I can remember the first time I read the name Naranjo De Bulnes; it was while reading through a particularly inspiring thread on UKBouldering.com entitled 'Long, Hard and Moderately Free'. From the moment I saw the classic long shot of that magnificent tower from afar, Patagonian in it's dominance of the skyline, I knew I had to go there. There then came the familiar scenario of staring deeply at this picture longing to be up high on the face, committed and moving forward, while at the same time having to minimize the window on my PC every time a colleague walked past.
It became my desktop background, my screen saver and was printed on my wall though I still knew nothing about it.
Situated in the Asturias Picos De Europa the 2529m Naranjo De Bulnes, or Picu Urriellu as it's known locally, was first climbed in 1904 by a Pedro Pidal (and a Shepherd named Gregorio) via the north face. It's most famous route is on the west face via the 1962 route Rabadá -Navarro. Alberto Rabadá and Ernesto Navarro were the Spanish equivalent of Brown and Whillans but were sadly killed while attempting the north face of the Eiger some years later. Since then there have been numerous routes put up, most notably for me was the freeing of the Murciana '78 by Brits Andy Popp and Nick Dixon. What a wild place it must have been back then.
I asked for some information and the prolific Tom Briggs sent me a bunch of scanned in photos with scribbled on topos and hand written approach notes. For someone used to glossy guides I was flummoxed at first but on reflection it made me excited. I approached my friend and rival Chris Barr to see if he was interested, the last time he went alpine rock climbing he was hit by rockfall and rolled his car into a ditch so I knew he was just the sort of partner for me.
"At the beginning this was Guy’s trip and he’d been obsessing about Naranjo for weeks, as he does. I’m not like that, I don’t really obsess about goals or trips, sometimes I wish I did but it’s just not what I do. I need an external driving force to get me motivated; on this occasion Guy was that. He had been let down by another partner, I stepped in and he provided the driving force. Teamwork"
We would leave at 2am on the Saturday so I went to the Broadfield pub on the Friday and happily walked home at 1.30am, packed my bag and met Chris outside. The thing that hit me most as we drove deeper into the Picos was just how green it was in comparison to the other parts of Spain I have visited over the years. At the top of a hire-car-killing-track we started the walk in over lush grass banks and paths through bracken, looking down at my feet I felt like I was walking up to Stanage except the sheep had been replaced by the laughing cows, their bells ringing in a hypnotic clash of noise. Unfortunately having been given beautiful views and a sneak of the peak the mist closed in and reduced my vista to the back of Chris' rucksack, the locals have a name for this - the Orbayu. It made the approach so hard not knowing when and where the end would come, our kit felt heavy and we realised how little sleep we'd had over the past 48 hours. It rained the last 200m and we arrived at the Refugio soaked, strung out and unaware of a huge mass of rock hiding behind us in the Orbayu.
* * *
ME “Right Guy, I’ll get the tent up and you get some food on. I’m starving. Pass me the tent pegs.”
GUY Tent pegs, what tent pegs? I don’t have the tent pegs.
ME Don’t take the piss this is isn’t the time.
* * *
Chris woke up in the night to fix the rocks that were holding out tent up, turning around he noticed the mist had cleared and out of the darkness was a lurking giant. "Fuck me", he got back in bed and tried to sleep, the face leaving an impression on his expectations. I woke up and stuck my head out upon Chris' request, "fuck me". I wish there were more eloquent responses from us but it really took your breath, and poetry, away from you.
"It was hammering it down, windy as hell, we hadn’t really slept in over 36 hours and he wasn’t kidding; he had forgotten the tent pegs. I handled it well, and believe me … I could have handled it badly. It wasn’t the end of the world but it made putting the tent up a little less permanent, and guess who it was that got up at 2am to fix it when the wind got a hold of the fly sheet. I’ll give you a clue…it wasn’t Guy."
We decided to climb a route on the Naranjo's east face named 'Amistad con del diablo' - friendship with the devil - 8 pitches of climbing, bolted belays and spaced gear with a bold crux pitch utilising 2 bolts in forty meters. Luckily this roughly translated to E2 5b in our money and we felt confident on the route. The rock felt superb, solid friction limestone on pockets and beautiful water worn runnels that you pinch and layback. Abbing to the base we shook hands and stumbled back down the scree around to our bivy at the bottom of the west face.
"Upon returning to the bivvy we discovered that out packs, tent and cooking equipment had gone. Someone HAD taken it. I questioned the Refugio custodian in my finest Spanish, I don’t speak any Spanish, who seemed to find it all rather amusing. Two British chumps had lost all their camping equipment. His response had made my mind up… he had taken our equipment. Again, in hindsight it was totally irrational to surmise that the Refugio custodian had stolen our stuff but at the time in our delirium it was the only ‘logical’ option. Not the fact that we’d stashed it somewhere different to where were looking, which was actually the case. We’d fucked up again, Idiots."
Having gone down to the valley a strange thing happened upon our walking back up. Being seasoned high-rock cats we'd stashed all our sleeping and climbing gear under a striking boulder in a field of boulders, we'd know where it was, even in the dark. As night set in so did the orbayu and with our head-torches illuminating sweet f.a it dawned on us that we would not find our bags and a night out in the open shivering was afoot. At the this very moment the orbayu eerily and slowly cleared from this high plain revealing the Naranjo, the Refugio and our boulder stash. We couldn't speak, I blurted out a "what the fuc..", and was cut off by Chris - "shut up, it might come back!". We fell asleep talking about God.
In the morning, the alarm woke us up into a wet and windy darkness, no chance.
"Boom Boom Dssk Dssk 5.am – the sound of the alarm we painstakingly selected in our hours to kill the night before, a suitably dark techno track. I stuck my head out of the tent. Dark - sunrise wasn’t for another hour and a half, fail. Raining – not good, would it dry? Windy – really bloody windy. Back to sleep."
"Each morning it wasn’t unusual for me to wake up with guy closely nestled against me struggling for warmth, his summer (read Californian summer) weight Vango sleeping bag just wasn’t cut out for the cold we were experiencing. He was sleeping in all the clothes he’d brought with him and had half of mine draped over him. I was sleeping in my pants"
I tried to sleep a few more hours but couldn't help poking my head out of the tent to see other nervous heads poking out all looking up in the same direction, the west face. After a 2 hour delay waiting for the face to dry we sprinted up to the base of the Rabadda-Navarro, looking up at 15 pitches with the two crux pitches straight off the deck in the biting cold wind of morning.
"Guy pipes up, ‘lets do this, it’ll be dry by the time we reach the wet bits.’
Guy’s (blind) enthusiasm never senses to amaze me, how can one be so enthusiastic all the time. Surely sometimes he just can’t be ringed? Nope.
"At least a later start meant I didn’t have to climb the 6c pitch in the dark. I’d heard many stories about people really struggling on the first pitch of Rabbada - Navarro so was expecting the worse and predicted a hard time. It wasn’t too bad though, tricky and sustained with some difficult moves, but overall it was much more pleasant than I’d expected. Reaching the first belay I was chuffed, we were on! It turns out that I was climbing this pitch with full use of my 6ft 2inch wingspan, which meant only one thing for Guy, not that he’s short or anything… oh well… French free… that’s what they call it isn’t it?"
Chris passed over the rack and I hummed a tune to myself and made jokes, anything to avoid looking up at the 6c+ corner above me. Those that know me understand that while I adore trad climbing je deteste traditional features like corners and crack - this was a corner with a slopey crack in the back, all my chickens had come home to roost. Through a series of thrutchy moves, jams and what-was-that-noise bridging I lunged leftwards out of the crack to a flat hold then squatted and tried a find a balance point on this gently overhanging wall. It was one of those precarious rests where you have to time to think but the clock is ticking. I let the dread creep in through my bleeding cuticles, through my pumped forearms and up past my panting chest to my eyes, precariously dangling from their respective stalks. I don't get this doubt often but sometimes when I feel boxed and confused I have the feeling that i'm a fraud playing 'climber' and that I shouldn't be there, lower off little boy you don't know what you're doing. These are the moments which draw me back to trad climbing, pulling yourself into adversity, overcoming personal demons and having a completely involved journey where you have to trust yourself. I hate the feeling truth be told but i'm not sure i'll ever stop seeking it out, it makes food and beer taste so much sweeter. Selfish really.
I leaned out and blindly clipped an insitu wire (a blessing and a curse), pushed in a cam, moved out of balance into the crux and stuffed my hands into the fissure. Squeezing and jamming every limb the angle eased for a moment and I lurched into a small niche, throwing my knee up, trying to get as much of my body out of reach of the gripping void behind. With a peg clipped I stood up precariously out of the niche then moved up a few moves back into the steepness of a loose flake and allowed myself thoughts of victory. Making train noises with my breathing I reached back for a quickdraw I tried to clip a wire; before I knew what had happened I was hurtling back down the corner screaming "nooooooooooo". I hung on the rope like a wet rag doll, breathing heavily, coughing out the occasional "fucks sake". I pulled up the rope and led to the top with more terror and resting, exclaiming with joy when the line moved out of the corner onto the steep pocketed right wall up to the belay. I felt happy enough, I had tried hard and couldn't let it get to me because "you still have 700m of climbing left" the guide helpfully writes for this pitch description. The next pitch was a fifty meter chimney in varying size from squeeze and back-and-footing to fists and flailing. I didn't mind though, it was Chris' pitch.
"Setting off on the fully traditional pitch that followed Guy seemed jovial, why you would be so if you were sat beneath a 40m polished, overhanging crack I do not know but he did. He climbed the start well, with limited thrashing, to reach a good rest and then pushed on. Then he was off, “NOOOooOOOOooOoo… I was lifted of, and then deposited back onto the belay. Attempting to second I was impressed, and believe me I don’t often like to admit it, it was hard. He’d put in a brilliant effort but been ejected… oh well… French Free"
I linked the next two pitches up a flake line with jugs and smears for sixty meters, "I am having the time of life Chris!". We had been going for around 5 hours in the shade with a harsh wind stealing away from you any warmth you had managed to collect whilst climbing. The sun finally broke through to us over the summit above and I arched back on my belay as far as I could to gain maximum exposure to it's rays. Chris broke into the sunshine seconding but his body wouldn't stop shivering just yet, he'd been having his own personal hell sat on the belay below.
"Guy’s pitch, where he “had the time of his life”, well I wasn’t, it was freezing, I was wearing everything and sported a full body shiver. Then it went tits up"
After a few more pitches it went wrong. I won't dwell on what happened, suffice to say that we both made mistakes and didn't finish the route. I followed Chris' pitch, I knew he'd had some trouble as you can tell this when you pay out thirty metres of slack then have to take it back in as your leader retraces their steps. I was frantic about time as I reached Chris' belay and made a beeline up an easy corner sixty metres in the wrong direction. I should have been going for eight o'clock but I steamed off up at eleven. I stood on top of a tower, clipped a rusty old bolt and looked at some snapped tat, peaking around the corner at the headwall I realised the job was totally fucked, the wind stung my face and the exposure got to me, I didn't know where we were.
"Time to launch HMS abbington, the job was fucked"
It's a quick switch, from victory planning to exit strategy but it's not something you can think about too much. We needed to get down from my dead end and we were sure as hell not abbing off this coke can ring-pull. Chris and I precariously padded around the slab looking for a belay, built one in the best rock we could find and I hummed back down to the amphitheater feature of the Naranjo where you can scamper over a loose rock filled terrace to a line of abs back to reality.
Slowly walking back down the scree I looked back every other footstep, the face was in bright sunshine now and looked stunning. I wasn't upset as I spotted the features of the pitches we had climbed, the face seemed smaller now with my eye linking familiar points. The west face would have to wait.
The next morning it was very windy again, we packed up our camp and discussed plans. It was decided we would walk around to the east face and check out the wind levels. There were quite a few teams on the face and their ropes billowed in the busy air, we watched them with tired eyes and slumped against a boulder with the angle of a deck-chair.
"Shall we just jibb it off?"
"Nah, let's do a few pitches, we can always just abb back down if it's too much"
Pulling through the final bulge of the last pitch I came to the last obstacle - a short squeeze through a small hole in the mountain with a grinning Chris at the other end. I went in feet first, did some technical wriggling then Chris grabbed my shoes, pulling me out onto the south face like a breached birth. The summit ridge felt suitably exciting and we sat next to the Maria beaming.
"So, we didn’t achieve our goal, which for me I didn’t mind, not at all really. We’d summited ‘it’, taken a photo with the Virgin Mary and made it home alive. What more can you want, trip of a lifetime"
- Luke Passer