Articles - Developing New Sport Crags: La Selva
Discovering a fantastic untouched cliff must be the dream of every pioneering climber. The opportunity to establish dozens of high quality routes of all grades on rock that has never before felt the caress of skin – what could possibly be finer? However, in 21st Century Great Britain, unless one happens to frequent the far North of Scotland, or perhaps some of the more obscure coastal regions of the English South-west, this dream is likely to remain just that.
Even in Catalunya, that small, mountainous country squeezed between Spain and France, the easy pickings are long gone. What’s left is generally situated hours from civilization, requiring mammoth walks through hostile territory.
And so it was with considerable surprise, one afternoon in May 2006, in the otherwise well developed and popular sport-climbers playground known as Camarasa (from the name of the nearest village), that I found myself standing below a beautiful, unclimbed wall. The cliffs of Camarasa, spread out in several tiers along the eastern side of a narrow gorge, although not particularly high (average 25m), offer extremely interesting climbing on excellent rock, which combined with short and easy approaches, has made them an important forcing ground for local climbers since the ’80s. An altogether unlikely place to stumble upon untouched rock!
Something in the way
But my new find was far from a chance discovery. I’d been visiting the region for the best part of 20 years and by now probably knew the place as well, if not better than most locals. So when I first spotted the crag – through binoculars from the other side of the valley during a rest-day walk – I knew immediately that there were no documented routes on it. Why? Poor rock? Unlikely in this area. No, a closer look was definitely required. However, despite existing paths running to within just a few hundred yards of the crag (above and below), all my early attempts at actually getting to it were thwarted by some of the densest, most inhospitable jungle this side of the Congo basin – a formidable barrier of spiny trees, thorny bushes and evilly barbed creeping ground plants, interlaced in such a way as to make human progress all but impossible.
Not only that, in the winter of 1938/39 during the Spanish Civil War, a fierce battle was fought here between Franco’s armies and the retreating Catalan and International Brigades. Franco’s fascist buddies in Italy and Germany, as well as lending men, were only too happy to supply new prototype weapons for testing before the ‘main event’ got under way the following year, with the result that many shells simply didn’t go off and still litter the hillsides, lying in wait for anyone stupid enough to go blundering about in the undergrowth!
In the end, perhaps scared that someone else would get there first, I decided that sterner action was needed so, despite unusually high late spring temperatures, I donned thick clothes, leather gloves, a helmet and safety goggles and got stuck into the plant life or, should I say, it got stuck into me. I’m really not sure how long this nightmare journey lasted, probably something less than an hour, but I never, ever want to repeat the experience; give me deserts any day!
What a beauty!
So finally there I was, picking long, vicious thorns out of my backside and staring up at a magnificent, impending corner of rock. Its side-walls overhung, the left gently, the right more so, and a deep, narrow cave split the back of the corner from bottom to top in spectacular fashion. The rock itself looked superb – the same rough, red limestone with crisp edges and sharp, juggy pockets as the other sectors, but here the walls were undoubtedly higher – up to 35m. I was immediately struck by the tranquillity of the place; ‘new’ crags in Spain invariably bare the marks of previous human involvement – disused bee hives or goat pens, sometimes the ruins of shelters where desperate fugitives hid from Franco’s army. But here there were absolutely no visible signs of Man’s passing whatsoever, a sort of miniature ‘Lost World’ and I couldn’t help but feel rather humbled. I ended my first visit with a hair-raising solo up a steep, tree-filled gully, just to the left of the main wall – no way was I going through that jungle twice in one day – and made the happy discovery that the top of the crag was not quite as difficult to reach from existing paths as I’d previously thought; from now on I’d be roping in!
Until fairly recently, my next action would have been to contact some of the local guys and let them do the rest. But lately, I’d become interested in equipping new lines myself (even buying my own drill) and so, perhaps a little selfishly, I decided to keep quiet for a week, or two.
The ethical issues
Before I got down to business, there were a couple of issues I had to address. First: did I need to get permission before I started developing the cliff? Strictly speaking, yes; all the land around here is owned by somebody, or other, government or private. But in practise, no; climbers have been putting up new, bolted routes in this area for many years and have thus far self-regulated admirably, avoiding cliffs where climbing might pose a danger to the public (overhanging roads etc) as well as those frequented by nesting birds of prey. The second issue was personally more difficult to reconcile; as a lover of nature myself, how did I feel about transforming this little bit of wilderness into just another outdoor playground. The incontrovertible fact is that climbing, like most other human activities, damages the planet. The question of fixed protection (bolts) over traditional gear (nuts and friends) is of minor importance: but from the manufactured products we buy and use in our sport, to the fossil fuels we burn in getting to the crags, and the disturbance we cause to flora and fauna by actually being there (not to mention the white trails of chalk we leave behind after we depart), climbing simply isn’t eco-friendly. Maybe not quite up there with off-road 4x4 driving, but still a negative influence. However, in Camarasa, the proportion of rock actually of interest to climbers is miniscule compared to the miles of loose, inaccessible cliffs that line the valley so I decided that here, at least, nature could probably handle the intrusion.
Getting down to business
I named the new sector ‘The Jungle Book’ (after the large corner) but the Catalan translation El Llibre de la Selva is a bit of mouthful, so this was later abbreviated to just La Selva – ‘The Jungle’.
What followed was probably the hardest week’s work of my whole life, though extremely satisfying. It took a full day just to clear enough bushes from the base of the crag to make moving around reasonably comfortable. Another day was spent abseiling to strip giant patches of ivy from parts of the wall before finally, on Day 3, I was able to get down to the really interesting business of making new climbs. I started by inspecting prospective new lines on abseil; I didn’t just want to start bolting blindly from the top only to find a completely blank section of rock two thirds of the way down. I’m sorry to say that this modus operandi is not unknown in parts of Spain, with the inevitable result that blank sections often get chipped.
The mechanics of placing bolts, while not exactly rocket science, needs meticulous care and attention – you must always keep in mind the fact that people will be trusting their lives to them later! The rock must be 100% sound, the hole drilled perpendicular to the angle of the wall, so that the bolt hanger will sit flush. Then, after blowing the drill dust out of the hole with a tube, the parabolt is hammered home and the nut tightened, but not over tightened – one hand rather than two. Of course, where you actually put the bolts is more subjective. A potentially great climb can be ruined by poor choice of placements, either too close, too far apart, or stuck right in the middle of the hard move and difficult to clip. At La Selva, rather than place lines of uniformly spaced bolts, I decided to spice things up a bit with a few ‘run-outs’ on certain routes, though when I eventually introduced the first group of local climbers to the crag, they took one look at these particular climbs and hastily thrust a little book entitled Manual for Equippers into my hands!
To be fair, their main concerns centred on the initial 10-15 metres of the climbs where, by spacing the first few bolts a little too widely, I’d possibly created some ‘un-sporting’ ground-fall potential. So, deciding that most visitors would probably rather not risk breaking their ankles, I added a few extra bolts.
And so, at the end of an utterly exhausting week, during which I arrived back at my Mother-in-Law’s house each night looking more like a builder’s labourer than a holidaying climber, I’d equipped just F7 climbs, from F6b+ to F8a+ and lost almost half a stone in weight. I wasn’t particularly interested in doing the easiest and would probably never get fit enough again to do the hardest, but that wasn’t the point – equipping is about giving something to the climbing community. Who actually does the first ascent is of secondary importance.
Occasionally my wife, Àngels, came along, reading and sunbathing above the crag, while I laboured away below. But otherwise, my only companions were the Crag Martins, beautiful, acrobatic little birds, and a very common sight on the cliffs of Catalunya at this time of year, though one I never tire of.
The first time I invited a group of Catalan friends to ‘my’ crag, I was gratified by their reaction – synchronised jaw-dropping sums it up quite aptly. But the silence didn’t last long as each began picking out lines they would equip over the coming weeks. I felt pleased but, at the same time, a little sad. My holiday romance was over and I had to go back home.
All through the summer, my friend Albert Cortés kept me up to date on the latest developments, emailing me frequently updated lists of new climbs.
It seems there had been many visitors, mostly locals, but some from further afield, including Germany and (apparently) Britain. The pain of not actually being there was eased greatly by the knowledge that, after just a couple of months, some of my own climbs from that first, solitary week had already achieved ‘classic’ status.
Late September 2006; I’m back in Camarasa.
On this trip, although I enjoy a day or two climbing and photographing at La Selva, there’s something missing; I’m not as excited as I should be. Then I realize – I’ve got the new-rock bug!
“Coming climbing today Pete?” “No, I think I’ll just go for a little walk,” I say, pulling on my thickest trousers. . .
To date, between 50 and 60 new climbs have been equipped in La Selva, mainly by the tireless Albert Cortés, but also with a little help from his friends: Josep Maria Casals (Tano), Stefan Fulop and Òscar Oliver. These climbers have also installed a via ferrata (down the gully I originally soloed up) and cleaned a new path through the ‘jungle’ linking La Selva with other sectors closer to the road – both mammoth tasks.
Equipping costs money: although I personally funded all my own routes (bolts, hangers, belays etc), the rest have been paid for entirely by sales of the guidebook Wild West Catalunya which covers an adjacent area to Camarasa, developed by many of the same climbers. So, where possible, please buy the local guides – you know it makes sense!
The cliffs of Camarasa predominantly face west/north-west, making them unsuitable for mid-winter, sun-rock trips. They really come into their own from April to October, when searing temperatures often make climbing on south-facing walls a non-starter for all but the stupid.
Camarasa lies approximately 1.5 hours drive west of Barcelona, whose airport is currently served by a bewildering array of low cost flights from a variety of UK airports. Either trawl through the individual websites: easyjet.com ryanair.com bmibaby.com etc or visit the one-stop skyscanner.net off-peak flights can often be found at ludicrously low prices.
Most will choose to hire a car, and this is best arranged from the UK, at the same time you book your flights. We’ve generally found Auto Europe autoeurope.com to be very competitive.
Camarasa itself is not really considered a tourist destination, but Sant Llorenç de Montgai, just 3 kilometres down the road (another popular climbing centre), most definitely is. Here one can camp at the first class Camping La Noguera campinglanoguera.com which also has bungalows, or stay in the newly refurbished Alberg la Cova.
Food and drink
There are several pleasant bar/restaurants in the area where one can eat out at reasonable prices: Can Pere, situated just off the main road through Camarasa is very popular, as is Mirador del Llac in Sant Llorens de Montgai, which is also where the best topos for the area are kept.
Basic provisions can be bought locally, but for supermarkets, the larger town of Balaguer, just 10km back along the road towards Barcelona, is the place to go.
Before leaving the subject of food, I really must mention the bakery in Camarasa; this establishment is famous for miles around for its pastries, particularly Coca de Recapte, a delicious pizza-like affair, but without the cheese, and Braç de Gitano (gypsy’s arm!), an amazing foot and a half-long sponge roll filled with thick cream or chocolate, or sometimes both! You have been warned!
Guidebooks and information
An up-to-date guidebook is urgently needed as the existing one is woefully out of date and hardly worth buying. Luckily, a good collection of topos is kept at Mirador del Llac in Sant Llorenç de Montgai.
If you enjoyed this article then check out some other sport climbing destinations in the Climber features library.