Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A trip to Montserrat mountain in Catalonia, Spain

Describing our trip to Montserrat, in the Catalonia region of Spain, as a sport climbing holiday would not do it justice. Not by half. The first time we visited, in 2014, we were drawn to the area by beautiful photos, descriptions and the rich history of the multi-peaked mountain. And, of course, the sport routes. Little did we know the adventure that awaited us.

This year, the trip was no different, except that we had a better understanding of what to expect. We went to experience something new. We went for the adventure of exploring somewhere we haven't been before - and there were many areas of the mountain that we had yet to visit. We went for warm weather, cold beers and the best olives in the world. We went to relax and forget, for a while, the responsibilities that awaited us back home. And that's exactly what we got.

Montserrat is Spain's first natural park and part of the Catalan pre-coastal range. It has long been a pilgrimage site, with Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey attracting millions of visitors from all over the world, many making day trips from Barcelona, just an hour down the road. Shrines are scattered across the mountain and walking the paths between them you can almost imagine yourself shoulder to shoulder with Benedictine monks.

The rock climbing is unique, following pebble and pocket strewn lines up the conglomerate spires and faces of the mountain. Single pitch, multi-pitch and trad routes are abundant in 12 sectors - you just have to take your pick. With 6 days on the previous trip, we managed to see 3 or 4 of the areas. This trip we had 8 days, so we attempted to get around as many of the others as we could.

This was not about trying hard routes, this was about exploring and that's the spirit we embarked with every day. Indeed, the walk-ins were as memorable, if not more so, than the actual climbing - click here to see what I mean.

Hour long walk-ins give you a sense of remoteness when you reach your end point, the wall you wanted to climb that day. The climbing areas tend to be quiet. You won't see hundreds of other climbers, or even dozens, in the majority. You probably won't even see one during weekdays. And the abundant flora and fauna give you a sense of wilderness. Pushing through a thick thorn bush to emerge the other side face-to-face with a hissing wild mountain goat can be quite startling, as I found out.

We enjoyed the climbing immensely, of course. I've always found sport climbing hard going, however, as maybe 5% of my climbing career has been spent on a rope. Naturally, falling is scary unless you do it a lot and teach your head to reject millions of years of evolutionary conditioning and trust in your belayer and equipment. I do not do enough of it, falling that is, therefore I am not good at it. I tend to over squeeze holds and get pumped very quickly. I try to statically lock off everything and keep precarious moves to a minimum. Despite this, getting scared can be fun too, in moderation.

We also took a bouldering pad this time, for those days we didn't fancy tying in. Only 20 minutes away from where we stayed (see below) there is Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, which is home to a bunch of conglomerate boulders very similar in geological makeup to the sport climbing. The problems are powerful, with slick pebbles and edges reminiscent of the limestone back home. While there isn't enough at Sant Joan to keep you busy for an entire trip, we had a good couple of days there.

Of course, picking your season is vitally important when climbing anywhere. When temperatures reach 30 celsius rock climbing can get very difficult. You also need to lug around a water supply sufficient for a rugby team if you're out all day. It has been an unseasonably warm May this year so we were a little unlucky in that respect, but you can always climb early/late in the day or find shaded walls.

If you're thinking of a trip to Montserrat (I would highly recommend it!), you might find the below useful.

When should I go?

I would aim for early Spring or late Autumn, when the temperatures aren't too high. Having said that, it's Spain, so take your sunscreen whatever season you're flying out.

What about travel?

Barcelona-El Prat Airport is the easiest to fly into, with frequent and cheap flights from the UK or elsewhere. From here, you will need to hire a car, as Montserrat and its surrounding villages are an hour's drive north. Even if you get the train, you'll need a car to get around the mountain's various sectors.

Where should I stay?

I cannot recommend Mas del Puig highly enough. Located in Castellbell i el Vilar, this converted 13th century farm house sits atop the hill overlooking the village and boasts one of the best views of the mountain. Wake up early to see it when the sun rises - you won't be disappointed. It has three converted apartments (all self-catered, of course) with the Hen House perfect for two people. 

What climbing guide do I need?

We used Montserrat - Cara Sur Volume 1 as it contains a wide range of single pitch sport routes. But there are other guides available to cater for your taste. I'd recommend this website for further information. 

The bouldering guide for Sant Joan appears to be out of print, so we couldn't get hold of one. However, with some online research, we pulled together enough information to both locate and climb many of the area's problems.

Anything else I should know?

If you have any questions about rock climbing in Montserrat I will do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction. Just leave a comment below.