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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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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

Aug 13, 2019

Carnets de Trail: Montalin Ridge – Hochwang

Episode 3: Sébastien de Sainte Marie's "Carnets de Trail" series continues, this time near his new home in Graubünde.

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Sébastien de Sainte Marie is a steep-skier, runner, climber, The Outdoor Journal ambassador, but above all a lover of wide-open spaces. Sébastien has carried out first ski descents in the Alps, Chablais and Aiguilles Rouges. He made the first ski descent of “Brenvitudes” on the Brenva side of Mont Blanc, as well as off the English Route on the south face of Shishapangma (Tibet) from an altitude of 7,400m. In this series entitled “Carnets de Trail” (Trail Notebook), Sébastien shares all his favourite trails, with all the information you need to experience the same trips yourself.

Since my recent move to Graubünden, Switzerland, I have not stopped looking at this impressive mountain facing my new home, Montalin. Eventually, I found the time to check out the view from the top.

A shot of Luisa having left the marked paths towards Gromser Chopf.

The Key Information

Time: For walkers 9h. For runners between 4 to 5h. There are some sections, specifically on the ridge, where you cannot run.
Distance: 22km for 2100m uphill, and then 1400m downhill.
Location: Start from Chur and end in St Peter (where you will find a bus and train station).
Difficulty: The entire area between Montalin (2266m) and Hochwang (2532m) is located between T2 and T3 with a T4 passage just before Hochwang.
Gear: Trail running shoes are important, in addition to a light bag that you can use for water. Sticks might be helpful at the start.
Good for: The ridge is not very difficult, with good stable terrain and the views are amazing. The first long uphill looks tough, but it’s a soft incline. This route really is something for everybody.

Descending just before the Hochwang

Route

This little adventure starts from the Church of Saint Luzius in Chur (621m), heading up to reach the atypical little Chapel of Saint Luzi nestled in the rocks. The path then continues along Mittenberg (1114m), the chalets of Bargs (1600m) and leads to Fürhörnli (1887m). Curiosity leads us down a short detour to reach the summit of Fürhörnli and its summit so that we can enjoy a few seconds of breathtaking views of the river Rhein.

From there, the path becomes steeper and narrower up to the summit of Montalin (2265m). It is classified as an “alpine” path. From the top of Montalin we follow an excellent path towards Obersass to reach a pass located at about 2180m. We then leave the marked paths towards Gromser Chopf (2260m). The start is steep but then the ridge is flat and wide and only stiffens before the Ful Berg (2394m). Seen from afar, the raidillon before the Ful Berg looks scabrous, but once it has passed its test it is easy. The ridge then takes on the appearance of a dolomite with beautiful delineated rock towers just before the ascent to Schafläger (2429m) and then to Tüfelsch Chopf. A short roller coaster ride and here we are at the top of the Hochwang (2532m) to close this magnificent ridge. From the summit head towards Ratoser Stein (2473m) but quickly turn right to descend towards Triemel (1850m). The view is magnificent but a good half of the concrete path reminds us of the kilometres and the difference in altitude already covered. The path, road at times, then leads us back to St Peter’s which will be the end of our itinerary.

It is possible to do many variations of this itinerary, including a departure from Maladers (1025m) to reduce the positive altitude difference or on the contrary to extend the ridge to infinity on the Ratoser Stein then Cunggel (2412) and this until Mattjisch Horn (2460m) for the most daring.

The dolomite just before the Tüfelsch Chopf

Tips

– This is a route for dry and stable weather.
– Plan for sufficient water supply throughout the whole adventure, because apart from a small torrent at Walpagära (2338m) we were short on options.

The little extras

– It is possible to sleep 300 metres just below the ridge and just above St Peter at the Skihaus Hochwang
– There’s nothing like a good ice cream after an adventure in the mountains and if you’re in the mood for hot chocolate or walnut pie, then you can enjoy the great bakery and confectionery coffee.

Another shot, just before the Hochwang

Useful links:
Trains and postal buses
– The Chur Tourist Office located in the station will answer all your questions
The site to plan your trip with an online topographic map at 25:000.

Sebastien de Sainte Marie would like to thank Luisa for featuring in the photos and his partners Scott and Outdoor Research.

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