It’s March 2014, I have been living in Spain for the past three months, in the small Northern town of Oliana, a farm town at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains.
The mountains shoot out of the ground in long ridges capped with limestone spines for as far as you can see. And at the forefront of the range is a blue wave poised to crash on the grassy fields below. This cliff is known in the climbing world as Oliana, and has been in the spotlight ever since Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra battled the hardest sport climb in the world and won.
The wall is stacked with the highest concentration of the world’s hardest climbs side by side. Although most of the choice lines have been bolted and climbed, there still remain a few open lines. At 150 feet with barely any rests, Oliana is a stamina beast forcing you to climb fast and efficiently.
The wall is so large that it swallows everyone up like a huge deafening wave, and one can find tranquility as they ride the blue stone to the top.
Upon arrival in Spain, I was a bit rusty. I had been climbing in Yosemite Valley and was used to low angle slabs. However, I quickly found my groove and built up enough fitness to send one of the classic lines at the cliff, El Gran Blau 5.14a, or The Big Blue in Catalan, the language spoken in this region of Spain. I began working on a more difficult route called Fish Eye 5.14b. Within a few days I was making it to the crux.
My friend Sam Elias soon joined me in Spain. He had brought one hundred bolts and hangers with the intention of putting up routes in Morocco the following month. Feeling beat down from climbing on Fish Eye and falling so many times at the crux, I was ready for a break.
I suggested we bolt a line up the center of Oliana, just to the right of Fish Eye. The route was obvious but would require a lot of work. Most of the existing lines follow water streaks. The water from frequent rainfall runs down the cliff and coats the wall with a hard blue shell forming colinets and tufas. Our line climbed through the orange rock which needed more attention in order to be climbable.
The following day we climbed an existing route to the summit of the cliff and anchored a rope to a few small trees near the edge. Using hooks and adjustable daisies to gain position on the steep wall, we placed removable bolts and rigged a static line down the intended climb. As I lowered from the top, I could see that the climb was going to go. It seemed hard, but the holds were there. I only had to look two routes to the left at an existing 5.15b to see that the holds I was finding were far better.
Sam and I tag teamed the project, keeping each other psyched and the work moving forward; we HUSTLED.
Having never bolted something so big before, I was ignorant as to the amount of time this project was going to take. It turns out one hundred and fifty feet of limestone is a lot of rock to make ready for climbing!
We visited many hardware stores and practiced our Spanish to buy tools and glue for the project. Making friends in the process, we borrowed the drill from a local climber who was also bolting a new line at Oliana. We sacrificed climbing days to hang in our harnesses, cleaning and glueing, our fingers cracked and bleeding from the difficult labor.
But in the end we stood back proud, and we marveled at our creation, knowing that we had put in all the work needed to make this route the best it could be.
Sam sent the new route a few weeks later, and we called it American Hustle, 5.14b.
Having my friend send the route was spectacular. Watching the project come full circle was an experience I will not soon forget. It felt good to give something back to this beautiful place that has given so much to me and to many others. Watching people climb on the new route brought a smile to my face. American Hustle will be at Oliana for a long time and I hope it brings smiles to many more faces.
Sam left for Morocco, but I had three more weeks in Spain and still had not sent Fish Eye.
On one of his last days I broke through the middle crux that had stopped me so many times before but fell on the notorious thin section at the chains. I needed another break.
I went to Siurana for a bit and crimped the bleep out of some routes. Siurana has the most slippery razors I have ever experienced. It was fun hanging out with friends and climbing many easier routes. In a week, I climbed more routes than I had my whole two months in Oliana, but Fish Eye began to tempt me back.
With two weeks left, my friend Hazel Findlay wanted to meet up to climb. She got excited to try Fish Eye with me, so we headed back to try it again. Feeling a renewed psych, I sent Fish Eye my second day back. Maybe it was my stronger fingers from the week in Siurana or maybe it was the week of rest. Pero la lucha ha terminado. Hazel also sent the route in good style a few days later. I finished up my trip climbing on American Hustle.
I’ll have to return next year to send it, or maybe I’ll find myself bolting some new lines…
*Check out Andy Bardon’s video for the full story:
Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the PG Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias ‘Smash’. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite.