Most climbing trips start with seeing a picture or video of a crag, finding out who’s been there and asking them questions. That is usually followed up by buying a guidebook, booking flights and a last minute car hire. This trip was different… apart from the car hire.
Alex, Pymn, Tom and I went to Costa Blanca earlier in the year for some incredible climbing in the well-known and publicized areas (Read More). On the trip, I was asked by the amazing Fernweh to get some photos of their gear. I thought I should send some of the photos to our awesome hosts The Orange House. Sam and Rich Mayfield own and run The Orange House which is the premiere climbing hostel for Costa Blanca. They have been running it for over 15 years and host punters like us right the way to Steve Mcclure and James Pearson. Rich has been involved in the climbing scene for over 35 years and has been instructing since 1987. Anyway, so after a few messages and photos being passed around on Facebook after our trip in April, Sam said ‘you guys should come out to Bulgaria, you can crash at our house and climb with Rich.’ It doesn’t take much to convince me to go somewhere new and if there is climbing- Boom! I’m in!
So, at the end of September, we were all just about booked, the only thing we didn’t do was research…anything! Between the 4 of us, I think we looked at about 4 pictures and scanned the internet to read a Bulgarian climbing website once each. As we got closer to leaving the guys were asking me ‘What ropes do we need? How close is it to the airport? Are there multi-pitches?’ This is when I realised I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Landing in Bulgaria was an experience in itself. The Bulgarians seemed to be quite excited about getting off the plane. Most of them were walking around before the plane had stopped and a few of them even jumped seats to get to their bags (this also happened on the way back). Sofia airport is split, so to get to the hire car area we had to jump in a taxi and we got the holiday maker price for sure. Alex was in charge of the car. We loaded it with all our stuff and Pymn entered details into the satnav. Pymn was still entering details. And still. Oh, hold on we brought a satnav with us that didn’t cover Bulgaria! So the lack of research was becoming quite apparent now but it’s cool… with the way of the world, we fired up a mobile and got google to do the thinking.
The next day after a lie in we sorted out Sam and Rich’s 8 beautiful dogs, 2 kittens and 4 horses. They had left us instructions to go and see Cliff at St Trinity Rocks Farm, a campsite set beside a beautiful river running below St Trinity Rocks. Again, our organisation worked wonders when we pulled up to the campsite and asked Cliff’s daughter if Cliff was around. She asked who we were and knowing he had no idea who we were, Alex said ‘Some random English guys!?!’. She laughed like we were joking but when Cliff came out and looked at us with a completely puzzled face, she understood we really were ‘some random English guys!?!’ We explained who we were staying with and asked if he could point us in the direction of the climbing. Cliff had been out there for 9 years and moved because of the potential climbing, so he was more than happy to help and copied us some of his super old guide book and drew us a map to the car park. His map worked spot on and after parking, walking down the train track and heading up the tree covered slope we experienced our first Bulgarian rock. We only got to taste a small section of the crag but the routes we jumped on were amazing! The first couple we climbed were 2 pitches which we linked up but needed the full 70 meters of the rope. The Limestone rock has tons of horizontal breaks all the way up but most of the breaks were sloping the wrong way and made for a tricky couple of climbs. One of the first climbs we set our eyes on was a 35-meter crack which at some points you could only just fit your hands in and others your whole leg. It was an incredible route. It was super-hot so we stuck to climbing in the corners trying to keep in the shade which meant for tons of bridging.
We headed back to Sam and Rich’s after a quick stop to get supplies for the next day. Usually, Tom and Alex take control of the language barriers as they tend to be better than the rest of us; but with this language barrier being so difficult, Pymn took control with his insane charades skills… He managed to get our eggs. In fact, throughout the trip he managed to converse with people using charades. It wasn’t until he tried to mime lip balm…let’s just say it could have been mistaken for not such an innocent thing.
The next day Rich climbed with us so our lack of organisation wasn’t a problem. He took us to the beautiful Dryanovo, a valley that runs upstream from the monastery. The crag we headed for is the most developed but most of the routes are above 7c. The cliff faces you see right up the valley are littered with massive caves which Rich says only have a few routes each. Alongside the caves, the giant gray limestone walls must offer hundreds of route which have yet to be bolted. The routes we climbed were outstanding and most of which were to the right of a giant wobbly green staircase leading to the monastery. After climbing the first 10 meters of the routes it felt like they could finish there but no, the next 20 meters were filled with completely different styles and kept you on your toes. We strayed towards the cave for only one climb. The most memorable climb at this crag began at a tree. Now, I like climbing trees and I like climbing rocks but together… it was a weird sensation. The first 5 meters of this super steep 7a was climbed completely on the tree to reach up to the rock. After being able to get a no hands, no feet rest by lying on the tree, you were then able to start up the flowstone pocketed route which got steeper before the crux move from a poor crimp. The sun had destroyed us again, so it was time to dip our feet in the picturesque river below and head on for the day.
On the third day, the weather wasn’t so great so we stayed close to home. With Rich being the superb guide he is, he kept us entertained with a tour of Musina. He had told us about a crag he had started bolting and showed us from the road but we were keen to take a closer look. In a break from the small showers, we headed to the crag with our climbing stuff and Rich with his ‘bolt gun’. Again we were surprised at the quality of the rock as from a distance it just looks okay but when you get close to it you see the most inspiring lines shooting off up every corner, crack and face. We took a couple of the 3rd ascents on his newly bolted routes including a beautiful 7a up a clean face. The holds were outstanding with the smallest crimps and grippy-est smears. The route somehow threw all of us into two huge cross armed moves which were awesome. While we were there, Rich bolted a new line and started bolting a few more until he ran out of bolts. I feel very lucky to have been one of the first people to climb there.
Day four: KARLUKOVO! Holy S**T! This place was mad! Have you have seen those clips on Facebook of the ‘Earth Porn’ showing unbelievable natural features? Well this one is! Karlukovo isn’t a cave as such; it’s more like a natural tunnel with a lot of caves inside it. The tunnel is about 50 meters high and maybe 30 meters wide, it’s hard to work out how long it is as it turns in an ‘S’ shape. So it sounds great for climbing but it must be dark? Well lucky enough nature has fitted two massive skylights in the center so as long as it’s daytime the whole thing is lit up. Along with all of that, it also has the best part of 30 meter long tufas leading from the floor and giant pockets in the roof. Also, the beautiful natural curve of the tunnel makes for amazing routes starting as slabs and moving into some seriously steep terrain. We got on some brilliant climbs there including a 6c which had a knee bar every 2 moves and a 6c+ with parallel tufas to the roof. The grading in Bulgaria is all over the place, here it was not so bad with most of the routes being close to what we would give them, apart from ‘the most demanding 5 I have ever climbed’ according to Tom after he sent a super thin slab up into a super steep roof. We climbed as much as we could but didn’t even scratch the surface and again, the walls were empty and begging for more routes. We have all agreed we need to go back to this crag for a week!
Our rest day was the most stressful rest day I have ever had. We headed to Buzludzha, an abandoned communist monument with an eerie feel on the outside and after climbing through a vent, the inside is even weirder. The giant concrete building is solid but everything else on it is falling to pieces but with a certain beauty. Do your research and check this place out, it is well worth the visit if you get inside…
Day 6: we headed for the local crag in Veliko Tarnovo called Ousteto. This crag is split, east and west. The East side has seen a lot more development and therefore, more traffic. This was the first of the polished rock we had seen in Bulgaria but not surprisingly as it is a walkable distance from the city. The West side seemed like it had been bolted a long time ago as it hosted mainly caving bolts. However, it seemed to hold a lot of great potential.
The last day was a big one as we were making the long ass drive to Vratsa and breaking in Rich’s new guide book. Yes, you heard me right this place has a proper guide book! Again as we drove into the area we were just surrounded by massive amounts of rock desperate to be climbed. There are 200/300 meter routes up pinnacles, faces and arêtes. There are also caves, which you know are big, as they are miles away and they look huge from where you stand. We headed for ‘Little Cave’ but with a wrong turning we ended up at ‘Big Cave’. It’s not an ironic name the cave is huge! The roof which comes out of the cave must be 40 meters and strangely enough, goes past horizontal meaning if someone was to climb from the back of the cave to the lip, although they would climb at least 40 meters, they would gain no height or even drop a meter or two. We stuck to the routes on the edge of the cave- which were amazing. ‘Sedem Ato’ was a nail-biting route starting with a super technical face complete with tiny crimps and massive rockovers, followed by a powerful top section through flowstone and tufas. Vratsa is a beautiful place with the mountains as your backdrop and the climbs being the most together of the whole trip, this place is worth a week- especially if you’re into multi-pitch.
I came to Bulgaria with no idea what it was going to be like but with the help of Cliff at St Trinity Rocks, other climbers we met on the way and of course, the amazing guide Rich Mayfield, I had a great time. The quality of the rock I cannot explain how good it is and the potential for future routes is endless. The country is beautiful, the people are lovely and bonus, it’s super cheap. Bulgaria needs to be considered for your next climbing trip.
‘How good must Flatanger be if everyone is trying to prove themselves out there rather than in here?!?’
I cannot thank Sam and Rich Mayfield enough for inviting us over, showing us around and welcoming us into their home. Make sure you keep an eye on all their social media for guide trips.