There had been now quite some time since I had in mind to do a powerful activity in one of the oceans of limestone of the Picos de Europa. I had a few routes in mind in the Naranjo, although it’s quite a complicated mountain. According to the schemes, it looks like one way or another you should probably top out, however, you hear quite often those stories about really strong rope parties having to turn back poorly after quite some drama. Ok, having some desperate fighting is always in the equation; there are not that many people that can afford to top such monsters on comfort, however, been able to choose, I rather take a bit less spicy for the beginning of the season.
Last month I was home for a week just after coming back from the ski trip to the Arctic and right before heading back to the Norwegian fjords for the season. Carlos got a hold on me again and propose me the south spur of the Cueto Agero (300m; 6a+). When I saw the pictures of the monster and the topo of the route, I knew I was in the plan.
The route seemed sustained around V+ and going all the way till 6a+. When I see this grades I’m not caught by surprise anymore, I know it won’t be easy and there will be a lot of desperate wrestling in steep and smouth mountain dihedrals. As always, and just as it happened in Ranero a few weeks ago. There is not a single parabolt on the route and once you get in, you have to exit from the top. I liked the Idea, but at the same time, you know the stakes are high. Commitment.
Weather was not on our side. The previous day drizzled for the whole day and even though it was supposed to be a weather window, looking to the sky was not bringing many hopes. We decided to head there anyway, in the worst case we could go to some of the famous sport climbing crags of the area known for its elegant overhangs on tuffas, or we could just head to the local cottages and just get fat with mountain blue cheese, chorizos and the well known asturian cider. We met at eight, what a surprise, it was drizzling and the streets were kind of wet. After the first half an hour drive I realize that I must have left my harness in Bilbao. 10 points! We had to drive in front of the Decathlon of Santander anyway, so I guess I would have to enlarge my gear coleccion. Weather was just getting greyer and greyer. I called my friend Juan, the most reliable Cantabrian weather forecaster I know and he convinced us to head there and stated that we should have sun. Hard to believe, but it doesn’t take much to convince us anyway.
We made it to the village of Allende by noon. For some reason the sooner we meet, the later we end up making it. The drive over the Hermida canyon is always breathtaking, but as soon as you finally get in front of the Cueto Agero, you start to realize the massiveness of the mountain. Time to focus, check again the strategy and gear up.
As soon as we got in the trail, we found a mastiff blocking the way. It looked old and bitter and would not stop feinting attacks while barking furiously droppings loads of slime from the sides of the mouth. At that point I thought that I rather lead the 6a+ than going first against the dog. After quite a long time, figuring out what we were going to do, Carlos decides to try his luck. There was a critical point were the animal started to charge, but then Carlos made the gesture of attacking back with the rope and the backpack, and the dog just calmed down and stepped aside. We made it, but now, we had passed the point of no return.
The path can be a bit confusing. At some point, you have to take a right turn towards a narrow trail heading to the base of the spur. There you will find a cable that will help you progress through a grassy couloir during the first third of the wall.
When the cable finished, the grassy couloir follows an obvious line towards the ridge. At the point that the grassy ledge meets the ridge there is a distinguished tree. That’s the first belay, R0.
Carlos goes for the first pitch, a 6a famous for kicking you in the ass for a start. You have to make it out of a crack over a steep dihedral that turns quite physical. There are two pythons for offering possibility of aid climbing and some decent protection. R1 to build on two pythons easily to reinforce with gear.
I go then for the next pitch. A fourth grade over a simple scramble over slightly broken rock and with quite some vegetation. Progressively you get on top of a rock with a big tree hanging on top where you have to build the R2.
On the way I see Carlos making it through the third pitch I know it’s going to be quite a struggle despite being V+. You must follow a diagonal dihedral with a narrow lower ledge. It’s quite awkward climbing and I ended up doing very weird moves. First trying to leave the leg constantly jammed inside the crack while dry humping the narrow ledge in a sort of mechanic bull performance. Then I tried to crawl on my all fours over the ledge and finally after all my repertoire of inelegant climbing moves I made it to the belay. In our opinion it was not an obvious pitch and not necessarily easier than the first one.
Another belay on two pythons easy to reinforce on a comfortable ledge. Unfortunately from there I took a look upwards and realized we were at the base of an extremely smooth diedral, slightly overhanging, without many possibilities of protection at first glance. In theory there are somewhere two pythons on the pitch but from under, things don’t look great and in case of a fall it’s quite obvious that you will smash against the belay ledge. It my turn to lead, not sure how this is going to happen…
There is not much to step in or to grab, so basically I jam in whatever fits and allows me to drag forward; fists, toes, ankles, legs, forearms…Every now and then, with horrible long reaches I achieve to find some volumes that allow me to rest. I achieve to place a not really trustfull nut, but it wasn’t after quite a lot of dragging that I achieved to clip the first python.
From there on, things get smoother. Soon after i’m in a system of ledges easy to progress until you make it to an obvious belay point, again with tho pythons and again easy to reinforce.
I heard Carlos growling and swearing and by the time he reached me, he gave me this intense look highlighting that what we just did was quite a business. However for him, having had to follow climb meant that it was his time to lead and that we were just under pitch 5, the infamous 6A+ and crux of the route. Another semi traverse that seemed quite severe and another pitch were I see Carlos suffering at every meter. I hear the wrestling but I can’t pick up much of it with the wind. I can’t really see either what’s going on. Quite some time later I heard “On belay!” and I knew it was my time for getting in the mud.
The beginning is overhanging and powerful, but quite obvious. I climb it surprisingly well and without drama till I face what seemed quite obvious to be the crux: a sloppy steep diedral where suddenly rock does not have a great grip. It’s hard to figure out the sequence, you try different things, but still not making it while you get burned and out of power. Moreover the crux has a big ambiance and you can see a drop under of around six hundred meters, just to add some spice to it. When you finally see the move, it needs power but it’s not an extreme move. We didn’t felt it was necessarily harder than the other hard pitches, but perhaps it can be less obvious to read. Anyways, another comfortable belay over a python and a rock bridge easy to reinforce.
Sixth pitch was for me. Another fourth, and this time through a long steep quite grassy couloir. A pitch with a proper alpine ambiance. It felt somehow like a slide with a lot of vegetation and nasty sharp ledges. With a bit of care you find good handholds. Many footholds are on grass and it must not be fun when wet. It didn’t felt difficult to protect but is that kind of pitches where you don’t want to fall. At the end of the couloir there is a big rock towards the left. you have to get on top of it and you will find again three pitons easy to reinforce for the next belay.
Ahead of us there is only an enjoyable V, so I finally breathed relaxed assuming that drama was most likely over. We took some minutes for enjoying the view over the snowy mountain tops of the Picos de Europa and the crazy geography of the canyon, but soon we realised that the first sequence of the V seemed very climby.
Carlos gets in, tries a lot and does not seem to be able to make any progress. We feel this is not right and check the topos again and tried again and so on, until we realised that the ledge that was giving access to the pitch had fallen down, so now we were facing a complicated and uncomfortable boulder problem for getting in the pitch. He achieved to at least place two friends on it and after a lot of struggle he is over it. From then on he flew through the pitch and soon screamed “on belay”.
I knew it was my time, and even if now I was on top rope, somehow my brain had already switched off from hard climbing and I was not having all that energy to charge back to warrior mode with ease. Even on top rope the sequence turned out to be nasty. I tried and tried and things were quite desperate. I got really close twice on my first tries but after a while I felt like it was just getting further. I ended up cheating the move pulling from one of the friends. It always seems like a good idea at first but you always end up doing such an horrible amount of strength… Anyways. We ended up agreeing that probably this boulder was the hardest single difficulty we found on the wall.
From this pitch you can already walk towards the trail that goes down the mountain, however it felt that at that point the logical option was to summit first. You can make it perfectly walking or through easy scrambling to the top only unexposed terrain, however, Carlos saw a last little wall and instead of border it he decided to scramble it. After realizing that it was a bit climby for approach shoes, we ended going back to climbing shoes and roping. Probably it was not harder than IV+ and they were some loose rock that you had to watch out, however we couldn’t have chosen a more elegant way to summit. Alta giornata!
From the summit you can easily walk down the mountain through the trail that takes you to the couloir to the left of the wall. Incredibly panoramic actually.
We felt incredibly happy with the activity. A true multipitch adventure climb without parabolts and just the right amount of pythons. They are especially helpful on the belays: makes things faster, really appreciated for keeping track of the route and easy to reinforce. The limestone here is spectacular and it almost wants to behave as granite in terms of grip and offering good cracks and gaps for placing camps and nuts. We really appreciated how sustained the route was. At first we thought that we will face one cruxy pitch and perhaps one or two more a bit hard, but at the end we found out that the difficulty was sustained all over the wall making you climb smart and elegant all over the way. The ocean of rock, the valley, the Picos on the background, the ambiance, the void, the beauty of the line….Strongly recomendable, however you should have a settled 6A+ mountain grade.
Amongst the best of all, finding a little countryside cottage/bar on the way back for a good cabrales, chorizos and a bottle of cider. Well, not without enjoying the landscape at that place where Cantabria ties hands with Asturias. So it’s life.