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


  1. Just brilliant!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Very interesting and descriptive - wow to have all that energy, not to mention climbing skill. So pleased you all completed and arrived back safely. No wonder the food and the beers tasted so good. Well done to you all, great achievement. 👍