As you drive towards Tarifa from Cádiz and approach the small village of Facinas, you are normally looking straight ahead for your first glimpse of Africa and the massive Jebel Musa that seems to appear out of nowhere on a clear day. Far less spectacular, but impressive in their own way, are the rocky outcrops on either side of the road as you reach Facinas. The rock on the right as you head south is known as the Roca de San Bartolo, and its sand and limestone faces draw climbers from all over Spain. Dominating the tiny hamlet of Betis and appearing to sprout from the surrounding eucalyptus forest, these rocks provide a total of some 250 routes for all levels of climber. Routes, rated 3 to 8a, range from 15 metres right up to 80 metres.
Our whole family spent a morning climbing with Girasol Adventure (see link below). My wife and two children (5 and 3) were complete beginners and I had some unpleasant memories of uncontrollable leg trembling on a rock in the Peak District while at school. We arrived at our meeting point in the hamlet of Betis at 11am to find our German guide, Chris, waiting with his car full of equipment. He quickly set about kitting all of us out with climbing shoes and harnesses and we were soon walking up the steep path that led out of the village towards the rocks (also a great spot for watching eagles –see our article on birding with Stephen Daley –link below). Chris explained that there were climbing routes here for all levels but that we (thankfully) were heading for the easiest. The face we were to tackle was nestled up against the eucalyptus forest, meaning that at this time of day in February there was little sun on it. Although this meant that the rock was still damp from last night’s rain, it also offered welcome shade from what was already a warm midday sun, and the trees and undergrowth around us were steaming gently.
Girasol’s climbing for beginners involves the “top rope” system, which basically means that a rope is fed through karabiners which are attached to a series of bolts drilled into the rock at different levels, through a bolt at the top of the face, and then attached to the climber. “Our” rock was about 15 metres high but, not surprisingly, looked a lot higher from the bottom. However, the only ones who seemed at all concerned were my wife and I (the children could not wait to get started!) So when Chris scampered up the rock (with me belaying him) to position the rope and was seen to tie a bag of sweets to the top bolt, we practically had to drag the kids away from the rock. After instruction on our equipment and safety, it was time to get started. First up our 5-year old, who, with advice and encouragement from Chris, fairly scampered up the rock to help himself to the goodies waiting at the top. It was not until the descent, as Chris had predicted, that he started to get nervous. Coming down is more difficult than going up, probably because you start looking down for the first time, and this is when the knees begin to wobble and the palms begin to sweat. However, Chris climbed up a little way himself and was soon able to cajole him to the bottom, where he was met by something close on mass hysteria! The idea was that our 3-year old would put the harness on and would climb up a few metres to see what it felt like to dangle. But after 3 metres, she decided to try 5, and then 10, and before we knew it she was emptying the bag of sweets. She also had the wobbles on the way down, but made it without any major crisis. The pace, therefore, had been set for the parents. However, my wife and I (with no sweets left at the top) did our bit (although with wobbles both on the way up and down) and were soon asking Chris about the possibilities of something a little more testing.
Girasol offers all sorts of climbing packages, from introductory sessions like ours to courses lasting days or weeks for all levels of proficiency. They also organise night-time climbing to coincide with the full moon: watch this space... (!)