19 May 2023

Canal de les Dames via ferrata in Montserrat

The short summary is: It feels like they've forced a via ferrata in where there is no natural line of climbing. It's more like a walk with 4 muscular V3 bouldering challenges en route.

It's May 2023, we're on day 1 of our 9-day roadtrip from Barcelona, through Tarragona region and down to Costa Blanca. This trip was about touching as wide a variety of Spanish rock as possible, so as to be able to plan future trips.

First thing I found strange about this Via Ferrata in Montserrat was how hard it was to research when planning the trip. Every search led to some adventure tour company offering guided hikes with equipment included. It's not strange that guided climbs are on offer, but it's strange that information for un-guided climbing was so sparse. I started to suspect the guides were protective over this route, which is the first of its kind in the region and was created relatively recently.

The scary sign that marks the turning from the wide path onto the little path

Weight was added to the theory when we almost didn't take the tiny track off the main path due to a massive scary warning sign written only in Catalonian and Spanish. I tried to figure out the gist of it and all I could get was "Climbing is a dangerous activity, have the correct skills and equipment".

For full disclosure, we may have been breaking some rule as this point. When planning for the trip I had posted on some climbing Facebook groups appealing for information and a comment had informed me that Spain recently begun requiring all visitors to National Parks to buy a permit. I didn't have a problem with this, the maintenance of these beautiful areas has to be funded somehow. Permits are normal in the USA and pretty much normal in the UK except we don't call them permits we call them National Trust car parks. I had tried to purchase a permit, finding a poorly designed website with a vaguely-governmenty domain name that appeared to sell various kinds of passes. But it was so clunky and the Google translated copy made so little sense to me that I lost confidence and decided to wing it, reassuring myself that Spain is not a particularly authoritarian country.

For context, our understanding of what a via ferrata is supposed to be had been set by our experience of the Dolomites in 2020. There we found detailed guide books, free PDF maps on tourism websites, spacious gravel car parks with mounted 6ft wide perspex maps showing the routes, subtle but helpful signposts dotted en route from the start to the summit and back down again and hundreds of metres of steel cables to protect you from getting lost. That is what we were expecting.

Here in Montserrat we found none of that. When we eventually found the start of the route, ducking under branches and squeezing through bushes, we were greeted by a guide teaching a novice how to abseil. Fair enough, but a bit unexpected. We geared-up with harnesses, lanyards, helmets and gloves; swigged some coffee and took a deep breath ready for some exposure. I went first, clipping onto the cable and stepping confidently onto the polished conglomerate rock. I climbed for 5 metres, greeting the abseilers with a Bon dia and reached the end of the cable. That was it, without realising it I'd just done the first of only about 5 sections with fixed gear.

Hannah on the sparsely-placed staple ladder that marks the proper start (41°35'04.8"N 1°49'03.7"E).

The hike continued, gently rising on dirt tracks through forest. We came across a small crag where 3 sport climbers were working a delicate move on a tricky slightly overhanging pillar. On the left was a smooth vertical face with a line of staples and a cable running straight up the middle. Ah! This is where it really starts, we thought. How foolish we were to think that first bit was part of the real via ferrata, obviously now we're going to get the full experience like in Italy. The ladder was tricky. There were slightly too few of the irregularly-spaced staples and the fixings on the cable were so far apart it would have offered basically no protection in the event of a fall. We were now solo'ing a crap ladder in a forest. Quite unpleasant.

The diagonal section with the glue-on artificial holds visible top right of shot.

Shortly after the ladder we found another group of abseilers on their way down. Hmm, why is everyone coming down this route? I checked with the guide if it was OK to quickly hop over their rope and I followed 20 metres of diagonal steel cable and staples up extremely smooth rock, leading to a direct line of glued-on artificial holds. Above that was a bit where there was so little friction you had to layback on a chain, feet flat on the rockface. It seemed clear these channels we were climbing up had been carved smooth by thousands of years of natural erosion. It made for strange climbing but at least we'd now gained a view for the first time.

Hannah had found the whole experience hard so far. The scary warning signs, the unclear path, the terrifying ladder, the need to actually pull on the gear to get up rather than just climb on the rock. It all felt very far from the intuitive but exposed route of the Dolomites.

Hannah resting on personal anchor between attempts to use the chains to haul herself up.

Another long section of dirt track until a remarkably unnatural placement of a chain. This section genuinely bore no resemblance to rock climbing. This was just smooth rock, upper body strength, pull on the chain, hand over hand for 4 metres straight up until safe. It felt like a bouldering problem, if the route setters in your local bouldering gym had decided to have some fun and had put up a novelty V3 that was just a line of jugs going straight up and stuck up a sign saying "Feet on the wall only".

The overhanging ladder immediately above the chain haul section (see above)

There were 2 of those chains to a ledge, above which was an over-hanging ladder. From the ledge you could look back down and see all the pairs of hikers with furrowed brows, checking their maps yet again to try and work out if they were in the wrong place. It was clear we weren't the only ones who felt mis-sold and we saw multiple people give up and turning back. They too had judged this to not really be a climb or a scramble but some kind of unfair fitness challenge.

Our premature celebration selfie after the overhanging ladder.

Hannah had spent her last bit of enthusiasm on that overhang and after some walking, we decided it must be over now. We'd been told the final section was difficult and that last section definitely fitted that description. So we celebrated with a selfie and carried on walking, looking out for the turn back to the village. But oh no, the path led into a shady canyon and a dead-end, towering before me was a slabby face with an almost-chimney on the left that housed a cable bolted in an unusually high position. It carries on! I shouted to Hannah who was behind me. What?! she grunted. That last bit wasn't the hard bit. I clarified. Oh FFS!

Hannah took one look at what was actually the final section and immediately declared herself out. She was taking the brushy scramble escape to the left and would meet me at the top. But the guiding company's website said they take complete amateurs with no climbing experience up these routes. And this is only a via ferrata and I'm a strong climber. Surely I wasn't going to not do this final section?

View from the top of the really difficult polished slab corner. Sorry I didn't capture it from below.

I drank my emergency can of Red Bull for a little boost, psyched myself up and got on it. It was immediately hard, I couldn't get in a resting position to clip on to the cable so I was using pure arm strength to keep myself on the rock. I did the next move, feet literally slipping. I don't mean Oh my god my feet feel like they are going to slip slab climbing, I mean literally, the technical rubber soles of my Merrel approach shoes were skidding off the shiny rock. I pulled hard against the cable on my left which naturally walks your feet high into the corner, unnaturally putting the actual slab on your right-hand side! Why the hell is the cable here?! I yelled to the Gods, who were not listening.

By half way I was out of breath, panicking and feeling the pump in my arms. I couldn't believe I hadn't found a resting spot yet. Every undulating mound in the slab that looked like it might bear friction was like a slippery bowling ball underfoot. The whole wall had a relentless requirement to pull against the cable, drilling my shoes, unable to stay bridged because it wasn't really a chimney with 2 opposing faces, just a corner. I was making bad choices about when to move my carabiners to the next section of cable. At one point I climbed so high that they dragged me back and I had to reverse slightly to release tension.

By the time I reached the top I was close to tears with adrenaline. That was one of the scariest pieces of climbing I have ever done. To capture the moment I whipped out my phone and shot a quick selfie video, my voice shaky from fear. I was sure that was the difficult final section we'd been told of and sure enough a metal sign bolted to the side of the canyon confirmed it. It was the same as the sign by the staple ladder that marked the start of the route. I wouldn't want to start at the top of any of that.

Looking back down hill at the metal sign at the top of the route

From the metal sign I scrambled up and left to an amazing viewing platform and called down to Hannah who was fighting spikey bushes. We posed a few photos and took off our climbing gear ready to get utterly lost on the walk-off. We veered left instead of turning right which adding 6 km to our journey back to the car. The whole loop took 3 hours longer than planned.

The viewing ledge above the difficult final section.

In fairness to the people with the option to promote this via ferrata, they may not be protective over the exact route details out of financial greed. They might just be embarrassed that it's a bit crap if done starting from the bottom. I can imagine the dozen people who did it top-to-bottom and abseiled the fixed-gear sections had a much better time than us that day.

Or maybe it's not a bit crap it's just a very very different type of via ferrata. If I'd known it was basically an uphill walk in woodland with 3 or 4 scary upper-body fitness challenges then I wouldn't have been disappointed. But I was expecting an exposed scramble, plentiful juggy holds, long sections of cable that follow obvious lines where you could imagine troops hauling ammunition in the dead of night.


This has been a lot of words to write about a climb without once mentioning the g-word. And that's no accident. I try to steer the conversation away from grades so that I'm not part of something that I see as unhealthy, but that's a story for another post. The story of this routes grade might be a matter of misinterpretation.

The route we enjoyed so much in the Dolomites back in 2020 was graded VF3B. This is the Fletcher/Smith Rating System (which is scored out of 5) and the 3 means smack bang in the middle, moderate difficulty and the B means it's semi-serious commitment, meaning you won't want to get trapped in a snow storm on this route. However, Canal de les Dames is graded K4; the "K" denoting the Hüsler scale which is on 1-6.

On the surface these numbers don't look that far off each other. We really enjoyed a 3 out of 5 so why not try a 4 out of 6? But since our experience I have taken a closer look at the 2 grading systems and it's clear these scales should not be conflated. 4 in the Hüsler scale is titled "Very difficult". The description on this great page includes phrases such as "Often overhanging terrain" and "Enough strength in arms and hands for longer vertical to overhanging areas".

Essentially the Husler scale seems like it doesn't waste grades on the moderate stuff, everything normal people can do is squished into K1, then it starts to get hard from K2. But Fletcher/Smith spreads it out with the word "challenging" not even appearing on this page until the penultimate number.

So maybe this is just what all K4s feel like? Should you expect a physical challenge akin to a V4 boulder problem? Of course this is all conjecture, having only done 3 via ferrata I am still very inexperienced. But I am keen and I've paid £80 for my own lanyard now so I will continue to seek out via ferrata and eventually I'll have a big enough dataset to make a more informed assessment.