Naranjo de Bulnes; third time lucky.

The west face of Naranjo de Bulnes, Picos, Spain.

The west face of Naranjo de Bulnes, Picos, Spain.

The great tower of El Naranjo de Bulnes in the Picos d’Europa is one of the most famous mountains in Spain. Ever since seeing a photo of it as a teenager I wanted to climb it. However, for one reason and another, it would take me many years to succeed and teach me a few things along the way.

I first tried to climb Naranjo de Bulnes 20 years ago, alone and in winter, approaching on skis. I was working in Spain and I had a couple of days free. The weather was so bad I never made it to the base of the mountain and I had to take refuge in a shepherd’s hut overnight. I left without even seeing the peak.

Picu Uriellu (as the locals call it) has a stupendous west face, a vertical and overhanging wall 550 metres high, the stuff serious climbers dream of.

I vowed to return with a good team and in summer. A couple of years on, in September, I returned with a strong team, but still the weather was poor and again we never made it to the base of the mountain.

A few years later, I was back in the area to give a keynote speech, in the middle of winter, snow everywhere. Before flying home, I had lunch on the coast, the snow covered Picos mountains glistening in the sun. Despite bad luck, my desire to climb the big west face stayed with me, and in September 2012 I returned with good friend Tom Briggs.

Again the weather was mixed (though better than any previous visit). After a few days of average weather and a poor forecast, we decided to head up to the base of the mountain. We’d heard that often there is an inversion and the peak itself can sit above bad weather clouds. We walked uphill through thick cloud and gleefully put our tent up below the west face in late evening sun, the cloud base below us.

It’s often said that it’s about being in the right place at the right time, but it’s also about being with the right people, with the right mindset. Tom is an exceptional climber, focused and good company. He spoke of how as a young lad he remembered his dad returning to the campsite in the valley having climbed Naranjo. Like me, he’d always wanted to climb this peak. We decided to climb one of the harder lines on the wall called Soy Un Hombre Nuevo, graded 7b+.

When you look up at an intimidating face like Naranjo, the night before leaving, inevitably you run through all the scenarios of what could go wrong; tactics, start time, clothing, food supplies, water, the exact route line. Having a trustworthy partner, somebody who buys into the team ethic, really alleviates the pressure and bolsters confidence, making the chance of success more realistic. If you’re lucky, the night before a big climb you may even get some sleep!

It was a very long and cold day. The climbing was extremely technical and draining. The small holds lacerated our skin. A team to our left abseiled off, perhaps due to the cold weather. We arrived on the summit an hour before sunset; the views were magnificent. After a few abseils and a long scramble down, we arrived back at our tent via headtorch. We had been moving continuously for almost 15 hours. The cold beer tasted so good!

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