Early March and we were heading for the warmth of Spain for a week of sport climbing. It hadn’t been a cold winter in the UK, but we were ready for some bright sunlight and warm temperatures to ease our muscles out of winter and awaken our bodies ready for spring.
Having climbed in the more popular Benidorm/Calpe areas in the past, we decided to head for the Xaló (Jalon) Valley area in our Costa Blanca climbing guidebook. Flights, casita, car hire and insurance booked, we flew out of the UK and 3 hours later arrived to temperatures in the early 20’s….pure bliss. Walking into the arrivals hall, however, was not so pleasant – we encountered a massive queue for the car hire company which we had been allocated by the 3rd party website. Standing in line for over an hour to collect our car (and watching others come and go in the blink of an eye at other rental companies) was not the most auspicious start to a week of relaxation, but eventually we had the keys in our hands and could set off for the hills.
The casita had been described as “rustic charm; fabulous mountain scenery; set in 19 hectares of terraced farmland”. We couldn’t wait. Leaving the motorway, we climbed as fast as the 1 ltr engine could take us, up and up a twisty road, high above the coast. The views were definitely breathtaking and on arrival at the casita we realised that we were located straight across the valley from the Bernia Ridge. Stunning!
From the online descriptions, we had optimistically estimated that the casita was walking distance to the village of Pinos with restaurants (and hopefully a corner shop). Unfortunately, we found it was further than expected, the restaurants were in the off-season (and thus only really opened for lunch, or closed by around 6pm) and there was no corner shop selling the essentials. Thankfully, we had a well equipped kitchen in the casita and had already stopped to collect some basic provisions on the drive there. We realised that with a minimum 30 minute drive to the nearest supermarket, we would have to be organised on this trip – the disadvantage (?) of being in such a stunning and rural location.
Awesome climbing at Alcalali:
The following day dawned bright and clear. Perfect for some early morning yoga outside on the patio looking towards the Bernia Ridge before heading out to the crag. Alcalali looked like a good place for us to start, with a mix of grades and some easy routes to break us back into climbing outside after a winter spent at the indoor wall. The rock at Alcalali was superb, with lovely technical climbing and well bolted routes. With the crag facing due south, it was perfect for early March and only became too warm for us to climb there mid-afternoon. I suspect any later in the year and it could be quite a hot-house there and uncomfortable climbing in the direct sun, but in early March it was perfect.
Happy with the first day, we headed back for a well earned cerveza. In fact, we were so happy with the first day that we decided to head back to Alcalali the next day. The last time we had visited there (many years ago), the guidebook at the time had only contained a small handful of routes and we were the only climbers there. However, the latest edition of the Rockfax guidebook has 44 routes from 4+ up to 7a and it has deservedly become more popular – even to the point that a parking area has been added nearby.
Circumnavigating the Bernia Ridge:
The weather was due to break in the middle of the week and we were keen to circumnavigate the Bernia Ridge while we were staying so close. Having already seen how the cloud could linger low on the ridge, when we woke to clear sunny conditions on day 3, we decided to postpone climbing and head off towards the ridge.
The Rockfax guidebook has information on traversing the top of the ridge, but we were interested in a circumnavigation following walking trails which promised a natural tunnel through the ridge and incredible views. Setting off from the Xaló side, we were treated to beautiful rural vistas, following a path which took us directly underneath the ridge. Suddenly those small cliff faces we’d been looking at from the casita became big overhanging cliffs of rock. An easy scramble from the base took us to the natural tunnel opening which required a low crouched walk to pass through.
The other side of the tunnel opened out into an incredible cave, bathed in sunlight, and views all along the Benidorm plains. This side was in complete contrast to the undulating rural views we had just come from but impressive in its own right.
Traversing on the Benidorm side, we were lucky enough to be the only walkers on the path until almost the other end of the ridge. It was spectacular walking and the final section took us to a ruined fort before crossing back over to the Xaló side through an easy gap. The view at that point became another breathtaking vista – high mountain villages, deep valleys, beautiful mountains. An easy path took us back to the starting point where we reflected on what had been a worthy rest day from climbing.
Seeking the sun at Gandia:
Sadly, the following day saw a break in the weather. The temperature high in the hills at the casita was less than 10 degrees and the cloud was hanging low over the Bernia Ridge. We decided to go further up the coast to the Gandia area in the hope of finding better weather. In the Rockfax guidebook, Gandia has 176 routes from 4+ to 7a+ upwards, and faces south. The last time we’d visited there we had been treated to warm, sunny conditions and enjoyed good climbing on the steep rock faces. Alas, it was not to be this time and the cooler weather and biting wind meant that I struggled to find my stride this time. Nevertheless, we did some great routes on good, solid rock.
Unfortunately, a downpour half way through a route meant retrieving clips in wet, slippy conditions – yuk! Sheltering from the rain under a cave roof, we had lunch and a warm drink (top tip: if you’re an avid tea drinker, take a small flask to the crag – perfect for such times of need). Eventually the deluge stopped and the wind dried out the rock face so we decided on another route. At this point, we realised that all the Spanish climbers we had been sharing the crag with had left, leaving us as the only people there. They knew best! It was absolutely freezing in the wind and after just one more route, we bade a hasty retreat.
Back to Alcalali:
The next day, we woke to rain, low cloud and cool temperatures. The forecast said it would stay like that all day and we were forced into a rest day. Checking out the guidebook in front of the wood burner (the casita had a cosy fire – perfect) that evening, we decided that we had unfinished business at Alcalali and headed back there for our final day climbing.
It was a good decision. We climbed some incredible routes. Technical, interesting, sustained climbing. It was a superb end to a relaxing week in the Xaló area. Having not spent any length of time there in previous visits, I can honestly now say that it is my favourite area in the Costa Blanca guidebook (although I do have some more to try). It is less built up than the other areas I’ve visited there and a more rural, fertile valley with picturesque views and beautiful villages. In the famous words of Arnie “I’ll be back”.
Accommodation: There are plenty of places to rent in the area. We stayed at Finca Rustica on the Owners Direct website http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/accommodation/p8058922?uni_id=2
Flights: We flew to Alicante airport, where there are many different flights from destinations all over the UK.
Car Hire: We booked car hire from the UK, prior to travelling, and ran a comparison of direct rental companies in Alicante airport and comparison sites.
Insurance: Specialist insurance is recommended as standard holiday insurance often does not cover you for climbing activities. We used the BMC http://www.thebmc.co.uk
Time of Year: We visited in early March. The optimum time to visit as stated in the Rockfax guidebook is November to April as the summer months can be very hot.
Further Information: Comprehensive climbing guide and information on the Costa Blanca area from Rockfax http://www.rockfax.com