"This is insane," was my first thought as my alarm went off at 5:25 in the morning. Then rationality kicked in a few seconds later and I rushed around to get the rest of my stuff and be out of the apartment by around 6 am. A small confusion regarding a meeting location resulted in a lot of walking and phone calls trying to coordinate our meeting. So finally over an hour later I met César and Juanan and we headed off for a 2 hour drive down to the Sierra de los Gredos, to a group of towers called the Galayos. Sometime in the car we were listening to a Spanish band, and just as I was thinking about how horrible it was, I start to hear some familiar lyrics. I recognized them as Sublime's "what's my number" and immediately insisted that we listen to the Sublime version.
At the trailhead, we started to split up the gear, reorganizing our packs so as to not carry up anything we didn't need. Shortly after reaching the parking lot another group of 3 showed up and we all began the 4 km hike up to the base of the climbs. The trail was well constructed out of a puzzle of rocks, as it is very popular and leads to a refugio far up the canyon. After a while though we turned off the trail and headed up a sheer slope of very loose rocks. Nothing would stay put and each step resulted in a bit of a slide. I decided it was certainly a death trap when I grabbed a rock larger than my head that looked stable but instead it just started falling… and kept falling a long time, taking a few other rocks with it. By the time we reached the base of the climb the slope of death had turned into something a bit more stable, and we dumped our packs and started to get ready to climb. About this time the clouds started to roll in, blocking the sun that was just barely keeping us warm enough in the cold mountain air. There were bits of ice on the rock and the ground, just to remind us how cold we were.
As the first two groups started up the rock, I made the mistake of inquiring just what it was we were going to climb. So I come to find out we are climbing a 5 pitch classic route. I asked how the rating translated to the American scale, because I don't understand the Spanish one at all, and turns out it was about 5.10a. 5.10a?!?! Trad?!?! Multi-pitch!?! What?!?! I just laughed at Cesar for suggesting such a thing and tried to convince myself that was simply a mistake in the translation.
I shoved down a little food and stuffed more in my pockets as the first two groups headed up the first pitch. As the first pitch was pretty easy, or looked like it from the ground, I racked up to lead it. Strangely, I was skeptical about the climb, but not scared as I usually would be. I slowly started up the rock, taking time to be very careful on the partially wet or icy granite. The pitch was a full rope length long, and about 5.7ish I would think. It had a few tricky moves, though not really any gear. I set 4 pieces in 200 ft of climbing. Fortunately those pieces more or less corresponded to the "tricky" moves. I felt like I took an hour to lead the pitch. I really wouldn't be surprised if I did take that long. We decided César would lead the rest of the pitches, as it would only get harder from that point on.
The next pitch was short (maybe about 80 ft) and seemed a bit easier than the first, but that was probably the result of being on top rope. The third pitch was where things started getting tricky, with a few awkward move around a corner with a distinct lack of holds. I hesitated, almost took, didn't, tried something, it worked, repeated that process several times and arrived at the belay. It was here that I had a very strange and very vivid moment of de-ja-vous… looking out into the valley, the way the belay was set up, everything for about fifteen seconds was exactly as I remember dreaming a while before even coming to Spain. Suddenly though I found myself exhausted and freezing cold, shivering like mad from head to toe. I figured part of this was due to hunger, so I finished off an energy bar and hoped I could get back to climbing soon to warm back up.
The fourth pitch looked like fun. It appeared to be a hand crack in a dihedral. Apparently I have not been on cracks enough recently because my perception was quite wrong and it turned out to be a finger crack/layback. Imagine Rock Wars to its first anchors, but 2-3 times as long only with slightly better feet, not as consistent hand holds, and facing the other way. When I finished this pitch I was pretty sure it was the hardest climb I had ever actually completed without taking. I was trashed, absolutely exhausted. Thankfully we decided to take a moment to rest, and I downed a magic Cliff Shot and some Gatorade in hopes that it would give me enough energy to finish the climb. At least the belay ledge here was sheltered from the wind, and while I was still cold, I didn't return to the uncontrollable shivering of the previous belay station.
The 5th pitch was supposed to be a bit easier, or at least less sustained. It began with a few hand crack moves then worked into a hand crack/ chimney combination that was somewhat painful for my feet but quite fun. Then it came to a roof. OK so it wasn't that huge of a roof, but it was quite an obstacle to pull around and I was sure there was no way I could get around it. Once again I hesitated, thought about taking, thought about pulling on some gear and aiding over it, then just decided to try something and see where it got me. I worked my feet up, chimneying and using a heel toe cam, worked one hand into a crude fist jam above the roof, the other into a sort of side pull fingerlock in a parallel crack, and worked up a foot or so. Then I was stuck again. To take or not to take? Not to take this time, I tried something else, and using every bit of energy I had on each move, I pulled off finger locks, slotted my elbow into a hole that was too big for my fist, high-stepped a foot into a small crack and twisted it to lock it in, pulled with my elbow locked arm, got a higher finger jam, and finally stood on my foot. Then my elbow was stuck. I backed down a bit to get the elbow out, got my other foot over the roof and a few moves later found an arm-bar and some good feet for a bit of a rest. I took several minutes here to regain my breath and a few offwidth-ish and layback-ish moves later I got to the belay and crashed. I felt like I couldn't move any more, ever. The sun came out and I lounged in the warmth, watching some of the other people work a hard route on a nearby tower.
From here it looked like an easy, slabby, 30 foot climb to the summit. So after some more Gatorade and rest César flew up the pitch, and kept going. When the rope ran out all the way I realized we had some more climbing still (this was pitch 6 of 5 already). This pitch was not too difficult, though it involved a good amount of granite slab climbing (with no gear) and it pulverized my already tender toes. After the first summit passed, another appeared, with the belay just below it. So this meant yet another pitch to come. Some fun and easy moves over some blocks, followed by more slab led to yet another set of blocks, the real summit finally. Here I finally lost my ability to reason, think, attempt, and go for it. I was absolutely exhausted and could not see myself working up some offwidth, overhang, hold-less block of rocks. I stepped up, hesitated, stepped down, and started complaining. "It's not possible" I insisted. Well of course that was met with a response that of course it was possible, because César had just done it. He suggested chimneying, which was obvious I just refused to believe it would get me anywhere. Well, nothing else to do but try it, and sure enough with the chimney, a struggle to reach a good fist jam, a knee-bar or something like that, and breaking the top of my nalgene off (somehow it got caught and didn't fall and somehow I was able to stop climbing, pick it up, and set it on top of the rock I was trying to get onto), I finally found a decent hold and more or less flopped onto the summit. All I could think was "Wow, I can't believe I just climbed all that."
I joyously took off my shoes, hopped up to the very top and enjoyed the wonderful view. The sun was finally out as a wind had come in from the north to push all the clouds away, and I took a rest laying on the warm rock in the sun. This convinced me once again that there is no better thing in the world than laying on a warm rock in the sun on a cool day. The fact that I had just climbed about 1000 feet of the hardest multi-pitch climb I had ever done, made the rest that much more magnificent. The climb certainly deserved its title as one of the classics of the area.
After a while we began the descent, which was a series of scrambles and rappels to a talus slope that lead back to the start of the climb. I was not too thrilled with some of the scrambles on the way down, and once again the thought that most accidents occur on the decent crossed my mind. To add to the sketchiness of much of the scramble, there was also water running down much of it.
We paused to eat some, then took a path down to the trail that was significantly more stable than the one we had used to get up to the base of the climb, much better to avoid the slope of death. I still nearly crawled down the slope, partly because I was so low on energy that I was not sure my legs would support me all the time, and partly because it was still very steep and rocks still would slide out from under me. Finally we hit the trail and started down it, at a pace that made me feel like I was running but I am sure was in fact still very slow since the guys kept having to wait for me. Seemingly an eternity later we reached the car and headed back to Madrid.
Returning to my apartment about 10 pm I found about 30 drunken people celebrating a birthday. It looked like a fun party, but I was in no mood to deal with them, so I grabbed my dinner I had made the night before and snuck back to my room. It was not long until I fell asleep, even with all the noise of the party.