Conglomerate: what does it mean to you? Churnet Valley bouldering or single pitch pumpy pocket pulling at Margalef? Or maybe you don’t think of it as climbable rock at all but as glorified mud and stones with holes where rocks and pebbles have fallen out for holds? If any of this rings true for you then Riglos will defy almost all of your expectations.
The huge conglomerate towers of the Mallos de Riglos stand in the foothills of the Pyrenees looking out over the Aragon region of Spain. Reaching up to 300m tall these towers offer the climber everything from single pitch comfortably bolted routes to full day adventures. If you’re already aware of Riglos then the chances are you’ve heard of Fiesta de los bíceps (235m 6c+/7a), anointed by some as ‘the best multi-pitch sport route in the world’. That was certainly the only route I had heard of when Phil Leng and I visited for four and a bit days in early March 2019. But there is so much more here than bíceps, in fact we were told that it is only the English that fixate on this fine line up the Mallo La Visera; the Spaniards head for the big routes on the Mallos Pisón.
Climbing at Riglos you are sharing the space with dozens of Griffon vultures that are soaring high above; with a two metre wingspan these are impressive birds. Gaining height on these huge routes you begin to level with the vultures and can look across at their nests, eventually moving above them to look down on their beautiful, soft, pastel brown wings.
After travelling for eleven hours door to door, our host encouraged us to get straight on the rock as soon as we arrived. Despite feeling utterly knackered we felt it would be rude to say ‘no’, so we did a single pitch route on Macizo Central. Oh my goodness, for at least half a pitch I didn’t know what to trust. Everything looked loose, decidedly temporary, and certainly not to be trusted for pulling hard. But you adapt to this illusion, this trick of the eye, where despite looking loose and awful the rock is actually solid and trustworthy; by the end of the pitch my brain was being re-trained into assessing what could/could not be relied upon. A really valuable lesson for the first touch of a rock type that appears to be nothing more than stones in mud.
That night with beers by the fire our host gave us lots of information on the area, the routes and some history of the crag. Our host, by the way, was none other than grit maestro Steve Bancroft who, with his partner Nicky, run their home as a B&B at the foot of the Pisón. Only by bivying at the foot of the crag could you sleep any closer to the rock. Steve and Nicky (along with Sam the cat) are very welcoming and offer a great spot for visiting climbers to stay.
The photograph shows an aerial view of the impressive conglomerate towers of Riglos
You might be thinking, ‘hmmm early March in the foothills of the Pyrenees, on big routes, its going to be cold’. No, in the sun and out of the wind the temperature was just nice, but if we drifted into the shade and/or the wind we froze. Steve’s advice was crystal clear, stay in the sun. For our first full day we followed a combination of routes that led to the top of the Pisón, Chopper 135m 6b, Chopperior 115m 6c and the final pitch (30m V) of Normal al Mallo Pisón, a 280m grand day out. As you look up the sea of orange - burnt umber rock to an ocean blue sky it’s an effort not be hypnotised by the dozens of Griffon vultures soaring high above; with a two metre wingspan these are impressive birds. Gaining height on the route you begin to level with the vultures and can look across at their nests, eventually moving above them to look down on their beautiful, soft, pastel brown wings; all while still paying full attention to your partner of course. Phil had the misfortune, or luck depending on your point of view, to mantle onto a ledge with a visiting vulture who was not keen on the company.
The photograph shows unknown climber’s abseiling down La Visera amongst the Griffon vultures, taken by R. Roussel.
The guidebook (Riglos Vertical, 2018, Desnivel) descriptions of the descents are generally pretty good but with occasional scary aberrations. Did I mention we were quite late setting off? By about the fifth abseil we were relying on light from the floodlit church, by the penultimate abseil (seventh or eighth, I lost count) Phil was using our only headtorch (tip: take two). The guide said this would be a 35m ab’, Phil set off with neither of us paying too much attention to the precision of the 70m rope’s middle mark in the abseil rings. After much spinning about in space and fiddling with prussiks, Phil managed to equalise the ropes but could still only just reach the belay with his foot. When I came down I reached the belay with a little more ease, apparently because I’m fat. This is definitely more like a 37m abseil. Tip: when you see a 35m abseil and if you’re using a 70m rope, send the heaviest person down first. The rope stretch might just get you down.
A brilliant but wearying day, never monstrously pumpy but the cumulative effect of so much climbing and abseiling left us feeling worn out. By way of a rest day, we opted for an easy day next and chose Todo tíene fin 130m 6b+. Although an excellent route, a 130m five pitch route does not make much of a rest day. Time for another tip: pace yourself even if the grades are well within your reach as everything takes time and effort, lots of it, and rest days are probably a pretty good idea. Over the next couple of days we stuck with big routes at amenable grades. The iconic feature of the Pisón is the cigar shaped Puro (el puro = cigar) a finger of rock that stands free of the main cliff and at c.150m reaches about half height on the Pisón. To keep us in the sun and out of the wind, Steve recommended a combination of two routes: the first five pitches of Serón-Millán (6b) to the col joining the last three pitches of Normal al Puro (6b) to the top of the cigar. The guide recommends taking nuts and cams on Serón-Millán as it is only partially protected with fixed gear, but of course we didn’t. For the most part this isn’t a problem as it has a reasonable number of bolts and pegs, except on pitch three. Thankfully this was Phil’s lead, as it turned into a V+ test of nerves where each piece of gear is in a different post code and every hold requires forensic testing. Thankfully, this was the only pitch we came across that was like this throughout our stay. However, as a general rule (tip time) take lots of long extenders and slings to extend even further still. If you only take standard short sport quickdraws you WILL suffer from rope drag.
The photograph shows climber’s topping out on the iconic Cima del Puro, taken by A. Ballart.
For our last full day we followed the wandering zig zags of Curruculillo (200m 6a+) up a different tower, the Frechin. A steady, generously bolted route, I was thrilled to have a pair of vultures glide past within four feet of me, sounding like a couple of small jets as they swooped past. This route had the added advantage of a walk off, by now I’d had my fill of abseiling. A fairly well marked path goes past La Visera contouring around and down past the otherworldly and massive Cirque de Mallos. For our last day we nabbed a couple of single pitch routes before making the three hour drive back to Barcelona. However, another 35m rope length tried to spoil our plans. Lowering from the first pitch of Conan (7a) should have been easy with a 70m rope, but I was left about 5m short of the ground. After much jiggery-pokery, and some assistance from two passing Guardia Civil, all was resolved in time to catch our delayed flight home.
In short, Riglos is a truly astonishing venue, many of the routes may be bolted but you should approach them with a trad’ head and go for the adventure. The guide is very clear about which routes require trad’ gear but all require plenty of slings and long quick draws. During our brief stay we did over 900m of great climbing; if we’d have had the sense to have a rest day we could have followed marked walks and watched wildlife. There’s a lot more on offer here than just Fiesta de los bíceps, the numerous crags face in different directions so you can generally find a way to be in or out of the sun as conditions demand allowing for climbing throughout most of the year. My final tip is to go there, it’s amazing and the cherry on the cake is staying with Steve and Nicky (casa-fiesta-riglos).
The photograph shows Francesca de Luca climbing the famously overhanging Fiesta de los biceps, F6c+, taken by Guillermo Rodriguez.
Guidebook – Riglos Vertical by Chema Agustin and Miguel Carasol, and published by Desnivel in 2018. Buy this guidebook for Riglos from our shop.
All the photographs that appear in this article are from the Riglos Vertical guidebook. Chema Agustin has also written another book called Rigloramic that is as a plastic creation book of the Mallos de Riglos and includes many interesting illustrations.
Where to stay – There are numerous places to rent in Riglos. You probably can’t get any closer to the rock than staying at Casa Fiesta Riglos run by Steve Bancroft and his partner Nicky.
When to go – It is possible to climb all year round. The routes on the towers of Riglos face all different directions, so it is always possible to find the sun or shade depending upon the time of year.
The Riglos Vertical rock climbing guidebook is the definitive guidebook describing all the climbing found at the Mallos de Riglos.
Buy this guidebook from our shop.
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