[Marcus] I’d climbed on the Penon de Ifach once before and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In preparation for this trip I found myself scouring the guide book again for amenable routes on the more committing eastern end of the South face. The Via Gomez-Cano had always been there but in the past I’d always allowed myself to be put off by the aid pitch, graded F7b+ free or A0/5+ for mere mortals prepared to pull on fixed gear. A few weeks before the trip I emailed Chris to see how he felt about giving it a go, taking the opportunity to suggest he bring his etriers. An item of kit not normally considered essential for bolt clipping trips in the sun! When Chris replied in the affirmative I felt that familiar jolt of excitement as a fanciful idea made one step closer to being a plan.
[Chris] November 5th 10:13, an email from Marcus; “I’ve been looking at the Costa Blanca guide book and there’s a route on the South face of the Penon de Ifach that I’d like to have a go at, it’s called Via Gomez- Cano”. I immediately reached for the said tome, nestling amongst many guide books a-top one of my creaking office book shelves, thumbing through the pages I spotted the object of his desire, it was graded at 6b (E3) with an aid pitch of A0 or free at 7b+!! My reply read; “It sounds like a bit of an adventure, let’s have a look and give it a go”.
Two weeks later on 24th November, on the eve of our second day of climbing in the area, we’re stood at the base of the intimidating towering 1000ft South face of the Penon de Ifach, craning our necks trying to piece together exactly where the route goes. By many accounts this is a massive mountaineering classic which weaves its way through some incredible rock features. It follows a long sweeping diagonal line through a series of huge caves situated around mid- height of the wall, a lot of the ground is very steep or overhanging and for us we felt, the outcome was uncertain. My mental approach was that we could climb it but, we might also fail! There was the added burden of the short winter day, we had to be on the summit by 6pm (nightfall) or risk the possibility of spending the night out. Hanging in a harness inappropriately dressed shivering the night away, was not a particularly inviting prospect which, somewhat added a little spice and urgency to the proceedings.
There are officially nine pitches. It therefore fell to me to begin proceedings by climbing the first pitch, this being in the right chronological order to allow me to be in a position to lead the aid pitch.
This was a dubiously bestowed honour, in part due to my past caving experience of aid climbing, hanging and swinging around like a demented Gibbon on steep holdless rock walls. Before leaving the ground, I studied the topo that Marcus had down-loaded from the internet, there appeared to be an anomaly between this and the RockFax guide?
[Marcus] With 9 hours of daylight at our disposal, we’d budgeted ourselves 8 hours of climbing time from 9am to 5pm on a 9 pitch route with a guidebook time of 7.5 hours. It was going to be tight but, barring mistakes or mishaps, we thought we had a good chance of getting to the top in daylight. As I watched Chris set off up the first pitch at 10am, I admit I was anxious; we’d already eroded our safety margin. Then things got worse. The two topos I was carrying contradicted each other regarding the line of the first pitch.
[Chris] On arrival at the [anomaly] I wrongly chose to follow the topo and forced out right, soon finding myself amongst hard steep ground too difficult for me to continue. After a short retreat back diagonally for several metres, I arrived at the safety of a huge thread belay from where I brought up Marcus for a fresh look.
[Marcus] Understandably, Chris had found my shouted directions confusing, so he elected to take an early belay and bring me up. From below it had been hard to understand the confusion but when I reached Chris it was all too obvious. Fixed gear was evident in various directions but none of it seemed to correspond to the lines expected from the topos. Leading through, I decided to follow the most amenable line up a flake crack that looked like it fitted the Rockfax topo. The juggy crack became a strenuous polished corner but with it came the bolted protection that gave me the confidence that we were on route. With rope to spare, I continued up an awkward naturally protected crack-line finishing with a strenuous pull onto a spacious belay ledge. At last, I felt we were making progress but I didn’t dare look at my watch to confirm the time we’d lost.
[Chris] This small mistake had eaten into our valuable time, therefore spurning the pangs of urgency that were gnawing away at us. From the belay the line of the aid pitch was pretty obvious, albeit slightly depressing!! A soaring rightward trending arc, clearly traced by a line of rusty bolts culminating in a fierce looking overhanging groove, reminiscent of a child’s dot-to-dot picture. Initially it went free until one is forced to resort to etriers. I found the distance between the bolts increasingly challenging, particularly in the upper groove where I had to employ just about every trick I could muster, by fair means or foul to reach the next clip. This is a pitch for the tall in stature, not for the vertically-challenged!
[Marcus] The topo made it look like most of it was free and aid would only be required on the last few feet where an exit was made into a cave via an overhanging crack. To my dismay, I saw Chis employ the etriers on the steep slab before the crack in the headwall. Time was ticking away and I knew this pitch had the potential to bring the ascent to a crashing halt. I watched with my heart in my mouth as, bolt by bolt, Chris clipped in a set of etriers, gained as much height as he could, I pulled in the rope and he strained to clip the second set of etriers into the next bolt. Just as he was disappearing out of view, to what I thought must be the safety of the belay cave, I heard the discouraging shout “It keeps getting worse!”
[Chris] The final aid move on a Camalot required a ridiculously high step, achieved by a one armed hang whilst leaning right back bringing my left knee right up to my chin, thus enabling me to tentatively thread my toe with my free hand into the top loop of the etrier. A big step in conjunction with an extended stretch enabled my fingers to curl over a decent hold which, I hoped would be the penultimate final move.
Having to maintain momentum in an attempt to avoid running out of steam, I urgently pressed on with further bridging and (thank god) good holds which led me to the sanctuary of the belay. When Marcus joined me I think we both felt that the despatching of this pitch was the key to the climb, opening up the remainder of the route. However there was still a long way to go and the outcome was by no means certain.
[Marcus] When it came to my turn, I quickly realised that without Chris’ herculean efforts on this pitch, we would certainly have been forced to descend for any early bath with barely 150ft of climbing to show for ourselves. When I arrived at the belay I took a moment to gaze up in awe at the roof of the enormous cave we had entered and then, finally, I checked my watch. It was 1pm; we’d taken an average of an hour per pitch. At that rate we’d be reaching the summit at 7pm, over an hour after sunset.
[Chris] The following three or four pitches of easier leftward trending climbing, passed around the periphery of some impressive cavernous honeycombed caves. Continuing to swing the leading between us, I eventually arrived at a belay to the left of a deep chimney. I was somewhat uncertain of our exact position; our meandering journey to this point had passed over various banks of loose stone and grit, bearing no sign of any previous passage. Marcus joined me and a discussion ensued about exactly where we might be on the wall?
[Marcus] I knew the next three pitches were technically straight-forward, so this was our opportunity to make up time by climbing quickly but being careful not to stray off line. Pitch 4 took us to the top left corner of the huge cave and, via an exposed move around a rib, into an adjacent cave. Pitches 5 and 6 continued the leftwards line to bring us out from beneath the cave roofs onto a wall beneath a steep crack and, higher up, a gaping black chimney.
[Chris] He eventually considered that the route into the depths of the chimney was correct and quickly disappeared within the bowels of the cliff, swollen whole by the gapping vertical gash. I did not see him again for some time, then I felt the familiar subtle twitching and pulling of the rope, synonymous with the reaching of a belay, he had made safe.
Chris took the lead for pitch 7, as he toiled away, I acknowledged the waves from fellow climbers belayed in a shady, secure looking, cave across a steep wall to my left. This pitch was more awkward than it looked, with a nasty move out of an open grove into a steep crack, requiring a high step with the right foot onto a polished foothold with very few handholds for security. After a few grunts I reached Chris and, looking up, my heart sank.
[Marcus] The guidebook description for pitch 8 couldn’t have been clearer, “squirm up the chimney… until you are forced right”. I could see a line of shiny bolts beckoning me to slabby ground on the left, but no sign of fixed gear in the direction we were supposed to go. The overhanging chimney itself looked off-width and we certainly hadn’t brought cams large enough to bridge that gap, it also hadn’t escaped my notice that this was supposed to be one of the crux pitches. Chris probably detected my ebbing confidence and suggested the attractive bolt line could be an option, but who knew where this would eventually lead? I decided to follow the topo and head for the chimney. After a few careful moves I peered into the deep cleft. Yes! I spotted a loop of tat, evidence of previous passage. I squeezed myself into the chimney’s jaws and, reaching up to clip the tat, my heart sank again; it was attached to a decades old wooden wedge! However, as my eyes began to adjust to the light starved innards of the chimney, I saw that it was filled with subsidiary cracks that would accept all manner of natural protection. A couple of placements later, I was motoring up as fast as my wedged rucksack would let me. The escape out to the right required some athletic moves but I was rewarded with a spacious belay on a slab beneath the final pitch.
[Chris] Within the confines of the gloomy gash there was only just sufficient room to make any upward progress, to enter however, was very tight, subsequently my rucksack became jammed and I could no longer progress upwards or otherwise. It transpired that my approach shoes in the bottom of my sack had become jammed across the narrow opening, requiring a considerable squirming effort to affect a release. The climbing progressively became harder as one climbed higher, culminating in a series of hard moves to access an outward sloping belay ledge. I felt exhausted by the shenanigans of the route thus far, the aiding of pitch 3 had particularly sapped the strength from my ageing frame, Marcus therefore magnanimously agreed to relieve me of my lead and began what we hoped would be the final pitch to the summit. Following yet more hard and in part strenuous climbing, this did indeed prove the case.
[Marcus] We didn’t need to check our watches now, the south facing rock was aglow with an eerie orange light; no time to loose! Chris quickly arrived at the belay and we agreed that I should lead on. After a brief false start, I followed a groove that led to a polished corner and a bulge near the top that appeared to block further progress. At the bulge I noticed some underclings leading away from the corner to the right, these enabled enough height to be gained to make a long reach to average holds and a peg above the bulge. As my strength sapped away I had a stark choice, do I clip the peg and risk running out of strength as I make the move or make the move straightaway and deal with the protection after the fact? I clipped the peg and felt my fingers uncurl from the holds above. “Tight rope!” I shouted and relaxed to let my arms recover. As I surveyed the scene I noticed a bridging foothold out on the left wall of the corner, I think this was the moment when I finally believed we would make the top. With fresh arms and some bridging moves, I overcame the bulge to find myself in another steep corner. After consulting the topo I realised that it was now possible to make a devious escape left to the final belay. I clipped in and shouted that I was safe as I felt a heady rush of satisfaction sweep over me. Now I could enjoy the stunning view of the sea below and the mountains inland, this was the feeling that made it worthwhile.
Within minutes the sun was setting and Chris had joined me, we jabbered excitedly whilst we coiled the ropes and prepared for the walk off. Now, under the cover of darkness, I could unpack the footwear that I’d specially chosen to keep my rucksack weight to a minimum; a pair of my girlfriend’s sandals.
[Chris] On approaching him during my final weary moves he exclaimed through an unfeasibly large smile, “I think we’re going to live”