Recently, I received two messages that came in a day apart, both were from friends who are climbing in Chulilla, Spain. The messages were about the same subject, and in each message, my friends said a story was doing the rounds, and it was a story that I played a part. When they told me what story it was, I replied, that I was a part of the story, as much as I didn’t want to be, and the story would possibly make a good bit of writing, so here goes…
Chulilla is a small town set high on the side of a wide and twisting gorge cut by the Rio Turia; a meandering body of water flowing in the base of the gorge. Once the river passes the town, it cuts back on itself one hundred and eighty degrees, forming something similar to a Venezuela Tepui, a large island of rock on the land between the U bend in the river. Reeds, in the base of the gorge swish in the breeze, and small birds’ flit between the delicate stalks. I’ve spent many days climbing, and often being ejected from the steep and high, yellow and orange limestone walls. Late in the evening, as the sun sets, jogging along the sandy track that follows the river, it’s easy to lose yourself, and imagine you’re in some South American jungle.
My first trip to Chulilla was about seven years ago with Zylo. We hadn’t been together long, but I do remember her repeatedly trying, and lobbing from the crux of a very good and long 7a+ called Serengeti. In itself, this was impressive, but, while stripping the route, clipped to the second bolt; taking the rope out of the quickdraw she was clipped to, (so I could take the rope tight) she somehow caught the tip of her index finger in the draw and leant back. Her fingertip exploded. The blood that flew from her finger was possibly more impressive that her tenacity higher up the climb, and after lowering her down, the exploded tip was pouring blood. The following day, she taped and glued her finger and gave Serengeti a few more goes, which I must admit, I found impressive and scary in equal measure!
Several months later, over Christmas, and still together, (of course we were still together, she was hard as nails, although a tad mad!) Zylo and I spent a month in Chulilla. For a few days, it poured with rain and I went running. On one of my runs, I left the village, jogging past the sewerage works, (an excellent van doss as long as you don’t mind the odd waft of human shit) then up and over a col, and onto the other side of the gorge, leading to the dam, and the parking for the climbing. The rain hammered, streams flowed where streams don’t usually flow, the sky was dark and cloudy, and the temperature was more north Wales than Valencia region. I jogged from the dam, along the sandy footpath, heading towards the suspended footbridge over the gorge at its narrowest. The path runs along the opposite river bank to the section of crag that has the largest, and in my mind, best climbing at Chulilla, sector Oasis. Of course, there was no one climbing because that would be really crazy given the weather and conditions, but as I stomped through the sodden sand, opposite a section of the crag called Pared Blanca, there was one, obviously deranged person, power screaming his way up one of the 8a’s. I stopped to watch the surreal spectacle; a person climbing a hard climb, in the cold, with a waterfall pouring over the top of the climb. Great dark swathes of water flowed each side of him. Impressive. But definitely mad!
Several days later, Zylo and I were at a crag called Naranjito where she climbed a 7a+ that had no name (and possibly no other ascents, although she insisted it was good!) and she didn’t explode any of her fingers, so all was fine. We then went to Pared Blanca for me to try a route called Kataplof that I had put the clips in a few days earlier on Christmas Day. Kataplof is a Pedro Pons climb. Pedro and his partner Nuria own the Hostel El Altico in the village, and both have been involved in the development in Chulilla. On that first trip, Zylo and I were camping at the hostel, and after trying a 7c that I can’t remember the name, or even where it was, we returned to the hostel, where I wined to Pedro that the route I had been trying, had no holds. Pedro replied, ‘Of course it has holds Nick, its only 7c’. I took myself away and wept into my Voll Damm!
Kataplof had no stars, no chalk, no polish and no entries in UKC logbooks, (possibly the no polish, and no chalk, was related to the no logbook entries … ooooh, political!). The fact that it was an unknown, appealed to me. It also looked brilliant and long, so why not, (I must admit, the honey pot thing, that is brought about by stuff being posted on the internet has always bothered me a bit, you may not have notice 😉).
The crag had dried out and there was one other party there, who, it turned out, was someone I knew.
“Hey Josh, how are you?”
Josh Wharton was originally from the East Coast of the States, and described by Kelly Cordes, (also from the States) as a weapon. Josh climbed around the world, in the mountains, on rock, ice and mixed, and on some very difficult and bold climbs, he was very good.
“Yeah, good thanks Nick.”
I recalled my run in the rain from a week ago,
“Were you climbing here in the rain last week?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was raining a bit.”
Now it made sense,
I had a go at Kataplof, and fell off. Josh on-sighted a long and pumpy 7c+ to my right, (thinking about it, he may have climbed another 8a) then asked if he could have a go at my route. He on-sighted that also. I wasn’t going to have another go as I was still pumped, but inspired by Josh, got on, and surprised myself by doing it, there’s possibly a lesson to be taken from this, although I’m not sure what it is…
Chulilla is great, and all of the stories above are from Chulilla, but none are the story doing the rounds at the moment in Chulilla. The story doing the rounds goes back a good few years, from a time I was best man at my friend’s wedding somewhere near the Cotswolds.
My friend is a climber, a great friend who has a bad habit of climbing the same hill, driving big four-wheel drive vehicles and wearing wrist watches that are too big, expensive, and heavy. We had loads of the same friends, and most of them were at the wedding. Personally, I think the only reason he asked me to be best man was because he knew I would not go to town on the speech, and take it from me, there was a lot of potential to go to town! But as outspoken as I can be on occasion, I would never include some of the content I had knowledge of, certainly not in a best man’s speech, else it may have been a very short marriage, and my friend knew this. Yes, for once, I was a safe bet, who would have thought!
In the evening, everyone hung out and drank too much. The venue was a posh hotel and pub, it had dark nooks and crannies and open fires. A group of about fifteen of us stood in an alcove. Everyone standing in the circle were close friends. Most of the group I knew from my winters in Chamonix. I had slept on their sofas, skied and climbed with them all, we all knew each other well. One of the group was, and still is, a great mate. In some aspects, we were quite different, he hardly drank alcohol, he was all over social media with pictures mainly of himself, and he always appeared to be following some weird form of diet. He was also much fitter, and a better climber and skier than me. We had Alpine climbed, skied, rock climbed, trained, run, expedition climbed, Scottish winter climbed, almost all of it, together, and regularly, (It isn’t Andy Houseman for those of you trying to guess, although you possibly knew that because I said I’d trained and run with this person and they didn’t drink 😉).
Of the many days together, I still remember one snowy and sunny day in Chamonix, that me and my un-named mate, who for the purpose of this story, I’ll call Iggy, had some spare time. So, on a whim, we jumped on a mid-morning Midi ski lift, arrived at the top station, bustled through the ice tunnel, clicked into skis, and skied the top section of the Valley Blanche, heading to the Italian side of the Giant Icefall. From the top of the icefall, we skinned up the Periades glacier; zig-zag, after monotonous, zig-zag, for about 600m, before reaching a cliff band, where we attached crampons to ski boots, skis to rucksacks, and kicked-up another 300m, of the South Couloir of the Breche Puiseux, to finally reach Breche Puiseux, a rocky gap in the sticky out bits on the right hand side (looking up from the Leschaux Glacier) of the ridge running across the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses (I know this isn’t the best description, but hopefully, you get the idea). I must admit, I was hanging by the time we reached the breche, we had hardly stopped since leaving the Midi, and it had been in full sun. The altitude gain was just over 1000 hot metres. Iggy, being very fit, had pushed the pace because he was concerned we would miss the final Montenvers train back to the valley. I’m also pretty sure I’d not taken any food or water!
We didn’t stop in the breche, in-fact, when I got there, Iggy was already abseiling down the north side, we now had 3000m of descent. After two abseils, we attached skis, and in the shade of the brooding Grande Jorasses North face, skied the Glacier of the Mont Mallet without stopping, until we reached the levelling of the Leschaux Glacier, nearly opposite the Leschaux refuge. I only learnt to ski at the age of 37, and my skiing was a source of great fun for all of my friends, and I must admit, my thighs were screaming on the descent, so much so, I’m pretty sure I yelled to my mate, ‘leave me, I’ll walk the train tracks back to the valley, I don’t care!’ But once on the level, we continued to the lower section of the Vallee Blanche, and the Mer de Glace, where, after something like four-hours since leaving the Midi station, we joined the queue for the small cabins, that took us to the train station. As I stood in the queue and walked, my arms began to lock, my legs cramped and I thought I was about to vomit.
“Here you go mate.”
My friend had a square of dark chocolate and water with orange isotonic flavouring; he always looked after me.
Anyway, back to the wedding, where we all stood in the alcove. Iggy, hardly ever drinks, but on this occasion, he had a few red wines, and it was almost as funny as my skiing stance. He wobbled like I had in that queue for the train, before then sitting down on a chair. I don’t think he was in a relationship at the time, although to be honest, Iggy and relationships were often, how to put it, fluid, or at least that’s how he saw them! There was a woman in the circle who had history with him, and as he sat down, he looked up at her, lifted his tea-shirt to reveal the ribbed muscles of his stomach, and said, “Go on love, treat yourself.” Needless to say, this garnered a reaction from the crowd of friends.
I can’t remember what time I went to bed, but it was late, and I was a tad worse for wear. As the best man, I had been sharing a room with my friend who had just become a married man, but inconsiderately, he had moved rooms to share with his wife, meaning I was now sharing with Iggy. I collapsed in bed, and the thought ran through my mind, ‘he better not’. I fell into a bit of a stupor holding this thought, but as drunk as I was, and as drunk as he was, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t.
I woke in the dark, and heard something I had not heard all the way up to the Breche Puiseux, it was Iggy a little out of breath, he was actually breathing quite heavy!
Oh no, I couldn’t believe it, she had obviously taken up Iggy’s offer and decided to ‘treat herself’, so I rolled over, pulled the blanket and pillow over my head, then pushed fingers into ears and began to hum the theme tune to Postman Pat.
I’m not sure at what point the proceedings stopped, but I sensed there were still two people nearby, and just for a second I thought of sitting up, turning on the lamp, and asking if either of them had a cigarette, but in the end, because Iggy was my mate, and he had given me a drink and a square of chocolate in that queue, I decided not to, but, even a drink of water that had some isotonic ingredients, and a square of posh, dark, 80 percent chocolate only buys you so much loyalty. 😉