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Los Quemados, El Cardonal

Geographically in Africa, but politically in Spain, the island of Gran Canaria is home to a “mature” climbing area that has failed to get onto the radar of most climbers due to lack of information. Most of Gran Canaria is a beautiful and mountainous national park, rising in its center to almost 2,000m. There, volcanic cores of several mountains give rock scenery that is a cross between the Dolomites and the canyons of Arizona.

Mountaineers have climbed on this Canary island since the 1930s, and in the early days alpinists used pitons for protection and occasionally aid. In the early ’80s, climbers in Gran Canaria were still making hard traditional ascents, comparable with the adventurous sea cliff climbs being done in Britain at that time. Topos for these routes can be found in the central café/ bar in Ayacata. They make impressive reading. The routes are big—up to eight or nine pitches—and hard, with naturally protected free pitches up to F7a. The topos still seem to be the only written information but are not easy to interpret. Apparently a guidebook is in preparation, but my feeling is this will principally cover the sport climbing that took off in the late ’80s.

There are now many pure sport crags (probably the best in the Canaries), and many of the harder trad routes are being retro-bolted. At first only the lower sections of trad routes were bolted, but even this is changing. It would be a real shame if these routes were lost, as they are very impressive, and big, adventurous, full-day outings. It is a similar situation to many areas of mainland Spain, where trad climbs going back many decades are now being claimed by bolters. The rock on the island is variable, but perfect at Roque Nublo, where most trad routes are now bolted, and on most other sport crags.

For a good visual impression, try an Internet picture search of Gran Canaria rock climbing, or Escalada en Gran Canaria.

The best climbing season is probably October- April inclusive, but Steve Sustad and I visited in February. Our main objective was a big, southwest- facing mountain escarpment on the south side of a peak called Montaña de Ojeda, towards the south of the island, where it forms a massive tiered cliff called Los Quemados. We had no idea whether anything had been climbed there, so we went up for a look with all the gear. With bolts many things would have been possible, but for us the challenge was to find a line that would go in our preferred style, i.e. no bolts, pegs, or hammers—just a British rack of nuts and Friends.

The first pitch on the impressive main tier turned out to be the crux of the route at British E3 5c. After sustained bridging up a long groove, we had to break right to reach more grooves, which gave really good climbing on perfect rock for two further pitches. We then realized we were in no shape to continue: we’d made too late a start on a baking hot day, and had not brought enough water.

The next day we approached the crag at dawn with six liters of water between us. Above our high point the line linked a series of scoops and caves before landing us below another steep and imposing tier. By now the sun was beating down again and the crag felt truly African—we had hit some unusually hot days. Another technical groove, with memorable finger-tip layback moves, was followed by a narrow chimney, after which we broke right through wind- eroded scoops to reach the final 50m wall. There was a possible direct line, but after 15m it was blocked by a rotten overhang. Luckily, a groove 20m to the right turned out to have better rock and better gear than expected from below. It led past an overhang to a cave stance and one final pitch to the great shelf, where the cliff terminates. The result of our efforts was El Cardonal, a 13-pitch route that was sustained but nowhere too hard. It is definitely a worthy objective for people wanting to experience a long, adventurous trad climb on Gran Canaria.

Pat Littlejohn, UK, Alpine Club