With the famous Caminito del Rey set to become a tourist trap, El Chorro is being re-invented as a winter destination for multi-pitch adventure thanks to the efforts of local wad Bernabe Fernandez. He talked to Cragbanter about bolting 1,000-foot routes in a day, Malaga’s little-known trad scene, and easing down to 9a in this old age.
Long known as a winter sun destination with great sport routes across the full spread of grades, El Chorro in the south of Spain has been getting a makeover in recent years as a more adventurous destination – and much of it is down to a phenomenal amount of work from the region’s top climber.
I thought it was a shame to see all that multi-pitch potential going to waste. So I set out to put up some long routes in a sport style, cleaning them well so that they could be enjoyed in relative safety
Routes like Orujo and Chilam Balam brought him fame and even a touch of notoriety – he originally climbed Orujo at 9a with four artificial holds, while Chilam Balam was graded at 9b+ in 2003, when that was considered almost impossible. The storm that followed included question marks not only over the grade but allegations that Bernabe had not redpointed the route at all. Worn out from 20 years of hard cranking and months of specific training for the 80-metre super-route, Bernabe almost give up on climbing. He says that it was the realisation that he had climbed as hard as he ever would that prompted him to hang his boots up around that time, but it seems likely that the mudslinging also took its toll.
Ironically, it was interest in Chilam Balam, first from Chris Sharma in 2006 and later from Adam Ondra who made the second ascent in 2011 and fixed the grade at 9b, that gradually tempted Bernabe back into the sport. Always a prolific new router, he turned his attention to the large walls above his old stomping ground of El Chorro and decided to add a series of lines up the full length. Despite having done trad in the eighth grade himself (yes, there’s a trad tradition even in Spain), he wanted to make sure his creations were well bolted and cleaned as they were intended to get more people enjoying the walls. Cleaning and equipping such routes is a labour of love that takes many hours of effort, but Bernabe says he has always enjoyed opening up new areas to climbing.
“I always had different motivations within climbing, such as trad, bouldering, new routing and ground-up new routing, but for a while my focus was on high level sport climbing,” he said. “These days I’m still motivated by hard stuff (he’s back around the 9a mark at 40) but the body isn’t as willing as when I was 20.
“I climb hard when time and my body permit it, but when that’s not the case I work on developing new areas, or just go trad climbing.
“I always enjoyed new routing, all my projects came about like that. I like to enjoy the tranquillity of the mountains, the sense of adventure, and of creating something new.”
Some of Bernabe’s hardest projects were on new crags, and as well as bolting his own line that has involved equipping warm-up routes, routes for his belayers to enjoy and any nice-looking lines he sees.
He said: “We are very lucky in Malaga to have enough rock to spend several lifetimes new routing. Whenever I feel like it I go for a stroll in the hills and find something new.”
Never a professional climber, Bernabe is also in what he describes as a more entrepreneurial phase of his life, having just set up Andalucia’s largest climbing wall, Climbat in Malaga. He also has plans for an app-based free guidebook that will cover more than 3,000 routes in the area. It’s typical of the generous approach of many local activists on the continent, who put in the time and effort to clean and equip crags to keep pace with the growing popularity of climbing and the search for new, safe rock climbs to enjoy. Bernabe estimates that he has put up about 500 routes over the years, and in about 95 per cent of cases he’s paid for the bolts out of his own pocket.
El Chorro always had multi-pitch but they were old trad lines and they were a bit dangerous and loose, because the old mentality was to do a minimum of cleaning
His recent penchant for multi-pitch has left a legacy of excellent routes in the 180m to 300m range to make up for the loss of adventure climbing in the gorge. Mostly in the mid to high sixth grade, they can be enjoyed by anyone visiting with normal sport kit but have yet to really take off because they are not in any of the guide books. There are also some fearsome muti-pitch trad routes in the gorge and beyond, such as the 345m Cuatro Estaciones at 7b and the 240m 8a+ Gigante Verde. More accessible routes on gear may be on the way, as Bernabe hints that reviving El Chorro’s long neglected trad mojo may be next on his agenda.
He said: “El Chorro always had multi-pitch but they were old trad lines and they were a bit dangerous and loose, because the old mentality was to do a minimum of cleaning. Only two easier routes were equipped, Zeppelin and Amptrax, and a few other hard lines that aren’t accessible to many climbers.
“I saw the way Malaga climbing had developed into a sport destination after 30 years of hard work by myself and many other new routers -it had become one of the great winter destinations of Europe – and I thought it was a shame to see all that multi-pitch potential going to waste. So I set out to put up some long routes in a sport style, cleaning them well so that they could be enjoyed in relative safety. I started with Ebola (a 160m 6b+ direct route to the top of Amptrax) and that was followed by Mar de Fuego (7a, 220m), Mal de Ojo (7a, 320m), Corazon que no Siente (6c+, 220m), Apocalipsis (6c, 210m), Lluvia de Asteroides (V+, 280m), and Estrella Polar (6b, 300m). I might equip a few more but working for the love of it gets tiring sometimes.”
Bernabe has developed a relatively fast system for putting up multi-pitch sport, first spying out the line with binoculars and memorizing all the features and possible belays, then abseiling down with a friend – one on each half of the rope – in drive to get all the bolts in on a single descent. Each carries a drill, with Bernabe slightly ahead of his friend placing some bolts and marking the position of others.
“Communication is important because these are dangerous manoeuvres, but we work very quickly that way,” he said. “Cleaning the route I leave for another day, because you have to cordon off the area around the base, and I can travel lighter and be quicker.”
The results of these epic efforts can be seen on Bernabe’s own website, which includes photo topos of many of his favourite routes, including the new multipitch lines on the Frontales. But he has hinted that he may be about done with such large-scale engineering projects.
He said: “When I started climbing most of the routes were trad and sport was a new thing. I always enjoyed trad climbing for the adventure and the commitment that is needed. It’s another thing I have in mind when it comes to developing climbing in Malaga.”