Separatist Reality: Pocket-Pulling in Catalunya

Pete O’Donovan, the author of Tarragona Climbs, outlines some of the world’s best sport climbing in his home area of Tarragona, Spain

WORDS + IMAGES: Pete O’Donovan

Tarragona is the most southerly of Catalunya’s four provinces. Sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea to the east and mainland Spain to the west, this is a land of great contrasts. The coastal cities and beaches bustle with tourists, but drive just a few kilometres inland and things change dramatically. Here lie deep, wooded valleys and soaring cliffs, some of which have become bywords for climbing excellence throughout the world.

At the top of any climber’s list should be the zone of Siurana. It offers some 1500 routes spread across more than 40 separate sectors, ranging from pleasant easy routes (starting around grade 15) to world-famous 9th grade (35/36) test-pieces, such as the legendary La Rambla (9a/35). While only a tiny percentage of climbers can realistically aim for the hardest climbs, Siurana’s overwhelming attraction for ordinary mortals is its vast wealth of high-quality routes at more ‘human’ grades – 6b to 8a (20 to 29). That said, even at the lower end of the scale Siurana’s routes are no pushovers, the crimpy, technical style of climbing can sometimes be perplexing for Power Monkeys.

Next on the list is Margalef, and if pockets are your thing then you may well prefer to head straight here. With more than 1200 routes this is Tarragona’s second-largest climbing area, and the diverse orientations of its 40 plus sectors makes it a true year-round destination. The rock is conglomerate, with angles ranging from steep slabs to 90-degree roofs, and the profusion of edges and pockets means that even the most hideously overhanging formations are often climbable (just), which is probably why there are more 9th grade climbs (35/36) here than in the rest of Tarragona put together. Don’t be put off by the big numbers though, Margalef will put a smile on your face at whatever grade you climb.

The last of Tarragona’s ‘Big Three’ is Montsant. The cliffs comprising the zone form the southern escarpment of the Montsant Massif and at 10km in length and up to 150m high, they are truly remarkable visual spectacle. For such a huge expanse of rock, the quantity of climbing is relatively modest — certainly so when compared to the frenetic development that has taken place at nearby Siurana and Margalef — but factors such as extensive bird-bans and long walk-ins (sometimes as much as an hour!) have acted as deterrents. However, that still leaves us with some 600 plus routes on vertical or gently overhanging conglomerate, and the longer-than-normal approaches mean it’s often possible to find peace and solitude here when other zones are heaving. The routes range from short power problems on gigantic boulders to 50m endurance pitches up huge, blank-looking walls, where two-finger pocket follows two-finger pocket in a seemingly never ending struggle to reach the top before a terminal pump sets in.

Beyond the Big Three, Tarragona’s offerings are slightly more modest, although they still attract visiting climbers from far and wide, very few of whom leave disappointed. Recommendations include La Riba, Mont-ral, La Mussara and Arbolí, each offering subtly different rock and climbing styles. The great advantage of climbing in Tarragona is how compact the area is — by choosing the correct base it’s possible to visit many different zones during a single trip without feeling like you’re spending half your time on the road.


Early winter fog parts to reveal the spectacular hilltop village of Siurana. Known as ‘Xibrana’ in its days under Moorish rule and only given its present name in 1153 when Christian forces recaptured the fortress, Siurana is now the spiritual home of sport climbing in Catalunya. The village is surrounded by vast swathes of beautiful limestone, laced with routes of such quality that, each year, climbers from all over the world descend in their thousands to pay homage.


Argentinian-born Lola Cabrera fights the pump on Farigola, a typically sustained 38m (7a/24) – which she also equipped – on the steep walls of sector Racó de Missa, Montsant. Lola is one of a growing number of overseas climbers who initially came to visit but are now settling in the area and making valuable contributions.


Catalan climber and Tarragona Province resident Mariona Martí searching for some kind of positive hold amongst a sea of nothingness on Meconi (8a/29) at sector Racó de La Coma Closa, Margalef. The rock in Margalef is conglomerate, which doesn’t generally run to tufas, but the few that do appear are nothing short of exceptional. Prospective suitors need to bear in mind that this north-facing sector is often wet during the winter months.


Spanish legend and all-round nice guy, Dani Andrada, moves through the nearly holdless-undercutting-on-tufas section of La Perla (8b+/32) – at Racó de La Coma Closa, Margalef – to gain access to the properly holdless-bear hugging/compression-on-tufas upper moves of the climb. Originally equipped and climbed by Chris Sharma in 2009, despite its relatively modest grade (by current standards) La Perla sees very few successful ascents.


The grand old man of Catalan climbing, Dani Andrada, struts his stuff on the bouldery crux sequence of Twist as Lola (8a/29) on Ca La Marta, Margalef. Now into his fourth decade and exhibiting the odd grey streak in his once jet-black hair, Dani is (by his own admission) no longer able to keep up with the youngsters who crank off 9a routes in a couple of attempts. He is, however, just as keen and committed a climber as he ever was, and continues to establish outstanding new routes both in Catalunya and further afield.


Catalan climber Ignasi Miralpeix crimps through the crux moves of Invencible (8a/29) in sector El Trinquet, Montsant. There is probably a greater acreage of rock on the cliffs of Montsant than in all the other zones in Tarragona combined, which is well demonstrated by the fact that magnificent sectors such as El Trinquet, developed as recently as 2016, continue to appear. Seek and ye shall find…


Edu Marín on Era Vella (8c+/34), another magnificent Sharma contribution to the conglomerate cliffs of Margalef. The route was originally graded solid 9a, but the number and frequency of repeats soon led to a slight downward adjustment. Whatever the grade, Era Vella is a stunning climb – 50m of 30-degree overhanging rock!


We asked Australia’s strongest teenager, Angie Scarth Johnson, to write a list of the things she loves about Spain though she was so moved by the power and the beauty of it all that she simply had to write a poem.

My hands dip into the the chalk
My vision zooms to the finish hold
I put on my confidence walk
As I approach the pockets, crimps, gastons
I begin my journey, words of encouragement blast on
Then Venga Bicho echos off the friction-filled holds
I feel the strength in my tips, in my soles
I reach for the deep pocket cutting the edge of my fingers
In a moment of doubt my determination lingers
Before I reach redpoint
I glance over my shoulder
Peace in the air
Breeze getting colder
Like a lifetime but only a quick stare
Spain never lets me down
Dogs roaming without a care
Vivid red poppies in the ground
Mountains of rocks with homes on the cliff line
People full of life
Rusty bells clang as they remind me of the time
I blink as I remember what I am here for
I scream in pain, joy and success
This is why I come to Margalef



We asked Tassie’s second-strongest mulleted climber (the first being Simon Bischoff), Gerry Narkowicz, to give us his Spain pros and cons.

What I loved about Spain

  • The best sport climbing I’ve experienced in Europe, shits all over France, Italy and Kalymnos. I can’t go past El Falco at Arboli, a glorious 40m sweep of perfect orange limestone and taking in the views of the 11th century village of Siurana with cliffs plunging from the plateau, ablaze in the sunset.
  • The best rest day cultural activities anywhere in the world. Sightseeing in Barcelona, Tarragona, Lleida, Valencia, Cartagena, Malaga, Granada and Madrid, seeing 1st century Roman amphitheatres, medieval cathedrals, architectural wonders like the Alhambra palace in Granada, and the Picasso museum.
  • Meeting local legends like Toni Arbones at Siurana and Pedro at Chulilla, constantly helping develop the sport through new routes, writing guidebooks, maintaining crags, accommodating climbers and passing on beta, and making it so easy and comfortable for climbing tourists.
  • The paella at Toni’s restaurant at Siruana, the best we had in Spain.

What I hated about Spain

  • The crags are becoming an environmental disaster with rubbish, uncovered crap paper, turds and dog shit. At every crag there were several dogs and several tons of dog shit.
  • Polished rock. I asked Toni Arbones, what he thought of El Chorro. He said; `Eeez nice but eeez bit polish.’ He was right. The tufas were as slippery as a butcher’s dick.
  • Queuing for climbs at Chulilla and putting up with obnoxious characters like Azog the Defiler, a Czechoslovakian version of Crazy John who spoke like Azog, the monstrous orc on the Hobbit movie. At the crag he would bounce around stoned out of his mind yelling beta in Czech to everyone. It pissed me off that such a party animal could onsight 7c.

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