spain_margalef_4_12_2011_2538__Las Finestras, Margalef, lunchtime, breezy, shady. It’s a car-sickening drive down a tortuous road, passing under, over and around outcrops of conglomerate limestone, to reach the basin of this impenetrable mountainous belt. The town of Margalef is here, and it’s the navel from which a huge and diverse expanse of vertical terrain rises, with many crags lining the finger-shaped corridors and canyons. There are hundreds of routes, and dozens of walls and crags, with a variety of grades side by side. The conglomerate is as varied as stone comes—pockets, jugs, tufas and crimps; steeps and slabs; long and short, and often all combining on single lines. The famous Catalunyan architect Antoni Gaudi was said to have found inspiration for his hallucinogenic motifs here at Margalef.


Chris actually climbs very little on any given day. Typically, he does one warm-up, anywhere from 5.12d to 5.14b, and then tries his project once, maybe twice. If he’s working the route, he makes each one of those burns count: lowering down, retying in, and trying to make increasingly bigger links or get “low points” (climbing from the fifth bolt to the top, then from the fourth bolt to the top, etc.). If he’s in redpoint mode, and comes close to sending on the first attempt, he’ll stop climbing and come back the next day. But if he’s planning to rest the next day, he’ll hop on another hard project and boulder around on it, trying to keep his power up. He rarely climbs more than three to five pitches a day, and tries to rest every other day.

Chris started with a 5.12d, climbing it twice back to back. He rested and belayed me as I climbed a gothic 5.11 with stone that looked like melted wax. Then I climbed two 5.12d’s that were nearly as brilliant as the 5.11. Chris suggested I try the sandbagged pocket climb El Fustigador (5.13c), an area classic. I hung and fell, but managed to do all the moves.

Iker Pou, who has climbed the 9a+ (5.15a) Demencia Senil (a Chris Sharma FA also at Margalef), was there with his brother, Eneko—a good climber though considerably worse than his bro, but equally passionate. The two of them together are hilarious, especially when Iker laughs, because it sounds like a cackling goblin.

Sam Elias and Emily Harrington were there, too, and they were psyched to climb with me on El Fustigador as well. Iker tried to explain to us what the route’s name means, but his English is only so-so.

“You know, Clean is Good?” he asked. We looked at him with blank stares. Then Iker made his hands into the shape of pistols, pretending to pull the guns from holsters and firing them into the air. “Clean is Good! Clean is Good!”

“Oh!” Emily said finally. “Do you mean, Clint Eastwood?”

“Yes, yes! Clean is good!” Iker said. “HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

“Wow, that’s a crazy laugh,” I said, causing Iker to laugh even harder and more crazily. (We never figured out what El Fustigador actually means.)


“All right, Andrew,” Chris said. “You wanna give me a catch on the big bitch?”

The big bitch is an unclimbed project called Perfecto Mundo on a 50-degree overhanging wall. No route here is easier than 5.14c.

“I think this one could be 9b+,” Chris said, which means 5.15c.

Iker agreed. “Oh, yes. 9b+! 9b+! HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Chris tied in, took off his shirt and began climbing. I heard his knee joints crack and pop, indicating he probably wasn’t as warmed up as he could’ve been. Still, he cruised right through the opening section of 5.14c to reach a rest—a place to match hands and shake, but with only one foothold. His left leg dangled blindly beneath him while he shook for two or three minutes amid the 50-degree overhang.

“OK,” he said. “I’m going.”

“C’mon,” I said. “You got it.”

He made a series of lock-offs and high steps, grunting and exhaling, and then right before the crux, he fell. He rested on the rope and talked me through the upcoming difficulties, seemingly as much to explain to me what the climbing was like as it was to drill the sequence into his own head. As you get on routes that are near your limit, the moves get so hard and the beta so fastidious that redpointing becomes as much a matter of deep comprehension as physical execution.

“There’s this mono,” he said. “It’s not a pocket, just a flat edge for your middle finger. Barely one pad deep. You don’t really load it; you just place it there for balance. Then you dyno up to this pinch. The pinch is weird, like a Spock grip—so you have to be accurate to get your fingers on it just right. The hard part isn’t generating the dyno, it’s controlling the swing out. That’s when you load the mono. It’s like you have to hold yourself from swinging too far away from the wall with that one finger. It’s really strenuous.”

“What’s the next section like after that?” I asked.

“Big lock-offs to crimpers. It’s like climbing a system’s board, or something. Probably V9 bouldering. Then at the end, you get this mantel onto a sloper.”

The climbing looked so hard, even impossible except for the fact that Chris seemed close to doing it.

“It’s getting there,” Chris said. “But look, finger’s split.” He raised his pointer finger, and there in the crease of his first pad gaped a sliver of red.

“Shit, that sucks,” I said.

“So … in hospitals, they will make incisions into the torso and insert a hand with a bad flesh wound inside the body to help it heal.”

“What? Really?” I said.

“Yeah, for real. So, we have this joke here,” Chris continued. “It’s the next best thing. We call it El Tratamiento. The Treatment. When you have a split tip … you can take your finger and shove it up your own ass.”

“So what are you saying?” I asked, laughing.

“I’m saying if I want to climb tomorrow, I might have to resort to giving myself The Treatment.”

“Ouch,” I said.

The next day we rested.

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