This morning I brush my teeth while wearing my harness, but I spit into the clean porcelain sink of a Spanish refugio – not off a portaledge into the abyss. Outside the bathroom window, the immense 1,000-foot towers of Mallos de Riglos blot out the sky. From the front door it’s a five-minute walk to the climbing, so my husband, Jonathan, and I gear up in our small room and head out.
As I stroll through the ancient knot of Riglos’s cobbled streets, I try to quiet the jangling draws that hang off my harness, so as not to disturb the morning. Behind shutters and doors I hear the pleasant clink and clank of pots, kettles and glass espresso cups – the town has begun its day. A little dog yips, a scooter buzzes off in the distance, the church bells ring. I’m self-conscious, but no one seems to notice this foreigner with ropes tied around her shoulders, a helmet on her head. No one bats an eye at my harness with little nylon stuffsacks and funny-looking shoes hanging from it.
We could have spent our entire “sport climbing vacation” just a couple of hours away in Rodellar, a world-class limestone Disneyland, or in another of the well-known climbing areas within three hours of here. But we opted for something different, more novel.
The Riglos experience is defined by contradictory elements. It is sport climbing – the routes are protected by bolts, and belay anchors are often drilled into the stones. Despite the fact that the routes are modernly equipped, epics are common – usually within sight of one’s tent or refugio roof. However, it’s far from a typical day of clipping bolts – these 1,000-foot multipitch climbs are super committing. Riglos’s towers are so steep, they make a retreat from The Nose on El Cap seem easier.
Now, perched 650 feet up on the fifth belay, I look down at the centuries-old chaos of houses and walkways, and I realize that while we think of climbing in this setting as novel, Riglos residents must be well-accustomed to harness-clad visitors by now – after all, people started climbing here 80 years ago. As our stay has stretched from the planned two days to four, everyone we meet in town seems genuinely happy to see us. They ask where we’re from, where we’ll climb, and are we enjoying ourselves? No xenophobia, just a real pleasure in sharing this setting.
I think back to our first summit a few days ago, when the presence of an old man sitting on the edge startled me as I topped out. By his boots and daypack I could tell he’d hiked up the back of the cliff. He smiled and asked in a heavy accent, “What route have you climbed?” He offered me a pastry from his tattered pack as I hesitantly told him. He then enthusiastically told me how he does the 11d crux, and I nodded, Yes, yes, that’s how I did it, too.
Jonathan’s call of “On belay!” snaps me back to the fifth belay, and I’m faced with another contradiction: The only thing scarier than the nerve-racking, driveway-length run-outs on lead is the prospect of seconding. If I fall while following, I’ll end up dangling in space and will have to prusik to get back on the wall. The next pitch is 5.11, but it overhangs at least 30 degrees throughout its 160-foot length. I get pumped stupid grabbing, groping and gripping patatas, watermelons and whiskey barrelshaped holds that look like they’ve been grouted into the tombstone-shaped towers with sienna-hued mud.
My lead now. Uncomfortably run-out from the last bolt and getting tired, I hear a scream from above, then a whipping, crashing racket. What the…?! I was sure we were the only ones this high on the tower, more than 800 feet off the deck. I instinctively pull into the wall and look out over my shoulder to see a black, X-shaped apparition careening past, less than 20 feet out from me. Jesus, that’s a huge bird!
Then, a millisecond later, the “bird” turns its head, looks me right in the eye, and grins. A BASE jumper. He accelerates past me and seems to skim the tops of the clay tile roofs before he throws his chute and floats down toward an old church and a cluster of white stone houses. Jonathan and I hoot and holler in amazement. Below, an old man and woman stroll hand in hand, oblivious to the ruckus. Just as they have for the past 50 years.