My dad, Neil, is truly living the dream. He is three years retired from a long career in the US and now, at age 67, lives on the coast of the Mediterranean in a small Spanish city called Marbella. I get to see my dad roughly once a year and it’s a great opportunity to travel to Europe and explore some new climbing destinations, as well as learn about some new cultures. Life in Spain is nice and slow, providing a great place to retire, especially if you want your hard earned American dollars to go a long way. Food is cheap, vacations last forever and people live and die by their football teams. It’s warm in southern Spain in the winter, and with Africa visible across the Straight of Gibraltar, it feels tropical, perfect for limestone sport climbing.
Africa off in the distance from our beach at Marbella, Spain.
Just north of Marbella, about an hour into the mountains, is the well developed climbing destination of El Chorro. Known for its multi-pitch sport climbing and via ferratas, El Chorro is a popular winter crag for the European climbing community and it seemed like nearly every nationality was represented there.
Paige on a nice warmup off the Camino del Rey.
Paige and I committed four sport climbing days to our El Chorro trip and we were not disappointed. Driving down into the canyon is breathtaking. Huge limestone walls fill your view with broken cliffs ranging from 100 to 400 meters tall, painted with limestone drips, tufas, and pockets. “The Gorge” provides the most intense climbing experience, with route access found along a 100 year old bridge system referred to as the “Camino del Rey” that was once a proud labyrinth of cliff-side walkways that has since collapsed and left climbers with a unique setting for sport climbing. A man made lake at the base of the gorge provides a serine view, broken up by hydroelectric infrastructure and pipelines throughout the canyon. Spain is remarkably progressive with wind, solar, and hydropower, and alternative energy is proudly on display in El Chorro.
We didn’t know what to expect of the climbing in El Chorro. We had heard of a few friends that had made their way through the area over the years and everyone always talked about the Camino del Rey, so we had to check it out. This was the first via ferrata that I had ever done, and the experience was well worth it. As you traverse the seriously exposed lip of the canyon, you clip into tiny cables and step out over 150 meter gaps with nothing but air between you and the valley floor. The walkway is crumbling away and holes in the concrete lurk under foot as you tip toe past the sketchiest looking obstacles. It was exhilarating and I can see why the Europeans love it.
Paige avoiding death on the walkway of the kings.
We spent a day exploring the Camino del Rey and climbing sport routes right off the walkway. Floating 300 feet above the river at the bottom of the gorge with passenger trains blasting through tunnels all around us was surreal to say the least.
Thunder Struck (7c+)
At the base of these massive walls are collections of smaller caves that have some typical Spanish sport climbs in them. The caves are small but perfect for a boulderer like me, who wants to feel good about his sport climbing skills. Getting pumped takes some getting used to but I was able to struggle my way to the top of a nice 7c+ in one of the caves. I have never climbed on giant limestone drips on a 60 degree overhang, spinning around, toe hooking, all the stuff that most sport climbers are used to doing in Spain. It felt so new and exciting even though I have spent some serious years of my life on a rope. I can see why people are obsessed with this style of climbing, and having the endurance to climb a 40 or 50 meter overhanging pitch must be a great feeling. Maybe one day…
To finish up the trip Paige found and sent a nice route at an area called Desplomilandia, and we spent a couple days at the Triangulo wall, getting more accustomed to the pockets and the tufa style of climbing. We just don’t have features like that in the states and it’s a whole new 3D style of climbing that really takes some getting used to.
Driving into El Chorro each day from Marbella was pretty long and I wouldn’t suggest it for anyone traveling to the area on a climbing trip. You can easily fly into Malaga and take a 45 minute drive to the town of El Chorro and stay in town pretty inexpensively. Its nice to escape the hustle and bustle of the towns and find a nice place to sit, at the base of a sun soaked wall, looking out over lakes and farms with wind farms dotting the countryside. I can see why retirement in Spain is so appealing.