early in the trip and I knew that I would feel satisfied with whatever transpired throughout this rest of the trip. And boy did I have to keep reminding myself of this mantra as the trip progressed.
We checked out other crags in the Fonatales region including the famous cave at Poema de Roca and got psyched to try to classic 7a when we were feeling more rested. We drove to the uber-classic but chilly and shaded Desplomilandia. This crag is colored with the classic limestone stripes hanging across the wall and it rests above the reservoirs. It is stacked with moderates and more challenging test pieces.
Rest days included runs around the village and castle hunting in the small, historic town of Antequera. In Antequera we toured through the famous fortress called La Alcazaba. Built between 912 and 1232 by the Muslim settlers and then taken over by the Christians in the 1400s, this historic monument was a neat little walk through history. Its always fascinating to tour through something so old and so well preserved. The stone walls were intricately carved and the views of the city from the castle’s balcony were dotted with cathedrals and the classic white house and red roof combination typical of the Southern Spanish country-side. Jonathon frequently referenced Game of Thrones and kept thinking he was going to see the Starks pop up around the corner.
On day ten of the trip, I took a pregnancy test and it came back positive. I had my IUD removed a couple months ago and was a little late on my period and just was feeling a little different physically and mentally. After taking two tests to confirm the result, I was filled with lots of different emotions – excited about this new adventure but nervous about what is to come and worried about how to enjoy the rest of the vacation. On top of all that, I was worried that I had already sabotaged the pregnancy by enjoying wine, eating lots of fish and taking lots of ibuprofen to help with my elbow pain.
To celebrate we decided to go back to the Poema de Roca cave and Jonathon and I both on-sighted the classic 7a in the cave (my hardest on-sight!). Jonathon and I really wanted to tell the 25 year old dude working the route that I was pregnant after I sent, but we didn’t.
A couple days later, we drove to the luxury Marriot resort in Marbella to meet Jonathon’s parents Rita and Steve. Frankly, I was looking forward to relaxing a bit as my elbows were hurting and my body seemed more tired the normal probably because of the pregnancy.
We spent about a week based out of Marbella where we day tripped to shopping and other historical sites. We checked at the Picasso Museum in Malaga, walked the beaches in Esteponna, visited the British colony of Gibraltar, and relaxed at the hotel. A couple times we drove to El Chorro for a day of rock climbing. On one of those days, we hiked up to the classic Mackidrono wall. It was a long hike but an absolutely amazing crag with lots of tufas and classic black streaks striking across the wall. The vultures constantly floated along the thermals and then swooped back into their nests along the cliffs. After some research, we think they are the Griffon vultures and their wingspan can be as big as 9 feet. They were so impressive.
Myself on the other hand, well I was starting to feel less than impressive. While I wasn’t all that nausea, I often felt short of breath while hiking uphill and intermittently lightheaded. My belly was cramping and my lower back was extremely achey. Meanwhile, I was still trying to climb at my limit despite feeling off on my mental game as well. At baseline, I struggle with my mental game and with all the added stress and hormones it was extra challenging to stay calm while on lead. While I knew that it was literally impossible to hurt a 6 week embroyo during a lead climbing fall, I had this newfound maternal instinct not to do anything risky that might harm my future child. After emailing with the midwife and coming to terms with my fears, I was able to continue to push myself on hard routes and even took a couple small lead falls.
The main thing holding me back was my sore elbow and ibuprofen was a definite no-no now that I was pregnant. I would wake up the morning and not be able to straighten my elbow and so that ache was bothering me a lot more than all of the pregnancy symptoms. But I still was a superb belayer and top-roper and I watched Jonathon red-point several other 5.12as and that was really awesome to see him succeed! And I still tried real hard on several 5.11s and 5.12s and was one hang away from sending a 5.12b! I am looking forward to pushing my sport climbing grades even more once we have the little one and get settled into a routine of sorts.
Towards the end of the trip, we brought Rita and Steve out to El Chorro and hiked with them up Arabic Steps where they watched us climb and the birds sore. The highlight of our El Chorro visit was a walk on the Caminito del Rey aka the Camino del Rey aka the King’s Way. It was a super cool hike and Rita and Steve did great. It is quite the piece of infrastructure in a National Park complete with a fenced walkway and a pathway made of sturdy wooden slats all while overlooking the steep gorge above the Guadalhorce River. From the sounds of it and looks of it (you can see remnants of the old walkway from the new one), it is a much safer experience than the old walkway.
Originally built in the early 1900s, it provided access between two hydroelectric plants so that workers could go between the two plants. Over the years it deteriorated and actually about 13 deaths occurred in the last 15 years due to people falling off the pathway or the steps breaking under people’s weight. There is a small memorial commemorating the people who lost their lives. The government closed the walkway in 2000 and just last year completed the remodel and it is now open to the public.
The best way to check it out is to begin on the north end of Ardales. We parked at the Kiosk restaurant and walked the initial 2.7 km on a nice trail through the forest that led to the ticket office. There we purchased an 11.50 euro ticket that included a bus ride back to our car. Apparently you can get tickets on-line but we just showed up at 9:00 am and were able to purchase tickets that day. With your ticket, you also receive a hard hat and helmet.
The path winds it way through an initial narrow gorge eventually becoming wider after a couple kilometers. The hike cumulates with an impressive suspension bridge connecting both sides of the gorge and then winding its way via narrow staircases down the side of the gorge and back to flat land. A couple more kilometers and your in El Chorro and a bus (they arrive every half hour until 6 pm) takes you back to your car. All told it is 7.7 km and can be completed in a couple hours if you are moving a good pace and don’t stop much. We took our time and finished in a little over 3 hours.
While the remodel did eliminate the majority of the classic climbing in the gorge that El Chorro is famous for, I think it is nice that so many people get to see such a unique and beautiful landscape. The hike is really for anyone who can walk five miles on flat ground! As climbers, we spend many days in remote and beautiful wilderness settings and thus, see how magical it all is and see the importance of preserving them. However, I think it is important for the rest of the public to also be able to see and experience this type of landscape even with the safety of hard hats and fences!
After saying good bye to Rita and Steve, we spent a few more days climbing in El Chorro and then drove to Granada for the last days of our trip to check out the famous fortress La Alhambra. It was fascinating and beautiful. The Muslims built it in the mid-13th century and a lot of the architecture was similar to the Taj Majal, which I visited about a year ago. We also enjoyed some tasty African/Middle Eastern food, shopping and a fun trail run in the little village of Monachil along narrow stone paths and over suspension bridges.
All told it was a great trip full of lots of variety including climbing, history, running and family time. Spain was a super easy country to travel in and with world-class limestone climbing, tasty food, and cheap lodging, it is a country that I will definitely re-visit. I definitely was challenged to remain present while my mind was going a million different places thinking about the big changes that 2017 would bring. While some days were harder than others, overall I think I was able to channel my inner zen and enjoy my last international vacation with just my husband.