This story was originally posted by escalade.com.
Groaning under the weight, we heave heavy packs and inflatable paddle boards onto our backs for the trek through Spain’s Mont-Rebei Gorge. Although it is still early morning, the heat from the surrounding hills and cliffs radiates outward, making us sweat.
As we round the first corner, we stop to watch in wonder. Where is all the water?
The Noguera Ribagorçana River, separating Aragon of Catalonia, should be a few meters away. Instead, it is far below us. This is going to make scouting solo routes in deep water incredibly difficult.
With no clear path, we had to descend a slippery gravel slope, the weight of our packs making foot placement critical. At the bottom, between us and the water, is another hundred feet of baked and cracked river mud. Our first steps cut across the crusty surface and we repeatedly fall to our knees as we wade towards the water channel in the center of the receding river. Upon reaching it, we sit down to discuss our next steps.
Clearly the initial plan of scouting new deep water solo routes is going to be next to impossible with the river level as it is. However, the team’s optimism did not waver; we just have to change our focus and enjoy the journey. I choose to hike the cliffside trail, hoping to chat with local climbers along the way and better understand the vast climbing potential that exists in this national park.
After helping the river crew pump their paddle boards and launch into the dry channel, I shoulder my pack, which contains the day’s supplies, and set off on foot to our scheduled rendezvous. My route takes me back up the slope to a trail that descends the canyon into the Congost de Mont-Rebei National Park, a beautiful place for rock climbing, hiking, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.
As I descend the canyon, the walls become steeper and I begin to hear the cries of the climbers. I see a few, several hundred meters down the Aragonese side of the canyon: dots of green and orange crawling over orange and white limestone cliffs. There isn’t much established climbing in the canyon so far, just a few dozen traditional routes ranging from 600 to 1,500 feet high, plus a few A2 and A3+ helper routes. But with the Aragonese side of the cliff stretching horizontally for over 5,000 feet and the Catalan side for almost 4,000 feet, there seems to be incredible potential for new routes.
As I go deeper into the canyon, the cliff gets steeper and the path narrows, becoming just a thin hand-hewn ledge in the canyon walls. Here, metal cables are anchored along the path, offering comfort and security to those who fear the heights a few meters away. The canyon walls have been sculpted into wondrous shapes by the river, the smooth lines and color-ringed curves, geological forces displaying timelines beyond most of our comprehension.
I hear the boaters below me in the river, snatches of Catalan echoing on the walls, their voices get mixed up, get confused, their original meaning is lost. Glancing down I can see the river, which has turned into glorious shades of Prussian blue as the sunlight finally clears the ridge line, and, moving at a speed deceptively, the SUP team plunging their paddles in rhythm.
One of the team members packed climbing shoes and chalk bags, after seeing photos of Chris Sharma’s wonderkids Tower or tree (5.14a/8b+) solo in deep water. His hope was that by using paddleboards the team could seek new potential for deep water soloing, but sadly this beautiful landscape, like so many others, is in jeopardy.
All around there are signs of massive drought – a drought so severe that the river, which normally rises at the base of many vertical, overhanging cliffs, is now almost 60 feet lower than its traditional level. The result: Instead of paddling along beautiful limestone walls, torn with pockets and cracks and perfect for climbing, the banks are mostly made up of crumbling chunks of mud and stone, neither steep nor climbable.
For those who still think climate change doesn’t exist or impact our landscapes and livelihoods, just go to the areas most affected by the changes.
Here, in this gorge, the level of the river is falling; on the other side of the planet, entire islands are about to be consumed by a sea that has risen less than a meter. Now imagine what a sea level rise of 60 feet would mean for billions of people!
With the river well below its normal level, I have to descend a fixed rope to a floating pontoon anchored in a creek in order to rejoin the team. I carefully place my backpack on the tandem paddle board, hoping we don’t tip over and throw our food into the river. As Chuan leads us into the slow current, we hear a splash and see, behind us, a dark, elegant shape flowing underwater, chasing carp into the depths.
We find a giant stone wave, formed in a small cave at the next corner. The ideal place for our midday refueling. Lighting the stove and unpacking the insulated containers, we soon have our simple Trinxat tapas. Far above our heads, zigzagging along the cliff, is a Via Ferrata, sunlight glinting on bolts and steel cables.
As the sun goes down, I’m outside the national park, waiting for the team by the river, but something has changed. This morning the river was calm, moving slowly, changing color from clear to green to light blue. Now it’s grey-brown, with tiny rapids starting to form. Far upstream, one of the electricity companies opened the locks of the dam. The currents carry mud, stones and small debris. A few minutes after noticing this, I get a call on the radio.
Unable to paddle against the increased current, the team had to beach their SUPs far downstream and they are now trying to reach me on foot, having traversed miles of hip-deep mudflats – grueling work when you’re also dragging a 40 lb paddle board. What should have been an hour of easy paddling now becomes an adventure.
A few hours later, they turn around the corner, on the other side of the river. We are only 90 feet apart, but to reach me they have to glide on their boards through the now raging current. They manage to do so then, faces and hands streaked with dried mud, pull their paddle boards up the bank and collapse to the ground, chest heaving. But it is with broad smiles that they turn over on their backs, delighted. Our original plan for this trip may have been thwarted, but experiences like these, shared with good friends, are reason enough to revel in the moment. Tonight, we’ll feast on a simmering Catalan stew and sleep under the moonlight, ready for whatever tomorrow brings.