While overlooking the Bolonia beach from the mountains on a recent climbing trip my newly made friend, Magda, proposed that we go on a climbing trip during my last week in Spain, before I would fly home. From what little I knew of her she seemed like she would be cool to travel with. So instead of returning to Segovia where, three years ago I started my adventure, we started kicking around ideas for the last place I would visit.
Since I am not an avid climber, really, Magda took initiative and when I saw the pictures I immediately agreed, though it would be quite a journey to get there, being that it was in Catalunya. After looking at flight info and her talking with work I got quite bummed out because it looked as if the trip wouldn’t work out. The trip was pushed back an extra 3 days due to her work conflict I doubted whether it would be worth flying across the country for a few days and instead suggested that we go to a closer climbing spot in Madrid called La Pedriza.
In the end, people and our research told us that the difficult slabby climbs at La Pedriza weren’t going to be worth it. As I was packing up my things my phone rang and I scrambled to find it among the stacks and piles of random odds and ends that remained to be donated, sold or tossed out. When I answered. it was Magda, talking flight details for Barcelona. I was hesitant to book until she was 100 percent sure she was serious about going. That call flipped my mood about the trip and excitedly signed in to book my flight for the following Tuesday.
I had some last minute meetups to say good bye including a little get together at my apartment on sun street. Although not everyone turned up there was a good little crowd and the nachos turned out good so I was happy. Just before the first guest left my roommate Marina said to hang on a minute and went to her room and came back with a Spanish flag; a gift that her boyfriend Agu picked out for me. everyone signed the flag and left me messages. The night finally ended with a deep conversation about connectedness and potential reunion at a later date. The following day a climbing friend, Soren, bought my bike and the day after that day I went to watch a climbing competition and say good bye to the IFNI climbing gym, where I used to climb with Vanessa and where I took part in my first climbing competition.
I don’t think I could have been cutting it much closer, leaving the competition at 10:30 getting a taxi and getting all my bags to the bus station to meet up with my English friend, Ali, for one last beer. We met at 11, bought my two bus tickets, since I had so much stuff, and sat down for tapas and a drink at the little kiosk out side of Plaza de Armas. 20 minutes until my bus was set to leave for Madrid, where I would meet up with Megan Bui and hang out for two days, I realized I didn’t have my bus tickets. I still cant figure out how, in just 30 minutes, I managed to misplace them. I went in and had an arguing match with the woman at the Socibus ticket window but she didn’t seem to want to help out and finally I resorted to just buying a new ticket, 5 minutes before the bus was to leave. When I pulled out my money to pay she started going on about how maybe , possibly she could try to do a seat change and create a work around so that she was not technically breaking their “no duplicate ticket rule”. I was the last one on the bus but i made it and didn’t have to pay any thing extra.
Oh yeah, the climbing part… I get to the baggage claim area in the Barcelona airport and see Magda waiting on a bench next to my baggage carousel, which sort of stunned me for a minute since I thought she was arriving a half hour after me. We went to find the Goldcar Kiosk to claim our rental car. Only problem was that Goldcar doesn’t have a kiosk in the airport. we had to go catch a shuttle which took about a half hour to arrive. When we got to the rental place the line was out the door and the two Russian guys in front of us seemed pretty irritated we just looked at one another, shook our heads and agreed in silent frustration. There were 4 computers and twelve employees yet we were not moving at all. Each rental agent had someone watching over their shoulder and the overseer had someone watching over their shoulder in a scene like something from a Monty Python sketch. “OK, I am now going to push enter”. “He is now going to push enter, OK?” “I think it’s OK. Tell him to push enter.” “He says you can now push enter” “Ok, I am pushing enter” When it was finally our turn at the triads computer terminal they informed us that we would either have to pay for the insurance or pay with a credit card, being that we didn’t want to pay with a credit card, but with the debit instead, we were tricked into taking the extra 90 euro insurance. Our representative peppily announced our good fortune. “You get a free upgrade since we don’t have any compacts right now”, tossing the keys up with one hand and catching them with the other. We loaded our things, figured out where we were headed and rolled out of the garage, shooting for the Decathlon store to pick up a few last minute camping supplies. When we parked and I opened the door I noticed something smelled a little burnt but put it to the freshly paved parking lot and didn’t think anything of it. An hour down the highway we took our exit and entered the sleepy mountainside town of El Bruc, where we were going to spend our first two days climbing. As we cautiously scooted up the main street incline the engine began to rev but even with the clutch fully released and the car in gear we could not accelerate. something seemed to happen to the clutch would be my best bet since smoke was shooting out from under the hood. We were less than 5 minutes driving from where we planned to climb but we had to call a tow truck and wait to be taken back to get a new car. so we sat at a cafe and had a drink while we waited and then sat on a bench and talked to a woman who had such a thick accent neither of us could understand her, i’m pretty sure it wasn’t Catalan she was speaking. once we got everything squared away and came back to El Bruc and parked. we asked an old couple about a camp ground that was purported to be close by but no locals we asked had a clue. we drove down an ultra skinny road and had to wait for a family to round up all 5 of their kids, one of whom was chasing a ball practically into our bumper and another pushing a plastic animal of some sort on wheels. once safe we passed them and parked by a church then headed down a steep dirt path and came to a rustic hacienda where people were sitting outside talking in English so I figured maybe we had found the camping or a hostal. It was not camping or a hostal officially but rather an artist residence called Can Serrat, where writers and artist can come to escape the obligations of daily life and focus on their work. It was late and we were tired so we asked if we could just camp in their garden. Karin, a sweet French woman who spoke near perfect English told us we could stay in the teepee at the top of the hill if we wanted. The residents had pretty much finished eating and offered us the leftovers. When we finished eating Karin said that her phones weather app was predicting rain and lightening storms so, without a tent, we weren’t sure what to do since the teepee was open at the top. We planned to just risk it in the teepee until the rains came and then huddle under the porch I guess if it got bad but just before leaving Karin had an idea. She had us follow her through the darkness and when she stopped it was like magic; a beautiful little cave bar. A flat surface where we would be protected from the rain and wind, which is all we really needed. Oh and she gave us fresh towels so we could shower. In the morning we filled up our water bottles packed some snacks and headed to find the section of the mountain around El Bruc where we wanted to climb. Guide books are helpful because not only do they tell you useful information about the difficulty of the climbs, the length of the routes and the type of equipment used but they also sometimes offer information about the orientation of the face so you can plan to go in the morning or evening to avoid the sun. We started trekking up the foot of the mountain. We followed the path up from the parking lot for about 10 minutes and then realized we were a tiny bit turned around so we asked some climbers who came up behind. first they were looking at us like we were crazy and exclaimed that its going to be full sun and directed us back down the mountain and onto a second trail that lead up and to the left. I am not sure who decides on final drafts for approach descriptions but our guidebook was not easy to follow or descriptive. Eventually we found our way and spent the day alone sweating like pigs, reapplying sunscreen and trying to hide out in the sliver of shade when possible.
Sometimes when you finish a route and you are taking down your gear you are swung laterally when you un-clip a quick draw, so to counter this you can push with your feet and lean against the rock or if you know it is coming you go with it and just swing. In my case on the route below [number 2] I jumped and instead of doing a pendulum I landed directly on the bush growing out of the side of the mountain. of course I didn’t just land on it and swing to the side; when I plowed into the bush with my right lower back/hip I then sort of rolled across it with my back to the other hip. I left with bruises and scrapes but the bush left with broken branches. I think I won. Across the little valley we could see people climbing in shade but getting over to the shade would have been a task so we just toughed it out. Around 6 several climbers finally joined our site with 3 friendly dogs, just as we were packing up our things and the sun started to dip behind the mountain.
We drove around around the mountain to the North side trying to find the campground that we had read about but seemed that it was no longer there since we saw no traces of it. We stopped at a parking area at a trail head to look through the guide to see if maybe we were just confused. While looking, two guys were sat at a bench talking and drinking beer, then one hit a remote and music started blaring from speakers he had sitting on the roof of the car. shortly after they finally left one guy, not dressed as a hiker or carrying any hiking gear strolled down out of the mountain suspiciously and got into his car.
Luckily I had taken Karin’s contact info at the Can Serrat artist residence so we called her and she told us to make our selves at home, though she wouldn’t be there by the time we arrived. At dinner we tried the tiny camp stove I bought so we wouldn’t have to use the one Len lent us. It seemed everything was screwed on correctly but when I went to light it a ball of fire shot out of the side singing off some hair on my hand, so we opted to use Lens trusty stove and flipped through the guide book and plan ed for the next morning. Just after getting tucked into our sleeping bags I realized that we had left our phones on charge in the bathrooms and had alarms unintentionally set for super early.
The sun rose and Magda and I packed up and wove our way back to Colbato. Magda was quite nervous driving the steep and narrow streets of Colbato in our seemingly underpowered car but we made it to our parking area fine. We had 6 liters of water and started up towards the base of the mountain passing several Army Medic vehicles and some soldiers who looked to be already drained from the heat. We followed the directions for getting to El Jardinet, or so we thought. At a certain point we knew we were not where we intended to go, having ended up shooting way to the right. Magda lead us on a 3 hour wild goose chase through prickly plant tunnels and precarious precipices and eventually things started to look a little like the diagrams in the book.
By the time we made it to where we were going to climb we had 2 liters of water left. The rocks were fun to climb. It was weird to see how our opinions of the difficulty of different routes varies. We would climb one route and Magda would climb part of one route and give up and I would complete it with only some difficulty and then the next route I would struggle with or fail to finish a route that she completed. We met some guys climbing a wall beside where we were. they gave us some info about the routes where they were including some newer routes that weren’t in any of the guides.
I think it was our third climb of the day; I was at the 5th or 6th bolt, where you secure yourself. I wasn’t tired or shaky but I could feel my fingers slipping on the rock as I reached up to see if I was close enough to clip the express into the next bolt. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hang on more than another second so I called out, “falling!’, almost simultaneously pushing out away from the rock just a tad before free falling about 10 or 12 feet before the rope caught me and swung me into the wall. It was quite a rush. I have taken less than a dozen falls at this point and can say that that one was not that scary; I don’t think any really have been scary since they usually happen so fast that you cant really think about it. I trusted the gear and Magda. As I was being lowered down my heart was racing but teh only thing to do is get back on and give it another go, otherwise you get cold and your mind will play tricks on you. After climbing for a while the weather started looking grey so we hiked down and tried to find somewhere to eat dinner but there seemed to only be a few restaurants in town and of those only one or two open. We were sent to a quiet plaza and had a massive plate of pork chops, salad, french fries, croquettes and fried calamari. Our sleeping arrangement for the evening still hadn’t been sorted out so we went by a botique hotel but they wanted 80 euros per night so we called the other hotel which was outside of the town and they also wanted too much so we grabbed our camping gear and hiked up into the mountains with the light of a near full moon and our head lamps. We were looking for a spot we had noticed earlier in the day. As we got closer I looked out towards the city and noticed a really bright light that seemed to be fixated on our location. We stopped and stayed still to see if the light moved or if we noticed any movement from the light’s origin but eventually I was convinced that it wasn’t someone looking at us. When we got to our site we had to do some weeding since there were all sorts of plants growing out of the floor including some really prickly ones. The Stone bunker wrapped 320 degrees around us and stopped the wind and thankfully we didn’t have any rain.
In the morning we really took our time getting to the crag recognizing that the late afternoon was our best time for climbing. We went back down to the restaurant where we ate dinner. The heat was thick so we loaded up on liquids and massive sandwiches. After such a sweaty day we both really wanted a shower but it wasn’t in our cards. Right next to the restaurant there was a public water faucet since Colbato is on the route for one of the Camino de Santiagos’s paths. I might as well have showered beneath it splashing water all over myself felt so nice. After that we headed to get some “Bitcoins” from the craziest “Bitcoin machine” either of us had seen, so that we could buy some bread and in case we had to pay to for anything else later in the evening since finding an ATM was not easy in some parts of Montserrat.
We did well following the directions and made it directly to the sector where we were climbing. Since we weren’t lost we made it to the rock quickly and with plenty of energy. it I was ready to hit the rock and after yesterday I was feeling pretty confident and was adamet about trying to lead a 6B [5.10c] for the first time. We set up at the base of a 5+ and a few 6a’s and a 6A+. We took turns on the easier routes. When I came down off route, as Magda was getting ready to climb the 6A+, tying in and putting on her shoes and attaching the quicklink I passed her to her harness, I looked up towards the mountain and saw some grey clouds starting to peek over. Magda made it up the first 10 feet, always the most dangerous because if you fall the rope isn’t going to do anything to save you since it isn’t yet clipped in. She went up about 10 more feet and I saw the first lightening bolt and a minute later a handful more. The sun had fully disappeared behind bleak skies and I, being from the lightening capital of North America was thinking, “get the heck of the side of this mountain as quick as possible”, but I had Magda to focus on and I was simultaneously excited to try the harder route. At the 4th bolt we both agreed that it was time to use my recently purchased quicklink. It is a cheap piece of safety gear for climbing like a mix between a link of chain and a screw gate carabiner. They are used when you get to a part of a climb that you cant get past or in situations where inclement weather sneaks up, forcing you down before the end of a climb, which without a quick link would result in you losing at minimum one quickdraw. A Quicklink might be about 5 dollars where as a quickdraw might be about 10 dollars.
We made it down to the foot of the mountain just as some light rain began to fall. We drove back through El Bruc on the way to the north side of the mountain and stopped to get a few snacks and drinks and when we came out of the store it was pouring down rain. I think both of us might have enjoyed that at that point but we still had a 20 minute drive until we got to the camp ground.
The campground was actually at the same place as the monastery and you have to have permission to drive in. If you don’t have a ton of stuff don’t, we learned the hard way. I picked out what I thought was a good spot and got set up. We had no tent so I set up beside a chest high stone wall so that we were protected on at least one side if it did decide to rain and I used two trees some ropes and some stakes to support our tarp.
The campground was way up on the side of a mountain, overlooking the monastery and a valley where the cars below looked like ants. The campground seemed to have experienced its peak in the 80s and many things seemed in disuse but really we just needed a secure place to set up shop so it worked just fine and even better than fine, especially for its price of about 7 euros per night. however we did have to contend with a few problems number one was a Scorpion in my shower and number two was slanted ground that made for a rolly nights sleep. The guy in charge was helpful and even set us up with some information on climbing on that side of the mountain.
We woke up and piled our stuff under the tarp and met a couple from the Netherlands who were really friendly but they were in a hurry to get to their climb so we quickly snapped a few pictures of their guidebook and let them be on their way. We then had to walk back about 20 minutes to get our climbing gear from the car; we didn’t bring it to the camp since we hadn’t anticipated climbing next to our camp.
A 10 minute walk from the campgrounds there were some sport routes. The ground where you belay from is full of tree roots, is angled and washed out, many of the rocks are polished and the first bolts are pretty high. I’m pretty sure it was not that we were both fatigued I think those climbs just sucked and were full of bad “yu-yu” [vibes]. I was extremely shaky and nervous. I was going to lead our first climb but was stalling hoping Magda would try it first. Despite what she said at the end of the trip, I still think she is a better climber than I am.
I figured the nerves weren’t going to get better so I just made the first move and worked my way up, one hold then the next, controlling my breathing and muscles trying not to panic. you have to push out the urge to tell your self just don’t fall, I feel like once I start thinking that I get distracted. All I had to do was reach the first bolt, about 12 feet off the ground and then I would be at least minimally safe. I was about 7 or 8 feet up with small rocks and roots and uneven ground below and it all had me really psychologically messed up so I made the decision to down climb, which I think is much harder than climbing up. I am not sure I have felt anything as sweet as making it back to solid ground after that climb.
I learned a new lesson for climbing that Magda confirmed; if you aren’t comfortable with the climb do go up. I think it’s a matter of separating fear and intuition. we moved over to another climb which was a bit easier but we were still not as pumped and excited as we had been on the south side of the mountain. The second route we climbed had a first bolt that looked like a piece of WWII hardware. neither one of us wanted to think about taking a fall relying on that thing. On my way up I found an old quick link so I snagged that and continued up. On one of the next routes I couldn’t see the next bolt or a reunion so I opted to use the quick link. Magda led the next one and at one point the same thing happened but the rock was more positively inclined so she just scrambled up the mountain for about 20 or 25 meters before she finally found the “reunion”, meaning if she fell she would fall a minimum of that distance before the rope eventually caught her… it was scary but not hard. On my turn however there was something else making that route way harder.
When it was my turn up the route with long runout I made it up-over the budge and lost sight of Magda on belay. At that point you obviously can then only rely on verbal communication. what happens is that the rocks deflect and bounce around the sound making it hard to understand. I made it to the anchor got clipped into the anchor and secured myself. what i then had to do, for non climbers, is draw up rope and re-tie the knot into my harness then ask for Magda to take up rope and unclip my life line and come back down. however this was a really weird anchor where there was not room for all the gear that was in place. luckilly there were two other anchors beside me so I played musical anchors until I got everything where it was needed. Just as I got to the anchor the obnoxiously loud church bells that last about 5 minutes began to ring making any sort of communication with Magda impossible. Even though I was safe on a ledge standing like I would be on flat ground, I just kept thinking, “please be on belay”. The bells were driving me crazy and making me nervous at the same time but i just waited until they stopped and I was lowered down.
When we made it back we went down to the little town in search of somewhere to buy a few beers but everything seemed closed. Our only option was the fancy hotel restaurant so we walked in wearing our dirty, chalk-stained clothes and asked for 4 bottles unopened, which drew a strange look.
I put “reunion” in quotes above because later on that night, when we were talking with the couple we met earlier, they noticed that I use Spanish cognates for climbing terms terms in English when I speak. I guess I should learn the English words but that is what happens when you learn to do something in a foreign country, you learn their terminology. I can’t wait to see how this goes when I make it to Korea.
Rain looked pretty eminent so we improved the shelter a little bit but then Magda found a covered kitchen area with flat concrete floor so we decided to camp out there instead. The church bells began at 6am sharp but we tried to sleep in anyways since we didn’t plan to climb during our last half day in the mountains. we had forgotten about a cheese cake we bought earlier the day before so we made that breakfast with the few things we had left to try and catch the 10am funicular, similar to the one I took when I was in San Sebastian but much steeper.
When we arrived the car had just started its climb up to the top so we had to wait about 20 minutes. When we got to the top we were bombarded by 4 wold women carrying out a conversation about nothing as if they were yelling over the noise of a rock concert, provoking me to actually say something in their direction. people don’t come to the mountains to hear that, they come for the peace and tranquility. we finally got a glimpse of what someone told us earlier. the monkey and the elephant and the mummy.
When we came down we found a big party going down in the courtyard so we stopped for a minute to watch a group of Castellers, people who make human towers stepping on each-other to climb to the top. Then we went into the monastery which was much like many other churches I have seen.
We dropped off the car, took the bus back to the airport and got some food and beers and sat outside at the departures drop-off area chit-chatting until I could finally check my bags in. when Magda went to go get us refills I read a few pages of her book Learning to Fly which was really good. It talks about a female climber, her life and her new hobby of skydiving and wing-suiting. Now i’m interested; stay tuned for that post later.
Some people jive well and others don’t when traveling. I don’t thing there was one moment where we were at each-other’s throats or even remotely annoyed with one-another, OK maybe only about me suggesting we drive the car up to the campgrounds.