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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville


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Adventure Travel

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.

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Travel

Sep 19, 2018

The Top 5 Whitewater Kayaking Destinations in North America

The five whitewater kayaking destinations in North America, that every paddler should have on their list.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

As a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team, I have been fortunate to paddle rivers all over the world. I have paddled in Europe, Africa, South America, New Zealand, and all over North America. Some of my favorite paddling destinations have been the White Nile River in Uganda, and the Kaituna River in New Zealand. If you get a chance to visit either of those places (especially before the White Nile is dammed next month), I highly recommend it. However, if you are on a budget and can’t afford flights out of North America, or if you live elsewhere and are planning your first paddling trip to North America, here are five destinations that should be on your list!

OTTAWA RIVER, ONTARIO

Big waves, warm water, low consequence.

Brooke Hess kayaks Minibus Wave. High water on the Ottawa. Photo: Andrea Polgar.

Whether you are a beginner, an elite freestyle kayaker, or just looking to run some big volume whitewater and surf some fun waves, you can always find something fun to do on the Ottawa.

Spring melt on the Ottawa provides massive rapids and big waves. Buseater and Coliseum rapids are perfect for elite freestyle kayakers looking to step up their game and test themselves in big water. And with the Gatineau and Rouge Rivers close by, there is plenty to choose from in terms of both river running and freestyle. Be aware though, spring in Ontario and Quebec is cold, and the whitewater isn’t easy. Only go at this time of year if you are 100% confident you won’t swim. And, in case mistakes happen (which they do… we are only human), make sure your drysuit is in good shape and you are fit enough to hold on if you are getting beatdown!

In case cold water, icy banks, and big volume grade 5 rapids aren’t your idea of a perfect kayaking vacation, just wait until summer! August on the Ottawa is the perfect combination of exciting (yet low-consequence) whitewater, big surf waves, small surf waves, warm water, and good weather. Imagine surfing on the world-famous Garburator Wave in a t-shirt, then paddling 50 meters downstream to a perfect sandy beach for a mid-day picnic with your friends, and capping off the day with a beautiful river run straight to your campsite!

SLAVE RIVER, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES 

Like the Ottawa, but bigger.

Leif Anderson going big on Rockem’ Sockem Wave, Slave River. Photo: Natalie Anderson

Located in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, the Slave River is not often listed as a world-class paddling destination due to the amount of driving required to get there. But don’t let this deter you, the Slave River is epic!

The river is three kilometers wide, hosting four different sets of rapids. Due to the massive width of the river, each set of rapids has multiple (more than 5) different channels. Each channel within a set of rapids is the length of a full-day river run. This means, (if I did my math correct), there are at least twenty different river runs to explore on the Slave River. All within ten minutes driving distance of each other. And this number doesn’t even include the smaller side channels, or runs where you combine multiple different channels in one run! This allows any paddler, no matter their skill level, numerous options to choose from. There are grade 1 floats, perfect for canoeists. There are grade 2 options, perfect for beginner kayakers. There are grade 3 rapids with world-class surf waves. And there are grade 4 and 5 rapids that have the potential to intimidate even the world’s most elite kayakers. In addition to the amazing river running, the Slave River offers epic surf waves for anyone from beginner to elite freestyle kayakers.

WHITE SALMON, WASHINGTON

If you love beautiful places.

Darr Soli paddles the Little White Salmon River. Photo: Leif Anderson.

If you are a whitewater kayaker of any sort, I am sure you have heard of the Little White Salmon River. It is a classic grade 5 creek that professional kayakers travel from all over the world to paddle. It is also potentially the most videoed section of whitewater in the world. I have never paddled the Little White Salmon River, but I have seen so much GoPro footage of it on the internet, I am pretty sure I know most of the lines.

What I bet you don’t know, is that in White Salmon, Washington, where the Little White Salmon River is located, there are also numerous other grade 2, 3, and 4 rivers. In fact, the White Salmon River alone has a grade 2 stretch, a grade 3 stretch, a grade 4 stretch, and a grade 5 stretch. Whether you are a beginner kayaker, an intermediate kayaker, an advanced kayaker, or a professional kayaker, there are multiple beautiful, moss-covered, basalt-laden rivers for any skill level in and around White Salmon.

IDAHO

Wilderness, hot springs, big water.

The Lochsa River, designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, flows through the Clearwater National Forest. U.S. Forest Service Northern Region photo.

I don’t have the words to describe how wonderful Idaho is. I grew up two hours from the Lochsa River, spending weekends camping in the woods without cell service. It was my first ever taste of big water and I was hooked from the very start. If you like big water river runs in remote locations without cell service, Idaho is where you should go. If you like multi-day kayak trips through remote wilderness, with sandy beach campsites and hot springs, Idaho is your place. Basically, if you like whitewater and are not a complete weirdo, you will love Idaho.

You have the Selway River, the Lochsa River, the Clearwater River, the South Fork Payette, the North Fork Payette, the Middle Fork Salmon, the Main Salmon, the South Salmon… I could go on. So many remote rivers with beautiful surroundings, I don’t even think I need to say more.

SKOOKUMCHUCK, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Starfish, seals, sea lions, salty water.

Emily Lussin kayaking at her home wave, Skookumchuck. Photo: Brooke Hess.

Skookumchuck is different. It is unlike any other kayaking destination. Skookumchuck is located on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, in the Sechelt Inlet. Yes, Inlet… not river. Skookumchuck is a tidal rapid, formed by the tides as ocean water moves in and out of the Inlet over a rock shelf. The salty water flows over the rock shelf and forms a picture-perfect, glassy, green surf wave. If there was a contest for smoothest kayaking wave in the world, Skook would win.

Despite how epic the kayaking wave is at Skook, I don’t think that is what makes the place so special. To access the wave, you hike four kilometers through a dense rainforest, with green moss and vines hanging everywhere. It feels as if you are hiking through a magic forest with fairies and unicorns. Something you would see in a Disney movie. Sitting in the eddy waiting for your turn on the wave, you will be mesmerized by the purple and orange starfish scattered all over the rocks. Not to mention the sea urchins, barnacles, sea anemones, and seals everywhere!

On my most recent Skook trip, I watched two sea lions play in the whirlpools behind the wave for thirty minutes. I then proceeded to make excuses for why I didn’t want to get back in my kayak until the sea lions were gone (I was scared)… but nonetheless it was one of the best days of kayaking I have ever had. I have even heard of people seeing whales breaching on the other side of the Inlet while someone is kayaking on the wave. The entire setting of Skookumchuck is magical. Even if you consider yourself more of a river runner than a freestyle kayaker, a trip to Skook should still be on your list.

 

Cover Photo: Leif Anderson.

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