El Camino Del Rey – My Full Travel Experience
- Sarah, The Bringer of Tea – El Camino Del Rey
Here’s the travel experience report I wrote for my outdoors forum. It gets a bit jargony in places, because of the audience it was written for, but I hope you enjoy!
Something a little different – technically canyoneering I guess, but via a via ferrata! Does require some scrambling and rappelling.
Equipment needed – full technical gear, head lamp or flashlight, enough rope for a 28 metre/100 foot rap (I used a 60 metre climbing rope, bit bouncy on the rap, but I was mainly there for the climbing), via ferrata kit (in a pinch you can make do with two slings and a couple of screwgates, but a proper VF kit is better because it has a shock absorber and VF ‘biners), optional quickdraws.
Trying to escape the pre-Christmas SAD that comes from living in an area prone to endless overcast days at 52ºN, Sylvia and I got a cheap flight to Malaga in southern Spain, rented a car and drove up to the sport climbing mecca of El Chorro. Of course, it’s also home to the (in)famous (remains of) El Camino Del Rey, a walkway constructed in 1901 by hydroelectric power workers to allow them to get from the lower reservoir, through the gorge, to the upper reservoir. Before there was a decent road, traversing this 1 metre wide concrete and steel walkway, perched 100 metres on the sheer cliffs above the river, saved hours.
The walkway fell into disuse and stopped being maintained. There is an upper section, which we didn’t visit and which I understand is in much better condition. The lower section, which is the one you always see in photos and youtube videos, is in a pretty bad way. The safety rail is all but gone, and there are four sections where the concrete has completely fallen away, requiring you to traverse the remaining steel supports directly. Still further sections have seen the steelwork go too. Fortunately via-ferrata-style protection is maintained by local climbers along most of the length, although the cable is rather thinner than one might encounter in an Alpine VF. It would probably hold, but I didn’t fancy testing it!
You will hear various stories about accessing El Camino, and there is much misinformation, including suggesting that there are security guards who will stop you accessing it. This is semi-true, as there are two ways to get on. Prior to 2000, you walked over the railway bridge leading to the tunnels which parallel the walkway (think of Pine Creek in Zion, only turn the road into a railway, and you more or less get the idea), and simply turned left onto the walk way.
Then three hikers fell to their deaths, and the Andalusian government took matters into their own hands. They demolished the first few sections of the walkway, leaving sheer cliff in its place and declared it closed. There is a sign on the approach to a viewpoint declaring it “intransitable” and very dangerous, and asking you not to attempt it.
This doesn’t stop scores of people doing something arguably far more dangerous than the walkway itself, which is walking across the bridge, through the tunnels, and into the mid section of the gorge, which is a mile long between the upper and lower sections. Here it is much more open and less canyon-like, and you are able to scramble down one side, across the river, and up the other to the walkway…
…assuming you haven’t been run over by a passenger train on the rather busy railway. This is the Darwinian access route, and is best avoided. Security guards are posted to stop people walking into the tunnels. There is a much better way, and the guards won’t stop you using it, as long as you stay off the track.
So by way of providing a bit of beta, here’s my trip report. Firstly, a warning:
This is seriously exposed. Most of the route is protected with via ferrata style protection, but not all of it. There are some short sections which involve walking or scrambling on good, but highly exposed ground next to a drop which will kill you. If you are scared of heights, go and do something else. A couple of days before we arrived someone managed to get cragfast on the walkway and wasn’t found for two days, after which he had to be rescued. You must have a good head for heights to do this!
Driving into El Chorro, across the dam and past the hotel you come to a hairpin bend, near the climbing shop and before you reach the railway station. There is a left turn off this bend (right if you’re coming downhill from the station direction). Take the left and drive until you reach a small parking area just before a fenced off area with gates. On the right is a huge stone railway bridge. Park here and take the higher track, which bypasses the fenced off section (containing electricity distribution equipment for the nearby hydroelectrics). After a 5 minute walk you pass this sign:
Notice how they don’t say you can’t walk on it, they just ask you nicely not to.
A little while later and you arrive at a viewpoint where you can see the gorge and lake. The trail ends here. You should see something like this:
Now is a good time to gear-up. Follow social trails down to the fence by the railway (if there are security guards here, they may shout at you if you get too close to the tracks. If you have climbing gear and are obviously not making for the bridge, I am told they just wave you by). After a flat area by the tracks after the fence, there is an obvious trail down to where the guy in red is standing in the photograph, just below the end of the intact walkway section. If you’re a far better climber than I am, there is a bolted sport climb here which ends a few metres below the walkway itself.
Now the fun starts! Traverse a narrow ledge left, underneath the walkway. This starts at ground level but the ground drops away rapidly and it quickly becomes very exposed. The ledge soon gives way to a section where you must balance on old steel which I assume was left by the power workers when they built the walkway. A slip here would result in death or serious injury, but this section is protectable with old (but very sturdy) metalwork drilled into the cliff. Use via ferrata style protection, so that you are always clipped to *something*. At the time we did this, someone had left an old climbing rope tied between the various bits of clippable metalwork. I didn’t trust this rope and avoided weighting it, but it may provide psychological protection. The photo below shows this section, and you can just see the rope:
After crossing the ironwork, follow the ledge again (exposed, unprotected – those nervous may want to be belayed) which immediately turns into a scramble. Once again, there is ironwork which you can clip into. I used my VF kit for protection here, but there were a couple of moves where it didn’t reach. The moves are very simple, but the exposure is significant and as an alternative, the nervous may want to use quickdraws to climb this as a sports climb instead, with a belayer. The RockFax guide gives this a Sport grade 1 (5.1) – it may even only be 4th class.
Alternatively the most confident in the group can climb first using VF protection, taking the rope with her, and belay the more nervous in the party from above.
From the top you are now about 60 metres/200 feet up, and just underneath the walkway. You can view (perhaps with a nervous gulp) the rather insubstantial nature of the 109 year old unreinforced concrete just above your head. Walk a short distance along an exposed path, past vegetation, and duck under the short section of handrail to get onto the walkway itself.
From here, the lower section is an out-and-back route. The walkway climbs to 100 metres above the water and the first section, while not protected, is simply paving in top of the reassuringly solid limestone, and in good condition – the handrail is even intact for much of it. The walkway quickly becomes precarious though, and the via ferrata cable becomes available – use it. Regardless of how good your footing is, the concrete is in very poor condition. We stayed some distance from each other to avoid placing excessive weight on it.
You quickly come to a section with holes in the concrete, and then encounter the first section where you need to traverse a few metres on the steelwork alone. Here I am after the holes, and just before the traverse section:
The first traverse section is quite short. If you have nerves of steel, you can simply walk across the rail, as is seen in some youtube videos. I do not have nerves of steel, so I shuffled sideways across it, my hands resting on the cliff/holding the VF cable (which is reassuringly doubled-up for this section). Having a pack helped here, because shoving my backside out into the void helped counterbalance me.
Round the corner you will see El Camino Del Rey’s bridge/aquaduct across the gorge. A section of the parapet is missing turning this bridge into a pretty waterfall. Just before the bridge is the second no-concrete section, which is the most exposed part of the whole route:
These are the only two concreteless sections you will need to traverse on the return. The rest of them can be bypassed (assuming you remembered to bring your lamp/flashlight). We did the whole thing twice, and on the second time I got sufficiently bold to stop in the middle:
And then take one hand off the wire, point my camera, with fisheye lens, down and take a few shots. This was the one that came out the best:
The radial blur was added in Photoshop – I think it enhances the photo! The drop is 100 metres/300 feet.
Cross the bridge and carry on as before, with several more sections like this, and a short section where there is void on both sides, until the gorge opens out and the walkway stops. A mile upstream is the seldom upper section of the walkway, which I hope to go back and explore. As you cross the bridge you will notice two tunnels in the rock. One has the existing aqueduct in, the other is a disused aqueduct. The other end of it meets up with the end of the walkway’s lower section and provides a shortcut back to the bridge point. This is your return route. Here are a few photos from the section after the bridge:
HDR stitched pano (on the iPhone!) from the bridge:
High on the cliff, with the railway in the background:
Turn right here – there is no protection on the dubious looking route into the crevice. There’s a window in the return tunnel that looks out from under the walkway at the apex of the crevice.
To return, turn on your head lamp/flashlight and head into the old aqueduct tunnel (the dry one on the left, not the wet one on the right – I have no idea where that goes). It’s pitch black in there so you will need light. It brings you out right by the bridge. Retrace your steps from here to the point where you joined the walkway. However, do not retrace the scramble back down to the ledge, but instead continue to the end of the walkway, where you will find a two bolt anchor (this bit has VF protection too). Check nobody is climbing the sport route below you, and then rap 28 metres (100 feet) to the ground. Retrace your steps back to the viewpoint, and then back to your car.
If I had to give the lower walkway route that I just described a canyon rating, I think it would be 3ARii. There is only one rap, and that’s optional (you could downclimb the scramble instead, although I wouldn’t want to, and it could be awkward if you had to pass someone coming the other way). You will need to know how to use VF-style protection and being able to do a sport lead would be helpful, although not crucial. What’s absolutely essential is a good head for heights – this is significantly more exposed than the Angels’ Landing trail in Zion – where Angels’ Landing is something hikers could do and consider somewhat extreme, El Camino Del Rey is a technical route that requires Via Ferrata and climbing/abseiling skills. Someone doing it with only hiking experience, without equipment and the knowledge to use it properly, is quite likely to die doing this, or at the very least return having wet themselves in sheer terror.
For those with the skills and equipment, however, this is an easy but unique technical adventure which is a whole lot of fun, and which features mind-bending exposure. If you’re ever in southern Spain, don’t miss it!
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