Winter climbing in Costa Blanca

All-In to Benidorm

”Let’s do an ‘All-In’ to Benidorm.”

It’s a gift that keeps on giving; when people ask what my plans are for the Christmas break, and I tell them that I’m going to Benidorm, I’m invariably met by a reaction of shock and horror.

“Err… why?” uttered with varying degrees of condemnation.

”To hit the acclaimed nightlife of Benidorm and kick back on the beach downing San Miguels whilst working on my tan of course…oh, and the climbing.”

Photo taken from the Rockfax guide, accessible here: https://www.ukclimbing.com/logbook/books/spain__costa_blanca-1201

Well-kept secret?

”Costa Blanca? Really? There’s mountains there?”

It wasn’t until a cold November evening climbing at the Ratho freezer that my ignorance was made apparent to me. A fellow member of the mountaineering club I climb with, JMCS, had just returned from a week of climbing in Costa Blanca, and couldn’t stop singing its praises. He’s made climbing there a staple in his annual climbing calendar, and even had plans to return over Christmas for more.

“There’s enough to keep you busy for a lifetime.”

Cycling back home in the cold, puffing air into my gloves to try to stave off the hot aches in my fingers, the idea of a week of sport climbing in the sun began to feel ever more enticing. A few searches that evening cemented the idea; not only was there tonnes of quality climbing in the area, it all looked pretty accessible from Alicante, where we could get a cheap flight too, and accommodation was abundant given the number of British tourists flocking to the area for the sun, sea and san miguels on the beach experience.

https://www.ukclimbing.com/logbook/books/costa_blanca-135

Ok, so we were late on the scene. Climbers have been frequenting this area for decades; if you speak to an experienced climber, you can be almost certain that they will have climbed here. That said, better late than never, right?

British enclave

Driving from Alicante to our apartment on New Year’s Day proves a rather surreal experience. It doesn’t take long for the imposing skyline of Benidorm, complete with the affably nicknamed ‘vagina building’, to come into view in all its glory, flanked by billboards advertising almost exclusively in English. Right on cue, the ‘Brexit news’ comes on the radio.

”Where on earth are we?”

A surreal, sleep-deprived laughter ensues, followed swiftly by an enthralled silence as the Puig Campana makes itself known. The most prominent mound of rock on the drive down past Benidorm, the outcrop lies only half an hour or so away from the city centre and provides some of the best long multi-pitch routes in the area. The Espolon Central route is commonly seen as one of the ‘Must Dos’ of the region; after seeing it first-hand it has quickly catapulted itself to the top of our hit list.

The Puig Campana in the evening sun

First forays

Waking to clear skies the next day, and no chance of rain, I can’t help but feel invigorated by the feeling of the sun on the skin. Whilst I love the northern winter, complete with short dark days, routine hot aches on the morning runs and cycles and continual brewing of hot drinks, being outside soaking up some vitamin D sure does feel healthy.

With such a huge number of places to visit, we decide to start at the well-known Sella. Stabbing in the dark at which area to base ourselves at for the day, it seems like you can’t miss; there’s so many sectors to the crag, each offering dozens of climbs at differing grades. We sound out the grading with some friendly 4s and 5s; it quickly becomes apparent that the style of climbing here is different to anything I’ve done before, complete with deep pockets and even handlebar grips in places (who knew these sorts of holds existed outside of the plastic world of indoor climbing walls?) The grades seem fair though and, perhaps more importantly, we’re climbing in t-shirts; it actually almost feels too hot after lunchtime!

Climbing in the evening sun, Murla

Scratching the surface

The next few days see us drive to different crags in the area, exploring Pego, Alcalali, Font D’Axia, Murla and Sierra de Toix. All of these are no longer than an hour’s drive from our base in Benigembla, so we find that we’re about to rack up 5 to 7 climbs each day, all the while still allowing plenty of time to stop for easy peeler breaks and good chats. At the end of each day we leave our chosen crag invariably thinking we could happily come back to the same spot the next day. You could revisit the same spot here, same sector of a crag even, dozens of times and not get bored but, equipped with a guidebook hundreds of pages long, we move on each day to a new area.

“And that’s just what’s in the guidebook.”

Whilst most of the climbers here seem to have the same Rockfax guidebook that we do, some of the old timers have moved on to apps and online logs, seeking out the new routes and even newly developed crags that are being pioneered as we speak. And it’s not hard to see how there is a lot of untapped potential here. On walking around near a given crag, we often passed by multiple other spots that would be honeypots if they were in the Lake District or north Wales. Yet here, given how much high quality climbing there is, they have gone unnoticed. It’s exciting to think how many more new routes there might be here if we were to revisit in the future, not to mention all of the areas we haven’t yet explored.

Font D’axia

The big mountain day

After four days of cragging, the big mountain day is upon us. Since the first drive in from the airport, the Espolon Central route has been at the forefront of my thoughts. Preparation starts the night before: bags are packed, rations for the day distributed and coffee put in the filter ready for the morning brew. Come the morning of the climb we wake with that glorious mix of tiredness, intrepidation and excitement for the adventure to come. The Espolon Central route is a HS multi-pitch route; whilst it shouldn’t throw any technical challenges at us, it’s long (9 to 12 pitches depending on which guide you look at). Furthermore, having only just learned to trad lead climb, placing the correct gear and securing the pitches safely will perhaps be a bigger challenge.

Walking in at dawn, we arrive at the base of the climb as the lead party; two other groups would pass us later on, but it’s always nice to be the first ones to get started. With not a cloud in the sky and the route now clear in all its splendour ahead of us, the excitement mounts.

The first few pitches fly by, not without a good bit of faff due mainly to my inexperience leading trad routes, and soon we find ourselves counting down the pitches to the ‘lunch ledge’ (any route with a named ‘lunch ledge’ in a guide book is surely a route worth doing.) After wolfing down a few easy peelers each and some other nourishment, we push on, climbing higher, and gaining ever more panoramic views of the Benidorm skyline. The views you get from routes like this are one of the things multi-pitch climbing has over single pitch stuff, coupled with the fact that your vantage point is often a rugged ledge that is invisible to the average person. Furthermore, it is that feeling of accomplishment when you get to the top and look down or, conversely, get back to the bottom and look up at what you’ve just climbed. It’s a pretty special, invigorating feeling.

After reaching the top of the final pitch it is that invigoration that we now feel in abundance. Luckily for us, it’s not over just yet, as to descend back to the base of the climb we first have to traverse along using some rather rickety-looking via ferrata, and then clamber our way down a scree-filled gulley. By the time we reach the parking lot, we are well and truly spent, in that deeply fulfilling way that only long mountain days seem to be able to deliver.

Fun traverse after the final pitch of the Espolon Central

First of many 

We leave after six days of cracking climbing with a glowing feeling of not only being happy with what we achieved during the week, but perhaps even more due to the excitement from the trips that will follow in the future. With so much climbing in such a small area, all of it super easy and affordable to reach from the UK, the question is when, not if we will be back.