There are also a few routes that stand out in my mind purely for the amazing quality of the climbing they provide. Clean line, perfect rock, beautiful scenery, and no crowds! These are the routes dreams are made of, these are the routes that motivate us through the rainy days and keep us going to the gym each night.
During a trip to Kalymnos Greece in the fall of 2012 I was lucky enough to enjoy a route of each type, on the same day, at the same cliff. My wife Becky chose Kalymnos as our honeymoon destination. Neither one of us had sport climbed outside of North America so the steep limestone, ubiquitous tufa blob climbing, and mild Mediterranean weather were attraction enough to get us to commit.
There are 64 distinct crags listed in the current edition of the Kalymnos climbing guide, and this doesn’t include at least a dozen more world-class cliffs that are too new to have been included. Generally, we would go to one of the cliffs within walking distance of our studio, but this wasn’t very limiting either; we still had roughly 20 to choose from. On the days we rented a scooter we had our pick of the entire island, which was downright overwhelming. Without sounding too hyperbolic, I went to at least 6 cliffs that were better than any sport-climbing cliff I've been to in North America.
Goats are everywhere!
By week two we had visited most of the most popular sectors without ever returning more than once to any one particular cliff. At this point there was only one major cliff we had avoided due to crowds, Odyssey, but finally as the season was winding down we decided to check it out and see what all the fuss was about. As we turned off the road and began the short hike to the crag my expectations were high, seemingly everyone we met on this trip had recommended a route to us from the Odyssey. Unfortunately, as we neared the base of the wall my expectations diminished.
Odyssey is one of the older crags on Kalymnos and one of the most popular. As a result, the rock is more polished than at other crags. The routes are generally shorter too, and for me at least, they lack the striking features that make a route irresistible. Compounding upon the diminished enthusiasm for the crag, Becky and I were headed toward our first crummy day of the trip. The weather was starting to foul, an obnoxious party was grating on our nerves (a first on this trip), and we got into some minor argument about something I've long since forgotten (also a first for this trip). It didn't take long for Becky and I to make the decision to leave the Odyssey sector. We could have easily gone back to our studio apartment, cut our losses and chalked it up as a rest day, but for some reason we decided to continue climbing. Far above the Odyssey sits a beautiful cliff named the Olympic Wall. Every time we asked other climbers if they had visited this cliff the answer was unanimously 'no'. The long steep approach is the main deterrent, that and the combination of being less steep than most Kalymnian crags and being west facing, the cliff gets a lot of sun. In the late autumn with overcast skies it looked like this would be a great chance to check it out. So long as it didn't rain.
The hike was long (by sport climbing standards) and steep (by any standards). The 45 minutes it took to reach the Olympic sector allowed us ample time to let go of the negative baggage we carried from the Odyssey and by the time we reached the base of the wall I was feeling completely rejuvenated. We warmed up on some great moderates and enjoyed the breathtakingly expansive views of the Mediterranean, the pace felt much more relaxed up there despite the oncoming threat of rain.
This cliff more than any other I've seen on Kalymnos has striking lines. There were two lines that stood out more than the others: Hellas Rodeo an 8a graded route and Kalyty a 7b. The guidebook describes the forty meter long Hellas Rodeo as "a ride on [a] giant single colonettes! The bolting is very spaced but not dangerous". Legendary first ascentionist Daniel Du Lac may not have thought it was a dangerous climb but he climbs 9a(5.14d)! It's only dangerous if you fall anyhow. In 40 meters of climbing there are only 10 bolts between the ground and the anchors. Spaced evenly apart you're looking at about 3.6 meters between bolts. Unfortunately the first 7 bolts get you to the halfway point, there you're left with 20 meters of climbing, the crux of the route, 3 bolts and a massively run-out finishing slab.
Hellas Rodeo is on the right (where the rope hangs). Kalyty climbs the right edge of the grey slab on the left end of the cliff.
I should mention that one my goals for this trip was to make a deliberate effort to try and 'onsight' every climb I tried regardless of grade. Indeed, I had been spending a lot time trying to improve my onsight skills leading up to this trip. My biggest weakness when onsighting had usually been an unwillingness to commit to moves that I couldn't recover from should I make a mistake. That conservative approach lead me to try and find more powerful sequences that would offer more control, but would also end up wasting a ton of energy and usually end with me hanging on the rope instead of clipping the chains.
Despite the knowledge that my most difficult successful onsight ascents had been done on routes two grades easier than Hellas Rodeo, I decided to go for it anyway. While I really did not expect to succeed, I climbed with the intention of going until I fell and to the safety of calling out "take" before I reached my limit. The first third of the climb was well protected and engaging, but clearly not the crux. As I neared the halfway point the colonette got a whole lot fatter and the climbing more strenuous. The colonette grew so wide that pinching it was out of the question; the only way to hold on was to slap its opposing sides with open hands and bear hug as if I was trying to ride a giant worm. Just when I thought I'd had enough, right at the point where in the past I would have yelled take, I realized that I was about 15 feet above my last bolt and had another 6-8 feet to go before I reached the next bolt. Had I been on one of the islands many steep cave routes this wouldn't have bothered me much but this route was barely overhanging. My fear of slamming into the wall at the end of a long fall only pushed me harder and before long I had clipped the next bolt and reached a small but positive hold from which I could recover. The rest was welcome but above me loomed some long intimidating run outs and not a speck of chalk to guide the way. My memory of the next 15 minutes or so is a blur of fear, delicate movements, and a growing sense of calm as I realized what a privilege it was to be there in that moment doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. After my success on Hellas Rodeo I could have easily headed home happy, but Kalyty looked too good to pass up and, more importantly, I thought it might be a great climb for Becky.
Becky approaches the crux of Kalyty
My personal success on Hellas Rodeo was made only sweeter by the fact that the person holding the other end of the rope was the love of my life. Becky seemed even more pleased by my ascent than I was. At this point I would've be content to call it a day but Kalyty looked too good to pass up and, more importantly, I thought it might be a great climb for Becky. Less than nine months before our trip she had reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL. Following her surgery, Becky had begun focusing on sport climbing as a way to build up strength and rebuild some confidence in her climbing. Kalyty was a perfect opportunity for her to test herself. Unlike most Kalymnos sport routes, the average angle of this pitch was just a little less than vertical, Becky's preferred angle, and it was on perfect rock. There would be no worrying about breaking a hold and taking an unexpected fall.
After climbing the pitch first I was pretty confident she would make it to the crux without too much difficulty. The crux, however, would be a real challenge for her. After climbing about 35 meters of wandering face climbing on beautifully sculpted tufa-blobs the climb suddenly changes character just 10 feet from the anchors. Suddenly the angle changes and the climber is faced with a difficult mantle with just a few well-spaced holds leading the way to glory. Mantles are not Becky's forte. I tried to remain optimistic, but my hands began to sweat.
As she made her way through the opening slab and into the first bit of difficulty, I could see her usual apprehension fade away. Becky's pace through the middle section was slow but steady, making calculated decisions yet never languishing too long at rests nor over thinking her beta. When she reached the last good holds before the final bouldery crux she had picked up enough momentum that I thought she might just cruise on to the finish, but then she paused.
Becky lost in a sea of tufas on 'Lulu in the Sky'
After shaking out for a bit she hollered down for beta. “Did you go left or right?”
Both were definitely options, and it wasn't obvious if one was easier than the other. I told her that I had gone right, but I wasn't confident that it was the better method. I could have just said it was “all good” and to “go for it” because that would have given her confidence, but I've learned over the years that it's best to just be honest because no one enjoys being sandbagged while they're nervous (if ever). Despite her nerves, and after a lot of time pensively testing beta, she set off on the final challenge of the climb. She moved quickly, decisively, and with determination. After just a few seconds, which felt like minutes, it was done. She had just flashed her most difficult climb to date! The roles were reversed and this time I was the one beaming with pride. Becky was humble of course and tried to dismiss the achievement, but I know how special those rare moments are and won't let her forget it.
There you have it, two climbs special for similar reasons, but for me two very different experiences.