re-sized picu urriellu

Is this the world’s most difficult wall climb?

Picu Urriellu, or Naranjo de Bulnes, is located in the heart of the Picos de Europa, in Asturias in the north of Spain offers a 8c+/9a challenge to the world’s best climbers. It is said that this multiple route is the hardest one in the world…

It certainly looks formidable!

Picu Urriellu is a 2,529 m mountain that is by no means the highest peak of the Cantabrian mountain range, but its claim to fame is it’s hugely challenging, some would say terrifying, 550 m vertical limestone wall on its west face called Orbayu. Pilar del Cantábrico is also on the west face. It is 500 m wall with an 8a+ level of difficulty.

There are many other routes on both the north and west face, but there is only one Orbayu. It is said to be the most difficult free climb route yet opened on any mountain and it was finally conquered by the Basque brothers, Eneko and Iker Pou, in September 2009. They used natural protection and old fixed gear wherever possible. “We called it Orbayu because, although we are from the Basque Country, the Asturias is like our second home. We have been climbing in this area for years and we have a special relationship with this land. We hope this route will help increase the international reputation of the Naranjo de Bulnes as a climbing mecca. For us it is on a par with the big walls in Yosemite and Patagonia.”

The brothers worked on the route for two months prior to making the 8-hour team free ascent and this followed a 3-day stint the previous year when they studied what would become the fifth and sixth pitches, the hardest section of the proposed new route.  Altogether their new route combined 4 new pitches with parts of two existing routes, including newly freed pitches on the 1980 route Mediterrano, making it a 13-pitch climb. Orbayu has five pitches of 8a (5.13b) or harder, including the crux fifth pitch, for which a grade of 5.14c/d has been suggested. Their final redpoint for this climb was 8 hours.

The Pou brothers were also the first to climb and open the Pilar del Cantábrico at 8a+ in 1997.

Orbayu is the 5th big wall that the Pou brothers have opened. The degree of difficulty for Orbayu has been waiting to be confirmed, but to do that it needed someone else to climb it successfully. This has finally happened. In the Summer of 2011 Adam Pustelnik and Nicolas Favresse successfully put up the route and had this to say about it:

“First of all we would like to say that Orbayu is an exceptional route and we would like to thank the Pou brothers for their vision for this line and their effort to put it up. It climbs 4 pitches of overhang that was put up in sporty style (with bolts but at times long run out between them if you choose not to place extra removable protections. The middle part of the route (where is located the hardest pitch) follows the Mediterranean route which is a A3 aid line.

The last part of the route shares the same pitches as the classical Navaro Rabada route. On the crux pitch, all the protections we used where already in place. Sometimes led heads, pitons and fixed nuts. But the hardest part are well protected with bolts (some of them very old but many of them (bolt ladder) so even safe if one of them broke). Two additional bolts on the side of the bolt ladder is protecting the crux of the route which goes free slightly right of the aid line.

Nicholas Favresse on Orbayu, Asturias, Cantabrian Mountains, Spain

Nicholas on Orbayu

photo courtesy of Nicholas Favresse

So since everybody ask us about the grade, we can’t avoid talking about it. Overall the route felt easier than its original grade. The crux pitch felt definitely easier than 8c+/9a to both of us. We both think it’s no more than 8c… maybe 8b+ if you are not short. Adam is shorter than Nico (1m66 – 1m 75) so Adam had to do more complex sequences than Nico.

Nico sent the route twice… the second time he linked the crux pitch (pitch 5) with the next pitch (originally graded 8a+) to avoid a hanging belay placing the quick draws as he went making a mega 60m long pitch. So this is the grade we propose for the route : pitch one : 8a – pitch 2 : 7c+ after making it harder with a hold we broke pitch 3 and 4 we linked both of them together making it 7c pitch 5 : maybe 8c or 8b+ depending on your height pitch 6 : 7c but it’s nice to link pitch 5 and 6 together to skip a hanging belay from pitch 7 to the top it’s 6b or easier.”

So there we go, some useful feedback for any of you out there thinking of giving it a go and Adam and Nicholas certainly think it’s worth it: “We would like to say that Naranjo de Bulnes is an amazing place to climb and hang out. The rock is fantastic and the views are breathtaking.”

feature photo by Antton Alberdi



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