La Mala (8b), Chulilla. Photo: Uisdean Hawthorn

What’s the point?

Picture this: a limestone gorge cuts through the Spanish hillside, like a line traced deep into the sand. High orange and grey walls twist for kilometres, and a river lazes in the shade. 

80 metres above, the sun illuminates green trees lining the rim of the gorge; they glow in the light, opening up to an azure sky. Climbers stick to the darker walls, cooler temperatures creating better conditions. Bright figures decorate the cliffs, inching higher; or suddenly falling and bouncing like a stone on a string.

Now see this climber: 38 metres up a 40 metre sport route. The finishing ledge is so close. White, chalky blobs paint a dot-to-dot up this perfect sweep of rock, and a thin 9mm rope hangs from the climber’s waist, snaking down through endless quickdraws. Bloodied fingers snatch at crimps, each smaller than the one before. His arms are filled with liquid cement, and he’s fought for every metre. Go-go-go! is the only thought left to think. His elbows point to the sky, teeth gritted, arse out, and he eyeballs the finishing jugs from this 8a-actually-7c+.

He leans back with wobbling arms, and stares with eye-popping focus at the jug. A war-cry scream echoes across the gorge, and then, with momentum, he throws his right hand at the juggy slot; the welcoming, piss-taking thing is just waiting to be caught. 

Seconds become minutes. The hand moves in slow motion. His eyes register the fingers hitting the slot, and the jug is snatched - but wait! Almost imperceptibly, the hand slips, fingers cast away. Time accelerates with a whoosh! as the climber enters free-fall, and the jug begins to disappear...

“Buuuuuuuuggggggeerrrrrr!!!” Spinning like a broken yo-yo, he hangs at the end of the rope, ten metres lower, and throws every curse at the wind. Spanish, French, English, Slovenian and even Scottish expletives echo into the gorge, quickly replaced by howling laughter from both climber and belayer. “Haha, brilliant! Oh well, that was a good fight!’

If only I’d moved my feet! he thinks (again.)


Later, on a run around the gorge, a path switch-backs through the heat. Loose rocks crunch and crack underfoot, like grinding teeth. Insects rattle and chirp through the shrubs and trees, the ground dusty and dry. The smell of lavender - which later turns out to actually be rosemary - floats down the hillside in the warm breeze.

Yesterday’s fall from the top of the route is shaken off. The above episode of boofing off the top of El Bufa was me. I’m not bothered; in fact I’m pleased considering the fight just to get there. Resting, shaking out and probing the coming sequence is all part of the onsight experience: it’s all ‘unknown.’ Once committed, huffing and puffing like a steam train, the sequence flows quickly... only to reach another crux, stall, and start shaking out again!


But what’s the point? Why travel to Spain, why climb up a rock to an arbitrary point?

I guess, in the simplest terms, the point of this pointless activity is for pure enjoyment. Sport climbing is almost all ‘fun.’ There’s virtually no suffering, bad weather or hungry nights. The biggest dilemmas were when to rest, and the state of the skin on my fingers.

This trip was also about trying hard; to reach a certain grade; to fail and learn. I wanted to push myself, and ideally climb 8b. I wanted not to be afraid of failing. I embraced the possibility of not climbing the grade and volume I was hoping for… yet somehow (thankfully) it all worked out. It’s great when you can convince yourself it’s ‘no big deal.’

Finally, to build up fitness and carry it over to Scottish winter climbing. We’ll see how this works out - I head north in a few days. I know from experience that a sport trip works well at the beginning of the summer, priming the arms for run-outs on trad routes. My theory for Scottish winter is that every hold will be a jug, so I’ll just never get pumped… right?!

I’ve had a blast in Chulilla. The top of El Bufa (7c+) kicks off a lot of people, now I’ve checked UKC. Other onsight or flash attempts were more successful (Tequila Sunrise; Altos, guapos y fuetes and Nibelungalos (all about 7c or 7c+)).

Hopefully, I’ll find another excuse to go to Spain soon. Until next time.