When one mentions “climbing” and “Spain” in the same sentence, it is usually sport climbing and places like Oliana, Margalef and Siurana that come to mind. But Spain, Catalunya and the Basque Country aren´t all about sport climbing monsters or “máquinas” as they say. This is the land of many super strong, daring and pioreening mountaineer and alpinists for as long as one can remember. With places such as the Sierra Nevada, Picos de Europa, Gredos and especially the Pyrenees, these guys aren´t lacking in world class terrain for training and developing their skills and abilities. It may not be the Alps, but it is still pretty good.
Having met so many spaniards, catalans and basques in 2014, and having the chance to hear so much about their climbing community and spots, I just had to come and see for myself. One of my goals was to improve my technique in ice and mixed climbing, as well as bring up my level on long and aid routes, in more controlled environments. That is, smaller mountains, with easier approaches, where it would be much safer to “go crazy”. The other goal was to observe and learn as to what makes spanish climbers so strong, and their community so tight, their spots so well-developed and taken care of, and to somehow bring that and apply it to my home country.
My journey began in Madrid, where I enjoyed some days of sightseeing and museum hopping before heading for my first climb.
CLIMBING ALMANZOR (2592 m), ON SIERRA DE GREDOS
I took a train to Ávila on a Saturday morning and had a sight that would repeat itself everywhere else I would go: there´s rock around everywhere in this country. Just outside of Madrid, I could see La Pedriza, a famous granite massif good for rock climbing, especially cracks and adherence. And on most, if not all of these places, there´s routes.
Sierra de Gredos is part of the Sistema Central, and geographically, it sits in the middle of the peninsula. Its most famous part is probably Circo de Gredos, a circle of granite mountains towering above 2500 m, very sought after all year-long, but also with some great winter climbing of north faces, gulleys and waterfalls, all within a short walking distance from its central refuge (Elola). Also famous for rock climbing on its spires is Galayos, which is in my list and was visible from the road.
Dani climbed Ama Dablam with me, and he lives in a small town near Ávila, and very close to Sierra de Gredos. This is a very cold region in the winter, even though it doesn´t rise over 1000 m. We left just after lunch on Sunday and still the road was icy. For me, a great practice in order to get used to being cold for months at a time. By the way, it´s my first winter in the northern hemisphere…
We parked at Plataforma, a flat parking area right at the entrance of the park, around 1780 m, and from there it took us a little less than 2h30 to reach the refuge. We were totally out of shape and it doesn´t help that you have to go to almost 2000 m to then descend to 1900 m to reach Elola, but okay, it´s “training”. Because the next day was a weekday, the refuge itself was closed and only a sort of basement was open, very small and with some mattresses and small cooking area. No problem though, it was cold as hell outside and as the 10 of us started going inside to cook, it finally got warm.
Being able to climb from a refuge so close to the routes is very new to me, as I´m used to carrying my backpack loaded for several hours and sleeping on the floor, camping and etc. So, we woke the next morning and actually cooked breakfast, sitting on benches, and put our clothes on in comfort. I guess this can be the ideal situation for actually having enough comfort to focus on a hard route instead of on a hard approach. As long as you don´t get too used to it, of course…
Well we weren´t going to climb anything too hard because it was my first winter climb there, I wanted a summit, and besides none of the waterfalls or gulleys were in shape (it was the third week of December). So we opted for the classic north face of Almanzor, the highest mountain in the area, and quite a beauty as well.
From afar these look like huge mountains, but as you approach them you quickly realize they are not that big. This may be due to the fact that I started alpine climbing in the big mountains instead of in smaller ranges, and so when I see a snowy peak, I automatically tend to think it is of altitude.
So after 1h30 of approach, we left our backpacks bellow a rock and traversed to the beginning of the route. Views all around were gorgeous, which proves that mountains don´t have to be gigantic in order to be awe-inspiring. Once at the bottom of the route, Dani asked me if I wanted to lead. Obviously, I did, and so I went off to my first ice of the season.
A bit thin and a bit sketchy, but after some delicate moves I managed to climb up and reach a ramp just bellow what seemed to be the north corridor, which was quite dry, as in, almost pure rock. Dani came up and we figured it would not be interesting to climb that, so we turned left and went up and easy snow ramp. From there it became a small adventure. Footprints went to the left on what was an easy snow walk up to the summit, but I had the lead and decided to go up on somewhat bad snow, until I reached the bottom of a dihedral. Although Dani had climbed the mountains several other times before, he said he had never come up this way. He led the dihedral and even found some bolts and a piton, and from there another two easy pitches led us to the windy summit.
5 minutes was enough in the chilling wind and we started our descent. We quickly reached the refuge, rested for a while, and then took off to ascend the trail again back to the parking lot. By night-time we were back in Dani´s house where his wife cooked us a delicious pizza. Thanks for the company Dani! I definitely wanna go back to Gredos, a small but super fun ice playground.
MY FIRST INCURSION INTO THE CATALUNYAN PYRENEES
I received and invitation to spend Christmas in the Barcelona area from David, a super strong climber I met in August in Peru. Worth saying he´s also a super strong skier, runner, cyclist… A bit intimidating but I accepted as I am here to climb and am game for pretty much anything.
Our first objective would be a new route on one of the last virgin north faces of the range. A mountain tucked deep into one of the most remote valleys (Valle de Torán) of a bigger valley (Val D´Aran). The route would have about 1200 m and would probably be one of the longest in the Peninsula. The french gendarmerie had tried it before ascending only 70 m, and other groups have reached the base of the wall without even getting on it. Sounded like a challenged, so I was up for it!
We left the morning after Christmas dinner, and after a few hours arrived in the refuge. We left our stuff and quickly went to the base of mountain while there was still light, to take pictures, make some observations and make some plans. The most obvious of these was that the waterfall that would make it easier to access the snow ramp wasn´t formed, so we´d have to climb more to the right, overcoming a dihedral. We´d start early because of the length and possible technical difficulties since even the ramp was a bit dry, but we´d be prepared for a bivouac if necessary. Overcoming the snow ramp would probably be easy but after that we didn´t have much of a view of the path to the summit, and although it did not look complicated, one can always be surprised.
Back in the hut we had an amazing dinner and slept in a bed with heating in the room, which is a way of climbing I´m totally not used to. Again, having all this comfort really allows for more daring climbs during the day. So we got out at around 5 and before it was even light we were already in the base of the route. We started going up by “hierba tooling”, that is, ascending steep grassy walls with our axes and crampons on. Apparently this is very common in the Pyrenees, and even though we weren´t roped, placements were very secured.
After reaching a super small area we got the equipment on, roped up and started proper climbing on rock. Chossy, broken and hard to place protection it was. David led to a better plateau and from there I took the lead over a small steep face, then walked to the bottom of the main wall we were going to climb. Bellow the main dihedral there was a small, 3 meter rook, and bellow it another dihedral. This got me a little worried as we didn´t have that big of a rack to climb that many cracks, even less pitons.
So I managed to climb the first dihedral and place some protection on the roof. I confess that taking off the crampons would have made things easier, but it wouldn´t be easy taking them off with the lack of space to stand up. I couldn´t pass, so I attempted twice more to the right, where I got a better view of the main dihedral: slightly overhang on the first half, very broken stone and large crack, the opposite of a parallel one. Trouble!
David came up and managed to place some more protection under the roof, including an arrowhead at the tip of, on a sketchy crack. I then tried again and managed to pass it, and then started aiding the main dihedral. Problem was, the largest cam we had was a #3, and I was aiding on it almost completely open. We clearly need at least another two #4s to reach the easiest part of the dihedral, or run it out, which would be very sketchy considering the poor placements we had.
I described the situation to David, which in reply said we had already spent too much time there, besides the refuge caretaker had radioed us saying there would be a lot of snow for the night and following day, and that would make it almost impossible to bivouac, especially considering a dangerous descent after a 70 cm snowfall.
So we opted for descent. As I began cleaning in order not to abandon material, the arrowhead began popping out. I had to move out of a blue cam, a yellow alien, avoid putting too much weight on the arrowhead while trying to place another piece. As I was close to placing that protection, the arrowhead popped out, and I fell down about 5 meters diagonally, being saved only by a #2 cam. With me came down a rain of small and medium stones. David was shocked at the scene while I was happy to not have lost our only arrowhead. I guess I hadn´t realized what had just happened, but just a few minutes later, out of nowhere, came flying down some big stones, which hit my arm, my back, and my head – breaking my helmet.
That was the definite sign. We tried to recover the #2 cam but it´s wire had broken under the pressure of a stone that was about to fall, so our option was clear: get out of there as soon as possible. After 4 rappels from trees, we reached the snow channel, and by nightfall were back in the refuge. Not so happy but content to be safe, after talking to the caretaker, we realized we had made the farthest attempt so far, ascending over 300 meters.
We still had a full day off, so we drove to nearby Baguergue to try out a dry-tooling area. It was a big block with some 5-6 routes of no more than 7 meters, but fun enough and pretty darn hard. It was my first time dry-tooling an actual route and although clumsy I managed to go up a few bolts, but not without feeling the worst ever burn in my forearms. It´s like sport climbing in steroid, with crampons and axes. I did enjoy it though, as it seems like a very creative way to climb.
A DREAM COMES TRUE: CLIMBING IN MONTSERRAT
I had always heard about Montserrat´s fame as a place where many strong aid climbers developed their technique, as well as having some incredibly tough routes. Many of them have been freed recently, but it still holds an aura of mysticism.
Well, for those that don´t know, Montserrat is a mountain composed of 1500 of spires of conglomerate stone, and over 5000 multi pitch routes. There´s a monastery on top of it, and several smaller temples, as well as hermit climbers living in caves and abandoned buildings. The rock is conglomerate with may open hand holds, lots of smearing and many footholds. It is said to somewhat resemble Riglos, and David´s wife also told me that “if you can climb well in Montserrat, you can climb well anywhere”. I kind of hate hearing that of anywhere, it makes me tremble in fear as I´m far from being an accomplished rock climber, but there we went.
We had a lunch to go to the same day, so we opted for a 5 pitch, french grade 5 route on one of the most classic spires. We drove up to the parking lot, then took the funicular tram to the higher part of the mountain to access the trail and the base of the route. David started leading the first pitch. Then I took the lead for the second pitch. Technically not hard at all, the problem here was route finding. When there were bolts they were rusty and old, visually getting lost in the sea of protuberant bumps. As I went up, I tried tricams on a few holes with no success, and kept going up with little protection. I was lost and at any sight of a bolt I would clip, eventually entering a route more to the left. I also did not find the anchor, and kept on leading through the third pitch. I would look down sometimes to see the rope disappearing after a belly and no protection in sight, above or bellow. Thanks to some mental training I´ve been doing lately I managed not to panic, but I was pretty close.
Those two pitches took me some time and as David came up, he told me he was freezing and couldn´t feel neither of his feet, meaning: let´s go down. He did look quite pale and somewhat purple so it was serious. I set up the first rappel and down we went. Another lesson learned here: just because it´s rock does not mean you won´t freeze. As we waited for the funicular, I watched the info screen showing the weather information: 3 degrees Celsius and winds of 56km/h. Hell! What doesn´t kill you makes you stronger!
FIRST CLIMB OF 2015: ICE IN PEDRAFORCA
Pedraforca is one fo the most recognizable mountains in Catalunya. It is completely isolated from other peaks, standing on its own with its two prominent summits, surrounded by rocky cliffs all over. It is 2506 m high, inside a national park of the same name,and there´s a refuge right at the bottom of its south-facing face. The rock is solid granite, and there´s over 400 multi pitch and trad routes in all its faces, of all grades, including some complex aid climbs. In the winter, waterfalls form very close to the refuge and right next to the road. Our initial plan was to climb a multi pitch, but on the last day of 2014, a few hours before the new year, we decided to check conditions and actually found a few interesting options, that although weren´t completely formed, were climbable and looked fun.
I made the mistake of putting less clothes than in other occasions in the Spanish winter, still thinking that it couldn´t be colder than in Peru or Nepal. Well, I was freezing all day, which eventually affected my ability to climb. I felt dizzy, sometimes nauseous, and with a weird weakness. Things that you learn when you are not used to spending a season in the northern hemisphere…
So we started two short pitches, interspersed by short walks on ice. Because the temperature was above 0 degrees, the ice which wasn´t very consolidated, started melting all over, so to add to the cold, now it was also getting wet. Good thing was that as we kept ascending, the waterfall kept getting more interesting, as in, higher, steeper, more solid. After a pitch we saw one of the trails that led to the refuge but David went on exploring and found the most interesting part of it. It started with a 90 degree column, and followed pretty steep for even longer.
After getting beat up, we packed our things and began our return to Barcelona (not without stopping for an awesome lunch and a road side nap), happy and contempt with the first activity of the year. I really want to go back to Pedraforca for the multi pitch, but of course, when spring comes and it isn´t as cold.
SPORT CLIMBING IN BASQUE COUNTRY:
THE INCREDIBLE ETXAURI
Think of sport climbing in Spain and what comes to mind are those long, endless overhanging cliffs full of super tough routes. I didn´t think I´d see one of those so soon, but I did. Etxauri is one of the largest sport climbing crags in Basque Country – if not the largest – and one of the most important in Europe. It has over 1000 routes distributed in over 40 sector, going from 3rd to 9th french grade. Rock is limestone, although not very slippery.
We got there quite late on my first visit, but since the idea was to introduce me to the place, we managed to climb a few routes each, take some pictures and chill during the sunset. Being just 30 minutes away from Pamplona, where I am stationed temporarily, it´s a place to go back to whenever possible. Links with info and some routes can be found here, here, and here.