El Chorro, Spain

The most dangerous pathway in the World

Date September 2010
Posted September 2010
Traversing the legendary Camino del Rey
Fresh from driving 14,000km between Paris and Mongolia (he was still wearing the t-shirt), qx was keen to hone further his rally-cross driving techniques. I was keen simply to stay alive. The little rented Ford Ka had no say in the matter and was incapable of complaining as it's over-heating brakes were applied once more, this time hard enough to send us sliding to a halt, my teeth gritted but saying nothing. We disembarked, crossed the road and stood admiring the moonlit valley. To our left snaking up between the steepened valley walls and into the gorge was the temperamental temptress that had brought us so far from home.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Reaching her was, thanks to poor preparation, anything but simple. We'd heard rumours of access via the live railway line and its tunnels, but arrival at El Chorro's railway station found the platforms bathed in the glow of halogen lamps: men were at work. Quietly the pair of us crept through the shadows and onto the shining rails, themselves reflecting the moonlight that would guide us the rest of the way to the gorge. The workers didn't look up, not hearing us or seeing us, leaving us instead free to proceed into the darkness of the portal. Choosing to tread on the wooden sleepers intead of the crunchy ballast we continued along the track, kept safe in the knowledge that men on the line meant no trains. At least, this was what we hoped.

Twenty minutes later the two of us emerged from perhaps the second or third tunnel into a short cutting. Ahead had to be the last of the tunnels that we needed to pass through. In unison qx and I noticed a brief flash of torchlight sweeping the inside of the bore, sending us instinctively up the embankment to take inadequate cover behind a small cluster of bushes. This, presumably, was the policeman we'd also heard about, known to guard the tunnels over the weekend to keep tourists safe from themselves and the roaring passenger trains that traverse the line each day. Going through the tunnel was no longer an option, so instead we elected to go over the top, the way ahead loose and crumbling in places but easy going nonetheless.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

There isn't the time or space to elaborate fully on our subsequent findings other than to say that they provided some context to what we were embarking upon. El Caminito del Rey ('The Kings Passage') had been completed in 1905 to allow hydroelectricity workers to pass through the narrow gorges between Chorro Falls and Gaitanejo Falls. Here up above the green reservoir we lowered ourselves into a series of long-extinct aqueducts which appeared to lace the valleys both sides of the Guadalhorce River, once providing water as and when required. Accordingly one of the tunnels eventually reached a set of sluices and a dam. From here it was possible to negotiate the hill-top and descend a reasonably well-worn trail down to the trackside where all being well the policeman wouldn't be waiting for us. Cautiously we peered into the tunnel mouth and were rewarded with the warm glow of a static torch some way down the track - we were safe to go on further.

The steel bridge that sends the rails disappearing into the rock face was easily crossed in silence, and then, it seemed, only a couple of flimsy metal fences separated us from the start of the elevated walkway. Unfortunately for us there was no obvious way of traversing the 20m or so of missing pathway which we assumed had been intentionally destroyed to prevent illicit access. Careful use of the torches didn't help, and we were soon forced to abandon our attempt. Neither of us had flown down here to go home again without achieving what we'd set out to do, so it was time to find a suitable bivvy point. But where could we possibly set up camp that the roaming policeman wouldn't find us? The answer was simple and obvious: above the tunnel portal.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

The first of three or four trains early in the morning thundered past below us, shaking the rock as they crashed through. It was breakfast time. A hint as to how we would reach the pathway was contributed by stepping lightly at some unearhtly hour (rumour has it that the man never sleeps), himself having completed the route the previous year. Now scanning the rock face with the benefit of the morning Sun it was obvious where we had to go. A narrow ledge led to an array of iron bars and supports protected with a bit of old rope onto which we could clip using 'cowstails' - short lengths of rope attached to our harnesses with carabiners at the other ends. From here it was upwards with more irons for help, although now unprotected. A last small ledge brought us out onto the top of the walkway, and now we had a pretty good idea of what was to come. Meanwhile across the valley a car had pulled over and the family inside emerged to watch us. The fact that either of us could meet a swift end no doubt provided them with good value entertainment.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net


El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Most of the length of the path is protected with a safety cable, thin and of questionable integrity as it is. Onto this we both clipped, then moved forward up several flights of stone steps and around the corner into the gorge. In order to reach the bridge (our originally intended bivvy spot for the first night) we had to traverse along pathways of varying states. In one corner the stonework has disappeared to leave gaping holes, carefully stepped over. In some places complete sections of stonework have fallen away down into the water below, leaving only a single length of rail with which to cross the void. The most exposed of these (don't be fooled though, a fall from any would deliver you straight into Death's clutches), pictured below, had a slightly beefier cable.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

This initial section leads to the bridge which is visible from the road below. The size of it and the tunnels around it indicate that it may well have been an aqueduct originally, but regardless, it is one now. Water passes over the top of it in a giant steel pipe not visible from down below, the to and the from a mystery. The pipe supports two railings and so is crossable without danger, and if the pipe doesn't improve the structural integrity of the bridge then it certainly gives that illusion. We passed over the top without worry and so reached the other side of the gorge.

Some parts of the walkway can be by-passed (although I can't imagine why you'd want to) through more tunnels bored into the gorge walls. Again, perhaps these were once aqueducts, or maybe even improvements to the passage when the walkway started to turn a bit ropey. One of these tunnels leads round to an opening in the cliff-face which is otherwise only accessible via rope.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Continuing on from the bridge, all contenders are met with a reminder that things can go wrong. A plaque remembers three men who died on the pathway 10 years ago. It's probably a little much to insist that this is 'the most dangerous pathway in the world' (although it makes for a good title) although despite the steel cables and the bits of rail, you could run into trouble pretty quickly, especially if a long section of walkway crumbled into oblivion leaving you kicking about on a rock face hanging from a 5mm steel cable with little hope of recovery. For this reason some choose to rope together. Myself and qx agreed that since death is an inevitability, and as it'd be better to go young and fast than slow and old, we'd chance it...

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

The winding section of the pathway shown in the first photo eventually delivers successful travellers onto firmer ground, and then a trail through the trees follows another aqueduct for about a kilometer until the valley sides steepen once more and another little stone ledge appears. This time though there's less via-ferrata as it's either gone or was never placed. Although for the most part not as high up as the previous length, the fate for any unlucky enough to fall would be most certainly the same. Another section of dissolved walkway leaves a long length of rail to be balanced along, although using small foot and hand holds in the wall is probably a better option where possible.

Several hours after beginning our voyage the path entered it's final phase, snaking now between the narrowing gorge. At the end of the walkway a large section has been removed leaving two options: re-trace steps or climb out. We chose the latter, taking an easy route protected by a couple of bolts up to a small ledge. From here we were able to solo climb the remainder, placing our faith in the rock and our hands and daring not to look down.

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

With the sun dropping, a suitable place to bivvy down for the night was chosen close to the bridge that we'd wanted to camp by on the first night. Here, inspired by our Italian friends, we set about preparing a salad of local tomatoes, cucumber, cheese and sausage using a Petzl Spatha and some polystyrene plates. This we washed down with a 1l bottle of lager each and then wished we'd brought more. We sent the empty bottles down into the gorge for Archeologists to find in 1000 years time (or for the various turbomachinery downstream to shred).

This little perch certainly rated high on the list of places to camp out for the night, and since we had a 'base camp' we were then free to explore various small caves and tunnels in the rock faces. There were no other passers-by so late at night, save for a mysterious torchlight that bounced along one of the open sections of railway track on the opposite side of the gorge. Maybe it was the ghostly policeman?

El Caminito del Rey, El Chorro, Spain (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Big thanks to Francesco and co who provided us with much-needed water, beer and cheese before driving us back to El Chorro. Hope your crossing was as enjoyable as ours.
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Further reading...

Caminito del Rey Wikipedia
The Kings Walkway northcave.net

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