Portuguese ice

02 March, 2014
Sector CouvesIf you had to make a list of activities associated with Portugal, then surfing, drinking port wine and deep water soloing may be among them. Ice climbing however, is unlikely to figure. But Portugal's highest mountain range, Serra da Estrela, does have a short winter climbing season (Dec - Feb) with a Scottish mixed flavour.

Paulo Roxo and Daniela Teixeira sent us this report on an unexpectedly productive three day visit to Serra da Estrela at the end of December last year.

"Winter climbing in Serra da Estrela (1993 m) can often mean wet, cold and uncomfortable journeys. After a day of action on deep snow covered slopes, poor ice or wet mixed climbing under dense fog and heavy wind, the body feels tired and it's easy to feel the pull of warmer places. But the stubborn ones always return. Because from time to time it's not like this.

As so often Daniela and I travelled to the 'Mountain Range of the Star' without high hopes for great ice climbs. Parking the van in torrential rain in the village of Penhas da Saude did little to change our minds.

In the morning we had plenty of time for coffee while we waited for the access road to open. Considering the high winds filling the air with powder snow, Sector Couves seemed the best place to check out. It's a mere five or ten minutes from the car and a good indicator of conditions elsewhere. If there's no ice there then you're unlikely to find it anywhere else. The ice route Couves was there but the ice was so thin that it probably wasn't possible. The decision was taken to have another look tomorrow.

Overnight a transformation took place and when we arrived back at Couves under a cloudless sky the next day we found two distinct ice-falls. To the left of Couves we climbed the classic Diedro de Cristal (Crystal Dihedral). Warmed up we then went over to the beautiful Dama Oculta (Hidden Lady) and were amazed to find it in great condition.

A Serra da Estrela classic, Diedro de Cristal (Crystal Dihedral).
Looking up from the top of the first pitch we could see the upper walls were frozen, which seemed an obvious invitation to add a second pitch. After about 25 metres of climbing with delicate but enjoyable moves the new extension, we named Dama Longa WI4 (Long Lady), was behind us. It’s a nice pitch… when the ice conditions allow it!

The next day we recalled that last season, when we climbed Pepi te Quiero - a classy multi-pitch route - we spotted a mysterious line to the right of Estrela Nocturna (Night Star). A continuous line of ice, thin and aesthetic. Walking down a ramp to access that sector, there it was again; rising up the granite wall.

The first pitch went up a thin layer of ice, typically difficult to protect, ending on the same platform of Estrela. But the greatest challenge was the second pitch. An attractive first wall with some 'cauliflower' formations (very typical in the Serra da Estrela) led to the upper wall, where we found the real difficulties.

The perfectly vertical ice wall seemed too fragile and more importantly, it was too thin to accept an ice-screw that could offer sufficient mental tranquility. Spotting an isolated crack out left gave me the confidence for a last attempt. Daniela was out of sight. One foot on rock, the other crampon tip in a tiny frozen tuft of grass, I reached the small crack and immediately placed a cam inside it, allowing me to concentrate on solving the delicate and out of balance section that followed. Some awesome mixed climbing moves with good protection gave the perfect ending to this new route we called Delightful Mountain Madness (WI5).

Afterwards, we still had time to add another new line, Pequena intensa (Small Intense), with one vertical and difficult to protect WI4 section on thin ice. As we finished off our visit with the classic Cascata da Curva do Cantaro, it started to rain, as if to underline the epheremal nature of Serra da Estrela ice."

Paulo Roxo Note: Paulo Roxo and Daniela Teixeira made the long-list for the 2014 Pioet D'Or awards with their first ascent of the southwest ridge of Kapura (6544 m) in Pakistan. Approaching via the Nangma Valley they made two bivouacs, one on the ascent and one on the descent, naming their route Never Ending Dreams (1300m, M4 70°). They reached a small sub-summit of at least 6,350m at the end of the southwest ridge of Kapura South Peak.

Dama Longa
Dama Longa (Long Lady).