A Paddleboard Adventure to Climb in Spain’s Mont-Rebei Gorge
These climbers paddled down the drought-stricken waterway looking for big walls and challenging ascents. They found both.
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This story was originally published by Climbing.com.
Grunting with the weight, we lift heavy packs and inflatable paddleboards onto our backs for the hike into Spain’s Mont-Rebei Gorge. Though it’s still early in the morning, the heat from the surrounding hillsides and cliffs radiates outwards, making us sweat.
As we round the first corner, we stop to stare in wonder. Where’s all the water?
The Noguera Ribagorçana river, separating Aragon from Catalonia, should be just feet away. Instead it’s far below us. This is going to make scouting for deep water soloing routes incredibly difficult.
With no clear path, we have to scramble down a slippery gravel slope, the weight of our packs making foot placement critical. At the bottom, between us and the water, lies another hundred feet of baked and cracked river mud. Our first steps break through the crusty surface, and we repeatedly sink to our knees as we wade toward the channel of water in the receded river’s center. Reaching it, we sit down to discuss our next steps.
It’s clear that the original plan of scouting for new deep water soloing routes is going to be almost impossible with the river level as it is. However, the team’s optimism has not waned; we just have to change our focus and enjoy the journey. I elect to hike the cliffside trail, hoping to chat with some local climbers along the way, and get more of a sense of the vast climbing potential that exists in this national park.
After helping the river team pump up their paddleboards and launch into the withered channel, I shoulder my pack, which contains the day’s provisions, and depart on foot to our planned rendezvous. My route takes me back up the slope to a trail that runs down the canyon into the Congost de Mont-Rebei national park, a stunning location for climbing, hiking, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding.
As I head down canyon, the walls grow increasingly sheer, and I begin to hear the shouts of climbers. I see a few of them, several hundred meters away on the Aragonese side of the canyon: dots of green and orange crawling up orange-and-white limestone cliffs. There is not yet much established climbing in the canyon so far, just a few dozen traditional routes ranging from 600 to 1,500 feet tall, plus some A2 and A3+ aid routes. But with the Aragonese side of the cliff extending horizontally for more than 5,000 feet and the Catalonian side almost 4,000 feet, there seems to be an incredible amount of new route potential.
As I pass deeper into the canyon, the cliff gets steeper and the path narrows, becoming just a thin ledge hacked by hand into the canyon’s walls. Here, wire cables are anchored alongside the path, providing reassurance and safety for those who fear the void mere feet away. The canyon’s walls have been carved into wondrous shapes by the river, the smooth lines and curves banded with color, geological forces displaying timelines beyond most of our comprehension.
I can hear the boaters below me in the river, snippets of Catalan echoing on the walls, their voices blending together, becoming muddled, their original meaning lost. Chancing a look down, I can see the river, which has turned into glorious shades of Prussian blue as the sunlight finally clears the ridgeline, and, moving with deceptive speed, the SUP team dipping their paddles in rhythm.
One of the team has packed climbing shoes and chalk bags, having seen photos of Chris Sharma’s wondrous Trick or Tree (5.14a/8b+) deep water solo. His hope was that, by using paddleboards, the team might scout for new deep water soloing potential, but unfortunately this beautiful landscape, like so many others, is in danger.
All around are signs of massive drought—a drought so severe that the river, which normally rises to the base of many of the vertical and overhanging cliffs, is now almost 60 feet lower than its traditional level. The result: Instead of paddling past beautiful limestone walls, riven with pockets and cracks and perfect for climbing, the banks are mostly made of crumbled bits of mud and stone, neither steep nor climbable.
For those who still think climate change either doesn’t exist or doesn’t impact our landscapes and livelihoods, just go to the areas most affected by the changes.
Here, in this gorge, the river levels are down; on the other side of the planet, whole islands are about to be consumed by a sea that has risen less than three feet. Now imagine what a 60-foot sea level rise would mean for billions of people!
With the river far below its normal level, I have to descend a fixed rope to a floating pontoon anchored in a cove in order to rejoin the team. I gingerly place my backpack on the tandem paddleboard, hoping we don’t tip over and ditch our food into the river. As Chuan paddles us out into the slow current, we hear a splash and see, behind us, a sleek dark shape flowing beneath the water, chasing carp in the depths.
We find a giant wave of stone, formed into a small cave around the next corner. The perfect place for our lunchtime refuel. Firing up the stove and unpacking insulated containers, we soon have our simple tapas of Trinxat. Far above our heads, zigzagging up the cliff face, is a Via Ferrata, the sunlight shimmering off the steel bolts and cables.
As the sun wanes, I’m outside the national park, waiting for the team at the river’s edge, but something has changed. This morning the river was placid, slow moving, shifting in color from clear to green to light blue. Now it’s gray brown, with tiny rapids starting to form. Far upstream, one of the power companies has opened the dam’s sluices. The currents carry mud, stones, and small bits of debris. A few minutes after we notice this, I get a call on the radio.
Unable to paddle against the increased current, the team has had to beach their SUPs far downstream and they’re now trying to reach me on foot, post-holing through miles of hip-deep mudflats—exhausting work when you’re also dragging a 40-pound paddleboard. What should have been an easy hour’s paddle now becomes an adventure.
Hours later, they round the corner, on the opposite side of the river. We’re only 90 feet apart, but to reach me they have to glide on their boards across the now-raging current. They manage it and then, their faces and hands streaked with dried mud, pull their paddleboards onto the bank and crumple to the ground, chests heaving. But it’s with mile-wide grins that they flip over onto their backs, elated. Our original plan for this journey may have been thwarted, but experiences like these, shared with good friends, is reason enough to revel in the moment. Tonight we will feast on slow-cooked Catalan stew and sleep under moonlight, ready for whatever tomorrow brings.