Words by Katie Lambert, Images by Ben Ditto
After months of planning, wondering and waiting, Ben, (our new friend) Edu, Sandra and I were finally standing below Picu Urriellu, except we couldn’t make out the formation, as everything in the cirque was enshrouded by Orbayu: a thick, misty fog with a smell not unlike the sea which it rolls off. Our only inkling that the Picu towered above us was that we stood on the porch of the refugio, which guards the approach to the base of the wall. Picu Urriellu, otherwise known as the Naranjo de Bulnes, a formation so grand that it can be seen from miles away in any direction, was still a mystery, even in such proximity.
Often referred to as the centerpiece of Spanish alpinism, the Picu has become Spain’s most famous mountain, yet it sits largely unknown to the rest of the world. It has been said that anyone wishing to call themselves a true climber needs to have this on his or her list. I was drawn to the Picu’s west face by its reputation of steep and bold limestone, by rumor of oddball trad placements, out-of-sight bolts and hard, technical free climbing. With there being around 50 free routes on the west face, my tick list would potentially be quite extensive. Climbing some of the harder free routes would be a more long-term goal; this would be an intro trip, a trip to get to know the wall, the place, and find the most inspiring lines. We would have a couple of weeks in the area before fellow Eddie Bauer athlete Caroline George would meet us. This would be our first time meeting and climbing together, and I was excited to have a good route picked out for us.
Murciana 78 (6a, A1+/ 7c+ free 550m) was one of my objectives. It was first put up as an aid line by Alfonso Cerdán, Juan Carlos Ferrer, Juan Carlos and José Luis Garcia Gallego in 1978, over a period of 9 days, and then eventually free climbed in 1990 by Nick Dixon and Andy Popp. I had come across some photos of the route in my searching in earnest for some sort of beta on getting to and climbing in the Picos. The crux pitch ascended an overhanging dihedral and then exited out onto a steep and technical-looking face. From the photo, the rock looked impeccable. But as we stood on the porch of the refugio and scanned the area for a good spot to pitch our tents and unload our burdensome packs, Murciana 78 and the west face, with all the rest of its routes, still stood as myth and rumor. And just as the anticipation of seeing the wall was about to kill me, the fog dissipated and gave us a very quick glimpse of the orange and grey towering monolith of limestone. In bed that night, tucked into my sleeping bag, I mulled over the guidebook, trying to decipher the history of the Picu. I drifted off to sleep that first night with the thrill and excitement of the days to come.
In August of 1904, Pedro Pidal, Bernaldo de Quirós and Gregorio Pérez (“El Cainejo”) opened the mountain to climbing by establishing a route going up the north face via the path of least resistance. They soloed barefoot, up chimneys, corners, cracks and runnels to the summit, naming their line after themselves, the “Pidal – Cainejo” (V- 400m). This is a feat both impressive and futuristic, especially when one considers that nowadays climbers typically use ropes and gear, as well as shoes, to ascend this feature. As the years went by and the skill and knowledge of climbing walls improved, the other faces of the Picu saw ascents. August of 1924 marked the first ascent of the more modest south face, with a route named “Victor” (IV+ 250m) established by Victor Martinez Campillo. The east face had its first ascent in 1955 by Maria Jesus Aldeco, Jamie Cepeda and Pedro Udaondo, establishing a route called “Cepeda” (V+ 350m). However, it wasn’t until August of 1962 that one of the most historic ascents took place up the steepest, most technical and impressive faces of the Urriellu. Alberto Rabadá and Ernesto Navarro ascended the west face, employing both free climbing and aid climbing tactics, up a line climbing 750 meters to the summit. It was dubbed the “Rabadá-Navarro” (6c 750m), a name which brings many people to the Naranjo de Bulnes to this day.
While there was a lot of action on the Picu for over half a century, most of it was accomplished by men. In 1971, another very historic ascent took place on the west face. Martine Ware—Caroline George’s mother—with her husband Larry climbed the Rabadá-Navarro. They spent two days on the wall, carrying bivy gear with them. With a newborn son (Caroline’s older brother) only 4 months old at home, she became the first woman to scale the west face, a feat that was newsworthy, as reporters and camera crews awaited them on top. Sometime in the 1980s, this route went free. As the decades rolled on, so did the talent level, frequency and magnitude at which people were capable of free climbing, and many other routes went free as well. The grades started to soar from the 5.10 and 5.11 range to 5.12, 5.13 and 5.14 range. The Pou brothers opened up numerous hard aid lines to hard free climbing, creating some of the world’s toughest walls. In 2002, Josune Bereziartu, a very talented and accomplished Basque climber, became the first woman to free climb one of the harder free lines on the west face,”El Pilar del Cantábrica,” going at 5.13. This made quite a mark in the history of the Picu, as well as female alpine rock climbing.
The next morning, we rose to clear skies and readied ourselves for the first climb of our trip, Soy Un Hombre Nuevo (7b+ 450m). Recommended to us by a Spanish friend, it would be a good introduction to the climbing there. The chill of the morning was almost unshakable, as the four of us hiked up to the base wearing jackets, windbreakers, hats and gloves. We were looking at approximately 6 more hours of cold shade until the sun hit the wall.
This would be Spanish alpine rock climbing at its finest. The climbing lived up to its reputation of thin, technical and run-out, with creative gear placements. Sandra gave over all her leads to me. In between many meters of climbing, there were sometimes spits (often mistaken for an expansion bolt), sometimes there were pods or small fissures to place cams or stoppers and sometimes there were cords threaded around rungs of limestone, where the water had worn away the rock behind. Very often, it was just better to run it out over long distances, not worrying about which funky piece of gear was better or worse. My previous season in Tuolumne Meadows had tuned me up just right for this, and I was overjoyed to lead us through the edges, sidepulls, gotas, and steep jugs. We climbed ten pitches or so of 5.11 and 5.12, with a handful of 5.10 and easier, joining Ben and Edu on the summit nine hours after setting off. The cold never gave way, and we were taxed from the climbing as well as all the shivering. Elated to be on the summit, we coiled our ropes and discussed which way to the descent. The last rays of sun cast a golden glow over the sea and across the vast valleys capped with paleozoeic limestone in alpine karst peaks. Picu Urriellu had not disappointed us. I was excited about what we had just experienced and looked forward to reaching the summit again with Caroline.
A week later, piles of food, clothing and gear stretched out across a tarp in an asphalt lot in the small village of Arenas de Cabrales, the gateway to the Picos. Caroline George had just arrived from Switzerland via planes and rental cars, and we were gearing up for our next trek up to the Picu. The three-hour approach follows a well-worn footpath through herds of goats and cows, ancient houses that resemble well-organized piles of rubble, and an ever-steepening incline gaining somewhere close to 3,000 feet from the car to the base of the wall. As we paced ourselves under heavy loads, we talked about her parents’ ascent in 1971, what our previous week of climbing had been like, and what the route I proposed we do was. She was intrigued by the myths of the Picu as well, and was game for whatever I wanted to climb.
We arrived at our base camp just as the goats had come in for their daily visit. For a hefty fee, the refugio offers a three-plate dinner both to those who sleep there and those who wander in from the mountains. They serve bananas for dessert, and as disappointing as that may seem to us, the goats love the peels. It is the habit of the refugio workers to throw all food waste outside. Because of this, every day a herd of 100 or more goats comes running down the mountains into the cirque—through the tents, trekkers and climbers—straight to the food pile. After entertaining ourselves with the goat show, we set up camp and settled in. The evening was clear and gave us a great view of the wall. Going over the topo and pointing out the line of Murciana 78 to Caroline, it was agreed that we would climb it the next day. So once again I settled into my sleeping bag that night with the excitement of the day to come.
The sound of the Jetboil igniting roused me from my slumber. At 7 am the cirque of the Picu was still cast in darkness and only the promise of something hot to drink could lure me from my bag. As daylight shook it’s drowsy head we made tea, cheese and jam sandwiches and donned our climbing gear. The chill was uncomfortable but as we made our way to the base, blood coursing through our bodies it was decided that it wasn’t all that cold and we left behind our thicker down jackets in exchange for the lighter ones. The “crisp” mountain air would be perfect for trying hard on the 5.13 crux, a pitch that would be coming soon after the first two 5.10 corner pitches.
Having climbed on the wall the week prior I was used to it’s characteristics and opted to lead whatever Caroline didn’t want, but her enthusiasm was evident as she said I should take the crux pitches and we could just swap leads for all the rest. It was game on as I set off on the first pitch. The cool limestone was tacky and textured and as I stemmed and chimneyed my way to the belay placing some gear but not much I was eager to get to the business of the route. After belaying her up the first pitch she set off on the second 5.10 with more crumbly rock, gear placements and crack climbing. This brought us up to a gently sloping belay ledge and the crux of the route.
The wall arched slightly overhead and out of the rock opened up a steep, overhanging crack in a wide dihedral. After 40 feet of this the crack abruptly ended at a gentle overhang where the hard and technical face climbing started. Taking my shoes off I rubbed my cold and numb toes. I needed all the feeling I could get in order to stand on the small edges and high-step my way through the crimps. I had a quick snack, chalked up and set off.
The crack was steep and pumpy but amazingly friendly and took great cam placements. A threader marked the last move out of the crack and onto the steep face. Some tenuous and punchy moves led up to the first bolt and then a brief rest. From there it was more foot edging and more crimping up precision movements to the first crux. A cross-through to a small, sloping right hand edge, a high left foot and an aggressive move out left to a very positive incut. I matched there, shook out and continued the crimp fest to the next crux where a series of sidepulls and wafer like holds made the way to a long move up to a flat jug. I rested briefly and entered the sequence to the last crux consisting of a small gaston and a thrutchy move to another large flat hold and then I was clipping into the anchor. I had sent the crux pitch, a pitch which is mostly done as an aid climb and now there was just one 5.12 next followed by 10 or so more pitches of 5.11 and 5.10.
I belayed Caroline up and set off on the next pitch. It is here that I almost fell, as this pitch is also typically aided and there was no chalk to follow. I quested up, down, right and left. I kept a wicked forearm pump just at bay, and I barely managed to sort out the correct sequence on the correct holds to make it through to higher ground. Relieved to have made it to the anchors, I belayed Caroline up and happily handed over the next lead to her. From here, we pretty much swapped leads the whole way out, leading over similar terrain as the week prior with long runouts, some spits, and creative gear placements. With a couple hours of light left, we reached the summit! We had just made a team free ascent of the classic Murciana 78. Caroline reached a summit that both of her parents had stood on over 40 years ago. I made the first American (female) free ascent climbing–all 550m of it–with no falls. While this was not perhaps some groundbreaking ascent, it was another mark in the history of the Picu.