Spain: El Chorro Rockfax
El Chorro regular Andy Swann puts his considerable local knowledge to good use when assessing the new Spain: El Chorro guidebook from Rockfax.
Saturday afternoon in late August, and there is not a cloud in the sky. It is calm and cool among the summit boulders of Chimney Rock Mountain, and the views over the central Mournes are biscuit-tin. From here you can see several of the major crags: the saurian tors of Binnian and Bearnagh, the louring buttress of Buzzard's Roost, the streaked wall of Lower Cove's east face, the great divided mass of Slieve Beg. Apart from my little sister who I dragged along as a spotter, there is not another climber in sight. But that's not unusual.
You have all heard of them, but I imagine a relatively small proportion of UKC readers have actually been to the Mournes. They surface now and then in climbing news through the addition of hard routes and repeats of what was once the UK's first E10, Divided Years. They featured in the popular amateur climbing film Underdeveloped, where Binnian's North Tor took centre stage for Ricky Bell to dispatch some scary slabs. So hardly off the map, but I doubt there are many places in the UK and Ireland of such relative accessibility, variety and quality that see so few climbers.
The fifth edition of the Mournes guide was published in 1998. As out-of-date guides go, there are worse examples. The fact however that this one was almost impossible to find was not doing any favours to those considering a visit, or to classic routes collecting lichen from neglect. My own copy suffered, among the standard tribulations in the life of a guidebook, 80 metres of high-velocity granite from the top of Bearnagh Slabs, and was tenuously held together by scotch tape and affection. Rumours of the new guide's release and of wrangling over publishing costs had been going around for some time – the original release was set sometime in 2006. All this, combined with a proliferation of quality new routes in last twelve years, meant that when the fabled item finally emerged from the printers at Mountaineering Ireland this summer, expectations were high. Happily, the writing team of Simon Moore, Craig Hiller and Ricky Bell have produced the goods.
Grades have been revised and stars doled out more generously, and rightly, than in the previous guide, with quality routes such as Edelweiss on Bearnagh and Overdue on Lower Cove being given due recommendation. Revision has not been wholesale, and a few esoteric little sandbags I expected to have changed in grade have not; but given the amount of terrain for a small number of people to cover, I suppose you can't have everything. Besides, I'm probably wrong.
The diagrams and crag topos are fantastic, easy to follow and very thorough. Photos courtesy of Craig Hiller are splashed around generously and are excellent, with a balanced selection of hard testpieces and more reasonable routes to inspire the punter. The improved appearance means it is a little bigger (but thinner) than the previous guide, so obviously less convenient for pocketing on climbs, but since the Mournes has relatively few routes of more than three pitches, that is probably a fair sacrifice for browsing quality. It also has the obvious bonus of a fairly robust plastic cover.
As far as styling and layout goes, it may not be a formatting masterpiece, but it is pretty damn good. They have followed the principle of most modern guides that more colour is better, though a bit of variety in background colour to distinguish crags, for example, might have been another worthwhile enhancement.
Something included here that was very overdue indeed is bouldering - previously there was nothing whatsoever available in print or even online to cover problems in the Mournes. Here we get a selection of problems on the Binnian tors, Chimney Rock and Hen Mountain. Personally I was expecting a little more, but on reflection they have got it about right. Among some great problems, bouldering in the Mournes is a bit of an acquired taste, consisting often of confidence movement on skin-shredding granite, located where you don't necessarily want to carry in a load of pads. There is also less good bouldering than the quantity of rock might suggest; as Si Moore points out in the geology section, Mourne granite goes from climbable to impossible within a grade or two. In any case word has it that the forthcoming Irish bouldering guide will have plenty more to offer in that department.
My only other minor grumble, and the pedant in me takes credit here, is a lack of editing precision, with a few too many typos and small errors in evidence. The introduction promises a four star system and a denotation for highballs that are applied to a grand total of one route each (possibly with a wry sense of humour). However the guys who wrote this are not professional writers, and it would be unfair to dismiss what is generally a great effort on that basis – it does not inhibit finding the climbs or generating psyche to climb them. It is also true that MI doesn't quite have the resources of some of the bigger guidebook publishers in Britain, so a few technical hiccups are hardly a major issue.
There is no question that this guide is a major upgrade from its predecessor, and the latest standard-bearer of a new generation of Irish guidebooks that make the current Fair Head guide, for example, look rather dated. Whether it will help make the Mournes a more popular place to climb remains to be seen, but if you are thinking of a trip across the water, it is really the only way to navigate your way around the various climbing delights of Mourne, and an inspiring one at that.