A lack of current guidebook information and an unfair reputation for big walk-ins, the Picos de Europa seem to rate fairly low on the average British climbers ‘must do’ list.But if you are keen to avoid another wet UK summer and are tired of competing for routes in the popular Alpine hotspots, then maybe this National Park in the north of Spain could be just the place for you this summer?
Naranjo de Bulnes, (also known as Pico Urriellu) is billed as being the most famous mountain in Spain and definitely, as a climbing objective, is “the” peak to climb on. However, outside of Spain it is relatively unheard of. A magnificent tower of limestone, it’s a real climber’s peak – with no walking route to the top.There is climbing on all four faces, the rock is generally excellent and there are well equipped bolted abseil stations to help you back down!And this is only one peak in a whole mountain range!
The ‘gateway to the Picos’, Arenas de Cabrales, is a far cry from the hussle and bussle of other mountaineering Meccas.It’s a small, sleepy town at the entrance to the National Park, and you can hardly even see the mountains from there.Still, it makes a good base and has some fine bolted cragging nearby to get you warmed up on.
During the summer months in Arenas, overcast skies keep the temperatures cool: being situated in Northern Spain means that while the rest of the country bakes in the heat of summer, the Picos remains a relatively pleasant temperature.Amazingly though, a short drive up the valley and more often than not, you can drive to an altitude above the cloud level and be basking in sunshine above a sea of clouds while the villages below are condemned to an English summer grey day.
You get your first taste of what the Picos is really about just a few kilometres up the valley from Arenas.Past the spectacular Cares Gorge and its tourist funicular railway, the tarmac ends and the real adventures begin!Looking up to the mountains from here, Pena de Fresnidiello, is the first thing to catch your eye - a spectacular slab of water worn limestone giving routes of 6 to 8 pitches on compact rock.Mostly traditionally protected and with bolted belays, the odd bolt per pitch help to serve as an indicator that you are still ‘on route’.A keen sense of route finding help here as it’s easy to become a bit lost once established on the great expanse of rock.With a walk-in of under an hour it’s a good place to get a feel for the Picos experience.
A few hours walk from the end of the road, and you arrive at Refugio de Urriellu; basecamp for all those aspiring to climb on Naranjo de Bulnes.There are a huge number of routes up for grabs here at a wide range of grades.Some bolted, some trad and most of them a mix of the two.The 700m high west face towers up above the hut, with the scale only becoming apparent, when you spot a pair of tiny climbers on it.
There are far too many routes to begin providing a tick list here, but there should be something to keep most climbers happy. The south face direct route is the classic and easiest way to the summit at around the ‘severe’ grade.With around 250m of climbing, gear placements a-plenty and new bolted belays, this makes for a relatively stress free route in a stunning position with good sized stances.The only downside is that these belays are also the abseil descent for most of the other routes on the mountain so there is the potential to find other parties abseiling down the route; as with most big routes in the Alps, best to start early to avoid such encounters.
In the south of the National Park, the cable car at Fuente De, helps to reduce the walk-in times and gives more options both of routes to climb and huts to stay at.Once immersed in the mountains, there are certainly plenty of excellent routes of varying grades and at lengths to suit most tastes.The logistics of getting to some of them do require a bit of thought, as in certain areas water is not in plentiful supply, but there are usually well placed huts or areas to camp – it just needs a bit of planning before leaving the valley.
Just outside the boundaries of the National Park, there are many fine bolted sports crags such as the limestone escarpment at Valdehuesa.South facing and a walk in time of under a minute, it has well over a hundred routes with grades ranging from 4 to 8c. Further west at Quiros, there are well developed cliffs including longer multi pitch routes only a short walk above the climbers refuge.The list goes on...
It’s true though - there isn’t much information available about climbing in the Picos de Europa if you are unable to speak or read Spanish.But don’t be put off – especially if you are looking to go somewhere a little ‘different’! Do some research and go see for yourself! Hopefully these links below should help you on your way..
www.cicerone.com – Walks and Climbs in the Picos de Europa – has basic info (in English) but was written in the eighties and despite being recently reprinted, has not been updated.
www.climbpicosdeeuropa.com – You can download a useful e-book (in English) from this site which has additional information to supplement and update the guide book.