Oliana spain climbing
Oliana, Spain's Rumbau de Contrafort houses classic sport routes like "Papichulo" (5.15a/9a+) and "La Dura Dura" (5.15c/9b+); (photo/BearFotos via Shutterstock)

Wildfire Devours Legendary Climbing in Oliana, Spain

Over the holiday weekend, footage surfaced on social media showing the limestone cliffs above Oliana, Spain, engulfed in a wildfire.

Most climbers who follow the outdoor sport at its highest levels knew right away what the grim images from Oliana meant. The Spanish cliff houses some of the world’s absolute best sport climbing, and now the stone could be compromised for good.

Locals like Svana Bjarnason first broadcast internationally available reports of the fire. Smoke rose from the fields below the cliff Sunday; flames tore toward the wall in front of the driving wind. Soon, the blaze swallowed the cliff itself.

 

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Helicopters and hotshots responded right away; many of the local wildfire crews are likely climbers themselves. With their torrid efforts, the crews contained the fire reasonably quickly, and it never threatened the town.

But when the smoke cleared, it was apparent the fire had damaged the cliff. Blackened tree trunks jutted from swaths of ash as broad as the 100m cliff above and below it.

Fire Cause Traced to Agricultural Machinery

Officials said the fire started around 3 p.m. local time Sunday. And the head of the Rural Agents corps in Lleida confirmed that it began when a harvesting machine working in one of the cereal fields below the cliff broke down, Wogu Climbing reported. Three-hundred-four acres have burned as of this writing, but firefighters consider it stabilized and unlikely to burn much more of the 4,201 acres it could have affected.

Climbing Conditions at the Rumbau de Contrafort

Anecdotal reports from the cliff, called the Rumbau de Contrafort, mentioned torched ropes, melted hardware, and possibly altered rock. Around 2 p.m. local time today, officials sent climbers like Bjarnason and Patxi Usobiaga to check out the damage. Their inspection revealed the compromised hardware, ropes, and fixed lines. And the outer layer on the climber’s left side of the wall crumbled off easily in the climbers’ hands.

But, Bjarnason reported, “[t]he main and right wall seem to be OK,” including the bolts and permadraws on classics like “Papichulo” and “La Dura Dura” in the steep blue stone.

 

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She did note that it’s hard to tell the extent of the damage for now. Some holds broke and lay scattered on the ground below, so it’s possible others could do the same. Either “Papichulo” or “Mami Chula” lost a big chunk, including a critical hold.

Usobiaga confirmed the rock to the right of “Mind Control” remains in better shape than everything to the left. He and others repeatedly praised the firefighters’ hard work to control the blaze as fast as possible.

“Firefighters arrived quickly, and more devices fought on the ground and in the air to slow it down until the wind died down. They managed to keep it from jumping into the valley behind, where the downwind fire would have had many acres to burn,” he wrote on Instagram. “They endured it like titans!”

Time will tell what climbing at the Rumbau de Contrafort looks like in perpetuity. The incident can serve to drive home one principle to any climber: If you’ve got a climb in mind and conditions are fair, go out and give it all you’ve got. Today.

Update: Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. CDT

Bjarnason published a post to Instagram this afternoon with a few key updates. Critical new information includes:

  • Do not climb at Oliana until further notice. Integrity, or lack thereof, of any and all rock and hardware is currently unknown.
  • Local climbers will begin assessing and remediating the damage in September. Cleaning, re-bolting, and further analysis will all have to take place. For now, you can help by contributing to a GoFundMe set up by Bjarnason.

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Sam Anderson
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Sam Anderson is a staff writer at GearJunkie, and several other All Gear websites.

He has been writing about climbing, cycling, running, wildlife, outdoor policy, the outdoor industry, vehicles, and more for 2 years. Prior to GearJunkie, he owned and operated his own business before freelancing at GearHungry. Based in Austin, Texas, Anderson loves to climb, boulder, road bike, trail run, and frequent local watering holes (of both varieties).