Winter in Portugal - Part 1

Winter climbing in Portugal - Part 1

By Daniela Teixeira

Winter in Portugal: Discover the hidden gems of the Iberian Peninsula.

250m of ice climbing in Portugal… “Wait a minute! Did I read Portugal?!”

It’s March, I’m sitting here still hopeful winter will return. Hope is normally kept until the end of April, sometimes hope is rewarded, sometimes not.

Looking back, although winter was short, this year was surprisingly cold, and since we live “in the right place”, we made the best of it!

There is a granite tower here called “Cântaro Magro”, a perfect place for any kind of climbing, as long as the conditions will allow it. One can rock climb there (trad climbing) in every season except winter, and when conditions allow, it’s also the perfect place for winter “Scottish climbs” on its shadow faces, west and north. Sometimes, if you catch the right day (the right day is really the right day, it’s not the right week!), you may be lucky enough to do some “Scottish climbing” or an easy gully on the sunny East face, the biggest one, with its 500m of height.

This year in January, already after a nice adventure that allowed us to open a big route on the East face, as the abnormal cold temperatures went on, we decided to try our luck for the second time, and we had a line in mind already.

As usual we arrived at the base of the face around 8am and we were surprised to see what looked like a long line of ice that did not correspond to our original plan. We thought to ourselves, “What are the chances of finding an ice climb with more than 200m of continuous ice in Serra da Estrela?” Being honest, the probability is less than finding Niagara Falls frozen! That was good enough to change our plans, and so we decided to try our luck on that line.

In the beginning, the ice was in a pretty good condition, although being an East face, with the sun hitting almost all day, we had to deal with thin ice. Nevertheless it was good enough to place some ice-screws. We progressed fast, as the climb was never hard, just plain fun ice-climbing, the length of which we've never had in decades of ice-climbing here.

At about midday, the ice was not that good any more, but we could already see the end of the route. I remember Paulo saying “Hurry up, let’s see if we can still do the last pitch before it falls!”

I have to confess we were totally astonished to be able to climb 250m of continuous ice in our “backyard”, Serra da Estrela, on a wall facing the sun that rarely has any ice! Needless to say that on the next day, it was already impossible to repeat that particular climb. The longest ice route ever done in Serra da Estrela was no more.

Already in February, with “normal” winter conditions for Portuguese terrain, we decided to take a look at a wall that had been in the back of our minds for some years. The time had come to visit it, as conditions were deteriorating fast everywhere...

We had been curious about the north face of “Cântaro Gordo” for some time… (years!). The time had come to take a look. On a sunny, cold February 22, as we approached the wall, the snow beneath our crampons was well transformed. In fact, it was crunchier than what we're used to finding in Serra da Estrela.

When we reached the base of the desired wall, it totally corresponded to our best expectations. We found a wall plastered with snow and ice with an exceptional aspect - an opportunity not to be missed.

The first steps of mixed climbing were quite surprising, as we found quite a different snow from the crunchy snow of the approach. We were faced with sugar snow, not consistent with allowing good traction of the ice tools. The tufts of grass and moss, when frozen, allow an additional dose of confidence as the ice-axes penetrate them as if they were ice. On this day we were not so lucky! Despite the cold, strangely, the tufts of grass were not frozen and so they would not be much of a help to progress. We would have to count only on the classic hooking on the rocky cracks along the way.

Despite the poor conditions, the compact rock allowed the climbing of a logical and challenging line. The first pitch of “mild” difficulty was followed by a diagonal one, with two or three spicy and mentally tiring moves due to its relative exposure.

We finished the first route of the day, at the crest of “Cântaro Gordo” and, a few meters further down, we abandoned a piece of cord around a rock spike to make a long abseil to the base of the wall. The northern face of “Cântaro Gordo” had received its first winter route.

Since we still had some time to have fun, our eyes were attracted drawn to another line that headed to a small detached rock tower.

On the first pitch, the “crux” came just before the belay, forcing some hard overhanging moves, luckily with nice hooking places and safe protection placements. So, we managed to overcome it without too many difficulties or complications.

After the first belay we looked to the terrain above: an easy looking snow gully was leading to the right. Were we to follow it, the route would be unsatisfying in terms of difficulties, a hard pitch followed by a very easy one. A second and more insightful look made us think we had another solution, a tougher option, more similar to the hard moves we did on the first pitch.

We decided to follow the center of the vertical rock pillar. “Let’s give it a try!”. A first easy traverse opened the way to the overhanging roof on the center of the wall. Luckily, a perfect crack allowed the placement of a convenient cam, greatly reducing the exposure of a potential (and likely) fall.

Lateral hooking, crampons sliding on the lateral rock wall, a very powerful hooking high above the head in a small chunk of granite stuck in a crack… placing a really good 0.75 camalot… climbing the ice-axe well hooked… hard locking… hooking randomly above the roof with the right hand tool… trust in it... ”Should I trust it?”, “Attention there!”. Down belaying, Daniela was prepared for the probable fall. “Ok, I’m going for it!”. My strength was at the limit. I pulled the right ice-axe hard, looked for a cam and literally threw it into the available crack. My energy was draining within every second that passed. I couldn't take it any more. Giving everything, I pulled the hooked ice-axes. My crampons scratched violently on the granite wall until, without knowing how, one of them "clung" on some tiny protuberance. In an instant I overcame the roof and I could breathe again. I couldn’t feel my arms! The next few meters were still not easy, but they were much gentler than the previous climb.

From the top of that small tower I peacefully enjoyed the wintery landscape around. My forearms were screaming, but I was happy. “What a spectacular line!”

While belaying Daniela, who was doing her best to overcome all the difficulties, I looked at the walls around. The potential for more mixed climbing routes were still substantial.

“Look at that attractive line there, should we go for it?”

The future in our “backyard” is shining…

Gear used: Orion 40 backpack, Definition jackets, Katabatic jackets, Nautilus trousers, Laika micro-fleece, Kepler long sleeved tops.

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