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Finding El Dorado

El Dorado, the legend of the golden city ruled by a golden king in the New World. Many Spanish conquistadors became obsessed with finding this place; countless expeditions from the 1500s onwards tried and failed to realise their dreams.


Yet here I was; seven centuries later, with two Spaniards, standing below golden granite slabs sparkling in the early morning light. Finally, they had found it!


El Dorado slabs on the Grimsel pass had long been on my list and I had heard the name spoken in reverent tones many times during my climbing career. It didn’t disappoint. Hundreds of metres of peerless granite slabs cut by soaring crack lines. Many of the routes follow the strong lines of weakness, cutting the face whilst some launch out into the unknown, questing upwards on small crystals and paper thin crimps.


After a long lockdown, and this being our first route together, we opted for the line of Septumania. This is billed as being slightly easier than its more famous neighbour, Motorhead. Still, we had sixteen pitches of fairly sustained climbing ahead. When climbing as a three, especially on such a long route, I prefer to lead in blocks. This means that you have ample rest time, mentally and physically, while seconding and can switch into “lead mode” for your section.


Miguel was quick to take the first five pitches, a sensible decision as we would find out later. The climbing along the whole route is delicate and mostly about footwork. Granite slab climbing requires precision and a cool head. The first five pitches were dispatched smoothly and we reached the first of the crux pitches. A trail of silver bolts leading across brilliantly blank, boilerplate slabs. As the guidebook description had made clear, there is always just enough to keep movement in the upward direction as crimps and dimples appear to entice you onwards, further from safety. What has to be dealt with here is the expansive spaces between the bolts: focus must be lazer as gravity sucks your mind back down towards the reservoir below.

Miguel padding up pitch 4. As always, climbing with equanimity .(Photo: Mateo Carames)


By now the sun was fully upon us and water had become a precious commodity. Sips were rationed at the belays and the thirst set in. Upon completion of the last crux pitch, my leading block came to a welcome end as I tried to force down some salty olives. Lunch had been hastily arranged, the crushed pumpernickel bread and eight, lonely olives were only serving to amplify my lust for water.


It was now becoming clear that, after eleven pitches in the sun, the last five rope lengths would prove to be the most mentally taxing despite their diminished grades. Weary from the many hanging belays and effort, Mateo valiantly took the ropes, wishing he had not agreed to the final block of leads. It soon became clear we would need to share the load to take down this monster as fatigue had caught up with us all.

Granite perfection on Pitch 7. (Photo: Mateo Carames Saddler/ Miguel F. Ast)


We began to swap leads between us and progress slowed, but there was progress. Wracked with thirst and mentally drained, we reached the summit of the buttress. Topping out, we were greeted with incredible views up the dwindling Unteraargletscher towards the inviting pinnacle of the Lauteraarhorn.


These are the moments which I feel give the sport meaning and purpose. Triumphant, on the summit with friends as all your efforts and fears melt away below. Elated, we staggered back to the path, water, and then marched to the van.


Sometimes, when you finally visit a place which has such a mythical quality, you are underwhelmed as the wild ideas which you built up in your imagination fail to live up to reality. However, with El Dorado this was far from the case and I am already desperate to return to dance once more with the golden king.


Mateo soaks up some joy through cracked lips on the summit.

(Photo: Miguel F. Ast)

A view over Grimsel pass and the mountains beyond, a playground.

(Photo: Miguel F. Ast)





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