"For a climber the mountains are a testing ground where he is confronted by challenges which not only demand all his skill in meeting them but make him face up to his own motivation, perseverance and resilience when danger, hardship and fatigue all conspire to turn him back from his chosen objective. Given the chance, few can explain the compulsive fascination which draws them back year after year to this difficult school and makes them want to look further and higher, to push themselves all the harder..." - Joe Tasker in Savage Arena
I started taking trips to the Costa Blanca in 2005. A mate in the RAF Mountain Rescue had suggested the area as great for a decent weather multi-activity venue. He was right. I have been many times now. I choose to stay in a brothel, albeit one that stopped being a brothel ages ago (damn) and is now an orange coloured house called The Orange House. I didn't know back then that the owner (Rich Mayfield) was used to epics in the mountains being one of only two participants, in the ill fated military expedition to Mount Kinabalu and Low's Gully in February 1994, to walk out without being rescued.
So before my first visit I researched everything I could get my hands on about the area. I came across a short, and abruptly ending article by Rowland Edwards for Climb Magazine about a ridge, that he called the Castillets, in the area.
I think ridges hold a special place in the psyche of British mountaineers. We cut our Summer and Winter teeth on Sharp, Striding, Tower, Crib Goch, the Aonach, and then we wait for a weather window for the inimitable Cuillin. I quite like climbing, but for some reason I prefer ridges, and, wherever I mountaineer in the world I will always seek a rib to a summit rather than a pure climb.
The first visit did all that was expected of a week on the Costa Blanca. Sun kissed single pitch climbs, via ferrata, a walk up the towering Puig Campana, and a night in Benidorm wondering whether Sticky Vicky was real or a creature of folk law.
In amongst introducing the group to various outdoor pursuits, getting to know my way around Finestrat, and scratching the underbelly of Benidorm, I did get near the ridge.
The Orange House has a verandah on the first floor from where, what I call the approach ramp, the route on to the summit of El Realat can be seen. As I type here now I can recall virtually every footstep and handhold from the car park to the summit of that bloody hill.
The area of the Realat Valley, between Sella and Finestrat is one of those places where you can see where you want to be but spend ages finding the road (read gravel track) that gets there. I spent two years worth of visits climbing olive grove terraces and running away from unfed killer hounds before I found the way. Just turn right after the derelict house on the Finestrat to Sella road. Park as far up the road as the assault course put up by the nearby quarry will let you.
Most of the people I take to The Orange House are novice or intermediate climbers. Scrambling up the approach ramp with them is probably the hardest thing they have done on rock. Period. I have had all sorts of sit down protests, teddy throwing escapades and even a Blair Witch project-esque last will and testament recorded in to a mobile 'phone. I am continually fascinated by different peoples perspectives on risk and on how they like or fear different activities in the mountains. Most of them think that clipping on to a cable alongside a via ferrata stanchion 6oo feet off the floor is safer than standing on terra firms. Albeit steeply inclined terra firma. Each to their own.
Anybody that visits the Costa Blanca, and has the ability should scramble to the summit of El Realat for the view over its edge. There is a short drop off the top on to a finger of limestone. That finger is nine thousand metres long, and twists away up the valley as far as the eye can see. Ninety per cent of my groups refuse to descend to the start of the ridge. In their defence the ridge, at that point, is about as wide as a paperback book, with a many hundreds of feet drop off both sides. Perhaps my team building walks on the Malverns painted a poor picture.
It was about three years before I managed to get a group, or rather two from a group, over the edge. There they enter into the magic of the mountain environment. Like a skateboarder on a hand rail the slightest movement of hip or waist can imbalance the body and force you into a sitting position, hoping there is rock beneath you to sit on, in an instant. The mental and physical skills required to move across terrain of this technicality take years to mature. And split seconds to waste. Like any alpine ridge, safety and speed need to be juggled and traded in order to produce progress. So for those three or four years I would return to the bar at The Orange House and hear the tales of life-changing epics. Meanwhile an itch was growing in me.
About three years ago I started considering the possibility of doing the ridge in one go. I wish I hadn't. That itch became a weeping sore of discontent.
The trips continued. On my own I would solo a few kilometres along the ridge. With a few novices I would always get to within the same twenty or thirty metres of the same point. Occasionally over the edge.
I started researching whether the ridge had ever been done in a day. There was some random hearsay that Joe Brown may have been out there in the 80's and completed the ridge over several visits.
I started looking for somebody to do the ridge with. I could see from the furthest point along it that I had got thus far, that some of the pinnacles, fragile fingers of limestone, had die written at the end of the sentence: if you choose to solo me you will.
Some pairs from my groups were capable enough to go and explre the dar end of the ridge. The walk in here is easier but leads quickly to committing ground. The North side of the ridge, hammered by centuries of erosion is vertical, tending overhanging, in places. I would lead them up the relatively easy side, then get them to lay on their stomachs, close their eyes, and peer over the edge. The enormous pines seven hundred feet below looked like vegetables in a market garden. We also spent lots of time playing in all of the myriad shapes, caves, portholes and bizarre limestone features that have weathered in to the rock. The ridge just keeps on giving. Offering up rare plants, soaring vultures and even a look-out from the times of the Moors.
Like a child day-dreaming out of a window, I would be running climbing days in Spain, or be back in the UK working, and would press play on the muscle memory and revise every step to the ridge, every warm up hand and foot hold on the ramp, and then the tingle of expectation soloing down on to the start of the knife edge.
I was becoming obsessed.
In Spring 2010 Rockfax produced a miniguide to the ridges of the Costa Blanca. The ridge, now assuming the name El Realats after the valley that it forms the barrier of, was there in full colour A4 topo glory. The route in that guide is the first ten hours of the ridge. The guide suggests a European climbing grade of 4+ and opines "simply breathtaking alpine-style ridge on which all members of the party will need to be comfortable moving on very exposed grade 4 ground, the level of seriousness often being the same for leader and second."
Shortly after that, in the Spring of 11, sat around a table in munching the famous pate' in the village taverna Ooh La La, Rich Mayfield agreed to have a non-stop go at the ridge. Litres of lager do funny things.
"The line between a healthy sense of adventure and stupidity is about as straight as the skyline in the Himalaya" - Tommy Caldwell
And so it was that I flew out two days after Christmas last year. Miserably pissing down in Bristol to t-shirt weather in Alicante in under three hours. An hour later I was picked up from the bus station in the quiet seaside hamlet of Benidorm by Sam Mayfield.
Let battle commence.
I had expected a day or two of cacheing the ridge. Of honing no fitness in to hill fitness. Sod that, we left the next morning. The non-stop plan had been altered to long long days and see how we go. The three hours it takes with novices to reach the start of the knife edge was reduced by two thirds. I leaked and whined like a broken fridge.
For most of that day I was on familiar ground. Some of it is protected by climbing bolts, as is common in Europe, having been drilled in to the rock. However the nature of the climbing and the exposure just meant that hopefully the bolt would hold whatever was left of you after falling down a ropes length of razor sharp limestone. The rock was hideous. Certain flutes of it were actually like holding blades. The rock on the crest of the ridge had been a fall line for the eroding rain and had produced millimeter wide crenulations that were laceratingly sharp. Often they were the only hand holds. Skin was sliced off, finger ends were blooded, elbows were skinned. The climbing was very dangerous, the outcome of a slip was a wooden box. Eyes fuzzed with the focus, brains hurt with the concentration of reading every centimeter of the ground, of testing the stability of the rock and then having to commit body weight to loose stuff. It's all there was.
We abseiled off two hours after dark. Rich shouted up to me to have a look at the anchor for the fifty metre abseil. It looked ok, the anchor rope going through a thread in the rock. He shouted up to look closer, to pull the white anchor rope.. There wasn't a thread at all, there was some old tat tied to a piece of rope that went down a crack in the rock. Inside the crack was a little knot, like the string through a conker. When I gently weighted the rope the crack started to flare open. Rich weighed less than me.
We walked out. Ate like men possessed. Slept fitfully. Packed aid climbing kit and went back the next morning. From the comfort of Ooh La La we had thought it would go in two days. Time for a re-think perhaps.
The ridge is crossed by a small number of footpaths that are ancient herding paths that cross the lower parts of the ridge. We ascended one of these. The fridge still leaked. That day started with one of the hardest things I have ever done in the mountains. A pitch that was about 6a, preceded by a 20 minute struggle through chest deep thorn bushes, and climbed with a bag that seemed to double my weight. My over-riding memory of the day is Rich leading across a finger of limestone, sat straddled across it, with every movement forward making some of the rock he was sat on crumble from underneath him and fall six hundred feet. He was on belay. A belay that may have had some psychological benefit but that would have crumbled like a wet digestive if loaded. It was all we had.
The features on the ridge were constantly amazing. Tiny portholes, enormous fissures, huge windows right through the ridge. We had seen a few Spanish climbers ahead of us on the second morning, the first time either of us had ever seen anybody on this part of the ridge. The climbing was continually hard. Rich led some audacious pillars of limestone, I then just had to haul my sorry arse and that bastard rucksack up after him. Aid kit, another 60m rope, 20m of tat, half a rack.
Rich had stated before the off that he only had two days to commit to the ridge. Work commitments are the wall against which many mountaineers bang their heads. I noted dusk starting to descend. There was at least two and a half thousand metres of ridge left. We were both absolutely physically and mentally knackered. Conversation had all but stopped. We kept climbing for an hour or so more. I was starting to make mistakes, starting to slow down. I didn't give a shit about my itch, my scratch, the OCD, this bloody ridge. I needed to rest my frame somewhere that was wider than a paperback book and not hundreds of feet off the floor. I started double and triple checking knots and anchors, doubting myself, starting become exhausted. I told Rich I was absolutely chin strapped. He told me to get a bloody move on. However good or bad I felt, we had to go on. And on.
"mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous" – Reinhold Messner
I finished a bizarre double abseil with a short tyrolean traverse type manoeuvre and rounded a pinnacle to see Rich stood there asking for the other rope. He was the mountain goat, and the goat had decided to get off the ridge. Slow speed sadness crashed in to high speed relief. We abseiled off to find ourselves at the top of another abseil off. I forfeited a long dyneema sling to the God of safe abseils, and we abseiled down a sixty three metre cliff with a sixty metre rope, my heavy sack making itself useful by adding stretch to the rope.
I had bought myself a Black Diamond Icon headlamp for Christmas, and now knew why. The comfort blanket that was most of the hill side being bathed in light, was a huge relief on the endless battle through olive terrace after olive terrace after pine tree copse after olive terrace. Rich had the same torch. Most of the Costa Blanca must have seen us descending. Sam was closing in on our flood lights. As is always the way, the certainty of safety unleashed an hour of belt fed epic tales when we finally made the pick-up, and eventually sat by the fire in The Orange House.
These days we can capture everything we do on camera or smartphone. We can toss our bragging rights across social media like bread to the ducks. What we can't convey is what genuine balls out effort in the mountains takes out of us deep inside. We sipped cold beers, more for the cold tin on our rubbished hands, than the alcohol. Rich said it was the hardest thing he had done in Spain. I have climbed mad things, ran mad ultramarathons and been in some crazy situations, but those days on the Castillets etched themselves upon and inside me.
"You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know." - Rene Daumal
As we rigged the last abseil of that adventure, I used my mobile to ring Sam and let her know that we were safe, knackered and descending. Rich caught that moment on camera, the red sun descending over the ridge in the background. A photograph shot through, for me, with the emotions of failure and success. Blown up to A3, that photo is pinned to the wall in front of my rowing machine. It laughs at me every 10k morning. The itch hurts like hell.
I fly back there in seventeen days.
About the author
Tomo Thompson has introduced people to the beauty and challenges of the mountains of UK and Europe on small trips and expeditions for over twenty years. He is average at most things, and above averagely vocal about the benefits of playing and learning outside. thepathlesstravelled.co.uk
He sponsors himself.
He climbed the ridge with Rich Mayfield from The Orange House.