An Adirondack Climber Discovers Spanish Limestone

Penon d’Ifach on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Photo by Phil Brown.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Spain to help my daughter find an apartment. She will be teaching English in a small community on the Mediterranean in the Costa Blanca region. Of course, we discovered that much is different in Spain—the language, the food, the culture. And the rock.

Although not on vacation, I had hoped to get free to climb on at least one day. Before the trip, I bought a rock-climbing guidebook for the Costa Blanca region at the Mountaineer and perused its many offerings. One destination stood out: the Penon d’Ifach.

The Penon (which means rock in Spanish) is a 1,000-foot-high hunk of limestone that rises straight out of the sea near the resort town of Calpe. The photos mesmerized me. I imagined myself scaling its walls and looking out over Homer’s wine-dark sea.

As it turned out, I was able to climb on my last day in Spain. I made arrangements to meet a guide, David Mora Garcia of Montana Mediterranea. I awoke before dawn and drove more than two hours to Calpe. We had talked about climbing a moderate route called Diedro UBSA, but since I had had only four hours of sleep, David suggested we do something easier, namely, Via Pany. I must have looked like a tired old man.

David Mora Garcia at the end of a traverse on the third pitch. Photo by Phil Brown.

Via Pany—named after its first ascenionist, Salas Panyella—had something else besides lack of difficulty to recommend it: the route is on the Penon’s north face and so in the shade, not an insignificant consideration with daytime temperatures reaching into the eighties. Diedro UBSA and most of the other Penon routes are on the south face, exposed to the unrelenting Spanish sun.

David led me up a hiking trail that switchbacks up the slope below the Penon. Hikers can continue on the trail all the way to summit (passing through a short tunnel), but we left the trail after 20 minutes to arrive at Via Pany, which begins higher up than the routes on the south face.

Roughly 700 feet long, Via Pany is done in seven pitches (or stages). It calls for a variety of climbing techniques: stemming in a chimney, pulling over bulges, jamming fingers in cracks, smearing feet on small toeholds. Most of the climbing is on clean, white rock, but there is some scrambling over vegetated ledges.

After we put on harnesses and tied into the rope, David danced up a chimney, disappeared over a bulge, and set up a belay on a spacious ledge. He soon yelled down for me to start climbing. As I ascended the chimney, I noticed the limestone seemed smoother, less gritty, than the rock in the Adirondacks, which is typically granite-like anorthosite or gneiss.

The view of Calpe from partway up the Penon. Photo by Phil Brown.

The color and texture of the limestone were but two differences from Adirondack rock. I passed many holes or pockets of various shapes and sizes, often useful as handholds or footholds. There also were miniature tunnels through which earlier climbers had threaded and tied off short pieces of cord. David would clip our rope to the loops of cord to protect against falls.

Climbers refer to great handholds as jugs—holds so secure that they might as well be jug handles. On the fourth pitch of Via Pany, I encountered the juggiest of jugs: inside a pocket was a mini-pillar just the right size for wrapping my hand around. I hung off it while David took my photo.

There were also odd-shaped holds, such as miniature fins of rock. For one used to climbing the  cracks and slabs of the Adirondacks, the features of Penon’s limestone seemed fantastical.

In her book Flakes, Jugs and Splitters: A Rock Climber’s Guide to Geology, Sarah Garlick notes that limestone cliffs are common in Europe. They were formed from deposits of coral in an ancient ocean. Limestone is made up largely of calcium carbonate, which water can dissolve over time. This accounts for the pockets, tunnels, and other unusual features encountered on Via Pany.

David offers a treat to one of the cats on the Penon. Photo by Phil Brown.

The climb took about three hours. When we reached the end, the dozen or so hikers on top of the Penon started clapping. We were also greeted by feral cats (of the domestic variety) that dwell on the Penon, mooching food from hikers and stealing gulls’ eggs. The summit offers an amazing panorama of the Mediterranean and the Spanish coastline. We descended by the hiking trail on the back side of the Penon.

After the climb, we adjourned to a cafe for a couple of Cokes. David told me he became interested in climbing when, at age eight, he saw a TV show about Spanish climbers in Yosemite. “I thought to myself, OK, I want to do that,” he said. He soon joined a local mountain club and started hiking in the Costa Blanca region.

He first climbed Via Pany at age 14. He and a friend took a train from their hometown, south of Alicante, to Calpe. At that time, there were no bolted anchors to clip. For protection, they brought nuts slung with cords, slotted the nuts in cracks, and clipped their rope to the cords.

“It was a little bit scary,” David recalled.

Since then, he has climbed Via Pany well over a hundred times with clients, sometimes three times in a day. Nevertheless, he never tires of the route. “I climb it with different people, and each person is completely different,” he said. “It’s not only the climb—it’s the views, the passion, the emotions.”

The Costa Blanca guidebook, published by Rockfax, rates Via Pany as 5, or Very Severe, in the British scale of difficulty. In theory, this translates to 5.7 or 5.8 in the Yosemite Decimal System, which ranges from 5.0 (very easy) to 5.15 (nearly impossible). However, I thought the difficulty was more like 5.5 or 5.6.

Of course, David is capable of climbing much harder routes. His favorite on the Penon is Costa Blanca, a seven-pitch affair rated 6c+, which translates to 5.11.

And where is the best climbing in all of Spain?

“Each place is completely different, so to have a favorite place is difficult,” he said.

Incidentally, Penon d’Ifach is often referred to as Penyal d’Ifac. The latter is Valenciamos, a regional dialect of Catalan. The two mean the same thing. David did not know the significance of Ifach/Ifac.

Phil Brown finishes the last pitch of Via Pany. Photo by David Mora Garcia.

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

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