Going Big on the Costa Blanca

The classic photo from the Costa Blanca; climber on Tai Chi at Olta while the sun sets on the Peñón de Ifach. Photo by Shawn Boye / tielma.com

The classic photo from the Costa Blanca; climber on Tai Chi at Olta while the sun sets on the Peñón de Ifach. Photo by Shawn Boye / tielma.com

I first travelled to the Costa Blanca, as so many do, for a sunny respite from the long, dark Swedish winter. The chance to climb sporty limestone routes irresistibly drawing me south, we would end up in Calpe and with a view from the 15th floor the Peñón de Ifach would dominate our morning preparations and evening victories and defeats.

Having heard of the fantastic climbing at locations such as Sella and Gandía we spent the flight south looking through the guide and setting our goals. Looking back, I’m not sure which routes those were, they no doubt included some fantastic climbs, but after queuing to climb at Sella on a weekend I was left with a very clear perspective that in Spain climbing is not just for the young and fit but a pastime to be enjoyed throughout a lifetime.

Returning from Sella one evening the looming mass of the Puig Campana above the picturesque hamlet of Finestrat presented yet another view that climbing on the Costa Blanca is much more than sporty pitches in the sun. Through the gathering darkness the clouds were lit by a search light from a circling helicopter, a rescue was underway. Back on our balcony overlooking the Peñón, we fixed dinner and planned the next day before setting off to a pub on the beach. The Peñón loomed above, bathed in the lights of Calpe. For me, it would loom larger and larger, yet no one on that trip was interested in looking beyond the multitude of sport crags in the area. I was smitten, the Peñón would not go away, I would need to return.

We left the pub at an unfamiliar hour intending on an early start. With the route baking in the afternoon sun we planned to be climbing as it rose from the Mediterranean. The law had a different idea. Apparently we’d parked in a zone occupied once a month by a market, or so the lack of our rental car and the assembling of stalls seemed to suggest as we gazed in awe at the street in the predawn light. This was confirmed after a kilometer walk with all our gear to the local Police station, the car had been impounded but a 100 Euro would clear things up and they’d even be so kind as to phone us a cab. We would be starting considerably later than intended.

There was nothing to indicate a brilliant climb ahead as we searched for the start in full morning light. The allotment of pitches meant I would have the first two and it would start with a slabby crux. I was thrilled and moments later I was starting again. I promptly returned to the crux, found the missing hold and pulled through to the ledge above leaving a trail of blood as the breaking hold sheared the skin off the back of my knuckle. The climbing above eased as I unsuccessfully tried to stop the bleeding with chalk, it was looking to be a very long morning.

I taped up at the belay and was soon off in search of the next anchor. A storm the previous weekend had erased any traces of recent climbers so I was genuinely thrilled when a crack presented itself on turning a corner. The bolts seemed oddly foreign and the roof at the top yielded easily. The shade was quickly receding across the Peñón but as we sat atop the pillar with the bulk of climbing above I munched on my cucumber and inhaled the exposure, the “Costa Blanca” was turning out to be as good as advertised.

I followed the next two pitches through somewhat scrappy ground, enjoying the view and attempting to eye the line out of the cave looming above. It was now hot, easily 30 °C and I downed the last of my water before leaving the belay. The exit to the cave is steep and with only 4 bolts visible on the 35 m pitch there was a definite sense of anticipation as to what lay above. The crux soon presented itself and I was fondling the pocket’s edge with my fingertips as my right foot slipped from the unseen foothold in the cave below.

Flailing, I held the fall with the left hand, replaced my foot and attempted again only to feel my foot slip. Dedicatedly, the foot was returned against the quickly receding opportunity and pushing hard my fingers crept over the edge of the pocket. Exuberant, I shook out on the next hold, the pump quickly receding in the face of the wild terrain above. And as suddenly, the euphoria was gone as the route disappeared, the fantastic view fading to the realization that this wasn’t over yet, there wasn’t a hold or bolt in sight. I tried advancing up a wall topped by a roof on small, sharp crimps only to retreat, it had to go left, blindly.

Resolute in my decision I edged left crossing over to gaston a crimp with my right hand allowing my left to reach around the bulge. The sidepull wasn’t good, but at least I’d found it. Working my feet left under tension I would need a foot to stick to be able to release the gaston. I could glimpse easy looking ground above when suddenly I was barn-dooring off into space 300 m above the Mediterranean. Without hesitation and certain of what needed to be done I swung back into the cliff and climbed back to the rest, forgetting in my moment of frustration to take in the magnificent hanging view. Only slightly higher, the sidepull proved considerably better and in no time we were at the top celebrating with a Scotch and wondering which route the sunbathing blonds had taken. And as so often happens, that evening, the next dream, the Puig Campana would rise out of the swirling lights of the drunken celebration at the Orange House.

Staying at the Orange House, overrun with Brits, costs upwards of 10 € a night and while the view of the Puig Campana is fantastic, watching the sun rise out of the Mediterranean from the balcony of our villa at Cumbre del Sol, for slightly less, wasn’t all that bad either. Besides, the plan for this trip was to get a closer view via the direct version of the “Espolón Central”. On landing in Alicante we drove north in the rain eager to check out the villa, fortunately we’d encounter rain on only one other day during the course of our 10 day trip.

The down side being that those showers were moving in rather quickly as I belayed on the second to last pitch of the “Llobet/Bertomeu” in the Mascarat Gorge. I’d just finished the crux pitch, a polished corner with good gear, and fixed an anchor using a crack, a flake and a rusted bolt that looked to be from the first ascensionists. I’m lost as to why the two new bolts had been chopped. Nonetheless, my climbing partner, this time a risk taking Swede, had been pondering the airy traverse to the right for some 20 minutes as I hesitantly watched the storm moving toward us. It was already raining as I clambered up to the anchor.

Moving on, I cursed as I dropped a nut, only to catch it before firing upward with the thunder letting loose all round. Reaching the top we scrambled on wet slopes, wary of the precipices below and the thunder above for a good hour before reaching a comforting pine above a gated community which would provide another hour’s worth of obstacles. Good luck getting to Altea should you want to climb there!

The “Espolón Central” is a 400 m trad route up the Puig Campana via a long slender ridge. Known to be of interest for guests at the Orange House, we intended to start early, alpine early, the only problem being that after an hours trek and with dawn breaking we were headed toward the descent gully on the north side of the massive South face. Knowing this after having kept an eye on the Puig for some years I tried in vain to convince my Swedish companion. He’d have none of it, knowing just where he was.

Defeated by the gully, we raced back along the face. I did not want to climb with anyone above, mostly to maintain the adventure but also to avoid the danger of Brits and loose rock. And in my hurry, running and pressed up against the face I missed the telltale slab that marks the direct start. Loss of perspective can do that. We would end up being second in line and then soon enough, third as another team edged ahead via the normal start. The climbing was easy and the adventure maintained through building anchors below the occupied bolted belays. The route made obvious by the parties ahead I stopped at the belay before the 10th pitch allowing the team above to gain the next belay, we were moving smoothly and effectively, swinging leads in good style, and with the sky clear and just three pitches to the top there was time to allow for some adventure.

Some 20 meters out I found it as I stepped across a groove and straddled a 300m m drop to the valley below. It seemed a long blank way to the bolt straight up so I followed the rotten groove, after all it was supposed to be a trad climb. A couple of quick pitches above and we were looking for the telltale red dots leading across the face. “Follow the dots, people have died up there” a local at Gandía had informed us, the descent proving to be more challenging than the climb.

Scrambling down the gully and on to the car I kept looking back at the Puig enamored with the pillars and the airy perches. Not long ago it had been just a spectacle, now it was full of possibilities, far beyond the sport crags of the multitudes that the Costa Blanca is so famous for.

Shawn Boye is a Canadian climber and filmmaker currently living in Sweden. Known as a big fan of Swedish Meatballs, his third film “The Sends”, featuring bouldering, sport, trad and DWS developments in Sweden will be released this fall. See more of his work at tielma.com