Alexander Huber and Fabian Buhl free "Sueños de Invierno” (540m, 8a) on Picu Urriellu, Spain

While the first ascenders, José Luis García Gallego and Miguel Ángel Díez Vives needed 69 days in the winter 33 years ago, the German climbing duo of Alexander Huber (47) and Fabian Buhl (25) required only 9 hours: they free climbed the infamous "Sueños de Invierno” route (literally winter sleep) on the Asturian monolith Picu Urriellu – in the climbing world better known as the “Naranjo de Bulnes” – and created a sensation in the whole of Spain. This was because the time of over two months non-stop on the rock by the first ascenders is still a record to this day – no-one else has climbed for so long without a break on a rock face. The puristic protection they used contributed to the myth – apart from at the belay stations, the first people to climb this route almost completely avoided the use of bolts, which is precisely why repeats of this route are very rare. Huber and Buhl invested five days in checking the puristic route, before daring to try redpointing it on 23rd September, which they managed at the first attempt. During their climb the first Spanish media representatives made their way to Asturia, to report on this sensational ascent.

Text: Alexander Huber, photos: Heinz Zak

One of the mythical routes in the history of climbing. 69 days on one wall. Without returning back to the ground once. That’s a real world record. And it wasn’t just that. The route on which José Luis García Gallego and Miguel Ángel Díez Vives demonstrated their abilities is a true statement of climbing in the eighties. When you know that the ascent began in March 1983, you realise that it was no camping trip. This was a real adventure, in the truest meaning of the word, right in the middle of civilised Europe.

The Picu Urriellu, a peak known better as the “Naranjo de Bulnes”, is the most prominent climbing peak in 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 all the ascents, many of which are historically important. 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.

6th December 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 cafe, each with a beer, and I eagerly listened to him talk and noticed that this story still means a lot to him. Together with the Belgian Nico Favresse, in August 2011 he repeated “Orbayu”, done two years previously by Iker Pou. And not just that … to the left there was the huge “Desplome de la Bermeja” overhang with its mythical route “Sueños de Invierno”. From the successful ascent of the "Orbayu" they carried on full of motivation! It was a wild undertaking, a real adventure, because there were no bolts clearly showing the climbable route. The first ascenders worked systematically on using everything possible to help them climb, just not any bolts: friends, nuts, bolts, skyhooks and above all lots of plomos – lumps of lead hammered into the wall, which somehow were actually able to hold the body weight of a technical climber.

On the first pitch something then happened, which would have been a non-issue on a sports climbing route secured with bolts. After the first 20 metres, Adam broke off a hold and off he went. A friend broke off, as well as a hook and a tunnel . Everything fell, including Adam. Right to the ground. Adam was unconscious for a while, survived the fall but was seriously injured. His sacrum, breast bone and one lumbar vertebrae were broken, but a quick rescue and good care in Oviedo allowed him to survive the fall.

I have known the Picos de Europa for a long time. 15 years ago I travelled in these mountains on my first lecture tour in Spain. Although it was in November, even in winter you can feel the special aura of these mountains. After meeting Adam, these memories were revived and in November 2014 I made my way to Asturia between my speeches in Léon, Reinosa, Oviedo and Bilbao. Together with my father I hiked to Bulnes, to see the magical shape of the Picu Urriellu close up. Not to understand how I could climb it. No, I was much more interested in the aura of this mountain. I wanted to be enchanted by it. That’s the best way to get a project going…

And it was a real coincidence that just a short time afterwards, a certain Fabian Buhl came to me and started to talk about this mythical “Sueños de Invierno” route. It was obvious that you need the right partner for a project like this. And Fabian with his endless enthusiasm for anything steep was just the right person! He also has the right experience and ability, and one thing is clear: you can only do this ascent with someone who knows exactly how to climb a steep rock face without bolts. And this was definitely the case on the “Sueños de Invierno”, also in the tenth grade!

At the start 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. And that’s also precisely how I started the climb. With caution, slowly, so that no protection opportunities are overlooked. And yes, climbing here in the overhanging yellow sea of rocks of the “Desplome da la Bermeja”, commands a huge amount of respect from me. The limestone on this large overhang looked wild, but thankfully the first impressions were misleading: although it appeared wild and brittle from underneath, the rock was actually secure and surprisingly not slippery!

Fabian started with the second pitch. That was where it was clearly more interesting. At the belay station between the second and third pitch it was extremely tense, as things were so compact there that it was very difficult to find any holds. The first climbers managed to bridge an almost structure-less area with the belay bolts. But we found a solution! We connected the second and third part into a 60-metre-long marathon pitch, and bypassed the compact zone at the belay station just two meters below, using good holds. These good holds didn't run out for the whole length of the pitch, making the climbing moves themselves not that difficult, although the breath-taking steepness and the sheer length made the climb a difficult one.

With these pitches, the large overhang of the Bermeja was below us and above us was the “Naranjo de Bulnes” itself: a wall of the best grey limestone. And there you find the most demanding bolt climbing pitches. Fabian focussed on the first A4 pitch, while I worked on the A4+. The bolt climbing here is done largely using the plomos, lumps of lead which are beaten into the rock into any uneven areas. A tried and tested way of working upwards with a hammer and ladder. But one thing is also clear: if a plomo doesn't hold, then there’s the famous zip – if one plomo doesn’t hold twenty more may follow! It’s clear that these two pitches cannot be the biggest problem from the technical perspective. Although the wall is compact, there are fine structures everywhere. If you have a feeling for vertical climbing, it should also be no problem in that respect. The issue here is simply the protection. On the A4+ grade pitch, in the middle there is a 20 metre section from one camalot to the next. In between there are only skyhooks. Five skyhooks in a row! In actual fact, a skyhook is a very good material for climbing protection, but is not particularly popular. However, we had no other choice, as nothing else could be attached to this grey wall.

Unfortunately, the five days of holiday I had in Astruria were not enough to make a redpointing attempt at the start of September. But we enjoyed the days we spent up on the Vega de Urriellu so much, that Fabian and I knew we would definitely visit the hut owners Sergio and Tomás again. From 22nd September, we were both able to get a few days off work, and were lucky that the weather also cooperated. There was a high pressure front and sunshine, while the temperature was still moderate.

But we had a tight program ahead of us. Both Fabian and I had to work on the days before, packed for the trip to Picos de Europa in the night, and after just three hours sleep we flew from Munich to Bilbao. From there it was a four-hour journey to Sotres and then another three hours up to the Vega Urriellu shelter. I could have actually really used a rest day then. But we lacked the inner peace and quiet for a rest day. We wanted to get up there! At least we had a lie-in on the following day, as on the north-west wall it wouldn’t be a bad thing to let the temperatures and heat become a bit more moderate first. Just after eleven, Fabian started on the first pitch. And straight away we came across the first problems, he was fighting with a skyhook just before the belay station. This went on for so long that when he made the last strong pull he flew off the wall. Not the ideal start we wanted.

But it didn’t matter. I then started with the first pitch, and things went well. To make the skyhook more stable, I attached an auxiliary rope, with Fabian tensioning the pitch using a skyhook from below. This made the skyhook stable and I reached the belay station without complications. Fabian followed me and after two attempts his arms got pumped. So I started on the second pitch, the sixty-metre marathon, which made up the original second and third pitches. With regards to the difficulty, these two were supposed to be the most difficult by far, but in fact they were the least demanding for us. This was because there were a lot of good protections points here, which reduced the climbing difficulty. Despite its 8a grading, the climb was actually very moderate. I made my way carefully upwards, one move at a time, from rest point to rest point until – five metres before the belay point, after passing all the difficult points – a small hold broke off! And I fell down. That was the last thing we wanted! We started climbing very late and couldn’t afford another delay. I wanted to give up there and then, and try again the following day. But Fabian was still fully motivated and wouldn't consider giving up. So we continued …

Upwards! It’s ok! I made it back to the belay station. The good thing about having an equal team is that you can switch roles at any time. After my fall, Fabian continued his climb. He climbed carefully and cleanly, just like me but without breaking a hold, all the way up and I followed behind. Upwards and onwards! We started late and had no time to lose. Thankfully the difficulty was at a level we could manage. We climbed cleanly, full of concentration. We trusted the skyhooks as protection and carried on up. Half-way up the difficulty level got easier and we began to fly. Although we missed sunset at the peak, the fading light gave the moment even more magic. A moment at which you don’t have to convince yourself why you're doing it. Climbing is simply amazing!

Pico Urriellu, Spain

The Picu Urriellu (2518m), better known as the “Naranjo de Bulnes”, is the most important mountain in the Picos de Europa. It is a pronounced limestone monolith with lots of climbing routes on all four walls. For the Spanish, the Picu Urriellu is equivalent to the Eiger or El Capitan – a mythical mountain with a long climbing tradition, associated with absorbing legends and tragedies. The first ascent was done on 5th August 1904 by the Spanish politician Pedro José Pidal, accompanied by the shepherd and mountain guide Gregorio Pérez Demaría, called El Cainejo. They climbed the north wall without using a single bolt on a route known today as the "Via Pidal-Calnejo". They were followed in 1906 by the 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 whole belay station breaking away, while the second group froze to death after 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 created the “Sueños de Invierno”, the first A4+ graded route in Spain. Since this time, the Spanish media have followed all ascents with great interest.

Sueños de Invierno

The first ascent was done by Miguel Ángel Diez and José Luis Garcia Gallego from 1st March to 8th May 1983, wall height: 540 metres, A4+/6a or, for free climbing, 8a