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Outdoor Features

Montserrat – the holy heart of Catalan climbing

When I drove up to the car park at the col, the police had just opened the road after the night’s snowfall, but by the time the mist cleared enough to give me a view of the spires, it was gone.

Even though I’d missed my chance to see the rare sight of Montserrat covered in snow, Catalonia’s sacred mountain didn’t disappoint. I’d walked into the middle of an area called “Agulles”, or needles, where a wonderful free bothy has long been a base for climbers. An 80 foot wall in front of the bunkhouse indicated their presence with a line of bolts and dozens of little holes where previous generations practiced their aid skills and tested the reliability and hardness of the conglomerate’s different components. As the mist lifted, greater potential became evident. Then more. And more.

To one side, a huge wall of vertical rock framed the scene. About 400 ft high and almost as wide, this is known as Agulles’ “big wall”. Although not that high, it looks the part. Outrageous rounded spires of conglomerate also loomed into view, the first just a few dozen yards away. As the cloud level rose further, new clusters appeared, until it seemed like there would be no end, no eventual summit. And Agulles is just one sub-section of this amazing mountain.

[quote float=”right”]Forget what you think you know about conglomerate: the rock here is very solid and brings great variety to the climbing thanks to its diverse make up.[/quote]

Formed from alluvial deposits in an ancient inland sea, Montserrat was thrust out of the heart of Catalonia millions of years ago and subsequent erosion has blessed it with a veritable forest of these spires, as well as many more conventional crags of perfect conglomerate. Forget what you think you know about this medium: the rock here is very solid and brings great variety to the climbing thanks to its diverse make up. Of course, you’ll still do a lot of pocket pulling and pebble balancing, but there are cracks and flakes too.

Montserrat has long been a place of religious and national significance to the Catalans, and it is also seen as the cradle and spiritual home of their considerable climbing and mountaineering tradition. It is surprising then, that it isn’t as well known internationally as the smaller crags of Margalef, Siurana or Oliana. And Montserrat is bigger in every way. Not only are the routes longer, there are far more of them: around 5,000 at the last count, covering trad, aid, bolted multi-pitch adventures and conventional sport lines. Over an area of just a few square kilometres, this has to be one of the densest concentrations of developed climbing anywhere in the world.

Only 40 km from Barcelona, Montserrat can be busy, but most of the voices at the crag here are Spanish and Catalan. There are good reasons for this – it’s a harder to place to find your way around than the classic sport areas, and the plethora of guidebooks alone can be confusing. But there is now at least one that tries to make overall sense of the place for visiting climbers – Montserrat Free Climbs – and the village of El Bruc a good base with a gear shop and climbers’ bar (The Bar Anna). And Montserrat offers as good a selection of climbs for any season as anywhere in Spain, with only high summer being too hot.

That said, yesterday’s clouds returned and I’m currently sat in the bar hiding from the rain, although I don’t think things can be much better in Siurana. And the climbing style is often not quite to the modern taste, when compared to such illustrious local competition. But a couple of days ago I did some magnificent long sport pitches on vertical rock to rival anywhere, at Vermell del Xincarro on the south face, and I’m hoping to take on one of the iconic spires tomorrow.

The logistics of Montserrat should be easy: turn up at El Bruc, check out the huge guidebook selection over a coffee in the Bar Anna (although the locals prefer wine or even vermouth before hitting the crag!) and go climb something. There water in the village, and the back road to the monastery has some stunning spots to park up in your van with views across to the Pyrenees. If you don’t have a van, the aforementioned bothy – Refugi Vincenc Barbe – looks great. It’s clean and cosy with a log burner and bunks for about 24, and there’s a cafe there at weekends. For the summer months, the Monastery on the north side runs a campsite.

Hauling rock with Wolfie in Todra

Which route you do?”

The big one, up there.”

Ah, this is nice route,” the old man in a djellaba says. “Ten pitches, all 5, 5+.”

A bit of banter is expected as you run the gauntlet of Berber market traders stationed along the narrow section of the Todra Gorge. Their stalls offering scarves and jewellery add a dash of colour to the almost permanently shaded passage, less than 20 metres wide in places but flanked by walls 300m high. However, they are not normally knowledgeable about climbing.

Do you climb?” I ask the old fellow.

Yes, sometimes,” he replies. “I climb with Arnaud Petit when he comes. And I climbed with Gullich when he came many years ago.”

The name bomb – pretty much the biggest you can drop in sport climbing terms – is casually delivered, with no intent whatsoever to blow away cocky western bumblies. In fact, I never saw a Moroccan climb in two weeks cragging there, but at Todra at least there were a few local guides who seemed like they knew the ropes.[quote float=”right”]He climbed with Gullich[/quote] 

I reverently ask for some directions on the line, the guidebook being relatively vague for such a big route. Reassured that it is a case of following the bolts, I scramble up the north east corner of the gorge, muttering to Sam: “He climbed with Gullich.

What followed may not have required any one-finger campus board training, but it was one of the best climbing experiences I’ve ever had. Todra is a paradise of multi-pitch sport and we had chosen its longest route for our last day: L’Etute Crue, 5+, with all pitches indeed being around the F5 mark.

Soon Sam and I were hauling up the rock, pausing only to swap a few draws and have a sip of water each at the belays. Being limestone and bolted, the climbing felt straightforward, which was just as well given our mid-morning start and the short November days. By the time we were on the second pitch, the route was catching the sun and conditions were perfect. We enjoyed the sensation of reeling in the pitches as the ground retreated and people and cars on the road below got smaller and smaller.

All the pitches were over 30m and some were more than 50m, so the halfway shoulder felt like an airy perch, with magnificent views down on wreckage of a hotel hit by rockfall in the gorge below. From here a walk is made to reach a higher pillar – which has some amazing potential for harder lines. From below this had seemed like a small add-on at the top, but in fact it was every bit as high as the first section had been.

More delightful climbing followed, although we rued the decision not to pack food. The final three pitches shoot straight up the arête of the pillar, and the walk off was pleasant too, leading us back through the gorge and past welcome refreshment stalls.

[quote float=”right”]We drove off into the desert twilight with some regret[/quote]

It was our last day, and we needed to start heading towards Agadir airport, so after a few pictures and a snack we left the Todra, the eager Berber sellers still trying everything they could think of to get us to buy something or even swap our climbing gear for trinkets. We drove off into the desert twilight with some regret: there are many more great looking routes at Todra, so we’d have liked to stay another week.

Clearly the locals would have liked us to stay too – Todra doesn’t seem to be much in fashion at the moment, perhaps because Spanish climbers all seem to be skint and for everyone else it is a bit of a trek to get to. That’s a shame, because it offers an excellent playground and with plenty of shade and a breeze prevalent in the gorge, there should be routes climbable from early Autumn through to late Spring. Once there it is an extremely user-friendly venue, with the climbing much more accessible than the other gems of the Morrocan crown, Taghia and Tafraute.

In many ways, it is more like climbing in Spain, although alas the local Berbers are yet to develop a tapas culture and an enlightened attitude to women and wine.

Todra Logistics

The Todra Gorge lies on the southern edge of the High Atlas, near the town of Tinghir. Although the huge cliffs of excellent brown limestone are far from climbed out, there is a good selection of both single pitch sport and multi pitch, from two or three pitch sport routes to bigger undertakings which top out and in some cases require gear. The Oxford Alpine Club produces a slim English guidebook which has plenty to keep you going, and further topos are available from a local venture which is trying to establish Todra as more of a destination, and offer guiding. Its website can be seen here: http://www.escalade-au-maroc.com/#Accueil.A

The nearest airport is at Ouarzazate but you’re unlikely to get a direct flight there from the UK. However, the gorge is only about five hours drive from Marrakesh, or perhaps seven from Agadir, and once you’re there you don’t need a car at all if you stay in one of the cheap and cheerful little hotels at the entrance to the gorge. Here you will literally wake up to sunny crags soaring above you, but be warned: there’s not a lot to do of an evening, no licensed bar, and they rely on noisy generators for power. They usually manage to rustle up some pretty decent grub, though.

Bigger, more westernised hotels can be found in Tinghir, and along the road linking the town and the gorge. It generally seems possible to just show up and negotiate a price.

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Book Review: In Some lost Place

– Are you training for Everest?

– No, obviously, otherwise I’d be trudging up a loose rubbish dump covered from head to toe in down and plastic, instead of clinging to an acutely overhanging boulder in nothing but a pair of shorts and a woolly hat!

That’s what we ought to say, isn’t is. But most of the time it’s easier to just bludgeon bimblers to death and toss them into the Rubicon.

Having said that, it’s been a while since anyone asked me that idiotic question. I distinctly remember being asked on occasion, back in the day, but I guess it might have been the 1990s, an in Yorkshire at that. I wonder if young climbers even know “are you training for Everest” is a thing?

Well, it was, and I’ve already digressed considerably as I’m supposed to be reviewing a book about Nanga Parbat. But the point is, we warm weather climbers don’t necessarily have much interest in Himalayan mountaineering, and we are pretty damn sure that there is little connection between even a technical route on an 8,000er and the Spanish redpoint glory we dream about when considering a foreign trip.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I have no interest in climbing an 8,000m peak, and seldom read books about it. However, publisher Vertebrate kindly sent In Some Lost Place over so I thought I’d open my mind and give it a go. Guess what? it’s really good.

Due to my lack of interest in alpinism, I hadn’t heard of Sandy Allan, although he’s clearly been on the scene for quite a while. Indeed, one of the most amazing things about his ascent of Nanga Parbat via the Mazeno Ridge is that both he and his partner, Rick Allen, were in their late 50s at the time. Maybe I will take up Himalayan climbing in a few years’ time then, because Sandy’s book has got me inspired.

Sandy is clearly an extremely accomplished mountaineer and his narrative involves many of the famous names that even your average boulderer will be acquainted with. He’s also a good writer, as his simple prose rapidly drew me in. Maybe I have a weakness for books and for a good tale, but I found myself thoroughly gripped by his account of the epic ascent. Even though I obviously knew that the duo survived, and indeed received a Piolet ‘Or for their efforts, I found myself racing through the final chapters to see how they got off the “Killer Mountain”.

In part, that is because of the sheer audacity of the climb. Even to the total layman, it is obvious that this was a different world to the well-publicised tawdriness of commercial Himalayan expeditions that puts many of us off alpinism.

But the grip factor is also a testament to Sandy’s writing. Accounts of a single climb of any nature can be prone to floundering into repetitiveness, falling into cliches or getting bogged down on the technical. Sandy skilfully sidesteps these by concentrating on the human. The book naturally falls into two halves, with the first laying the background to both Sandy’s personal story and that of the Mazeno Ridge. That is all neatly book-ended by a dramatic moment on the mountain, and takes the adventurous party along the ridge and onto the upper slopes of Nanga Parbat itself. That relative time of safety for the mountaineers is a dangerous moment for the book, as it loses pace and hovers on introspection.

But, like the climbers, it has merely stopped for a breather. Soon it is into the gripping account of the final ascent and descent, comprising an insane amount of time spent without food or water at well over 7,000m. The entire adventure is described in considerable detail but this never becomes tedious as Sandy focuses on the battle of the mind. That is something all of us climbers can relate to in a sense, even if we’ve only ever sieged a hard boulder problem near our home.

[box]In Some Lost Place is published by Vertebrate, who also produce a lot of books by rock climbers like Ben Moon and Steve McClure, and even some guidebooks.[/box]

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Book review: The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland

The fact that the Classic/Hard/Extreme Rock format remains popular almost 40 years after its first appearance gives a good indication of what climbers look for in a coffee table book, and yet few since have matched Ken Wilson’s vision. Indeed, such is the desire for a definitive ticklist and guide – spiritual and factual – to Britain’s top trad climbs, that the out-of-print Extreme Rock changes hands for hundreds of pounds.

It is therefore somewhat of a mystery why few have sought to copy the format, which combined factual information, iconic photography and inspiring first-hand accounts of ascents by top climbers. Perhaps it is the sheer volume of work required, or the shadow of those illustrious originals – after all, most are still in print.

However, an honourable exception has arisen, catering to a hitherto untapped niche – the Scottish wilderness enthusiast. Actually, The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is good enough that it will appeal to many others beside, and will no doubt make enthusiasts of some of those who buy it only to revel in the glossy photography and gripping essays.

But there can be no doubt that its compilers, Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton, are wilderness enthusiasts, and their passion for the wild places shines throughout this magnificent volume. Encompassing both winter and summer routes, it includes some of the obvious classics, a smattering hard modern testpieces, but also some magnificent out-of-the-way cliffs in the remoter parts of the Highlands that the casual reader may never have heard of.

Robertson and Crofton are also hardcore climbers, of that breed of Highland adventurer that gets out on some pretty hefty E numbers in good style and exposed circumstances in summer, and in winter… well in winter they get up to some truly outrageous and death-defying antics in the icy hell of Scottish winter conditions. Even for a keen summer trad climber, Robertson’s account of the second winter ascent of Centurion on Ben Nevis describes a frightening and alien world, far removed from the simple pleasures of moving over rock with a runout underneath your feet.

From the point of view of the summer cragsman who has no intention of ever donning a pair of crampons, the fact that a perhaps a quarter of the book is dedicated to the cold stuff could be off-putting, but in fact the essays are easily good enough to have a wider appeal. The compilers have drafted in a rollcall of their fellow Highland gnarlers and the essays are top notch, lifting the lid on this under-reported aspect of British climbing.

What steals the show, however, is the photography. This is a big book, and it’s packed with full page glossy pics, both action shots and stunning landscapes. If they don’t inspire you to check out the great mountain crags, nothing will.

For the English tradster, nothing can really match getting your chalky mitts on a copy of Extreme Rock, but the writing in The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is its equal. It concentrates on crags, not routes, so you don’t get a ticklist in the same way and it’s less nerdy, but visually it’s in a class above and should inspire many a Lowlander and Englisher to head north in search of those elusive picture postcard conditions.

The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland is published by Vertebrate

Bernabe Fernandez has turned El Chorro into a multi-pitch mecca for all

With the famous Caminito del Rey set to become a tourist trap, El Chorro is being re-invented as a winter destination for multi-pitch adventure thanks to the efforts of local wad Bernabe Fernandez. He talked to Cragbanter about bolting 1,000-foot routes in a day, Malaga’s little-known trad scene, and easing down to 9a in this old age.

Long known as a winter sun destination with great sport routes across the full spread of grades, El Chorro in the south of Spain has been getting a makeover in recent years as a more adventurous destination – and much of it is down to a phenomenal amount of work from the region’s top climber.

    [quote float=”right”]I thought it was a shame to see all that multi-pitch potential going to waste. So I set out to put up some long routes in a sport style, cleaning them well so that they could be enjoyed in relative safety[/quote]

Routes like Orujo and Chilam Balam brought him fame and even a touch of notoriety – he originally climbed Orujo at 9a with four artificial holds, while Chilam Balam was graded at 9b+ in 2003, when that was considered almost impossible. The storm that followed included question marks not only over the grade but allegations that Bernabe had not redpointed the route at all. Worn out from 20 years of hard cranking and months of specific training for the 80-metre super-route, Bernabe almost give up on climbing. He says that it was the realisation that he had climbed as hard as he ever would that prompted him to hang his boots up around that time, but it seems likely that the mudslinging also took its toll.

Ironically, it was interest in Chilam Balam, first from Chris Sharma in 2006 and later from Adam Ondra who made the second ascent in 2011 and fixed the grade at 9b, that gradually tempted Bernabe back into the sport. Always a prolific new router, he turned his attention to the large walls above his old stomping ground of El Chorro and decided to add a series of lines up the full length. Despite having done trad in the eighth grade himself (yes, there’s a trad tradition even in Spain), he wanted to make sure his creations were well bolted and cleaned as they were intended to get more people enjoying the walls. Cleaning and equipping such routes is a labour of love that takes many hours of effort, but Bernabe says he has always enjoyed opening up new areas to climbing.

I always had different motivations within climbing, such as trad, bouldering, new routing and ground-up new routing, but for a while my focus was on high level sport climbing,” he said. “These days I’m still motivated by hard stuff (he’s back around the 9a mark at 40) but the body isn’t as willing as when I was 20.

I climb hard when time and my body permit it, but when that’s not the case I work on developing new areas, or just go trad climbing.

I always enjoyed new routing, all my projects came about like that. I like to enjoy the tranquillity of the mountains, the sense of adventure, and of creating something new.”

Some of Bernabe’s hardest projects were on new crags, and as well as bolting his own line that has involved equipping warm-up routes, routes for his belayers to enjoy and any nice-looking lines he sees.

He said: “We are very lucky in Malaga to have enough rock to spend several lifetimes new routing. Whenever I feel like it I go for a stroll in the hills and find something new.”

Never a professional climber, Bernabe is also in what he describes as a more entrepreneurial phase of his life, having just set up Andalucia’s largest climbing wall, Climbat in Malaga. He also has plans for an app-based free guidebook that will cover more than 3,000 routes in the area. It’s typical of the generous approach of many local activists on the continent, who put in the time and effort to clean and equip crags to keep pace with the growing popularity of climbing and the search for new, safe rock climbs to enjoy. Bernabe estimates that he has put up about 500 routes over the years, and in about 95 per cent of cases he’s paid for the bolts out of his own pocket.

[quote float=”left”]El Chorro always had multi-pitch but they were old trad lines and they were a bit dangerous and loose, because the old mentality was to do a minimum of cleaning[/quote]

His recent penchant for multi-pitch has left a legacy of excellent routes in the 180m to 300m range to make up for the loss of adventure climbing in the gorge. Mostly in the mid to high sixth grade, they can be enjoyed by anyone visiting with normal sport kit but have yet to really take off because they are not in any of the guide books. There are also some fearsome muti-pitch trad routes in the gorge and beyond, such as the 345m Cuatro Estaciones at 7b and the 240m 8a+ Gigante Verde. More accessible routes on gear may be on the way, as Bernabe hints that reviving El Chorro’s long neglected trad mojo may be next on his agenda.

He said: “El Chorro always had multi-pitch but they were old trad lines and they were a bit dangerous and loose, because the old mentality was to do a minimum of cleaning. Only two easier routes were equipped, Zeppelin and Amptrax, and a few other hard lines that aren’t accessible to many climbers.

I saw the way Malaga climbing had developed into a sport destination after 30 years of hard work by myself and many other new routers -it had become one of the great winter destinations of Europe – and I thought it was a shame to see all that multi-pitch potential going to waste. So I set out to put up some long routes in a sport style, cleaning them well so that they could be enjoyed in relative safety. I started with Ebola (a 160m 6b+ direct route to the top of Amptrax) and that was followed by Mar de Fuego (7a, 220m), Mal de Ojo (7a, 320m), Corazon que no Siente (6c+, 220m), Apocalipsis (6c, 210m), Lluvia de Asteroides (V+, 280m), and Estrella Polar (6b, 300m). I might equip a few more but working for the love of it gets tiring sometimes.”

Bernabe has developed a relatively fast system for putting up multi-pitch sport, first spying out the line with binoculars and memorizing all the features and possible belays, then abseiling down with a friend – one on each half of the rope – in drive to get all the bolts in on a single descent. Each carries a drill, with Bernabe slightly ahead of his friend placing some bolts and marking the position of others.

Communication is important because these are dangerous manoeuvres, but we work very quickly that way,” he said. “Cleaning the route I leave for another day, because you have to cordon off the area around the base, and I can travel lighter and be quicker.”

The results of these epic efforts can be seen on Bernabe’s own website, which includes photo topos of many of his favourite routes, including the new multipitch lines on the Frontales. But he has hinted that he may be about done with such large-scale engineering projects.

He said: “When I started climbing most of the routes were trad and sport was a new thing. I always enjoyed trad climbing for the adventure and the commitment that is needed. It’s another thing I have in mind when it comes to developing climbing in Malaga.”

[box]Bernabe’s new routes aren’t in any of the guidebooks yet, but can be found at http://www.bernabefernandez.com/en/my-way/ where detailed photo topos can be printed off.[/box]

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Casual Psyche

Man, I’m psyched! I’m so psyched for trad right now. He’s really psyched for climbing. She’s a really psyched climber.

Yeah, it’s a word that’s bandied about a lot, but it seems to mean different things to different people. A lot of the time, it just means someone wants to go climbing. Perhaps there’s the implication that some yelling and hard pulling is going to be done. But is that really climbing psyche? What’s actually going to happen when this mega-motivated climber actually gets to the crag, stands under a line, or gets onto the crux of a route they’ve been bigging up only to find the crimps a bit smaller than they had envisaged, a bit damp perhaps, and the gear at foot height looks quite far away?

I’m making a huge assumption here and that’s that we’re talking about trad climbing. If you’re bouldering, then I guess pulling down hard and yelling is pretty much the name of the game. To a lesser extent this might be true of sport climbing, but trad? Trad’s what needs psyche, right?

Back in the days when I had time to sit around wondering about these things and hadn’t cottoned on to sport climbing, defining psyche seemed to matter. After all, it often appeared to be the defining factor in trad success or failure, regardless of strength, fitness or even technique. An as I was living in Llanberis only a little after its heyday, there was a fascination with the achievements of the great climbers of the 80s. Yes, there had been a massive jump in standards of actual ability on rock thanks to things like training, sport climbing and bouldering, but masters like the semi-mythical John Redhead seemed to have basically relied on psyche alone. Meanwhile, me and my mates used to regularly back off things that should have been within our ability, so in an attempt to fix that from the comfort of a sofa, my mate Jez and I set out to define psyche.

What we came up with was this: “Psyche is present when a climber chooses to climb up through a set of difficulties, instead of hesitating or backing down when the going gets tough.”

That conversation from almost 20 years ago came back to me recently when I was accused of lacking psyche. It hit me because after years of being a self-acknowledged wimp, I felt like I’d been going for it a bit more this summer. I mean, I actually took a trad fall the other day… while going for it too. The thing is, I’ve developed this new concept of “Casual Psyche”, and it’s kind of transformed my game.

It came about after I read and article by Hazel Findlay – surely one of the heirs to Redhead, that girl, and a good writer to boot. In an article on Evening Sends about climbing the Golden Gate on El Cap, she wrote: “Trad climbing is intimidating in general—but it gets much worse when you let the monster grow inside your head, and become super scary way before you even tie in. A wise boy I used to spend a lot of time with would often say, ‘we’ll just take the gear for a walk’. To imagine free climbing El Cap, with all those hard pitches and all those question marks stacked on top of one another, is just too much. But to pack the bags and drag them to the bottom of the cliff … well, I can do that.”

And I can learn from the unnamed wise one too (could it have been JR? Probably not, too big an age difference…). So instead of bigging routes up in my head, I started taking the rack for a walk. I took it to Ghar Lapsi in Malta and managed to add a grade to my sport on-sighting, because I had a go at something that caught my fancy. I took it to some funky places where I just wanted to climb, like Gozo and Grazalema and the Pass of Ballater where I took my first trad lob for years trying to on-sight Demon Drink – and got back on and finished it.

The key was the casual approach. Don’t big up anything, you just want to get out climbing. No pressure, but why not try? Casual Psyche worked for me, but my mates thought I wasn’t keen. When I was accused of lacking psyche one damp Saturday, I just said I’d be up for Creag Dubh the next morning. Then I took the rack for a walk up to the Great Wall and took a look at The Furher. That turned out fine, but later on a typical Gary Latter esoteric sandbag on Little Rock, I found myself pumping out well above gear. The moves were tricky either way, but I chose to go up. I guess I was psyched after all.

There’s lots more inspiring writing from Hazel Findlay on her own blog…