When I drove up to the car park at the col, the police had just opened the road after the night’s snowfall, but by the time the mist cleared enough to give me a view of the spires, it was gone.
Even though I’d missed my chance to see the rare sight of Montserrat covered in snow, Catalonia’s sacred mountain didn’t disappoint. I’d walked into the middle of an area called “Agulles”, or needles, where a wonderful free bothy has long been a base for climbers. An 80 foot wall in front of the bunkhouse indicated their presence with a line of bolts and dozens of little holes where previous generations practiced their aid skills and tested the reliability and hardness of the conglomerate’s different components. As the mist lifted, greater potential became evident. Then more. And more.
To one side, a huge wall of vertical rock framed the scene. About 400 ft high and almost as wide, this is known as Agulles’ “big wall”. Although not that high, it looks the part. Outrageous rounded spires of conglomerate also loomed into view, the first just a few dozen yards away. As the cloud level rose further, new clusters appeared, until it seemed like there would be no end, no eventual summit. And Agulles is just one sub-section of this amazing mountain.
Forget what you think you know about conglomerate: the rock here is very solid and brings great variety to the climbing thanks to its diverse make up.
Formed from alluvial deposits in an ancient inland sea, Montserrat was thrust out of the heart of Catalonia millions of years ago and subsequent erosion has blessed it with a veritable forest of these spires, as well as many more conventional crags of perfect conglomerate. Forget what you think you know about this medium: the rock here is very solid and brings great variety to the climbing thanks to its diverse make up. Of course, you’ll still do a lot of pocket pulling and pebble balancing, but there are cracks and flakes too.
Montserrat has long been a place of religious and national significance to the Catalans, and it is also seen as the cradle and spiritual home of their considerable climbing and mountaineering tradition. It is surprising then, that it isn’t as well known internationally as the smaller crags of Margalef, Siurana or Oliana. And Montserrat is bigger in every way. Not only are the routes longer, there are far more of them: around 5,000 at the last count, covering trad, aid, bolted multi-pitch adventures and conventional sport lines. Over an area of just a few square kilometres, this has to be one of the densest concentrations of developed climbing anywhere in the world.
Only 40 km from Barcelona, Montserrat can be busy, but most of the voices at the crag here are Spanish and Catalan. There are good reasons for this – it’s a harder to place to find your way around than the classic sport areas, and the plethora of guidebooks alone can be confusing. But there is now at least one that tries to make overall sense of the place for visiting climbers – Montserrat Free Climbs – and the village of El Bruc a good base with a gear shop and climbers’ bar (The Bar Anna). And Montserrat offers as good a selection of climbs for any season as anywhere in Spain, with only high summer being too hot.
That said, yesterday’s clouds returned and I’m currently sat in the bar hiding from the rain, although I don’t think things can be much better in Siurana. And the climbing style is often not quite to the modern taste, when compared to such illustrious local competition. But a couple of days ago I did some magnificent long sport pitches on vertical rock to rival anywhere, at Vermell del Xincarro on the south face, and I’m hoping to take on one of the iconic spires tomorrow.
The logistics of Montserrat should be easy: turn up at El Bruc, check out the huge guidebook selection over a coffee in the Bar Anna (although the locals prefer wine or even vermouth before hitting the crag!) and go climb something. There water in the village, and the back road to the monastery has some stunning spots to park up in your van with views across to the Pyrenees. If you don’t have a van, the aforementioned bothy – Refugi Vincenc Barbe – looks great. It’s clean and cosy with a log burner and bunks for about 24, and there’s a cafe there at weekends. For the summer months, the Monastery on the north side runs a campsite.