Sunday, 3 April 2011

Climbing Siurana - A Muerte!

(Written 24/03/2008 - previously unpublished.)

Celebrating Easter is tantamount to Christmas and New Years in the tradition filled Spanish calendar. Fiestas are rife with every village, city, town and suburb rejoicing and expressing merry delight during the religious weekend. Combine this with some of the world’s finest sport climbing and you’re well on your way to a blissful holiday – if you like it bustling that is.

People from around the world flock to Spain’s Siurana to enjoy renowned limestone crags and one of the busiest times of the year for this diminutive Catalonian village is Easter.

Those in-the-know stay at THE refugio for the travelling hoard of vertical movers, “Camping Siurana”. Run by the local climbing guru and bolting machine, Toni Arbones, and his parents Josefina and Antonio, the campsite is the temporary home to thousands of climbers each year - a hefty proportion of which seemed to pitch-up and squeeze their tents into whatever available space they could find during the Easter holidays.

The site is divided by trees and bushes that spread over the side of a gentle incline and there is a thin concrete road that weaves its way through the stone and sand strewn grounds providing access to leveled sections where dozens of tents are pitched. At the immediate entrance to the camp stands a small, single-floored building that is used as a café, restaurant, reception, and meeting area for the entire site. Inside, it is crammed to the rafters with people of all nationalities, all trying to avoid the cold and windy evening outside, all vying for a table or squashed up to the bar in an effort to catch the eye of the barmaid.

“Dos cerveza por favor!” yells a member of the crowd, an American tinged accent cutting through the bustle, and then a German voice can be heard over the background mumble, “vino rojo!”

Hundreds of people have decided to spend their holiday in this quaint corner of the world – the reason they are all here: the rock. Siurana is home to thousands of limestone routes and to many they are the best in the world. Grades of the entire range can be found throughout the countryside in almost every direction from the campsite. Beautiful vistas, canyons, caves, valleys, and cliffs are contained within this most famous of climbing destinations, and all and sunder come to discover the wondrous place for themselves.

The one man that every local climber knows and respects for his unquenchable enthusiasm for the region is the same man that set-up and runs the campsite – Toni Arbones.

“Easter and Christmas is the most crowded seasons,” says the weathered and melancholic Toni, with a thick Spanish accent. The Siurana veteran of 20 years seems distracted as his head swivels around trying to take in all the new faces. His grey tussled hair culminates in a set of spindly dreadlocks at the back, giving him a strange Rastafarian mullet sort of look - a bizarre mix that seems weirdly popular among the locals.

Quickly seeming to forget how busy the place is and subtly changing the subject, he said: “This is one of the things I like of Siurana – it is a very little town but people from everywhere come just here - it is a main destination.

“It is not easy to find in the same area with people from New Zealand, South Africa, China or people from the States. I think it is really good as a main destination.”

A faint smile preludes another small change of topical direction as Toni works the conversation towards total submersion in his love of Siurana. “I travel in 35 different countries for climbing and I try to bolt routes everywhere I go. After visiting so many places I realise there’s not many places like Siurana. It’s not just because I living here and am part of this paradise but if I recommend somewhere for climbing, it is Siurana.” He is now propped by his car, arms folded, and relaxing into a sing-song of his love for the region.

“The weather and also the quality and quantity of the routes of the beautiful rock is why people come here. We’ve been developing this area for 20 years and now it’s around a thousand routes in fifty different areas all in fifteen minutes walk maximum. We have very different styles of climbing, like powerful, technique, long, endurance, short routes, everything is just near. I think this makes a big difference than in other places.

“Also, now I feel like I enjoyed this place because it’s opened by passionate people. There’s a community of climbers living here and me. I’ve been living here for 17 years, and when I came here I came with just my passion for climbing.”

This passion seems infectious, or maybe it is just the nature of hundreds of climbers all gathered in one location, because everyone here is consumed by one thing – the climbing. The crags are just as busy as the campsite and, somewhat unusually, this doesn’t detract from the experience and beauty of the region.

L’olla, one of the most popular crags, is situated at the end of a massive canyon full of trees and various other floras, all encapsulated within the vast cliffs so adored by those attempting to scale them. Ropes dangle from every other route and climbers are sporadically dispersed along the enclave of the crag. The wealth of talent on show makes for inspiring viewing, as people wander up and flash 7c’s as though they are still warming up – which, rather impressively, they probably are. Next an 8a goes down in a few measly minutes and then an 8a+ - all the while everyone below is watching in amazement and yelling encouragement in various languages.

“Venga! Venga! Venga! Allez! Komme! Push! Go!”, followed by a penetrating Yorkshire accent, “Go on my son!”

Everyone is gathered for one purpose and the effort put in by some on the wall is felt by all. Power screams reverberate and it doesn’t matter what’s being climbed, a 6b or an 8b, there’s just as much encouragement for the local strongman as there is for the travelling mediocre climber. Something they all share is their short-lived but total, all-consuming anger when all goes wrong and they pop off the route. For the few seconds when failure becomes reality there are outbursts of red, fire and brimstone rage, swearing at the hold that did it or the foot that slipped, and a disappointment in themselves that is overwhelming and displayed in an unhinged, dramatic manner.

A Spanish teenager moves through the pockets on an 7c+ as though levitating – then the crux and a sudden slowdown of movements and then… POP! His right foot flies off a tiny edge and he falls. All that can be heard for the next minute or two is unfeasibly loud swearing and the thwack of his climbing shoe against the wall as he kicks out in frenzy.

All of this fervour is embodied in the man that claims to have bolted twenty-five per cent of the routes in Siurana but is ever hungry for more.

“What I like in Siurana is the texture of the rock and the style of the climbing. It is not just one single move but the whole of the movements. You need to concentrate from the very beginning of the climb to the very top and that makes you very inside of the climbing. You must be very concentrate; it’s not like easy, easy, easy and one single move. It makes the climbing more satisfying and it’s one of the good things of climbing here.”

Toni’s arms flail and grab at imaginary holds as he describes the nature of the routes. With an obvious, abiding ambition to not only climb harder and harder – despite his naturally advancing years – he also has plans to further develop the region through his passion for bolting.

“We’ve only done fifteen per cent of the developing in Siurana. That means for climbing for fifteen years more. It is very nice to see the evolution of the climbing,” he added.

There is also no intention of winding down his own climbing ambitions, despite passing 40 years of age. “I’m still climbing 8b+ and I still dream to do 8c,” he said, despite also having aspirations of running marathons in personal record times. “This year I do a marathon in two hours fifty. I training a lot for the marathon and maybe this year I also try to do an ultra-marathon. I’ve been running for fours years and this is the first year I feel I can be running hard and climbing hard. Now I teach my body to do both activities in top level.”

Siurana definitely warrants its tag as one of the best sport climbing destinations in the world and it’s not just the rock that makes it but also the people. There is an overwhelming feeling of ambition and a push to improve – everyone is always trying to go beyond their limits and willing those around them to do the same.

Whilst still pondering his own future, Toni is the embodiment of everything Siurana climbing stands for, and is more than content with the life he has built for himself here. He added: “I happy because I have good motivation and I like to talk with the people and communicate my passion for the living and it’s important they do what they feel.

“I still enjoy. I travelling for 5 months every year and now I have a child also. Fifteen months old. Everything is running very good.”

Nonetheless, Toni’s “what’s next” attitude is a constant. He added: “I never climb in the UK. It’s strange eh? Maybe it is one of my dreams for the future.” That short statement sums up the attitude of Siurana – a “superb, I’ve just sent my project? Psyched! Now, what’s next?” mentality that is felt by everyone.


What you might want to know

Situated

About two hours driving distance west of Barcelona – or an hour northwest of Tarragona.

Getting there and around

Flights to Barcelona are frequent and usually cheap if you look around. However, to save a great deal of time, fly to Reus airport. Ryanair have regular flights to the small airport and all are fairly cheap – usually under £100. Once there a hire car is advisable although not completely necessary as the crags are all within walking distance. Trains and taxis can get you from the airport to the campsite, however a car is much less hassle and useful when getting camping supplies from the nearby town during your stay.

Camping/Accommodation

Toni Arbones’ “Camping Siurana” is the place to stay as it contains everything you will need, is full of like-minded climbers, and has a family friendly atmosphere that will make everyone feel at home. There are bedrooms and bungalows, with space for 2-6 people, for those with a little more cash to spare – all containing the usual amenities. For the more cash-strapped, there is the camping which also has access to the communal amenities and is more than adequate. There is internet access, upon payment of a small fee, of course, and the bar/restaurant is available to everyone.

Food and Drinks

Bread fiends will be in heaven here as delicious baguettes are freshly baked onsite at all times of the day. There is also a full menu which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner if you can’t be bothered with campsite cooking of your own. It is all reasonably priced but if you’re staying for a while it can add up. So for those that want to get the camping stove out – there are nearby shops that sell everything you will need at very cheap prices. Try and find someone willing to drive, though, as the walk might be a little far with bags full of shopping. The camp’s bar also serves the usual – beer, wine, coffee, tea, water, etc. The local red wine comes highly recommended from just about everyone that has tried it.

Guides

The best and most comprehensive climbing guide for the region is “Guia d’escalades”, authored by Toni Arbones and Miriam R. Caravaca. Simple, easy-to-follow, and illustrated well enough, as well as containing some inspiring photos. It is available from the campsite bar for twenty euros.

Further Reading

For everything you need to know about camping in Siurana visit http://campingsiurana.com.