Sea2Summit Challenge – ‘you haven’t done it until you’ve climbed from Sea to Summit’

Sea 2 Summit costa blanca

INTRODUCTION

The idea was simple – start at the sea and finish at the summit! on this occasion linking up a huge geological ridge feature that rises all the way from sea level to the summit of the Bernia mountain. It allows for a superb running, walking or climbing challenge to take place.

Adventure: noun

  • an exciting or very unusual experience.
  • participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises:
  • the spirit of adventure.
  • a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.

Challenge: noun

  • a call or summons to engage in any contest, as of skill, strength, etc.

COSTA BLANCA SEA 2 SUMMIT

The Sea2Summit Challenge is the dream-child of myself and Chris Newton-Govard. I first met Chris when I was 22, fresh faced and armed with enthusiasm equal to that of the duracell bunny. I had just passed my Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor Award (MIA or now MCI) and had been given the opportunity to fly out to Spain where Chris lives in the Costa Blanca region with his wife Lisa and two boys. I was working for his company at the time – Rock and Sun. My first days out were spent testing my skills as an instructor; it was essential that he made sure I was up to the job of guiding clients up big multi-pitch routes and along technical ridges – afterwards it was time to be put to work on the sun drenched cliffs of sunny Spain.  Fifteen years later, I still work and play on these same cliffs. 

The Costa Blanca region of Spain has to be one of the best places on planet earth for adventures of all kinds. Where else during the winter months can you have continuous good weather – plus rock climbing, scrambling, swimming and endless roads of perfectly smooth tarmac winding their way through beautiful scenery which might just be perfect for road cycling……..did I mention that it’s cheap too? – maybe I should be sponsored by the Costa Blanca tourism board…..

Sea 2 Summit costa blanca
Sea 2 Summit costa blanca

The idea behind the Sea2Summit challenge is simple – get from the sea to the summit under you own steam. However, there are a few obstacles that stand in your way. We’ve created two versions of this challenge. One that is for walkers or trail runners, it involves no rope work or technical ground but ticks all the peaks. The other, a climbing challenge that summits the same peaks but via rock climbing to get to them. The rock climbs are on large cliffs of around 300 metres in height. We’ve chosen to go up via the easiest or most amenable climb in order to encourage others to ‘have a go’ at the challenge. 

There are several GPS points that one must visit on each section, you simply record these to prove that you’ve been to each point. These can then be submitted to the website (http://sea2summit.info/) to have your place in the Sea2Summit ‘Wall of Fame’. 

The standard walking / trail running challenge involves around 20 miles of distance, 2500 meters height gain and multiple summits. The climbing version involves the same but with the additional three big multi pitch route and an epic crossing of the mighty Bernia ridge. 

These are the rock climbing routes for the standard challenge:

  • South Face of the Peñón de Ifach via Vía Valencianos (F5c 8 pitches 245m)
  • Sierra de Toix, Toix Este via Horst (F5a 5 pitches 139m)
  • Mascarat Gorge via Llobet/Bertomeu and the continuation ridge (HVS 7 pitches 275m and continuation ridge F4 3 pitches 110m)
  • Sierra de Bernia ridge – the whole thing, not just the middle bit described in the guide book. (F4+ lots of pitches and several abseils)

Plus the walking / trail running challenge peaks: 

  • Peñon de Ifach 332m 
  • Sierra de Toix 338m 
  • Sierra de Bernia East Peak 902m
  • Sierra de Bernia Summit 1126m

I arrived in Spain after a 4 am start – tired but keen to crack on with our week and adventures planned. The adventure started with a local Pego 14km Trail race, a warm up lap of multi-pitch sea cliff and then it was ready for the challenge. 

We are essentially big kids but now in a middle aged sort of way. We start each sentence with “I used to” and “when I”…….so it seemed only appropriate that we set an adventure to ‘challenge ourselves’ and pull ourselves off the couch for another final round bout in Spain.

Sea 2 Summit costa blanca
Sea 2 Summit costa blanca

“What mask do you want?” Chris asked, “What?” I replied. “They’ve got these great comedy masks in the shopping centre, I am going to be a unicorn…..” Classic, obviously you need a comedy mask, it’s important to add unnecessary weight to your rucksack when trying to complete a massive day out running and climbing – isn’t it? Well, you need some form of slapstick item – that’s the rules, we made them up. Our idea was to add  masks to our arsenal and take unnecessary photos at each summit. I was going to be a t-rex. 

That evening we did, what I call, ‘a rack party’ – get all your climbing kit out, then dump it on the floor and spend a good half hour trying to get each other to justify – ‘why you need to take that piece of equipment’. All of the climbing routes on this challenge are complex lines that weave around trying to find the easiest line through the vertical maze. 

Anyway, the final equipment we took for this challenge is as follows: 70 meter 7.8mm rope, 12 quickdraws, 3 slings, 1-6 wires, climbing shoes and running shoes, food / water, personal climbing equipment and of course, two comedy masks….. The above rack is quite slim, it is advised that you use your own judgement and skill level to decide what to take – under no circumstances should our choice of rack, or facial attire, be deemed sensible or fit for purpose. 

The day before the Sea2Summit challenge I took the time to stash 4 litres of water, a packet of crisps, a few nibbles and a lovely home made sandwich just before the Mascarat Gorge. Another stash of food and water was dropped in Altea hills. Southern coastal regions of Spain are warm even in the coldest months of the year. Carrying enough water to sustain oneself throughout the day would be a formidable and tiresome task in itself. Dropping water and food in several spots was our only option. We got through at least 8 – 10 litres of fluid each during the day and were still heavily dehydrated by the end.

THE CHALLENGE DAY

Your time starts at the sea-level helipad right on the promenade at the base of the Penon. It was just after 8 am and the day was just breaking. Go!!! We took a quick photo with our masks, t-rex and unicorn side by side, we ripped them off and then it was time to – leg it. 

Depending on if you’re doing the climbing or running challenge, you either run around and scamper up the path to the summit of the Peñon de Ifach (332 meters), or make a mad dash towards the looming, swarming mass of rock that makes up the south face. 

The first route – Via Valencianos is approached by scrambling up a loose path tracking underneath the overhanging south face. There are sharp bushes here and there and a couple of rock steps. If you were to climb this route at nesting season, the seagulls that live on the face turn into swooping, diving monsters. It would be safer to climb a route inhabited by velociraptors.  The winter months are a far better time for this challenge – it would be too hot at any other time of year anyway. 

We reached the top of the path, already sweating. I flaked the rope out onto the floor while Chris was changing from trainers into rock shoes. We tied on, I put him on belay and he set off up the first pitch. We had a thin 70 meter rope and very little gear. The aim was to move light and fast. Chris sped up the route and ran the first two pitches together. I seconded, grabbed the rack and carried on climbing past him up towards the crux corner. This corner is very famous – not because of the quality of the climbing but because it’s slipperier than a Butlin’s water slide. Luckily there are a few bolts and a couple of threads that you can pull on, stand on and grapple with to make upward progress. Anything goes to get past this section – this is known as aid climbing and when trying to move as fast as possible up a huge rock face it’s vital to grab and haul your way up as fast as you can. There is no time to dither with 800 meters of rock climbing, 20 miles of distance to travel and only 11 hours of daylight.

My fight on the crux was short lived and I heaved quickly past it but in my haste I wandered off route, climbing too far right up the wrong groove. I heard shouting from Chris, I assumed he was offering words of encouragement but instead he was trying to tell me to ‘get back down’ and head across to the belay on the left before the slabs. Eventually I paid attention, reversed, and got back on track. However, this had lost us precious time. We speeded up our efforts.. 

A few pitches later, some grunting, a few run outs and much sweating we pulled ourselves onto the summit in a time of 1 hour 6 minutes – which for a climbing lap of the Peñon isn’t too bad. A quick summit photo – of course with the comedy masks on, we coiled the ropes and began the rundown to Calpe town. 

That morning we had left Chris’s campervan on one of the side streets of Calpe. We headed to it, filled our water bottles, ate some food and set off again. We had taken our climbing equipment off and stowed it in our rucksacks. It’s fair to say, despite our best efforts, we were not fast and light. Food, water, ropes, rock shoes, harness, helmet…..comedy masks – all add up in weight and this slowed us to an ultra runners shuffle. For those not familiar with the term ‘ultra runners shuffle’ – it’s kind of the equivalent of driving a car with a flat tyre to a garage to get it fixed. You know you’ll get there but it won’t be fast or pretty. Plus this was a marathon not a sprint. There’s no point clocking 10 km in the first hour, then ten hours later, burn out and grind to a halt. So, with our shuffling pace we marched, skipped and slogged across town. Navigating the maze of roads with a little help from Google. It took us around 50 minutes to cover the 6 km to our next destination – Toix. 

Almost every climber who has ever been to Costa Blanca climbing will know this place. Toix has everything. Sea cliffs, slabs, steep walls, great views….it’s got it all. It also marks the start of the continuation ridge that links the Peñon to the summit of Bernia. This section was the smallest and easiest climb of the day but it was smack bang in full sunlight and it was baking hot. We tried to nestle under a bush and grab some shade before setting off but we were getting fried.  

Not many climbers go to Toix Este and that’s fine, it’s in the sun and there’s better climbing elsewhere but that’s not the point. It links up this marvelous journey and therefore – it’s happening. We went for a route called ‘Horst’ – it’s a grade F5 and has 5 pitches that weave around and get you as high as possible on the East face. We climbed this route in one pitch with some moving together as the angle and difficulty eased. Repeat process: Harness off, switch shoes, coil ropes, masks on, take photo, masks off, pack bag, bag on – leg it. 

This time we ran along the spine of Toix to the telephone masts which provide a GPS point / check point on both the climbing and walking challenge. Hitting this we dropped down on rocky, loose ground through the small army of climbers that were doing battle with gravity. It must have seemed slightly odd watching two people whiz past, heading off in a crazed manner towards the road without a single casual glance at what was happening above on the rocks. 

flying to spain
Sea 2 Summit masks

We found our stash of water and food on the main road just after Toix. Stash number two. This couldn’t have come at a better time. Hot, hungry and thirsty we were. Lucky, my food was fine and hadn’t been torn to bits by rodents. Chris’s food however been attacked by mice and they nibbled their way into his lovely looking baguette – poor Chris. After some grumbling we scampered off down the highway to the gorge of Mascarat. 

This place is simply mega. Huge towering rock walls divide a gorge, some 250 meters deep. Our climb didn’t start from the very bottom but off the old access bridge that’s around 60 meters up.  

The route we were climbing is ‘Llobet/Bertomeu’, it’s a classic 275 meter HVS standard climb. The majority of the route is fairly straightforward, the crux corner has bolts and these can be used in any way you choose. I’d done this route quite a few times with clients over the years and we made good time stringing pitches together until we caught a party of three on the pitch before the crux. This wasn’t a place to overtake in a friendly manner so we calmly waited inching our way up the wall when we could. They moved into the crux corner pitch and I took over the lead from Chris – following the party in front. 

Overtaking people on multi-pitch trad routes is always a bit of a faff. Belay positions, small ledges, getting your wires crossed and of course your ropes, can make the whole thing a bit like unblocking a toilet – no one likes doing it but sometimes you have to. 

The party in front kindly said I could pass them at the top of the crux pitch. This meant leading straight into the next steep pitch and linking two pitches together. With three sets of eyes staring at me, the pressure was on. We didn’t have much of a rack, in fact we only had 6 wires and climbing HVS trad with 6 wires as your rack can be a touch frightening. There used to be a fixed peg or two but now, for some reason they’ve been removed. At one point I was 14 metres above my gear and sweating like a gibbon in a sauna. Such stuff makes for sporting memorie! A quick whip whop and round the corner and I reached the belay and brought Chris upp. The continuation ridge that follows was new to both of us. We thought that no one had climbed it but then we spotted some tat dangling off the thin, knife like ridge – someone had climbed it before – game on. This was only a couple of rope lengths and then we emerged onto a ledge.  

The next stage involved fighting through jungle-like vegetation to making our way up to the Altea hills and another phone mast. It didn’t take too long to get there but there were some slips, trips and falls along the way. Neither of us had hiked this link-up before and there were still many question marks. We were very much building the plane while flying it. 

At the top of the Altea hills is another checkpoint and stunning views in all directions but what’s more, it was getting late. From this high point we could look around us and see what we’d done that day – a lot!!! but there was a huge amount left to do and a mammoth amount of height gain coming up. Altea was our last resupply spot, so we gave ourselves 20 minutes or so of rest, eating, drinking and tapping our feet for the next chapter to begin. What lay after this was the Bernia ridge, the whole thing, in the dark. We made sure our water bottles were topped up, we added gloves, a hat and more food into our bags and set off up the long spine towards the first peak of the Bernia ridge. 

We walked this next 700 meters of height gain in glorious fading light and at a perfect temperature, for the first time that day. Just as it was getting dark we topped onto Bernia East summit. From here we could just make out the enormous dragons-back like ridge of spikes, going on and on into the distance. 

Both of us had done Bernia Ridge many times before. Chris was the person that bolted it for the masses and it’s now quite a famous challenge in itself.  Neither of us however had done it at night. Things change and distort in the dark. What normally would of been easy and straightforward navigation turned into self doubting wrong turns and back tracking. It’s not an easy ridge. It has many abseils, climbing sections up to F4+, knife edge moves above wildly exposed positions, loose ledges and many ups and downs. We managed to move reasonably quickly and soloed all of the climbing sections. After passing the final climbing section our legs started to tire. 

Twelve and a half hours had elapsed since that morning, so long ago, at the Peñon helipad. Dehydration and tiredness were starting to kick in and our steps weren’t as springy as they had been at the start of the day. We still had puff left but it wasn’t full steam ahead. The final section of the Bernia is a real mirage. The summit is just there but then you drop 100 meters of height gain only to come straight back up and then down again. It really takes some stern words to keep the tempo up. 

The standard stone trig point loomed into view – it wasn’t a sprint finish but we slapped the top of the Bernia 1126 meters in a time of 13 hours and 24 minutes. 

Once again it was time to don the unicorn and t-rex, take a photo, coil the rope, pack a bag and this time – walk down in a safe and controlled manner. It was windy, really windy, we were tired and on the descent you’re surrounded by large sheer drops on either side. It was pitch black. The path wiggles its way through this maze . We were using the GPS maps on my phone to navigate it – I highly advise the App Viewranger for this. 

Plodding back down, we made it back to the car by 11 pm, with a car to car time of just over 15 hours. We slumped into the front seats, drove to Calpe to pick up the campervan and then back to Chris’s for a glass of wine and a big night’s sleep. 

What an incredible adventure day in the hills.  Where else is there a Sea2Summit challenge I wonder………..