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Adventures in El Chorro, Spain

Czech climber Yaroslav Lebel pulls through the crux of Hakuna Mata (5.12a) on the Makinodromo Wall, El Chorro, Spain. Three more famous destinations in Spain–Mallorca, La Costa Blanca and La Costa Durada–tend to overshadow El Chorro, which offers everything from bouldering and single-pitch sport climbing to adventurous multi-pitch trad. The author sees El Chorro as a raw “Jewel of the Mediterranean.” [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

My climbing partner, a Polish fellow I met this morning, and I stumble through a foggy blackness, feeling our way through an endless tunnel. The faint glare of the light in the distance somehow makes it harder to see. We each slide one hand along the dank stone wall and feel out the contours of the ground with our feet.


My new friend lies on the ground, stunned by a low-hanging sign of some kind, invisible in the dark. I don’t speak Polish so I kneel to help him up. Blindly groping with the best of intentions I stick one finger in his eye and another in his mouth. Since we don’t know each other well, we pretend it didn’t happen. I lean back, putting my hand on the railroad track behind me, to pull him up. That’s strange. The track’s vibrating. I reach to the side of the tunnel and feel the wall. There’s not much space. “A train! A train!” I shout at my injured friend, but he doesn’t understand until the train maliciously blows its whistle, ensuring that we’re deaf before we get flattened.

Scurrying like blind subterranean rodents we find a small hollow in the wall. We press ourselves flat just as the train roars past, whipping our hair into little tornados and billowing our clothes to within inches of the train’s sides. He screams in Polish and I in English–we both sound like idiots.

That morning of my first day in El Chorro I deemed the most harrowing and fantastic climbing approach I’d ever had. Maciej, whose name was so utterly unpronounceable that I simply called him “The Pole,” seemed to agree. Where else can you find such a rush–before even starting to climb–other than Spain’s best-kept secret, El Chorro? After we calmed down, wiped the tears from our eyes and found our way out of the tunnel, The Pole kept saying “fen!”–which I interpreted as “fun.” So we rappelled over the edge of the next bridge, clipped a runner around the underside of the tracks and rode out the next train, its thundering wheels inches from our faces.

I have long believed that traveling alone as a climber is the best way to experience new places; my first adventure to El Chorro always reminds me of the advantages of traveling solo. Having arriving partnerless, I woke up that first morning, grabbed my gear and visited an abandoned mud house, where I had seen Polish climbers milling about. I was intent on recruiting one of the Poles for an adventure. Rallying support in Polish was beyond my linguistic capabilities, so I jingled my quickdraws and cams until a pale body slimed through the doorway, recoiling from the sun like a vampire. It was Maciej.

The abandoned mud house on the hill, with its Polish inhabitants lounging outside. [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

Later, after we made it through the tunnel, narrowly surviving the train, we found our way to the infamous Camino Del Ray. The mile-long, legendary, dilapidated walkway runs the length of the lower gorge and is the only access for a number of El Chorro’s cherished trad climbs. Sector Africa houses excellent climbs that rise 800 feet above the Rio Guadalhorce following long, even cracks. But getting to the Camino is a feat in itself. Gaining the walkway’s start requires a balancing act on thin and rusty spars that once were merely supports. They extend perpendicularly from the wall with three feet between them and 100-foot drop below. We leaped across ten or more of these spars, with only the wall for balance, then scrambled up unprotected fourth- and fifth-class climbing to the bona fide Camino, where the scary part begins.

In over our heads but too scared to turn back, The Pole and I came face to face with the Camino Del Ray proper. It looked like a thirty-six-inch-wide slice of cement Swiss cheese glued to the wall with chewing gum. The Camino was built in the 1920s so the King of Spain could see the new water pipes that traveled through the lower gorge, carrying water to the costal city of Malaga. Since the king’s single visit eighty years ago, the Camino has fallen into disrepair–huge pieces are missing, and metal supports are nearly rusted through or broken. This was quickly becoming the “death approach” of all time. Clinging to one another we inched forward, unsure of each step.

The Camino Del Rey, before the recently added safety cable existed.

As we gained confidence in the walkway we were able to move quickly–sometimes jumping across chasms, hoping the far side would hold. Each man-sized hole we encountered could have been a climber who fell to his death when the walkway gave out under him. Indeed, a number of climbers have died using the Camino and other antiquated heavy equipment in the lower gorge. But soon we remembered we were there to climb, not simply to survive the Camino. (Since this first trip to El Chorro, and thankfully before my most recent visit, local climbers have installed a safety cable along much of the Camino for an added measure of security.)

Trad climbing seemed just the thing to regain our composure, so we headed for Sector Africa, in the lower gorge. This spot, one of El Chorro’s many areas, is so vast and full of new route potential that a climber could be happy there for a season or more. All one would need is a full rack and a healthy sense of adventure. Unlike any other area I have seen in Spain, the lower gorge is split by massive fins of white limestone. These fins stack against one another to create amazing continuous cracks of all sizes and lengths. This unique type of limestone makes El Chorro one of the only truly enjoyable limestone crack climbing areas in the world. We couldn’t resist.

The entrance to the Lower Gorge. The Camino Del Rey is visible on the wall in the upper right. The famous ten-pitch route Zeppelin follows the ridge in the left foreground. [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

Sector Africa lies at the end of the lower gorge where the Rio Guadalhorce empties into a lake. Looking across the gorge we picked out our favorite line and assembled a custom rack for the job. We chose the route Africa, a six-pitch 5.11a that travels straight up the center of the wall. We headed down the Camino, crossed the gorge on a suspended water pipe, then crawled through a small, wet and dirty tunnel to get to the first bolts. From there we rappelled a rope-length to a ledge just above the river. After skittering along the ledge we finally saw the route following an amazing single crack for nearly four pitches. This is the lower gorge: wind, water, death approaches and killer climbing. And we still had the rest of El Chorro to explore!

El Chorro is often described as a place where people re-discover why they were drawn to climbing in the first place. The area overflows with elements that, together, create my ideal climbing destination: passionate and quirky people, wonderful natural environments, adventurous approaches and world-class sport and trad climbing. Orange and white walls litter the herb-scented hills and are connected with trails through ancient valleys dotted with citrus and olive trees. For me, El Chorro’s intangible charm and incredibly plentiful and diverse routes make it Spain’s premier adventure climbing destination.

Unnamed climber contemplates his next clip. El Chorro, Spain. [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

With El Chorro’s diversity in climbing and people, finding a partner and fantastic rock is never difficult. Up the valley from the lower gorge is the area’s most famous wall, Sector Makinodromo. Often called Europe’s most famous climb, Lourdes (5.13b, 30-meters) splits an impressive tufa-encrusted cave in the center of the wall. Though “most famous” is a bold claim in a continent of amazing climbing, I have met many climbers who travel to El Chorro only to do this route. Small, roofless shelters have been constructed from stones at the bottom of the route, presumably so climbers can sleep there with the wall towering directly over their head, inspiring their dreams. A young Icelandic guy I made friends with was a constant feature on this route, pulling himself through roof after roof with thin, cable-like arms. “Its not so hard,” he said with no tone of irony or pretense in his voice, “It’s just so long! And the crux comes at the very top.” Discouraged by his failure to redpoint the route, the Icelandic youth was relieved to see Bernabe Fernandez himself, perhaps the most famous and accomplished climber in Spain, hanging on each of the last eight draws.

Foosball at the climbing hostel after a long day of pulling down. [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening

Lourdes is of such mythical status that most times there is both a climber attempting the route and a crowd watching. The Pole and I befriended a spirited local, who traveled with his dog seven days a week to the wall to climb easier routes and watch others attempt Lourdes. His face was lost in a nest of dreadlocks and his dog’s thick coat was so caked in burrs, leaves and sticks that it looked more like a bush than a dog. We enjoyed the company so much that I finally gave up on Trainspotting–a 5.12c that I had been thrashing up–for some rest and alcohol, not in that order. So the Pole, the Spaniard, the Icelandic crew, a group of Finnish climbers and I made our way back to the climbing hostel for drinks and foosball, both of which are taken extremely seriously in El Chorro.

Since that first day dodging trains and braving the Camino, I have returned to El Chorro time and again, not just for the climbing but also for the eclectic international group of people El Chorro attracts. Unlike so many other places, El Chorro is locked in time, changing very little from year to year. What keeps the place alive and vibrant are the dedicated locals establishing new routes and the constant flow of people, from all over the world, bringing unique perspectives, languages and passion for climbing.

The adventure will continue with two more Weekly Feature articles on El Chorro from photographer Traveler Taj Terpening. Feel free to give Traveler a shout if you want to know more about El Chorro or his photography.

Aldo Itorbe of Mexico descends after redpointing Trainspotting (5.12c). [Photo] Traveler Taj Terpening