Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Bernat's Horse

Montserrat! The serrated mountain, rises from the plains 40 miles north-west of Barcelona. It is less than 5,000ft. high and three or four miles long. The rock is a very firm conglomerate. Seen from the south the mountain is a maze of pinnacles, many of them some hundreds of feet in height; to the north it presents sheer walls of up-to 1,500ft, almost without weaknesses. All this rock rises from a shrub-forest, everywhere as dense as a privet hedge. The mountain is famous for its monastery, fitted impressively into a cirque of pinnacles. The monks are nothing if not enterprising. They have provided excellent restaurants, cafeterias, food shops, wine shops, bookshops, gift shops, hairdressers' salons and toilets. The monastery has published a handsome rock-climbers' guide book. Vending machines dispense cooled beer and chocolate at all hours of day and night.

We arrived in the early afternoon. In the huge tourist car park an attendant stopped us. On our first visit his predecessor had been helpful. "Could we camp somewhere near here?" we had said. "There is a free camp site, courtesy of the monastery," he said.

"We have come to climb," we said..."The climbing is superb, enquire at the monastery," he replied.This time it was late in the year and the attendant barred the way. "The camp site is closed for the winter." We pointed to a small tent, just visible through the trees."The camp site is closed for the winter," he said.
This exchange repeated itself interminably until an emergency called him aside and we were able to continue to the camp. It is indeed closed and the gate locked but two climbers had persuaded the administration to grant them access. It was a special privilege not to be extended to anyone else, because they were there only climb the mountain, they explained.

"So are we," we said, pitching our tent. Of these two climbers, one was a Swede, working in
Czechoslovakia. The other was a Spaniard, working in Switzerland. I conversed in German. The Spaniard recognized me immediately but did not say so because we had met on our earlier visit when Dave Nicol caught him transferring armloads of food, climbing gear and motor oil from our tents to his own.

I recognized the Spaniard immediately but did not say so because it seemed useful win friends. Retribution still lay some months into the future when Dave Nicol was to find himself a day and a half above the Spaniard on the Nose of El Cap. "Pedro," the men in front would shout as they drank their Coca-Colas. And the Ave Marias drifted up as the Coke cans tinkled down. Pedro finally roped off.

At night the place changes character. The day trippers disappear and the illuminations and the moonlight emphasise the huge clean facades of the buildings. Beautiful to wander around the desert plazas, arcades and flights of stairs at those hours. The monks a nowhere to be seen. Sometimes we wondered what they did with themselves. But often we would hear heavy rock music pouring out from tiny lighted windows five or six floors up, and, on one occasion at least, girls screaming. However, as if to remind the visitor of their essentially solemn purposes the monks bang gongs from time to time and they keep this up for most of the night, backed up at intervals by regular strokes and chimes from assortment of powerful clocks and bells.

A memorable incident occurred in the camp that night. The sit perched on terraces above a precipitous slope, looks straight acre at the buildings, a quarter of a mile away. Looking at the view from
the pitch-dark camp site, the note of a trumpet right at my side suddenly shattered the silence. My first sensation was of devastating shock. Then I discerned the Swede, sitting in a camp chair on the terrace. My next reaction was a rush of anxiety as the full cool message poured across towards the monastery. Surely the authorities wouldn't stand for this maniacal attack on their privacy. They'd be up within minutes to turn us all off; then, bewilderment. From the monastery itself, a cool clear voice came back. It was the most impeccably timed, most perfect echo I have ever heard. The squares remained empty and it began to appear that there was to be no immediate hostile response. I relaxed into listening to this extraordinary duet.

With impressive certainty, and authority the Swede played a long and plaintive number and to each phrase, after a dignified pause, the melancholy answer responded, filling the cirque. It seemed to me the most beautiful melody I had ever heard and one that would haunt me for the rest of my life. But with the first notes of the next piece it slid off into memory for ever.  The guide-book to Montserrat is written in Catalan. This is good because Catalan appears to be a sort of Latin attempt at pidgin English, or, perhaps the climber's Esperanto. I quote the description of the first climb I did, on my previous visit, L'Esquelet by the Xemeneia Torras-Nubiola:

Ruta (Route) actualment utilitzada (actually utilised) com a via Normal (as the ordinary route). Aquesta Xemeneia que solca totalment el monolit (this chimney which completely splits the monolith) es una tipica escalade de tecnica de "ramonage" o xemeneia (is a typical chimneying-up a chimney type of chimney-climb!

Now try a bit yourself.
Molt convenient per a Pescalador montserrati per a completer la seva formacio de roquista. Escalada catalogada en 4.t. Al final (sortida) pas de 4. tsup. Escalada molt Segura. Una mica atletica. I hors. Descens en rappel per darrera (via Normal).

Not knowing a word of the language I may have got bits of it wrong but the rock fitted my reading.
I had been thinking about the Cavall Bernat- Montserrat's most famous pinnacle, climbed as long ago as 1935. Constant attempts had preceded this victory. Temptatives constants havien precedit aquesta conquests (I think!). The successful party consisted of Costa, Boix and Balaguer and an iron plaque placed at the start of the climb twenty-five years later remembers them. Compared with English climbing of the period it seemed a notable achievement and one cannot help wondering why we have heard so little of the Montserrati climbers. But, of course, only a year later the Civil War began and for three years Barcelona became the focus of one side's hopes. Until General Yagud marched in on 26 January, 1939.

Costa, Boix and Balaguer, where are you now? Then World War II confined the Barcelona climbers to their own mountain. But perhaps they wanted nothing else? They kept on doing what they'd already learned to do, but harder and longer. Their rock gives very few crack lines and its horizontally-bedded pebble surface can only be used up to steep slab angle. So one by one the great pinnacles and walls were bolted. The bolt was an ordinary Barcelona coach-bolt, sawn-off; the hanger was simply a length of very strong wire, twisted into a loop. On these precarious ladders the Montserrati climbers pushed bravely upwards. And by the end of the fifties they had forced El Paret de L'Aeri, the Wall of the Telfferique. "It's as impressive as Half Dome," Dave Nicol had exclaimed.

Maureen and I walked up to the Cavall Bernat in an hour. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. We scrambled up the easy pitch onto the shoulder and arranged the ropes. The big pitch starts with a 30' traverse graded at 5 sup. It went easily to an ancient peg in a pocket. Then a couple of very thin moves on pebbles, the wall just easing from vertical. Someone had pecked tiny scars on the surface of the key pebble. There was no way to step across on it and I persuaded myself to do so and moved into the scoop at the foot of the big chimney-groove. It was more difficult to stand there than I'd guessed and a few awkward moments passed before I was able to fix protection. Then, slowly up the groove assisted by a dozen pegs, bolts and rotting wedges already in place. At 100ft. something novel and disconcerting occurred. To this point, although we couldn't see each other we were in perfect contact. Then, in the upper bulges, I shouted down. A long wailing echo from the Paret dels Diables, straight opposite, drowned my words.

I tried shouting one word at a time. No way. I tried clipping the syllables. No way. Each one extended into an idiotic howl, ringing like a bell. I continued up the corner hearing at one point the sound of a hammer, no echo, close by. Stretching the 150ft. ropes I reached the small ledge. Two ancient bolts and a peg. I tied on, feeling committed and a bit worried. How would Maureen cope with the traverse? I had protected it with one rope but there'd be enough stretch to let her into space. I remembered that she had never prusiked.

I took in, holding the ropes very tight, and inch by inch she came up. Curiously, a mist had veiled the sun and a cool little breeze began to blow and rapidly grew stronger. At last she came into sight. She looked anxious. "Don't worry," I said, "at least we've got company for the descent." I heard a hammer. I said, "Pedro must be on the Via Puigmal, the big route on the back." She said, "Pegging, no, no, it's that sodding monk!" She hung back on a sling and pointed. On the very edge of the mind-blowing wall of the Parer dels Diables a hooded figure was crouched. The mist swirled around him. He was squaring off blocks for a shrine or meditation cell on the brink of as fearsome a precipice as I have ever seen!

Maureen joined me and we pulled ourselves together.  I arranged myself hastily for the top pitch which consisted of a short wall, easing into a slab, easing into the perfectly rounded dome of the summit. The first steep bit was easy but I came to a halt in the middle of the slab. Reasonable holds but not one of them incut, no protection, great exposure, and suddenly the wind was blowing in powerful cold gusts. Wasn't it oddly dull, too? No, it wasn't dull, it was getting dark, and just this frustrating barrier before easy ground and the summit. There was a little flake and I tapped a tiny peg in. I tested it. It moved. I tapped it again. The crack widened. I adjusted a sling to suspend my foot upon a small pebble and as the wind abated a moment I made three swift moves up to easy ground, and scrambled up in a final scariscurry. I was half-turned round, shouting to Maureen to cast off quickly, when I became aware somehow of a terrifying figure close behind me. I gasped aloud as the corner of my eye picked up this silver apparition. Relax, I told myself, it is the Madonna again. I had never expected to meet her on this off-beat perch. I tied the ropes around her waist while she gazed serenely into the deepening gloom. Maureen came up swiftly.

First British, we said, congratulating ourselves on getting up. I may have been a poor thing but it was our own. What about getting down? I remembered that Maureen had never abseiled. We force ourselves to rest for three or four precious minutes.
It was the perfect teaching set-up for a first abseil: a pitch that graded evenly from horizontal to vertical; a figure-eight descender myself holding the safety rope; the Madonna holding the abseil rope; the imminence of darkness. I outlined the idea and Maureen went smoothly down, no problem. I followed, retrieved the pegs,dropped the hammer which stopped providentially on the edge of the stance, retrieved the hammer, retrieved the abseil rope. Now for the big one. It seemed to take ages to set it up, but at last she set off, straight for the shoulder. I composed myself with difficulty until indistinct shouts signalled that she might be down. I had arranged to protect my own descent, having 600ft. of rope with us and not liking the corroded bolts. I also wanted a peg I had left in the groove. I set off for it but in a moment of carelessness I lost my purchase against the slanting groove and floated out across the wall. I had to forget it. I dropped onto the shoulder. The Cavall leaned over us like the prow of a gigantic liner in obscurity, mist swirled around her. To my delight and pride the ropes came cleanly down. Then down the easy shoulder and in five minutes we were on the ground and stuffing the ropes, which became suddenly and inextricably tangled, into the sacks. A wild exultation was starting to well up in us. But we hadn't quite finished yet.

Deep inside the monastery buildings there is an extraordinary cafeteria. It is the only place open after six and then from eight until nine only. Each evening, from the interstices of the monastery, a strange assortment of night people emerges to assemble there. The counters are laden with delicacies and offer every sort of drink. It presented itself to our thoughts now as the essential conclusion to this expedition.
We had no watch and no torch. Our senses led us along the ridge and into the narrow corridor through the forest. Eventually the faint whitish stones of the path disappeared and we had to admit that we had lost the line, probably 500ft. higher. The concrete pilgrims' stairway to S. Jeromi could be only a few hundred feet down through the thicket. Our impulses were to crash on down and our bodies agreed. But experience recalled the sheer smooth walls terracing the forest at random. We went wearily back up and staggered around, casting about for the path. Eventually we found it and felt our way from branch to branch, the trees so dense now that we were unable to fall out of the tunnel.

A half-hour in this lovely enchanted wood and we stepped abruptly onto the concrete trackway. Then down and down, counting the features we recognised until a pale glow slowly transformed into the effulgence the illuminations cast onto the rocks overhanging the monastery. On and on until the lights and buildings came into view and our way was clearly lit. In five minutes we would be down. A bell crashed out. The cafeteria opens at eight and closes at nine. We froze and counted. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. An agonising pause. The silence lengthened and became rich and profound. We stared at each other weakly and broke into hysterical laughter. Then, in a collapsed and aching walk, we stumbled down for beer and Cinzano, a little food maybe, and a brief but full taste of that rich contentment, ecstasy even, that visits us so infrequently, consequent sometimes on such a day as this.

Harold Drasdo