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planetFear - Articles - Aegean Reflections

Aegean Reflections

Article by Matt Heason
Monday 9th March 2009

1: A Very Short History of Kalymnos

It's 7 a.m. and still dark. I'm sitting at my desk at work. Listening to the rain falling outside, I close my eyes.

1 Week Ago:

I'm at Arhi - The Arch: my breathing is attracting odd glances from the those below. I'm somehow suspended in a groove, defying gravity whilst wedged against a mighty limestone fin. Everything is the wrong angle. Shuffling various body parts in a tango with the tempestuous tufa, I gain another few inches, enough to clip the next bolt. There's not been a positive hold for some time, but one way or another the ground is receding. It's not a pumpy route, but I'm tiring. Hyperventilating. Chill. Take a deep breath. Shuffle. Not far now. All extraneous thoughts have been banished. The chain is all that matters. So why am I humming Fleetwood Mac? Dahhh, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dahhh. The belaying is good - nothing to interfere with utter concentration, but the pain of freshly gouged arms and knees smarts. Shuffle. Breathe. I'm gonna do it. Shuffle. Breathe. Shuffle. A hold. Cross through. Figure of four. Feet cutting loose. Catch the fin with a flailing heel, check the momentum. Match. Breathe. Look down. Choose some smears. Place feet. Squeeze muscles. And reach for the chain. Grin. That magic moment as you break through a grade barrier. Five days on and I climb the hardest route of my bloody life. That's a sweet sort of irony. Time for a beer. Flop on to the rope and spiral towards the boulders.

- all photography copyright Dave Pickford (www.davidpickford.com) -

Arhi, one of the greatest Kalymnian crags, is often at its best on sunny days in midwinter. 'Angelica' (8a) is just one of the numerous outstanding climbs on this cliff. 

A few million years ago:

A volcanic eruption unleashes unimaginable forces on a large lump of limestone in the Aegean. The west coast of Kalymnos is twisted and thrust in new directions. The resulting cliffs and caves are then subjected to the trials of time, wind and water. The walls and caves are draped with elephant trunk sized stalactites.

1100 BC:

The first settlers make Kalymnos their home. Sensible people.

1997:

Some adventurous Austrian, French, and Italian climbers arrive on the island with plenty of drills, bolts and enthusiasm. Shortly thereafter the local Mayor, in conjunction with Greek climber Aris Theodoropoulos, decide that they will promote Kalymnos as a sport climbing destination to avoid it becoming the normal ghost town during the winter months. They organise an International get together which is attended by 180 people from 13 countries. A glossy guide book is produced and provided free of charge to visitors. Articles are subsequently written in most of the major climbing rags and Kalymnos is on the climbing map - with a vengeance!

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2: Tales From Climbing's Paradise Island 

 Looking from Massouri towards Leros, the more remote island to the north. The islet of Telendos is on the left of the photograph. 

Hype can be a good thing, but often leaves me disappointed. I've been to see too many films and walked away muttering about hype. When a well travelled friend recently returned from Kalymnos claiming that it was the best place he had ever climbed I was dubious. Articles written by well known names in the British mags used phrases like 'world class'. The pictures were certainly inspiring, the natural arch on the cover of the guide looked fantastic. So armed with a bucket full of hype, I booked flights for six and started to get excited.

Someone once said that first impressions last, which is clearly rubbish. Kalymnos from the ferry looks largely uninspiring, as the fuzzy Aegean haze is broken by a sprawling coastal town and a burning refuse tip, the island naked of vegetation and pummelled by hefty waves. Step onto land and it's a different story. Pothia, home to over ninety percent of the fifteen thousand inhabitants, is a warm and friendly port. Lines of gleaming yachts and motor cruisers line the quay, whilst a myriad of mopeds zig and zag their way to destinations unknown like clouds of angry bees. There are elderly Orthodox ladies dressed in black; mustachioed men; kids on bikes. What's clear is that no one is hurrying anywhere. The pace of life is seriously laid-back on this island - Kalymnians must be among the most chilled-out people in Europe.

Octopus: one of the traditional staples of the Kalymnian diet

We find a couple of taxis and head west, worrying about the feeble elastic strap fastening the boot. Pothia goes on and on, contained within a steep sided valley. Our chauffeur bemoans the cost of his car in a thick Oz accent. Many Kalymnians, bizarrely, have Australian blood somewhere within their family. We are dropped at Bar Glaros, an unassuming place in sleepy Massouri on the west coast. I have a couple of photographs of the proprietor, Steve, a Scouser who upped and left our winter weather nine years ago and hasn't looked back since.

The photos were taken by the friend who'd visited a few weeks ago and climbed with Steve. It's a good ice breaker and he's soon sorted us out with accommodation, a trio of simple twin rooms, ensuite with balconies. There's a communal kitchen, but we are assured that it's not much more expensive to eat out. Knackered, we head straight for the beach. Snorkelling then lunch - beef tomatoes, salami, cheese and pickles. We're too excited to sunbathe, so Steve & I head off to the nearest crag.

Climbing at Iladia with Telendos beyond. The route is 'Priamos' (6b+)

Do 'only mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun'? Yes! We arrive to see six climbers, all British, all wearing their t-shirts on their heads! It must be thirty degrees. Poets sector (all the crags are called sectors) lies a mere ten minute walk uphill from the edge of Massouri. A compact granite slab with a bulging head wall that marks the Southern edge of the main collection of cliffs on the island. The rock is solid and sharp, akin to Mallorca's Crevetta. There's a fine selection of routes, but we only have time for three before dehydration headaches send us packing.

Before scurrying down, we check out the view. Across the bay lies Telendos, a tiny volcanic islet which used to be joined to Kalymnos, before a huge eruption cut it off.  Accessible by boat every half hour from Myrties, amazingly, there are only a couple of routes to date. We vow to explore the cave infused ridge, but never do. There is too much to do here to go further afield. Another time. Stretching northwards lie seven separate sectors, all part of the same massif and all within a forty five minute walk of Massouri. When all the gaps are eventually filled, this island's west coast will surely be one of the biggest sport climbing areas on earth!

Pothia from the sea: this is the island's normal point of arrival and departure.

Back in Massouri we go for another swim before hitting the town. Drinks and idle chit chat at Glaros. Stories of bunny rabbits and time share touts. Then our first Greek food: a cornucopia of lamb, aubergine, olives, tomatoes and salty cheeses. The beer is cheap and conversation flows happily.

Sector Odyssey is the crag of the island, a quarter mile wave of interconnected caves and walls. We opt to walk, bemused at the lack of traffic on the coast road. A white milestone marks the start of the path and epitomises the level of commitment the locals have put into developing the island for climbers. Relatively discreet paint blobs lead right to the first route, which is of course, discreetly marked with its name and grade. This place is a model of how to create an industry out of nothing, and the anathema of traditional British ethics! But when in Rome..... We're in the shade 'till mid afternoon, but the rock sweats dew early on so we make the most of the four hours of quality climbing time. Classic lines fall quickly, and time wasters are non-existent. It's heaven.

Next day it's Sectors Panorama, Afternoon, and Grand Grotte. Just a taster at Panorama, a superb 30m 6c - the easiest tick of the crag! Technical, technical climbing on fantastic rock. Rumour has it the rest of the routes are as good. Afternoon, so called because it remains cool throughout the day, is less inspiring. Then Grand Grotte. Wow. Wow. Wow. And Wow again.

Alone amid the geological phenomena of Grande Grotte, Dave Pickford relaxes on a stalactite on the onsight of 'Priapros' (7c), one of the cave's best routes. 

Imagine a giant sieve. Turn it upside down and force mashed potato through all the holes for a few seconds. Apply a strong wind, and then freeze. Spray it orange. Enlarge it by a couple of orders of magnitude. It's awesome. There are more tufas crammed into the roof of this cave than......all the tea in china. Only a handful of routes have so far been forced through the chandelier like territory. One of them looks a mega classic - a two pitch wonder - 35m 7c+ followed by an 18m 8a! Slightly more amenable is the short, but entertaining and fierce DNA, a must at 7a+. 8 clips in 15m tells you how steep this route is. Perhaps the only downside is the number of shattered tufas that lie on the cave floor, testament to gravity, and a hard landing. If you are going to spend much time sitting around or belaying in this place it may be worth taking a helmet.

Dave Pickford adrift in the crazy horizontal architecture of Grande Grotte: here, he nears the end of the hard section of 'Fun De Chichune' (8a) on his onsight ascent. This incredible route covers over 40 metres of upside-down terrain through the roof of the cave.

On day four we head back to Odyssey, for another fine morning spent climbing in the shade. It becomes crowded so we head to the Castelli Monastery on the headland for lunch. This is an idyllic, holy place, painted in the traditional Greek style. 'Welcome' is daubed in brilliant blue on its walls.

The tiny chapel at Kasteli commands a stunning view across the bay to the north, and west towards Telendos.

We snorkel and swim from the steps, careful of black sea urchins. Rested and warmed, we then scramble around the headland to Castelli. It's 4pm and people are leaving. We have the place to ourselves, a sunlit vertical face, 20m high, messy at the bottom, but superb higher up. The holds feel un-naturally positive and sharp. We climb five routes in an hour and a half, as the sun sinks towards Telendos.

The next day dawns to a glorious blue sky. Arhi is an hour's walk, but gets the sun early afternoon. We arrive early, climb hard, and leave when it gets too hot. The pleasant slabs on the right gradually twist through their central point, into a mighty cave. The routes become progressively harder towards the cave, which remains for the most part, un-explored.

Sam Ring gets to grips with the powerful crux of the arch-classic 'Eros'  (7b+) at Arhi.

It's our last day on the island, after five days on with no real rest. We hire mopeds and buzz up to Sector Palace. Mia's Place, a superb 6a+ on steep ground. No-one else around. Photographs through the archway. Back on the mopeds, we spend the rest of the day exploring the secluded slabs near Castelli.

The last day of the holiday is spent chilling out, shooting the breeze as the others windsurf.  We even splash out on a sun lounger - time to lie still and reflect. It's a gamble going somewhere for the first time, taking advice from people you don't know. So far I've been lucky; Mallorca, Tenerife, and mainland Spain are all top notch destinations. But Kalymnos will always take first place in my own sport climbing hall of fame.

Dave Pickford redpointing 'Rendez With Platon' (8b) at Jurassic Park, one of the island's finest hard routes. 

 

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