The York Alpine Club trip to Spain has become an annual event in the club calendar. We are able to stretch tanned limbs and bask like lizards on warm rock in Iberian spring sunshine. So how could we be driving our hired Renault Meganes through too-familiar sheeting rain towards our destination - the small town of Calatayud near Zaragosa.
We all met up at our accommodation in Paracuellos de Jiloca, just outside the town. The house boasted a large swimming pool. The water was a rich and soupy green, but no-one felt the loss since the air temperature never reached above 9oC during the week.
Our first day. We sprung into action. By midday it had stopped snowing and we were ready to go. Morata de Jalón was our main attraction for coming to the area. The village is one of past grandeur, its residents mainly elderly. The crags were signposted clearly from the town, requiring a ten minute drive on a track overlooking a vertical drop to the freight train line below. The place is one of extraordinary drama and beauty. The river cuts sharp limestone crags overlooked by a ruined monastery and patrolled by vultures. Many of its climbing routes are described in the guide 'Escalar en Zaragosa', but many more have been bolted subsequently. The guide rather worryingly describers any route less than grade 6 as 'via de iniciacion' or beginner's route. On the Sunday we tried a few routes near the car park, but for most snow stopped play. Rob was not to be daunted and was tempted up a delicate 6a+ chimney that seemed to be sheltered from the falling snow. Closer inspection (on route) revealed it to be soaking wet above a dodgy peg, steep and small slippery holds, but despite these trials, it was conquered. More dangerous was the drive home through the snow.
We spent most evenings at the house, cooking, sampling the local red wine and watching abysmal Spanish TV. Our culinary masterpieces included Rob and Peters Mexican fajitas (served at the stroke of midnight), Simon and Carmens' chorizo with beans, special chilli (3 different types- one is sure to blow you away), potatoes roasted with crag-collected rosemary. We ate out once at the local bar in Morata de Jalón, ordering everything from the menu to consume an amazing variety of sea-dwelling creatures and our recommended annual allowance of fat.
Monday was exceptionally cold and wet. After obtaining additional woolly hats and gloves we spent the day exploring local crags from the safety of the car. We found Moorish castles, villages clinging to hillsides and ruined monasteries. At the crags at Jalaba the hire car was stuck in mud, and the Evans brothers required hitherto unknown rally driving skills to release it.
On Tuesday Simon obtained a local guidebook by Ricardo Cortes Lazaro from the tourist information office, and allowed us to look for Huermeda, approached from the roman ruins just above Calatayud. After some navigational challenges the crag was found and a pleasant afternoon was spent on nine routes at grade 4-6a.
On Wednesday we tried our luck in Morata again, slightly further away from the car park at Gran Placa. I started a conversation of sorts with a lone Spanish climber traversing nowhere in particular among the wild herbs. It turned out he was from the local village and, returning with rope and gear, we climbed together for the rest of the afternoon.
On Thursday John had to return to England, braving the train system to Madrid, which had recently been subject to terrorist action. The remaining six returned to Morata to attempt more at Gran Placa and beyond. Getting to the routes this time required a tricky traverse since the flooded river had cut off the access path. The rewards were great, with climbing at grade 4-6. In particular, we all were impressed by a double pitch route at grade 5. Unfortunately rain once again cut short our climbing in the afternoon. However, the clouds did afford some excellent sunset panoramas.
On Friday we returned to Torralba de los Frailes, last scouted on the Monday driving tour. Although the weather this time was sunny and dry, there was a last surprise. The limestone gorge which had been dry was now in flood. However, some routes were still accessible, and we managed a good day's climbing. I was emboldened by some previous successes at 5+ and tried a route that I refused to leave, spending 30 minutes hanging in the breeze.
Morata de Jalón and the surrounding area gave us impressive and safe climbing in dramatic surroundings. April in Spain is often rainy (it doesn't fall mainly on the plain) and perhaps the autumn would be drier. Or maybe we were a bit unlucky. Despite the weather, the general feeling was that this is an area that has much to offer and well worth a return visit.