nr's blog

Montserrat 19 March, 2008

Filed under: Outdoor climbing — nr @ 9:31 am

Well, it’s been a few weeks since my last entry here, which normally indicates a lack of activity on my part. In this case though, nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly there was a couple of trips to the wall that were, well, uneventful. And then there was a four day trip to the Montserrat Massif with the chaps at climbcatalunya last weekend, which turned out to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, culminating in a multi-pitch to the top of one of the pinnacles that make up the startlingly dramatic landscape of the summit of the massif. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The trip started pretty badly actually, with a long wait on the runway at Stansted due to fog in Barcelona. There were meant to be four of us climbing for the weekend – however, at that moment Sol & I were sitting at Stansted, while Eddie and Champ were sitting at Luton for exactly the same reason. Eventually Barcelona air traffic control declared that they could see well enough, and we got going, arriving there a couple of hours later to be met by our guides for the weekend, Gee and Carole. We all piled into Gee’s Landy, and headed straight from the airport up to the massif. The landscape is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And rather than trying (and failing,no doubt) to describe it, let’s see if I can find a photo. Ah – yup, here we go.

(Image copyright someone else. No idea who. Hope they don’t mind me linking to it, but as I’m the only person ever likely to read this, I don’t suppose they’ll notice the extra bandwidth). Well, as you can guess, we were all pretty excited to see something like this, and couldn’t wait to get started. Important things first though, we stopped at the cafe and had coffee and a sandwich before heading up the funicular railway, and a short walk in to the base of six or seven climbs, all about 25 metres. Now, given that the only place I’ve ever clipped a bolt before now is at the wall at Hatfield, I had two immediate concerns. Firstly, where were the big plastic juggy holds? Secondly, why were the bolts four or five metres apart? I had about twenty minutes or so to ponder on this, as Sol decided to lead the first climb. This sort of technical fidgety climbing is right up his street, and he fairly whistled up the climb before tying off at the top and abbing back down with an enormous smile on his face. So… My turn. My first outdoor sports lead, on an unfamiliar rock type best describe as ‘entertainingly bolted’. I needn’t have worried. It took a few metres to get used to the technique for moving up on this rock (just look for any kind of feature, no matter how small, jam your toe on/into it and stand up. Don’t bother looking for handholds – there aren’t any. If you find a handhold, it’s usually cause for quite a celebration) but move up I did. The runout between the bolts really didn’t bother me actually, as I was enjoying the climb so much and concentrating on the movements. I made it to the top, clipped into the lower-off with a handy quickdraw, and turned around to look at the view before rethreading. Wow. Really wow*10^6 – now I’d cleared the trees at the base of the climb I could see clearly, and the view was stunning. Anyhow. Acutely aware that I was hanging on a single piece of protection, I decided that rethreading was a good idea, and then it hit me that my actions in the next minute or so would have a distinct effect on the length and excitement of the rest of my life… I checked the knot four times before shouting to Sol to take up the slack in the rope while I unclipped the quickdraw. I was back on the ground twenty seconds later, in complete control, with the biggest smile on my face. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the same face, trying different routes, and chilling out enjoying ourselves. I probably made about three climbs, before attempting one last one but dropping off half way through ‘cos I was hungry, and tired having been up since 4am in order to catch the plane. For tea, Gee and Carole took us to a local restaurant where we had cold beer, tapas, squid and chips. Perfect…

Next day dawned bright and beautiful, with some stunning views from our refuge down to the mist in the valley below. I’ve got some photos somewhere which I’ll upload when I get an hour spare. Anyhow, a long day on the south face of the massif beckoned, so we breakfasted, drank coffee, and all bundled into the car. The walk-in was a bit more strenuous this time, with a bit of ‘bushwhacking’ as Gee described it to get to the base of the first face. Gee scuttled off up a 6a+ climb to put a rope up for us, Sol led up a very technical 5+, while I settled for the easy option and led up a nicely situated 4+ just around the corner. In fact, I liked it so much I pulled the rope down, and led up the route immediately next to it as well. The sun was up, and I was feeling good. I then had a go at top-roping Gee’s 6a+ route, and suddenly realised that despite feeling good, I wasn’t Johnny Dawes. I got about 12 metres up, and just fell off. So I tried again, made it to about 13 metres, and this time just gave up. I’m not sure why, but this knocked me back a bit, and I completely failed to complete any further climbs that day, including a beautiful technical crack line that Gee picked out when he saw I was struggling with the technical climbing. I couldn’t help feeling that for some reason I was letting everyone else down by not giving it 100% effort. Sol & Eddie on the other hand were both giving it at least 100% effort, and proved it by both climbing a beautiful 30 metre neighbouring route involving a chimney, some bridging, laybacking from a hanging flake, traversing an undercut before clipping in to the lower-off a full 30 metres up. A beautiful route, but quite beyond me. I sat at the bottom, sulked a little, and realised that just because a line is there, I don’t *have* to climb it. I can appreciate it just as much by looking at it and working how I’d approach the climb if I was technically capable. Food. Beer. Zzzzzzz…

Next day, and another sector on the South face with another fearsome walk-in. First route up was a brutal looking chimney, straight up, a full 30 metres. I belayed while Eddie led it, and it was obviously a struggle, as it took him 30 minutes or so. My turn… I like this kind of climbing more than the technical nadgery stuff we’d been doing up to that point, so was expecting to enjoy this climb and do well. But, yesterday’s demons were still haunting me as I got to a tricky narrowing of the chimney about 15 metres up, and rather than press on, just bailed out when I looked down and got scared. I was furious with myself. Bloody furious. It was such a beautiful piece of rock, and well within my ability. So I cleaned the crap off my shoes, told the demons to piss off and got back on there. 10 minutes later I was at the lower-off, feeling bloody marvellous. From there, it was straight onto a very technical “six something plus I guess” that was next to me. And here, I had another epiphany. I got to a very reachy technical move which normally I’d just shrug my shoulders at and drop off saying “can’t do that”. This time, however, I had a big sweary moment. I really shouted. Lots. And, with a final scream of “f*cksocks” I pulled up on a handhold that was no wider than a pencil using a pebble hole no bigger than a large grape for my toe before driving straight through another less than enormous hold up to a “resting point” which was actually a small ledge smaller than my mobile phone. I closed my eyes, breathed very very deeply, and relaxed. At this moment Sol took a picture, so rather than capturing the most dynamically explosive move of the weekend, it actually looks like I’m having a snooze. I’m sure I climbed something else later that day, but I’m already having difficulties remembering exactly what I did and when I did it. What I do remember is eating sausage and chips for tea in a local bar and drinking a couple of cold beers before suggesting to Gee that we maybe have a pop at a small, easy, multi-pitch route the next day.

And, next day, I was standing at the bottom of one of the massif pinnacles after a 7c+ walk-in wondering what on earth I’d done. It was about a 100 metre climb in all, with a traverse, two 30 metre pitches and a final 20 metre scramble to the summit. Champ had flown home ill the day before, so the plan was for Gee to lead me, and then Sol and Eddie to follow us up exchanging the lead. There was a lot of ropework to learn, and Gee was brilliant at explaining everything at ground level, demonstrating as he went along. So, all geared up, he started off along the traverse. Eventually I heard the call of “safe” so took him off belay, shouted “that’s me” as the rope came taught, and started off. I’ve never done a traverse before, and bloody hell, this was a baptism of fire. It started off easy enough, but there were only three bolts over the entire length of the pitch. And the second one was immediately *before* the hardest set of moves, so if I’d slipped there I would have had a 10 metre swing out over the trees. It’s safe to say at this point that my mind was concentrated wonderfully. I made the belay ‘stance’ (actually, it was technically a hanging belay, as there was no ledge at all, just a couple of bolts and a chain) clipped in, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Gee then went through exactly what was going to happen next, and exactly what my responsibilities were as I belayed him up. Off he went. The first bolt was a good four metres above, so a fall while reaching to clip it would have been entertaining for both of us. Of course, he didn’t fall. He vanished round the corner, and 10 minutes later again I heard the call of “safe” and the process repeated itself. The climbing wasn’t too tricky – a couple of balancey moves, but really, a lot easier than we’d been doing the day before. The exposure was completely different though, as I was acutely aware that I was starting from a point 20 metres up, and climbing another 30 metres from there. It was fantastic. The next belay point was a cave, where we stopped, had a quick bite to eat and a drink, and again, a lesson in constructing safe anchors and belaying off them. I felt enormously privileged to be there – on a global scale, a mere handful of people had ever sat in this cave and seen this view. Next pitch was more of the same. 30 metres of quite simple climbing up to the next belay. At which point, rather than making myself safe, Gee just told me to scramble the final metres up to the summit being bloody careful not to fall off as the only protection was from his belay point. I crawled onto the top of the pinnacle, clove-hitched my rope to a rusty old piece of kit bolted on up there, and sat down. I’d made it.

La Momieta. The red line shows our route.

And just sitting here typing it up is enough to give me a huge surge of adrenaline. The feeling was completely and utterly indescribable. I don’t care that it wasn’t the highest pinnacle on the massif. It was the proudest moment of my life in terms of achievement, and I had about 30 minutes of complete solitude up there while Gee waited at the belay for Sol and Eddie to make their way up. I’m not a spiritual person, but sitting up there, completely alone, on the summit was the closest I’ve ever been to a spiritual revelation. Enough of this though. As anyone will tell you, a climb is not over until you’re safe on the ground again, and we had a two pitch abseil ahead of us, using full length ropes. I made a bit of a meal of this to be honest, as my belay plate doesn’t work too well for abbing on two full ropes, so I bounced my way down, and managed to jam my thumb in the bloody thing just to add injury to insult. (As I write this, I am debating what to replace it with). The last abseil pitch was the most risky part of the whole day, for two reasons. Firstly, the back of the chimney we were descending was very loose so a lot of rock came down. Secondly, there was a bees nest at the bottom. But, we all made it down, thanked Gee profusely for the help and guidance, and prepared for the flight home. (Actually, there was a lot of chilling out and chatting, but my typing finger is hurting now).

I got home after midnight. Tired, but immensely, immensely proud. Enormous thanks to Gee and Carole for their hospitality, assistance, good humour, coffee and encouragement. I’ll be back again. No doubt.

View from the 2nd belay, La Momieta

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