To the Death: Inside Catalunya and Ridiculously Hard Sport Climbing
Catalunya, Spain, is to sport climbing what Camp 4 was to climbing in the 1970s—a boiling crucible with all the baddest routes and best climbers in the world.
Oliana, evening, 58 degrees F, a magic wind blows. Chris Sharma screamed and everyone froze.
“Venga, venga!” the chorus shouted.
“Venga, venga, venga! A muerte!”
Again Chris produced his distinctive animal yell. We kept screaming for him to Go! Go! Go!
Chris clung to the wall by infinitesimal points, moving upward by leaps and bounds and making quick and deft adjustments to his body position. He was a fluid, light-footed machine. No hesitation. All power and grace.
He rode that ferocious fringe that’s only found in sport climbing—the quickening margin where a climber is so barely attached to the wall, so close to falling, but somehow still moving up, fighting to reach that next new point.
In the teeth of a lonesome run-out, 20 feet above his last draw (having skipped one), Chris adjusted on a pinch as poor as a baseball bat sliced down its Y-axis and nailed to a 15-degree overhanging wall. He kicked his left foot onto a high step, turned his knee in by a few degrees, and launched an all-out double dyno.
All the movies and myths that have come out of Catalunya—the eastern province of Spain—seemed to me, in that moment, to fall short of truly capturing what it means to climb 5.15 and beyond, to see someone up so high and breaking through in this utter phantasmagoria of midnight-blue rock and flushed evening air. All the climbers at the crag seemed stirred and alive. The passion for free climbing fully bled here at last, from this place and the people and the very stone that congregated this intense extolment.
Presiding over grassy idylls that unroll like green carpets from the old-world town of Oliana, this namesake crag has all the right ingredients. Fifty meters tall, consistently steep the whole way and most important, not featured enough to make any full-length route easier than 5.13c. Yet, incredibly, it’s featured enough—just barely—for routes to be climbed free.
That’s what’s so cool. The routes look impossible. But they go.
A ledge, blockier rock on which to scum more kneebars, generally bigger holds (even by a half pad)—any one of these common lithic characteristics would take away from what’s unique about this place and time. As 5.15b enjoys its hot minute as the hardest grade established, Oliana puts everything into perspective. This cliff, with less than 30 climbs total, has more 5.14d-and-harder routes than all of North America combined.
That is why I came here, even though I don’t climb nearly that hard. I came to be in a place where warming up on 5.14b—as Chris did prior to trying his project—somehow begins to seem reasonable. I came to Catalunya because it is to sport climbing what Camp 4 was to climbing in the 1970s—a boiling crucible with all the baddest routes and best climbers in the world. I came to have my perspective changed and moved forward, and of course to climb completely badass limestone routes.
Despite perfect conditions, the right beta and the positive energy from our shouted encouragements, Chris still came up short on the double dyno. He dropped 40 feet into the wind and cursed, “Joder!”
Two days before: Delta flight 514, Atlanta to Barcelona, stuffy and humid. The sheer potential that lies ahead in sport climbing is what makes it such a cool scene to be a part of right now. Top climbers are only scratching the surface of what can be done at the sharp end of a 100-meter rope. While it has taken 20 years for world standards to progress two letter grades, from 5.14d to 5.15b, the climbing scene in Spain is hurtling toward the 5.15c and 5.15d benchmarks.
On March 27, I was at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean en route to three weeks of slamming $2 Rioja and getting some “resistance” (Euro word for power-endurance). And on that day, the 18-year-old Adam Ondra was making history at Oliana with the first ascent of Chaxi Raxi (5.15b) and by onsighting the very resistant 5.14c Blanquita.
Has progress ever felt so palpable? Routes are getting longer and steeper, and have more, harder boulder problems stacked on top of each other without respite. More creativity, more talent, more resistance!
At the forefront of this movement is Dani Andrada, arguably the most important route developer of the last decade. Andrada put Spain on the map with hundreds of hard lines. His tenacious efforts created the primordial gunk from which emerged all the strong climbers you run into in Spain, a place where nobody blinks an eye until you are climbing 5.14c. Dani Andrada is probably the only person on earth who routinely bolts, cleans and redpoints 5.14 in a single day.
Andrada is credited as inventing the battle cry “a muerte”—literally meaning “to the death”—which is more than just the local vernacular used to cheer on a climber fighting on redpoint. A muerte embodies the spirited and passionate lifestyle of Spanish climbers. It means giving your all and doing your very best, not just in climbing but every aspect of life. Don’t hold back. Go for it a hundred percent, with passion and pride.
The a muerte mantra is distinctly aligned with the rock and the style of climbing it demands. Catalunyan limestone is typified by long, power-endurance routes. With rock that has generally good holds and straightforward sequences, you can almost always make just one more move. It’s quite an exciting and fun way of moving over stone: You must maintain a continuous flow, as if climbing to a metronome, in the face of exponentially escalating fatigue, but fatigue that can be mitigated with proper technique, fitness and psych. This style of climbing, on a route that’s near your physical limit (whatever that may be), is the essence of a muerte.
The climbing, and the vision of the route developers—particularly Andrada and, more recently, Sharma—are the reasons why Spain has superseded Southern France as the new epicenter. The talent is here. The routes are equipped. It’s all coming together like a supernova in the still relatively young galaxy of sport climbing.
Casa de Sharma, around noon, 72 degrees. We arrived late at night after our hosts were asleep, and promptly put a dent in our jetlag with 14 hours of dead sleep in a separate studio adjacent to Chris Sharma’s house. By noon, we were stirred awake when Chris knocked, slid open the glass door and waved a percolator and a box of espresso.
“Welcome, welcome. Hey, psyched you’re here,” Chris said in his sleepy California voice. I got out of bed, slapped hands and said hi, and stepped into the harsh and bleary mid-day light, shirtless, barefoot and in pajama pants.
We walked around the patch of yard with a copse of fruit trees that Chris identified as olive, pear, prune and kumquat. Spring was in full bloom. Lusty bees ravaged cherry blossoms. The trees were loud with buzzing and birdsong.
Daila Ojeda, Chris’s girlfriend, emerged from their house, smiling and giving us each two kisses on the cheek. Behind her trailed a perfectly black Labrador, Chaxi, and a perfectly white cat, Calissa—a name meaning limestone. Daila is always laughing and seems preternaturally happy. Her English has improved immensely since I last saw her three years ago.
“Your English is getting good, Daila,” I said.
“Eh, it’s OK,” she said. “It’s hard ’cause we mostly just speak in Spanish here.”
“Yeah, it’s strange,” Chris said. “Now I have to translate the thoughts in my head into English.”
Two years ago Chris invited me to come stay here at his house, and it took that long for all the components—money, partners, time away from work—to come together. Chris has long lived an itinerant life, never spending more than a few weeks at a time with either of his divorced parents. From age 16 onward he traveled to climb. Rooting down in one place for the past three years has been a huge change for a guy who, at the time of our visit, was slated to turn 30 in a few weeks.
Chris’s new home is charming and austere—a single-story, single-bedroom fixer-upper into which he has put a lot of work. We were staying in a comfortable guest studio adjacent to the house. Formerly a tool shed, it now had a bathroom, two futon beds, a refrigerator and a two-burner camping stove. Chris said that he has had guests staying with him nearly constantly for the last year, and it has only worked due to this separation of living spaces, which he asked us to respect.
“Andrew and I always have friends staying with us,” said Jen Vennon, my girlfriend and trip partner. “Especially in the summer, when Rifle is good. It’s so much fun. But, yeah, having guests wears you down.”
“I actually see my friends from home more now than ever before,” Chris said. “They all come to visit. It’s great, ’cause I don’t have to leave anymore. My whole life, I’ve been crashing on everyone else’s couch. It’s nice to be able to return the favor.”
While it has taken 20 years for world standards to progress two letter grades, from 5.14d to 5.15b, the climbing scene in Spain is hurtling toward the 5.15c and 5.15d benchmarks.
Outside was an empty sludge-filled pool, and adjacent to the yard were the remains of a tennis court: a weed-cracked concrete blot now used for parking, skateboarding, and having fires and barbeques. Recently, Chris built an EntrePrises wall at the head of the tennis court, to which he installed a kaleidoscope of holds—including special holds with amazing texture that one friend made using Mallorcan sand. A few suitable tree branches—good proxies of tufas, ostensibly—were also screwed to the wall.
“Let me show you the view,” Chris said. Chris had harvested some intact, real rock tufas from the debris at the base of local crags and Sika’d (glued) them onto the exterior wall of his chimney—essentially creating a little ladder/boulder problem to summit the roof.
“This tufa came off First Round, First Minute,” Chris explained as he climbed the chimney and manteled onto the rickety red shingles.
“Are you ever going to finish that one up?” I asked, following behind him.
“Yeah, but I’m not that psyched on it right now,” he said. “I’ve fallen above the hard part so many times … it almost feels like I’ve sent it already.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling,” I said. “It sucks. I usually go with beating my head against the route until I’m completely miserable. And then I don’t send. And then the season ends.”
Chris smiled an ancient smile.
From the roof, we gazed at the peaceful village where Chris and Daila live. The village, like all Spanish villages, is a collection of white-walled buildings so tightly built that a road can barely run through them. There was a reservoir, as placid as a puddle, in the sink of the mountainous cirque that encased us on three sides with flanks and tiers of orange rock.
“Those caves over there have good climbing,” Chris said, pointing to two round chambers, side by side like shotgun barrels, in the shrub-studded rise.
“What about up there?” I asked, pointing to some walls on a rim, probably an hour’s hike uphill.
“Nope,” he said. “The rock gets bad up there. Generally, the farther from the road, the worse the rock is.”
“Funny how that works,” I said.
Chris listed off all the areas nearby and how long it takes to drive to them. Thirty minutes to Terradets, 20 to Santa Linya, five to Camarasa. Within 90 minutes, you could be at Margalef, Oliana, Tres Ponts, Siurana, Rodellar and many other smaller and lesser known but equally fun crags. Rock is everywhere and there are thousands of routes to climb, everything from trad to sport, single-pitch to big-wall. Making a decision about where to go seemed to be the hardest choice of any given day.
“We’re going to Oliana this afternoon,” Chris said.
“Sounds awesome,” I said. “We’ll be ready.”
Within that next hour, during which time we packed bags, ate food, and drank coffee, Chris said, “Hey, I think we should go to Margalef, not Oliana.”
“Cool,” I said. “Sounds good.”
We loaded the car, filled water bottles, stretched, rode the skateboard, threw a stick for Chaxi, and sat with our legs dangling into the empty concrete pool where we volleyed around topics such as climbing ethics and the lingering effects of Franco’s Fascist regime on the people, lifestyle and even architecture of Spain. Then Chris offered, “I think I’m more psyched to go to Oliana instead.”
Though I’d been dreaming of climbing here for two years, there were no particular routes or areas that I needed to see, no grades I wanted to tick, and no big dragons to slay. All I knew was this was a place to be. Work and the never-ending winter wonderhell of Colorado had kept me away from the rock for almost six months. During that stretch, climbing had become ghostlike. Present but ethereal. As cold and spectral as the winter air itself.
I didn’t feel the need to perform or climb well. The only thing I needed was to return to a life in which climbing was the daily purpose. To fall back into that circadian rhythm of day-on, day-off, day-on, day-off, day-on, day-off. I can imagine no better life than one marching forward to that tune.
Oliana, 78 degrees, humid, dusk. The “magic wind” that frequently and famously bestows climbers with good conditions in the evenings here at Oliana was absent, a presence as missed as water in the desert. Yet despite the languor imbued by the heavy air, one kid, who was part of a large Slovenian climbing team of teenagers on spring break, was giving ’er on Humilides pa Casa (5.14a), a strikingly obvious 50-meter tufa that is fashioned like a 4”x4” spackled with sticky stone. He onsighted about 40 meters up the wall, screamed and fell. It seemed like a fantastic effort to me. Daila shrugged.
“Eh, a lot of people fall there,” she said, laughing.
The group of climbers, mostly Spanish and American, lounged tranquilo in the purple gloaming—chatting, smoking rolled cigarettes and occasionally stepping up to tie in and hangdog. Despite the wide promulgation of this catchy myth, it’s not a muerte all the time.
On a highway, 85 km/hr, en route to Oliana.The somnolent countryside of Catalunya yawned before us as we drove up and down rolling roads that passed through tranquil villages. Spain’s innumerable megalithic monuments emerged all around us. As I drove Jen and me toward another page in this storybook world of rock, I longed for a way, and the words needed, to bring this place home—to bottle it all up and take it with me like a present to be shared.
I realize that anytime you discuss high-end climbing, especially sport climbing, in glossy American magazines, eyes roll and knees jerk. We live in the age of the Everyman: when elitism is a dirty word, when we feel it’s our birthright as Americans to judge Idols, and when all media channels are made for you—your Tube, your Space. Your perspective affirmed and put on a pedestal.
Climbing magazines have prostrated to this trend as well. Trips you can take. Climbs you can do. Best 5.9s at your local crag.
Climbing isn’t a spectator or fan-based sport. Whether we’re on 5.5, 5.9 or even 5.14, it’s easy to feel like we should be the one starring in the next Dosage film. Consequently it’s difficult for many of us to care deeply about anything outside of our own experience. Moreover, most of the best free climbers in the world are weird, shy, awkward or otherwise completely average people—anti-celebrities. In what other sport is the world’s best athlete an 18-year-old tantrum-throwing kid who looks like a skinnier, less cool version of Harry Potter?
I get the sense that what’s raddest about this sport—the practice, progression, and art form of free climbing, and what I consider to be its highest expression: high-end sport climbing—doesn’t matter in America beyond a superficial, amateur experience.
Of course, it isn’t important how hard you climb. No one has ever said that grades are the most important thing in climbing, and the only people who think that’s the case are insecure about their level and abilities in the first place. To me, it’s not about where you currently are on the scale—only that you are passionate about moving up it, or are at least deferential to that process. The fact that the Spanish, in general, are a step or two ahead of us isn’t important; it’s why they are that matters.
Spanish climbers don’t hold themselves back by making climbing into a competitive or self-loathing thing. They approach the sport with a distinct lack of structure: rest when tired; climb when not. No one follows any kind of regimented training outside of climbing on real rock as much as their lives and jobs will let them. Most important, people don’t have hang-ups about trad vs. sport—no one is out to prove anything. People are psyched on climbing hard and hard climbing, and they try really, really hard when they’re on a route.
Spanish climbers don’t hold themselves back by making climbing into a competitive or self-loathing thing. They approach the sport with a distinct lack of structure: rest when tired; climb when not. No one follows any kind of regimented training outside of climbing on real rock as much as their lives and jobs will let them.
I turned my head to Jen, nestled into the passenger seat next to me, herself a 5.14 climber with a fulltime job teaching kindergarten. Jen had pulled some strings with her principals to take off the second week after spring break, which allotted her the bare minimum number of days needed to make any climbing trip worthwhile. With two weeks, she’d be able to warm up; then, she’d go home. (Greedily, I planned to stay five days longer.)
During the school year, Jen consistently comes through the door completely spent after a typical 10-hour workday, only to hear TV talking heads blame teachers like her for the country’s debt and lackluster enthusiasm for learning. She’s never received a raise, having been on a pay freeze for her three-year tenure because no one wants to pay taxes in a recession. Still she spends hundreds if not thousands of her own dollars each year on classroom supplies because, she says, “Of course that’s what you’d do.”
We all know the American Dream is dead, and its absence has left a hole in the psych of many people 30 and under. The price of a college degree has risen to hundreds of thousands of dollars, putting young people up to their ears in debt, while simultaneously a bachelor’s degree has never been less valuable. How can you get ahead anymore? One friend from high school went to college, studied economics, landed on Wall Street, made a good salary, and then was sacrificed by his bosses to save their own hides. Where did I randomly run into him, after all these years? In a climbing gym.
Sport climbing, though completely frivolous, is the only institution in my life that offers me any sense that I can get ahead and make progress. When I’m out at crags with likeminded peers, and we are working on and occasionally succeeding in doing the hardest redpoints of our lives, it feels like we are the ones at last in control and speeding ahead on a beautiful crest.
I imagine my feelings toward sport climbing are parallel to how my grandparents felt toward America—that the whole thing is brimming with potential, in both the collective and individual sense. That with enough hard work, even you, YOU! can climb 5.15. And that’s why I care about it, why Spain is my America of the 1950s, and why Jen and I both had to make this trip happen.
Hotel Terradets, 4 p.m., very, very hot. I drank from my glass of “xampoo” (sham-poo), also known simply as cervesa con limon. It’s a delicious and refreshing local cocktail containing equal parts Fanta Limon and the generic-tasting pilsner ubiquitous in Europe.
“Team Slovenia sucks,” I wrote, typing the status update into my iPhone using a single finger. I love Facebook because I can voice in a very pithy way every frustration I encounter in life; though a completely ineffective use of energy, these passive-aggressive tweets to no one somehow make me feel better.
In the last few days, we’d split our time between the castle of Oliana and the petrified white wave of Les Bruixes (aka Terradets), a 35-meter-tall utopia of tufa climbs mostly falling in the 5.12d to 5.13b range, all lined up like fence pickets. But no matter where we went, the dozens-deep high school climbing team was there, making a scene, hogging the best routes and enjoying their spring break to the detriment of my good time.
I’d gone down the wall giving onsight burns to one route after another. Usually on a trip to a new place, I try not to get sucked in by trying any route more than two or three times. Redpointing takes too much time, the most precious commodity on a climbing trip. This relegates me to easier grades, but at least I get to tick off climbs and feel like I’m accomplishing something.
When the sun struck Les Bruixes, we fled like thirsty vampires to the Hotel Terradets bar, minutes down the road from the crag. I felt like I’d spent the day in a tomb of salt and dirt. The re-entry into climbing fulltime was rough. In general, I felt uncoordinated and tired. My skin hurt, my back was sore, my knees were scuffed and my waist was chafed from my harness.
Jen and I had rendezvoused with our American compatriots Clay Cahoon and his wife, Rozella (Rosie). Hailing from Salt Lake City, Clay and Rosie had moved to Andalucia, in Southern Spain, nine months ago to spend a year climbing. Rosie is fluent in Spanish, while Clay speaks none at all.
“I’m so glad you guys are here,” Clay said. “I feel like I haven’t spoken to anyone in almost a year. No one gets my jokes.” He sipped his beer, a doble malt, the strongest, darkest brew you can find in Spain. “I miss home. I miss hops. It’s like they’ve never heard of hops in Europe.”
Clay loves three things in life: good beer, rock climbing and Rosie. (Not necessarily in that order.) He seemed happy with two out of three.
“Do you think the Sun King is still up there?” I asked, and Clay chuckled. Though all the teenagers on Team Slovenia were extremely talented—the 12- to 13-year-old ones working on 5.12d’s, the older ones onsighting 5.13c’s and up—one kid in particular seemed to be completely unfazed by the iridescent heat. Clay had dubbed him the Sun King.
Climbing in the sun is one of those things that become more unbearable with age—just as hangovers get worse, bellies get fatter and life gets more complicated. Grabbing small, hot holds destroys my skin—the second-most precious commodity on a climbing trip—so as a rule I try to avoid it. Nothing is more frustrating than failing because a tip is torn or your skin just plain hurts too much. It’s ridiculous that a little cut in your finger can cause complete failure, but it’s the nature of the game.
Earlier, as our day was ending with the sun’s peek around the sub-alpine Pyrenees, Team Slovenia had appeared to be just getting started.
After falling high on his route and deeming the entire wall currently unclimbable, Clay had lowered. He looked melted and was covered in chalk.
“Let’s go get some ice cream!” Jen said.
All the boys and girls of Team Slovenia, who were huddled under the shade of a tree, overheard Jen and perked up. They turned and looked at their coach with deliberately sad eyes.
“No ice cream for you!” the coach said in a harsh accent. Then he said, “You, climb now!” and gestured at the Sun King, who stepped into the white light and tied into the rope like a child slave. The Sun King then onsighted the 5.13b route Clay had just fallen from, while the coach gleamed and drummed his fingers. We split, the dejection of our inferiority alleviated by the fact that we could go drink beer and eat ice cream, and Team Slovenia couldn’t.
Tres Ponts, windy, 69 degrees. Tres Ponts promised good temps and an expanse of routes from 5.9 to 5.15, so we went there. The 50-meter wall sat above a river in a shady and breezy corridor. The rock undulated like a sail rippling in the wind, flash frozen and containing sectors of clean blue slab and tufa-ridden grottos.
I stood beneath a 35-meter 5.13a that I sensed I could do first try, and with my eyes followed the line of holds, mostly trying to spy rests, intending to rely on instinct to move through what I hoped to be a short-lived crux. I became unsettled, as I often do before any hard (for me) onsight or flash. It’s ironic how genuinely wanting something badly usually sabotages the whole thing. I put on my shoes, strapped on my kneepads, and tied my chalkbag around my waist.
I started climbing and time assumed the dimension of existing only in the moment. The holds through the crux felt bigger than they looked, and soon they were beneath me, and I tried to recover by kneebarring in a divot in the wall. I scoped the next 20 meters of thin underclings.
In onsighting, all actions must be righteous and in accord with what is appropriate for the moment. You rest when you reach a rest. You climb dynamically when the sequence demands it. I tried to maintain that balanced pace of finding the right and appropriate behavior for each moment as this unknown verticality unfolded hold by hold. It felt as if I were climbing out the bulging underbelly of a massive dragon by using its scales, amazingly solid scales of iron rock—I have no idea how these paper-thin flakes remained attached to the face, yet they were solid and juggy and fun. When I clipped the chains, I felt like I’d emerged finally from the coma of winter.
Sharma’s house, 2:30 p.m., 80 degrees. We spent our rest days helping Chris do chores. Though Chris has become quite the handyman since becoming a homeowner, his spacey idiosyncrasies emerged when it came time to clean the house.
For example, most people mow their lawns by strictly following their own preferred patterns. Maybe you’re the type of person who likes to make concentric circles. Most people go back and forth making straight lines. Show-offs might mow their grass in a fancy diagonal design. Chris, however, is endearingly unmethodical, and his “method” is to push the mower around aimlessly. He spots a tuft of grass and mows toward it. Then he spots another tuft across the yard, and walks over there. Though the job gets done, this desultory approach takes longer. But this is Chris in a nutshell. From this freewheeling chaos emerges order, a path, and he stays true to it. He doesn’t fight the entropy of the universe, but goes with it, taking however much time is needed to finish the job—whether mowing the lawn or redpointing a project—even if his method is not the easiest, most refined way.
Las Finestras, Margalef, lunchtime, breezy, shady. It’s a car-sickening drive down a tortuous road, passing under, over and around outcrops of conglomerate limestone, to reach the basin of this impenetrable mountainous belt. The town of Margalef is here, and it’s the navel from which a huge and diverse expanse of vertical terrain rises, with many crags lining the finger-shaped corridors and canyons. There are hundreds of routes, and dozens of walls and crags, with a variety of grades side by side. The conglomerate is as varied as stone comes—pockets, jugs, tufas and crimps; steeps and slabs; long and short, and often all combining on single lines. The famous Catalunyan architect Antoni Gaudi was said to have found inspiration for his hallucinogenic motifs here at Margalef.
Chris actually climbs very little on any given day. Typically, he does one warm-up, anywhere from 5.12d to 5.14b, and then tries his project once, maybe twice. If he’s working the route, he makes each one of those burns count: lowering down, retying in, and trying to make increasingly bigger links or get “low points” (climbing from the fifth bolt to the top, then from the fourth bolt to the top, etc.). If he’s in redpoint mode, and comes close to sending on the first attempt, he’ll stop climbing and come back the next day. But if he’s planning to rest the next day, he’ll hop on another hard project and boulder around on it, trying to keep his power up. He rarely climbs more than three to five pitches a day, and tries to rest every other day.
Chris started with a 5.12d, climbing it twice back to back. He rested and belayed me as I climbed a gothic 5.11 with stone that looked like melted wax. Then I climbed two 5.12d’s that were nearly as brilliant as the 5.11. Chris suggested I try the sandbagged pocket climb El Fustigador (5.13c), an area classic. I hung and fell, but managed to do all the moves.
Iker Pou, who has climbed the 9a+ (5.15a) Demencia Senil (a Chris Sharma FA also at Margalef), was there with his brother, Eneko—a good climber though considerably worse than his bro, but equally passionate. The two of them together are hilarious, especially when Iker laughs, because it sounds like a cackling goblin.
Sam Elias and Emily Harrington were there, too, and they were psyched to climb with me on El Fustigador as well. Iker tried to explain to us what the route’s name means, but his English is only so-so.
“You know, Clean is Good?” he asked. We looked at him with blank stares. Then Iker made his hands into the shape of pistols, pretending to pull the guns from holsters and firing them into the air. “Clean is Good! Clean is Good!”
“Oh!” Emily said finally. “Do you mean, Clint Eastwood?”
“Yes, yes! Clean is good!” Iker said. “HAHAHAHAHAHA!”
“Wow, that’s a crazy laugh,” I said, causing Iker to laugh even harder and more crazily. (We never figured out what El Fustigador actually means.)
“All right, Andrew,” Chris said. “You wanna give me a catch on the big bitch?”
The big bitch is an unclimbed project called Perfecto Mundo on a 50-degree overhanging wall. No route here is easier than 5.14c.
“I think this one could be 9b+,” Chris said, which means 5.15c.
Iker agreed. “Oh, yes. 9b+! 9b+! HAHAHAHAHAHA!”
Chris actually climbs very little on any given day. Typically, he does one warm-up, anywhere from 5.12d to 5.14b, and then tries his project once, maybe twice. If he’s working the route, he makes each one of those burns count: lowering down, retying in, and trying to make increasingly bigger links or get “low points”.
Chris tied in, took off his shirt and began climbing. I heard his knee joints crack and pop, indicating he probably wasn’t as warmed up as he could’ve been. Still, he cruised right through the opening section of 5.14c to reach a rest—a place to match hands and shake, but with only one foothold. His left leg dangled blindly beneath him while he shook for two or three minutes amid the 50-degree overhang.
“OK,” he said. “I’m going.”
“C’mon,” I said. “You got it.”
He made a series of lock-offs and high steps, grunting and exhaling, and then right before the crux, he fell. He rested on the rope and talked me through the upcoming difficulties, seemingly as much to explain to me what the climbing was like as it was to drill the sequence into his own head. As you get on routes that are near your limit, the moves get so hard and the beta so fastidious that redpointing becomes as much a matter of deep comprehension as physical execution.
“There’s this mono,” he said. “It’s not a pocket, just a flat edge for your middle finger. Barely one pad deep. You don’t really load it; you just place it there for balance. Then you dyno up to this pinch. The pinch is weird, like a Spock grip—so you have to be accurate to get your fingers on it just right. The hard part isn’t generating the dyno, it’s controlling the swing out. That’s when you load the mono. It’s like you have to hold yourself from swinging too far away from the wall with that one finger. It’s really strenuous.”
“What’s the next section like after that?” I asked.
“Big lock-offs to crimpers. It’s like climbing a system’s board, or something. Probably V9 bouldering. Then at the end, you get this mantel onto a sloper.”
The climbing looked so hard, even impossible except for the fact that Chris seemed close to doing it.
“It’s getting there,” Chris said. “But look, finger’s split.” He raised his pointer finger, and there in the crease of his first pad gaped a sliver of red.
“Shit, that sucks,” I said.
“So … in hospitals, they will make incisions into the torso and insert a hand with a bad flesh wound inside the body to help it heal.”
“What? Really?” I said.
“Yeah, for real. So, we have this joke here,” Chris continued. “It’s the next best thing. We call it El Tratamiento. The Treatment. When you have a split tip … you can take your finger and shove it up your own ass.”
“So what are you saying?” I asked, laughing.
“I’m saying if I want to climb tomorrow, I might have to resort to giving myself The Treatment.”
“Ouch,” I said.
The next day we rested.
Margalef, 67 degrees, some humidity, last day. We returned to Margalef as a huge gang that included Joe Kinder, Colette McInerny, Sam Elias and Emily Harrington. Chris and Daila came to the crag as well with their good friends and neighbors Cristian La Miel and his girlfriend, Ana Carreras.
We were all hoping to see Chris send Perfecto Mundo, the next “hardest route in the world,” and though he came close, sticking the pinch off the mono/dyno, he fell while adjusting on the hold.
It was my last climbing day in Spain, and I debated how to spend it. Around the corner were some amazing-looking 5.12d to 5.13b routes that Chris and Daila enthusiastically recommended. I guessed I could maybe onsight or flash one or two of them, or at least try. Bringing home another onsight would be nice, I thought.
But I wasn’t psyched on that. All I wanted to do was get back on the 5.13c pocket route that I had tried the day before. All I wanted was to execute the hardest moves I could on a route that’s near my limit.
I’ll give away the ending, and tell you that I did not redpoint El Fustigador. I tried it three times, each time making bigger links, but never having the energy and resistance needed to put it all together. On that third redpoint attempt, my last pitch in Spain, I experienced something of an epiphany. It was a recognition of what I enjoy most about climbing—hard, creative, wild free climbing. What made it memorable was that I was able to enjoy that acceptance in the very moment of placing my feet on dime-sized smears while cranking through two-finger pockets, climbing up and onto that fine line where you are so barely attached to the rock but somehow you are able to keep going. In a fever of confidence, I felt completely unattached to the desire or need to attain successes, ticks and trophies. All I craved was to be on the sharp end of a long, skinny rope and riding the stone, fully a muerte, toward that arterial blood-red horizon in which there’s a future holding the promise of greater things to come.