Margalef, AKA: Heaven

Note: This is an old post whose content was created for fun, with little to no proof-reading or editing. Please read this post keeping that in mind.
If I was granted the ability to pluck out one of the crags I’ve been to in Spain and take it back with me to the States I would without a doubt choose Margalef, or as it’s otherwise known to me- heaven on earth. 
Margalef is a small village that is nestled in a canyon in Montsant National Park in Catalunya. Surrounding the village are cliffs with varying orange and blue-gray streaks that attract rock-climbers from all over the world.  The rock itself is mostly conglomerate cobblestone but over it is a layer of limestone tufa and the combination creates very unique routes (thanks for the geology info, mountainproject). Generally the climbing is done on some good pockets (me encantan) with some crimps and edging thrown in as well. AKA, for my light weight body and small hands, it is rock-climbing paradise.
Trying a fun 6c in Espadelles 

Despite all of my raving, the first memory I have of Margalef is not so great. We arrived at the parking for the famous winter spot “Roca de les Espadelles” and I dashed out of the car because I was feeling extremely car-sick and didn’t want to hurl inside my friend’s new car. No one had told me that the road to Margalef was more than a little bit windy and, being of the sensitive stomach sort, I definitely was unprepared. (Pro-tip for anyone who gets car sick and wants to go to Margalef, take some Dramamine with you, or even better take the Portuguese version of Dramamine just because of its name- “Vomidrine”). After finally getting over the motion sickness I was actually able to take a good look around at the endless layers of cliffs littering the canyon (which I didn’t pay much attention to during the car-ride in in my quest not to vomit) and got some immediate ganas de escalar! Margalef’s popularity was also made evident as the crag was completely filled with international climbers (aka 13 year old French people who were on vacation from school and crushing way harder than me) Espadelles, and this trip, was just the start of my love affair with Margalef.

Starting up Reemoc, 6c+

During my first trip the hardest thing I tried were some cool 6c’s but I did not push myself too hard ( I was still a little bit nervous about falling), though I did leave Margalef tired and with the typical lost skin around my fingers, thanks to the edges of Maralef’s pockets. I knew I wanted to come back, though. Those two-finger pockets were just too good to resist, I feel like I could hang off of them for eternity. Crimping is probably my biggest strength so the entire style of Margalef, one of pulling on small but good holds, really suited me. You wouldn’t believe how shockingly deep some of those pockets are, though at the same time some are surprisingly slopey. I got the idea that all of the pockets were great and was unpleasantly surprised when some holds that I thought would be good rest holds turned into some slopey disasters .

The next weekend we returned and checked out some other crags, notably Raco de la Finestra, the classic shaded crag that people go to during the summer. This three day trip was probably one of the best ones I’ve had in Spain in terms of pure improvement. Falling was no longer an issue and I was able to on-sight two 6c+’s in one day at Finestra and redpoint a 7a in two goes. The first 6c+  onsight was of a route called Reemoc and was particularly memorable. Before I started the climb I remember feeling very nervous, more than I usually am, because I hadn’t climbed many 6c+’s and here I was about to attempt to onsight what seemed like an intimidating line. The route starts with an overhung boulder problem until you emerge onto the face, where you move on good but small pockets and crimps on a vertical wall. You have to go over a final overhang to get to the chains at the end, which is a test in resistance after  pulling on pockets for 20 meters. If I could climb every route I try like I climbed that route, I would be happy, no matter what grade I am climbing. I suppressed any concern I had with clipping and soon my entire world had condensed down to my movement, nothing else mattered. I barely stopped to rest or to chalk up, it was pure and simple rock-climbing- I’ll remember that moment for awhile. Since that climb I have been climbing more and more with this mindset and style and my climbing has improved because of it (as has my level of enjoyment for my sport) Using my inspiration for the line to help me get over some mental hurdles is the biggest gift Margalef gave me.

We also climbed at Cami de la Ermita, (seen in the first photo) a sector that is characterized by long routes. The best 6b+ I’ve ever done, Flors i viores, runs through the middle of the wall and is 30-35m of pure joy.

Since these two trips I have returned to Margalef two other times with the intent of onsighting some 7a or 7a+ routes.

a 7b+ at Can Verdures (a really nice 6b+
runs along the left side!)

Recently, in the middle of May, I came back for a 5 day trip. The plan was to do 2 days on, 1 day rest, and then another 2 days on. This time we started climbing near the lake and dam, at  Can Verdures. I had never seen the lake nor the dam so it was pretty cool to check out a new area and dream about jumping in the lake when I was standing in direct sunlight belaying. (Though Can Verdures is mostly a shaded crag so after a few hours of mid-afternooon sun you get to climb in the shade the entire day). Due to my mom visiting me in April (which was awesome) and some other scholastic (yes I sort of study here) difficulties, I hadn’t gone climbing outside for 3 weeks, so I was definitely in need of some rock. My mini-break was made self evident as I fell off of some warm ups, but I felt stronger after every climb. I tried to onsight a 7a, but unfortunately fell at the very last move-the crux of the route that involved a weirdly shaped slopey knob-ish hold,  literally right next to the anchor. In fact, this seemed to be the theme of the trip-me getting very close to onsighting 6c+s or 7a’s, but falling off on the crux, or in the case of a few climbs, falling because I did something stupid. I’ve learned that that is the danger with onsighting; sometimes you make a stupid mistake because you don’t know where the good holds are and you end up falling for a dumb reason, whereas if you tried to flash it there wouldn’t be a problem. This happened to me a lot this trip and was a bit of a difference from my formerly victorious weekend in Margalef. I assumed I would come back and do a 7a or 7a+ with ease but I was humbled by the challenges of the onsight. It really does take an ounce of luck. During our rest day I ate some good food at the local bar, worked on my Don Quijote essay and went on a short hike (that turned into a “death march” as my friend Chris described it since the beginning was basically 20 minutes of very steep hiking)

desayuno! Some chorizo, eggs and tomatoes.
Thanks Chris. 

A side note to talk about ordering at local bars. When I first went to a small pueblo (town) to go climbing and we went to a bar, I didn’t really know what to order because I didn’t know what they had. Having an actual menu is pretty atypical at these places and lots of times you just describe to them what you want. I’ve learned that most everyone orders one of the following meals : a bocadillo, a tortilla española (basically a thick layer of eggs potatoes and other ingredients that vary- it’s delicious), or a larger tapa like patatas bravas. Plato combinados are definitely the way to go after a day of climbing. Generally it consists of a meat (some type of pork, chicken etc), patatas fritas (french fries) and huevos. You can mix it up a bit and order salad or a tortilla, but why mess with a good formula? Besides, spanish salads are pretty terrible; they consist of two ingredients- iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. Sometimes you’ll get some peppers , but never any lettuce that isn’t  translucent green. After climbing trips I find myself eating gigantic salads for lunch and dinner for three days straight; I suppose the sudden cravings I have for raw lettuce are my body’s way of telling me to cut down on the platos combinados. Another thing I’ve noticed about bars and cafés that we stop at on the way to climbing crags is the sheer concentration of people over the age of 50. In fact, there have been a countless number of times where we have been the only people in a decently full café that weren’t retired. In my geografía de españa class that I’m taking at the University of Barcelona we’ve discussed the envejecimiento de la población de españa (aging of spanish population) with quite a bit of detail. It’s a big problem because the active population, the population which works, is becoming smaller and smaller and has the enormous task of supporting a growing aging population that do not work but, of course ,demand social resources. It was interesting to see this concept manifest itself in my day to day experiences. I honestly don’t know what these people do all day; the pueblos are all very small and the center of town is basically wherever the church is. I suppose they just hang out at the bar and play cards all day and watch Barcelona soccer games whenever they are on. 

la mejor ensalada que he tomado en España! Pero falta

Before this trip I had always stayed at the local Refugio, Raco de la Finestra. For about 10 euros a night, this place is quite nice. All of the beds, despite being super squeaky, are comfortable, clean and new. The rooms are big and comfortable and the bathrooms and showers are modern and always clean. The bar downstairs has an area for cooking as well as a good bar. Once we even ordered a salad and it was by far one of the best salads I’ve had in Spain- it actually had other vegetables besides lettuce and had literally every type of protein you could ask for- tuna, pork and peanuts. After a helping of that massive salad (which is pretty much a meal by itself) I had a delicious butifarra (Spanish sausage) plato combinado and probably ingested somewhere close to 1500 calories just during dinner- win. The atmosphere is similar to that in all of the other climbing refugios- always alive and vibrant with climbers during the evenings and pretty much dead during the mornings when everyone is sleeping (when the sun is out until 9 PM you really dont need to get out to the crag before noon) and afternoons when everyone is out climbing. In terms of amenities, however, I haven’t been to a better or more comfortable refugio than that in Magralef (but I guess I’ve only been to 3)

There’s also a bunch of free camping at Margalef, you can even sleep in the parking lot in your car without being bothered. The only place I’ve ever camped at was near the Ermita at the top of the road that takes you to Finestra. It’s comfortable enough; there are picnic tables and a fountain that has potable water. If it starts to rain you can even take shelter underneath the Ermita which I had to do one night when it started to sprinkle on us and I freaked out for the safety of my down sleeping bag.
Our plan to go back to Barcelona was timed quite well; after four days of climbing my skin couldn’t take much more, nor could my feet (I was breaking in new shoes) and I welcomed a few days of rest after feeling shut-down on most every route I tried. Luckily, I got back out to Margalef the very next weekend for one last trip. 

Camping near the ermita

This time, however, the weather was not as friendly. When we stopped at our usual spot to grab some café before hitting the crag (and yet again were met with a bar full of retired old men) we were met with some chilly winds. Originally we were intending to go to El Catedral to climb, a summer sector that is in the shade most of the day. This unusual weather, however, caused us to change plans and we headed up to Camí de la Ermita instead, at which it is usually too hot to climb at during the spring and summer. In a way we got lucky with the cold weather because we were given a chance to climb at a crag outside of its season. The routes at camí de la ermita are long, running between 25-35m. This generally means that if you climb a 6c at this crag it should be much less boudlery than another 6c route that is only 15m, since you have an extra 10m of climbing left. In fact, long routes typically consist of a lot of endurance moves below the actual grade of the climb, that when added together give you the grade. It’s when bouldering and endurance mix in a significant amount that you start to get into some really hard climbing. I excel much more at endurance than I do at pure power so I generally prefer climbing longer routes. At camí I onsighted quite a few 6cs before trying to onsight a 7a. I made it up the climb with ease, placing the draws and reaching the anchor without problem, before I knew it I reached the anchors and I had onsighted my first 7a! I Then, I tried its next-door neighbor, another 7a that looked a little bit more intimidating too and was definitely longer. I would have onsighted that too had I not been an absolute idiot and completely tried to muscle my way through the beginning boudler problem (which was so overhung it had some iron rungs attached to it to help you get through the first part which had literally 0 holds), but I went the wrong way and fell just due to burning myself out too quickly by climbing like a dumbass on an extremely steep section. I did it again and quickly got through the overhung boulder problem to breeze through the rest of the climb (I even had to downclimb to get a draw since I ran out near the top!)- win! I had never done or even attempted to do two 7as in one day before and today I had basically onsighted two in a row. With some encouragement I even tried a 7b+, the hardest grade I’ve ever tried, and got through the tough parts, though I was going bolt to bolt and taking some pretty big falls. I was taking enough falls and taking so long that eventually I bailed on the climb though I did get through the most difficult part! (or so people told me; to be fair I was only one bolt away from the anchor) . But, the grade seemed doable. I  could do every move and while linking them would be a challenge it didn’t seem impossible. This is when I realized that I have improved quite a bit out here; never in my wildest dreams had I fathomed trying a 7b+ (12c) and I also never entertained the idea seriously that I would be onsighting 11d’s. The bottom line is, though I tend to be hard on myself and get disappointed when I don’t finish a route for whatever reason (mental or physical) I have improved remarkably just because I have been inspired enough by the climbing and the company I am with to try. That’s the great thing about Spain, no matter what level you are there is plenty of beautiful lines and encouraging fellow climbers that get you to push harder to get to that next grade. Extra visits to the gym have not been the cause of my improvement, rather it has been my own desire to climb harder and the mental fortitude I am gaining as a result of climbing often and climbing hard. In the end the grade doesn’t matter much, but climbing is about progression and one of the ways to track that is by trying to get that next grade.

We left Margalef on a Monday in the middle of May and I doubt I’ll be back there this season which means I’ll be leaving Spain without having returned to this climber’s paradise. But, I know without a doubt that I will be falling from these two finger pockets in the near future.

Adios Margalef, nos vemos muy, muy pronto!

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