Saturday, 21 September 2013

Learning to love the tufas in the Grande Grotta

The Grande Grotta is possibly the most well known, and well visiting crag on Kalymnos. It looms above Ameos, a dark maw of a cave with stalactite teeth, ready to bite climbers who approach with a less than respectful attitude. It’s steep, three-dimensional climbing takes many prisoners, a fall into space the penalty for weak biceps and forearms. The climbing is perhaps more intimidating than technically hard; there are rests aplenty, but you have to find – and use – them, and fitness is essential for battling the inevitable pump.

An Austrian climber finding the rests on Priapos (7c)
N and I plodded up the steep approach path in the early morning like convicted criminals on the way to our final punishment. Not that we didn’t want to climb, or indeed to climb in the Grande Grotta, but we were both feeling a bit nervous about the projects we had set ourselves for the day; me to get on DNA, the classic, pumpy 7a/+, and N to have a go at the gigantic roof route, Priapos (7c).

When we arrived at the base of the cave we found that a group of friendly Canadians had already beaten us to the warm up routes. There was nothing for it but to jump straight onto DNA, though I would hardly class thirty-degree overhanging rock as a warm up, no matter how big the holds! N went first, putting the clips in, then I followed, working out the moves and resting on each bolt so as not to get too pumped.

It may be steep, but all the holds are good – once you know where they are – and there are various rests that you can contrive, from an obvious sit down on a tufa seat, to a bum wedge in the tendrils of the jellyfish tufa higher up. At the top you can choose to move out left on massive holds, then back right to clip the chains, or go straight up from the bolt on smaller holds. I chose the straight up route, using some of the smallest holds on the route to gain the huge jugs at the top.

After a rest, I tied in for another go, to see if I could link the route in a few sections. Surprisingly, I made it through to the tufa seat, and sat there for about ten minutes shaking out and recovering. Fully recovered, I made the moves up to the jellyfish, then got a bum wedge / head jam rest to get another shake - no one said tufa climbing was elegant... From there I headed up the final steep moves, to dangle and wrestle with the huge tufa at the top and clip the chains. I had thought DNA would push me to the limit, prepared myself for a physical and mental struggle, but I had not expected to enjoy it so much – a great route, worthy of its three star status.

N was next up on the beast that is Priapos. Harder, steeper and longer than DNA, and requiring a more three-dimensional style of climbing, bridging between stalactites and wrestling tufas. N described it as ‘steep walking’, though that does not do justice to the effort required to walk this roof of tufas. The climbing is so steep that you belay with your back to the wall, looking outwards, not upwards, across the roof. Sometimes N disappeared from view behind a huge stalactite, at other times, you see a leg or an arm, wrapped round or through the hanging needles of rock. Carefully, he made his way through the first crux, past the missing bolt (replacing temporarily by a scarily thin rope looper through a fragile looking tufa) to the final crux section. But Priapos had taken its toll,and this was to be left as a project....for the next trip! 

Looking out across the huge roof of the Grande Grotta, to a climber far out on Priapos
Still feeling like I had some energy left in my arms, I decided to have a go at Aphrodite (7a/+), a short route with a hard crux move. I misread this on the onsight, but quickly worked it out with a bit of beta from N and ticked the route second go. Walking down from the cave in the hot afternoon sun, arms and legs scarred from tufa wrestling, I finally felt that perhaps I could come to love the steep, intimidating tufas, with their good holds and unique, gymnastic style of climbing. And for me, that in itself was an achievement.

Spot the climber...

Stamina climbing at Spartan Wall and Iannis

All good things come to an end, and my run of good climbing days ended rather spectacularly on Spartan Wall, bailing on the warm up route of the day; an intimidating, but admittedly good 6b. 

Probleme Mineur (6b), Spartan Wall

Fortunately N and H were there to bathe my wounded pride and I managed to pull myself together enough to lead up Lucifer’s Hammer (6c) after Nick kindly put the clips in for me. This impressive route leads straight up the seemingly blank and steep Spartan Wall on generally good pockets and holds - another great, fun route!

N looking up at the wall of Lucifer's Hammer (6c)

This was H’s day to shine, as she put in an impressive onsight effort on Leonides (7b), falling high up at the final crux moves. Second go and it was in the bag! With the clips in, I managed to regain my psyche, working my way up through technical tufa and wall climbing, to an awkward (and slightly unnerving) rest position, through a crimpy, tough grove until my arms failed me just as I reached the final crux slab. A fantastic route, which will definitely be near the top of my tick list for the next trip.

Another day, another crag and Ros, Rachel and I headed to Iannis in search of long, off-vertical wall climbs. We had a game plan for the day, and after warming up on Kalyne (6b), Ros lead off up Zagori (6c), a long and in places, quite run out, climb that stretched our 80m rope to the limit. For me, a few more bolts would have made the experience rather less nerve-racking and more enjoyable, but Ros was in her element. Which meant she got first lead on the next route on the list; Sens Unique, a 40m 7a that winds its way up the middle of the yellow wall. Fortunately this was considerably better bolted than Zagori and sustained, technical climbing on slopers and sidepulls (with the odd jug) led up to the crux, right near the top of the route. With variations on grunting, screaming and slapping, we all managed to pull through this and teeter across the delicate traverse to the chains – team send!

Final route of the day was Verikoko, a shorter (mere 30m!) 7a+ that H and N had recommended to me as being ‘your sort of route’. They were right, and though I was feeling tired after the previous routes, I managed to pull up through the juggy bulges and crimpy walls, and balance my way delicately across the tiny, less-than-positive holds at the top to secure my first 7a+ onsight, and another fantastic route. Ros followed suit, then we were all done for the day and headed down for celebratory ice cream and a dip in the pool.

Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve mentioned the fantastic rooftop pool at the Panormitis StudiosWith views out to Telendos in one direction, and up to the Grande Grotta in the other, there is no better place to relax in the sun, or have a lazy swim in the clear, cool pool. And I think that's one thing that has made this holiday so enjoyable; climbing in the morning shade until your arms feel suitably knackered, then spending the afternoon chilling and reading before heading out to one of the fantastic restaurants in Masouri - heaven!

View from the pool!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The not-so-Secret Garden

This morning N and H realised that the coffee they’d been stoking up on since the beginning of the trip was actually decaff.... “That’s why I’ve been having so many headaches” mused N, the ultimate coffee addict. Fresh (fully caffeinated) coffee was made to see us through the early start and we set off on the scooters to Secret Garden. 

Secret Garden is one of the more recently developed crags on Kalymnos, and though it may have been a secret initially, it is definitely one of the more popular crags we’ve been to. It was described to us as one of the best pieces of rock on Kalymnos, and deservedly so; a tall wall of perfect steep rock, varying between short pocketed walls and long, overhanging, tufa-laden routes. There really is something for everyone - unless you’re purely a slab fiend that is!

Secret Garden
The first challenge in climbing at Secret Garden is tackling the hairpin bends that lead up over the pass from Skalia to Palionisos. It was R’s first time as passenger on my scooter and she was (understandably) rather nervous. This probably wasn’t helped by me overshooting the sharp, hidden turn off the main road and shooting into some gravel by the side of the road...

Turned round and ready to go, we shot off up the hill; heavily laden with two people and bags, the balance between getting up enough speed to get up the steep turns, versus being able to get round the corners was delicate. But, with only a slight wobble or two we made it; though I swear R was holding her breath the whole way up!

Over the worst, we cruised down the bends on the other side – relaxing in the sun and open road. Parking up, a twenty minute gentle walk brought us to Secret Garden. We were first to arrive, but were not on our own for long; a couple of parties of European climbers complete with fluorescent pink and green clothing soon arrived to brighten up the crag; making us feel drab in our subdued, British greens and browns.

We warmed up on the left hand side of the crag; the steep, pocketed routes of Margarita (6b+), Bratsere (6c) and Remetzo (6c) necessitating a ‘race-to-the-top’ approach, to reach the chains before your arms pumped out. The air was hot and humid with no breath of wind, leaving the holds slick and sweaty. Chalking up between moves was essential and we lowered to the ground dripping with sweat.

Taking a break to rest, and without the pressure of the sun coming round (Secret Garden stays in the shade all day), we sat down to admire the view. The aqua sea below, clear and still, was inviting, and if the crag hadn’t been quite so high up the hillside, I may have jumped in to cool off. Sailing boats with brilliant white sails lazily drifted off the coast, and on the hazy horizon, the coast of Turkey could be seen. The peaceful tranquillity was broken only by the calls of other climbers battling with the steep routes behind us.

Looking out to Turkey

Back on the routes, N led off up Ricounet (7a), past an initial steep section and into an impressive groove between two huge tufa flakes. I was up next, and after enjoying the jugs of the tufas lower down, found myself faced with the blanker groove above. Bridging was the way forward here, delicately pasting your feel on the tufas, gradually balancing your way up the tufas, conscious of the air below your feet. I found myself wondering if the ‘musical note’ routes in the guidebook (the presence of a quaver symbol indicating a top quality route) were actually reflective of the worrying singing the hollow tufas made when you touched them rather than the amazing moves...

N and H led up Crisis (7a); another fantastic looking tufa route, but I had set my eyes on some steep, fingery pocket pulling and decided to have a go at Markoutsi (7b). This turned out to be a great varied route, with a hard, boulder crux low down, followed by lovely pocket-pulling, a scary (but actually quite easy) slab, then some more jugs to finish.  Possibly the most un-nerving part was sticking my finger in a mono, only to feel a buzzing and for a hornet to fly out! After putting the clips in I fell on the last move of the crux on a redpoint go; my arms wasted, but resolved to return.


Secret Garden was too good for just one day, and we returned a couple of days later to tick some more routes. The highlight of the day was Frapogelo (6c), a fantastic route leading up on juggy tufas through some impressively steep ground. A huge tufa extending horizontally from the wall gave numerous possibilities for holds and which I used to hang off, lean against, sit on and stand on!

N chilling out on Frapogelo (6c)
 After we'd all had a turn whooping our way up the tufas, thoughts turned to projects, and back to Markoutsi (7b). I put the clips in, falling just one move off the end of the crux section. Feeling positive, I lowered down and pulled through the rope for N, who put in a great effort on a flash attempt, but also got caught out at the crux, where have a good foot sequence wired is the key to success. After a rest, I set off again, up through to the crux, but the holds felt slippy and something was wrong. Frustrated, I came off, trying to figure out why the moves hadn't worked. With a bit of help from my fantastic belayers, I realised my left foot hadn't been high enough. I lowered to the ground, rested for ten minutes then went again; pulling through the crux with the correct sequence then continuing up the jugs to glory! After a couple more attempts, N followed suit.

Meanwhile, H was intent on finding the most greasy-looking, slippy slabs on the crag, and put in a great onsight effort on Apocalypse (6c), working her way up a groove on tiny holds and slapping for a crucial hold on the wall above. 

H on Apocalypse (6c)
Tired but satisfied, we headed back to our scooters and over the hill back to civilisation, leaving the not-so-Secret Garden behind. Contender for the best crag on Kalymnos? In my opinion, definitely yes, and I can't wait to go back!


She works the room, knowing all eyes are on her. Everyone wants a bit of her, and everyone will get a bit – for a price. She has to survive after all, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

Pressing her slim body up against you, she meets your gaze with her large, green, black-lined eyes. Whether you are male or female, she is not particular; dealing out her affections where they are likely to have the desired effect. She acts young and innocent, as if she is just there for the pleasure of your company; but beneath that sweet demeanour lurks sharp claws, that she is ready to use. You may be taken in and give her what she wants, at which point she stretches and walks away; off to find someone else to satisfy her needs.

But as soon as you take your attention away from her, she is there; careful to make sure your glance doesn’t stray to others, that she is the only one you pay attention to. Sunlight glints off the auburn in her hair as she stretches, playing on her beauty as she tiptoes across the room.

Though you know in your heart she’s only doing it for the sardines; as she curls up, purring in your lap, it’s hard not to fall just a little bit in love with her.   

Rita, our adopted holiday cat

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Fighting ghosts at Ghost Kitchen

Third day on and we headed for the crimpy walls and tufa pillars of Ghost Kitchen. R had decided to take a rest day (or perhaps she just didn’t trust my driving quite yet...) so I had a chance to get used to the scooter on my own. We set off relatively early, but not early enough; it appeared everyone else had also decided to go to Ghost Kitchen for the day!

We warmed up on Pic Pic (6b), a beautiful slab route with good holds and nice moves. Next up, Resista; a 6c which takes an improbable line up a steep, imposing red wall. H went first, gleefully pocket-pulling her way up the route and lowering off with a huge smile on her face. I set off and immediately saw why; an easy slab led to the steep wall, where good pockets arrived just where you needed them, and move followed beautiful move. Clipping the chains, Resista immediately shot into my Top 10 all time favourite routes.

N eying up the headwall of Resista (6c)

Two other routes go up this fantastic red wall, Le Mythe de la Caverne (7a), to the left of Resista, and Globus (6c+) to the right. N and H had already done Mythe, but we figured it would be rude not to complete the trio. H cruised up it, putting the clips in, then it was my turn. This was my first 6c+ onsight attempt, and there were a couple of gripping moments; particularly when balanced on the blank looking wall figuring out the technical crux moves, trying to forget the fact that my last bolt was below my feet. But the climbing was so good and involved, that I found myself focusing purely on each move, totally absorbed in the climbing; working out how to use the small sidepulls and crimps and where I needed to place my feet to be able to reach, in balance, up to the next hold. Before I knew it, I was through the crux and onto the juggy pockets which led – with some interesting moves – to the chain. Tick!

N7 (7a) had been recommended by a friend of ours as a possible onsight proposition so, despite N’s hatred of spikey grey slabs, we went over to have a look. H led the way once again, with smooth climbing up the initial bulge, through the slab in the middle and onto the crux wall near the top of the route; overbalancing slightly on the crux, but a great onsight effort. 

I nervously tied in, checking and rechecking my knot, making sure my shoes were clean and I had plenty of chalk. Resolving to take it one clip at a time, I set off. The climbing suited me; small, positive holds for both hands and feet with lovely, delicate, crimpy climbing. Worried about getting calf pump and the dreaded jelly-leg (I have pathetically weak legs) I climbed quickly through the initial bulge and slab, up to the crux wall. The bolts were close together here, giving me the confidence to make the slightly off-balance moves on small crimps and sidepulls. Then it was just a case of keeping going, fighting the pump to get through to a rest before the final few moves to the chains. 

Struggling with my head and the fear of falling has often put a shadow over my climbing and held me back from pushing myself on harder routes. Particularly this year, I found it affecting my enjoyment of climbing, found myself thinking more about how far I had to climb to my next bolt or piece of gear, than the moves; unable to let go of the fear and allow myself to relax and enjoy the climbing. Whether it was the friendly bolting, the style of the routes that suited me, or simply that I was totally psyched, I finally felt able to carry on climbing; to focus on the moves and not the bolts and to accept that I might fall, and that that would be ok. 

At Ghost Kitchen I managed for a day, to put aside some of my ghosts, and rediscover what I really love about sport climbing. Of being in a bubble, where there is only you and the rock; where you can challenge yourself and success or failure is down to you alone. Where sequences flow, and you become hypersensitive to the slightest change in your body position. When you know that the holds will be there, and it’s just a matter of working out the puzzle of how to use them; of climbing on and on, until you either reach the top, or you cannot hold on any longer. 

It may be incomprehensible to non-climbers, and even perhaps to some climbers; we all have different reasons for climbing. But for me, this is the very essence of why I climb; the drug that sees me through the bad head days and brings me back again, and again. It’s sometimes easy to forget this, when training is tough and you’re struggling to push yourself mentally or physically. So thank you, Ghost Kitchen, for helping me remember.

View from Ghost Kitchen