Is this the World's hardest big wall free climb?

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 07/09/2009
Iker Pou, pitch five (8c+/9a), Orbayu. Tim Kemple

The Spanish Basque brothers, Eneko and Iker Pou, have finally made a one-day red point of their new route Orbayu on the West Face of the Naranjo de Bulnes, Picos de Europa. With a crux estimated at 8c+/9a the brothers feel their 13-pitch free climb could be the hardest to date on a 'big wall'.

Orbayu climbs four new pitches on the overhanging red walls crossed by the Mediterrano Route (Gallego/Gallego/Gallego/Ortiz, 1980: 550m: A3 and 6a) towards the left side of the face, then six pitches of the Mediterrano, followed by three pitches up the final section of the ultra classic Rabada-Navarro (Rabada/Navarro, 1962, 700m of climbing, now free at 6b).

Over three days during the summer of 2008 the brothers inspected what would become the fifth and sixth pitches, the hardest section of the proposed new route, and were convinced that they could be free climbed.

They returned in mid June this year and worked on the route for two months. Until the start of August the weather was quite wintry and they made little progress, but after, temperatures started to rise and they had better results.

Protection is from a mixture of nuts, Friends, pegs and bolts, some of the latter, particularly on pitch six, rather ancient. Pitches one, two and three are 8a+, 8a, and 8a respectively. Pitch four is a mere 7a but the fifth pitch, 37m long and a free ascent of an old A3 pitch on Mediterrano, where a couple of new bolts were added, provides the crux.

The pitch begins with a section of intricate 7c+/8a. This leads to a boulder problem move of around Font 8a+/8b. The last part to the belay was thought to be 8b, and if that wasn't enough the fall potential on this pitch is over 20m.

After another pitch of 8a+ (also previously A3), the climb on the top wall eases considerably: 6b+ down to 5 on the last section of the Rabada-Navarro up the left arête.

The final redpoint took just eight hours, making Orbayu the fifth big wall free route that the Pou brothers have completed on this motif of Spanish climbing. In 1997 they managed to free the 500m Pilar del Cantábrico at 8a+. In 2003 they climbed Zunbeltz at 8b+, and in 2006 Quinto Imperio at 8b and their new 250m testpiece Lurgorri at 8c+.

Obviously, the grade has not been confirmed, and is unlikely to be so by other climbers in the near future: most of the Pou brothers' other hard free ascents on the Naranjo have failed to have second ascents.

To look at other big wall free climbs of similar status, we need to turn to Yosemite's El Capitan, where in 2008 Tommy Caldwall and Justin Sjong made a free ascent of Magic Mushroom at 5.13b/14a (around 8b+). At 28 pitches, this is considerably longer and more sustained - many pitches are 8a and above - than Orbayu.

Also of note is the Dihedral Wall, which Caldwell freed in 2004 at 14a. The crux move is probably harder than anything on Magic Mushroom but the climb less sustained.
 



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