Does the renovation of Oliana even make sense? | Interview with Chris Frick

Ever since a major fire swept across Oliana in the summer of 2022, things have gone quiet around the world-famous climbing area. A handful of locals and die-hard climbers take on the Herculean task of returning the once world-class climbing area to its former glory. Is that even possible? We spoke to Chris Frick about Oliana's lengthy restoration.

Climbing holidays in Spain are usually associated with pleasant temperatures, the best rock and a relaxed daily rhythm. His last «holidays» in Catalonia Chris Frick Spent pounding rock with a hammer, removing ash, and setting new bolts.

We spoke to the Swiss rock climber about his motivation for rebuilding Oliana to get involved, about the local climbing community and about the future of the Oliana climbing area.

Flashback: In the summer of 2022, the Oliana climbing area is on fire

Chris, you spent three weeks in a harness and rock pounding in Oliana in December. Why are you doing this?

I am involved in the rebuilding of Oliana for a number of reasons. I like the area very much, it has a high value in terms of climbing history and I find the community there to be extremely pleasant. Since the hype about the climbing area seems to have died down, it's not so crowded anymore, which suits me very well.

"When it caught fire in the summer, I said: Hey guys, if you need help, I'll come."

Chris Frick
Chris Frick drilling in the Oliana climbing area that was hit by the fire. Image: Nils Ohlendorf Photography
Chris Frick drilling in the Oliana climbing area that was hit by the fire. Picture: Nils Ohlendorf Photography

I also have last year Mind control discovered for me and started to project the line. It's one of the most beautiful routes I know. At the same time I noticed the old hooks. So I rehabilitated the route, that was before the fire. Then, when it caught fire at the beginning of the summer, I said: Hey guys, if you need help, I'll come.

Shortly after the fire, videos circulated showing how entire layers of rock could be removed by hand. How should one imagine the renovation?

I sat in my harness most of the time and hit the rock with a hammer. The first route I tackled in December was a popular warm-up 7a on the left wall that was badly affected. The four of us hammered the route for several days and were actually able to save it. That's a nice feeling.

Is there solid rock underneath the brittle layers?

Oliana is always considered a lime bar. However, it is not a question of pure limestone, but of conglomerate with a thin patina of limestone. It's amazing how well most handles have withstood the heat. However, it is sometimes quite dirty. Ash on the rock turns into hummus. One has the impression that there is earth in the holes.

Routes Cleaning--30
Jorg Verhoeven breaks off brittle rock. Solid conglomerate appears behind. Picture: Emile Pino Photography

Does such a complex renovation even make sense?

Yes, especially since this is an opportunity to make the whole area safer. Even before the fire, there was the impression that the patina in the lower half of the wall in particular was often not well connected to the rock below and that certain scales did not inspire confidence. Just last week Jorg Verhoeven massive scales broken out in the entry areas of Marroncita and Picos Pardos.

If you look at the pictures of the large-scale fire, it is amazing how differently the fire hit the rock ledge. Alternating are areas that are very badly damaged - with blackened bolts and massively crumbling rock surface - and sections that were barely touched.

This is how badly the big fire hit the climbing area: red: severely affected area, orange: severely affected area, yellow: less (but still) affected area, white: situation unclear. Graphics: Chris Frick
Effects of the major fire on the famous rock ledge in Oliana: red: severely affected area, orange: severely affected area, yellow: less (but still) affected area, white: situation unclear. Graphics: Chris Frick

How do you go about restoring well-known classics?

At American Hustle, for example, I informed the first climbers about it, but received no feedback. Then I just act. At Mind Control I asked Chris Sharma and he immediately agreed to the 1:1 clean-up.

«Those who take a drill in their hands for the renovation are required to make decisions, as do those who climb for the first time. "

Chris Frick

Personally, I think that the fire has changed the situation in such a way that, for ethical reasons, constant questions to first developers are almost exaggerated. Time is a precious commodity and when little is available, one is forced to make decisions.

With China Crisis, the answer is still open as to whether a hold in the middle of the route has to be resicated or whether there should be a new, possible but harder variant to the right of it. This then influences the difficulty of the route. And those who pick up a drill for the renovation are required to make decisions, just like those who climb for the first time.

A handful of dedicated climbers are currently involved in the reconstruction of Oliana. Image: Emile Pino Photography
A handful of dedicated climbers are currently involved in the reconstruction of Oliana. Picture: Emile Pino Photography

Can you explain that in more detail?

Personally, I think it is presumptuous to say that, without exception, the first ascent must be rehabilitated. Because that would mean that first-time climbers are basically people who never make mistakes when positioning a bolt. That can not be.

With experience and common sense, it makes sense when rehabilitating to consider moving a hook, for example if overly long exes indicate that all repeaters are clipping from a different spot than originally intended. Luckily, the original position of the bolts is mostly correct and runouts stay that way, especially since these occur because you can't clip.

“Personally, I think it is presumptuous to say that, without exception, the renovation must be carried out according to the specifications of the first person to climb. Because that would mean that first-time climbers are basically people who never make mistakes when positioning a bolt. That can not be."

Chris Frick

In the case of alpine multipitch routes with a historical value, which were set up from below and each represent the standard of their time, it is almost imperative to rehabilitate them in the interests of the first ascent. However, there is another problem with the renovation.

What?

The question of who is actually willing to do something. And that's a bit typical of the climbing scene, I'd say. Locals themselves have also confirmed to me that many climbers - including some first-time climbers - talk and promise a lot, but then hardly anything is done.

Accordingly, I think: If you are already there and get involved, then you have to use the little time you have and you have the right to just do it. Don't worry, it'll be done well, because who wants to draw the anger of the whole climbing world if the renovation is done poorly? It's nice to see that locals like Dan, Svana, Nico, Toni, Bobby and Willi and others have already put a lot of effort into cleaning and replacing fix-exes. Additional manpower is required. 

Svana Bjarnason one of the driving forces behind the redevelopment of the Oliana climbing area. Image: Emile Pino Photography
Svana Bjarnason is one of the driving forces behind the redevelopment of the Oliana climbing area. Picture: Emile Pino Photography

Who is funding the reconstruction of Oliana?

Everything is financed by donations and own resources. And that seems devastating to me. Apart from the restructuring of Mind Control, which Mammut supported last February, little or nothing came from the climbing companies until the New Year. 

Svana Bjarnason created a fund to rescue Oliana, which she meticulously manages. From my own experience, I can guarantee that every centime and eurocent goes directly to the renovation.

Private individuals who spontaneously declared their willingness to take on the complete renovation of American Hustle, for example, made a very good impression. Or Peter Lappas from Lappasclimbinbolts, who donated 100 bolts from Greece. This is a living community and a sign of a passion for climbing.

A charred quickdraw symbolizing the destruction in Oliana. Image: Chris Frick
A charred quickdraw symbolizing the destruction in Oliana. Image: Chris Frick

What's your assessment: How long will it be before Oliana can be cleared for climbing again?

That depends on the manpower. Until the New Year, I was the only one who had picked up a drill. Some would like to do this but don't know how. During my absence in January, Lolo brought his drill from France. I am curious to see what has happened in the meantime. But if the support doesn't increase, it will take years.

"If the support doesn't increase, it will be years before Oliana can climb safely again."

Chris Frick
Chris Frick: “Everyone is so happy here. I heard this sentence again and again in Oliana. It would be wonderful to keep and cultivate this open mind." Image: Emile Pino Photography
Chris Frick: “Everyone is so happy here. I heard this sentence again and again in Oliana. It would be wonderful to keep and cultivate this open mind." Picture: Emile Pino Photography

And that would definitely be a shame. For me, Oliana has this open spirit, as was found in the 70s in Camp 4 or 86 to 93 in Buoux. Everyone is so happy here. I heard this sentence again and again in Oliana. It would be wonderful to keep and cultivate this open mind.

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Credits: Cover picture Emile Pino Photography

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