Monday, August 27, 2018

Alhambra (6b+) - Underpromised, overdelivered

Weirdly, first time I heard about Alhambra was just when I moved to Switzerland from someone who never even climbed here. Facebook chatting with a climbing friend from London, I told him that we are going to Ponte Brolla over the weekend and he replied ‘Oh there’s this route there, Alhambra, which I really want to do one day’. I looked it up in the black-and-white guidebook: it was one of a dozen dotted lines on Monte Garzo, without any comments to it. When we arrived to Ponte Brolla then and climbed something slabby and unmemorable, my friends were looking to the right asking each other: ‘Where is Alhambra again? Ah there, right! Looks cool’ - to me it looked still like nothing special, but I thought: ‘This Alhambra must be a real something,  if everyone knows it’. And I heard about it many times since. It’s even on Mountain Project (*I’m always surprised to find any european topos there*). So now I know for fact: it’s indeed a real something. 18 pitches of fantastic something, one of the best routes I’ve climbed so far.

Everyone advises not to climb Alhambra in summer as it’s freaking hot, but well - Ticino was the only place last weekend with a decent weather. They also say the place is very crowded, but damn, in Switzerland in good weather - what isn’t?.. So thanks for all the betas but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

Approach. After chilling in Zurich for the whole rainy Saturday Ilona and me drove towards Ponte Brolla late in the evening. Arrived around 10 pm, parked near the entrance to the approach trail and bivvied in to the nearby forest. Woke up still in the dark at 5:45 am, fought for 15 minutes with the idea ‘why the hell we are doing all that’, had a quick breakfast waiting for the sun to rise and walked to the base of the climb. It’s a 20 minute walk and the trail is well marked with the stone pyramids. Also ‘Plaisir Sud’ has a photo of the wall, so there’s no chance to get lost. When we arrived, we were the only ones in the whole area (~7:30 am) and we had about 4.5 hours before the sun hits the wall, perfect.

Frankly speaking, the wall looked very unimpressive. I was not inspired, at all. It’s a long dirty-grey slab followed by two vertical faces - everything covered with bushes and grass, a bit of moss here and there, some pine trees. Meh. Not photogenic. After dramatic vertical walls of Furka, Wendenstocke etc. these jungly slabs just didn’t do it for me. And that’s why their ‘wow’ effect during climbing was so much greater (underpromise but overdeliver!). 


Pitch by pitch beta.
18 freaking pitches, woooah. The longest thing I’ve climbed so far. But we did it in good time: most trip reports mention 7-8h of climbing, we did it in 6.5h (yeah, kinda proud :). It was not all easy peasy though: cruxes felt quite ‘cruxy’ ©.

P1+2 (5a, 5b) - my lead, very easy - we had 60m doubles and decided to link these pitches. One can skip them entirely by walking up on the side of the wall, but Ilona and me both agreed that it was a great warm up. It quickly gets harder.
P3 - 5c+ - Ilona’s lead, still easy.
P4 - 6a+ - First ‘hard’ slab. Only a few very tiny wrinkles and micro dents on the perfect granite face. But friction is surprisingly good. You just need to believe in your rubber :P Loved it.
P5 - 5c+ - Ilona’s lead again, a chance to relax before climbing gets a bit harder.
P6 - 6a - I slipped on the first move from the anchor and slid all the way to the start! 
P7, 8, 9 (5c, 6a+, 6a) - More great slabs. I can’t remember anything specific, just the euphoria all the way from doing fun moves on some excellent rock with what feels like some magic friction.
P10 - 6b+ - My lead, I was a bit nervous. It’s hard straight from the start: first, you need to solve a balancy vertical boulder problem with a very precise and quite athletic sequence to mantel on top of the wall, than you have some super delicate slabs which get only slightly easier the higher you go. I was super happy to get the whole pitch clean, took me a while to figure out the beginning though.
P11 - 6b+ - Alhambra is a very convenient-to-share climb :) The second crux pitch is right after the first one, so we kept alternating leads. Ilona led it without any problems, I followed it much slower. Again, after a bouldery start, one gets onto a difficult slab with tiny-tiny holds and high feet. Challenging and cool.
P12 - 6a+ - first pitch on the so called ‘head wall’, vertical wall after that sea of slabs. My lead. Very different style: very cool, athletic moves on huge spaced jugs without feet mixed with some techie balancy moves. 
P13 - 6b - Ilona’s lead, another amazing pitch. Super technical. Small holds, very vertical, needs good finger strength and good sequence. Sustained: keeps you occupied all the way up. Gives you a mental orgasm at the very end.
P14 - 5a - Ilona’s lead again. Very-very easy intermediate short pitch, just to let you breath before the 15th one.
P15 - 6b - my lead. Damn. Probably my favorite pitch of them all. It starts with a boulder problem again: bridging in the wide corner you need to spot a two finger pocket above your head, use it with a left hand to pull up on and get a right side pull to mantel on top of the ledge. Quite a bold move and no other beta. After that it doesn’t get easier and the whole pitch is a sequence of interesting and challenging moves.
P16 - 5b - Again my lead. Short left traverse.
P17+18 (6a, 3c) - Ilona’s lead, she linked them and we still had some rope left, so together they were shorter than 30m. I thought: after 16 pitches of awesomeness you can’t make me enjoy this climb more. Yet I did. 17th pitch is like a dessert: it’s techie and tasty - just enough to make it interesting but effortless. And on the last one, 3c, Ilona’s feet were crying and she decided to just solo it up. Bold woman. I had to follow her :)

Descend. Right. The descend. I don’t know why all the descends turn into epic go-break-your-neck adventures with Ilona. We’ve been climbing only for half a year together, but we have a collection of descend stories. And Alhambra has just got added to it. So the guidebook said ‘walk 300m up to the trail, go down the trail until the ladders, take the ladders until the abseil rings, do 6 abseil to the top of the trail, go down the trail’. Easy, yeah? Nah. But we failed right at the start and couldn’t find any path down from the climb. So we walked along the electricity lines, fighting with bushes, occasionally sliding down on our butts until we finally saw some markers and stumbled upon a trail which led us to the ladders. We did only five abseils (abseils are short, ~20-25m, but across a terrain with many trees, so one can’t really link them). We couldn’t find the sixths abseil ring and started walking down, without any path. We were super exhausted, hangry and all trees around us tried to poke us in the eyes. After about 40 minutes of wild wandering we finally found a trace of the trail. Jeeeeez, it took us about 2.5h to descend.

Epilogue. I was hungry. Very, very hungry. We got to the village of Ponte Brolla by 5 pm. We got to a pizzeria and I dreamed of fresh steaming pizza full of gooey cheese. The waiter smiled at us and said: we start serving food from 6 pm! I smiled politely back and we left to their neighbors. The guy next door greeted us with all his inborn Italian hospitality and said: You’ll have to wait an hour, we serve pizza from 6 pm! I started to worry. We walked across the plaza to another restaurant. Same story. And in yet another one. Damn Italy. I was very, very angry. All these people had cute wooden tables outside in the sun, so teasing and inviting, and all of them refused to serve me food! Here’s the main beta for climbing Alhambra: whatever you do, finish so that you are back either before 2 pm or after 6, otherwise you’ll have to wait for your pizza unreasonable amount of time.

Impressions. Fabulous climb. 10/10. I can almost say 'would do it again' but only if someone promises me a working descend beta.

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