Semana Santa

For one to fully appreciate the ridiculousness of my semana santa vacations, I must start this blog post 1 week before we actually left for our trip.
The plan was simple…sort of. My friend Jason and I were going to fly into Málaga and, using the train system RENFE as well as buses, do the following journey spread out over 11 days
Málaga–>Climbing in El Chorro–>Córdoba–>Climbing in Pedriza–>Madrid–>Toledo–>Climbing in Cuenca–>Valencia–>Barcelona
Yes, it was an ambitious plan, but we are energetic fast-paced people and figured that with perfect conditions we could do it all, and it wouldn’t be a big bummer if we didn’t get everywhere we wanted to go to.
1 week before semana santa, I traveled to Marrakech, Morocco for a 3 day weekend trip with two friends. The weekend before that I climbed for 3 days in Margalef and had an absolute blast and climbed very well, on sighting my first 6c+ and red pointing a 7a in two goes.   However, I must have caught something at that climbing refugio because Monday morning I woke up with a terrible fever. Worrying I wasn’t going to make it to Marrakech I confined myself to bed and recovered quickly. I went to Morocco, without a fever and feeling good, but with a recent, lingering illness that I was still trying to get over … in a hostel room with 6-8 people in Northern Africa.
The next week i was swamped with work I did not do during my trip to Marrakech. Jason and I were going to meet up to book hostels and solidify our travel plans but kept on pushing it back because we both had piles of work to do. Then, Wednesday, when we were finally going to meet, I went to the climbing gym to train beforehand. While trying a boulder-problem, I banged my knee very hard into a climbing hold. No pass nada, I thought.. I’d done this all the time with no real consequences. But, then I tried to walk. It hurt like a bitch. I couldn’t extend my leg all the way or even lift it up when laying it straight on the floor. Instantly, I went into freak out mode. “No.. “, I thought, “this cannot be happening 2 days before I’m supposed to go on an insane climbing trip. “I went to the doctor and was told it was just a contusion (thankfully) and that if I laid off of it for 2 weeks I should be fine.
2 weeks. damn. I told Jason of my predicament and said I’d decide tomorrow if I was going to go, assuming that if I did I would just be doing touristy things and be skipping on the climbing. Bummed, I ignored all of my work, watched a movie and slept for 12 hours.
The next morning I woke up and felt better- a lot better! I could walk, bend my leg.. do all that good stuff. De repente, I decided to go and Jason came over to plan.
Now, it’s about 6 PM on Thursday, 12 hours before our flight, and all we have at this point is a flight to Málaga at 630 the next morning… nothing else. No hostels booked anywhere, no idea where we are staying or where exactly where we are going. Half the point of taking trains the whole way up would be so we could follow the weather and escape onto the coast if the rain previsions actually were correct. .. and the weather was saying rain. We figured we’d wait until Monday to go into El Chorro so the weather has a chance to get better and my knee has a chance to fully heal  ( because it definitely did not need 2 weeks, trust me)
So, we went on a search for some climbing books and of course instead of packing decided to get some nice froyo. Finally, I packed at like 10 PM and went to sleep around 1130.
Because I basically did nothing the day before, since I was so sad about  my knee and assumed I wouldn’t be going, I hadn’t done ANY laundry. So, I did it on Thursday afternoon but it was still not all dry by that evening because here in Spain people live in the 1950s and air-dry… which as an aesthetic, ecologic and cute European “novelty” is fun.. but it quickly becomes very annoying  when you need your shit to dry quickly so you can shove it into your backpack…
So, at 330 AM I walked to meet Jason where Diagonal meets Passeig de Gracia in slightly damp clothing, on 2 hours of sleep, with a full 65L backpack on my back and my small 28L pack on my chest. Because the metro doesn’t open until 5 AM and we’re too cheap to take a taxi, we take the 4:05 AM N-14 night bus to the airport. Byt the time we get to the airpot it is 5 AM. Slightly worried, we go to get our stupid print-out RyanAir tickets stamped. Then, we wait in line to check in our big bags (we had a bunch of climbing and hiking things ). RyanAir is una putada and didn’t let us go into the “último minuto” line until.. literally the último minuto even though our flight was 40 minutes away and the regular line was basically not moving (while there was no one in the último minuto line). So, 20 minutes before our flight a short, skinny annoyingly metro RyanAir worker sporting a  skinny tie calls us over. We, as well as 10 other people, rush to get there and when it finally is our turn we are pissed to find that Jason’s bag is over the ridiculous 15kg RyanAir limit. So, he takes out his quick draws and shoves them into his carry on and we run to security. Here, we are denied access because Jason has quick draws that evidently they won’t let us carry on the plane…
Here I pause to share this video of George Carlin on airport security to address my frustration.

 

Usually this is not an issue. I’ve carried climbing equipment in my carry on and so has he. After trying to convince the guy that no we are not going to whack the pilot to death with our carabiners we realize that there is no way he is going to let us pass. So, here we are.. on 2 hours of sleep each without any real plan completely getting owned and having the only thing we have reserved totally blow up in our face. We can’t leave 200 dollars worth of climbing gear, so we miss our flight.
But wait, our bags were checked ! Shit! We book it to find our metro friend to get our bags off of the plane. What occurs next is so frustrating that I’m feeling stressed out just thinking about it. RyanAir is the most inept airline whose low prices lure you into their fun/money-sucking dungeon equipped with Spanish employees who, I firmly believe, are hypnotized (kind of like in Zoolander) and are transformed into automatons with one purpose: to make simple tasks, such as returning baggage, into long convoluted processes that are completed in the worst way possible.
Two hours later,  we get our bags back.
A few hours later, we are sleeping on a train to Madrid.
Too determined to back down from our trip we decided to go to Sants Estación and buy a Spain Rail Pass that would let us basically take 4 “24 hour” trips using as many trains as we wanted.
Mezquita de Córdoba

Another comical side-note: The reason I mentioned being sick pre-Marrakech was because this sickness came back to haunt me, but this time it came in the form of a very, very sore throat. I was so pissed at the RyanAir staff that I did not hesitate to scream at them in my wonderfully spoken (sarcasm) Spanish. When we arrived in Madrid waiting to connect to Córdoba, I literally could not talk.

So, I’m sitting in Madrid waiting to connect to Córdoba. I’ve been awake for probably 12 hours by now and it is mid-afternoon. I can’t talk. My knee feels fine but I’m still worried that this lack of sleep (+ all the running I did in the airport) won’t do it much good. We have no idea where we are staying in Córdoba, or where we are going next. To plan this, we communicate via me typing my thoughts on my laptop.
Our vacation was off to a great start.
DAY 1- Córdoba
We wake up in Córdoba in our last minute (but totally amazing) hostel. I can’t talk at all. I can barely even drink anything it hurts so badly. So, silently, we make our way through the town. As we cross from the new town into the old-city, our spirits begin to rise. Casas blancas, everywhere. Amazing Andalucían jardínes. Random guys playing guitar in the middle of a beautiful courtyard. Food. Touring the famous  mesquite of Córdoba! Walking over a Roman bridge! It was all quite nice. And, by the time we’re eating our menú del día, I can talk again! I sound like a cross between a chain-smoker and a pubescent teenage boy, but at least things had taken a turn for the better. That night we boarded a train to Granada and arrived at 10 PM, pleased with how our day went and greeted into yet another last-minute but totally rad hostel. (Although some guy in our room snored.. really loudly..just sayin’)
DAY 2- Granada
an all-inclusive semana santa procession.

The night before we decided to casually peruse the internet to see when the Alhambra was open. We could just show up, right? Wrong. We found out, the night before we wanted to go, that you should probably make reservations. And, by probably, I mean.. you should most definitely make a reservation otherwise you probably won’t get tickets since they limit the amount of entries. The only chance you have is to show up at  7 AM to stand in line for an hour.

Damn it. Reservations were sold out.. but we were not deterred! We woke up at 6 AM to hike (I mean, hike) up a hill to get to the Alhambra. Luckily, we were able to get a ticket and spent 3 hours touring the Alhambra. All I can say is that it is probably the most amazing historical site I have ever been to and I don’t think anyone should leave Spain without seeing it.
After returning, we went to catch the very first of the Semana Santa processions in Granada. We knew that Semana Santa (the week before easter) was a big deal in the South of Spain but we didn’t really know what to expect of the daily parades that went on. The stage was set as if we were at the NYC Christmas parade; the street was filled with people and merchants (with no teeth… literally) selling cotton candy. The

getting pensive in the Alhambra

psyche was high. I felt like AC/DC was about to come out of the giant church we were gathered around or something. But instead.. some people started marching in traditional costumes that slightly (very much so) resemble klu-klux klan outfits. They were all walking silently and carrying crosses and candles. The crowd went wild!  Marching bands were playing! And then, the main attraction came.. giant floats that people were carrying on their back… of Jesus.

This.. was weird. Coming from liberal Northern California I was not used to this much religion…I had never even been to church. To me, this parade seemed like a cross between battle of the bands and church. When the first part of the parade was over people rushed over to catch the 2nd one.. there would be 5 that day .. and there would be 5 every day until Easter Day. These people were nuts about semana santa.
Alhambra

…until it started to rain. In spain.. people don’t take to the rain very well. They treat it like it is some sort of highly threatening natural disaster. Literally, the world stops. People don’t go outside. Cities die. I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard “QUICK! hide the children! to the bunkers!” the next time it rained. So, when a few drops appeared, everyone quickly ran to cover. The party was broken up!

Jason and I took this as a good opportunity to get our bags and grab a train to our next destination- Málaga!
We arrive to Málaga that night. We walk the sketchy mile to the center of the city (has an Oakland-esque feel to it), and everything slowly transforms into your typical European city . We hear a lot of noise as we approach the main street and, in the darkness of the night, (it was 11ish), I see it- the silouhette of the same Jesus float I saw earlier. Except this time, there were a LOT more people. It was almost midnight and the streets were PACKED with, what had to be, everyone in Málaga. There were food stands, stages… basically everything I saw at Carnaval a month before hand at Sitges.. except instead of transexual performers in costume they had guys dressed up in the tall hats and floats covered in religious paraphernalia.DAY 3- El Chorro , Las Encantadas

There were cats all over these crags.. this one we dubbed “Cracker Cat”
because it literally appeared out of nowhere in Las Encantadas and
started to devour our crackers, as I, unable to do anything since I was
belaying Jason, watched curiously… cats eat crackers? We would meet again
while hiking back at night after hitch-hiking and getting dropped off
in the wrong place (teaser for what’s to come!)

Of course, our hostel was right on that main street and to get there we had to walk down the street that the parade was going down. There were so many people packed together I was surprised a mosh pit didn’t break out. So, we took some side streets with the help of my iPhone (seriously without this glorious device this entire trip would not have been possible), and arrived at yet another hostel with the plan to wake up at 630 to catch a train to El Chorro- the premier climbing destination in Andalucía. I, in my desperate attempt to find a bowl so I could eat my cereal in milk (my camping instincts failed me and I forgot to bring a bowl!) make a fool out of myself on the early train by pouring my soy milk directly into the cereal bag.. but it worked.. and t’was delicioso!

mmm.. All Bran cereal and soy milk
straight out of the bag. Dirt-bagging… on a train

 

When we arrive at El Chorro… we are both super freaking excited. The train ride was absolutely gorgeous; rolling green hills with lots of trees and animals… and even better.. a giant cliff in the distance… mi tipo de paisaje!We get there and after checking in at the refugio immediately head out to Las Encantadas, the nearest sport-climbing crag (15 minute hike from our refugio, Finca la Campana). The weather was cloudy and windy and we were scared it would start raining. Luckily, we never got rained on but neither of us climbed very well that day.. I chalk it up to mental exhaustion from our stressful past couple of days. We went back, met some cool climbers and ate about 2000 calories worth of delicious pasta with veggies. Life was good.

DAY 4- El Chorro, El Camino del Rey

The impressive gorge at El Chorro, seen as you are
approaching it intending to do El Camino del Rey (you can see
one part of the walkway on the right face, about 1/3 of the way up)

El Chorro is known for its impressive gorge that looms over a reservoir and is simply breathtaking. If you want to hike through the gorge, you can do the famous via-ferrata line called “El Camino del Rey”- The King’s Path. Basically, it’s a walkway that takes you through the gorge, but it’s not something anyone can just mosey on over and do. The walkway is decently narrow and there are even gaps in it where it has been broken. There are cables along the sides for you to grab and use as protection (attach yourself via your harness to the cable as you walk). Where the gaps are there are generally some old (rusty) pieces of iron you can use, or just the rock and cable. It’s quite a classic thing to do but, as people who have never done via-ferratas before, it was intimidating when we first showed up to do it. We had some crazy plan until a Spanish climber nearby told us we could just lead the beginning, in which there is no walkway, like a normal climb

Some people waving to us
from the train tunnels on the otherside.
Me getting across the first gap. I was connected to the cable
and was also holding onto it for balance.

. So, I lead this part, which was extremely easy ( i did it in my hiking boots) as there were cables and iron rungs along the way to help you out. It was actually quite fun, since it was more of a semi-dangerous hike than an actual climb, but I still felt like a boss doing it. Jason then seconded after me and we got to the actual walkway. Since we didn’t have a lot of gear we did a semi-ghetto via ferrata method. Usually you have 2 points of protection connecting you to the cable, so when the cable ends you take out one of your protection pieces and attach it to the next one, that way you’re always attached to something. We didn’t have many slings so we just used a bunch of carabiners.. not the most recommended way to do it but it works. The walkway is decently wide and the only way you could fall is if you literally jumped off of it. However, there were lots of holes in the walkway and sometimes complete gaps. In these situations you could either use the rock (the cable was still there, of course) or sometimes there were pieces of (really rusty..) iron metal you could use to walk across. The first gap comes almost immediately after you start the walkway, and it is a bit scary I must admit. However, once you get the hang of it it’s not bad at all and is quite fun. Once we actually got into the gorge itself we were both blown away. The picturesque scenery, the adventure of the via-ferrata and the exposure combined to create a very unique experience. Plus- the place was just amazingly beautiful! The rock is incredibly featured and I vow to return one day to climb all over it. (there is one wall, Africa Wall, which looks particularly fun, especially if you are a trad climber). When you arrive in the middle of the gorge there is a large ledge that has plaques bolted onto the face walls of some people who have died whiel doing the  camino.. a bit discouraging, but we paid our respect and moved on.

When you finish el camino del rey you arrive at the left hand side of a river that runs through an incredible valley surrounded by incredible (and I’m sure, some of it undeveloped) rock, green rolling hills, small abandone
d huts and orange groves. El camino del rey is one way of getting to some of El Chorro’s crags such as  Los Cotos, Polvorín and Makinodromo, all of which require you to cross the river. Unfortunately, when we arrived we realized that all of the recent rain had flooded the river and it was impossible to cross-bummer.

There are two other options for getting to these crags. One is an uphill hike through a scree and a notch that apparently isn’t the easiest thing to find. The other option is more simple but illegal- cross through the train tunnels that are carved through the other side of the gorge. We would have to make this decision later but for now our only option was to turn back and return via el camino del rey. First, we had some lunch, without a soul around (okay I lie there were some german tourists but they were far away) and enjoyed the landscape for a bit. We also found a LOT of wild onions. As a huge onion fan I got super excited and tried to pull out as many as I could, especially since the “store” in-town was quite poorly stocked of basically every sort of vegetable you could desire. Jason was a lot better at pulling them out than me, mostly I just broke the stem, however sometimes I was successful. We pulled out a good 10 before the thought actually occurred to us that maybe we should try them before hauling them out with us. I assumed they would be great, you know being grown in nature and all, but nature screwed us over-these onion were very, very bitter and quite gross. Abandoning our dreams of becoming farmers and living off the land, we headed back via the camino del rey. When we got to the end we decided to rappel down on some rap rings that were conveniently located at the end of the walkway (a route below ended at that point) instead of down climbing the first part (where you have to lead without a real walkway). It was about 530 PM and we decided to go to Frontales, a crag in between our refugio and the gorge, to try to get at least some climbing in. We both finished a classic 6a as a warmup and then, at around sunset I try a 7a+ that the guidebook said was “small and technical.” I’m usually good at pulling on crimps so I thought I’d give it a try.

Me tackling one of the last gaps on the via-ferrata

I got shut-down by this climb. The holds were absolutely terrible and the feet were practically non-existent.. but it was a vertical, not slabby climb so it was a lot harder to put my weight on my feet. I literally fell 8 times (above the clip.. don’t even ask how many times I fell below the clip just trying to re-start climbing) and was able to hang-dog my way up to 2 bolts before the anchors. At this point I had been on the climb for a decent amount of time and night was quickly approaching. In about 5 minutes I could not see anything, and like an idiot I hadn’t brought a headlamp. This wasn’t exactly the kind of climb you could do without really being able to place your feet and hands (I guess no climb is, really)- which tends to require, you know, the ability to see- so I bailed down. Luckily the bolts were rungs so I didn’t have to leave anything, but good god untying a figure-8 knot that had been loaded 8+ times in the dark was not much fun. I lowered off and we hiked back in the dark (this time fishing our headlamps out of our packs). This trend of hiking back through town and then hiking another 30 minutes uphill from town to the refugio after the sun had set would continue for the next few days to come. We returned, made some delicious pasta dish (without our natural onions) and passed out. Not a bad 2nd day at El Chorro.

View you get after finishing the via-ferrata. Not a  bad reward. We had lunch
on the hills behind the abandoned cottage!

DAY 5 El Chorro, -Makinodromo

Jason entering the first of the tunnels
to leave Makinodromo, around 730 PM.

Since we never got a chance to go to Makinodromo yesterday, we decide to head over there. When we run into some of the people staying at our refugio and see them take the train tracks to get to the crag, we decide to do the same, because the whole “hiking through a scree uphill” thing just seemed so much more difficult. Technically, hiking through the train tracks is illegal and we heard that there was some obscene fee of $6,000 euros if you were caught.. but we took the risk, since there was literally no one else there but climbers. We got through the train tunnels successfully and warmed up on a slabby route at Los Cotos. It started to rain but luckily died down before the rock got too wet. We got to Makinodromo and hiked up to the sector “Life is Sweet” which is located at the top of the hill that the crag is on. When I mean “hiked up”, I mean we huffed and puffed our way up this hill for 30 minutes- quite a good warm-up. I hopped on a 7a+ I wanted to try called “hakuna matata” (half because I am a huge Lion King fan and half because it sounded like a sweet climb)and it was AWESOME! Even though I’d been climbing in Spain for a good 2 months, this was my first time actually climbing on tufas. There was one move in particular which was quite cool; you have two hands on this massive stalagtite and get to clip while doing a kneebar-then you go directly into another, hard tufa section. A pure dynamic, overhung, sustained route. I didn’t finish it but got quite close, not quite figuring out the boulder-y moves near the 10th bolt. We hiked back in the twilight (again) through the train tunnels.. but this time we were met by a train! As we were in one of the tunnels we heard some rumbling and saw the train coming, there’s more than enough room next to the tracks for you to be perfectly safe, but it was still quite creepy to have a train pass by you at full speed in the dark in the middle of nowhere in a tunnel. 

DAY 6- Makinodromo parte 2
We decided to go straight to Makinodromo again so we could try our respective routes. We warmed up on a 6b in the first sector of Makinodromo that turned out to be a huge, huge sandbag. We hiked back up to Life is Sweet where I got on hakuna matata again and, thanks to some local beta, I realized that there was a way easier move out to the left to get past the crux I kept on falling on. It featured a dynamic, big move from a good side pull to a decent, small tufa. After that I just lowered off, pleased to have progressed but (after falling trying to do the next move which is a big move off of a crimp to a tufa) feeling very cold (it got windy) and content with leaving the route. We walked back again, in the dark and arrived at the refugio to a full on flamenco show. Both the guitarist and the singer were very, very good and it was quite a fun performance to watch, especially since it was in such an intimate setting.
DAY 7- Amptrax
For our last day at El Chorro we thought it would be fun to try the classic 8 pitch line, Amptrax. None of the pitches get above 6a so it was well within our league. We got up early and found the route pretty easily and, luckily, were the first ones there. Jason led the first pitch and then I followed him and immediately led the other one. Then, as I was making an anchor (which I really need to practice doing), I had to pee so badly that as I was going for my grigri to belay Jason up, I dropped it. I looked on with horror as I saw it freefall 100 feet and land at the base of the crag (thankfully well out of the way of anyone). I belayed Jason up using his ATC that he passed me (also need to work on my munter .. and my rope management skills) and we decided to wait there because evidently the other team below us was bringing our grigri up. Yeah ,we waited for an hour to find that they didn’t bring it up and then we realized we didn’t want to use an obviously potentially damaged grigri anyways so we lowered off in shame. But, when we got to the base we just laughed and realized we could learn a lot from this experience; aka – to make anchors better and faster, (learn how to pee in the fucking harness for me) , review belaying with the rope, review rope management.. review a bunch of shit. We will be back for sure to conquer this route. In the meantime we went back to the refugio, packed up our stuff and headed over to the train station where we bought a delicious meal from the local bar.

DAYS 8-11: Madrid and back to BCN

tortillas españolas, café con leche, aceitunas.. and some
bread-crump, garlic jamón mix (don’t recall the name)
typical of the region (or so the old lady told me)

After our Amptrax fiasco we took a train from Málaga to Madrid where, as usual, we booked the hostel on the train-ride 1 hour away from our destination (seriously, i love my smart phone). Madrid was interesting but the 2 days we spent there could not stack up to the 5 amazing days in El Chorro. We did some touristy things, went to the Palace, walked around, ate some tapas, went to El Retiro (a huge park in Madrid where we enjoyed some banana honey sandwiches) and of course went to the Prado. It probably says a lot about us that walking around in the Prado for 1 hour exhausted us way more than 5 days of climbing and hiking in El Chorro. We had intended to go to Toledo too but unfortunately our last minute planning failed us as all of the buses were packed. In fact, we went a day before we wanted to go to “play it safe” and just to be sure I asked whether there were still tickets to Barcelona and the guy told us there were barely any left for the earliest train the next day… so we jumped on those tickets immediately and at 8 AM the next day were on our last train-ride of the trip, heading back to Barcelona. Unfortunately, it was the day after Easter so everything was closed and I had 0 food, so I lived off of oatmeal for a day, but at least in Barcelona I didn’t have to go through side-streets to avoid giant semana santa parades or Jesus floats. It was good to be back home.

 
 

 

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