Friday, March 27, 2009

Kalymnos Greece - A climbing Paradise

On the eve of our trip to Thailand, I uncovered a story I wrote about another warm-weather, limestone climbing destination, a tiny almost forgotten Greek island in the Aegean Sea, Kalymnos. This trip, a side trip while visiting Sonja's Peace-Corp home in Bulgaria, is really the genesis of our upcoming Thailand adventure...

Kalymnos Gree
ce, Sponge Diving Island turned European climbing Mecca!

My hips feel like they’re going to collapse into themselves. Totally stuck, I can’t move up or down, and every second I spend here the excruciating pain gets worse. My legs are spread in the splits while my hands cling desperately to the smooth bulbous rib of rock to my left. I’m acutely aware that if I don’t move soon this rock will pitch me off into the beckoning void below. Now I understand the guidebook’s description, “The better you can bridge, the easier the climb.” Apparently I don’t bridge very well. I look down past my harness and the rope towards my girlfriend, Sonja. She looks concerned. I decide falling isn’t an option, and go for it. To my surprise my hands stick to the slick limestone as I pull out of my awkward impasse. I inch my feet up to better, more bearable footholds and in three moves I’ve finished the route. Breathing hard out of exertion and relief, I clip the rope through the chains at the top of the route and Sonja lowers me safely to the ground. This is the essence of rock climbing in Greece, on the island of Kalymnos. Intense, unique, and like nothing you’ve ever experienced.

Stashed away in the Dodecanese islands just off the west coast of Turkey, Kalymnos is an island the world almost forgot. Once known for its natural sponges harvested by naked free divers from the Aegean Sea, Kalymnos appeared to be a casualty of a changing modern world. In 1986, with cheaper synthetics dominating the sponge market and a mysterious disease decimating the diver’s harvests, the island had fallen on hard times. This all changed in the mid 1990’s when Kalymnos was discovered by the European climbing community. The island’s landscape is defined by dramatically featured orange and gray limestone cliffs. Its walls have drawn close comparisons to the Verdon Gorge in France, Europe’s climbing equivalent of Yosemite Valley. Climbers were drawn here by the untouched quality and quantity of rock. Under the leadership of Greek climbing guide Aris Theodoropoulos over 800 routes have been established in 43 different sectors of the island. And the locals have enthusiastically embraced the growing eco-tourism.

Sonja and I have come to Kalymnos to sample this rocky island paradise for ourselves. Stepping off a stormy overnight ferry

from Athens our first impression in the capital of Pothia is one of early morning calm. European yachts sway gently alongside an array of colorful fishing skiffs and beautifully crafted wood SCUBA diving boats. The skies have cleared and the water is like glass, reflecting the whitewashed stucco houses that spread up the hills surrounding the marina. The peaceful moment is soon replaced by bustling chaos. Awkward with our huge packs, we catch the city bus packed with European tourists and grocery toting YaYas (Greek Grandmas). The bus winds slowly up a narrow one lane road, the only path out of the city. The route snakes past old churches, ancient ruins, and cemeteries, to the tiny coastal village of Masouri.

Hiking up to the cliffs above Masouri smells like we’ve stepped into a Mediterranean kitchen. Thyme, sage and oregano grow wild in the arid climate. Passing a stately olive tree, Sonja unlatches a gate fashioned out of an old battered shipping pallet and frayed y

ellow twine. We’re hit by the pungent fragrance of goats. These semi-wild goats can be spotted moving freely through the hills, sometimes under the watchful eye of a shepherd and sometimes not. When we reach the rock I know we’ve come to the right place. Anxious to sample the goods, Sonja and I rope up and sink our hands into the deliciously sharp limestone pockets. Our first climbing day ends with the sun setting over the small island of Telendos. As the light melts from pink to deep purple we admire windsurfers playing th

e breeze blowing down the narrow straight between Kalymnos and T

elendos. By headlamp we descend to Masouri for gyros and Greek Salads at a roadside grill calle

d Mr. Souvlaki.

After several days of climbing near Masouri we’ve rented a scooter to explore the rest of the island. Buzzing north through the cool morning air I feel content. Just riding a scooter through this landscape is an adventure. The winding road hugs th

e coast, passing a tantalizing white sand beach tucked between rock outcrops. Across fro

m the beach sits the Chapel of Kasteli with whitewashed steps that appear to descend rig

ht into the Aegean. The chapel marks ruins of a Byzantine castle that was inhabited until the 10th century. A 15 minute scooter ride brings us to the Arhi climbing area. Arhi, meaning “beginning” in Greek, was the first sector developed on Kalymnos. The names of the climbs here reference Greek mythology and set the standard for all the

routes on the island.

Our plan for the day is to warm up climbing on easy terrain before attempting our hardest climbs of the trip. It turn out Kalymnos is great place to challenge yourself on the rock. The climbs here are consistently well protected and safe. This also makes it an ideal place to try climbing for the first time. We’ve met climbers of all abilities from all over the world. From easy slabs to learn on, to extreme overhanging test pieces, beginners and world class climbers can be found roping up side by side. Sonja and I find ourselves somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Today I struggle mightily through a classic called Thetis, an awkward hip crunching route unlike anything I’ve ever tried in the States. The tuffa rock is formed by the slow buildup of deposited minerals accumulating from periodically dripping water. The route hints at the more dramatic climbing found on the huge stalactites hanging on the overhanging routes in the caves here. Though frustrating, it motivates me to come back and try harder routes in the future. Sonja on the other hand, cruises effortlessly up two of her personal bests, Apolus and Adonis, proving she’s completely adapted to the subtleties of the Greek limestone and mythology.

With raw fingers and taxed forearms, we ride into the hamlet of Eborios for dinner. Settling into an open air waterfront restaurant serving up fresh calamadri, fried zucchini in garlic yogurt sauce, and grille lamb, we reflect on our adventure here. Someone dives off a lone sailboat moored out front, their figure silhouetted by the setting sun. A woman’s laughter drifts across the water. My tender fingertips are happily wrapped around a cold Mythos beer and in my head I’m already planning a return trip. This place, I think, is almost perfect!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Climbing in Thailand

Winter's almost over here in Salt Lake, and we're off to Thailand to kick-start our climbing season on the Ratburi limestone towers of Tonsai. The plan is to spend our first couple weeks on the beaches of Railey and the Phi Phi Islands seeing how much we can sweat and then travel north to explore the sights of Chiang Mai. Climbing will be our primary focus, but we hope to break things up with plenty of snorkelling, sea kayaking, exploring and of course, photography. When the opportunity presents itself we hope to upload some fun photos and stories to this blog.