Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Back to housesitting in Altea la Vella

It’s our last day looking after house and cat in Altea la Vella before we collect Richard and Elizabeth from the airport tomorrow lunchtime.

After our very hectic week with Simon and Diane we’ve settled back to a more leisurely pace, partly as we fancied easing back a little, but mainly because of the weather. Simon and Diane just don’t know how lucky they were, they left on Saturday and it heralded a big change in the weather as on Saturday the wind really picked up and the forecast was for things to change for the worse, which in fact they did.

The sunset from the balcony on Friday night. Nice or ominous?
We were going to have Saturday as a day of rest, but after seeing the forecast we decided we’d better go out climbing if we were going to as the following few days were not going to be suitable. It was breezy, but the temperature was still about 23°C, so it was quite pleasant. We went to the crag Simon and Diane had recommended and visited on Friday at Alcalali. Nice easier up to quite hard gradings we decided it was time to try and climb a bit harder so, after starting on a 4 and the a 4+Jackie tackled a 5, which went very well. I led it after her, found it OK so decided on another 5. However this one I found quite exposed and with a few hard moves high up, went a bit off route, struggled to get back on route making some tricky moves and generally felt a bit jittery. Jackie went up, stayed on route and reckoned it was about right for a 5. We were going to leave the ropes up and try a 6a on top rope, but just as Jackie was topping out it started to rain – and rain and rain! She abseiled down, we collected the now wet ropes and gear and headed home.

It dried up again but the wind gradually got worse and by evening it had got to storm force. Trees were swaying, wind was whistling round the doors and things started to blow about. We were in and out bringing stuff inside and moving other stuff against walls and out of the wind to protect it. Big, heavy plant pots got blown over, ornaments screwed to walls took off and we were starting to feel quite vulnerable. There are large trees all around (and our car is parked under several), would they all stand up in this? We went to bed and, I have to say, I slept, but I don’t think Jackie did.

The next day it was still very windy but the temperature had noticeably dropped. We spent a good few hours sorting things out including an hour or two attending to the swimming pool. So much stuff had blown into it and a lot settled on the bottom so, the long pole net was in use fishing it out, which took forever! The downside of having a swimming pool!

The weather pattern had changed and we were now in the grip of a cold northerly wind with a big drop in temperature and it is still with us now (Tuesday). It’s not freezing or anything, but probably well into single figures at night. Today the temperature is 13°C with a forecast of 20 tomorrow so, hopefully the worst is now over.  Yesterday afternoon was not only cold, but also rainy, pretty heavy rain all afternoon and evening, so we were in the lounge with the fire lit watching an afternoon film. Is this really southern Spain, or England on a cold wet afternoon in November?

There was a bright spot on Sunday, however, after catching up on the news (shocking as it currently is!) by reading online the BBC, Telegraph and Times, we went out for Sunday lunch at our favourite seafood restaurant in Calpe. The sun shone and we were in the partly outdoors section next to the beach and the blue shimmering sea, wearing sunglasses eating squid, mussels, sea bass, swordfish washed down with a bottle of white wine, so it’s not been all bad!

The house here isn’t really equipped for cold temperatures as they are seen so infrequently, so there’s no insulation or anything to keep heat in. As a result it feels really cold and we’ve had a log fire for the last two nights, wrapped up really warm and felt very cold everywhere else.

Don’t know how long this cold north wind will last, but it is sweeping down right across the continent and, on the positive side it’s bringing snow into the alps. Where we’re going skiing there’s already plenty of snow with more forecast so, if it continues we may head off sooner rather than later to catch some early skiing!

Anyway, we’re getting the house sorted for Richard and Elizabeth’s return tomorrow, so we’ve been cleaning, Jackie inside, me outside. I’ve baked a cake for them and Jackie is cooking a yummie smelling Boeuf Bourguignon, so it’s all looking good.

Pepa finding a warm sunny spot on the balcony
Pepa the cat is still her usual elusive stand-offish self, except that one evening she did grace us with her presence, but only as we were eating steak! She came very close, allowed us to drop bits of steak in front of her and I even got a single finger stroke in. A full handed stroke attempt was obviously too much and she headed off at that. Still, she’s not quite so elusive, but still keeping her distance unless she wants something, food or to be let out etc. She hasn’t enjoyed the cold either, each day she has gone to a sheltered corner on the balcony in the sun and just sat there to warm up, but she won’t come right into the lounge to sit in front of the fire in the evenings, obviously we’re too scary!

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Bernia Ridge, Costa Blanca

Di and Jackie on the Eastern Summit. Calpe Rock in the distance

The title says it all! The Bernia Ridge above Altea in Alicante, Costa Blanca is the areas dominant feature and an icon of all that’s great about mountaineering. A full traverse of its main ridge is a long day of continuous exposure on narrow, rocky ridges requiring rock climbing (to French grade 4a), abseiling, scrambling up to grade 2, a very good head for heights and stamina.

A grade 2 very exposed scramble to the Eastern Summit
It is located on the skyline above the village Altea la Vella, the home of Jackie’s father, Richard and Elizabeth and ever since the first day I woke up, walked outside onto their balcony, looked up and saw the undulating, notchy, rocky ridge stretching from one extreme to the other I have wanted to do a traverse of the whole ridge in one day.

Jackie and I first went up there in 2002 with no guide book, no map and no rock climbing gear. We scrambled up onto the Western Summit, walked the narrow ridge to the col, continued on to the eastern, technical half, got about halfway along and, after soloing down the rock climbing pitch and finding ourselves on a narrow, exposed edge we decided enough was enough and withdrew gracefully, realising the route was equipped for an east to west traverse, not the way we were going and definitely not without rock climbing gear!

Jackie, Di and Simon looking relaxed in a spectacular setting
The next year we found our way onto the eastern summit with our climbing gear and traversed to the col, only to find we were too late in the day, so had to retreat down the col. We made a third attempt a couple of years later with my old friend John Fullerton which, as with all outings with John started after a heavy previous night on alcohol. Nevertheless, we made good progress only to be thwarted by bad weather, the cloud enveloped us as we approached the col and it started to rain – we had no waterproofs!

This time we were with Simon and Diane, who were also mad keen to do it, had all their gear with them and plenty of enthusiasm. Will we do it this time?

A very narrow and exposed section of the ridge
We decided on an early start, so we were up at 06:10, in the car and round to their apartment in Calpe, then on to the Bernia Restaurant on the far (north) side of the ridge before sun up. Boots on and we were on our way at about 07:40, in time to watch the sun rise shortly after setting off.

Jackie abseiling
The book says the walk in to the tunnel takes 1hr, we were at the tunnel, which is the start of the scramble in 50mins. Good start! The initial scramble was pretty easy and in shade, we reached the eastern col and were greeted with fabulous views of Altea, Benidorm in the distance, Puig Campana, the mountain we climbed 2 days ago, blue skies, shimmering sea and heat from the sun. From there the scrambling got serious, a grade 2 very exposed traverse and climb up to the Eastern Summit, which made us get our climbing harnesses, helmets on and the rope and quick-draws out. We left the rope for the abseil down and headed on to the summit for spectacular views.

Have a look at our Youtube video for photos, videos and the full story. It’s just under 9 minutes long.

Jackie waiting for the others to abseil
The rest of the day was full of massive exposure from the huge drops either side of the ridge, some spectacular abseils, rock climbs, traverses and quality scrambles on rocky, airy ridges, always with tremendous views. The continuous up and down of the terrain, together with the heat from the sun is energy sapping and even before halfway we were all feeling the effects of it all. We had about 1.75litres of water each and plenty of things to eat, but the water was going down fast!

Di coming down the big 20m abseil
By the time we reached the col where we had aborted on two previous occasions we were all feeling pretty tired. It was 3 something in the afternoon, still very hot, we were low on water and we were now faced with a huge ascent of grade 2 exposed scrambling to get us up to the Western Summit. No wonder many people abort here, it’s so easy to drop down from the col to safety and an early beer. But we were determined and, we thought, enough energy to go on, so up we went on the scramble, willing our tired legs on and ignoring the aching feet and knees.

The Western Summit has about three false summits on it, so you see what you think is a summit only to find another ‘summit’ in the distance, much higher ahead, so it’s a case of gritting your teeth and getting on with it. Finally the summit cairn came into view, we completed the log book in the box on the summit, took some photos, had some more food, drank a little of the last drops of water and headed down.

Exposed scrambling - routine by now!
The descent is not that easy to find and there are precarious drops all around. ‘Follow the red dots’ the guide says, but they weren’t always easy to find. To be here after dark would be very dangerous, but here we were not much more than an hour away from sunset, but we found our way through the precarious ground and onto the scree slope down. Sadly after years of traffic the scree slope can no longer be run, the small stones have all now gone, so we had to follow a track through the scree that occasionally caused skidding on stones, not the best thing for sore feet and knees.

After getting down to the Bernia Fort we were back on a good track and, although quite a long way we were now able to make quicker progress round the end of the ridge and back down to where our car was waiting.

Down scrambling from the Central Summit
It’s funny the way the last little bit always seems the longest. Tired legs and a raging thirst are never a good combination and it seemed an age before the car finally came into view. Boots off, cooling down exercises and we were in the car and back to Simon and Diane’s apartment in Calpe for lots of water, a couple of beers and a shower and change. Before drooping we roused ourselves for a celebratory beer and meal at a nearby Indian restaurant. What better way to celebrate than a good spicy Indian curry and yummy it was! We lasted until just after 10pm and retired to our beds tired but happy people.

It was a good day, a great ridge and we had fab company. Many thanks Simon and Diane – until the next time!
From the belay at the top of the 4a climbing pitch. It was about 10m up, a 20m traverse and then up to the stance. It's a fin of rock, quite thin and, after climbing up to the lip you look over to a big drop the other side. Quite exciting! I led the pitch, Di has already climbed, Simon has just tied on and is about toclimb, Jackie will come last and stripout the gear.
Jackie and Di on a minor summit with a view of the Western Summit we had yet to do behind her
The ridge from near the Western Summit, with Calpe Rock just visible in the distance
Summit photo! The final and highest Western Summit. Puig Campana, the mountain we climbed 2 days ago is on the left in the far distance
Simons note left in the logbook on the summit
Down off the ridge in the late afternoon sun. That's the Western Summit behind and you can just see the tongue of the scree slope leading down

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Rock climbing and mountaineering in the Costa Blanca

Simon and Di with Jackie at Sierra de Toix climbing crag

It’s been a change of gear for us since last Saturday as our friends Simon and Diane are visiting Calpe for a week, 15 minutes around the coast from us. We met Simon and Diane on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam this time last year, stayed in touch while they were on their year away in SE Asia, NZ, Oz, South and Central America. We saw them again when they came to stay with us in Redmarley in Gloucestershire in October and were very happy when they told us they were planning on coming out here.

The view from the crag of the Mascarat Gorge and, in the distance, Benidorm
Calpe Rock from the balcony of Simon and Di's apartment
Since they like all things we like it’s been an action packed few days since they arrived. We met up at the crags on Sierra de Toix on Sunday morning, the third time we have met and each of them in a different country! The sky was blue, it was pleasantly warm and the limestone rock superb. We’ve been here a number of times before, but Simon and Di had a newer climbing guide than us so we were able to do four routes we had not done before, one of them a two pitch climb, so it was a social as well as fulfilling day. Unlike previous visits we had made, today it was really quite busy, not only local Spanish climbing groups that we would expect on a weekend day, but we also heard Russian voices and a very large contingent of British people, who were climbing by us, which made it really feel like home! Brits abroad!

The crag at Gandia
On Monday we went to a crag we haven’t been to before that Simon and Di knew. It’s a little further round the coast, just over an hour away near a place called Gandia. There are some easier climbs suitable for us but also the greatest concentration of 7a to 8a climbs in the Costa Blanca, all over a huge roof. We stuck to the 3+ to 4+ climbs of which there were a fair few and then managed to put up a top rope over a vertical cave that went up through the big roof by the hard climbs. Fortunately we could access the lower off for the cave climb from a 4+ to 5 grade climb and drop the rope down through the cave to allow us to have a good play in complete safety. We probably could have led the grade 5+ entry off the floor into the cave, but it was very polished, very committing and the two bolts that had been inside the cave for protection had been removed, so it would have been a solo climb!

Brian giving Simon a hand up into the cave
Anyway, with the rope down through the cave after Brian had abseiled down through it having fixed the rope at the top, we all had a go at it. Simon went first with Brian giving him a leg up and Jackie providing a bit of assistance on the other end of the rope. Next went Brian, who managed it without any assistance, other than a tight rope, Diane needed a bit of a shove from Simon and, finally Jackie showed us all how it should be done with some nifty footwork and nice moves. A really enjoyable day out in a really nice setting, followed by another trip back to Simon and Di’s third floor apartment right on the beach front at Calpe with a great view of Calpe rock from their balcony to relax with a beer and nibbles while the sun set.

The walk in with Puig Campana in the distance
Yesterday (Tuesday) we planned a big day out to do one of Brian’s targets, the mountain of Puig Campana! I have sat on Richard and Elizabeth’s balcony for many years gazing at the shapely, pointed mountain that sits on the horizon on the opposite side of the valley and around which the sun usually sets to give a glorious silhouette against colourful red and blue skies. ‘I want to climb that and stand on that point’ I have long thought so, with the encouragement of Simon and Di we all went off to do it.

Simon, Di and Jackie at the 1300m elevation signpost
They picked us up at 09:00 and we drove through Altea and out to Finestrat to park their car at the start of the walking trail that leads steeply up through a gulley of mainly scree in the full hot sun. Thankfully there was a rough zig-zag track alongside the scree which made the ascent a little easier, but it was still pretty relentless and hot. We made the col at 1300m in just over 2 hours, turned right and headed on to the summit at just over 100m higher, arriving there in a total time of about 2hours 50 minutes, just under the 3 hour book time.

On the 1408m summit
The views were magnificent, it was clear sky but with a little haze and we could see back to the Bernia Ridge and Altea la Vella, where we had departed from this morning. Could we see Jackie’s dads house? No! Even through binoculars we couldn’t pick it out. Its 17km away and just too small to make out from here, but we all waved at Pepa the cat, who we were confident would be looking out for us from the balcony!

The Bernia Ridge from Puig Campana
The route down actually took us down the other side of the mountain and round in a big circle back to the car. Although a little longer, it’s a less steep path and the book assured us it would be easier and quicker than trying to go down the ascent path and it did seem to be. It also gave us a different view, so made it well worthwhile.

The route plotted by the Ap Mapmywalk. Starting at the red box we went north and a bit west to the col, turned right to the summit, retraced our steps to the col then continued over to the other side of the mountain,down and round back to the start
Back on the balcony at Jackie's dad's for beer and nibbles....
We were back on the balcony at Jackie’s dads house for several beers and nibbles and in plenty of time to watch the sun set alongside our mountain. How satisfying to be able to look at that sharp pointed mountain and finally to be able to say I’ve been up there! Simon and Di stayed the night in the spare bedroom here, so we had plenty of good nourishing food with apple crumble and custard, all washed down with several bottles of wine and we all went to be tired and happy people!

In time to watch the sun set by our mountain!
Today has been a relaxing day for us as we had been invited round for lunch at Carolyn and John’s house, the friends of Richard and Elizabeth who came to lunch last week. After Simon and Di left this morning we got our gear ready for our planned epic tomorrow then walked round in the afternoon sun to their house and had a very pleasant time with them, plenty of good food and wine, while enjoying splendid, but very different views out over the sea at Altea and Benidorm. It was a lovely time!

Balcony view after sunset.Puig Campana is on the left
Now we’re back and tonight it’s an early night for us for our big day tomorrow – it’s a full traverse of the Bernia Ridge! Although we’ve done all of the ridge we have never done all of it in a single day, but have tried and failed on two occasions. Tomorrow we hope to succeed, but to do it we have to start early, so we’ll be up just after 06:00 and hope to be there and ready to start the ascent before 08:00. The estimated time for completion is anywhere between 6 and 9 hours, depending on the speed of the party. The sun sets around 18:00 at this time of year, so we should be OK for daylight hours unless we get held up by something! Wish us luck!