The plan was to celebrate Christmas 2016 by traversing the 4.3-mile Bernia Ridge, a wandering dragon’s spine of limestone above Spain’s Costa Blanca. For this mostly 5.6 route that has a touch of 5.8, my partner would be an old work colleague who’d stopped by Spain briefly en route to a ski holiday in Norway.
However, the celebratory mood quickly evaporated when we crested the ridge, scrambling, and saw the 2,000-foot drop at the far side. Tweaked by the exposure and looking up at sideways, sparsely protected, semi-alpine terrain, she began yelling at me for dragging her into yet another desperate epic. I yelled back, citing past adventures we had in fact survived—like the Zoroaster Temple choss marathon in the Grand Canyon, the Baja kayaking and climbing near-drowning debacle, the Grand Teton summer hypothermia retreat, etc. Before I could finish, she stomped off back to the car with both rack and rope, announcing her plans to go trail running. And so, I climbed solo.
Five hours down Spain’s coast from Barcelona, Alicante province sirens in boatloads of drunken Brits in summer (a legacy of British freebooting that goes back some four centuries, beginning with the Barbary Pirates). The rest of the year, it’s popular with Euro climbers in search of sun and moderate sport routes—which you’ll find by the hundreds, from 5.7 to 5.11+ at a few dozen crags. The multi-pitch trad/mixed routes and long ridges, like the Bernia, are captivating for their solitary, adventurous feel. Based then in gloomy Scandinavia, I’d managed a handful of visits to the Costa Blanca, escaping with a $60 round-trip flight.
As I climbed now, alone, I wandered up and over sometimes snot-slick stone on this regional mega-classic, gingerly engaging crumbling limestone towers, reversing sketchy moves, trying to decipher a lithic koan from the myriad options. I paused breathlessly just beyond a lonely homemade bolt. Many days, I’d eyed the Bernia from the coast far below as it collected and grew clouds by noon. Not quite the tallest but certainly the largest single feature in Alicante, it seemed to be the one spot, save the nearby, vertiginous 4,613-foot Puig Campaña (only six miles from the sea), that clouds up with any regularity.
I scanned my horizon to find some of the classic features of Alicante, all visible on this bluebird morning. Ahead and to my left, I spotted the Puig. It is called “alpine” for a good reason, and with its hour-long (gasp) approach it also attracts snow and more rescues than Yosemite Falls Trail in August. The best-known route is Espolon Central, put up by the Spaniards J. Roig, C. Torregrosa, and M. Gascon in 1965. This amazing, 1,000-foot, nine-plus-pitch adventure route feels like Valley 5.8+ with real splitters—wahooooo! I’d dispatched it a couple of days earlier with my now-errant partner. Surviving that, I’d reasoned she would have found the Bernia agreeable.
At the feet of the Puig, I discerned the sleeping lion of Polop, with its huge and wonderful Ponoch Face, home to the classic Via Valencianos. First ascended by Torregrosa in 1972, it features a wandering S-curving trajectory over 14 pitches (1,400-plus feet of climbing) with a few 5.10- moves on pitch 13. When my barefoot Scottish friend, Ryan, and I had climbed it the winter prior, we headed for the summit after firing the crux only to find a herd of belled goats lounging on 5.8 terrain.
Behind me, the Bernia fell away to the valley and the coast. Down at the sea, white sandy beaches interspersed with scores of vacant apartments, victims of the economic collapse that the region still struggles from despite the continuing infusion of British pirates. Some of the pirates do have a good eye for sport lines—many Brits have relocated here and added to the robust list of sport routes, and there were and are quite a few Spanish climbers active as well. While long, adventurous trad and mixed routes seem to have gone mostly out of fashion in the 1990s, if you’re willing to walk a half hour or more, you’ll find scores of undeveloped crags, many several pitches high.
My gaze followed the shore east-ish toward Calpe, to where the sea slams into the cliff at Sierra de Toix, home to several “classic” wild and committing routes best saved for a windless day lest the mist from crashing waves make the climbing too spicy. Some sport old tat through pinky-sized stalactite threads, some anchors have bolts and hangers likely from the reign of Carlos III, and some require free-hanging raps to sloping ledges above the sea.
Elevated a bit above the seacliffs is the mini-peak of Toix, which houses Cilber (5.9), a route my third wife, Corinne, and I had climbed on my first trip to Alicante in early 2016. It was her first proper multi-pitch route, which I figured would go well after a previous, quick-and-easy simul-climbing excursion up the Second Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado. On pitch three, after she swore her way past a steep, polished bulge, we witnessed rescue crews coming in to evacuate a fallen climber from a satellite crag just below. Then, a three-foot long Iberian adder slithered down a crack to chill with us on the pitch-five belay. A day later, we decided to test our fate on Magical Mystery Tour (5.9), one of the Sierra de Toix gems. We’d heard it had originally been free-soloed for the FFA—how hard could it be?
Confident with going light, I was sure we needed just one of the double 8mm ropes we had brought, to rap in. The single 70-meter would reach the ledge and we could pull it after rapping. Corinne was so new to climbing that I counted on her not quite comprehending that we would be swimming a mile back to a cove if we didn’t send.
We eventually found a rap station, far below the access trail on a slab that after 20 feet plunged to the ocean. The good news was that it was a 35-meter rappel. The bad news was that I’d chopped 10 feet off the rope and had forgotten until I saw the ends dangling—at the bottom of the rappel. To get into the rock, I engaged an acrobatic upside-down swing to an über-sketchy rusted ladder. Meanwhile, up above, Corrine was pre-rigged for her (very first) rappel. When I’d dropped over the edge, she’d been smashed into the rock by my weight, and screamed into the wind for several minutes. When she leaned out to watch my descent, she somehow managed not only to hogtie herself with the rope, taking up precious slack, but had also upended herself and was now pointing headfirst toward the sea. She later told me she would have cut the rope had she been able to reach a knife.
Beyond Toix, I spied the surreal plug of the Peñon de Ifach, which towers 1,000 feet above the stubbly, skyscrapered landscape of Calpe, aka “Syphilis by the Sea,” affectionately nicknamed for the young, inebriated Britons who Brexit here to practice partying before ferrying off to Ibiza. Many stay, as it offers a cheaper alternative to the pricey island. Facing the sea is the classic 5.9 Diedro UBSA and the Gomez-Cano, a visionary 5.10+ A0. Both are wandery, 10-pitch routes that require only a slim rack, a nose for route-finding, and some quickdraws.
Watching my nose dissolve while slowly slipping into dementia from an STD didn’t sound so bad as I imagined the likely alternative I faced on the Bernia—namely, tumbling from a chossy section of the endless 5.2 ridge, express-routed back to my no-doubt smirking partner waiting back at the car. I quickly changed the channel and envisioned evening shadows chasing the setting sunlight as it crawled up the walls of the Bernia, while down in the valley I sipped sweet redemption from a €3 bottle of perfect tinto rioja. A gourmet tin of squid in its own ink, yanked from the sparkling Mediterranean, to follow .…
Sidebar: Museum of Medieval Torture
There are eight museums (and at least four ice cream shops) in the inland village of El Castell de Guadalest, which is perched on a cliff with a couple dozen quality moderate sport pitches, all within a half-hour drive of the bulk of Costa Blanca climbing. But the main attraction is the Museum of Medieval Torture, tucked away on the tiny dead-end alley at 2 Honda Street. This narrow-roomed museum is built traditionally skyward, four stories like the neighboring buildings to create shade and effectively stifle the oppressive summer heat.
Inside, you’ll find more than 70 “tools” used during the Inquisition and the Middle Ages. As you climb the stairs, you encounter the Judas cradle. Here, the accused, stripped naked and with ankle weights attached, would be lowered onto this tall, pyramid-topped stool, which was coated in olive oil (how thoughtful!). Of course, they have a rack—which, come to think of it, could come in handy for increasing your ape index. Then there’s the heretic’s fork, used to gain confessions from blaspheming spraylords. Attached at the neck, this device had a metal point aimed directly at the throat. This meant no sleeping to avoid any head nodding, thus you soon wished to be free of the device and confessed to whatever you stood accused of. And don’t forget the breast rippers—sharp iron claws especially designed for women. All of these unspeakably evil tools must be seen to be believed.
As you wander across the creaky floorboards, nausea and revulsion are a common (and healthy) response. It’s all too easy to imagine the dried blood and bile layered deep into the ancient wood and metal. You can almost hear the screams and imagine the shadows of the accused flickering across stone walls by torchlight.
How did such things come to be? Well, as per the website tortureum.com, “In 1252, Pope Innocent promulgated the bull Ad extirpanda, a very important document for the practice of judicial torture, which authorized, in defined circumstances, the use of torture to extort confessions from heretics…” Of course, this bull applied to just about anyone who looked at the Church sideways, like Protestants, for several hundred years (the Holy Inquisition). Women were especial targets and often died by accusations of adultery or witchcraft. Simply by existing, they directly challenged the religio-parti-olig-capital-archy, and so were dealt with accordingly. Exact numbers are disputed, but deaths by torture range anywhere from 30,000 if you believe the Church, to deep into the millions if not.
Costa Blanca Logistics
Where to stay
Private Airbnbs are around, but my favorite is the Orange House (theorange
house.co.uk), which is central to the climbing. It’s a climber hostel with rooms, or you can camp among orange trees with access to showers and kitchens—the latter option is about $10 a night. Rich, the owner, also runs a guide service and works to replace bolts. Note: A US passport lets you legally stay three months out of six in Euroville (if it’s a Schengen country), with no visa needed.
Carrefour in Benidorm, five miles from Finestrat, has everything and more (stink-fish in tins is handy for cragging). In Finestrat, there are a couple of good local markets and pubs, plus lots of panaderias (bakeries).
Be advised—your Mexi-Spanglish won’t cut it here, especially with the lisping Castellano accents, and many locals don’t speak much English to boot. After touching down in Alicante (cheap flights from major US airports, $300 one way often via Norwegian), your best bet is to grab a rental car and pay the extra for insurance ($20/day). Crags of all heights and difficulties are from five minutes’ to an hour’s drive.
Any time but summer, unless you’re DWSing or staggering to Ibiza.
Spain: Costa Blanca, by Chris Craggs and Alan James.
These days, Bennett Barthelemy enjoys falling off the map to explore increasingly remote limestone massifs in Europe—the more obscure, the better.