To plan the trip, we got in touch with Toni Arbones (a legend in his own right, but more on that later). Toni runs Camping Siurana, which doubles as the community centre for Siurana climbing. Without a campervan or a car, Camping Siurana is probably the best place to stay. Siurana’s crags are all within walking distance from there. The campground has cabins, a trailer park, as well as a cosy restaurant. It even has a pool for the summer. Those with a vehicle may also choose to stay in Cornudella de Montsant, the nearest township to Siurana. By foot, Cornudella is about an hour’s hike away.
There are many ways to get to Siurana, but we tried our luck and asked if Toni was willing to pick us up from Barcelona. Surprisingly, he agreed. He would later reveal that this was the first time in his over 20 years running Camping Siurana where he picked someone up from the airport.
We had asked Toni how we might identify him at the airport since we had no idea how he looked like. He asked us to look out for someone “in climbing clothes”, whatever that meant. When we arrived, Toni appeared out of the corner, cladded in Kailas attire. He shook our hands and we introduced ourselves, though we’re sure our names faded into the recesses of his memory the moment we said them.
“How much is Sharma climbing?” we asked. “I don’t know. I don’t pay!” That was the first hint that Toni was much more than any ordinary, rugged-looking Catalonian climber. We had read briefly about him and his vertical adventures on the internet. We had watched him passionately ruminating about his bolting vision in the short film, Ten Thousand Bolts. All these still did not adequately impress upon us just how amazing this man truly is.
“Every weekend these people, they come from the city, they don’t know how to drive and they go so slow!” Toni commented as we got stuck behind three vehicles winding their way up the mountain slopes to Siurana. Toni’s eccentricity and free-spiritedness went on full display when he cut out of the lane just metres from the next turn in an overtake attempt, only to be forced back by an oncoming car that came around the corner. “Toni, por favor!”Miriam, his wife, exclaimed.
As we turned the corner into the valley, the immensity of the landscape quickly overwhelmed us. Immaculate rock as far as the eye could see. Siurana’s backdrop was Serra de Montsant, a mountain massif that stood between Siurana and Margalef to the northwest. Toni and Miriam tried to orient us to the place, but with rock everywhere, it would be an impossible task to distil Siurana into an introduction several minutes long.
Three hours, one nice scenic drive and countless heart-stopping driving manoeuvres later, we reached Camping Siurana. Toni handed us our keys and away we went. The first order of business was to find our bearings and figure out where’s where and what’s what. We had made the decision to not purchase a guidebook beforehand, on the assumption that Toni would sell them. Toni’s place did not sell them (at least not yet). So, we snapped some photos from the communal copy at the bar and asked around for help. Toni gave some really generic instructions and I mean, really generic.
It took us an hour or so to find our way down to, at that point, somewhere. We took the sunlight flickering off bolts on the rock faces to mean that we were on the right track. The first crag we came to was Can A Prop, but not that we knew this then. Following the trail that stood at the foot of the wall, we snaked along. There were bolts everywhere. At this point, we were so hopelessly lost and confused that we had to ask for help. The climbers we met would prove to be extremely friendly, welcoming and most of all, helpful. They showed us their guidebooks, told us where we were and how to get around.
At some point, we found our way to El Pati. Again, not that we knew this then. We looked up and saw a fella jamming his way up this massive crack system. We don’t know how else to describe it but the wall was massive. And absolutely intimidating. His friend greeted us, and we watched him climb for a bit. “Incredible, probably nothing easier than a 7c?” was our first thought. We later learnt that he was on Estado Critico, a 9a, which also became popular as it saw the world’s first 9a onsight by Alex Megos. Clearly, we were foreigners, with tons to learn and see.
The month to come was an absolute dream. Data connection was sparse, and WiFi was only available at the bar. To save money, we cooked our meals and paid visit to the bar only occasionally. Lunch was packed food that alternated between burgers, sandwiches and sometimes, lasagne. Crag food of course required key snacks like Oreos, Haribo and tons of chocolate. The only things we were concerned with were which crag, which routes and what the weather was going to be like.
Climbing in Siurana was rumoured to be sandbagged. We had heard it was crimpy. Everyone claimed that Margalef was ‘better’. The people we met and spoke to seemed to all share the sentiment. Some routes did indeed seem harder than they were graded (see below). However, most routes seemed to be graded fairly by our standards. The routes we experienced also had holds that were much more diverse beyond just crimps – monos, two and three-finger pockets, jug rails, finger locks, an array of jams, you name it. It depended on which crag you were at. To be fair though, we had no other point of reference to compare to, since this was our first sport climbing trip to Europe. Safe to say, however, the rumours amounted to nothing much for us.
The routes were obviously more run out than we were used to at the start, though we got acquainted to it eventually. The skin on our fingers, on the other hand, took a major beating. For some of the routes, especially at L’Olla, the rocks were really sharp. Each time you put your fingers onto a hold, you were forced to endure the cuts. You get used to the pain, but the skin seemingly never adapts to the friction. Climbing in Siurana required epidermal sacrifice. Rest days were absolutely necessary.
After a couple of days, we came to be well acquainted with the place. Access in Siurana was unlike anything we’ve experienced. The nearest crag, Can Melafots, was less than 10 minutes away by foot. If you drive, it’s right beside the carpark by the Castell. Belay areas were mostly luxurious, with enough real estate for you to run around, lie down and nap. Trails were not the most well-marked, but they were obvious enough if you kept an eye out for them.
On one of the days, we decided to check out Siurana’s first 7a and 7b at Can Gans Dionis – Pendre la tête (7a+) and Kurt the Gandals (7b+). They were indescribably hard (at least, for their grades). We shared with Toni our experience, and he explained that when a route of a particular grade first gets put up anywhere, they tended to be a step above and thus are often much harder than their compatriots. Factoring in how these are also the oldest routes and will tend to get polished over time, very naturally, these ‘first’ routes will likely be the hardest and most futuristic of the area. It is only as more routes get established will the grade range slowly expand, and comparatively ‘easier’ climbs graded the same may emerge.
The hardest crag we managed to find was the famed La Capella. Seeing that there were two 7as (the easiest grade) there, we decided to go for them. We went early in the morning, hoping to avoid the crowd. As we were finishing up the second of the 7as, two guys arrived at crag. They dropped their bags at the foot of La capella, the 9b, among several other routes, that had stirred up big grade discussions in the climbing community since Jakob Schubert and Alex Megos repeated it no more than two weeks prior. One of them came up to us and asked what we were doing. He looked at us and said “good for warm up, yeah?” I smiled and told him, “for sure”. Nathaniel recognised the guy, who turned out to be 15-year-old Niki Rusev from Bulgaria. As we walked off, he waved and said bye whilst hanging off La capella, just below the crux section. We wished him all the best before leaving him to his business.
The crowd most surely picked up as the festive season drew near. The place and the crags, both the accessible and classic ones (like Can Melafots, Can Toni Gros and El Pati), were packed each day. We made a habit of heading out earlier, some time before the sun would hit the walls – we guessed it was a fair compromise between dealing with the crowd and freezing our asses off.
Toni was extremely hospitable. Each time he saw us at the bar he’d check in on us, and recommended places for us to go climb for the best 6s and 7s. He gracefully rented us his car for the days we wanted to visit beyond Siurana, though we’re not sure if he would offer this as a norm for all his guests. We found his hospitality especially toward us to be just like his resume – world-class.
One of the most alluring climbs of Siurana was definitely the sandstone that we had heard so much about. It was hard to not want to give them a try. They were located a little further from the other crags, below Siuranella Central. True enough, they were mystifying. Giant pockets and tufas snaked all over the wall. It was a sight straight out of a sci-fi film. Climbing on them was even more magical. Each hold had to be grabbed with just the right amount of force, lest they break. It was climbing that demanded not just extra attention, but also grace and intentionality. Ephemeral is what many describe sandstone climbing to be, and we definitely got to experience some of that.
From time to time, at the end of a long, satisfying day at the crag, we’d retreat to the bar for food and WiFi. Hanging at the corner of the bar was a picture of Toni on a wall. He eventually shared that it was a photo of him on Angel Falls in Venezuela, as part of a French-led expedition team. It took them 16 days in total to free the entire wall, a record for that climb. He told his story in what came to be classic Toni-esque fashion – impassioned, energetic and absolutely wild. He gestured, he waved and he said f***! He went on to share that he had in the early 2000s went to climb the Trango Towers in Pakistan. We lost our minds. We had watched the film of the Huber brothers’ free climbing there. The history of Trango Towers and Eternal Flame is long and complicated, and we are no experts on the subject. Hearing his story, though, we read up more about Toni online. Toni grew, for us, to be way larger than life. We re-watched Ten Thousand Bolts with a different perspective while cosied up in our wooden cabin. Toni’s new feature film, Fire in the Fingers, would certainly shed more light on his life story.
At the end of the trip, Toni willingly drove us back to Barcelona himself. Along the way, we asked more about him – how he has trained all these years, how Camping Siurana came to be, and his dream in the near future. This guy still climbs 8c at fifty, and has climbed with the likes of Chris Sharma and Alex Huber. Our road trip conversation revealed that he had been bolting in China for many years now, and his latest project is in Le Ye in Guangxi province. He was surely way more familiar with China than us four Chinese people. His aspiration (for now, it seems), is to help set up a ‘Camping Siurana’ there. He spoke, eyes sparkling, about how unique and futuristic the climbing there was, with 3D acrobatic moves up along gargantuan cave roofs. At the end of it all, he invited us there to climb, suggesting that we will surely meet sometime in the future. Never mind we were far from the best climbers he had met.
“No climbing today, only tourismo!” Toni quipped as he made a left turn into our hostel in Barcelona. The city was beautiful, but safe to say we were all sad to be back. After two long years of pandemic-induced sedentary lifestyles, we spent a month in a place that was nothing short of inspiring. There, we were welcomed by the hospitality of the community, championed by the likes of Toni. It didn’t matter what grade you climbed or what routes you had done. There were no legends or heroes in Siurana, only a shared passion for the rock. Everyone went out in the day to some corner of Siurana, trying as hard as they could on different challenges they picked for themselves.
It was easy to forget, but our time in Siurana was a good reminder of what climbing ought to be like. Climbing is personal, and it is humble. It is less about the climbs themselves, but about the kinds of people we want to be and come to be after the challenges we meet on the rock.
To borrow John Long’s words, when the river is smooth, everyone’s a hero. It’s when the big water starts to roar can we find out where we stand and what we’re made of. The question is, what have we made ourselves?
Written by Gawain Pek (MIR 18) and Nathaniel Soon (MIR 18)
Photos by Nathaniel Soon, Wang Chiew Hui (MIR 17), Tan Xin Li (MIR 20) and Gawain Pek
Dec 2021/Jan 2022