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Pat Littlejohn on Round 3 on the 600m south face of Los Gigantes, Tenerife, Canary Islands. Adhering to staunch ethics, Littlejohn and Steve Sustad climbed ground-up four times before they got their line to go. [Photo] Steve Sustad

From the port town of Los Gigantes on the island of Tenerife, crags extend for a good ten miles to the southwest tip of the island. The rock is a young volcanic rock that takes a lot of experience to climb safely. In January, 2003, Steve Sustad and I made a reconnaissance of our intended route by traversing along the base of a 600-meter cliff from Los Gigantes. An aqueduct ran about fifteen meters above the sea, and we followed this for about one and a half kilometers. It was like a scary via ferrata with just the pipe to grab if you slipped. The main bit of the cliff is a huge amphitheater with a couloir at the back that we decided was the only feasible route.

The next day we hitched a ride with a diving team in a big inflatable boat, straight to the base of the line. The couloir led to the pipe–which at this point was about 200 meters above the water–in five pitches, two of which were British “X” (loose and serious). Above this the rock improved, and a pleasant rib followed by an exciting E4 pitch led to the base of a deep recess. That was it for the day so we rapped back to the pipeline and followed it back to the port. Style of ascent is very important to us. I’m a great believer in the “clean climbing” approach and like to climb within ground rules rather than throwing everything at an objective. The ground rules I try to keep to on a route like this (I don’t always succeed!) are: 1. start from the bottom; 2. climb it all free; 3. use natural pro (nuts and cams; don’t even carry anything else); 4. be prepared to fail–the adventure you have is still better than success achieved by working from the top, placing as many bolts as you like, chipping holds, etc.

We regained our highpoint by 10 a.m. the next day. An easy pitch led to the back of the recess, then we started up the massively overhanging chimney that led to the lip of the recess, thirty meters away and eighteen meters out in space. The rock was terrible; everything I touched or stood on broke away, and the only protection was a couple of slings draped around precariously-wedged stones. After ten meters I decided it was lunacy (“the f***ing chimney from hell”) and reversed amid a shower of debris. We rapped back to the pipeline and tried another line 100 meters to the right. I led a scary pitch up to a cave with a poor belay, then Steve led through but was stopped by a crumbling overhang. I gave the pitch a try but got no further. We rapped carefully from all our belay points, packed up the kit and left. We had failed, but were happy to have survived some very serious climbing.

We clipped bolts for a couple of days like normal people, then returned to Los Gigantes to try some shallow grooves I’d spotted on the buttress right of the hellish chimney. These blanked out after a pitch and a half, leaving us two choices: either forget the whole thing, or return to the chimney of horror. To cut short a long story of fear and desperation, I got up the chimney, fixed one of my ropes so I’d never have to do it again as long as I lived, and knocked off for the day. Back again we cruised onward, but another massive recess capped by a roof about sixty meters across forced us to break right and try a steep wall. Like everything else it was four grades harder than it looked. Our priority was to get up the cliff rather than climb the most direct route, so we retreated and traversed eighty meters right on a ledge system to a rib of granite-like rock that led to a complex but lower-angled area of cliff (which had to be climbable somewhere). Lots of abseils were then made back to the pipe and eventually the bar. Summit day, another pre-dawn start and lots of climbing back to the highpoint. Now it was serious rather than hard, with infrequent anchors and weak, brittle rock. We topped out at 1 p.m., ate fig rolls and basked in the Spanish sun.

— Pat Littlejohn, Exeter, Devon, England