Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A mini Montserrat adventure

Adventure and exploration is what I love most about rock climbing. This can range exploring some untrodden region of Amazonian jungle to ascend a dirt filled, spider infested tepui or simply going to a crag down the road to climb routes you've never tried before.

Our recent trip to Montserrat, in the Catalonia region of Spain, had many adventurous aspects but most days ended up with us reclining into sun lounges, cold beer in hand and bellies full of local food, reminiscing about the day's exploration of the mini-mountain range. I'd like to say our holiday fell somewhere in the middle of the adventure spectrum I described above, but really it's much closer to the comfort end.

Adventure is subjective, however. Subject to the participant's previous experiences. What I constitute an adventure I'm sure would only register as a relaxing weekend for Ranulph Fiennes. I can only dream of undertaking similar exploits to one of Britain's greatest adventurers - more's the pity. But that won't stop me using the label for my own experiences.

There were many such experiences during our recent holiday but here's just one. After walking uphill in 28 celsius heat for around an hour, we found ourselves facing a nigh on vertical wall of loose pebbles with a big blue arrow on it, pointing the way to the real climbing (by real, I mean bolted routes). We stood, considering the "walk in" for a moment, wondering if we'd taken a wrong turn. 

Our minds raced back over the path previously trodden, but nothing leapt from our memories of an alternative direction up the mountain. We consulted the guide book, flicking through the pages for Collbato, trying to decipher the drawings to see if there was another way to the areas imaginatively labelled 7 & 8. Alas, we drew a blank.

A quick glance into the sky revealed an endless sea of blue. Not a whisper of cloud danced across the sun's path to give us respite, however brief, from its unforgiving rays. Backpacks full of rope, quickdraws and other climbing equipment, food and water weighed heavily on our shoulders as we decided to push on, up the vertical path to find what we had come looking for, new routes on Montserrat.

I lead the way, attempting to find holds that would propel us ever higher. Even big handholds felt wet under my sweaty skin and footholds needed to be large enough to accommodate my trainers, as the climbing shoes remained in the bag. We soloed our way through a series of three 10-15ft walls, gaining ever more height but only to be disappointed when we faced yet another nigh on vertical face.

The fourth stood looming above me. I had ploughed on ahead to see if the way got any easier, as a tumble from one of these walls could lead to a long drop and the nerves had started to get the better of us. I tried to keep a brave face but I couldn't continue to recommend we push on without putting our safety at risk, and so we reluctantly decided to abandon areas 7 & 8 and make our way down.

The descent turned out to be more nerve jangling than the ascent. Looking down, the footholds seemed to disappear, hidden by the nature of the rock, pocketed and blind from above. As with all climbing in Montserrat, finding holds can be a tricky business. Even though what we were doing constituted an apparent walk-in for the area, with not a bolt to protect you from falling, many of the skills acquired through years of climbing had to be applied to make my way across the tricky terrain. 

I found myself clinging to a pair of finger tip pebbles, stood on loose, crumbling rock above a 10ft fall into a bush growing from the cliff face. Below that flat ground would not appear for another 20 or 30ft yet. Suddenly, as I attempted to traverse for better holds, a pebble snapped and went plummeting below. Just at the moment, I stepped onto a rounded platform, a natural crevice that allowed me to take the weight off my hands.

My heart was pounding, but I turned to face my partner with a smile, hoping to alleviate any tension my close escape might have inspired. I promised to get the rope out of my bag and throw it back across so she could tie in and traverse safely as soon as I reached a 3ft wide  pedestal break before the next section of the descent. I could tell she was hiding sheer terror with a forced smile of her own, doing the same as me, putting on a brave face. 

As I progressed, I found an alternative, higher but easier, traversing section to where I now stood and my partner embarked without the rope. Carefully she progressed and reached my low point without trouble.

One last 15ft down climb and we'd be on the ground, with only a downhill walk back to the car. A large crack in the rock provided the majority of the holds. The occasional thorn covered branch clawed at my bare arms and legs but the pain was easily ignored when put in context. A scratch is better than a broken ankle, my brain rationalised without thinking, as I pushed harder in the direction of the branch. Roots had levered an opening in the rock perfect for my foot and the pain was a fair payoff. 

The section was more of a slab, but a tumble could still end badly, so I progressed slowly, checking every foot and handhold for loose rock. Finally, after what seemed an age, we both reached safety and shared a nervous laugh. I chastised myself for not using the rope, setting an abseil or attempting in some other way to make the down climb safe. This was quickly washed away with a tide of adrenaline, which passed just as quickly, leaving me tired and hungry. 

We downed a litre of water and quickly marched back to the car for lunch. After crackers, cheese and ham, followed by a few squares of chocolate, we consulted the guide. "Where to next?"