Old Dogs, New Tricks.
In early summer last year Bob and I dreamt up a scheme for a flying visit to Riglos in Spain; a cheap short trip that would see Fiesta de los Biceps done and anything else we could drag our bones up once Biceps was in the bag. So we sort of plumped for early March – out of season, cheap flights and cheap car hire are the norm and we reckoned on being able to do the trip for about £250 each for five days, two days travel, and three days on the rock.
While we are highly motivated blokes, nature has a way of emphasizing your weaknesses, in the Autumn I tore a lat, and in early January still couldn’t do a pull up, and Bob had an ongoing, non specific, but painful shoulder thing. My lat pretty much recovered, in time for me to get a persistent chest infection two weeks before departure. I have yet to mention Bob’s artificial hip, and that unsurprisingly we are getting on a bit, both with dodgy knees and a combined climbing age of 117. The message from our creaking bones and medical history was clear – get this sucker done before it gets too late!
Biceps is an ultra classic, a unique multi pitch 7a (5.11d in US money – I think?), a very ‘sporty’ sport route that takes the left hand side of the ‘Visor’ the steepest of Riglos’s several buttresses. Vertical for the first three pitches, the remaining five snake their way up an increasingly overhanging conglomerate face. The climbing is very pumpy, the position, rock and holds amazing. The situation is serious throughout, the bolts being quite spaced with five or six in each of it’s eight 30m pitches. Falling off the steep stuff would require some good old fashioned ‘techniques’, to get back in touch with the rock, and an overdose of Beta Blockers to calm your heart!
The journey was uneventful, a flight from Newcastle to Barcelona, followed by a four hour car drive got us to Riglos in the early evening. The most suprising thing about the place is that the Riglos sector is but one small area and there are other crags, just as large stretching away to the East and West, which I presume have been developed.
We booked ourselves into the Refugio, a new building that can sleep 80. The staff spoke no English, and we no Spanish – at one point in the process the guardian assured us that the ‘Cheeken’ downstairs was free – something we never resolved – a loose rooster prowling in the cellar perhaps, who knows? The refugio has a bar and serves up a simple menu, just as well as the village only has one other small bar and no shop. Anyhow we got an eight bunk room to ourselves, ate our sandwiches, crawled into our sleeping bags and crashed out.
The plan was to do Biceps the next day (Friday) as we didn’t know how busy the weekend would get, so we were up early (by Spanish standards) and were at the base of the Visor in ten minutes.
We tossed a coin and Bob got the first pitch, which meant he would get the supposed crux on pitch three, a sort section through an overlap. Anyhow the first pitch wandered up the vertical base at about 6a/b with spaced (but new) bolts to a belay on the only ledge on the route. The second pitch was more of the same, but with the first bolt some distance above the belay (this was consistently the case and was a bit unsettling as an early ‘cock up’ would come onto the belay. That said all of the belays were solid with three bolts, two of which had rigs to facilitate a retreat, which would be an absolute hoot from high on the climb.
Bob in his prime was one of the UK’s great on sight climbers and is still graced with a slight physique that enables him to take his time, and look casual even on the hard stuff. Where Bob strolls, I sprint, for me it’s all about momentum; a fast energetic front crawl over the rock, while he engages in a leisurely and efficient backstroke squirting a spout of water at the seagulls. I usually arrive gasping out of breath, and he simply doesn’t.
The crux overlap, (where Bob had taken up residence for a while) was solved via a good crimp, a large hold out left and a bit of enthusiastic windmilling. Bob is nothing if not supportive and didn’t laugh. If anything, the next ‘easier’ pitch, I found a bit harder, but then I was leading; a series of small crimps on a slender poorly defined pillar come groove were quite taxing and while my biceps were in clover my forearms weren’t at all happy until I reached the belay, swung around in my harness and got my shoes off.
The angle had now started to kick in a bit and looking above it got only steeper. The unique feature of the route the ‘Patatas’ were all the more apparent and about 40’ above the belay Bob began hauling on some of these enormous cobbles, held in place by a mystical glue. It’s remarkable stuff with delicate piles of pebbles on ledges glued iron hard and immovable. The geological process that fused this mud together would have been a thing to behold.
I swarmed up to Bob and joined him dangling in space at the belay (it’s not a stance cos you ain’t standing). My pitch continued up and even more ‘out’. A series of stiff locks and long reaches between big but rounded or palmy holds suited my ‘style’, again the gear was spaced out over the 30m and as ever the aerobic clock was ticking. I arrived at the belay with my forearms well worked and a bit breathless. It took me a little while to calm down. The position was now spectacular, with the cowl of the Visor continuing to rear up and out above, the lower vertical pitches began to look slabby. The Vultures were now out passing the face on rising thermals, no noise but bloody big shadows.
Bob strolled up the overhanging wall, he’s got nowhere near my reach, but beats me dead on flexibility and works on the dictum that there’s no long reaches only high steps, and this with an artificial hip Hmm. I’m happy climbing tall, because I am and my knees don’t want to play a crouching game. Meanwhile, Bob sort of ‘rolls’ his way up to the belay. Anyhow we had a couple of gels, relaxed, and watched the vultures a while.
Smithy set off up the last really steep pitch, more of the same sustained pulling on a variety of Patatas, not technically demanding, well, not until you were within spitting distance of the belay and it got pretty stiff, the accumulated effect of all that’s gone before really made itself felt here and the last 15 feet seemed very, very hard. This was most definitely the second crux.
The belay was perched on the very lip of the Visor and looking down you got the full effect of the Braille trail, marking the route down to the base. Above an easier pitch led to a transition from the conglomerate to regular Limestone. The final pitch was an unprotected romp up slabs to flat ground and the luxury of lightweight shoes and comfy socks. Heaven!
The descent follows a vauge path (small cairns) that contours North then descends a Limestone slab before cutting through some shrubs and trees, it continues north in a more defined way and leads to a prominent col with an impressive Limestone arête on it’s North side. Before you reach this an obvious climbers trail drops down to the right into the little valley. The path now quite large weaves down through the shrubbery, leading ultimately back to the village in around 40 min. It’s possible to break out right at the obvious spot to get back to the base of the route.
We took just under four hours on the route, used a 60m rope and took 16 quickdraws, far more than needed given the spacing of the bolts! There are a variety of ratings on the web, but for what it’s worth we thought; 6a+, 6b+, 7a, 6c, 6b+, 6c, 7a, 6a+, 4. We took a little water and some gels. The weather in March was a balmy 17 degrees, in summer it must be unfeasibly hot. We had the route to ourselves on a Friday, only one other party were on the wall doing ‘Mosquitos’ to the right (much easier but very worthwhile). On Saturday it was much busier with at least two parties on the route.
The Refugio is new, clean and has blankets,but you need sleeping bags. Contact details are: www.refugioderiglos.es email: firstname.lastname@example.org . The website has an English version which details the rates. There are some restaurants in the towns below Riglos ( and a petrol station that even opens some of the time). The local supermarket in Ayerbe is very, very basic.