This is a story of an unexpected partnership and the attraction force of a mountain pearl in northern Spain. What drives people to climb in alpine terrain, what can happen if you climb with people you have never met before and what is the achievement? This adventure — recaptured partly as a dialogue — is one of thousands of mountain adventures taking place every day.
I was enjoying the fourth pitch on the south face of Picu Urriellu, which is a majestic mountain in the Asturias region of Spain. It was a long grade V pitch on massive slabs with wide, vertical fissures chiselled out over time by water. The formations were too wide for the remaining safety devices on my harness, but thanks to my reborn confidence, I ran out the rest of the pitch until I reached the belay. I was in a flow and enjoying life fully. The limestone cliff provided excellent friction for hands and feet. Sharp limestone towers — powdered by the first autumn snow — were surrounding the monolith we were climbing. The sun was warming my fingers and body. Life couldn’t have been better!
When I reached the anchor and was ready to belay Josh Laskin, who was my new acquaintance and unexpected climbing partner for the day, I was surprised when he didn’t start climbing immediately. What seemed like ten minutes passed, and still nothing. A roof separated us, preventing any possibility of oral communication. Rusty as I was, I had forgotten to tell him about my routines for communicating via the rope, but I felt no concern for him. Instead, I took the opportunity to chat with a Scottish climber and his partner who was approaching the anchor next to mine. Nevertheless, while I was chatting and enjoying the view and the warming sunshine, a troublesome incident was unfolding below.
This text is not about an epic story, but a story about the passion for mountains and climbing in general. It is a story about opportunities — and risks — that come along with such a passion. Unaware of each other’s existence, we ended up sharing an unforgettable mountain adventure together. Like Josh and my adventure, this story begins with a description of our two starting points and it transforms into a dialogue about our mutual experience.
My name is Charlotte Cederbom, and I am a 48-year old mum with physical roots in Sweden and mental roots in the Alps. Last time I did an alpine climb was in 2012 when my twins were two years old. I had been granted a ‘vacation’ from my family duties, left my four kids for a couple of days in our summer house in the French Alps and headed out for a glacier climb with some friends . When we returned to civilization after three successful days, I remember that, for a short while, it felt weird to return to my four kids and normal life again. My alpine-climbing vibes had woken up, and for a couple of hours I wished I had been able to run back up the mountain and to my ‘freedom’ again.
Now, seven years later, I had regained my ‘freedom’ and fitness again — at least physically. But I wasn’t sure how my mental strength had held up, and I knew that despite my fairly substantial experience of alpine climbing my capacity had surpassed its peak. Additionally, a few days before I headed to Spain to get to know the mountain that I had been longing to climb for more than a year, my climbing partner dropped out. What else could I do than go anyway, hope for the best and try to find someone to team up with once there?!
I reached the hut at noon after a quick ascent and took a short break on the terrace. A group of men, who had hiked up to the hut for the day, were resting and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. They took turns lifting my backpack full of climbing gear and commenting on how heavy it was. I concurred — it was quite heavy, and I silently wondered what shape I would be in the next morning. Although I felt young in my mind, I had to remind myself that I was a rather rusty climber nowadays.
After a reconnaissance trip in the surroundings I spent the late afternoon analysing all climbers that slowly gathered on the terrace. Who to ask for teaming up? There were some strong Spanish climbers and a few foreigners. I seemed to be the only one with a middle-aged rusty mum profile though…
Josh Laskin is my name. I am a 31-year old New Hampshire-based climber and freelance writer/photographer with four years of climbing experience. After living in Philadelphia for ten years, I moved to the mountains in search of a better work-life balance, and to surround myself with people who share a similar passion for the outdoors.
When I was first introduced to rock climbing in 2016, one of the motivating factors for me to continue with the sport was to gain the skills necessary for climbing bigger, more remote mountains. As I searched for flights to anywhere in the world last summer, hoping to travel to any country with the cheapest airfare, Spain was the first option on the list. But of course, Spain is known for steep, difficult sport climbing, and can be very hot during the summer months. After a few hours of research, I discovered Asturias — home to Picos de Europa and Picu Urriellu. The region met my criteria of remaining cooler in the summer, having moderate climbs to choose from and even the possibility of an alpine ascent. It was a no-brainer. Couple that with my interest in Spanish culture and desire to learn the language, and I was on my way.
As we approached the hut, Picu Urriellu loomed ahead, growing larger with each gruelling step forward. We had been on the trail for two hours longer than anticipated, thanks largely in-part to my excessive packing of heavy camera gear. “I’m not going to climb that,” my friend Sean said in a matter-of-fact way, out of nowhere, when we reached the base of Picu Urriellu. “What?” I responded, unsure of what else to say. “I’m just not feeling it” he retorted. My heart sank into my stomach, knowing that this objective I flew half-way across the world for, and spent months researching and agonizing over, was just shut down with this one comment, out of my control.
I went from frustration and anger to sadness to a mixture of both in a matter of minutes. I didn’t speak to my friend for the next few minutes, and contemplated hiking the six hours back to the car. What was the point of spending the night out there if we weren’t even going to attempt what we came to do? I decided to continue to the refuge with the small chance someone would let me tag along, even though I knew that in a world where your lives depend on one another, it was unlikely.
When we reached the hut, I had largely given up on finding a new climbing partner before I even started asking. I reluctantly asked a group of Scottish climbers we had met back in town, hoping they’d feel sorry for me and let me tag along. It was very difficult for me to do — I don’t really like asking for anything, and know how big of a responsibility it can be to embark on a long, committing climb with someone whose experience you know nothing about. But then, they pointed out a single woman to me, and told me she was looking for a partner. For the first time since Sean broke the news, my heart began to lift out of my stomach, and I saw a glimmer of hope. And with that, a sense of acknowledgement and acceptance of my friend’s ability to see his limits crept into my mind.
[Charlotte] What were your first thoughts when you and I teamed up?
[Josh] Initially, I was filled with pure excitement. I went from rock-bottom, feeling like the entire purpose of my trip had been taken from me, back to a feeling of hope that I’d get to experience my first alpine climb. But it wasn’t long before those feelings of excitement began to mix with self-consciousness. Was I a good enough climber? Was I experienced enough? Did I know my rope and anchor systems well enough? Was it going to be more frustrating than it was worth to climb with me?
While those feelings never truly faded, I began to grow more comfortable with you, my newly-found climbing partner, and was able to push them towards the back of my head, knowing that they were there for a reason. I was going to have to be careful, pay attention, and make sure I wasn’t doing anything to put either of us in danger. After all, this was a remote, big-wall climb in the middle of Spain. We were not out for a day of cragging in town.
[Charlotte] My initial feelings were also excitement and relief. But I also quickly realized that we had very different background and experience. I was concerned about if it was irresponsible of me to climb with you when I was uncertain about my own shape. But I told myself I was not here as a climbing instructor, like I had been in the past, with a responsibility for someone else. I had to trust that you, as my new partner, could judge your own capabilities and be honest with yourself about your limits.
What were your thoughts the night before the climb and before we chose to head for the easy south face instead of the more severe east or north face that we first discussed?
[Josh] I struggled to balance pushing myself to my physical and mental limit with doing something that would be safe for both of us, given my limited alpine experience. I thought, “what’s the point of flying half-way around the world, and hauling my gear hours out to base camp to climb a pitch of IV+ and a few even easier than that?” That thought clashed with the thoughts of my limited knowledge and experience in the alpine, and not wanting to get myself into a dangerous situation. I wanted to climb a longer route on the west face because it had a pitch with a grade that I knew would challenge me, and it would be by far the longest route I had ever climbed.
In the end, I settled on an easier route on the south face knowing that these mountains aren’t going anywhere. Climbing in a remote, alpine setting was new and challenging for me. The length of the route and grade of the crux pitch didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to impress anyone. I was there to experience something new, learn from that experience, and push myself in a new way.
[Charlotte] While I could recover from the day-hike by eating a three-course dinner, socializing with guides and clients in the hut and sleeping indoors (although some people snored loudly all night), you and your friend camped outside. What was it like?
[Josh] I have always preferred the solitude and isolation that sleeping in a tent provides. During this trip, not only was I able to save a little money and maintain my unrealistically low budget, but sleeping in the tent allowed me to distance myself from everyone else before bed, allowing plenty of space for my thoughts. Outside the tent, I heard the chatter of other climbers — many of who I presumed were much stronger than myself — and the sound of the wind on my tent fly. It was chilly at night, but the setting was relaxing, and allowed me to prepare mentally for the big day ahead.
[Charlotte] What did you feel during the first pitch and when you reached the first anchor?
[Josh] As I started up the first pitch, arriving at the crux, my mind began to spiral as it usually does when I climb. “Will that foot hold? Is the rock quality good enough to hold gear if I were to fall? If I fall and it does hold, will I hit a ledge? If I don’t hit a ledge, will I swing into the rock and break my ankle?” I know this is unhealthy thinking, and requires the ability to differentiate between rational and irrational fear. At home, I am used to climbing cracks that protect as often as you want them to (I tend to stick to the well-protected routes). So, when I get to a point where the gear is below my feet, I start into these mental spirals.
When I arrived at the crux, I had to reach out and right into an uncertain weakness with thin feet, at a fairly exposed section of the climb. The protection was a girth-hitch around a rock bridge — a piece of protection that I was not privy to being a climber from the northeast U.S. After what felt like an eternity of hesitation, I eventually was able to gain control of my mind, convincing myself that the exposure only meant a clean fall, the rock would not break if I were to fall, and I wasn’t going to fall anyway, being as the route was well below the grade I was capable of climbing. I made the move and continued to (what I thought was) the anchor. I felt a moment of satisfaction. “I’m doing it,” I thought to myself. “Not only am I doing my first big alpine climb, but I lead one of the harder pitches!”
[Charlotte] What happened at ledge where you belayed while I was leading and enjoyed my first long runout in seven years in a moment of flow?
[Josh] I heard something tumbling down the cliff, unsure of where it was coming from. “Are you okay?” I asked the girl belaying her partner up on the ledge next to me. Her back was facing me, but she was looking at the ground and had one hand over her forehead. “I don’t think so,” she responded.
Immediately, I wanted to panic, but having years of experience in the wilderness and as a guide, I knew that staying calm was the priority. She looked up at me, and I saw blood pouring from between her fingers, which she was using to grip her forehead. She lifted her hand so I could see the gash before applying pressure again to help control the bleeding. I yelled up towards you repeatedly, urging you to get into a safe position so I could take my hands off the belay to assist her. When you kept going, I knew you couldn’t hear me, and the situation at hand would have to wait — I didn’t want to put you in danger as well.
When you finally reached the anchor, I was able to help her tie a bandana around her wound with some blister tape to stop the bleeding. She did a great job remaining calm, and through the experience, I was able to determine the severity of the accident. I knew she’d be fine, but also knew our situation on the side of a remote cliff made it more serious than a front-country accident. When I later learned it was a Camalot (a large metal piece of climbing gear used for protection) that the team above her had dropped, it drove home how easy it is to get yourself in trouble in the mountains, and how everyone’s actions and level of care can affect those around them.
[Charlotte] We had to untie our knots and scramble the last 100 meters to the top in exposed terrain. I was glad that we had managed the climb with such ease but knew that most of the challenges were yet to come. Being back in the routine of alpine-climbing but keeping in mind that I was rusty, I tried to keep us moving at a steady pace and finish the final technical section while we were still fresh mentally. I didn’t want time to get away from us.
What were your thoughts while we scrambled to the top, balanced in the wind on the top ridge and descended back again?
[Josh] As we scrambled towards the top, I felt some of the worst fear I had felt to date. I knew that a simple slip on a loose rock could result in death. While I understood the importance of speed and momentum, I thought to myself, “what’s the real rush? This isn’t Everest!”
But as we continued upward, I was able to control that fear, convincing myself that this was the mental push I was after. I knew I was competent enough to not fall, and that pushing through the rational fear would make me a stronger climber in the long run.
After reaching the summit, and as we descended towards the rappel line, I still had that sense of fear, downclimbing towards the exposed drop below. But now I knew the terrain, and what lie ahead. When I clipped into the rappel station, a huge sense of relief washed over me.
[Charlotte] Once we finally arrived at the rappelling anchor we had spent more than four hours on the mountain. The sun was strong and we had consumed a minimal amount of food and water throughout the day. You seemed to have pushed your mental limits considerably. We rappelled down a quite exposed line with people above and beneath us, which took us another hour and a half. I was both happy and relieved when we finally reached the bottom without any further incidents. What was your feeling afterwards?
[Josh] When my feet touched the ground, I felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. From learning to climb at my backyard crags of North Conway, New Hampshire, to achieving my goal of climbing a longer, higher-risk, alpine route, I had come a long way. I had accomplished something that many will never accomplish — never think they are capable of accomplishing — and I made it there through a long journey of learning the necessary skills to do it on my own.
The next day, I kept thinking back on the climb and smiling. Even through those moments of fear, that sense of accomplishment you gain from pushing yourself is why we do this. Although I learned a lot while climbing, overall I had gained the tools necessary to complete the climb simply by asking questions and getting out over the years. I also reflected on how welcoming a community the climbing world can be, and the amount of people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made through a sport that is difficult to explain.
[Charlotte] What does climbing in general mean to you?
[Josh] To me, climbing is a vessel to explore areas in the forest that people otherwise would never see — remote corners of the woods that can only be found by following barely-visible trails, with nothing at the end but a large, yet spectacular rock. It is a way for me to challenge myself physically and mentally in a manner I otherwise wouldn’t, while getting the time in nature I need to stay happy.
Since I became involved in climbing, I have found a welcoming community in my town and in different places around the world, and have made life-long friends through the sport. I feel that the bond created while climbing — whether it be a small crag nearby or a large expedition on the other side of the world — is much greater, or at least special, than that created when playing competitively on a football field with a group of people for a few hours.
[Charlotte] To me, our mutual mountain adventure was invaluable and a great experience in many ways. Apart from finding out that I was not quite as rusty as I had feared and getting a chance to climb the mountain I had longed for, I truly enjoyed getting to know you and share such a beautiful day and climb together.
[Josh] I think it’s important to drive home the point that climbing — while it seems silly and scary and ridiculous to some — really brings people together. I think the fact that we’re all doing something that is seen as “stupid” to the majority, combined with the intimacy that spending long periods of time in the mountains, has the ability to create strong bonds with one another. Just like people run marathons because it pushes them, or play football because scoring a touchdown gives a sense of accomplishment, we climb.