OLIANA, EVENING, 58 degrees F, a magic wind blows. Chris Sharma screamed and everyone froze.
“Venga, venga!” the chorus shouted.
“Venga, venga, venga! A muerte!”
Again Chris produced his distinctive animal yell. We kept screaming for him to Go! Go! Go!
Chris clung to the wall by infinitesimal points, moving upward by leaps and bounds and making quick and deft adjustments to his body position. He was a fluid, light-footed machine. No hesitation. All power and grace.
He rode that ferocious fringe that’s only found in sport climbing—the quickening margin where a climber is so barely attached to the wall, so close to falling, but somehow still moving up, fighting to reach that next new point.
In the teeth of a lonesome run-out, 20 feet above his last draw (having skipped one), Chris adjusted on a pinch as poor as a baseball bat sliced down its Y-axis and nailed to a 15-degree overhanging wall. He kicked his left foot onto a high step, turned his knee in by a few degrees, and launched an all-out double dyno.
All the movies and myths that have come out of Catalunya—the eastern province of Spain—seemed to me, in that moment, to fall short of truly capturing what it means to climb 5.15 and beyond, to see someone up so high and breaking through in this utter phantasmagoria of midnight-blue rock and flushed evening air. All the climbers at the crag seemed stirred and alive. The passion for free climbing fully bled here at last, from this place and the people and the very stone that congregated this intense extolment.
Presiding over grassy idylls that unroll like green carpets from the old-world town of Oliana, this namesake crag has all the right ingredients. Fifty meters tall, consistently steep the whole way and most important, not featured enough to make any full-length route easier than 5.13c. Yet, incredibly, it’s featured enough—just barely—for routes to be climbed free.
That’s what’s so cool. The routes look impossible. But they go.
A ledge, blockier rock on which to scum more kneebars, generally bigger holds (even by a half pad)—any one of these common lithic characteristics would take away from what’s unique about this place and time. As 5.15b enjoys its hot minute as the hardest grade established, Oliana puts everything into perspective. This cliff, with less than 30 climbs total, has more 5.14d-and-harder routes than all of North America combined.
That is why I came here, even though I don’t climb nearly that hard. I came to be in a place where warming up on 5.14b—as Chris did prior to trying his project—somehow begins to seem reasonable. I came to Catalunya because it is to sport climbing what Camp 4 was to climbing in the 1970s—a boiling crucible with all the baddest routes and best climbers in the world. I came to have my perspective changed and moved forward, and of course to climb completely badass limestone routes.
Despite perfect conditions, the right beta and the positive energy from our shouted encouragements, Chris still came up short on the double dyno. He dropped 40 feet into the wind and cursed, “Joder!”
Continued on next page …