Sunday, March 11, 2012

Siurana - Part I

After a few days in Barcelona for a Gaia workshop, Molly and I hopped into a little rental car and headed south-west to the Priorat-Montsant region just west of Tarragona. The area, in the southern part of Catalunya, is known for its wine and olive oil, both of which are dear to our hearts, but it also happens to be a mecca for sport climbing with roughly 3000+ (!?) routes in a 30km radius from Cornudella de Montsant. Really, there are beautiful cliffs everywhere.

Siuranella Centre from the village of Siurana


Refugi at the top of Siurana -- great west-facing terrace for afternoon beers

The tiny hilltop village of Siurana is situated on top of (and across the valley from) immaculate grey-yellow limestone cliffs. They came in handy in the ancient past for building impenetrable fortresses, but nowadays they host some of world's best-known sport climbing routes that routinely make headlines in climbing magazines. We didn't come to climb those, but there are essentially endless routes even in our range of difficulty (though you have to be able to climb above at least 6b here to keep your options open for an extended stay). Amazingly, a lot of the development, especially in the lower-mid range of grades has taken place only in the last couple of years. If you head to Siurana, it is essential that you get the newest guide book (published in late 2010), which includes all of the newly-developed areas along with very easily-readable topos and area descriptions. The routes tend to be on perfect and varied rock, but the bolts are used sparingly in some places so it takes a day or two to build up the proper mental endurance.

The climbing during our first few days was amazing, even though we stuck to some of the lesser sectors around the village. We were staying at Camping Siurana, which apart from its proximity to the crags offers little to recommend itself. We booked a room that was advertised as fully-equipped (i.e. with a kitchen, bathroom etc.) and indeed there was a small stove and a sink, along with a table that threatened to collapse if you leaned on it a bit too much and plentiful mold in the bathroom. The heat worked (which apparently wasn't the case in all of the rooms) and most of the time we had hot water (also apparently a scarcity at the Camping). While the convenience of being able to walk to the crags was nice, the place is certainly over priced given their offering. They seem to have realized that sport climbers are in general rather lazy people and will happily not think about alternatives if it means they can roll out of bed and be at the crag in five minutes. Of course I'm quite happy to live very simply on a climbing trip, but that implies that it's also cheap, which the Camping Siurana accommodation definitely is not. Also, if you come here without a guide book, make sure you stop in Cornudella first to get the new one, because Camping Siurana only sells an older guide of far lesser quality written by the campground owner. But it will come with photocopies of hand-drawn topos for the new areas, for a small fee of course.

After a week in our "suite" at the Camping Siurana, we were quite happy to move into an amazing house (see photos at the end) that is well cared for and the owners clearly intend to make you feel welcome rather than just drain your cash.  The house is really fully equipped with a large living room and a fireplace, and is impeccably clean (no smell of mold, yay!). It's also in an olive orchard, within a 5 minute drive of Cornudella. There are actually four independent houses of varying sizes in this massive farm house, so if you are coming here with a group it can be a really good option.

Our first two days we climbed at sectors Can Marges and Can Parasit, both of which are relatively new and have some great routes though the ones in the lower grades tend to be pretty run out. Two routes stand out here, a long and varied 6b+ called Cagarro Malababa and a short but really fun 6c called Ultramemia.

On our first rest day we drove around the northern edge of the Monstant toward the village of Margalef, which also hosts a world-renowned crag. The refugi, where you are supposed to obtain the guide, was closed so we continued on to Lleida, today a somewhat drab city that used to be an important outpost in medieval times.

Lleida -- consumption incarcerates (or something like that) 

The third climbing day we started out at Can Marges, the closest crag to the village, but with somewhat mediocre routes, some of the easier ones with interesting run outs. I really wanted to check out the sector Can Piqui Pugui because I had seen photos of a really cool 6c+ I wanted to try. The sector is otherwise mostly known for its huge overhanging wall with a series of routes in the 8 range, but this 6c+ (Toca-me-la-Sam) is incredible! It's really a puzzle with three cruxes, each followed by a decent rest. I almost got the onsight but misread the sequence on the last crux -- it went easily on the second try.

access path to one of the crags below the village

Molly on the approach

Molly gearing up at Can Piqui Pigui

Can Piqui Pigui

Someone trying something hard at Can Piqui Pigui
Our bodies couldn't quite keep the two-on-one-off climbing schedule, so we decided to take it easy and took an extra rest day. We headed west toward the town of Escaladei, with a 12th century monastery and lots of wineries. Here we met a our friendly guide, Scooby the dog, who escorted us on our 1-hour hike through the countryside. He was rather disappointed when we left. This area, to the south of Serra de Montsant mountains is quite a bit more populated with cute hilltop villages scattered throughout the countryside. We stopped in La Vilella Alta and La Vilella Baixa, both of which seem to have been build directly onto the rocky cliffs. On the way back we stopped in a little restaurant in Escaladei where a really friendly owner served us an *amazing* late lunch with a mixed plate of  Catalan meat and vegetable specialties, with some delicious Priorat wine. It cost us a total of 16 eur... The restaurant is just to the right of the bridge as you enter the village and is open until 6pm on weekdays and also for dinner on weekends. Highly recommended. Scooby also lives there.

"Moli" means something crucial in Catalan, but we haven't figured out what yet

Scooby the guide escort dog in Escaladei -- Monastery of Escaladei in the background

Scooby in Escaladei

La Vilella Alta

La Vilella Alta

Church in La Vilella Baixa

La Vilella Baixa -- lots of buildings integrated into the cliff

Almond blossoms

On our fourth climbing day we finally ventured to Siuranella Centre, one of the most picturesque sectors anywhere. Fun routes on pocketed limestone, sunshine, and friendly company. Here, Molly did her first 6b+ onsight lead attempt and her first 6b flash (possibly her best climb ever) of a beautiful new route called  Gruyere (steep with lots of pockets) on the right side of the sector. We continued further along the cliff to Siuranella Est, where you can ogle the massive overhangs of El Pati across the valley and watch world superstar climbers scream and curse. Here we jumped on a fun 6c that features great overhung pocket-pulling early on, and a stinger high crux with a mono at the very end.

Molly at Siuranella Centre

Siuranella centre in the late afternoon

Looking toward Cornudella de Montsant from Siuranella centre

Yesterday we met up with two friendly Brits, Rich and Thom, at the sector Ca l'Orro near the village. We've shared quite a few beers with the two of them during the week, and this was their last morning of climbing so we caught up with them to say our goodbyes. Thom flashed a really fun, steep, 6b that Molly also bravely led, and Rich figured out the beta for a nice overhung 7a. I completely botched my flash attempt a bit shell-shocked by the steep angle right from the beginning, but cruised all the way to the last bolt on my second try. The sequence at the top was non-trivial and I of course didn't bother to figure it out enough earlier so I had to come back a third time for the red-point. My goal for this trip was to end up climbing in the 7a range, so it was nice to get there already by the end of the first week. Next week we'll probably change scenery a bit and check out the crags of Arboli, which are supposed to be great as well -- the bakery in town is supposed to be selling the guidebook.

Rich at the top of a fun and steep 7a at Ca l'Orro

Thom flashing his final route of the trip

Unknown climber on a dramatic 7a+

Napping? Visualizing!

Here are some photos of our new place -- we found it online a while before coming to Spain and decided we should stay here since it's called Moli! Moli del Pont.

Our new temporary place! It's awesome

Moli del Pont