I've long been enamoured of Catalunya, that small, mountainous land tucked up in the north east corner of Spain. Ever since my first visit, back in the late 80's, I've loved the landscape, the culture, the people (even marrying one of them!), and especially the climbing, gearing my life to spend as much time as possible every year on its magnificent cliffs. In the latter aspect I am hardly alone; the combination of huge quantities of superb, south-facing rock and kindly Mediterranean climate appeals to many, and Catalunya has become a Mecca for travelling sport climbers, the names of its better-known centres —Siurana, Montsant, Terradets, to name but three — famous around the globe. Apart from the many thousands of excellent middle grade routes to be found here, the standards of difficulty on the harder climbs are among the highest anywhere, and consequently Catalunya is rarely out of the news. Even so, the exceptional winter of 07/08 (the driest here for 60 years) has seen unprecedented levels of activity, with a squad of the world's top climbers almost queuing up to repeat the hardest routes.
Much of the action has taken place at Santa Linya, an awesome cave-roof in the north west of the region, virtually unknown just a couple of years ago and firmly thrust in to the limelight this winter. More well-established areas have also seen their fair share of important ascents. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive review; many climbers, both local and foreign, have left their mark. However, the activities of a select few deserve special mention.
Dani Andrada (32)
Once the wonder boy of Spanish climbing, Dani (aka Mister 8a, Mister 9a, etc.) is rapidly becoming its elder statesman. Originally from Madrid, Dani has lived the last 10 years in the western Catalan city of Lleida, which he reckons has more world-class crags within 1 – 11⁄2 hours drive than any other town in Europe.
Dani not only climbs most of the new routes, he also puts them up, and it's in no small part down to this one guy's efforts, continually developing and equipping new cliffs and routes, that Catalunya is currently exerting such a pull on rock climbing's elite. This is nowhere more apparent than at Santa Linya where, while others lounge around sipping energy drinks and trying to maintain 'focus' between red-point attempts, Dani can usually be found somewhere up in the roof, swinging around on a static line, holding a cordless drill in one outstretched arm, as he equips yet another powerful test piece for the masses to throw themselves at. Friendly and extrovert, Dani's motivation is legendary, his enthusiasm utterly infectious. He is also genuinely supportive of other climbers' efforts, even when they're attempting one of his unclimbed projects!
This winter, despite all the time and effort spent equipping new stuff, Dani has somehow still managed to squeeze in a few hard ascents of his own, the most notable of which were Open your mind (9a, 1st) and La Fabela pa la Enmienda (9a, 2nd), both at Santa Linya, and Pati-noso (8c/8c+, 3rd) at Siurana.
Edu Marin (22)
One of the brightest of Spain's new, young stars and a member of its National climbing team, Edu is obviously blessed with excellent genes. His dad Francisco, having been a caver and trad-climber of modest ambitions for most of his life, decided, in his mid forties, to try his hand at sport climbing; last year, by then in his early fifties, 'Novato' (as he's more commonly known) climbed his first 8b!
Renowned for his great finger strength, Edu is something of Siurana specialist, revelling in its small, crimpy edges, and long, sustained pitches. However, having already climbed Siurana's 'big two' — La Rambla (9a+) and Estado Critico (8c+/9a), in 2006 — it was to the power-oriented routes of Santa Linya that he turned his attentions this winter. There, as well as netting a whole host of 8c/8c+'s, he also climbed Andrada's 2005 masterpiece La Novena Enmienda (9a+), made the 3rd ascent of Fuck the System (9a) and just pipped Dani to the first redpoint of La Fabela pa la Enmienda (9a).
Still only 22, it seems likely we'll be hearing plenty more from this lad in the future.
Ramon Julian (27)
At just over 5' and weighing less than 50 kilos, 'Ramonet' (little Ramon) is another local climber for whom the word 'strong' seems a woefully inadequate adjective. After shooting to fame in 2003 with the first red-point of the full version of La Rambla, this pocket-sized Hercules has been a familiar figure on the Catalan hard-rock scene, one-arming his way up one desperate after another.
This winter, Ramon, another member of Spain's national climbing team, first had to recover from the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a World Championship title for the second time in as many years (just losing to fellow countryman Patxi Usobiaga) before returning to winning ways on the rock. Whilst not entirely shunning the delights of Santa Linya, Ramon's ascents over the winter have been somewhat more widespread than the other climbers mentioned here. In November he did the 3rd ascent of Dani Andrada's stamina fest Definicion de la Resistencia Democrata (9a/9a+) at Terradets, and shortly after established Maria Alba (9a) at the little known sandstone crag of Savassona, near Barcelona. He also made the first ascents of a trio of unclimbed projects at Margalef, Pal Este (8c), Abanico de Cristal (8c) and Pal Norte (8c+), before going on to repeat Obrint pas Extension (8c+), yet another Andrada roof monstrosity, this time at Santa Ana.
Patxi Usobiaga (27)
Basque climber Patxi Usobiaga arrived in late November fresh from the recent success of his second consecutive world title, the previous months' punishing regime of constant training and competition leaving his body in the kind of shape that would make many a Butcher's dog look flabby and unfit. Patxi took maximum advantage of his exceptional fitness, and his feats during the following week and a half have already been described as the most remarkable period of hard climbing ever recorded.
A rapid repeat of La Novena Enmienda (9a+) and 1st ascent of Fuck the System (9a) in the cave of Santa Linya, were impressive enough, but it was his exploits further south which really amazed the climbing world. At Siurana, on November 27th, he climbed both La Rambla and Estado Critico in the same day, resting only two hours between ascents!
Then, only three days later, on the mighty walls of Racò de Misa (Monsant), he on-sighted the first ascents of La Esclava del Temps (8b) and Variante Monochroma (8c), as well as repeating Falconetti (8b+), in the same style. These are not little routes, they are long, complex, sustained pitches on fearsomely steep rock, requiring great power and stamina. To put this into some kind of perspective, any of these routes is considered a fine 'tick', even for very accomplished climbers, even over the course of several days, if not weeks. But to do all three on-sight and in just a few hours is incredible, and speaks of barely imaginable levels of fitness.
During the same trip Patxi also made the 3rd ascent of Ramon Julian's awesome tufa-climb Esclatamaster (9a) at Perles (Dave Graham did the 2nd), before returning home to prove that he was clearly at the top of his game, with the world's first 8c+ on-sight, Bizi Euskaraz at Etxauri.
Chris Sharma (27)
Needing little introduction, Mr Sharma first visited Catalunya a couple of years ago and liked the place so much he decided to stay, settling in Dani Andrada's home town of Lleida.
Chris is truly an interesting character. On the ground he's quiet spoken and retiring, the epitome of 'laid back; the locals call him 'Chris Calma'! Once on the rock, however, it's a totally different story — all power and aggression, accompanied by a soundtrack of grunts and snarls worthy of the most voluble tennis star. He has a renowned capacity for 'digging deep', giving 100% time and time again, and this is probably at least as crucial to his success as any pure technical ability.
This winter, despite a busy schedule fulfilling obligations to sponsors back in the US, Sharma has been a regular member of the Santa Linya clientele, bagging the 3rd ascent of La Novena Enmienda early on, then on-sighting Digital System (8c). But these ascents, impressive as they were, constituted little more than a warm-up for his main objectives, a brace of projects both of which been provisionally graded 9b. The first is a direct start to Estado Critico (8c+/9a) at Siurana (a route which currently takes the first 20 metres of the neighbouring 8b+, Kalea Barroka) and involves fiercely sustained climbing on the smallest of holds.
The second is a phenomenal new line directly up the middle of the cave of Santa Linya, breeching the roof at its steepest point. Chris cleaned and bolted this project (named Nehandertal) back in November, and has since made a number of attempts. Close to success on several occasions, it seems inevitable that he will eventually triumph — it's just not in his nature to give up. When completed, will Estado Critico Direct and Nehandertal be the most difficult sport routes in the world? I'm hardly in a position to judge, but having photographed a couple of Chris' attempts on the latter, I can report that it looks pretty tough! Indeed, many of the holds look so sloping, they'd be desperate enough to use on a slab, never mind a roof!
Adam Ondra (15)
Last, but by no means least, comes this young climber from the Czech Republic, who seems to be re-defining sport climbing standards wherever he goes. If Ondra's previous visit to Catalunya, in the early 2007, had raised peoples' eyebrows, his February 2008 trip blew them away. At Santa Linya, his 5th ascent of La Novena Enmienda (by now becoming something of a trade route) and on-sight of Digital System (8c), both on the same day, were followed the next by rapid success (3rd try) on Fuck the System (9a). After witnessing these ascents, Dani Andrada described Ondra as simply “being on another planet to the rest of us.”
However, it was during the following week at Siurana that he really showed what he's capable of. Ondra's ascent of La Rambla after only 5 tries over 2 days (plus a few attempts on his previous trip), has already gone down in climbing folklore, being achieved on a Sunday afternoon before a sizeable, impromptu audience (myself included) and with minimal apparent effort. Some reports I've read say he walked up it. I disagree. He ran up it — doing the 45metre pitch in under 10 minutes. He also showed considerable bottle and commitment for a young lad, missing out several of the clips on the upper section in order to reduce rope-drag, and thereby risking gigantic falls if he came off.
With an unkempt mop of curly, dark hair and round, black spectacles, Ondra bares an uncanny resemblance to Harry Potter and looks like he'd be more at home in a computer games convention rather than on the world's hardest rock climbs. This impression is further heightened once he removes his T-shirt, revealing narrow, rounded shoulders from which hang long, skinny arms, almost totally lacking in visible muscle.
So how on earth does he do it?
That he possesses great technical skill is obviously without question, but weight (or the lack of it) is almost certainly an equally important factor, and it will be interesting to follow Adam's progress as he goes through the physical upheavals that adolescence inevitably brings. Apparently, doctors have predicted that he'll reach 1.90m (6'3”) before he finally stops growing — considerably taller than any current leading climber. Edu Marin, something of a child prodigy himself, experienced such problems adapting to his 'new' body after a late-teen growth spurt left him several kilos heavier, and even now that he's back climbing just about as hard as anybody, he reckons he's never quite regained the feeling of power and stamina he had as a youth.
Edu was another witness to Ondra's La Rambla romp, as was Dani Andrada. Climbing close by, their twin ascents (2nd and 3rd) of Pati-noso (8c/8c+), a route equipped by Dani and first climbed by Chris Sharma, would normally have been big news. Not that day though. Looking across at the skinny young Czech, the two Spanish stars were perhaps left feeling a little tired, a little old, and that their powerful, well-muscled bodies may simply be the wrong shape for the hard routes of the next generation!
With so many ascents over such a short period of time, speculation inevitably arises (though generally not from those qualified to judge!) as to whether some of the routes mentioned above are not perhaps a little over-graded? At Santa Linya, where the rock is quite soft, holds can and do physically change, usually for the better. Furthermore, the presence of so many high-profile climbers, and consequent friendly, but noticeable air of competition, has undoubtedly contributed to individual performances. But can a well established route on sound rock, such as La Rambla, truly be 9a+ when a 15 year- old schoolboy makes it look like a walk (sorry, jog) in the park during his half term holiday?
Only time (and more ascents) will tell, but what is certain is that today's top young climbers are simply stronger and fitter than ever before. Not only can they hang on for ever, and make moves of boulder problem difficulty high off the ground, they also seem to climb in a far more dynamic style, not just the odd lunge but move after move of calculated and accurate dynos. This is almost certainly the result of training and competing on indoor walls, but whatever the reason, it's an extremely effective way of climbing very steep rock with minimum power expenditure.
On the other hand, no amount of strength will get you up a certain type of route, and it may be interesting to note that following his La Rambla ascent, Ondra decided to 'warm down' on the way back to the campsite, by on-sighting a nice little 8b, as you do. The route he chose was La Via de l'Alzina — a 20 metre, just-beyond vertical face climb with microscopic crimps, typical of 'old school' Siurana desperates, and generally given a very wide birth by those in the know. Several fruitless attempts later, with the light failing and fingertips shredded, Ondra was probably wishing he'd done the same! Oh well, I suppose you can't win 'em all.
Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge them.
Pete O'Donovan (49) of Sheffield and Spain, started POD in 1983 making rucksacks, chalkbags and more recently bouldering mats. He is a talented climber and photojournalist. You may have seen his poster prints in some climbing shops and several climbing magazines like Desnival and the USA's Urban Climber magazine. You can see some of his excellent work at his UKClimbing.com photo gallery here
Last year he sold POD to Equip Outdoor Technologies although he is still involved with POD as designer, consultant, adviser and overseer of quality control. Pete and his wife, Angels, can now spend more time climbing after many years huddled over sewing machines.
We asked Pete a few weeks ago what he is doing at the moment:
"What am I up to? Well, as of yesterday evening, I'm back in sunny Sheffield. I think you more or less know all about the Podsacs/Equip stuff, and how my main motive for quitting the business was the desire to spend more time climbing, traveling and photographing. However, before I can fully throw myself into all that, I need to have a couple of operations done on my hands; I've got this condition known as 'Dupuytren's Contracture' — fibrosis of the tendons, which has the effect of pulling the fingers (little and ring) in towards the palm. I'm going for the pre-med on Monday, so hopefully I'll get 'done' not long after that, but they've refused to do both hands at the same time (I imagine it's to do with personal hygiene!) so it'll probably be early summer before I'm back on the rock."