A Climber's Tale
Posted on: July 1, 2005
Montserrat, the birthplace of Catalonian climbing. "Jagged Mountain" in Spanish, Montserrat's conglomerate formations rise up to 300 meters high and feature more than 2,000 routes, all less than an hour from Barcelona. As a teenager, Ballart made his first ascents there, and he still considers it the originating point for his climbing style. Climbers like Ballart aren't the only ones who view Montserrat as a place that generates visions. A the heart of this labyrinth of rocks lies the Montserrat Monastery (visible in the lower right of the photo), which was founded in 1025 to commemorate sightings of the Virgin Mary. Monsterrat's climbing may date back to the first monk's arrival. [Photo] Dario Rodriquez
As far back as I can remember, trips to the Spanish mountains were part of my family life, even if those outings meant little more than spending Sunday afternoons picnicking in the hills above our home in Barcelona.
My childhood encounters with nature provoked an interest in the mountains, but escaping from the big city didn't become a firm objective until I was in my teens. Such escapes usually involved scrambling up some modest peak within the generously endowed Catalonian countryside, accompanied by my older sister and her boyfriend. Little by little I was filled with nature's wonders. Back at school on Monday mornings, I could hardly wait for Saturday, so I could escape the midweek monotony and once more sling my rucksack over my shoulder.
By sixteen I felt capable of organizing my own excursions; I only had to find a like-minded soul to accompany me. Cesar Perez Hurtado, a study companion, soon became equally enthusiastic about the opportunity to spend weekends far from home and our parents' watchful eyes. A train ticket and a map sufficed for our small adventures on the paths and peaks of the Catalonian Pyrenees.
In my limited vision of climbing at the time, the activity was synonymous with risk and carelessness. It was a marginal sport in a society dominated by football and Francoist repression, the affliction of a few mad fools whose accidents provided news for television and the press. All the same, during one of my first trips to the Montserrat massif, I remember with perfect clarity an urge to climb. This singular mountain range beckoned me to scale it; its seductive silhouette bewitched me as fairytales do children.
Something similar happened to Cesar, who bumped into a group of climbers in a mountain hut. He began talking to them and was soon getting along well with this strange breed of fellows who were kitted out with helmets, chunks of iron and outsize boots and whose weird habits seemed to belong to residents of another planet.
Within a few days, Cesar, taking minimal knowledge and borrowed equipment, dragged me off to a climbing area close to the city. A quick lesson in knots on the train was enough for us to scale fifteen vertical meters of rock, using the most basic techniques. Back home, Gaston Rebuffat's Ice, Snow and Rock, and the Montserrat climbing guide would be our primers for the next few months, introducing us to a fascinating new world.
We tried to conceal our new passion from our families, but the presence of hammers and pitons eventually revealed the secret. In spite of my parents' antipathy toward climbing, they gave me a harness, in the hope that if I fell, at least I would still be attached to something. From then on I spent my limited income on the painfully slow acquisition of gear: carabineers, pitons, ropes... a complete arsenal of equipment carefully hidden away in the wardrobe. Hi-tech gadgets and devices had yet to be invented, and gear was pretty basic, but so were the climbs that we encountered in this landscape deliriously rich in all kinds of rock.
Little more than fifty kilometers from Barcelona, Montserrat is Catalonia's climbing area par excellence. Its seductive, multicolored conglomerate relief contains all manner of routes up to 300 meters long. By the time I was eighteen, this magical mountain had become a second home for me, the orientation point for my personal climbing style. In those days Montserrat combined an extensive repertoire of classic routes and a small selection of epic ones. The latter, opened by the outstanding pioneers of the 1950s, demanded a display of boldness and technical skill far greater than many of the more recently established aid lines have done.
Some months later I ran into a clan of restless climbers called "The Pirates." Clad in black jerseys with white stripes, these self-taught youths not only repeated the most epic contemporary climbs, but also opened bold routes at some of the country's most famous crags. Getting to know the Pirates was like riding an express train of vertical adventure. They were the young elite of the day. Most of all, they taught me to value the discipline of the first ascensionist.
After I an accelerated apprenticeship, I developed an all-consuming appetite for opening routes as the Pirates did. A new route is like a blank score waiting for a musical masterpiece. Creativity is necessary from the first meter of the ascent until the route appears on paper. Soon my own first ascents surprised the climbing fraternity, and I was adopted into the Pirates' clan.
The Pirates showed me the secrets of a particular climbing style that other climbers respected and admired: a perfect combination of difficulty and exposure with a minimal use of bolts. Relying entirely on personal means and some extraordinary partners, I was able to turn my passion for first ascents into a reality. In the years since, I have experienced the challenges and benefits of vertical relationships, the pleasure of creating new routes and committing them to paper, the development of my own climbing style and ethics, and a lasting delight in the beauty and mystery of the natural world.
Although Spanish walls can't be compared in scale to Alpine ones, we haven't been short-changed in difficulty. My most whimsical climb was Arco Iris, one of the most spectacular overhangs in Spain. German Folch and I spent many weekends of fierce combat there. Both just nineteen years old, we threw our energies into placing more than 130 bolts by hand. Young and exuberant, I placed a Tyrolean traverse as a showstopper over 300 meters of air.
Such exploits assured my reputation as a first ascensionist, especially in Catalonia. Slowly, my concept of first ascents matured. It was not simply about ascending any old cliff, but about making bold ascents—as bold as possible. People say that I have a reputation for opening risky routes where a wrong move could spell disaster. The truth is that the crag itself is in charge. You have to maintain a constant dialogue with the rock and keep asking it questions: Where can I stop? Where can I place my protection? My routes demand concentration, instinct and careful reconnaissance of the terrain. The rock alone directs the ascent.
I do, however, recall one particularly bold climb back in the mid-1980s about which, under normal circumstances, I would prefer to keep quiet. It was one of those youthful experiments to be learned from, but never repeated. There we were, a whole bunch of Montserrat's best climbers who just happened to be in the area on the same day. Although the low clouds were less than conducive to climbing, we had to celebrate this happy coincidence somehow, so we decided to go walking in the mountains. I no longer remember everyone who was there, but the group certainly included my great friend Cesar, as well as Joaquin Olmo, Sebastian Colome, Ferran Blanch and Pep Boixados—all fanatical climbers and Montserrat experts.
As we walked along gazing up at the extensive north wall, we spotted a very obvious crack. It seemed accessible. What better way to round off the day than scramble up it? Without more ado and without any equipment to speak of, we looked for the start. If any of the group had second thoughts, I soon convinced them that this was one party not to be missed. Halfway up the 200-meter climb, however, we realized we had passed the point of no return. The only way out was up, using whatever means available. Up we went. Grade IV (5.5)... grade V (5.7)... without ropes... without any escape... and with a demanding dihedral leading to a small cove. A fearsome overhang blocked us. I could see we were corralled and that this adventure could easily end in tragedy.
I was still leading the way, following the cautious advice of my companions. They huddled below me, powerless to do anything but tell bad jokes to pass the time. I had to scale some fifteen meters in order to reach the top and seek help. If I failed, we could spend a week or more perched in this precarious eyrie with no one nearby to hear us.
My adrenaline pumping, I put together a sequence of demanding moves, easing my way up the highly polished rock to a well-vegetated fissure. Salvation was almost within my grasp—or so I thought. To my dismay, the vegetation also lay in my grasp, literally, coming away in my hands as I tried to pull myself up the final meters. The little shrubs and the crumbling rock held just long enough to keep me from falling into the void. As I reached the top, my friends' cheers rose through the air. We baptized the route Randonnee, and graded the final passage VI+ (5.10a/b). It has never been repeated.
Bold? Foolhardy might be a better description of that episode. These days I don't take such risks. However brave my climbing might seem, I know my limits. Yet each new route I've done is still an adventure. There are always my favorites—routes that cost much time and energy or that satisfied even the most demanding partners. There are also routes that stand out because of their surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. On more than one occasion, I have "opened" an existing route, such as during my first visit to Penon de Ifach. We had been beaten to it by some climbers from Murcia who left no trace of their presence and informed no one of their climb. On another occasion, just a few years ago at Montserrat, Ricard Darder, Ernest Noguera and I had done most of a long and extreme aid route when we decided to call it a day. As we were sleeping nearby, it made sense to leave all our gear safely stowed near the top and a series of ropes in place so we could finish the route the following morning. Then it started raining. There was nothing to do but return to Barcelona and come up again the next weekend. During the week, Montserrat is usually quiet, so we had no qualms about leaving so much gear. Our intent was to save ourselves time and effort when we came back. Never again. On our return everything had been stolen—and by fellow climbers at that.
Time is the more usual thief in the mountains, though in all the many kilometers of walls I've explored, I've only made one unplanned bivouac: with Remi Bresco on the north face of la Pena Montanesa in the Aragonese Pyrenees. Persistent snow dogged us from the outset. It was difficult to locate the already poorly defined starting point. Midway up the wall in a very exposed section, I took more than forty minutes to get a piece of protection. After such delays and with the afternoon rapidly passing, Remi proposed abandoning the climb before nightfall. As the initial third of the route was a traverse, descending directly would require a circus act: a series of rappels on complex and mediocre rock. My usually infallible intuition suggested we could get out in time if we continued. Then suddenly we encountered a large cave about twenty meters high. Climbing past this cave necessitated a feat of gymnastics against the clock, but at least it was a way out. While we were recovering our gear and searching for a viable descent, worse weather arrived along with dusk. Lightening flashed between the darkness and the snow as we sat atop one of the most isolated peaks in the area. Huddled against the rock, we could only wait. With the first light of dawn, we began a slow descent, reaching the car at eight a.m., exhausted. We did not hesitate to name the new route Sade Corner—after the Marquis de Sade, for those who might confuse the name with the eponymous singer.
Opening routes has been a long journey for me. I'm currently rounding a quarter of a century with a balance of more than 300 first ascents in the eastern half of Spain, mainly in Catalonia and on the Mediterranean coast: climbs of 200 to 400 meters with an average difficulty of ED (Extremement Difficile). Many of the climbs have already become classics, the rock polished by the frequent passage of climbers, such as Easy Rider (Montserrat), Estimball (Pedraforca) or Musical Express (Montsec).
Mountain folk have a special spirit of partnership such that two strangers may end up on the same rope, if only for a few hours. Under normal circumstances climbing partnerships last a while, but in the long run Fate, or some other woman, breaks up the team. Over time I've had a number of more or less fanatical climbing partners, of whom about ten percent have kept up the sport. My somewhat exclusive interest in opening routes makes long-term climbing partnerships rather difficult. Having absolute freedom is my highest priority—even outside of climbing. I find it essential not to be tied either to my workplace or to another being. At most I'll let myself get attached to a canine companion. Personal relationships these days seem increasingly complicated: you have to strike the right balance continually and above all possess great patience and tolerance. I've tried a few times, but a couple of years seems to be my limit.
With the arrival of sport climbing in Spain back in 1983 or 1984, many climbers abandoned traditional climbing. I've never been a great fan of sport climbing, other than as a way of training to tackle more difficult routes. Young people who begin with sport climbing often fail to understand the demands of free climbing an unequipped wall. While their fingers are well trained, their minds are not. Thus finding competent partners is generally difficult, and the only solution is to entice friends with choice routes.
But even with good friends, personalities can add an extra friction to first ascents. I'm old-fashioned. I always look for the most logical solution to problems, and I never make concessions in climbing or in life in general—or so I've been told. These tendencies often get me into trouble, particularly with one of my partners, Alex Vives, who has opened a few routes with me on Pedraforca in the Pyrenees. He and I can be equally stubborn over the location of a new line, but I usually win. I may not always be right, but I'm never wrong! We rarely return together from a climb. Alex prefers the more direct descent of Pedraforca down the scree, while I go for the less messy descent down the rock. However, this way, by the time we meet up again at the mountain hut, tempers have settled, and we are good friends again.
One of the more recent routes we opened on Pedraforca is Via de la Nina. We had just been on a 600-meter-plus adventure, opening Triple Direct on the north face, and since we hadn't argued too much on that occasion, we were looking for another interesting route. Via de la Nina turned out to be a TD (Tres Difficile) of some 210 meters: seven pitches in all with a mix of dihedrals, a bit of an overhang and a beautiful chimney near the top, all on very good rock and graded IV (5.5) to V+ (5.8) with a section of A0 6b (A0 5.10d). The only problem was that we had already fallen out at the start. We shot up the route placing very little gear, more preoccupied with the quarrel than with our own safety. We were so annoyed at each other that we just wanted to get to the top as soon as possible. At times like these, opening routes with only my dog as a companion seems less fraught with peril!
In spite of disputes, a strong bond exists between first ascensionists. There are very few of us at the moment. We clearly have a mutual interest to get to know one another and exchange experiences. I take great pleasure in explaining what I have learned and in learning from others. There has never been a school of first ascensionists or any handbook to explain our art, which is passed on in the field.
Our efforts are undervalued and too often the subject of unqualified criticism. Therefore, I like making first ascents in well-frequented climbing areas, where you know your routes are in the public domain and sooner or later the jury will approve them or condemn them to oblivion. Opening routes in the heart of the jungle or in the Himalaya, a task demanding a high degree of logistics, energy, time and money, would drastically reduce the audience. For the moment, plenty of unexplored ground remains within a mere 300 kilometers of my home and, despite my misgivings, many partners seem keen to share these unforgettable experiences.
Tracing new routes on rock brought me to another activity, one that also gives me enormous pleasure: drawing and disseminating climbing routes on paper. As a child, drawing was always my favorite pastime, one of the few subjects I was good at in school. Although I always dreamed of becoming a professional artist, I never imagined that I would do so drawing mountains. When I was a young man with a mechanics diploma under my arm but totally lacking experience, the world of pen and ink offered the only possible employment. My black and white mountains would find their way from time to time into the best-known magazines in the country and, more sporadically, the occasional climbing guide. When I wasn't climbing, my time was spent archiving sketches and photographs for later consultation or reproduction, hoping that some day they would be useful for recalling the golden age of Spanish climbing.
I've always been fascinated by the appearance of new climbing developments in print and illustration. This interest led to my involvement in making and circulating topographic maps, as well as my appreciation for the artistic potential of first ascents. If Ice, Snow and Rock and the Montserrat climbing guide introduced me to climbing, at the end of 1978 the book Climb! really bowled me over. Climb!, by Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton, was the bible of American free climbing. The impact of its pages shook our montserratino pride. Its elegant photos of climbers roped up at the waist, using chalk and overcoming considerable roofs, bordered on the hallucinatory, the incomprehensible. Now all we needed was to see the front cover of Revista with Ray Jardine negotiating the famous roof Separate Reality, protecting himself with strange devices called "Friends," which he himself had designed. We were at the gates of an event that would mark the pre and post of climbing in Spain.
Incredible images of the outside world were reaching us. But at the end of the 1970s, Spain was still in the Stone Age when it came to vertical information. There was practically nothing apart from a guide to Pedraforca and a few books about Montserrat. New routes were no more than gap fillers in the pages of magazines like Cordada, Vertex, Pyrenaica, Penalara, Muntanya and other bulletins associated with hiking clubs around the country. The norm was to make a sketch of the route and send it to one of the above publications where someone, using some vague criteria, would sooner or later print it in his short alpine section.
All at once, it occurred to me to spread information using photocopies of the topographic maps. These copies created a more direct exchange between people, and began something of a collecting craze. The phenomenon was a great success, promoting some original and artistic designs. It was not just about making accurate drawings of a route, but about illustrating it—and its name—in an appropriate manner.
Until then routes had received the names of the clubs or the first ascensionist. The Pirates broke this scheme of things beginning in the late 1970s with routes like La Cosmica, Electric Ladyland, Easy Rider, Magic Stone and Flipp Matinal. I guess this style of naming started as a way of being provocative, but it soon took root and occasionally, as in the case of 1984's Semen de Perro Viejo, it reached the limits of bad taste. Each madman to his own....
Personally I like naming routes in a way that describes the ascent or pays homage to someone—for example, the legendary guitar player Jimi Hendrix, for whom I named Electric Ladyland. With such names, the routes gain a personality of their own, and their authors a means of self-expression. Climbing was beginning to be more than just an adventure to reach a summit. It was also a form of visual and verbal art.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Spanish climbers began to discuss the need to create independent magazines covering all aspects of climbing. The first was Desnivel, in Madrid, followed, a couple of months later, by Extrem in Barcelona. Both publications were produced by young climbers, and they helped organize an avalanche of new routes. I would consult the more ancient topos, bring them up to date and add the new information to panoramic drawings of each zone. It was a painstaking task: self-taught, 100 percent manual, far from computer programs and the digital world. My steady hand earned me a reputation and provided me with a sufficient source of income, the luxury of being able to get up when I liked and the ability to keep a timetable that suited me.
Twenty-five years have passed, and the information keeps flowing between the pages of magazines and reviews, almost to the point of saturating the reader. This diffusion is certainly stimulating, but at the same time it reduces climbing's charm and adventure. Some people need topos in such detail it would be necessary to keep repeating the route to check whether all the pitons were still in place. Although good information about access, accommodation, approach and descent is always useful for saving time, the only requirements for first ascents are a map to locate the area and an abundance of hope to attain the goal.
As with my topographic illustrations, my climbing style has developed over the years. For the most part I prefer free climbing and resort to aid only when absolutely necessary. Except in obviously gymnastic areas, where I make use of etriers, I feel ridiculous if I aid: I could be stealing someone else's opportunity of opening that route free. Currently I value rapid first ascents with little gear much more than slow, gear-laden ones. You'll find a good cocktail of adventure on all my routes, the ingredients of which are hardly unique. But the mixture is the secret.
Over the years true climbing has suffered a marked ethical deterioration. In the past only those who truly valued the activity climbed, while now many people climb to fill a gap in their leisure time. For them, climbing is a prefabricated adventure sold in shops along with the rest of the equipment. The ethics of consumer climbing have little in common with the deeds of the pioneers. Gear has evolved in giant-sized leaps, but climbers, in contrast, have taken a backward step.
The mid-1900s abounded in personalities whose acts serve as reference points today. While they opened routes in a single day with museum-grade gear, modern climbers repeat the same routes with bivouacs and a complete arsenal of metallic devices. I try to preserve an ethic based on an awareness of climbing history and its traditional values.
I made my first encounters with Grade VI (5.10a) in the historic Italian Dolomites. From 1981 to 1990 I dedicated almost every summer to these mountains: Monte Agner, la Civetta, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, la Tofana di Rozes, Catinaccio—huge canvases of rock overflowing with masterpieces and vertical nostalgia.
Fredi Parera, Pep Masip, Lluis Lucas, Josep Enric Castellnou, Manolo Vilchez and a number of other select montserratinos were among the climbing partners capable of confronting such challenges. My first Dolomite adventure was with Pep Masip on the Arista Norte of Monte Agner, an astonishing experience that left the concept of kilometer-high walls permanently engraved in my memory cells. We tackled the 1600-meter buttress—the tallest in Europe—testing our route-finding and gear-placing skills to the limit.
One by one, we explored each Dolomite massif in the area. According to mountain lore, Monte Pelmo, la Forchetta and la Civetta qualified as the first Grade VIs in history, and thus became our most outstanding objectives. With Fredi and Lluis, I achieved the north buttress of la Forchetta. We were surprised at the route's extreme difficulty until we discovered that we were opening a route quite different from the original. We ended up making a traverse and a pendulum rappel to rejoin the correct line, where some old pins led up to the final cracks of the Solleder-Weissner Route.
After this experience we realized that if we wanted to have a chance on the north face of Monte Pelmo we would have to study the wall inch by inch with binoculars before setting out. Fredi and Castellnou accompanied me on this problematic, 900-meter adventure. Night caught up with us some 300 meters from the summit. At 3000 meters, where the wall's demanding final section began, an abandoned bivouac testified to previous attempts halted by darkness. What should we do? Our decision was unanimous: continue with headlamps. By one in the morning we reached the summit, and a smiling full moon facilitated the complicated descent. Nine a.m. saw us back at the car, tired and hungry from not having eaten or slept for more than twenty-four hours. Later that day the Italians congratulated us on our singular repetition of the Simon-Rossi Route, one that fulfilled all our expectations of a genuine Grade VI. With la Civetta awaiting us on the other side of the valley and a powerful anticyclone over our heads, we didn't have time to bask in our glory, and we soon added la Ruta Polaca to our list of successes.
If the Dolomites illustrate the history of difficult climbs, the three outstanding Austrian climbing areas, Karwendel, Wilder Kaiser and Wetterstein, reveal the origins of Grade VI and the possible birthplace of Grade VII (5.11) alpine climbing. Repeating the routes of Hans Dulfer, Matthias Auckenthaler and Hias Rebitsch allowed us a fantastic voyage through time. The skill of these masters remains intact in their routes, truly refined pieces that I had to climb intuitively, discovering step by step the enigmas of the face. If this was Grade VI stuff, I thought, what would Grade VII, created by the modern Tyrolean generation of climbers, be like?
An enticing article in Bergstein's 1984 edition served as an invitation to try a recently opened route, Sturmwind, on the north face of Kleiner Lafatscher. Its elegant line, bordering on Grade VI+, awaited a first repetition. Accompanied by J. Charles Pena and Lluis Lucas, I immediately realized those who had opened Sturmwind were truly extraordinary climbers, and we were no more than humble Spaniards, some ten to fifteen years behind the times. After battling various pitches of committed and exposed Grade VI, we managed to overcome one of the most extreme vertical caprices I had yet experienced. We recognized once again the courage and talent of the Central European climbers.
In contrast to these classic climbs, back in Spain, many people had begun devoting themselves to the well-equipped "Made-in-France" Grade VI (5.10). While the accelerated evolution of "sport" Grade VI created an advance in European standards, there was a price: the extinguishing of a traditional style molded over the decades, one that only a few of us are trying to defend.
Questions of style and ethics are important as we consider not only the past and present, but also the future of climbing. For some time now, many people have begun to view climbers as a new plague capable of exterminating the ecosystem's most delicate species. This view is unfair. Climbers are among the first to be concerned about protecting the environment. What could be more wonderful than climbing in the harmonious company of birds and beasts, the true masters of the place? On more than one occasion, I have been wrongly accused by some defender of his favorite spot who believes that where Armand goes so go the masses. The reverse is the case. My routes are an effective repellent against repeat visits. The real problem often originates with how certain people equip routes, casting metal right and left in some solitary corner that soon becomes overrun. Legislation, however, does not distinguish between different styles and ethics. All climbers are equal in the eyes of the law.
In many areas the sinless pay the price of the sinful. However, particularly in the mountains, a silent deprivation of freedom is progressing—to the point where it is prohibited to sleep under the stars or bathe in a river. Such legislation makes me feel like a criminal before nature and creates a sense of impotence, imposed as often as not by people in offices who rarely venture into the mountains but who have to justify a salary drawn from public coffers.
We can expect a difficult future, one in which our conduct beyond the city limits will be controlled by rules and regulations. Before long we will need a license to climb, and all routes will require an official stamp of approval. In some places, not only in sport climbing areas, it's already necessary to equip routes according to safety regulations, with a predetermined distance between protection. According to such rules, I'd have to be disqualified and my routes reequipped, a nightmare that sooner or later will wipe out a style matured over decades. Climbing areas will be transformed into polished rockodromes, to be maintained and paid for. I hope that at least a few classic areas will be preserved for posterity, a difficult concept for many young people to understand.
Nature presents us with such a repertoire of adventure that we would require many lives to satisfy ourselves. Boredom is a remote concept in these spheres. New seducers lurk everywhere between the light and the silence. With forty-five years behind me, I reject no form of risk, other than that of boarding an airplane. Thanks to the knowledge and experience I have accumulated, I now derive greater pleasure than ever opening or repeating routes. Of course, one experiences fear in certain circumstances, but a sense of confidence and a great respect for nature help to rectify matters. We tread paths where hesitation and doubt rarely go unpunished, but since I consciously avoid ice, snow and anything that could suddenly fall on me, and since I have a watchful guardian angel, I can still enjoy the present to its fullest. Who knows what the future will bring?
There remain many routes to resolve, many pages to fill and much positive knowledge and experience to pass on as my precursors have done. Adventure will always be waiting; we only have to choose the most opportune moments and make no concessions to age. More moderate activities can be kept on hold for the future. If I ever waiver from this conviction, I've only to look at certain seventy-year-old partners who are capable of anything in any kind of terrain, who mete out energy with meticulous care in order to prolong life's adventure. People like them preserve the secret of eternal youth, still to be encountered in the mountains and the sea. Don't be fooled by appearances. If I'm not much mistaken, at heart they're no more than bold kids. z
—Translated from the Spanish by Sheila Sutherland