Climbing into mystery on Montserrat

May 22, 2013
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Rising up from the grassy slopes of farmland and vineyards, its jagged peaks carve the sky in two like the serrated edge it was named for. Montserrat, meaning “saw moun- tain” in Catalan, is 20 minutes from the Spanish town Collbató and less than an hour from Barcelona. But to visitors, it seems worlds away.

The Virgin Mary is said to have visited Montserrat, and the magic still lingers in the Benedictine monastery nestled on the mountain and around La Moreneta, the statue of the “Black Madonna.”

While the traditional holy places on the mountain and scenic views draw the most crowds, some people find their religion in the mountain itself.

Chris Sharma, a professional rock climber, said the area is currently the international epicenter of climbing. Even though he has spent most of his career establishing new routes, Shar- ma said the region surrounding Montserrat has some of the best climbing he has seen. Some of his favorite places to climb include: Oliana, Margalef and Santa Linya, all in the Catalonia region

“I’ve only climbed Montserrat once, but I remember, it was something,” Sharma said.

He advises climbers to appreciate the scenery.

“There’s just so much rock in that area,” Sharma said. “River rocks, granite and limestone are all combined, and it’s kind of a bizarrely beautiful climbing experience.”

In recent years Montserrat has become the premier site for Spanish rock climbing, offering thousands of opportunities for the climber willing to attempt its towering spires.

Dr. Josep-Maria Garcia-Fuentes, a professor of architecture at the Escola Tecnica Superior d’Arquitectura del Valles, said this has not always been the case.

“The rock climbing culture in Montserrat is not so old,” Garcia-Fuentes said. “It is something that started around the mid-20th century, and it’s like a kind of logical consequence of the touristic culture that started in the late 19th century, with the popularization of the walking tours of the mountain.” Garcia-Fuentes later discovered no one had performed previous architectural studies of the monastery at Montserrat, which became the basis of his dissertation. After the original monastery was destroyed by Napoleonic troops during the Spanish Independence War, it was rebuilt to look ancient.

“If you look at the architecture in Montserrat, it is a little strange because it is not actually an old monastery,” Gar- cia-Fuentes said. “We found archives showing different drawings of the monastery. They were different architectural projects from the 18th and 19th centuries that no one knew existed.”

He also explained how the monastery and the surrounding land was expropriated to the state. Many sites, including the monastery, were abandoned.

“Similar things happened throughout Spain,” Garcia-Fuentes said. “But not as significantly as Montserrat. Everyone forgot about the monastery.”

Everyone that is except for a liberal Catalan politician named Victor Balauger, who started the reconstruction of the monas- tery at Montserrat.

Garcia-Fuentes said Balaguer dreamed of creating an Iberian federation through the unification of the people of Spain and Portugal. The Iberian Federation was to be based off of a symbolic universe in which the monasteries of Spain, and especially Montserrat, were to be the keystones.

Balaguer first wanted to create a symbolic universe in Cat- alonia that was based on four monasteries in the area: Santa Maria de Poblet, Sant Cugat Ripall, Santes Creus and Montser- rat. But, the Catholic Church was trying to gain control of this symbolic universe.

Garcia-Fuentes emphasized that the mountain became popular during this time of tension between the church and those who wanted the mountain to be enjoyed by all.

Thousands of people were coming to visit the moun- tain. The precursors to tourists, called excursionists, came to the mountain only to enjoy the nature. Simultaneously, religious pilgrims travelled to Montserrat to visit the monastery and the Madonna.

“This tension between the pilgrims and the tourists was very fruitful,” Garcia-Fuentes said. “It took a long time to reach the top of the mountain and the view points, so there were restaurants that were built near these view points.”

The mountain continued to gain more popularity over the years and was even featured in an exhibit of the World Fair that was hosted by Barcelona in 1888.

The birth of the climbing culture on Montserrat occurred because of the growing popularity of the Monastery and the mountain as a tourist destination.

“There are some really amazing climbing spots all over Montserrat and especially by the monastery,” Sharma said.

According to Rock- topo, a Montserrat mountaineering organization, the established routes are compiled by thousands of people who climb hundreds of the various rock formations to give visitors the best experience of the mountain. The routes include more basic climbs along with expert-level free climbs, recommended at the climber’s own risk. Rocktopo has its own rating system from one to five stars, telling which of the climbs are the “nicest” in terms of ease and beauty.

Climb Cataluña also has recommended routes, saying most climbers begin on one of the many sport sectors on the south side of the mountain, which include easier routes where first- time visitors can get used to the rock and style of climbing before going to more challenging areas. Montserrat offers safer, more modern sport routes that are well-bolted, as well as more difficult multi-pitch routes that are moderately-to-ful- ly-equipped, allowing for an intense trad climbing experience, according to the website.

Sharma suggested a route guide for climbers who want to experience Montserrat for the first time.

“Definitely get the guidebook,” he said. “Some of those routes are tough, especially for a beginner. And, you don’t want to overestimate yourself in a place like that.”