Published in The Climbers’ Club Journal 2012, pp. 137-139.
Two’s Too Serious. Three’s an Interesting Epic:
Espolόn Central, Puig Campana, Costa Blanca
‘Descents in darkness are not uncommon, but are very undesirable.’ Rockfax
We were cruising up this wonderful climb and stopped for lunch after seven pitches on a big ledge below the crux. We could afford to let a couple on our heels go through. They deserved a break. They told us that whilst they were on the two-pitch Marion, the popular route on our local Sella crag, they had had their rucksack stolen with their car keys in it. As we talked I noted, with a smile, that she was in ‘pain management’ in Edinburgh. So nothing was stopping them from one more wonderful adventure in the Easter sun of Spain. But I was thinking what a useful person she was to have on a crag and hoping that we’d not put her skills to the test. Our loads lightened of butties and oranges, we were now eager to complete the
remaining six pitches before the long descent which first traverses the south face and then slides down the big scree gulley to Finestrat. However, our potential saviour from pain was now experiencing a little of it on the crux above us. Well actually, more than a little. The sun was searing. Patience and water were called for. My bandana under my helmet was needed now as a neckerchief.
I’d climbed this route in a team of three before, on a long January day when, with my fourteen year-old son Tom and regular partner Norman, we had seen the sun’s orange slowly surf up the great white screen of the south face as we scrambled over terraces towards it and then seen the face turn pink in the late afternoon as we walked off below it. It had been a dream climb on our first visit to the Costa Blanca. We fell in love with the area and then started coming at Easter as well as New Year. Now, ten years later, Gill and I were part-time locals from Sella, climbing with Pat, a full-time ex-pat and ex-army instructor of climbing, now in her sixties. Ever generous, Pat and her partner Gilly had given us advice and support
when we bought our little village house, and I had reactivated her interest in climbing. Pat had become my village climbing partner, together with Terry Lee, father of the Peak District’s prodigious Lee brothers. Terry, a former climbing partner of Frank Davies (of Ambleside shop fame), had been Head of Fine Art at Sheffield Art College, living as a tenant on the Chatsworth estate, as one of his sons does today. Now he is a full-time ex-pat living in a converted barn in the mountains above Sella with his wife Pam, also a climber and landscape painter. The work of both of them hangs in our Sella house, bought with money we’d put aside for ‘house improvements’. (Their village house is still for sale if anyone else is seduced by Sella.) As
both Pat and Terry have now stopped climbing I’ve had to train up a taxi driver from Bogna Regis, Martin, to become my climbing partner. A month’s nocturnal work in Bogna buys two months sunshine in Sella, where his wife Angela stays, looking after their rental house (villagehouseinspain.com). This wonderful community of local climbers has really enriched our lives in Sella, and with much more than the climbing alone. (See Martin’s blogs on his website about Eric the abseiling dog, for example.)
I like climbing in a threesome, not just for its sociability and conversation, but for the counterpoints in making judgements on the climb. Appreciating this dimension of climbing is a learned skill, now much neglected. I remember climbing with Gill and Harold Drasdo on Lliwedd on a cloudless bright summer’s day when Gill was complaining from within her hat and hood about my exposing her to a freezing day in the bone-searching sunless wind. ‘Well, he’s just a man’, explained Drasdo. I didn’t get it at the time. I still don’t. I somehow feel our President would. But here with Gill and Pat, waiting for our go at the crux, the necessary patience was, I suppose, eased by their tolerance of being on the mountain with ‘just
a man’, whatever that is.
When the time came to ascend the thin parallel cracks in the steep little wall two small wires defused the thin moves and my two lady companions were not delayed by the delights of thoughtful movement.
In fact, we got back into a cruising rhythm of pleasant route-finding and catching up on time, although our pain manager was long gone ahead of us. The sun was suddenly lower and the light in its last intensity. The ridge just kept coming. This was not right. We must have overlooked the feint red paint sign marking the descent traverse. It’s easily overlooked because it’s a faded red dot that’s on a wall behind a belay. Rushing to arrange a belay I had completely missed it and took us too high up the ridge. At the headwall, realising my mistake, I wanted to intersect the descent from the Edwards Continuation which speaks vaguely about making a descent into the famous notch. So I traversed up right in that general direction,
but soon realised that the technical difficulties were going to delay us further and the day was already beginning to close down. In front of my nose was the possibility of a thread, if I could excavate the dirt and needles from bushes above. So we came to be all hanging from a threaded tape, arranging the ropes for an adventurous abseil into the great bowl of the centre of the mountain with its walls undercutting slopes of untrodden screes.
By now the sun had set and Benidorm was waking up from its siesta below, blinking and stretching its long arms skywards. Down there the signs must be illuminating the uninitiated to ‘A Pound a Pint’, ‘All Day Yorkshire Breakfast’, ‘Happy Hour Cocktail’s’ and even ‘Spanish Beer Sold Here’. By now we knew we had our own nocturnal adventure ahead of us and at this stage, plan in place, dress adjusted, preparatory drinks shared, checking each other for embarrassing oversights, there was a certain group frisson of anticipation. Pat peeled away first with a smile and a joke, rather relishing, I suspect, all those years of teaching army recruits the subtle arts of abseiling safely. The ropes took her over little cliffs to a
long slope of small stones. Gill soon joined her, sacrificing speed for safety. Glad to be leaving behind this old knotted tape from my earliest gear, I then lost height, grateful to be using two 60 metre ropes. Delegating rope-coiling, I explored a delicate diagonal route over this scree above a huge drop in the direction of a tree. And here was a knotted hank of red climbing rope encircling its base!
Climbing is one large nomadic community, a shifting global village. I’ve raced to the base of a classic climb on Beinne Eighe against another pair who turned out to be people I talked to at Stanage the week before. I’m glad now, as I’m writing this, to remember that the last time I saw the late Ben Wintringham’s irrepressible smile was in the pizza place in Finestrat. Pat arrived at the tree and thought that this rope sling must be from the epic descent a few weeks before of a group of Yorkshire firemen who had dossed in her basement. So at least we were now on an regular route of epic descents. This abseil brought us to a red dot on the traverse of the face. Ropes coiled, we were caught in the crepuscular velvet darkness
of a Spanish dusk/night. We scrambled along the dotted line, rounding ridge after ridge, until what appeared through the gloom to be a diagonal downclimb into the long scree gully bounding the face. Here I wanted no final risks in the rush to be off the rock, so I set a belay on a big block and roped Pat down to stand in the trees on the edge of the scree. As Gill followed her down into the blackness I remember marvelling at the view from the belay. A domed aura of strange mauve light hung above Benidorm’s twinkling blocks. I heard Gill shout that she was down and then say, ‘Pat? Where are you?’ ‘Right in front of you!’ came the amused reply.
We thought that was the hard part done. Travelling light-headed and light-hearted, we’d no headtorches, of course. But now began hours of slow sliding, ankle-twisting, prickly bush grabbing, tumbling, bum-sliding descent of the exceedingly loose path at the side of the scree. We kept stopping to gather ourselves together, share our bruises and complaints, reassure ourselves that we were losing more height than skin and that, yes, we thought it went this way. When we reached woods we noticed shadows. A full moon had risen. Tired, we tripped over tree roots and sweating, we snaked through bushes on the white trail that twisted on and on. None too soon houses appeared on each side, a slide down onto a roadway, a bridge,
a barrier and, finally the tarmac road of Finestrat. But our car was up the road. Up!
At this point I was in such a state of exhaustion that I could barely speak. Looking back on it, I think it was a kind of ‘rescue collapse’ at the relief from having carried the responsibility, in my mind, and its suppressed tension of getting us off the mountain suddenly released at meeting the road. Gill and Pat heroically went uphill for the car and reassured the caring community in Sella. (In those days we left our mobile phones in the car.) Gilly had been cooking a spag bol for us at 8pm and it was now 11pm. She had rung Terry Lee and he was preparing to come on a search with one of his visiting sons. I was left in a heap by the road to ponder again the shared resources of climbing as a three and those enigmatic
words of the Third Man, Harold Drasdo.