Sunday, 1 June 2014

Sport climbing holiday in Montserrat

Montserrat mountain range
The long, spindly arms of fauna tear at my skin as I push through the tight, naturally overgrown avenue, teetering on the edge of a near vertical plunge into a world of hurt, the only saving force being the rubber on my shoes sticking to the pebble rock surface penetrating the brown and red soil. I battle on, hearing the odd rustle from a lizard escaping my trajectory, the squark of a bright green parakeet trailing his comrades through the deep blue skies, passing sporadic clouds that occasionally hide the sun's rays. After the better part of an hour, we reach a red wall, large, rounded pebbles scattered across it's surface, gaping pockets, ledges and cracks. This is what we came to Montserrat for, the rock climbing, and the walk in is worth every scratch, bruise and blister. This is exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to go on holiday. 

Montserrat, an hour north of Barcelona, is a well-known tourist destination, with tens of thousands of site-seers arriving by coach throughout the day. The tourists see maybe 1% of the mountain, going from coach to cable car to tour guide through the small village of Montserrat, nestled into a corner of the mountain - a beautiful corner at that. The village receives around 2.5million visitors a year and it's easy to see why. The views are truly amazing. Of course, we went and saw the jaw-dropping church, ate gelato and wandered the winding paths of the monk trail to the best viewing points, but this is not why we went to Montserrat.

The cable car up to Montserrat village
Montserrat Village
One of the greatest things about rock climbing is it takes you to places the tourists don't see. It takes you to places that you wouldn't otherwise go. Having said that, we still probably only explored another 3% of the mountain and its sport routes, but the sheer amount of climbing here is enormous - more than we could look at in six days. 

We had no intention of sitting below one hard climb day after day, putting in our all to ascend it. Rock climbing in new areas is about exploration and that was exactly the agenda. See a route you like, try to climb it and move on. Onsights and flashes were the name of the game, as me and Leigh-Anne took it in turns to ascend various lines, limited only by the length of our rope and our boulderers' endurance. Each day brought a new area, fighting through different avenues of the forest covering the giant rock towers penetrating the earth and reaching towards the heavens. To many, Montserrat is a religious place, and if I was a religious man I'd want to shake God's hand for having the vision to create such a beautiful rock climbing destination.

Pooped but loving it after another long day's climbing
The rock itself is a conglomerate of pebbles and limestone, I believe (I'm no geologist). Some of the walls look as though they are entirely made of pebbles and what holds them together is beyond my understanding. It's safe to say, climbing on them can be as much of an exploration as getting to the wall in the first place. You reach for what looks a good hold, only to find a sloping, slippery pebble surface with a tiny crimp at the back. You clip from here, wheezing and burning, make another foot movement and notice a big pocket a few measly inches higher, swamped with relief, matched only by fatigue. It was fantastic fun to walk up to a wall thinking it was covered in holds, only to pull on and find everything you thought looked good from the floor is actually rubbish and then having to fumble around trying to find body positions that work.

Success matched with fatigue - where's el vino!
With long, 10-12 hour days of climbing, you need somewhere comfortable to retire when the sun begins to fade, when a glass of local Cupatge is calling your name and carne waiting to be devoured. For this, I cannot recommend highly enough Mas Del Puig in Castellbell i el Villar. Having been in the Puig family since the 17th century, this stunning converted farmhouse is now home to Ramon Puig. While he and his wife occupy the main house, his adult son and his family reside in one of the annexes, and several other areas of the building have been converted into beautiful apartments with magnificent views of the mountain. We took the smallest of the apartments and it was a delight from the moment we walked through the front door. A well equipped little kitchen leads into a very comfortable living room, decked in furniture created by Ramon's enterprising wife (she also sells home-made, hand-made soaps). This is adjoined by a bathroom with all the usual amenities and a large bedroom elevated by a single step, comfortable and spacious. The icing on the cake was a balcony from which you could eat your dinner and stare off into the beautiful mountainous landscape, supping on a beer and relaxing into the reclining, canvas sun lounges. If you've still got a little energy to burn off, there's also a swimming pool in which to submerge and soothe those sore muscles.

The view of the valley from Montserrat mountain
If you want a sport climbing destination no where near as well trodden as somewhere like Siurana, but with routes ranging from 4 through to 8c+ in grade, I would highly recommend Montserrat. To get the most from it, however, get into the Indiana Jones spirit and try to get about. While you could, like on any trip, spend your time walking the same path, to the same route to get that illusive "hardest ever" send, you really should be seeing as much of the mountain as you can. That's where the fun lies. It is not crowded at all and most of the people we came across were locals, all very friendly and willing to point you in the right direction should you take a wrong turn. A guide book is essential and, because we couldn't find an English guide (there are some, apparently), we made do with the Spanish version of Montserrat Carasur for our days there. There are a few different guides, however, depending on your tastes. See more here. The area is renowned for its multi-pitch sport routes, but there are fantastic single pitches all over the place, so do a little research and find what suits you. There's even more scope if you've got a trad rack with you and a daring head.

That's all I'm going to say on that but if, having read this, you're thinking of a trip to Montserrat and have any questions, deposit them below and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.