Atxarte – Urkiola Natural Park

Here’s another destination crag that you’ve probably never heard of. Just south of Bilbao, in the Basque Country / Pais Vasco is the Urkiola Natural Park, made up of the Aramotz mountain range, the Montes del Duranguesado and the Arangio mountain range, which form the Bay of Biscay-Mediterranean watershed. These impressive limestone peaks form the imposing backdrop to Bilbao, and are pierced by Atxarte – the beautiful and spectacular narrow pass between the Aitz-Txiki and Alluitz peaks. Translated, it means “between crags”.

As you arrive at the top of the pass you are surrounded by majestic spires and pinnacles, with about 300 routes on both sides it’s no surprise that this is another 5 karabiners venue.

We didn’t arrive until about 3 so were in a hurry to bag a couple of routes. The featured Donde Escalar sector is Aurrekoeatxa with its fairytale pinnacles and stunning arete, offering routes up to 70m. There’s a bit of a topo here

However, we decided to leave that for another visit and instead made a quick dash for the La Bahia sector on the opposite side of the valley (RHS of the photo below); the nearest to the parking.

This also had the advantage of a local team already in situ (just about visible in the shot above, topping out beneath the tree on the far right) so we could get some beta on what routes to do and what the grades were.

Our very friendly Basque friends recommended the 35m 6b crack, La Del Peqe (subsequently discovered to be 6c!), just right of the route they’d just finished…

It’d be a 3* E2 in Dovedale, but for a fiendishly hard move over the bulge where the crack runs out.

We chose another decent looking line but our hosts dashed over to say there were far better routes, and pointed us at a 30m 6a on the crag to the left – amazing holes / holds and a classic “rock-over with your foot in the only pocket which is also your handhold” move.

The crag had lost the sun by this point, which, combined with a biting wind, had taken the joy out of the experience, though the hardy locals pressed on for one last route.

There followed a minor adventure as we headed over the hill to the Urkiola Sanctuary, a huge Abbey dating back to the 9th Century which also provides a recommended van stop-over. It’s only a mile or two as the crow flies, but involves a road through the natural park that is closed to vehicles. Google’s answer was a 30mins round trip via a roller-coaster of forest tracks, but we did have a very comfortable night. Sadly the next day dawned chilly and windy, so further exploration of this magical place will have to wait for a future visit.

Fast forward 48 hrs and we were back at the parking and gazing up again at the pinnacles of Eguzkiarre and Urrekoeatxa on the west side of the pass.

Another gorgeous day, but don’t be fooled by the blue skies and sunshine – the wind was absolutely bitter. Nonetheless, we made our way up to Urrekoeatxa – it’s the steep “tilted tombstone” to the right of and slightly behind the pointy skyline in the pic above. You approach by following the GR path for 100m then branching right up a narrow steep path which zigzags left of the lower pinnacle before finding a way beneath the base of the upper pinnacle and over a rocky coll to the foot of the routes.

Here’s Helen making the final scramble over the rock barrier, with the crag behind.

Great views down to the Bahia sector across the valley.

By some meteorological quirk, the wind was being funnelled to hurricane “knock you off your feet” strength between the spires and clouds were building, so we selected the classic Directa Diedra up the long corner system leading diagonally rightwards to the summit – 60m and 2 pitches to V+, which was quite challenging enough in the conditions. Fun to top out on a “summit” and quite alpine in feel (though not a place to linger).

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