Hammer of the Gods

The steep, wild, multipitch conglomerate of Los Mallos de Riglos in the hills of Northern Spain
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Climbers on the seventh pitch (5.11b) of El Pison’s El Pajaro (5.11b; 10 pitches), a climb with a reasonable grade yet outrageous exposure. The harder pitches have adequate fixed gear, but the easier pitches (5.9–5.10c) present runout sections and arcane fixed pro like wooden stakes that have been expanded in their holes with railroad spikes. A small rack can ease the sting of the spaced protection—but only a little.

Climbers on the seventh pitch (5.11b) of El Pison’s El Pajaro (5.11b; 10 pitches), a climb with a reasonable grade yet outrageous exposure. The harder pitches have adequate fixed gear, but the easier pitches (5.9–5.10c) present runout sections and arcane fixed pro like wooden stakes that have been expanded in their holes with railroad spikes. A small rack can ease the sting of the spaced protection—but only a little.

Tucked cozy in bed, my girlfriend, Kim, and I peered over our billowy white covers and out the window of our third-floor Airbnb. Here in tiny Riglos (pop: 250) in Huesca province in Northern Spain, we were within a stone’s throw of the mighty conglomerate towers—Los Mallos de Riglos (“the Mallets of Riglos”)—that soar above town. Perfectly framed by the window, tiny climbers inched up the protruding cobbles of the 1,000-foot monolith El Pison, the dominating tower of the half-mile-wide massif, which is home to some 300 routes from 5.6 to 5.12+.

The springtime weather outside was cold, dark, and cloudy. Worn and sunburned from our own long, harrowing adventure on the “moderate” Mosquitoes, an eight-pitch 5.10d on the radically overhanging Visera formation that we’d climbed in the blazing sun the day prior, we were content just to snuggle, listen to the jingling of goat bells, and watch the morning climbing show.

Los Mallos de Riglos. Each tower—from the 300-foot needle El Puro (far left), to the adjoining, massive hulk of El Pison (tallest), to the wildly overhanging La Visera (right of center)—offers a distinct but always unpredictable character. A good trail circles the massif, though getting off most of the towers is a complex adventure in its own right, with lots of twists, turns, and hidden paths to regain the valley floor.

Los Mallos de Riglos. Each tower—from the 300-foot needle El Puro (far left), to the adjoining, massive hulk of El Pison (tallest), to the wildly overhanging La Visera (right of center)—offers a distinct but always unpredictable character. A good trail circles the massif, though getting off most of the towers is a complex adventure in its own right, with lots of twists, turns, and hidden paths to regain the valley floor.

There were parties on most of the big routes—climbs we were now well familiar with after several days of scrutinizing the guidebook: Oriental, Chopper, Tucan, El Puro. But we were most interested in a pair climbing the tenth and final pitch of Carnivalada (5.12b), a route that had caught our eye for its big initial overhang and bold path directly up El Pison. The leader had made it safely to the summit belay, her rope trailing down the final black water groove before dipping below a huge, overhanging pansa (belly) and then down to her partner. As the second started up, raindrops began falling, hastening him to the base of the overhang. We checked our guidebook and learned that this final pansa was 5.11 and notoriously powerful—a guardian of the summit after 1,000 feet of relentless vertical and overhanging cobble climbing.

The second paused, perhaps to rest or to wait out the intensifying rain. Behind the cliff, visible to us but not the climbers, black clouds piled forward; lightning blazed in the distance while thunder rolled into the canyons like tumbling boulders. As if watching a scary movie, Kim and I urged the climber to hurry. The storm had come quickly, and soon the water groove was a trickling stream. By the time the second started out the overhang, the stream was a small waterfall. As the climber struggled to move past the bulging crux, the water pummeled him against the rock.

Gabrielle Nobrega on the 180-foot sixth pitch (5.11d) of El Pison’s Tucan Ausente (5.11d; 10 pitches). Many routes at Riglos were established ground-up. First ascentionists looked for knobs that were solid and extruded enough to sling, so they could hang to drill a bolt.

Gabrielle Nobrega on the 180-foot sixth pitch (5.11d) of El Pison’s Tucan Ausente (5.11d; 10 pitches). Many routes at Riglos were established ground-up. First ascentionists looked for knobs that were solid and extruded enough to sling, so they could hang to drill a bolt.

No matter where on the four corners of earth, conglomerate big-wall areas seem to share a specific, if unspoken, set of rules: Routes are established ground-up, suspect holds are left in place, and bolts are well-spaced. A climber embarking on a massive tower in Meteora, Greece, would be well-served to have apprenticed on the ancient lava flows of Pinnacles, California, or on the lofty spires of Montserrat, Spain. All of these areas are becoming safer with time, as climbers clean the rock the old-fashioned way—by breaking loose cobbles (some as small as BBs and some as large as sprinter vans) and scrubbing off dirt over the course of countless ascents.

The tan walls of Riglos are no exception. The routes lure you in with easy approaches and shining bolts—but be warned, climbing originated as a blood sport here, and there is no guarantee of safety on these old-school “sport” routes, where runouts can stretch up to 30 feet and where first ascentionists sometimes paid for their aspirations with their lives.

Shawn Griffin on the crux pitch of El Pison’s Carnivalada (5.12b or 5.11 A0; 10 pitches). This pumpy, 180-foot ropelength offers plentiful protection as it roughly follows the original bolt ladder from the 1965 first ascent. The bolting provides a unique dilemma: The easiest bolts to clip are new and bomber—but are spaced about every 20 feet—whereas the ancient, manky bolts in between are harder to clip, causing more rope drag and a bigger pump, but also mental relief from the runouts.

Shawn Griffin on the crux pitch of El Pison’s Carnivalada (5.12b or 5.11 A0; 10 pitches). This pumpy, 180-foot ropelength offers plentiful protection as it roughly follows the original bolt ladder from the 1965 first ascent. The bolting provides a unique dilemma: The easiest bolts to clip are new and bomber—but are spaced about every 20 feet—whereas the ancient, manky bolts in between are harder to clip, causing more rope drag and a bigger pump, but also mental relief from the runouts.

Consider one of Riglos’s former last great problems, the 400-foot spire El Puro (“The Cigar”), which splinters off El Pison and wasn’t ascended until 1953. Beginning in the 1940s, several parties began a protracted battle to conquer El Puro that involved at least five failed attempts—two ending in death. In one instance, Mariano Cored was killed when he fell unprotected to the ground from 100 feet up when a hold broke as he attempted to bypass a crux by standing on his partner’s shoulders. Another climber, Victor Carilla, was killed in 1950 when his rope broke in a fall. Reportedly, his protection consisted entirely of old, in situ gear and slung bushes.

Nowadays, you’ll find only traces of those brutal days, usually in the form of vintage protection. The knob-covered walls range from slabby to radically overhanging, some solid and well-traveled, some loose and obscure. Most of the routes continue to the tops of the formations, though you can certainly “crag” by climbing the first pitches only. While you’ll occasionally need to place your own protection, most of the gear is fixed. These days, bomber bolts are the norm, but if you stray from the trade routes you’ll find all manner of old, bizarrely fashioned, jerry-rigged gear (what in the hell are those wooden expansion stakes?). On most routes, at some point, you will find yourself pumped and runout. If you’re fit, good—you’ll have the time and energy to give a testing knock on suspect holds or tug on iffy gear. If you aren’t, just cross your fingers, pretend it’s all bomber, and keep on motoring.

Eventually, despite the drama unfolding outside our window, Kim and I fell back asleep. Mosquitoes, with its polished cobbles, runouts, and sunny exposure, had worn us out. When we woke up, the clouds had disappeared, birds were chirping, and the climbers were safely on top, drying in the hot Spanish sun. It all felt appropriate in this ancient land of monstrous spires, full of scary fairy tales that mostly end well. 

Kim Pfabe on the huge overhang on the first pitch (5.10a) of El Pison’s Carnivalada (5.12b or 5.11 A0; 10 pitches). The climb’s rating, like many in Europe, gives the redpoint grade (5.12b) as well as an “obligatory” grade (5.11—the minimum level you’ll need to climb, using bolts to rest and for upward progress). Despite being only 5.10a, the wildly steep first pitch— with its giant cobbles, powerful moves, and sustained nature—is a good litmus test for continuing ... or not.

Kim Pfabe on the huge overhang on the first pitch (5.10a) of El Pison’s Carnivalada (5.12b or 5.11 A0; 10 pitches). The climb’s rating, like many in Europe, gives the redpoint grade (5.12b) as well as an “obligatory” grade (5.11—the minimum level you’ll need to climb, using bolts to rest and for upward progress). Despite being only 5.10a, the wildly steep first pitch— with its giant cobbles, powerful moves, and sustained nature—is a good litmus test for continuing ... or not.

Svana Bjarnson and Axel Ballay on pitch 7 of La Visera’s Fiesta de los Biceps (5.11d;  8 pitches). Fiesta is one of the world’s steepest multi-pitch climbs—a rock dropped from the final anchor would land 300 feet from the base. This overhanging jug haul has bolts spaced far enough apart that big falls—for the leader or the second—can result in strandings that require jumars or prussiks for self-rescue.

Svana Bjarnson and Axel Ballay on pitch 7 of La Visera’s Fiesta de los Biceps (5.11d;
8 pitches). Fiesta is one of the world’s steepest multi-pitch climbs—a rock dropped from the final anchor would land 300 feet from the base. This overhanging jug haul has bolts spaced far enough apart that big falls—for the leader or the second—can result in strandings that require jumars or prussiks for self-rescue.

Axel Ballay on pitch 8 of La Visera’s De Naturaleza Salvage (5.12b; 8 pitches), a slanting, whimsical line that links some of the most spectacular features of La Visera, including a 15-foot horizontal roof on the 5.11c fifth pitch. The exposure on the upper pitches is disorienting in a way that the exposure on other big faces like El Cap is not. Given the radical steepness of the rock, the sucking void comes at you from all angles. When your feet cut from the overhang, you’ll be suspended by your fingers, with nothing but air between your toes and the ground.

Axel Ballay on pitch 8 of La Visera’s De Naturaleza Salvage (5.12b; 8 pitches), a slanting, whimsical line that links some of the most spectacular features of La Visera, including a 15-foot horizontal roof on the 5.11c fifth pitch. The exposure on the upper pitches is disorienting in a way that the exposure on other big faces like El Cap is not. Given the radical steepness of the rock, the sucking void comes at you from all angles. When your feet cut from the overhang, you’ll be suspended by your fingers, with nothing but air between your toes and the ground.

Climbers on Murciana (5.11c or 5.10d A0)—just visible on the right of the two cracks up the wall’s center. This spectacular line up El Pison features 1,000 feet of cobble pumping that’s been polished by constant traffic and is thus relatively solid. As with many of the big routes on Pison, the cruxes come up high in the form of brutal panzas (short, bulging overhangs) that test tired arms.

Climbers on Murciana (5.11c or 5.10d A0)—just visible on the right of the two cracks up the wall’s center. This spectacular line up El Pison features 1,000 feet of cobble pumping that’s been polished by constant traffic and is thus relatively solid. As with many of the big routes on Pison, the cruxes come up high in the form of brutal panzas (short, bulging overhangs) that test tired arms.

Riglos Logistics

Season

Climbing is possible all year, though in winter you’ll need calm, sunny days, and in summer you’ll chase shade.

Getting there

Fly to Barcelona and rent a car. The drive is about 3.5 hours.

Lodging

A number of Airbnbs are available in the village, though Casa Fiesta Riglos is the favorite among climbers. Rooms are also available at the bar in town, or you can van camp in the main village parking lot.

Rest days

The nearby town of Murillo de Gallego offers a host of recreational opportunities along the Gallego River as well as a spa hotel with a dreamy hot-pool complex. Also nearby, take a self-guided tour of the eleventh-century Castillo de Loarre, a castle/abbey that is a wondrous trip back in time.

Kim Pfabe and Steve Bancroft take in the view from the third-story patio at Casa Fiesta Riglos, an Airbnb run by Bancroft and Nicky Brooks. This expat couple from England fell in love with Riglos while visiting in 2004 and moved there in 2016, opening their guesthouse. The pair has an encyclopedic knowledge of Riglos climbing and its history. Mornings on the patio with Steve and Nicky are a perfect way to get fired up for the day.

Kim Pfabe and Steve Bancroft take in the view from the third-story patio at Casa Fiesta Riglos, an Airbnb run by Bancroft and Nicky Brooks. This expat couple from England fell in love with Riglos while visiting in 2004 and moved there in 2016, opening their guesthouse. The pair has an encyclopedic knowledge of Riglos climbing and its history. Mornings on the patio with Steve and Nicky are a perfect way to get fired up for the day.

Jim Thornburg has been eking out a living as a climbing photographer for the past 30 years. He remains stubbornly committed to the craft. His coffee-table book, Stone Mountains, is available at jimthornburg.com.