The sheer limestone cliffs of Leida shine golden in the afternoon sun, cut with promising looking lines and features that seem to be calling you to climb up them. It’s no wonder that this region of Catalunya, where the foothills of the Pyrenees march down towards Barcelona, is a mecca for rock climbers. The tiny settlement of Abella de la Conca with its climbing refugio, makes an excellent base from which to explore the immaculate rock.
Limestone is eroded by water into a heavily featured kind of rock with flakes, jugs, side pull and pockets – in fact, it’s the kind of rock that has inspired the design of countless indoor climbing handholds. This makes it ideal terrain for the rising trend of urban indoor climbers to convert their skills into outdoor adventure, and the local microclimate means you can climb year-round.
RSNG headed out there to take part in Climb Catalunya’s Multipitch course, which is designed to take people with some rock climbing experience to the next level, and sample some big wall adventure. Here’s how I got on…
I’m high above a valley washed with a soft, golden light that’s illuminating the blossoms on orchards of almond trees. A limestone rock face drops precipitously down below my feet as I spot the Catalan flag fluttering over the hamlet of Abella de la Conca with it’s stone-hewn streets, far below.
It’s beautiful, and I’m seeing it all with adrenaline-sharpened clarity as I climb up a vertical pitch of limestone, using small pockets in the rock as handholds and stepping on small imperfections, trusting my fate to the toes of my rubber-soled rock shoes. I begin to link together a hard sequence of moves and as my focus narrows, my surroundings disappear. I’m having to read the rock, making small adjustments to my body position to explore tiny edges and imperfections with my fingers. Technically, there is a route to follow but it’s not written on the limestone – you have to find your own way, move by move.
My core is locked, I’m breathing hard, and my arms are burning up with lactic acid. The fingertips of both hands are clinging to small crimps and I’m on the ‘pump clock’ – time is ticking down to the point where I won’t be able to hold on any longer. I spot a shadow in the rock that could be a good handhold, but it’s too far to the right to move my lower, left hand into.
Focussing my effort, I step right and pull up in one movement. For a split second my own momentum unweights me – I’m hovering above a drop into air – and I whip my right hand off its hold and up, fingertips reaching for a hold before gravity notices that I’m bending its rules. The hold is good! As I stick it, I exhale sharply – it’s almost a bark of relief.
‘Unlocking an outdoor climbing route is a physical fight as well as a mental chess game’
Not for the first time, I’m reminded why climbing outdoors is such a rush – pulling on the plastic holds of an indoor climbing wall feels like climbing a ladder in comparison to the physical fight and mental chess game of unlocking an outdoor route.
Climbing is enjoying a boom across the world’s cities as urban gym goers discover a new, exciting way to get fit and strong, without endless biceps curls. But, if you want to experience climbing in its natural, raw state, then you need to go on a bit of an adventure.
My two coursemates and I, Harald and RJ, are climbing on La Torre Xica, tackling a 125m multipitch route called La Pepa as the culmination of a four-day course with Climb Catalunya. Converting your indoor roped climbing skills to an outdoor sport climbing setting is actually easier than it sounds. All you really need is an awareness of how to safely place quickdraws (two carabiners linked with webbing) into the pre-placed bolts, as well as knowledge of the procedure for ‘threading’ the rope through the anchors at the top of the climb, in order to lower off the route without leaving any quickdraws behind.
Even so, as with most things climbing, it’s recommended to head outdoors with a competent, experienced climbing partner or qualified guide who can teach you the safety essentials. But when it comes to scaling high, inspiring walls of rock, you need a full multi-pitch climbing skillset, and for this going on a course is the best path to unlocking a world of adventure. Our course has included learning theory, knots and best practice, which we have then put into practice, closely watched by Climb Catalunya’s Issac Cortes Barreda and Nicolas Durand.
Breaking a 100m
climbing route like La Pepa up into shorter pitches is essential (your rope is only so long), which means that you will need to set up multiple belay anchors en-route. We are going to take turns leading these separate pitches, ‘leapfroging’ our way up. But the consequences of getting things wrong are going to be much higher when our team is suspended a hundred metres above the ground.
Of course, this article isn’t a substitute for a multipitch climbing course taught by a qualified guide, but reading it will give you an insight into the challenges and the rewards of taking the high road. Here are the reasons why going on a multi-pitch climbing course will save you time – and could even save your life…
‘I turn to see a huge black vulture soaring on an updraft beside me, its wingspan almost as wide as I am tall.’
Sticking my 50/50 move has averted a fall above my belayer, Harald, who is attached to two anchor bolts below me and leaning out over 100m of rock face. I complete the hard sequence of moves and mantle up onto a section with larger handholds. I’m moving more confidently now, although the going is still strenuous. Looking up I see the line of the climb rising up through rock and vegetation, just as a massive shadow moves across it. I turn around to see a huge black vulture, ten feet away, silent and soaring on an updraft. Its wingspan is almost as wide as I am tall.
It’s an awesome sight and a reminder that this place is an ecological refuge (the Leida colony of black vultures is the first one to breed in the Pyrenees since the late 19th Century) but as omens go, it is slightly off putting.
I take extra care as I move up the increasingly blocky holds and bang on each rock with the palm of my hand. ‘If it sounds hollow, or moves, then look for another hand hold,’ recommends our guide, Nicolas Durand. Pulling a handhold out of the face would not only put me at risk of a fall, but could create a rock fall onto my belayer below me. This is one reason for wearing a helmet on all multi-pitch climbs, and putting it on before you even approach the crag.
The angle of the climb has slackened off slightly so I am able to put more pressure on my feet, taking the load off my arms. Trusting your feet is essential on these high slabs, so I’m glad for the high performance comfort of my Scarpa Maestro rock shoes. If you’re used to indoor bouldering in aggressively downturned shoes, then to climb multipitch you need to consider a less aggressively shaped, but stiff shoe that allows you to make precision moves on tiny features in the rock.
After finding a good crack in a rock to place a ‘camming’ device and clip my rope to it, protecting me from a fall, I move up to the summit of the La Torre Xica, where Durand is waiting for us. Looking down at the base of the climb, 125m below, as the endorphins pump around my body and I clip my personal anchor system into the final pair of bolts, is immensely satisfying – but I can’t get distracted.
Durand has already started timing my efforts to set up a secure anchor at the pair of belay bolts set into the rock, so that I can go from lead climbing to belaying my partners up the last pitch. On a multipitch, speed is of the essence. If you have to set up multiple belays and climb many pitches on your journey up the wall, then even small time savings you can make on setting up an anchor, managing rope and being ready to climb when it is your turn, multiply into very significant chunks.
Having a guide at hand to monitor what I am doing in real time has proven a great way to learn during this four-day course – my team and I are able to fine-tune our technique while experienced eyes watch us and guard against any critical errors that could prove disastrous.
Learning Your Lines
Unlike single-pitch sport climbing routes, which usually have a straight line of bolts going up from the ground, multipitch routes often meander from left to right, in order to link climbable features. This can mean that the single ropes used for normal sports climbing would end up being clipped in a zig-zag up the rock face, creating drag and other problems.
Instead, this course has taught us how to climb tied into a pair of ‘half’ ropes, which are both threaded through our belayers’ ‘reverso-style’ belay devices. These cunning pieces of kit can also be used in ‘guide mode’ when belaying the climber following you from above, which makes multi-pitch much safer, because they lock off when you take your hands away (if you’ve set them up correctly).
As I climbed the final pitch I took care to clip one rope into bolts on the left and another to bolts on the right, as I zig zagged across the rock. This is paying dividends now as I complete building my anchor and start to pull up the ropes – they’re not dragging, making the task easier and reducing the risk of them being damaged by rubbing over sharp edges, both effects that become amplified once my partners start to climb and the ropes come under tension.
Preparation Prevents Panic
Being on a course like this doesn’t just help you to learn new skills, it also teaches you to work as part of a climbing team. The evening before RJ, Harald and myself sat down to plan the climb, including how to navigate the approach, the equipment to take and how we’d get back down again.
Searching the internet and looking at the Sat view of Google Maps showed us that it was possible to rappel for 30m off the back of the mountain and down to a rough footpath. This will save us multiple rappels back down the 125m face we’ve just climbed. Rappelling back down from a climb is often the riskiest moment of the day – you tend to mentally relax once you get to the summit, but you’re about to trust your life to a single anchor high up on a mountain – this is no time to get complacent.
I check the bolted anchor points, linked by a chain and a steel ring. All look un-corroded and are well set into the rock, so I take one of the ropes and pass its end through the ring, tying the end of the other rope to the first with a figure of eight knot. It’s details such as this which can make the difference between a successful rappel and getting the rock stuck when you try to pull it down, which could be disastrous during a series of rappels.
Harald rappels down first, on both ropes, and using a ‘matcha’ to back-up his belay device. If he got into trouble then this would lock off the ropes, stopping him from falling and we could haul him back up. I follow him once he’s on the ground while he spots me by holding onto the ends of the rope (to stop me coming down all he needs to do is pull on the ropes and they will lock on my belay device).
If I was knocked unconscious by a falling rock them he could also lower me to the ground, which is necessary to avoid fatal ‘harness syndrome’ that sets in after just a few minutes of dangling unconscious on a rope. I pick my way down the rock face, trying to avoid the vegetation and making sure the rope doesn’t get stuck.
It’s a relief to reach the ground, get the whole team down the rope and then retrieve the rope without it getting snagged. We made it! Only now does the full meaning of the day’s effort hit home – our fledgling team has safely planned executed and exited a full, 125m climb with four separate pitches and and a rappel to finish. Not bad after four days of tuition – I wonder where my next climbing adventure will take me?
To tackle multi-pitch adventure you need the right equipment, designed for light weight and all-day comfort but without sacrificing performance. RSNG climbed in Scarpa Maestro rock shoes, an Edelweiss Antidote 2 harness, E9 rock climbing clothing and climbed with Grivel Captive Plume quickdraws and Stealth helmet, and Edelweiss Oxygen ropes.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Climb Catalunya’s quick coaching video to see what the Leida region offers to rock climbers.
Visit Climb Catalunya’s website to find out more about their Multipitch Climbing Long Weekend Course and other climbing coaching courses, which run throughout the year.
Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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