Climbers: Cara-Lyn Reynolds and Jeremy Hadall
Date: 1-2 January 2006
Route: Portilla del Crampon
Our original plan was to spend New Year’s Eve on a long walk-in (5-6 hours), bivvying out in a snow cave directly below the Norte Clasica route (AD+), then climb the route to Almanzor’s summit as the sun rose for the New Year, and walk out back to the car the same day. However, my climbing partner (Jez)’s shoulder injury had been playing up, and it was uncertain whether he would be able to carry all the bivi gear as well as our general packs with climbing gear, let alone climb with a shoulder that was stiff from the cold. Feeling it better to rest for a day first, we took the day off, and also decided to lighten the loads a bit, so made reservations at the Elola refuge for the following night. One very short day, followed by one day up to 14hrs seemed to make more sense, given the situation. At the same time we made plans for a different route, the Portilla del Crampón (PD) due to the less than perfect weather on top of everything else.
We had previously walked to the refuge in about three and a half hours from the Plataforma car park, so estimated four hours with rope and rack as well.
Never having stayed in a mountain hut before, we had no idea of the etiquette, facilities or anything else, and so naively assumed that there would be something – anything – to do when we got there. Rather optimistically we even believed that we’d be able to catch up on some sleep before dinner. The reality was, of course, a different matter.
We’d obviously got a lot fitter over the past few days, and were at the refuge by 13.30, only three hours since leaving the car park. We stowed our gear in the lockers assigned to us, changed into some (not) very attractive plastic “hut slippers”, and went into the main room to get warm. No chance! It was freezing! And the dormitories were locked until 20.00. The few other climbers around seemed to mostly know each other, and didn’t spend much time in the main room. My Spanish is good, but I didn’t feel able to just go up to anyone and start a conversation. So Jez and I sat huddled together in duvet jackets, trying to keep warm, and reading the magazines lying around. Later on, another English girl turned up with her Spanish boyfriend, which seemed to break the ice with the local climbers a little, and by 20.00 we were all chatting away over dinner. We decided to get some sleep by about 21.30, and even though I was worried about not sleeping due to the cold, the refuge provided very warm blankets, and I had the best night’s sleep of the whole week!
I’d like to say the next day dawned bright and early, but in reality it was still dark when we got up at 7.45 to sort the gear out. We left all non-essentials (poles, sleeping bags etc) in a locker at the refuge, and set off well before 9. The clouds were low over the summits, but through the occasional gap in the gloom, we could see Almanzor spot lit in the sun. For a long time we were followed by a large dog (we think it belonged to someone from the refuge), but no-one else was out that day, and we had the area to ourselves. At about the point where Portilla Bermejas meets the Portilla del Crampón route, the dog left us since the snow and ice had got too steep. The slope we were on was at about 45 degrees, and we could see ahead that it only got steeper. All the information we had received had given the route a PD grading, and stated maximum steepness was 50 degrees. Well, not today! And we were very glad that we had set out prepared to do a considerably harder route.
By the time the channel narrowed into a distinct gully, we looked down and realised we’d been kicking steps up 50 degree snow and ice for over 100m, so decided it may be an idea to rope up and continue the last 100m of the gully, which was steepening all the time, as a pitched climb. It had also got very cold, and the winds were picking up continuously, blowing clouds of spindrift everywhere. I sorted out a belay anchor while Jez geared up to lead the first pitch. Having to stand out of sight (and out of the way of any falling ice), I had no idea how he was doing, and how his shoulder was holding up, until, with about 10m of our 60m rope left, my radio crackled into life: “how much rope left?”. Finally, after about half an hour of climbing, and struggling with hooks and screws in the far from perfect ice (“these screws are crap” is not the most encouraging thing to hear over the radio when you’re about to climb with them!), he finished the pitch with only 5m of rope to spare. I followed up the gully as quickly as I could, but hot aches were starting in my hands and I was nearly screaming in pain by the time I reached Jez’s stance. I was hoping for a rest here, but it was clear that there was only room for one person. “Take some gear and GO!” were Jez’s words. It was getting colder and windier, and there was no time to hang around. Not being able to reach his anchor, I put an ice screw in where I was, as he clipped some gear to my harness. I climbed up the still steepening gully (by the top it was about 65 degrees, so much for the route guides!), trying to seek out the good ice for screws. At one point I knew I was way above the last, but nothing was solid enough where I was. Looking up (and getting a face full of ice) I saw a cracked rock about 5 metres above me. I knew I would struggle to get any more ice pro in, but could see bomber nut placements in the rock. OK, so it meant climbing even further with no pro, but it was good. It was then I realised that when Jez had handed me some gear, he hadn’t given me any extenders! Luckily, I had a few long slings, so doubled one up, and pushed on to the obvious top of the pitch. This was a little saddle on an extremely narrow ridge, the Portilla itself. Once I was safe, I brought Jez up, but the saddle acted as a funnel to the wind, which was now howling up the gully, and the spindrift now consisted of marble-sized lumps of ice. Whenever there was a gust of wind, we both had to crouch right down to protect ourselves. And to cap it all, the wind was blowing lumps of ice off the summit, onto me! Still, the views, when there was a lull in the winds, were amazing from here, straight across to the south in brilliant sunshine.
Jez arrived safely at my stance, and suggested we retreat, given the fact that whatever happened, we’d have to down-climb the steep gully, and the fact that since the route now traversed the South side of the summit before a final ascent, the wind would be trying to blow us straight off the mountain from now on. Since, directly below the traverse are the Canales Oscuras (near vertical cliffs and gullies) this wasn’t an attractive proposition! Initially I proposed that he led through on the traverse, then I’d decide if I wanted to continue to the summit, but that would have wasted more time in worsening weather, plus, we had no way of knowing if there’d be a good belay stance there. Going further would also mean the probability of down-climbing the steep gully in the dark. It was heartbreaking to know we were so close to the summit but common sense prevailed, and I confirmed I thought it best to retreat. After a quick photo of where we had managed to get to, I lowered Jez back down to his first belay stance, then down-climbed precariously on increasingly rotten snow and ice. I then carried on down, lowered by Jez, to the point where we had originally roped up. Here we met 2 other Spanish parties, intending to do the same route, who asked us about the conditions. When I explained about the winds higher up, they retreated immediately and didn’t want to attempt the summit that day. After lowering each other a further 250m on ice axe belays to where the slope eased, we walked back to the refuge, getting back there, cold and tired, for about 16.30. The other parties had got back before us, obviously, and their friends were asking them what it was like. Their answer? “Ask those two, they got further”, pointing at us :-).
We had a quick drink, then gathered our gear together, and set off back across the mountains in the dusk to the car park. The last hour or so were in total darkness by headtorch, and we finally got to the car at 20.00, 11 hours after setting off. Later that evening we studied the map, and realised that we got to 2538m, only 54m from the summit!
I will be going back again to Almanzor next winter. I know that technically it’s not difficult, it was simply the winds that stopped us. I learned a lot that day, and know that if we start in the dark, the walk-in to the gully is steep, but easy, and that way regardless of delays, all climbing, up and down, could be in daylight. I would issue a note of caution though, to anyone attempting this route in winter – conditions can make the slopes significantly steeper than the 50 degrees quoted on Summitpost, as the above account illustrates. Equally in the route description “harness, rope and ice bolts cold be indispensable”. Errrm yes – and 2 axes, and a full winter climbing rack! We’re glad we’d dragged everything over from England!
Still, all in all it was an adventure. As I said, I’ve learned a lot, and not a bad route for my first winter climb :-)