The region of Catalunya is like a limestone analog of the US Southwest’s sandstone landscape, with flat-topped mountains guarded by sheer cliffs, a Mediterranean climate, and tall pines in place of diminutive pinyons. The result is a less dramatic but far more intricate topography, made more marvelous by the traces left by myriad cultures throughout the centuries. Wandering the harsh landscape around the Four Corners fills one with a sense of desolation. Driving the pleasant and hospitable countryside of Tarragona fills one with a sense of calm and well-being. Both have ample evidence of ancient human habitation, the former of the Stone age and the latter of every age from prehistory to the present. Above all, the Spanish countryside feels tranquilo.
We have fallen into a rhythm here. We wake and make coffee, not too early and not too late. James Lucas, who sleeps on the couch, usually gets out earlier than us. We might do a little work in the morning, we might walk around the corner to the bakery and produce market where our California Spanish facilitates simple transactions and friendly smiles (Catalan is a complete mystery to us). We eat simply and generally healthily. When we feel ready, we pile into a small car and drive on small roads to Siurana, a small distance away. We warm up, we climb. We enjoy the spectrum of color as the sun sets over Cornudella de Montsant, and we pile back into the car to reunite with James. Sometimes we meet friends at one of the 3 drinking establishments in town. Usually, we eat, do body maintenance, and retire to bed.
Like most professional climbers and videographers, we are here on half-vacation and half-work assignment. We’ve been gathering footage for what promises to be a fun and action-packed episode commemorating the RV Project’s 4th year (!!!) and first intercontinental climbing trip (!!!).
Ethan has been projecting a route called La Reina Mora, a spectacular 5.14d that takes the most obvious line up the most badass wall in Siurana. The wall itself a sight to behold, 40 meters of unforgiving, undulating, and (for most mortals) unclimbable rock. Reina sits between La Rambla and Golpe de Estado, a pair of very famous 5.15’s that look utterly desperate. It begins with a slippery crack, which seems to be widely considered as the most difficult part physically, but the rest of the route is not easy either. A few kneebar rests mitigate the pump, but the fact of the matter is that climbing over 100 feet worth of V7 moves is hard.
It’s been very interesting to watch the process unfold. Before Vikki and I arrived, Ethan had worked all of the moves and was giving redpoint attempts. On our first climbing day, I belayed while he climbed through the crack rather desperately, uttering “I HATE that!” upon reaching the first jug rest. He went on to gain a highpoint, falling near the final hard boulder problem of the route. It was impressive to watch, to say the least. A solid one-hang of the route seemed like a good sign.
For the most part we’ve been climbing every other day, almost always at one of the many crags of Siurana. The place is stacked with quality routes, typically long, slightly overhanging technical pump-fests. Except for the 5.14 orgy that is El Patí, 5.11+ – 5.13+ seems to be the grade range to climb here (that’s 7a – 8b, for those wanting to learn French). The first week was quite windy, and the canyon containing La Reina Mora and most of the other super-classic routes of Siurana seems to funnel the wind such that even a warm day can feel cold, with gusts around 45MPH. Still, the rock is so good and the routes so classic that we can’t help but feel psyched.
Which is sort of a problem when it comes to projecting hard routes. Chris Kalous, producer of the best climbing podcast EVER, The Enormocast, is staying nearby. We’ve talked about how routes can start to beat you down, and sometimes it feels like it would be much more fun to just climb around and sample the classics that are doable in one or two tries (which, for Ethan, is like 98% of them). But to git ‘er done, you have to “punch the clock,” that is, spend the better burns of your day on the project itself, devoting skin and energy and mental acuity to attempts that usually result in pumped forearms and wild, expletive-accompanied detachment from the wall. The satisfaction of clipping the chains of a hard route requires a lot of frustration and dark days.
Ethan is a fantastically positive dude. You have to be, in order to try over and over again at something that feels so desperate. Even he is not immune to the emotional nadir of repeated failure. We took a few days away from the project and sampled some of the other walls. Watching him dance up 8a+ (5.13c) first try is always a joy, and trying shorter, more bouldery routes like Jungle Speed (8c+/5.14c) provided a welcome diversion. By the way, Jungle Speed is very, very hard.
In the meantime, I’ve been having a great climbing trip. On our second day, Ethan rested while Vikki and I went out to a crag with a classic 7c/5.12d called Boys Don’t Cry. After a few vertical warmups, I tried to get on a roofy little 7a+/5.12a as a final warmup. Feeling tired, I was barely holding on to the holds, none of which were smaller than the big edges on the Rock Prodigy hangboard. “Shit,” I thought, “I’ve got a snowball’s chance of doing Jumbo Pumping Hate at this rate…pumped silly on a short route 2 whole number grades below it!” I shook and wormed my way to the chains, cleaned my draws, and lowered into a crowd of congratulatory Germans.
They informed me that I’d just onsighted Boys Don’t Cry, my hardest onsight by a whole number grade. Apparently, I’d completely misread the guidebook.
Apparently, our limitations are all in our heads.
A few days later, I got a quick ascent of a very classic, very fun boulder-problem-with-a-rope called La Cara Que No Miente (8a+/5.13c), my hardest sport climb to date. I got to grab a tufa, match it, heel hook it, and bump high on it before dynoing to a jug. This, I thought, is what I came to Spain for.
I no longer felt like such a chuffer. I felt much better.
And, apparently, so did Ethan, after a few days away from La Reina Mora. The weather warmed up and the wind died down, and suddenly it was Mama Bear conditions at the cliffs. Ethan got back on the project and absolutely cruised the crack section, clearly much lighter of spirit and fleeter of foot. He fell again, but this time on the last really hard move. He then fixed a rope for us to film from, and two days later was back on it, falling near the end but with the beginning sections clearly dialed in.
Clearly, a rest was in order. Vikki and I took the car around the Serra de Montsant up to Margalef and wandered around in awe of the spectacular roofs and sweeping walls full of classics. Unfortunately, my left elbow began to give me more grief than I’ve ever felt. Perhaps it was climbing one day and jugging the rope the next, or perhaps it’s the overabundance of pork products in my diet. Regardless, I called the day off for me because of a shooting pain. Vikki, feeling the effects of many long days and the previous night of Spanish wine, took it easy too, climbing a few awesome moderates.
And just like that, 2 weeks in Spain are over. Ethan is sticking around a bit longer to finish up the project, which will (hopefully!) be captured on film. Either way, we got some pretty sick footage, and the editing process shall commence shortly. While we didn’t get to see many of the other areas (Santa Linya, Arboli, Montserrat, Lleida, Rodellar….), we knew we’d not be satisfied with 2 weeks. We got a good sampling of Siurana, ate mucho jamón, and we got bit by the Spanish bug. Hopefully The RV Project will return for a much longer stay soon!