There is this wonderful moment when your hand runs across warm, rough, weathered rock – your skin listening carefully for every bump and hollow; fingertips seeking out small imperfections, your roadmap to the sky. It’s like an artist, lovingly running sensitive hands over a beautiful sculpture. There’s a naked, raw, powerful beauty in the moment. A bond, forged in sunlight, wrought by nature over thousands of years.
I felt none of that. I’m sitting at the foot of a rock in El Chorro, Andalucia, Spain. The scenery is stunning, the team of climbers are funny, enthusiastic and helpful, the instructors knowledgeable and supportive. For the moment I am happy to let the gang burn off their climbing fever and head for the first ‘routes’ that go up; while I enjoy the view.
There is lots to enjoy. It is our first morning in Spain with Wicklow based company Giddy Gally Adventures. The rain that greeted our arrival in Malaga Airport yesterday evening has blown away to blue skies and warm sunshine, coaxing fragrant perfume from wild sage and lavender that is growing all around us and waving out plumes of scent in a gentle breeze.
Dane Galligan (El Boss) and the ridiculously talented Lloyd O’Mahoney are lead climbing and setting routes on the bolted rock, while I’m basking in the morning sun. See how I did that? how technical am I? If you haven’t climbed before, let me explain. If you have climbed, skip the next paragraph or read on and forgive my humble attempt at explaining the basics of sport climbing. My example is just a rough sketch and should on no account be used as a manual for setting up a climb!
Sport Climbing involves climbing on ‘bolt-protected’ routes
There are several different types of climbing traditions and purists who prefer each; and some who love all. Here in El Chorro with Giddy Gally Adventures, we had signed up for a week of ‘sport climbing’ – which is climbing on routes that are protected by bolts already drilled into the rock. Dane and Lloyd would ‘set’ a route for the rest of us, by ‘lead-climbing’ up a line of bolts, ‘clipping in’ their rope to the bolts with metal clips or ‘quickdraws’ as they climb. Each bolt provides a protection in case they fall. The rope that runs through the clips attached to the bolts, is at one end attached to their personal harness that fits snugly around their waist. The spare end is run through a ‘belay device’ attached to the harness of their partner on the ground who feeds them rope and takes in slack wherever necessary. When the lead climber gets to the top, they clip on a safety, fix the rope through the top anchor and then climb back down, removing the quickdraws along the way but leaving the rope attached at the top – and providing a ‘top-roped’ climb for the rest of us.
Very soon there were 3 or four routes set and the fun began. Dane and Lloyd instructed us on safety and how to belay. Whether you were experienced or not, the lesson was interesting. There were extra hints and variations included, along with tales of climbing across Spain, snippets of history of Andalucía, and frequent bursts of Spanish from Lloyd, who has only been learning the language a few months, but to me at least, sounds like he’s speaking like a native. I love the gentle ease with which the lads get us up on the rock; working safety and instruction into the climb, without killing the fun and sense of adventure. Before long they notice I haven’t had a climb and I’m encouraged onto the rope. I am a bit nervous and my hands are shaking a bit, but everyone is really easy-going. There is no pressure, just a gentle enthusiasm and before long I’m tied onto the rope and looking around for my first toehold.
It was not a perfect union of rock and climber, more of a scramble with perhaps an occasional expletive. I’ve put on a lot of weight since I last made a roped-climb and I can’t help being pretty hard on myself. I have known the feeling of ‘dancing across rock’ jumping from toe-hold to toe-hold and finding the ‘invisible’ grips that the rock reveals the higher you climb. I just wasn’t getting that feeling, but it had nothing to do with the rock. The difficulty was all in my mind, because the more I compared myself to a previous model of me, the tenser I got and the less I relaxed into the rope and the rock. I knew this. I told myself this. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax and enjoy the climb. I felt a flash of triumph when I made it to the top. I hung there for a few minutes, supported on the rope by my ‘belayer’ below, savouring the view for a while, before sitting deep into my harness, pushing off the rock and abseiling back down to the ground.
We broke for lunch, which was the first of many banquets to come at El Chorro. Giddy Gally Adventures brought their own chef with them from Wicklow, who quickly became known as Austin ‘El Cheffo’. We learned to stack our plate and then STAY AWAY FROM THE TABLE because it was so tempting to keep nibbling at the variety of tapas and salads and meats and cheeses….. a total delight and guaranteed to make your harness tighter for the afternoon session.
Piling back into the minibus after a long and leisurely lunch, we fought the desire to snooze and headed back to another ridge for another 4 hours of climbing. You can clearly climb all day here. We did – we climbed all week. But what I really mean is you can climb your heart out and still have climbing left to do. It is a climbers’ paradise. Warm rock, easy access, antiquity, culture, great food, tapas, wine and I haven’t even mentioned the prices. Heading off to the local taverna in the evening, I found it incredibly difficult to spend a tenner. Beer was €1.20, a glass of Rioja €1.40 and a clay pan of prawns in boiling oil and garlic, just €2.50.
Our worst prisons are the ones we build for ourselves
After the 2nd day I realised that my head was really getting in the way of my enjoyment. Instead of climbing all the wonderful routes that were being set, I was curling up in the lavender and watching everyone else. I was very happy, but I kept comparing myself to ‘the former me’ and ‘the climber I used to be’. I kept judging the routes and studying everyone else climbing, slowly convincing myself that I wouldn’t make it to the top and it would be too embarrassing to try. I worried about my weight, I worried about my belly pushing out over the harness, I worried about whether the belayer would be critical of how heavy I felt on the rope. Total rubbish, all of it. Nobody cared. Except me. Throughout my little ‘Princess and the Pea’ routine, Lloyd and Dane kept gently encouraging me to climb. There was no pressure but they never stopped making the invitation. Finally, heading back to the villa on day 2, I had a stern talk with myself. I knew the only thing stopping me from enjoying these wonderful rocks was me. So I decided to stop over-thinking things. I decided then and there in the minibus, that tomorrow I would climb the first route that went up.
Of course the first route that went up on day 3 was the most difficult one of the week. Isn’t life like that? There was an awkward start, there was an overhang, it was tough. But a promise is a promise, so up I went. I started up to the left of the route and got about half way, but couldn’t make it any further. I abseiled back down, but then I spotted another way and so I went back up along the right hand side. I still didn’t make it to the top, but abseiling back down I decided to have yet another crack and attempted going straight back up the middle. After three goes, I still didn’t make it past the overhang, but my gosh, I had certainly made it past my mind. With my mental block now gone, I was ‘rock and rolling’ all over the place. Yep, I was quite literally rolling all over the rock. I was leaping for cracks and jumping for gaps, and failing and slipping and having an absolute ball. All considerations for my poor ‘belayer’ below were gone; as long as he was hanging onto me and I wasn’t falling, I was having a whale of a time, not just feeling like one. I was dancing across the rock again – I may not have done justice to Anna Pavlova but I was doing a damned good Riverdance.
Eventually with my arms shaking and my knees knocking like Elvis, I gave up and came down. This wasn’t really giving up though. This was about giving it a go, your best go, having a bash, having a blast, enjoying every second of it and knowing that there’s plenty more where that came from. I learned a valuable lesson, which I’m pretty sure I had learned before, but somehow I had forgotten. We shouldn’t be afraid of failing, we should be afraid of never trying. Our worst prisons are the ones we build for ourselves.
The scariest walk in the world
On one of our climbs, we passed through a pine forest to reach a rocky platform high above three beautiful turquoise coloured lakes. From here we could just about see the Caminito del Ray or ‘Kings Little Pathway’. Once known as the most dangerous walkway in the world, this heartbreakingly high path has now been restored and runs along the cliffs that hug the lakes, created by a dam across the dramatic 200m high Guadalhorce River Gorge or ‘Garganta del Chorro’. The lads will also arrange for a hike along the walkway, which isn’t as scary now that it’s been restored. But it needs to be arranged in advanced, and as we picked the busy Easter Holiday weekend for our trip, we decided to give it a miss.
Over dinner back at the villa, ‘El Cheffo Austin’ told us how the old Malaga-Cordoba railway line that ran through the gorge, and sections of the scary Caminito walkway, were used in location shots for the 1965 adventure film Von Ryan’s Express. He pulled out his smartphone and tapped into the wifi to show us grainy black and white images of Frank Sinatra standing on the bridge, beside the cliffs that we’d been admiring earlier in the day. I remarked that I’d love to swim in the amazingly blue waters down below. Austin explained that they get their colour from the ice-melt that floods them from the mountains during the spring thaw, adding that they also keep their icy chill. Undeterred I was eager for a chance to get up close and personal with El Chorro’s ‘Lake District’ and the gang agreed with enthusiasm and laughter to head for the lakes the next day.
We climbed in the morning, then headed to the Gorge of the Gaitanes for lunch at a lakeside restaurant. Drooling sadly, I soon realised I had made my one mistake of the trip, avoiding the house specialty ‘BBQ Pork Ribs’ in favour of a ‘Salmon Skewer’ and fitting into my climbing harness. Now the salmon was good but a taste of the ribs confirmed what I already knew, Spanish pork ribs barbecued on an open flame and packed with fresh rosemary is not something that should ever be overlooked by dieting Irish girls. I suppose I will just have to come back.
In the afternoon, we climbed a couple of hundred stony steps down to the lake that I’d been longing for. Local people who had travelled back from the cities to holiday at the lakes for Easter, laughed with amusement as we got into swimming gear and headed for the crazy blue water. Only mad Irish people would dip a toe into water that cold. There were plenty of screams as we walked, tiptoed and plunged into the lake. It was cold. It was very cold. But it was amazing. Reaching long strokes out into the water, feeling the sun on my back and the crack of cold along my spine, I looked back at the beach to catch the looks of delighted surprise on the faces of other less crazy tourists! I swam laps across the narrow part of the lake, parallel to our beach, and I felt I could have swam there all day. It was an ‘into this world’ experience and remembering it will put a smile on my face for many months to come.
The following morning we were back out on the rocks and I had a chance to climb a route that the lads set up through a ‘chimney’ in the rock. In rock-climbing parlance, a chimney is a large crack in the rock that is big enough for a climber to slip inside, as they climb up a route. Chimney climbing or ‘chimneying’ brings with it a whole new style of climbing, from wedging toes and hands against the side and ‘squeezing’ your way up inside inch by inch, to ‘bridging’ or using your body to span the space from side to side. You can use elbows, shoulders, backs, every part of your body. It can feel quite enclosed and I was intrigued to find out how I’d feel, buried inside the rock, high up on a cliff. Somewhat to my surprise I found I loved it. I felt protected by the rock and went about halfway up this particular route, before I decided that things were getting just a bit too tight for me.
There’s another move in rock-climbing where you slide your hand into a crack and make a fist, like a kid with a hand in the cookie-jar. Your hand won’t release while you keep the fist, and the move is called a fist jam. I joked with the gang that I’d created my own move for this rock, a ‘boob jammer’ – I wonder if that’s been used before? Still grinning I let my belayer lower me to the ground and before long we were finishing up our last climbs, coiling our ropes, packing our harnesses and helmets and heading back to the villa for our last supper and final night.
A brighter, better, human being
It was a blow out. We arrived back to see ‘El Cheffo’ had been busy, with local rabbit and chicken broiling away on the bbq. There were salads, vegetable stir fries, home made burgers; it was a veritable feast. We ate outdoors beside the pool and I even had time for another swim. Later we went back into the local town for beers and a sing-song with ourselves and the locals which lasted into the early hours. Flying back to Dublin the following day, I could hardly croak my name, I had sung so much the night before.
It was a fine adventure and I’m definitely going back for more. Whether you are an experienced climber or a complete beginner, this is a trip of memories and I’m pretty sure that if you join the Giddy Gally Adventure boys once, you will repeat the experience again and again. I got a tan, I had a swim, I climbed, I learned something new about myself, I ate amazing food, I met amazing people, and I’d like to think I’ve made some lasting new friendships. Did they make me into a rock star? Yes, in my own mind they did and I think that’s where it matters most. I travelled back to Ireland a braver, brighter, better human being. How much more can you expect from an adventure? www.giddygallyadventures.ie
Our Giddy Gally Adventures team in El Chorro, Spain, were: L/R (below) John Morrissey, Szymon Sieraszewski, Dane Galligan, Luke Prendergast, Teena Gates, Ray Prendergast, Gemma Worrall, David Russell, Lloyd O’Mahoney & ‘El Cheffo’ Austin Galligan (not pictured)