The Cavall Bernat is the reference monolith in Montserrat and one of the key landmarks of Catalunya. This rock causes jaws to drop, and every person with a climbing fiber in his/her body will dream of reaching the summit at least once. This tower is so striking and so entirely impossible to ignore, it is noticed and remembered by every person who makes the trip to Montserrat. “Look at that rock tower!” we all say the first time we look up. For climbers, the first glimpse of the Cavall
gives the fever – the kind that causes passionate discussions and sleepless nights. Tell a traveling climber he has a ticket for an ascent and all his plans, his money and his need for rest will be shoved aside: he’ll be ready to go at 6 a.m.
Even if today this awesome stone arrow if often stormed by a dozen people over a single week end, reaching its summit was once considered by many to be an impossible and foolish project. To climbers, it was one of the main trophies in the country, a captivating objective for many local strongmen. And to them, reaching the summit, this small rocky area with giant cliffs all around must have taken an enormous amount of courage: they had to climb well and with an equipment that would not help much in case things went wrong. But most difficult of all, they had to overcome the psychological barrier caused by a thousand people claiming this climb was madness.
On October 27th 1935, El Cavall Bernat, Catalunya's monolith of legends was conquered by Josep Costa, Carles Balaguer and Josep Boix. Although fellow climbers witnessed the team reaching the summit from afar, many doubted the feat, in particular in the general population. Even for experienced alpinists an ascent of this difficulty and exposure was a bold step forward - a logical one maybe, but outrageously gusty. As for many of the non-climbers, it had to be a hoax.
Josep Costa put an end to the disbelieving tongues by repeating the ascent in solo the following year, this time inviting whoever was interested to see the feat in person. Journalists were also conveyed, and Radio Barcelona even fetched a small plane to have the climb witnessed and commented from above. The Cavall Bernat had been conquered, not only physically, but also in the public mind, and by a team of local climbers.
This was the last great climbing feat before the start of the Spanish Civil War. After Costa's repetition, the summit of the Cavall would not be reached again for four year and by then, Spain was under dictatorship.
TV3 has done a great short documentary on the Cavall Bernat, with a recreation of the first ascent, featuring the gears of the day. The recreated climb begins at 5:10
In total, the tower has 13 well-established routes, most of them on quite good rock, fun and exposed. Most of the original lines have been re-equipped with parabolts, but the initial placements were generally preserved.
The "Normal" is an obvious choice for a first ascent because of its low grade and small length (80m/5). It starts with a traverse and then goes up a dihedral, which gets steeper on the last moves. This is a nice line, opened in the alpine style of the days. However some of the holds are quite polished from repeated ascents and can be a bit slippery. Also, it is oriented towards the mountain and therefore is much less exposed that the other routes.
The Punsola-Reniu (220m/6c+/5 minimum) and the Gran Il.lusió (235m/7a+/6a+ min) are both on the valley side of the mountain and provide the full effect of the tower. They are often cited as the Cavall Bernat’s “basic” routes and are highly recommended.