As the airplane banked to the east, ailment my small window framing the freshly encrusted Rockies faded to scenes of flat expanse and then night. Several feet above me in the overhead compartment, a 60 lb. cacophony of gear slept peacefully in my cary-on pack after surviving scrutiny from dumbfounded security officials at Denver International Airport who had swooned at my explanation for all the alien metal and cord I was attempting to bring on board. I told them "people's lives depend on this gear" and I could not risk it being out of my possession for even a moment. How had these security agents never seen or heard of rock climbing gear at Denver airport? Four hours later I landed in Atlanta and took a train to a friend's house where I would spend my 22 hour layover. My oversized pack and gigantic haulbag gave me celebrity status on the Atlanta railway, MARTA. Some people thought my haulbag contained golf clubs. One couple wanted to know if I was going to be on TV. "Just like that guy who climbs the buildings, right?" asked a portly woman. "Right," I said, "but I aint using no suction cups!"
I spent the next day hanging out with an OG from my college daze, Jorge. It was refreshing to talk about non-climbing related topics, like chicks, films, meaning-of-life, yadayada-blah, etc. The next afternoon Jorge dropped me off at the Atlanta airport a couple hours before my flight so that he could spend Christmas Eve with his family (who by the way are awesome folks...thanks Hernandezes!) Once again I was a security celebrity. The dull look on the face of the x-ray agent perked up when my mammoth rack of gear floated onto the viewing screen, looking like some creature from the deep. Mumbles were exchanged, "wuddya think...dangerous?...mumble, mumble, dildo?...mumble...knife?...mumble." "Whose bag is this?" asked a concerned security officer with gilded incisors. I prepared to be interrogated, "Its mine." I emptied my bag on an inspection table: 60m 10mm static line 60m 10mm lead line triple rack of cams up to BD# 3, 1 x BD#4, 5, 6 3 sets of stoppers Ascenders, aiders, daisy chains 2 pairs climbing shoes harness 22 spare carabiners A special agent was called in to have a look at my wondrous oddities, but as he approached the table and got a glimpse of my tools, his face lit up. "Wutcha climin?" he asked. As a climber, traveling by myself with my gear on my back, I often feel lonesome, even if not alone. But here was someone who clearly grasped the thrill of vertical adventure, excited by the very sight of gear! His mirth was subtlety clear in the way he smiled, a mix between seeing an old fling who you know is still down, and the all-purpose shit-eating grin. "Big walls," I said witha smirk, and we both laughed. As I put the gear back into my pack, I elaborated on what I imagined the climbing in South America would be like. He told me with pride about his time "in Nam," and how they didn't have any fancy gear or shoes, just ropes and carabiners. After the army he had wanted to do some climbing back in the states, when people weren't shooting at him. But he got married, had kids, and didn't do any more climbing. He had never seen someone bring climbing gear through security at the Atlanta airport. I was a walking reminder of his years on the edge, a ghost of adventure past. His excitement added to the high I had been on for weeks in anticipation of this trip. While throngs of weary travelers spent their Christmas Eve playing Gameboys and reading paperbacks, I spent the next 3 hours dealing with my impatience by doing pushupsand finding gear placements all around the terminal, waiting to board the flight.
While I'd like to think the other people in the airport were impressed by my stunning para-adventure activities, I'm pretty sure they were thinking they should call in my antics to Homeland Security, after all, the terror level is at Orange.
Welcome To The Jungle
The feeling of stepping out of a plane into the sauna-like air of a tropical climate after coming from winter is a powerful sensory experience. It reminds me of vacations to the carribean, of returning to San Diego from some cold-weather adventure, and of good times to come in general. Still dressed in thick synthetic pants and a long-sleeve collared shirt, I was drenched in sweat by the time I got through customs and into the taxi, where I relaxed and took in the sights on the ride from the airport to Alex's apartment. Just as our eyes adjust in changing light, our perception adjusts to new landscapes. What had looked like an expanse of low-lying vegetated suburbs from the airplane now started to come into focus. Vast swaths of slum covered much of the land, interspersed with industrial lots in various levels of dilapidation. vegetated domes began to materialize from out of the haze, drastic in thier relief and ambiguous as to whether ones in the distance rose 1000 feet or 1000 meters above the sea level city.
The view from Alex's rooftop pool is stunning.
Rio De Janeiro's tale is a tale of two cities. It is a posterchild for Brazil's soaring economic growth and its widespread poverty. Ipanema Beach is a grid of highrises, posch hotels, and pricey nightlife, but its hillsides are dominated by Favellas. The Favellas are Brazil's slums, caught in the twilight zone between a society that wants nothing to do with them and one which needs thier cheap labor to fuel economic growth. Perched on the steep hillsides above Rio, the Favellas occupy real estate with ocean views that would command many millions of dollars if they had five digit zip codes beginning with 9. Instead they are zones of chaos, controlled by druglords who arm young children with guns and use them as militias. Two such favellas constantly at war with each other sit at the base of Dos Hermanos, adjacent granite formations that soar over 1500 feet and could offer a wealth of big wall climbing if thier access was not barred by the threat of violence. But not all of Rio's urban climbing access is guarded by unfriendly fire.
Rio Alpine Start [ree-oh al-pahyn stahrt]
1. Do unspeakable things until the sun comes up and then attempt to avoid the mid day heat on a climb.
Waking up with a massive hangover to go climbing is perfectly acceptable as long as the approach is less than one hour and you plan to climb 10 pitches or less. That's my rule. My first morning in Rio fell within the boundaries of this rule. I woke up in Alex's guest room to the sound of Alex telling me to get up. I knew Alex would be immune to any attempt on my part to convince him climbing was impossible in my sleep-deprived hungover state, so I sprung into action and banished my queasiness to that little place where all hangovers go when its time to go climbing. There they pile up and come out in the middle of a climb...hopefully not on your belayer. Alex packed a bag with a rope and some quickdraws and out the door we went. The mirrored elevator walls confirmed that I looked about the same way I felt...like a jet lagged turd. But I had faith that a couple hours of equatorial sun and sweating profusely on a multi-pitch sport route in the middle of the day would be sufficient to erase any residual crustiness. We downed some delicious acai smoothies at the corner store and hopped on a bus.
Above the canopy
The hike to Sugarloaf starts at the beach. A short jaunt along a paved path is followed by a 20 minute hike through jungle hillside. A useful tool for the approach is a "spider stick." This is simply a stick of some sorts used to vanquish the constant tangle of spider webs strewn across the path. We emerged from the jungle at the base of Via De Los Italianos (the Italian Route). I swatted mosquitos away from my ankles as we waited for a team of 2 to get a pitch off the ground. We swung leads for the entire climb, which consists of 2, 5.10- pitches and then 4 long pitches of about 5.6-5.8, with some simulclimbing.
The rock is a mix of granite and metamorphic schist, with great friction and edges. The bolts are all grampos, which are typical for the area. They all seemed to be in decent condition (don't fall) and are the type where you can run a rope directly through the bolt. As more and more air accumulated beneath our feet, the tropical metropolis of Rio De Janeiro came into full view. The last pitch tops out the nearly 1000 foot granite dome at the railing of a tram station. The tram that goes to the top of Sugarloaf provides acess to the restaurant/bar and giftshop for the less adventurous ascentionists. But regardless of the means employed to get to the top, Sugarloaf provides a perspective of the city you can't get by touring its streets.
The crime, commotion, poverty, and harsh realities of Rio become indiscernible, absorbed by the vast expanse of green, white, and blue. That is unless you were around to witness the shooting down of a police helicopter by Favella residents some weeks prior to my visit.
By the time we took the tram (free on the way down) and caught a bus back to Alex's apartment, Asa had arrived. After some lunch and relaxation, the three of us headed back to Sugarloaf, sans gear, to solo a route on the south side of the formation. Nobody had bothered to bring a headlamp and the sun had completely set by the time we started hiking. Alex assured us that the route was mostly 4th-low 5th class with a short section of 5.8. Aided by moonlight and a clear sky, we managed to reach the top of Sugarloaf without incident just in time to catch the last tram down around 9pm. This was a great relief because otherwise we would have had to downclimb the route and reverse the hike, which under the cover of the canopy remains pitch black.
A couple days later, the three of us went to climb a mixed route called La Garganta. After a hard day of sitting on the beach and sweating out the previous night's hangover, we finally got on the bus to Sugarloaf around 3pm. The route we were going to climb is 8 pitches and goes at 5.11.
A late day start was supposed to insure we didnt climb in brutal heat. But just as luck (read: poor planning) would have it, the first two pitches were squeeze chimneys that faced the sun. Asa lead the first and I lead the second. Both were run out, scary, and made us realize that we were likely going to finish the route in the dark. I guess 5pm is a late start, even by Rio Alpine standards. One pitch from the top, I was leading a sport pitch by headlamp when the lightning that had been on the horizon suddenly started striking too close for comfort. "Fuck this," I yelled down to Alex and Asa. I had Asa lower me off a bolt, and we proceeded to bail in the howling wind and lightning. We hiked out and caught a taxi just as the rain started to get heavy.
As I write this, 2 months after the fact, my time in Rio has become somewhat of a blur. I remember it like some sort of tropical storm of rock climbing, booze, cigarettes, and a constant urge to burn my candle at both ends. The image that comes to mind is of a giant bowl-sized tropical cocktail siting in front of me at a bar, with miniature figurines of Alex, Asa, and myself climbing and partying, constantly wading through the booze. We survived New Years Eve, and 2 days later I boarded an airplane to Chile, where I would meet up with Scotty for our Cochamo adventure. I was sad to leave that beautiful city, but I couldn't handle any more of the craziness. My body felt like utter shit, and my brain felt like a warm acai slushie. Not the best condition to be in before you embark on a 3-week climbing expedition, but as some great climber once said, "If you don't climb because of a hangover, you'll never climb shit."