Welcome to my AdventureTime series. Here I’ll be detailing some of my climbing adventures in Andorra. Being a professional ski bum has it’s benefits. For example: I get one day of a week! But I like to spend it making the most of these beautiful mountains by giving them a thoroughly good climb.
For my first week I thought I’d start out big and attempt to summit Comapedrosa, the highest mountain in Andorra, but I don’t like to make things easy for myself. The conventional route starts from the town of Arinsal and takes approximately five hours and is outlined in blue below. I would call this a moderate climb and so I went for something a little more challenging.
The route I attempted included several other peaks in a kind of full circuit of all the mountains you can see from town, outlined above in red. The day began at 8am with a hefty ascent through some rather charming forest, rising up from the foothills, past mountain refuges and finally ending up in the valley of my first proper ascent. All in all this pre-amble took about three and a half hours, a bit longer than I had anticipated, and landed me at the snowline at around 11.40am. Now’s where the real fun begins.
Here’s where I lost the path in the snow. Donning the crampons and ice axe, I then tackled the above route. You can see where I changed my mind half way and decided to go for the difficult looking climb on the left hand side. the traverse across the snow was particularly interesting, requiring constant anchoring with the ice axe in order to shimmy over across the sheet ice.
After that I put away the crampons and tackled the technical climb up the rocks towards the first waystone. Around about the middle of that climb I reached a rather vertical wall. This wasn’t so tough, barring the fact that half way up a major supporting rock came lose and nearly sent me falling to my death. The following scramble put me in such a tight spot that the cap popped off my water bottle and spilled all down my back.
After two hours and twenty minutes of climbing I reached my first major objective at 1.42pm and for the rest of the day hydrated exclusively by eating snow. That out of the way, I was then faced with my next challenge: the ridge.
Now I love ridges. They are pretty much the reason I climb all the way up to these places and I’d been sizing up this one for days. By this point however, I was beginning to flag, having been going for nearly six hours already, and having spent more time axing than your average Viking. But I was determined to smash this rock.
The ridge was actually far more difficult than I had anticipated and involved a lot of ups and downs, some very careful balancing, and a good dollop more of the axe, now my favourite thing in the entire world.
After sizing up my tools with the challenge ahead, I gritted my teeth and got on with it. I definitely had some moments where I thought I couldn’t go any further, but somehow I always found a way. In one particular instance, I was faced with a jagged tooth with a sheer drop on either side. The sides were too icy to shimmy round, the tooth was higher than my reach, and there was no visible hand holds.
I was stumped here for a while until I started feeling around the rock face with my axe and found a peculiar spot. Somehow the axe caught a good niche, though I couldn’t see and it looked like a bare wall to me. Trusting in my new best friend, I abandoned any foothold and using both arms, hoisted myself up onto the tip of the tooth and got a hold of the top. I then raised myself up and straddled it, perching there for a while to see if I could actually get down the other side.
The route above actually took two hours and twenty minutes, landing me at the bail out point at 5.05pm. This put me in a difficult situation. The summit of Comapedrosa was about a forty five minute good climb ahead, but the sun was setting and I was exhausted. On top of that, there’s no easy way down from the summit and I didn’t want to be stuck on the mountain in the dark. That ridge had taken up all my time and energy and I had to call it. On later inspection of the map, I was about 100m of elevation off. Gutted.
So I pulled out my bum board and went careering down the mountain, using my feet and the ice axe as front and rear brakes. This was probably the most dangerous thing I did all day. At points it was six foot of powder and I swam down, at others it was sheet ice and I had to axe it down one step at a time. I had to save myself from uncontrolled high speed descents over rocks a few times, frantically hacking at the ice with the axe like a scene from “Vertical limit.” It did however, save me a bunch of time and I was back down in the valley in an hour, just in time for me to hit the grass before it got completely dark.
I then switched my phone torch on and walked the rest of the way, admiring the Milky Way as I went. I got home at around 7.30pm, making it an eleven and a half hour day of climbing. Not the longest day I’ve ever had, but the longest technical day.
In summary then: Comapedrosa, not quite, but adventure, definitely. I’ll have to do the conventional route some time just to put my foot on it, but for now I’m happy to be safe and warm and enjoying a lovely lobster spread (another perk of being a ski bum: living in a fancy hotel for free).
If you have any advice for me as a climber, or want to share similar stories about your adventures, feel free to comment below. If you found this at all inspiring, scary, or just want to make sure I’m still alive, follow the blog for more adventures, hopefully on a weekly basis.