Rock climbing in Portugal

Friday 20 June 2014 05.27 PM

As described in previous blogs, I’m not brilliant with heights. So I’m having issues with my current location, halfway up a 50-metre Portuguese cliff. On the plus side, I’m in the capable hands of Francisco and João – my climbing instructors for the day – and the rope seems to be secured pretty well. But it’s taken an age to get this far up, I’ve hit a tricky spot and am starting to lose my nerve.

As described in previous blogs, I’m not brilliant with heights. So I’m having issues with my current location, halfway up a 50-metre Portuguese cliff. On the plus side, I’m in the capable hands of Francisco and João – my climbing instructors for the day – and the rope seems to be secured pretty well. But it’s taken an age to get this far up, I’ve hit a tricky spot and am starting to lose my nerve.

halfway up SolarIt’s a perfect spring morning. The sky is a deep blue and shafts of sunlight are illuminating the forest. Beyond the granite slab I’m clinging to I can see Sintra Palace on top of the mountain. Look the other way and there’s the Atlantic coast, far below. I just want to get to the top, to admire that view and, above all, to have proved to myself I can do this.

I’ve been mildly anxious about this climb, my first one outdoors, for a few weeks now. The images on the Sintra Climbing Tours website show some pretty hairy looking ascents, but when we arrive at the cliff it’s still far bigger than I imagined.

João leads, inserting the carabiners and rope through the bolts, and disappears up the cliff in no time, reappearing WAY up to signal the OK. Time for lift-off. Francisco is a reassuring, persuasive , encouraging presence. This particular climb is called Solar. It’s the original sport climb here –and technically a level 4. That means beginners like me should be able to do it quite comfortably. It’s 30 metres. 100ft. I’ve been about half that height, indoors.

I have to say it wasn’t easy. Not at all. My climbing shoes were too tight, and granite is very abrasive – good for friction, bad for fingers because those little crystals are so damn sharp. The first few metres involved some tricky moves – I only knew what to do because Francisco was telling me where to put my feet and hands. “Trust your feet!” he kept yelling up at me.

It did get easier, for a time, with more features to grip. But about two thirds of the way up I had to make a “dyno”, a blind lurch / grab for a handhold you’re not sure you’re going to reach. I grabbed, my fingers just missed the hold but there was another one below that saved me from falling back onto the rope. Physical discomfort level now approaching 11. But two more moves and there was João, cheerfully welcoming me to the top.

Massive relief. I looked round to see how far I’d come, and of course to take in the view in time-honoured fashion. I’d done what I’d thought I might not be able to do. Mission accomplished!

Or maybe not. Predictably, the guys wanted to do another one. A bit harder, and this time 50 metres. I couldn’t say no. I’d come a long way to do this and I felt I owed them. That last section had given me a smidgeon of confidence, too.

Known as “the Waterfall”, this next climb was a two-parter, with an overhang section making it a level 5+. It had a nice easy start – I was told the overhang was tricky, but with Francisco telling me how to move my body and where to shift my weight, I felt ok about having a go – I could always bail out.

An easy start – when you get some rhythm going, climbing feels great. Within a few minutes I was 20 metres up, no problem. But then it was time to negotiate the overhang. This involved at least three dynos, and one of those I had to try at least eight times. I spent a long time sitting back on the rope, psyching myself up and attempting to work out just how best to do it. And also to recover strength: of course when you’re nervous, muscles tense unnecessarily and you get tired quickly.

I made an unsteady grab on the last dyno, and this time really thought I was going to fall back. Now I’m not really worried about actually falling, like all the way: I have learned to trust the rope (and the guides). I am a bit concerned, though, about falling a little bit and ripping half my leg off on that unforgiving sandpaper rock I’ve been staring at for the past hour. So I did a little wobble, slid a bit, scraped a leg but not much, and then put all my mental and physical effort into not freezing but reaching for the hold again, this time just making it and manoeuvering to the ledge. Part one complete! Franscico then climbed up to join us on the ledge, and João moved on to lead the next section. Far easier I was told…

It was only 20 more metres, and the first bit looked easy. Misleading. It was merely a steepish slope but – alarmingly – a slope lacking any features to grab hold of. Smearing called for. You really have to trust your grip, and your shoes, on this kind of section. However my toes, squished into a ridiculously tight space, are now hurting like hell so I’m finding it hard to put all my weight on them as I’m supposed to. Even without that problem, it’s just not that easy to believe slippage will not occur.

At one point I had to grab a carabiner, which is technically cheating. I also, disgracefully, grabbed hold of a bolt – a real no-no as it can rip your finger off (and it’s cheating). Then one last smear, a minor dyno and a thigh- straining leg move, and I am at the top. High fives all round.

The view is flabbergasting, the gentle breeze off the ocean takes the edge off the heat, and I’m almost overwhelmed with the relief that I’ve managed to climb a 50-metre rock face without serious damage to my pride or my physical self. I might even do it again some time.

Thanks to Active Lisbon Coast, TAP Airlines and Sintra Climbing Tours for making this happen.

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