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Reflections on climbing in Catalunya
One of the best trips ever. Plus: Chaehyun Seo, Chris Sharma, and the good life
For eight days, I lived in the now. Paid attention only to what was in front of me. To climbing and the sun and wind and cold, and to the people I was with, friends both old and new. To good meals with good company, to wine and fresh olive oil, made from grapes and olives grown in the hills all around us. I paid attention to the properties I went to see in Cornudella, to the differences between Spanish and Catalan. To the views from the top of the cliffs at Montsant and to the steep mountain roads that took us from cliff to cliff. To the sharp incut pockets in the rock and to the feel of the rubber on my climbing shoes grasping to the tiniest of footholds. I listened for my climbing partners calling to take or be lowered. I paid attention: to my breathing, the air around me, and to my feelings about it all.
And then, on the ninth day, I knew it was almost the end. The next day, my son and I would fly back to the U.S. He would go back to school, I would turn my attention back to client work, and there would be three weeks in Bethesda where the mountains and all the beauty and charms of Catalunya would again be far away. This small community of climbing friends would disperse. None of us looked forward to the return.
The trip was special almost from the beginning. My friend Jordi—I’ve written about him before—organized it among friends to test out the idea of a business that brings groups of climbers to Catalunya to climb. I didn’t know everyone who was going, but I knew that if they were friends of Jordi, they would be good people all, some of the best.
The first afternoon, he organized a welcome lunch at a place outside Reus. It was his father’s favorite restaurant (actually a commercial kitchen next to a town pool that can be rented out for private events), and so the fourteen of us—ten guests, Jordi and his brother Xavier, plus their parents—drank bottle after bottle of local wine and vermouth and dined on some of the best paella any of us had ever tasted in our life:
After, we drove the windy mountain roads to the house where we’d stay for the next nine days, a gigantic villa just outside the town of Cornudella de Montsant:
For the rest of the week, we climbed. First, to Margalef, with its conglomerate cliffs and pockets cobbled together eons ago. Conglomerate was a new style for me, different from the rails and corners of New Hampshire. Half the effort here was to pick from the dozens of odd-shaped, different-sized pockets, fighting a slowly-increasing pump in your forearms as you pinch the sides of each one on your way up searching for the best grip.
We climbed until dark, as we did every day, and as the sun set over the canyon we all began to snap the first pictures in a series we knew would never do the views the justice they deserved:
On the third day, we climbed at Siurana. It’s an almost mythical place in my mind, and in those of many climbers. We grew up hearing about it, usually in connection to legends like Chris Sharma, one of the earliest climbers to start routinely filming (and thus popularizing) what a life devoted to climbing could look like. Siurana is also known for epically hard, overhanging sport routes like La Rambla.
On the list of best sport climbing crags in the world, Siurana is almost always going to be in the top five. To me, it feels like a cathedral. The limestone cliffs are arranged in an elongated, u-shaped configuration. The orange and brown ribbon-shaped bands of rock layered into each cliff are the stained-glass windows. The sun setting to the west is the chandelier. The climbers who come are the congregants.
Whatever your idea of beauty bordering on the divine in this world, mine is epitomized by cliffs like these. Again, a photo cannot quite do it justice:
We climbed at El Pati, a crag on the right-hand side looking in from the road. Jordi and Franky, a young crusher from New Hampshire, had just finished a 7b+, when we noticed a certain someone climbing next to us—an unassuming, quiet 19-year-old from South Korea named Chaehyun Seo.
One of the top five female climbers in the world.
I knew her from a hundred IFSC climbing competition videos on YouTube. I had watched her machine-like, level-headed precision inching her up a hundred competition sport climbs and earning her countless World Cup climbing medals.
Jordi talked to her for a few minutes. This was a warmup climb. She was there to project La Rambla, he said. She’d been at it a few days, with ten more before she had to return home.
Only 27 people in the world had ever climbed La Rambla, and only one woman—Margo Hayes in 2017. The climb has its own Wikipedia entry, which I scrutinized later and from where I’m basing the information here. Many of us climbers think of La Rambla as the first 15a in the world—an important milestone in sport climbing history—but in fact, it was the second, after Biographie at Céüse in France. Later, over beers, I raised the question with the group why so many of us thought of La Rambla as the first, and I think it’s because we had all watched an early video of Chris Sharma working on its ascent (similarly, we all had an idea of Sharma being the first to climb it—actually he was the third). As is the case in so many areas, those who popularize a thing often have their name attached to it in the public consciousness.
It was an incredible treat to watch Chaehyun warm up. But we had no idea what was coming. A few hours later, we walked around the corner to see Chaehyun starting up La Rambla. We figured we would see her mostly hanging on the rope, sorting out the moves, considering the sequence, “projecting” the route until she was ready to make a full attempt to climb it clean from the ground—a send. The thing only 27 people had ever done before her.
But then, as she started from the ground, slowly, deliberately, choosing her rests, moving with purpose, it became clear she was on a send attempt. She was going for it.
Here we were in the cathedral, but instead of bowed heads, we had craned necks. La Rambla is steeply overhanging the entire way. It starts in a 14b crack, then juts to the left onto even steeper ground, where the limestone turns from burnt orange into a dirty black.
All around Siurana, from every cliff that was in view, climbers stopped what they were doing to look. We sat below our respective routes and watched utter beauty of movement in front of us. We had tingles. We whispered in hushed tones. This is special. This is a gift. This is so, so fucking cool.
Later that day, Chaehyun announced the send herself:
Send it on my 7th try was just amazing! It’s been one of my biggest dream in my climbing life and I still can’t believe that what happened today Second female ascent for this route❤️🔥
Thank you for giving me huge cheering, was just awesome😜
I was one of the cheering. We all knew what we had just seen was special—one of the very best climbers in the world climbing one of the absolute hardest routes in the world.
But this is the beauty and the magic of the sport. If you are at the crags, you will run into someone. It was that way at Potrero Chico in Mexico in 2012, where I and another group shared the campground with none other than Alex Honold. He wasn’t world-famous just then—only climber famous. Nearly every climber who has spent significant time outdoors has a similar story. They were at such and such a place, just out for a day of climbing, when a certain word-class climber was also working on some hard project next door. Honold? Yea, he’s super friendly, they’d recount.
It is part of what I love about climbing, among many things: the rock is egalitarian. It is the great equalizer. You don’t have to be famous to show up at Siurana, you just have to love climbing. And you just may be there to watch Chaehyun Seo send one of the most famous climbs in the world.
This kind of serendipity is specific to sports where the playground is a specific place in the natural world. You have to go to the cliff to climb the cliff. In other sports, there is a built environment, and it becomes segregated. Exclusive. LeBron never just shows up at the local basketball court to work on his jump shot. Messi doesn’t bum around to different soccer fields to practice his penalty kicks. But then, neither do people who love playing soccer. The other sports just don’t work the same way.
But climbing does. We all share the rock, we all share the crag—it is a cathedral for all of us, a place we come to practice our own version of worship.
On Thanksgiving, after four days of climbing, we rested, our bodies sore, the skin on our fingers shredded. We walked around Cornudella de Montsant, bought wine at the local cooperative, had a coffee at one of the cafes, and played some soccer in the plaza:
There was so much to give thanks for. Health, climbing, friends. The good life.
Later, we set the large table in the dining room of the villa and feasted. Everyone contributed. I cooked a bread pudding. Jordi’s mom cooked a turkey. Roast vegetables, stuffing, a cranberry sauce. We had it all. Franky spent five hours the night before and the morning of making four pumpkin pies from scratch—he said the crux move was improvising a mortar and pestle to crush the cloves.
In the evenings, we drank wine and vermouth and talked about the day’s climbing, or what we were planning for tomorrow. There was no politics, little talk of work. For my son, it was a baptism into a different world—not just Catalunya, but a group of adults who had oriented their life around a passion, one that comes with certain values: not climbing a career ladder, or money, or social status.
Two of the nights evolved into dance parties. Some, we stopped for beers and pizza at Goma 2, a bar attached to a climbing gear shop (the place rakes it in). Other nights, we binged old climbing videos from the 90s on the big TV at the house. There was Sharma, a fresh-faced kid probably not more than 15 years old, bouldering and waxing poetic about flow and how he feels just thinking about the rock right in front of him.
Part of what we admire about Sharma is a certain purity of intent. As a teenager, he’d been into competition climbing and had been one of the best in the world—but he’d also become burned out. He considered quitting climbing. He went on Buddhist pilgrimages. He moved to Spain (Siurana is his home crag). He abandoned competition climbing and instead pursued lines that spoke to him. Aesthetic lines. Arches above the ocean. Perfect cracks. Overhanging cliffs inside cathedrals. According to his Wikipedia page, Sharma eventually coined the term King Lines— “iconic routes that inspired him to spend the months and even years needed to climb them.” Today, Sharma embodies a kind of zen ’d-out, intrinsically-motivated, guru-like love for the sport. He practices climbing at its highest level—is he also practicing life at its highest level?
On the last day, we went back to Siurana. My mind had begun to turn to the trip home, and I was climbing with a certain resignation. It all felt very bittersweet.
We were warming up across the road from the main area when a text came from Jordi into our group chat:
The one and only in El Pati. Trying “Sleeping Lion”.
His brother wanted to clarify… One and only? And Jordi replied:
He was over where Chaehyun had been a few days earlier, gearing up to work on a new project. We finished our climbs and walked over. My son rushed. Xavier encouraged him to go introduce himself. He sat down next to him and posed for a picture. He asked for a selfie. Chris, as friendly and chill as everyone who has ever met him reports, was happy to take one:
It was the perfect last-day capstone to an unforgettable climbing trip.
As the sun began to set over the cliffs, I began to wonder if I could change our tickets. Stay another week, perhaps. I’d have to talk to my kid’s mom and to his school. I’d have to find other lodging. But maybe? Jordi would still be here, and so would Franky. We could climb with them. There were more cliffs to see, more of Cornudella to experience.
The last of the oranges and reds of the sunset cascaded down, and we again tried to capture the moment. The phones won’t do it, I said. We need a poet. Still, we stood on the side of the windy road where it met the trailhead, trying to grasp and absorb all the beauty we possibly could before it ended and we flew home. The vans and cars from higher up the mountain swerved around us on their way down the hill. We should get off the road, I said, as the last of it faded into darkness. And we walked back to the parking lot, to the van, to wait for the rest of the team.
Once I got service back on my phone, I brought up our flights and searched for a way to change them. Service has been cut back, the United Airlines site told me. Flights may be limited. There was nothing for at least a week. But at least one thing was clear—I would be coming back. As soon as I could manage.
Thoughts on choosing between Spain, Italy, and Greece
Property-hunting in Cornudella de Montsant