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Alexander Huber and Fabian Buhl free "Sueños de Invierno" on Picu Urriellu

While first ascentionists, José Luis García Gallego and Miguel Ángel Díez Vives, required 69 days one winter 33 years ago, the German climbing duo consisting of Alexander Huber (47) and Fabian Buhl (25) required only 9 hours to free climb the infamous "Sueños de Invierno" route (literally "Winter's Sleep") on the Asturian monolith Picu Urriellu – known in the climbing world as "Naranjo de Bulnes" – and become a sensation throughout all of Spain. The two months non-stop on the rock for the first ascent is still a record to this day – no-one else has climbed for so long without a break on a rock face. Their purist approach to protecting the route contributed to the myth – apart from at the anchors, the first ascentionists avoided the use of bolts as much as possible, which is precisely why repeats of this route are very rare. Huber and Buhl spent five days scoping out the traditional route before making their first redpoint attempt on September 23, which was successful. During their climb, the Spanish media made their way to Asturias to report on this newsworthy ascent. Text by Alexander Huber, photos by Heinz Zak.

November 23 2016

Multi-pitch climbing

© Heinz Zak

This is one of climbing history's legendary routes. A world record 69 days spent on one wall without once returning back down to the ground. Their accomplishment went far beyond simple stamina. The route on which José Luis García Gallego and Miguel Ángel Díez Vives demonstrated their abilities is a true testament to climbing in the eighties. When you learn that the ascent began in March 1983, you realize that it was no simple camping trip. This was a real adventure, in the truest meaning of the word, right in the middle of civilized Europe.

Picu Urriellu, better known as "Naranjo de Bulnes," is the most prominent climbing peak on the Iberian Peninsula, at least from an international perspective. No other wall has a combination of factors that comes close to its size, steepness, difficulty, and rock quality, as well as the number historically important ascents. Rabada and Navarro were the first to climb the west wall, following in the historical footsteps of the legendary Cainejo, who made the first ascent of this free-standing limestone monolith in 1904, together with his client Pedro Pidal.

December 6, 2014. I was making a speech for the second time as a guest at the Krakow Film Festival. I remember the enthusiastic audience as well as the meeting I had with Adam Pustelnik in connection with this story. We sat together in a café, each with a beer, and I eagerly listened to him talk and noticed that this story still means a lot to him. In August 2011, he and Belgian Nico Favresse repeated "Orbayu," freed two years prior by Iker Pou. In addition, to the left, there was the massive overhanging "Desplome de la Bermeja" with its legendary route, "Sueños de Invierno." After the successful ascent of the "Orbayu," they were fully motivated! It was a wild undertaking, a real adventure, because there were no bolts to clearly indicated where the route climbed. The first ascentionists worked hard to avoid using bolts as much as possible, placing friends, nuts, skyhooks, and a lot of copperheads (balls of copper or lead hammered into the rock) that were able to hold the bodyweight of an aid climber.

© Heinz Zak

On the first pitch an incident occurred that would have happened on sport route protected by bolts. After the first 20 meters, Adam broke a hold and off he went. A friend pulled, as well as a hook and another piece of protection. Nothing held, and Adam fell all the way to the ground. He was unconscious for a while, surviving the fall but seriously injured. His sacrum, sternum, and one lumbar vertebra were broken, but a quick rescue and great medical care in Oviedo helped him to survive the fall.

I have known the Picos de Europa for a long time. 15 years ago I traveled to these mountains on my first lecture tour in Spain. Although it was in November, even in winter you can feel their special aura. After meeting Adam, these memories were revived and in November 2014 I made my way to Asturias between presentations in Léon, Reinosa, Oviedo, and Bilbao. Together with my father I hiked to Bulnes, to see the magical shape of Picu Urriellu close up. More than understanding how to climb it, I was interested in the aura of this mountain. I wanted to be enchanted by it, which is the best way to get a project off the ground…

It was a genuine coincidence that just a short time afterwards, a certain Fabian Buhl came to me and started talking about the legendary "Sueños de Invierno" route. It was clear from the start that a project like this requires the right partner. Fabian, with his boundless enthusiasm for anything steep, was just the right person! He also had the right experience and ability; this type of ascent requires someone who knows exactly how to climb a steep rock face without bolts. This was definitely the case for "Sueños de Invierno"!

At the beginning of September, Fabian and I had five days off and travelled to Vega de Urriellu. We both had a lot of respect for the wall and even more for the route. I started the climb with exactly this mindset, cautiously, slowly, so that no opportunities for protection were overlooked. Yes, the overhanging yellow sea of rock of "Desplome da la Bermeja" commands a huge amount of respect. The immense overhanging limestone wall looked wild, but thankfully our first impressions were incorrect: although the rock appeared insecure and brittle from below, the rock was actually very solid, secure, and surprisingly grippy!

© Heinz Zak

Fabian led the second pitch, a great section of climbing. The anchor between the second and third pitches was tense, since the rock was so smooth and bulletproof that the holds were few and far between. The first climbers managed to bridge an almost featureless section with the belay bolts. However, we found a solution! We connected the second and third part into a 60-meter-long marathon pitch, climbing on good holds two meters below the featureless area around the anchor. The good holds continued for the entire length of the pitch, making each move itself not that difficult, although the sustained steepness and length of the pitch made for very hard climbing.

After these pitches, the overhanging section of Bermeja was below us, with "Naranjo de Bulnes" itself looming above: a wall of the most spectacular gray limestone. This section contains the most difficult pitches with fixed protection. Fabian focused his energy on the first A4 pitch, while I worked on the A4+. The climbing here is protected primarily by copperheads, lumps of copper (or lead) that are pounded into the uneven features or small cracks in the rock. This is a tried and true aid climbing technique. However, if a copperhead does not hold, there is the famous zipper effect – if one copperhead pops, twenty more may follow! These two pitches are not the most difficult to climb from a technical perspective. Although the wall is compact, there are small features everywhere. If you are strong at climbing steep rock, this section should not pose a problem. The challenge here is simply one of protection. In the middle of the A4+ pitch, there is section where two solid cam placements are 20 meters apart. In between there are only skyhook placements. Five skyhooks in a row to be exact! A skyhook actually offers pretty solid protection, but is not particularly popular for free climbing. However, we had no choice, since nothing else worked to protect this steep gray wall.

Unfortunately, the five days of vacation I had in Asturias were not enough to make a redpoint attempt at the start of September. However, we enjoyed the days we spent up on the Vega de Urriellu so much, that Fabian and I knew we would definitely visit hut owners Sergio and Tomás again. Starting on September 22, we were both able to get a few days off work, and were lucky that the weather also cooperated. There was a high pressure system and sunshine, and temperatures were still moderate.

Still, we had a tight program ahead of us. Both Fabian and I had to work right up until the day we left, packing for our trip to Picos de Europa the night before, and slept just three before catching our flight from Munich to Bilbao. From there it was a four-hour journey to Sotres and then another three hours up to the Vega Urriellu hut. I could have really used a rest day, bu we lacked the inner peace and quiet to be able to sit still. We wanted to start climbing! At least we had a lie-in the following day, which allowed the north-west wall to warm up a bit first. Just after eleven, Fabian started climbing the first pitch. His first big challenge was fighting with a skyhook just before reaching the anchor. This went on for so long, that when he made the last strong pull he peeled off the wall. Not the ideal start we had wanted.

It mattered little. I then led the first pitch, and the climbing went well. To make the skyhook more stable, I attached an auxiliary rope, with Fabian tensioning the pitch using a skyhook from below. This stabilized the skyhook and I reached the belay station without complications. Fabian followed, and after two attempts his arms were pumped. So I started the second pitch, the sixty-meter marathon that combined the original second and third pitches. With regards to difficulty, these two were supposed to be the most difficult by far, but turned out to be the least demanding for us. This was because there was a lot of good protection, which reduced the overall difficulty. Despite its 8a rating, the climb was relatively moderate. I made my way carefully upwards, one move at a time, from rest point to rest point until – five meters below the anchor, after climbing past each successive crux – a small hold broke and I fell! That was the last thing we needed! We had started climbing late and could not afford another delay. I wanted to stop then and there, and come back for another attempt the following day. However, Fabian was still fully motivated and did not want to stop just yet. So we continued …

Upwards and onwards! I lowered back to the anchor. The good thing about a climbing team of equals is that you can switch roles at any time. After my fall, Fabian took the lead. He climbed carefully and cleanly, just like my prior attempt but without breaking a hold, all the way up to the anchor. I followed. We had no time to lose. Thankfully the difficulty was at a level we could manage. We climbed cleanly, fully focused. We trusted the skyhooks as protection and continued our upward progress. Halfway up the difficulty eased off and we began to fly. Although we missed seeing the sunset at the top of the peak, the fading light made the moment even more magical. These moments make me realize exactly why I do all this. Climbing is simply amazing!

© Heinz Zak

Pico Urriellu, Spain

Picu Urriellu (2518m), better known as "Naranjo de Bulnes," is the most prominent mountain in the Picos de Europa chain. It is a pronounced limestone monolith with lots of climbing routes on all four walls. Picu Urriellu is the Spanish equivalent of the Eiger or El Capitan – a legendary mountain with a long climbing tradition, associated with both heroics and tragedy. The first ascent was done on August 5, 1904, by Spanish politician Pedro José Pidal, accompanied by shepherd and mountain guide Gregorio Pérez Demaría, referred to as El Cainejo. They climbed the north wall without using a single bolt on a route known today as the "Via Pidal-Cainejo". This ascent was followed in 1906 by German Gustav Schulze, who climbed the Eastern wall solo in 3 hours. In the sixties there were two tragic winter ascents: the first group suffered a fatal accident due to the anchor failing, while the second group froze to death after spending eleven days on the wall. In the winter of 1983, Miguel Ángel Diez and José Luis Garcia Gallego spent 69 days non-stop on the wall (a world record) and establishing the "Sueños de Invierno" route, the first A4+ aid route in Spain. Since then, the Spanish media have followed all ascents with great interest.

Sueños de Invierno
The first ascent was completed by Miguel Ángel Diez and José Luis Garcia Gallego from March 1 to May 8, 1983. Wall height: 540 meters, A4+/6a or, for free climbing, 8a.

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