Story by Hayley Masters
MADRID–Guillermo Burba dangles by his fingertips from Techo de Puli, a well-known boulder in Madrid’s Sierra de Guadarrama National Park. His tight-fitting t-shirt exposes the veins that bulge along his forearms, while every muscle in his brawny figure flexes simultaneously.
Burba is climbing virtually upside down, gripping onto whatever piece of protruding rock he can find. He pauses for a moment, reaching his callused hands into the bag of chalk suspended from his harness, and then continues on.
His wife Isabel Rossignoli, also an accomplished climber, is belaying the rope 33 feet below, examining his every move and offering encouragement. Minutes later, Burba reaches the top and flashes a childish grin, marking yet another successful, thrilling and seemingly effortless trek.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be like Spider-Man,” said Burba, 36, a resident of Madrid and a professional climber. “I imitated him by climbing everything,” he said. “I found a sport that let me be like him.”
The population of fellow climbers in Madrid has grown substantially, making it an extreme sport of choice in Spain. The abundance of good surfaces, combined with ideal year-round weather and numerous sites make the capital and its surrounding areas a desirable location for outdoor climbing. In addition, indoor facilities are popping up all around the city. Festivals too: the Madrid Boulder Tour, the Climb Open Boulder Festival and the Spanish University Championship have all roped in the best climbers from Spain and abroad.
“The sport has grown so much in the past few years. For us, we have 150-plus members, and around 75 daily visits from non-members,” said Daniel Garcia, coordinator of RockGame gym, which is one of the largest indoor facilities in Madrid. It is located just minutes from the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range. “Some of our members use climbing to stay in good shape and for the social component, but others use it to fulfill a lifestyle.”
RockGame, which opened in May 2014, holds competitions every two weeks, summer camps for kids starting at age 6 and training programs every day for climbers. At the most recent event, the Spanish University Championship, Rossignoli stood at the podium, marking her first-place victory above the other climbers. Both Burba and Rossignoli train at RockGame multiple times a week.
“Madrid is a special place. There’s nowhere like it in the world. We have mountains and boulders everywhere, and because so many people are interested, there are lots of indoor training facilities around Madrid now too,” said Garcia.
Although there is a large population of regular local climbers, there is also a number of organizations that facilitate guided tours of the various mountains in Madrid. Trip4Real, which connects travelers with local climbing experts, has an extensive network throughout Madrid.
“We allow all climbers that are traveling to find a local expert that will climb with them and show the best spots to practice,” said Natalie Batlle, the brand and communications director of Trip4Real, which also has an office in Barcelona.
“Spain is well-known for being one of the best spots to climb in Europe. It offers really good geography to do so, even if you don’t reach high points,” added Batlle.
Some of the region’s top climbs include the La Pedriza, which is in a mountain range on the northwest outskirts of Madrid, Peñalara, the highest mountain peak in the area, and Zarzalejo, a village in the westernmost part of the city.
All of these locations are climbed by people of all ages and capabilities. Batlle believes the growth is linked with, “experts, schools and platforms. Climbing is becoming a sport that everyone can try and practice without fear,” she said.
One of the city’s most popular climbing platforms is EscalaMadrid, which started in 2009. It’s a organization that not only has indoor and outdoor facilities, but also hosts several well-known climbs such as the annual Madrid Boulder Tour, the Madrid Skala N’ Bloke and the Competición de Bloque en Manoteras.
Nick Frost, the founder of EscalaMadrid, believes that climbing in Madrid is different than any other city in Spain because the various terrains accommodate numerous styles. “There is a large and growing climbing scene in Madrid. Within the culture there are various sub-groups depending on the type of climbing,” he said.
Frost referenced three types of climbing, which include bouldering, or climbing on large boulders, sport climbing, which relies on permanent anchors fixed to the rock both in and outdoors, and traditional climbing, which occurs outside, using only the rocks’ natural features.
“There’s a huge difference in the level of commitment ranging from people that only climb occasionally in indoor gyms in the city, to people that climb three or four times during the week and travel to the top climbing spots in Spain on the weekends,” he said.
For Jonas Cruces, president of Club ToDoVertical, the second-largest climbing organization in Madrid, the sport is growing exponentially, not just for the occasional climbers, but for the expert athletes as well.
“In the ‘90s it wasn’t that popular. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that it became massive. Climbing in Madrid and the rest of Spain is extremely popular, especially bouldering and sport climbing,” he said.
Cruces acknowledged that the sport still has plenty of room to grow, but thinks a large organized push to make it an Olympic event is a possibility. And of course that would increase its popularity and allow for professionals to make enough money to support themselves.
Madrid Outdoor Sports, like ToDoVertical, is another outdoor company that facilitates climbing enthusiasts. While it has tours and guides for extreme activities such as paragliding, skydiving, hiking, sight running and cycling, “climbing is the most popular extreme sport in Madrid,” said founder Robert Niuewland.
“Madrid’s offer is amazing. That goes for quality and quantity. There are thousands of routes to choose from in completely different areas with completely different landscapes and types of rock,” he said.
Rossignoli, who is currently a classification research manager in the International Paralympic Committee and getting her Ph.D. in pathologies related to wheelchair propulsion, has been on many of those routes. in fact, her most favorite thing to do is to free climb with her husband when she’s not researching.
“I’ve climbed in so many countries and places around the world, but none of them compares to Madrid,” said Rossignoli. On a recent Saturday, as she and her husband drove home from their morning ascent, they passed the church at the bottom of the mountain range where they got married. “There just something special about this place,” she said.