The climbing trip
Here I am on my second rock climbing trip to Rodellar Spain. Getting ready and packed for 2 weeks’ worth of climbing under a perfect sunny sky just like the trip before. Unfortunately, the day I arrived in Barcelona. I was greeted with heavy rain and could barely see the highway on my way to Rodellar. Which is about 3 hours away. And over 250 km of distance wasn’t enough to stop the rain clouds.
As it turned out, this summer is a lot wetter and colder than usual. The first night’s temperature went below 10 deg. My “spare” warm clothes turned out to be barely sufficient and I’m really thankful I brought along this “excess” luggage. The next morning started gloomy as expected but strangely, the weather finally cleared a little by afternoon. We (me and two really cool American folks, Sam & Remy whom I just got to know the evening before) promptly headed off for the nearest “warm-up” crag, El Camino. They quickly got their blood pumping by polishing off a nice 6c+ and 7a+. The routes were kinda hard and long for me as warm-ups. Since I rarely start with anything more than 6b’s on 15m gym routes.
We then quickly headed down to our next crag, Surgencia, which is situated at the bottom of the valley. A stream runs through this mesmerizing yet totally intimidating enclave. With a massive cave rising over 40m from the ground, overhanging between 40 to 50 degrees at most parts. To give you a visual description most Singaporean climbers might be able to relate to. It’s 3 times longer AND 3 times steeper than most gym walls we train on!
Sam and Remy managed to send their little project. The uber long (at least to me) “No Limits, 7c+” which they tried previously. Obviously, I couldn’t resist trying this grand looking line. Completely ignoring the fact that it was my first climbing day and my fitness was limited to 15m gym walls. Needless to say, just trying out all the moves on this steep 35m line was a big workout on its own. And I had to take a rest day after that ;-D
My second climbing day has got to be one of the most surreal. And also the best climbing day I have ever had in all my years of climbing! Pumped out n bailed while attempting to warm up on a 35m 7a+. After some rest, I got onto the superb and steep “True Crime-7c+/8a” at Sector-Cueva.
I had seen a few people attempting this line the day before. While belaying Remy at the crag and was hoping to finish it this trip. I carried an extra-quickdraw and a couple of prusiks with the intention of working out all the moves on this severely overhanging prow.
Having climbed the first section without too much problem, I arrived at a superb rest after about 10m. After fully milking the rest. I proceeded to climb the steep section with good momentum. Trying to remember the sequences I have observed and at the same time figuring out hand and footholds. I couldn’t really see from the ground, and changing beta along the way to suit my reach. In my mind, I was just thinking of working out the moves and shouting, “take” when I get too tired. That changed when I find myself clipping in the last draw before the anchor. And it was then that I realized that a flash was a possibility!
Trying my best to milk a sharp knee bar with my homemade knee pad. I struggled to recover my pumped forearms. And after a quick shake, I charged towards a small right crimp guarding the bulge and pulled hard on it with whatever I had left. A couple moves later, I found myself clipping the chains! I was in disbelieve as I have never come anywhere close to flashing such a grade!
After another rest, I got onto another classic 8a, “Cooker”. It is super popular as the moves are just so superb. Again, I climbed it with little expectations. Only to realize after clipping the last draw. I simply couldn’t see the uber jug an arm’s length away as it’s flushed against a sea of grey. Damn! I should have taken a more careful look at this jug which marks the end of the crux.
Possible flash? I’ll never know. Hopefully another chance in the future. Anyway, this attempt was good enough for me. After working out the last section to make sure I don’t mess up. As I’ll be more tired the next try, I managed to send it thereafter. I had kinda secretly been hoping to flash my first 7c+ for a while now. With each passing year, this hope seems to just dwindle a little each time. As things seemed to be going downhill. Lately, especially, save for the Laos trip last December which hinted at possible progress. With little expectations and hope, I miraculously got more than what I’d been dreaming of! Of course, days like this are very rare. In retrospect, the numerous bad climbing days throughout the year could actually have paved the way and laid the foundation for progress.
The days following were mostly spent looking for dry crags. This June the weather at Rodellar is totally freaky. Thinking that I’m a lot wiser after last year’s experience. I packed extra sunblock for this trip, confident that the scorching sun will not stand a chance this time around. I couldn’t be more wrong. Most days were wet and gloomy. Occasionally the sun would peep through gaps in the clouds. And we would excitedly apply sunblock on our faces in preparation for a sunny day. As promised by the weather forecast every day.
Sadly, the skies would often weep again before the sunblock could be fully absorbed into the skin. Even on days when the rain took a break. The rocks in most areas would still be dripping here and there. The worst being those projects you thought were dry enough to work on. Only to realize after losing much valuable skin and energy coming to a crux high on the route. Only to find a crucial hold was actually still wet and slippery. And will remain so for days to come.
To add to the frustration. Some of the climbs I really wanted to work on this trip are situated on the other side of the stream. Which after days of rain, have swelled into a menacing river. Once a friend wanted to work on the super classic and long “Coliseum, 8a” at the Grand Boveda area. Which was miraculously dry due to its steepness and location. Braving the strong currents and triumphantly crossing to the other side of the river. We returned hours later in high spirits, only to realize the water level had risen even higher now. Hiding even the huge rocks we used to manoeuvre across hours earlier.
My friend Spencer, the tallest among everyone, bravely crossed first and situated himself at a crucial spot. In case anyone slipped. The rest of us desperately dug large branches into the riverbed. And used them as sticks to stabilize ourselves as we moved along the raging currents. I remembered dragging my feet on the riverbed. Barely lifting them as the currents were so strong. It felt like walking with cables tied to each ankle, pulling them sideways with huge weights.
My focus was sharper than any redpoints I’ve ever done, and the fear was real. I barely made it across the worst section. I lost a footing and was almost washed downstream. Spencer reached out in time to brace me. Saving me from the icy cold waters and more importantly, from drenching my only down jacket. After a nice meal at the Kalandraka Refugio where we stayed. I bid farewell to my American friends on their journey back home.
Time for Plan B
Last year started with Margalef but with the scorching heat. I found myself seeking refuge in Rodellar during the 2nd week. This year, it turned out to be the other way round. By chance, I bumped into 2 Romanian climbers, Adrain and Irru. Who were also more than keen to seek sunnier and drier conditions in Margalef instead.
We packed our stuff the following day and made the 3-hour drive to Margalef. Eventually settling at a cozy campsite for the next 9 days. The first couple of days were perfect. Cool, dry and sunny, unlike June a year ago. We took a couple of days to allow our skin and fingers to get used to the sharp pockets here.
Unfortunately, the weather quickly heated up. Thus, we found ourselves limited to a few hours of climbing in the shade in certain areas. As direct contact with the sun would turn the often polished popular routes into a slippery and blinding nightmare. This I found out on my nemesis, ”Transylvania, 8a”, which I tried once a couple of years ago. But ended in me tweaking a finger working the main crux move. This time, returning stronger and more confident after the success in Rodellar. I managed to fight all the way past the last quickdraw despite slippery footholds. Only to find the last 1.5 meters a complete mess of cobbled pocketed features glistening in the blinding sun. Screaming in frustration as I peeled off the sweaty holds, I was completely exhausted.
It would take me a precious 2nd session to kill this one-off. To be honest, after quickly dispatching “True Crime” and “Cooker” within a couple of hours on my 2nd day in Rodellar. I was pretty certain I could take my time to send other projects for the remaining days of the trip. Maybe even do harder routes.
As it turned out, factors like weather, fitness level, quality of rest, people, diet, and a small dose of luck would all come together to create a significant effect on success, especially when the road trip is short. Though strategizing projects and rest days are crucial to tip the scales in one’s favour. As a lone traveller, I also have to learn to go with the flow. Climbing where there are companies. Adjust my meal and sleep schedule to fit the situation.
Being too focused and serious doesn’t make good company. It is necessary to strike a balance the best we can. Besides, climbing trips are also not just about sending. But just as importantly, forging friendships and creating positive social experiences as well. The best solution I see is to simply get stronger. So that even when the moon and stars are out of alignment, sending relative hard projects anywhere would still be possible.
Lifestyle & Food……
At Rodellar, you can either eat at the restaurant which serves decent meals for 10-15 Euros (their vegetable lasagne and burgers are pretty legit!). Or you can cook in their kitchen with your own stove. Even without one of your own. You can always rent a stove attached to a large gas tank for only 1 Euro a day. Cheaper if you share! I got myself a 12-man dormitory for around 12 euros a night. A really good deal as the dorms are often ½ full anyway. Or a cheaper option is to make friends with some local climber who happens to own a house down the road. Your next trip’s accommodation is set!
I always stay at the Refugio on my previous trips to Margalef. The 12-man dorms go at around 12 Euros per night. This time was different. With 2 cars and extra sleeping bags between myself and my other 2 Romanian friends. We decided to camp across the small river a few hundred meters away from the Refugio. With good weather, a decent bar (which only opens in the early evening), and 24 hrs Wifi. Spending 4 Euros per person and 4 Euros per car meant we were able to save a ton of cash for food. Not sure if that’s a good thing, but never in all my previous climbing trips have I actually gained weight! Nevertheless, this trip was as much a gastronomical adventure as it was physical. Good thing I did most of my hard climbing in the 1st half of the trip!
Breakfasts were often an elaborate process. Starts with freshly brewed coffee followed by granola with fruits, oatmeal, or my favourite. Adrain’s special muesli pan-roasted with local raw honey and served with yoghurt, nuts, and fruits. Dinners were often super late as the summer sky only gets dark after 10. Even more elaborate and bigger. Finishing off with copious amounts of good but cheap chocolates with wine often well past mid-nite. Favourites include Yam’s coriander fried rice with chickpeas or fried pasta with pesto or hummus sauce. Nuf said, just join me vicariously through these pics.
Travelling alone can be a little daunting at times, but much of it is psychological. It’s true sometimes it’s good to have an extra pair of eyes and hands. And shaving weight from sharing equipment, cost savings and even taking turns to drive are all luxuries absent when travelling solo. Even getting lost together is often more “fun” than getting lost alone. Working on projects can also be less efficient. As a lot is at the mercy of who you meet and which crag the majority wishes to go to.
Minus these little “inconveniences”, the best part of travelling alone is that it forces you to really open up. If you really want the best experience. Opening up to people, uncertainty, flexibility, and a myriad of situations beyond your comfort zone. This trip, like numerous others where I had to travel solo due to designated leave periods. I have crossed my path with lots of really interesting people from all countries and all walks of life. Route-setters, IT professionals, farmers, business owners, bartenders, doctors … you name it!
I’ve met people who made me climb my best. Beyond what I believed I was capable of doing at my age. People who made me aware, appreciate and find joy in simple things in life. It also made me question my (and many Singaporeans’) attachment to structures and material things in our little world. In our attempt to find comfort and security in the midst of all the big city madness. It reminds me that life gets shorter with every passing year. And living in worry or by the expectations of others is definitely not the most fulfilling way to spend this once-in-a-lifetime (no pun intended) shot at life. As long as we live it responsibly and with good intentions.
Looking back and reflecting, do I consider this trip a success? Well, to be really honest I felt I could have done more in terms of climbing. With my far-from-world-class abilities, I really should display greater gratitude for completing three 5.13s within three days.
However, not achieving anything much in the remaining days of the trip made me wonder. If I could have done more, climbing wise. Then again, learning to embrace uncertainties like weather (sub-optimal/bad on most days) and company, are also important aspects of travel. Which serves to weaken our addiction and a national obsession with target-setting and KPIs. Forcing us to learn to “chill” more and be less uptight about things. Hence, having to forgo all the good experiences shared with friends just to double the number of sends would also be far from satisfying.
Perhaps that’s why I find myself spending more time catching up with friends and socializing. During my weekend sessions than actually climbing. That said, I still enjoy being in “project mode” occasionally and this trip. Like all previous trips including some which I sent nothing. This serves to lay the foundation and fuel climbing motivation for my future trips. So looking at a single trip alone as a measure of success. But this may not be the most accurate way of gauging progress.
Slowly but surely, through these travels. I am actually starting to overcome my self-limiting belief that things should go downhill after 40. And that I should adhere to a certain fixed and “self-respecting middle-aged” way of life. I am also finding it increasingly difficult to embrace the notion of security, wealth, and happiness through ownership of material things. When I see people with “little” who find homes within their hearts and everywhere they go. Versus those who own property (often at the expense of huge loans) among many other material things. Yet still feel inadequate and insecure and continue to slog to accumulate even more. Wait a minute, this is supposed to be a climbing blog. Why am I getting carried away with seemingly unrelated topics? Perhaps more accurately. I should title this as a “travel to climb, eat, meet people, learn new things and reflection” blog.