Q. The first thing that comes to mind when one sees Chilam Balam is how did you actually work such a long pitch?
A. I divided the route into three separate sections, which I approached by jumar on ropes left hanging from certain bolts and in order to avoid bore- dom I varied my attempts between these different sections. I'd try to do 'laps' on these sections to get the moves really wired. If you start from the base of the route every time, then it's almost impossible to work the upper part, by the time you get there you're simply too knackered. You have to bear in mind that this route was probably going to take the best part of an hour and a half to climb. I only started trying to link the sections this year and I've lost count of my number of attempts.
Q. The 'work' lasted four years; have you followed any particular training regime?
A. The route is only climbable from May to October because the rest of the year it's wet, so we are talking seasons rather than years and the first of these was almost exclusively taken up with equipping the route.
During the winter I trained in the gym to increase my muscle bulk. I also worked on endurance traverses of about 200 moves, which contained boulder problem sections. When I got back on the route I was completely motivated which may not have been the case if it had been possible to try the route all year round.
During the 'trying' season I would work on the route at every available opportunity and the extra weight and bulk I had acquired during the winter would simply disappear!
My attempts this year were much more productive than in previous seasons so I booked some time off work in June; I didn't expect to get it so soon though, I thought I wouldn't really be ready 'till the end of the summer. But there was no doubt that I felt really fit!
Q. You said earlier you had estimated that the 82m of Chilam Balam could take up to one and a half hours to climb. How long did your redpoint ascent actually take?
A. Just over one and a half hours, although much of that was spent shaking-out at the rests. You have to take full advantage of these to have any chance of success on the route, in particular the rest just after the first roof where you have to recover from the initial F8c/8c+ section before tackling the next moves of very physical F8b+, and the crucial rest just below the final overhang before the final section. I spent about 20 minutes resting here because these last moves are really nasty.
Q. Which part of the route did you find the most difficult, or took the longest to work out?
A. Without doubt the final moves are the hardest. You have to pull on tiny finger holds when you've not really been 'warmed-up' for this style of climbing the rest of the route being more on the arms. This section didn't initially seem too hard, or take that long to get wired but taken in conjunction with the rest of the route, it's definitely the crux.
The other bit I found really hard was right at the beginning, a dyno from two little nubbins to a first-joint, three finger pocket, followed by a diagonal 'crucifix' move to pinch-grips on a mini-tufa. This is where I broke a finger during my first season on the route.
Q. How did you manage to find belayers during the time you've been trying the route?
A. I work in the mountaineering section of the sports department in El Corté Ingles (Spanish equivalent of Debenhams) and amongst the customers I managed to recruit various willing young climbers - generally beginners. We'd go to the crag and after taking them up a few routes I'd get them to belay me for a while. The rest of the time I relied on friends who understood clearly what they were letting themselves in for, time-wise.
Q. Desnivel.com website was the first to report your successful redpoint, but also published a letter from Alex Huber expressing doubts about your achievement. What do you think is the reason for this witch-hunt?
A. I gave up climbing competitions to get away from judges, referees, rules etc. and just be able to climb for myself without outside pressure, and now with all this stuff going on I almost feel like giving up climbing completely.
Mind you, in Spain we have a saying 'the thief always thinks that everyone else is as bad as he is'. Maybe only someone who has lied himself would accuse others of doing the same. It really is a shame; the only thing that Huber has achieved with this is that from now on every time that someone wants to attempt a hard first-ascent, a Commissioner for Oaths will have to be present.
Also, I have to say that Desnivel did not react kindly to my refusal to take part in a video and photo session with them and perhaps because of this, their report was less objective.
Q. You talk about objectivity. Don't you think it's normal that people want to have credible proof when what you are proposing is the most difficult route in the world?
A. This is not a new situation for me. Desnivel did the same thing with me, and only with me, when I climbed Spain's first F8c+ Mojave, and then again with Orujo F9a+. My redpoint ascents were presented as a kind of 'trial by the people' just as Chilam Balam is being presented now. In the end, time has proved me right, and nearly 10 years after its first ascent, Mojave has been repeated by Ramón Júlian who has confirmed the grade.
I don't know how long it will be before someone repeats Orujo, my 'proposed' F9a+, or Chilam Balam, my 'proposed' F9b+. I purposely use the word proposed because this is what any climber making a first ascent must do.
*Q. Part of the problem is that you have jumped two full grades from your previous hardest route. Why not just F9b? *
A. Yes, I missed out the F9b grade, but once again I must stress that the F9b+ grade is just a proposal and it's possible I may be mistaken; if someone comes along and does it and says it's easier, then fair enough. I only ask that people help me grade the routes and that climbing can advance. It's always been this way with first ascents; the initial grade is simply a proposal and consensus is not reached until the route has had a few repeats.
Q. What were your parameters in deciding the grade of F9b+?
A. For references I had Orujo and other hard routes whose grades have been confirmed over time; Harakiri (Spain's first F8c) confirmed, Mojave F8c+ - confirmed, and Orujo F9a+ which remains unrepeated but has seen attempts from the likes of Dani Andrada and Ramón Júlian... etc, and the consensus is that the grade is more or less correct.
So using Orujo as a starting point I felt that Chilam Balam was not just a little more difficult, it was much harder. Chilam Balam is double the length of Orujo with more continuous climbing and worse rests and I decided that the extra two grades were justified.
The thing is that Chilam Balam is a route that breaks the mould.
Q. Where do you go from F9b+, personally?
A. I'm not looking for anything harder than this! The sacrifice for me has been huge three years concentrating on one project. Go to work in the morning, eat lunch quickly then train. Back to work then bouldering or weight-training in the evening. Days off were spent on the route. It was incredibly stressful on mind and body. Now I fancy doing some on-sight climbing and also seeing how I cope on a big wall, The Nose free in Yosemite, for instance. Above all I'd really like to travel because I've done very little and enjoy climbing in other places in a much more relaxed way. To have a bit more fun! Since I was 13 years old I've been training hard and always pushing my limits. There have been too many projects, Spain's first F8c, F8c+, F9a, F9a+ and now this route!
Q. You've been concentrating for a long time on projects close to home, and the new generation of climbers doesn't really know you. Is it now time to go and try a few 'reference' routes further afield, like La Rambla Extension or Realization?
A. No way, that's not my idea of a holiday! I'd prefer to travel and climb in different countries and just do whatever I fancy. I'm not bothered if people don't know who I am and I don't need to try these routes. Instead I think people could come and try my routes! Part of the reason the routes you mentioned are considered 'reference' routes is their location. Andalucía is way off the beaten track.
Q. Was Chilam Balam just the type of route that suits you or do you feel that in your present physical condition you could 'walk-up' a route of say, F9a?
A. Yes, Chilam Balam suited my style of climbing pretty well, tufas, edges, continuity etc. I'm sure that if now I got on Action Directe I'd get totally slapped because it's so explosive.
The idea that if you can do 'route A' you should be able to do 'route B' is unrealistic. People nowadays are getting more specialised in one type of climbing, in the same way that runners specialise in one particular distance (100m, 1500m, marathon etc) and we have to take this into account. Sure, there are climbers who travel and do well in all disciplines, from bouldering to stamina pitches, but personally I've just got used to 'working' routes close to home. Each has its pros and cons.
Q. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to try Chilam Balam?
A. The first thing is that you'll need a 120m rope and a load of really long slings. Placing the quickdraws is pretty tiring because the positioning of the bolts was optimised for using quickdraws of more than a metre in length in order to avoid rope drag. It goes without saying that anyone who is considering trying the route must be extremely fit. There are approximately 250 moves - and I would wish them the best of luck!