“I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.”
Maybe I should have read the writing on the wall.
It’s that modern romance, man, the kind that starts with a match. We got to talking during a dreary February in Budapest, a city known for arresting architecture, stag dos, and Eastern Europe’s most blatant political swindler. I’d come to the city with dreams of writing and soaking in thermal baths, the idea stemming from a Wes Anderson flick that actually had nothing to do with Budapest itself. I’d only end up doing one of those things.
She caught my eye, and my swipe, because she was into climbing and had a rad photo of her scaling a steep sun-baked rock face with a siren’s call of sparkling emerald water in the background. That day, the sun shone brightly in the pixelated universe, you could feel the heat emanating from the screen.
We messaged back and forth and she’d speak to deeper topics, respond with thought and care. Intriguing. I’m no good at flirting, but we did a little of that too. We planned to meet at a bouldering gym for our first date.
The match moved towards the striker.
We met at UjjeroBoulder Terem, which loosely translates to “Finger Force,” on the south side of Buda, near the Petőfi Bridge.
She was taller than I expected, and late, which would be something I’d get used to during our relationship of ups and downs and angst over delayed periods.
She came striding into the cave-like entrance in a grey petticoat that she tied around her waist with the built-in belt, mid-calf black leather riding boots, and a blood red scarf wrapped around her neck.
I stood up to greet her.
The climbing goes and we spoke all the while like lost souls do: About life, dreams, poetry, the call of the mountains.
It all sounded wondrous, impressive, inspiring. I’d never met a woman who had climbed so extensively and she talked about these things cooly, like they were nothing special. She was smooth and smart and funny. I thought I’d hit the jackpot, and that the date was only going so-so.
It was my first time back to climbing in nearly 8 months, and she was much stronger and more technically sound. We ended with her traversing the entirety of the gym and my forearms too pumped and fingers too weak to do much but watch. I tried to act cool and not focus too intently on the leggings she wore. I decided to start climbing again that evening.
On the walk to the tram we were in the middle of a conversation about personal values and what it means to live well. We were about to part ways, or so I thought, when she asked if I wanted to get drinks.
I had tempered my expectations about the evening, figured she was only mildly interested and that maybe we’d have a second date. I guess I wasn’t so good at reading the route that night.
“This is an interesting conversation, so I’d like to continue it,” she said.
She’d end up making the first move after two fröccs, a Hungarian wine spritzer. She shuffled around the table to sit next to me and gave me a look that invited me to kiss her. So I did.
The match struck.
We fell for each other and decided to give it a go.
But not before some discussion. In a moment of blunt honesty before I left for Boston, she’d tell me, “I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.” She wasn’t of the mind to date, she said, but I had thrown a wrench in her plans.
We were together for the better part of the year. She’d teach me to lead and we parlayed that into my first and second ever climbing trips.
And yet imprinting is hard to shake, her comment would run through our months of quasi-commitment. I learned to expect the unexpected on the terrain ahead, that trust in your belayer is as important as the trust you have in yourself, that a partnership needs a common goal to succeed.
My guess is you can read the writing on the wall at this point.
The funny thing is, the gym no longer exists. They shut the doors and moved on to a new venture with the hope they could make it work out better.
Spaces come and go, but they hold memories, that’s what gives them significance: She’d learned to climb there and I’d gotten back into the sport because of it. Our lives danced about because of climbing, and it started at that gym.
Eventually the lights turned off and we’d never be able to go back to that place again.
At Dublin’s first public climbing gym, climbers meet, get married and have children. It’s that kind of place: Like the Cheers of climbing spots.
The gym, Gravity Climbing Centre, sits in an office park on the south-west side of Dublin, tucked in the back in an old warehouse. It is a large and square building, split down the middle, the other side housing the Church of God. With the high ceilings of Gravity, the communal gatherings, and euphoria-inducing rock alters one might wonder which space feels more spiritual.
But, before I made these observations, I had to get there.
“Why are there never signs?,” I wondered to myself, while peevishly looking this way and that.
On the walk from the tram, I had passed a woman in a bright yellow jumper. She was now coming down the sidewalk. “Excuse me, do you know where the gym is?,” I asked. She looked ready to quicken her pace, pretend to ignore me. But her fatal flaw was to make eye contact and she offered a quizzical smile.
“Sorry, what?” She said, turning her ear towards me.
“Do you know where the climbing gym is? Rock climbing?” I mimed reaching up towards holds, which probably looked rather like trying to vigorously ascend a ladder, or doggy paddling the air.
“Oh, it’s this way!,” she exclaimed, and we trotted off making small talk.
Turns out we were both getting back into climbing after a two month break, with mixed success in readjusting to the high life. Out front, two-story tall glass windows vibrated to upbeat indie music and unveiled a luminescent picture frame of athletic looking people athleting about on the walls.
She showed me where to check in then sidled up to a friend.
Superlative one: Community
“It’s hard to walk around Dublin without running into someone from Gravity,” Zoe, a climbing instructor manning the front desk, notes. She’s been there since it opened in 2010 (or was it 2011? She can’t remember), first as a member and now as staff.
“That seems like a good indicator for a strong community,” I offer.
The gym is deep, cavernous. Chalk dust hangs in the air and mixes with the fluorescent lights sparkling above. Conversation hums. There’s an energy about.
People smile, jokes fly (as do people performing dynos), and you can tell everyone is genuinely enjoying themselves.
“It’s sort of become a social space that’s beyond just a climbing wall. And there are groups that have formed here that have become more than just friends that climb together.”
“It’s definitely something more than what it is, somehow.”
“How so?,” I ask
Zoe takes a breath to think, “It’s pretty varied [the people], which is what I like about climbing; It’s an activity that brings everyone together rather than an identity, so you get all sorts who are just here to do the same thing: Climbing.”
And that leads to variety, unexpected emergent properties, marriage. Zoe would tell me how several couples have gotten hitched and are now having kids. I wondered if the happy duos finished their gym session then went next door to tie the knot, all giddy on endorphins and post-climb sugary protein bars.
Superlative two: Route-setting Gravity’s website suggests, “It’s all about exceptionally good route-setting.” I’d agree.
The climbing is diverse, though it centers around crimps, edges, slopers, pinches and technical movements at the higher grades. It’s not heavy on dynos or acrobatic style. With that said, the routes are interesting and coax the brain into problem-solving mode. There is quite a bit of vertical wall space, along with a few caves and overhanging sections, which allows for diversity in style.
Zoe adds, “The setting is very good. That is something they’ve”—the owners—”always put special emphasis on.”
“Going from indoors to outdoors, people who have started here… [and who have transitioned to] outside, it’s remarkable to see how quickly they take to rock, and the technique. I think the style here translates well to climbing outdoors.”
“Do you think this is intentional?,” I inquire.
“The owners were climbers for years and years in Ireland, and I think they were very tapped into what the community needed and what they needed out of a gym. They’ve always consistently been able to make it a really nice atmosphere.”
They’ve got the basics covered: A small training area with a hang board, systems board and a literal handful of weights (kettlebells). There is a large common area ala cafe seating on a veranda, looking out onto the climbing. You can purchase assorted snacks, such as mega-sized protein oatmeal bars, shakes, and coffee. They also have a small retail footprint with pants, shoes, shirts, and other odds and ends.
One thing I hadn’t seen before, they feature a set traverse route that runs the length of the gym. Zoe shares, “One of the guys who climbs regularly here offered to sponsor it. He’s with Foil Arms & Hog (a comedy group).”
“They are fantastic.” She laughs. “He offered to sponsor it because he really likes traversing.”
For beginners, there are drop-in group coaching sessions on Mondays.
How to Get There:
Buses (13, 69) and the Red Line on the tram are easy to pick up in downtown (Temple Bar/ Trinity College area) and stop less than a 5 minute walk from the gym.
Walk into the compound, past Rascals Brewing and it will be up on the right.
6a, Goldenbridge Industrial Estate, Inchicore, Dublin 8, Ireland Google Maps
SKAI is a play on the English word “sky” and the Romanian “scaiete,” (Cirsium vulgare) a common thistle that sprouts a vibrant pink and purple rosette, and which is one of the most bountiful nectar producers across Europe.
Just like the high-stemmed namesake plant, SKAI Urban Crag offers climbers bounteous boulder problems in their pursuit of gravity defying dynos and pumpy high-flying stunts.
Tudor Cristea, 27, is one of three co-founders and he chatted with me about the gym. He looks like a Romanian Chris Sharma complete with shaggy locks and just-throw-it-on beanie. He relayed his interest in starting the gym, and what makes it unique, “The routes in our gym are very bouldery [in contrast to the other gyms in Cluj], not so classical with crimps. We use more volumes, and for the crux we use boulder moves.”
The gym itself is flowering in its second year, just like the scaiete.
Upon entering the space you feel right away what they are about: The place is bright and radiates with popping neon colors. It is welcoming and attractive.
Actually, because it’s in an industrial park, and tucked around the back of the complex (without signage guiding the way), it feels like you’re descending upon a secret pop-up shop. It has a sort of underground coolness.
Rounding the corner in the parking lot, the one-person trailer across from the entrance is a giveaway that dirtbags are nearby. Once inside, the lounge area is a mix of urban-industrial chic, handmade elements, succulents (because of course), those lights with dangly wires, and a big fridge of beer (nice).
Each time I went there were throngs of devotees climbing about, and people were friendly—in fact, climbers actually came up to me to chat (which Poland, if you’re reading this, try taking some notes). There was a mix of beginners to more advanced (for example, a guy was climbing a 6a route, lead, without using his feet at all), and plenty of space and problems for everyone.
Membership is made up of a core group, according to Cristea, “Our customers are very, very good friends with us. With our crew, we are about 40 people. We all go together to go climbing, outdoor or indoor.”
They often travel together, having recently visited Berlin just to check out the gyms. You don’t hear that every day.
The routes on the lead wall cluster around 6a-6b and 7a. There are typically 30-40 routes at any given time and only three top rope lines permanently set. I hadn’t seen this before, and liked the idea of emphasizing lead. The walls are 10m high.
Upstairs there’s a big systems board and an inclined wall chock full of holds if you’re there to train, and just train, and then train some more.
Yoga, hangboards, rings, TRX, campus board, some free weights, resistance bands, a clean changing room and shower.
How to Get There:
The only downside is that the gym is a bit far from the center of the city. The 31 and M31 bus will get you there from downtown. Uber is available in Cluj Napoca if you want to make it super easy on yourself.
Once you enter the gate, walk to the back right corner of the park to find the gym.
The sun beat down on the orange-hued sandstone, the faces of our party burned red and their shoulders glowed. I was surprised by the heat at Smith Rock in May. The sweltering sun couldn’t diminish how much fun I was having. That experience, that exposure, would influence my life in unexpected ways years later.
What is it about climbing that is so powerfully transformative?
For me, climbing was about being outdoors and the freedom of movement. I loved it at first pitch. That’s not the case for everyone.
For Stormy Saint-Val, climbing has been about catharsis and rejuvenation. It’s been about feeling comfortable in her own skin and learning to appreciate what you can accomplish today, while maintaining dreams of progress for the future.
She fell in love with climbing eventually, you could say.
“Do black people climb?”
It’s emotionally taxing to be a stranger in a strange land. When Stormy started climbing she only ever met two other black people at the gym, and one of the guys worked there.
Naturally, one might wonder, “do black people climb?”
“I’m black, I know I climb,” She laughed over the phone. “Is there a like a group or a Meetup? Some[place] where I didn’t feel marginalized?”
She wanted to know the answer, so she googled it. Naturally.
That’s how she found Color the Crag. CtC is a climbing festival in Alabama with a mission to help build community among historically marginalized peoples in the outdoor space.
She found her answer but she needed to figure out how to make her way down there, and how to pay for it all.
“I was so excited [to find it], but then I thought, I can’t afford this,” Stormy noted, dismayed.
Climbing isn’t cheap
The irony of course is that climbing can be free if you just walk into the woods and find a large rock to scale.
But it’s rarely that simple, especially as a beginner in a sport that requires a slew of technique and safety equipment. For perspective, climbing has become somewhat of a hoity-toity trending activity where a day pass at a swanky gym in NYC costs close to 50 bucks. Want to buy your own gear? An intro trad set, biners, a rope, shoes, and harness can easily put you back $500+. If you’re a working adult, sure, maybe that’s nothing for you, but for a college student or a guy working at a self-financed startup, money can be hard to scrape up.
For years I was living a white color paycheck-to-paycheck existence, meeting investors whose car cost more than I would make in the next 36 months. (Yea, I’ve made some questionable career choices, but that’s a topic for another day).
In Stormy’s case, five months at her local climbing gym would put her back nearly $800. As a student on a barista salary that’s taxing.
She resorted to clandestine tactics like pretending to be her friend and using her membership card. (She doesn’t recommend that). Eventually the gym worked out a special deal for her as a local ambassador.
“I found the grant three days before it was due. ‘Oh my god, is it worth it?,'” she asked herself. “‘Is this worth my time? How late am I going to stay up to write this application [tonight]? What are my intentions and goals [with this]?’”
She went back and forth contemplating the fear and disappointment of not receiving the grant, “And then [I thought], what if I do get it? It’s so much greater. And it was. I didn’t want to miss out on the potential opportunity.”
The everyperson adventure grant
The LYD grant is designed to help “the majority of climbers to pursue their goals, whatever those goals are,” according to Howard Sebold, the Metro NY Section Chair and head of the LYD Northeast selection committee.
This is specifically not for the professional climber. After all, they already get free gear, sponsorship dollars, and most grant money anyways.
Howard relays his own story, “I remember when I was first getting into climbing, and reading the mags—you read all this stuff these guys are doing that are rad, badass kind of things, and you’re like, ‘yea, I’m probably never gonna do that.’ Then occasionally you come across a story about [someone] going to Wind Rivers [or the like], and you’re like ‘whoa, that’s totally accessible to me, that’s something I could do.’ And that got me personally excited.”
That’s why the AAC decided to start the grant, “[the thing is] most of the membership is the everyday climber, the weekend warrior, guys [and women] like me— work five days a week, got a family, don’t climb as hard as I used to. I bring my kids out to the crag, just have fun.”
In the end, it’s about helping people go out and accomplish their own mountain dreams, “it really gives back to our members to help them get outside and climb, to pursue their personal goal.” Whatever they may be.
For the love of climbing
Life is often punctuated and defined by key inflection points, with a lot of smaller connecting-the-dots in between.
According to Stormy, Color the Crag has been a life changer: “Months later, thinking about all the experience and friendship that I gained from the festival, it completely changed my life.”
She goes on to say, “I’ve been able to eradicate this false narrative that black people don’t climb. There were 500 people there! These are a bunch of people that are also climbing that don’t look like what the magazines are showing, and what narratives you have grown up with.”
“It’s been a fuel,” she accentuates.
She still stays in touch with friends she made at CtC and has found a deeper appreciation for the sport as she’s progressed from VB to V2: “That’s what Color the Crag taught me: ‘be proud of your achievements and honor them for what they are.'”
Overall, the sport has “been a big tool in helping me build my awareness and my confidence in myself. It’s more than physical. And the problem solving aspect of it, too, is so fun. [I’ve been able to] apply problem solving to my own life [outside of climbing].” She’s come a long way from sneaking in to the gym and feeling intimidated by the VBs. She’s hoping to get over her fear of the harness and start sport climbing this year.
On my end, from that initial day at Smith Rock to leading my first 5.11a this past year, learning to climb has been a process of pushing through the fear and going after what I truly want to pursue. That is, in the face of the self-doubt, financial concerns, or whatever other objection I make up for myself.
This year, I’ve got a lot of normal, everyman-achievable goals: Climb 5.11 consistently. Do a multi-pitch trad route. Summit a 5,000m peak.
In the past I may have chalked these ideas up as unattainable, or at least highly unlikely. Probably wouldn’t even have tried. I’ve learned to let go of pre-conceived notions and to let myself dream, even if just a little.
We all have our reasons for climbing, and for some, our love of the sport is really about finding love for ourselves. Sometimes a little help along the way–a friend, a community, a dream–can make all the difference.
Want to apply for the Live Your Dream grant?
Howard shares some advice on what they look for:
1) Well-researched climbing objective. Be specific of the why, what, and how. For example, some people have detailed spreadsheets outlining their training plan and gear list.
2) Be clear with how this goal will help you personally progress as a climber. 3) Think about what it is like to review hundreds of applications. How will your application stand out? For one, tell a good story. (Everyone has a story to tell).
“The mountains are calling, and I must go [cheaply].” *
– John Muir
Mountaineering is an expensive sport. And I’m poor.
Or that was the excuse I told myself. Have you ever wanted to try something but gave up before you really got going?
Some excuse or another always seems to pop up: It’s not practical, you don’t have the time, you might look like an idiot. You know the drill.
Frankly, the prospect of exuberant cost has held me back for years. Buying all brand new gear, just for the essentials (boots, crampons, ice axe, puffy, hard shell top and bottom, gloves), you could easily clear $1,500 by purchasing top-of-the-line products.
So I hemmed and hawed and let the sticker shock stop me. It became an exaggerated impediment, like making a Mont Blanc of a molehill, and I needed to recalibrate this mental hurdle in order to move forward.
This past year I got into sports climbing (and progressively bought a harness, draws, a rope,) and realized what everyone else already knew: You should build your kit over time.
And also, you can do this the expensive way, or the “keep an eye out for deals” way.
What was different between climbing and mountaineering?
Honestly, I just started climbing and got hooked.
Now, because gear has been a crux, this post will focus on ways to get gear cheaply.
We’ll talk about what gear you need in a future post. And yes, I recognize that focusing on gear first is starting out of order. Bear with me.
In the end, this will be a series about “How To Start Mountaineering Cheaply” covering topics such as scoping out beginner-friendly mountains, affordable guides and courses, requisite skills, training, and more.
Let’s take the first step towards our high-altitude goal.
Beg & Borrow
The best place to start is to have friends that mountaineer.
Shit out of luck on that front? Join local mountaineering clubs or seek out forums like Mountain Project to partner up. The clubs might have a gear depot (university programs typically do), and people who are into the sport likely have extras of things.
You can also rent equipment (better to spend $100 for two days of rental gear to try things out before dropping the big dollars).
The Mountaineers (PNW) A nonprofit outdoor community of 13,000+ active members in the Pacific Northwest. They offer trips, courses, events, and have lodges. They are the publishers of the renowned, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Mazamas(PNW) A nonprofit mountaineering education organization based in Portland, Oregon. They were “founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt. Hood,” and offer outdoor education and organized activities for every skill and fitness level.
Appalachian Mountain Club(East Coast) Founded in 1876, the AMC manages the well known trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (such as the Appalachian Trail). They have ample member-led events that make it easy to get outside and meet partners.
Mountain Project Partner Forum (U.S.) There are 21,626 climbers in the Partner Finder as of this post. Search away, reach out, post and do your darndest to be charming.
MEC Gear Swap MEC is a retail co-operative (with over 5 million members!) based in Canada. They are kind of like the Canadian REI with a used gear section.
OutdoorGearLab ebay Store The OutdoorGearLab’s mission is to create world’s best outdoor gear reviews. They are my favorite resource for gear reviews because they aim to be truly objective by avoiding the conflict of interest that comes with receiving free gear. Instead, they buy everything they test, and then put it up for sale on ebay.
Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT) Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment).
Outdoor Gear Exchange UK(Facebook group) Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there.
Pro-tip: “I found most people sold their stuff at the end of the season, so you can get good deals then if you don’t mind it sitting in the cupboard till the next winter comes round like I did.” – u/connor2210 on reddit
WeighMyRack This should probably be your first stop when you start searching. They began because “we were super frustrated researching gear and sick of getting suckered into buying the ‘on sale” gear,’” Their frustration is your gain.
CamelCamelCamel An easy to use, price tracking tool that provides price drop alerts and price history for products sold by Amazon. Unfortunately, they had a major “uh-oh” recently and their database server had three hard drives fail. Major catastrophe. It is unclear when the will be back online (but it is worth bookmarking for if/when they get back online) 😦
Backcountry.com A major online retailer in the U.S. It’s best to wait for their bi-annual sales in February and August. This is usually accompanied by free shipping for orders over a certain amount.
Sierra Trading Post Free shipping when you sign up for their newsletter, which often includes coupons.
REI Outlet If you poke around you can find some good deals in the 50% off section. On occasion they offer 70% off promotions and send 20% off coupons to members.
REI Garage Sale The somewhat legendary sales–in which it is not uncommon for people to show up hours early–occur at the discretion of each store, but generally about once a month. Items are priced to sell and all sales are final. This is only available to members, but you can usually just buy your membership at checkout ($20). It is best to have a plan.
Pro-tip: “Best time to grab winter stuff though, is around July. Lots of warehouse sales from La Sportiva (check out their factory store), Scarpa, Sea to Summit, etc.” – Long Ranger on Mountain Project
Bonus Option – Be in College
College Outside The organization was started to help more students get outside. One of the perks is special discounts on outdoor gear.
For personal reasons, I was scoping out the backpack section and started talking to Osprey. I was hoping to buy a showpiece bag for cheap during the closing hours of the show. That didn’t turn out, but the rep gave me a prodeal code which let me buy a bag online at ~10% below wholesale price (the price manufacturers sell their gear to retailers). In other words, about 60% off retail. In other other words, cheap.
Anywho, there are a variety of ways to qualify for prodeals. You can be a mountain guide, a ski patrol, an outdoor educator, an active member of the military, a fire and rescue professional, and many more options.
*(As an aside, the best way I’ve found to get cheap gear was to get free gear; The companies would give us their product to test, and usually let us keep it too. Jackpot).
*Author’s note: “Cheaply” added in, but Mr. Muir did walk from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf) with little more than a small backpack, a wool blanket, the bible, and a walking stick.
Like how someone can hum with crystal glass vibrancy–the kind you can hear and feel.
Or how a gleam in their eye is gonna stick to you like burdock burrs after a hike in the woods. There’s no escaping it.
That’s how it was, talking with him about climbing.
Perhaps my memory is faulty. If it is, I blame the craft beer.
We’d already drank two glasses each and they caused his cheeks to flush and my speech to slur slightly. It was summer in the Hudson Valley and the days were simple and long. Perspiration dribbled down our foreheads and the glass flutes.
We were sitting outside the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile talking about growing up and family. He was raised in Long Island and had longed to get away from the cramped quarters of that thin slice of land.
He went to school at SUNY New Paltz and fell hard for climbing and mountain biking and his girlfriend. I can’t remember if he chose the school based off proximity to the Shawangunks. My memory is a bit hazy, like I said.
So the story goes, he climbed throughout college learning the trade of trad on the cliffs outside of town. Now he was the manager at the local climbing gym. “The Danager,” as the high school staff called him.
This is where I sunk my teeth into climbing for the first time. That I do remember.
I hadn’t lived in a climber’s town before and wouldn’t have come through New Paltz if it wasn’t for the farm.
But there I was and I needed an outlet from the manual labor. The idea of climbing had been like a splinter in my brain, lodged in there from somewhere unrecognized long ago. I had wanted to try it yet never did. I started going to the gym, hence I met Dan.
As the season progressed, I fell into a rhythm and started climbing 3-4x per week. Mostly in the gym, go figure. It was like falling in love and the excitement of climbing got me through some damn drawn out days of hoeing and weeding.
I learned that the area had a long history: From Fritz Wiessner and Hans Krauss establishing lines in the 1930s and ’40s to a Nobel Prize winner coming up from Manhattan to set routes on the weekends (i.e., Shockley’s Ceiling, for William Shockley, a complicated character known equally for his racist ideas as his contribution to the semiconductor) to Lynn Hill’s first ascent of Vandals, which ushered in a wave of 5.13 climbs on the East Coast.
More recently, Andy Salo, the almost Gunks lifer and local superhero had just completed the first ascent of Bro-Zone, a 5.14b extension, and the hardest route in the area.
On the other hand, it’s a quiet hippy-dip college town with plenty else going on. If you didn’t look for it, you could easily miss that this was a place pro climbers move to for their craft.
Dan asked why I was here in New Paltz.
I told him I had wanted to try farming for years, that I used to be in startups but wanted to pursue things that felt more right for me going forward.
We clinked glasses to celebrate doing what moves you. As he raised his hand, I could see into his glass where his finger should have been.
He asked if I knew anyone in the area.
I said not really, that my cousin lived here, but we weren’t that close.
“He’s sort a of semi-pro climber, actually,” I added.
“Who is your cousin?,” he asked.
“Your cousin is AaaannDDDDYYY SAAAAlllOOOOO?!?!” He practically fell out of his chair.
“I mean, he’s sponsored by like La Sportiva. He’s not semi, dude, he’s pro. He’s like a local legend.”
His eyes were teacup saucer wide. His voice rose a few octaves and he emphasized the “d”, “y”, and the “a”,“o”. Bingo was his name-o.
I knew Andy had been sponsored but never really paid attention to the brands. The whole idea of him living out of a truck for years, traveling around and climbing, seemed alien. It didn’t fit into my world view when I was younger. I guess I kinda ignored it, chalked it up to frivolous vagabonding. Still, there was an element of intrigue that I couldn’t shake.
Was he the source of the sliver?
To be honest, I wasn’t close with Andy and wouldn’t see him my whole time in New Paltz.
Well there was one instance when I’m pretty sure he walked past the cafe I was sitting in. But you get the point.
He had always struck me as aloof, a “my way or the highway” kinda guy. He certainly marched to the beat of his own drum, and I often felt I wasn’t welcome to join his parade when our families got together for the holidays or that one summer vacation in Colorado.
Maybe it was because I was young and we didn’t share a lot in common back in the day. Maybe it was because he was a “step-“cousin; we didn’t grow up together and haven’t had the chance to get to know each other much.
My impression softened when I learned about his feats, from someone else.
Andy and I spoke at my sister’s wedding–his cousin–in September. It was probably the longest chat we’ve had to date.
I learned that Andy is a pretty humble guy, and that his motivations are driven as much by climbing as the history of a place. (He studied geology in college because, “it seemed the least terrible” thing to major in, which is his way of saying he likes history. That’s my take anyway).
We talked about the pursuit of what interests you (and the sometimes friction against societal pressure). We like to think we are all going after what we want, but in practice that’s not true. Andy certainly has beat that drum a bit harder than most.
Like the quartz conglomerate cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge, there’s more layers to my cousin than I could see at first glance.
Before we parted, he invited me to go climbing with him.
After we finished our beers, Dan packed up and headed out.
I stayed to enjoy the last rays and ponder: What was my judgement of Andy really about?
Often, the things that trouble us about another is a reflection of our own desires or behavior.
Certainly, I’ve felt a tension towards devoting myself to one thing. That singular focus appealed to me. Was I jealous of him for actually doing it? Was I projecting my own “my way or the highway” nature unfairly onto Andy? Maybe.
The last seven years had been spent in startups and at one point I thought that would be my shtick. Yet, here I was working on a farm gaining a pointedly new perspective.
I wondered about unfair judgements I have cast on other people.
All that summer I had been grappling with what to do (for a career, in life, etc.).
By the end of the season there was just one clear-ambiguous thought: I wanted to keep gaining a broader perspective of the world.
In rare moments when I let myself dream–without all that bullshit of what’s practical or not– what I really wanted to do was to travel through Europe for the next year.
I wanted to climb more. I wanted to learn mountaineering. I wanted to write.
A round of cheers brought me to. Their clanging glasses clamored about in my ear.
I got up and walked back to the farm in the setting sun, a burdock burr was stuck to my pant leg.
Header Image: Andy Salo sending Bro-Zone, the hardest route in the Gunks. Photo source: Whitney Boland
Well, my friend, let me offer a heuristic: Plan your 2019 travels around The Coolest Climbing Festivals in Europe!
Each festival offers “climbing and…”a little something extra:
Climbing and… neon Lyrca and fresh terry headbands. Check! Climbing and… developing lines in a post-communist country. Check!! Climbing and… partying with 700 other people in one of the most stunning places on earth. Check!!!
I’m not saying only go to climbing festivals…
But I am saying you might want to put your credit card on ice now because it will be hard not to sign up for the lot.
Without further adieu, read on for The Coolest Climbing Festivals in Europe.
La Sportiva Rjukan Icefestival
Ice climbing reigns supreme in the Norwegian town of Rjukan, which boasts 170 waterfalls (frozen in winter, of course).
This festival is packed with learning workshops covering topics such as an introduction to randonee skiing (or as the Norweigans would say, “topptur”), avalanche awareness, steep skiing technique, alpine climbing and winter aid climbing, drytooling, and much, much more.
Though not exclusively a climbing festival, the 7th international highline meeting takes place in Geyikbayiri, one of the premiere locales in the Mediterranean (over 1,300 climbing routes ranging from 5a to 8c+).
The festival is 8 days long and will be rigged up with 20 highlines from 15 to 100+ meters long (woo wee!). All of the lines are within walking distance of the camps; Once you get yourself to Geyik all you have to do is step out the door of your dorm (or tent, or guesthouse) and you’ll be mere minutes from climbing.
Remember: Bring a costume — it’s a CARNIVAL after all!
Cost: Suggested donation of 25 EUR / 29 USD. Food: The closest village, Akdamlar, has several markets to stock up on produce, meat, and other foods. Hitchhiking is commonly practiced here.
Accommodation: There are plenty of campsites and bungalows for rent. I’ve personally stayed at the Flying Goat and would recommend them. Wild camping is strictly forbidden.
What to Bring: A rack of 12 to 15 quickdraws and a 80m rope.
How to Get There: There are cheap flights to Antalya. Transfers from the airport can be arranged with the camps. Car rentals are cheap at the airport. More information here.
Paklenica International Climbers Meeting – Croatia
Paklenica is considered one of the top European climbing destinations. With over 600 routes the limestone cliffs of the Velebit Mountain range offer routes from 40m single pitch to big wall up to 350m long.
Heading into its 20th year, this festival features unique challenges including the Big Wall Speed Climbing, a Kid’s Speed competition, the “From Dawn to Dusk” climbing marathon, and the Paklenica Film Festival, an amateur films showing about, what else, climbing.
Need a rest day? There are over 150 km of hiking and trail running paths.
What to Bring: A rack of 12 to 15 quickdraws and a 70m rope.
How to Get There: Located about 46 km/ 28.5 mi from Zadar.
Prilep Boulder Fest – Macedonia
Tucked away in the south of Macedonia, Prilep is the fourth largest city in the country (with just over 70,000 inhabitants). The Boulder Fest itself is entering its ninth year, and the event has grown in attendance as has the number of new lines.
Complete with a new guidebook, feast on over 400 projects (or go about setting new ones). The area is quickly becoming one of the premiere bouldering destinations and was one of the sites for the Petzl RocTrip through Eastern Europe in 2014. Expect crimpy holds on sharp granite.
How to Get There: Skopje is the closest major city (about 130km away). You can take a bus or train to Prilep.
Albanian Climbing Festival – Albania
Help develop climbing in Albania!
Albania is a small mountainous coastal country lying on the Adriadic Sea, north of Greece and south of Montenegro and Kosovo. Climbing is young here and this festival — celebrating its fourth iteration — was started to develop the community and showcase the country’s potential. For perspective, the first climbing gym in the country was opened in 2012 and according to the article, “Five years ago, one could have counted nearly every rock-climbing-Albanian on two hands.” Things are changing.
The festival moves around in order to show off the best that Albania has to offer from locales like Gjipe, Përmet and Bovilla. Many of these places are remote, have stunning natural beauty, and limited economic investment for the villages. Through the promotion of adventure tourism, the organizers hope to empower small local businesses and communities.
Climbing routes range in difficulty from 5a – 8b+, from single pitch (12 – 35m) to big walls. All the money from the festival fee goes to equip new routes. And for your money you will get a guidebook, swag, yoga, and a party on the beach.
Integrowanie Przez Wspinanie (Integration Through Climbing) – Poland
Poland’s biggest climbing festival takes place in the Będkowska Valley, less than 20km north-west of Kraków. The setting is fantastic, simply wake up at the campground and walk 100m down the road to start climbing. There are dozens of crags and hundreds of routes all within a 30 minute walk.
At the festival you’ll find workshops for beginners and advanced climbers, extreme rope games, climbing competitions, mountain running, and a focus on activities for children this year. There’s a great guidebook you can pick up at the E-Pamir Mountain Shop in Krakow or use the super helpful online topo repo, Portal Górski.
What to Bring: A rack of 10 – 15 quickdraws and a 60m rope.
How to Get There: Closest airports are Kraków and Katowice. 20-30 minutes by car from Kraków, about an hour by bus.
Dolorock Climbingfestival – Italy
2019 will mark the seventh year for the event organized by the Alta Pusteria climbing club, Gamatzn. The festival takes place in the Landro Valley, which combines natural beauty and rock climbing history as the area has been under development since the 1980s. The Höhlenstein valley sits near the famous Three Peaks (Tre Cime), some of the most photographed mountains in the world.
The Redpoint Fight is a competition for fun and personal challenge. Climbers are awarded points for their five hardest routes, based on criteria such as on-sighting, flashing and redpointing. There are four categories for competitors: Youth (under 18, F+M); Professionals (F+M); 50+; Amateurs, with awards for each. Yoga, kids climbing, dancing and talks round out the festivities.
Grades here range from 3 to 8c+ and consist of slab, flat wall and overhang climbing. The length of routes vary between 8 and 35 meters.
This Lake Faak festival is all about celebrating the joy of climbing in some sweet, sweet spandex style and flashy terry headbands. A nod to history, the 5th edition celebrates the Lycra tights and colourful outfits worn by the early climbers in the area in the ’80’s.
These crags offer over 300 routes, which means you’ll get to sample plenty during the 8 hour climbing marathon as you try and earn as many points as you can. Kings and Queens will be crowned at the evening party, and awards will be given to the team with the most routes complete and team with the hardest route (among other awards). Of course, the place is buzzing with the one question on everyone’s mind: Who will win the “Golden Lycra Award”?!?!? (The trophy for the best outfit.)
Other features include: Climbing workshops with Alex Megos’ Coaches, acro yoga, via ferrata hiking, bouldering, slacklining and talks by professional climbers.
Food: Grocery stores in the area but they close at 6.50pm.
Accommodation: Hotels and apartments in the area.
What to Bring: A rack of 15 quickdraws and a 70m rope.
How to Get There: The closest airports are in Salzburg and Ljubljana (just over the border). Hire a car as crags are spread out.
Pecka Rock Climbing Festival – Bosnia and Herzegovina
May is reserved for the oldest sports climbing festival in B&H. Held at the largest collection of rock routes in the country, Pecka features “a kingdom of the pockets” and fantastic local food. This is a combo event, teaming up with the Forest Party, the Forest Cinema, and the Pecka Outdoor Festival.
Enjoy more than 120 routes from 5a to 8b, with lengths between 15 and 35 meters. For the low price of 15 EUR, receive a printed guidebook and a Pecka Rock Climbing shirt. The event organizers like to keep things simple: “Come, climb and have fun!”
Heading into their 4th year, the festival aims to promote participation in climbing and encourage a community of support. Their stated aims are: To help beginners transition from indoor to outdoor climbing; facilitate women in outdoor leadership; and to create a network of female climbers
In 2018, they had 200 participants from as young as 8 to over 60 years old. Everyone is welcome, even if you’ve never climbed before!
The event has the expressed mission to, “be a platform that allows female climbers to meet likeminded individuals in our sport” and to promote the idea of sustainable recreation.
The festival feature workshops on route-setting (by setters on the French National team!), forest conservation, morning yoga and afternoon parkour sessions, evening talks, and a focus on mentorship. And of course, best-in-class climbing. Attendees last year included the likes of Caroline Sinno, who has done multiple 8B (V13) ascents, and Alice Hafer, a former Blokfest champion.
Herculane was a Petzl Rock Trip 2014 stop which has put this crag on the world stage. It’s still off-the-beaten track but good enough climbing for Adam Ondra to visit in 2018, and free the first 9a in Romania.
In other words, if you’re looking for high-quality climbing (Cerna Valley has hosted the National Rock Climbing Championship) and economical value, all without the hordes, you’ve found your place. 2019 will offer up the 17th edition of this festival with three days of climbing and 30 designated routes for the competition. Movies, yoga, and celebration are in store for the off-wall hours.
Drill & Chill Climbing And Highlining Festival – Bosnia and Herzegovina
Who knew Bosnia and Herzegovina had such a strong climbing culture?! This marks the second festival from B&H on the list.
Join in to make your mark (literally) with ten days of bolting, climbing, and highlining. Organized by Climbing club Extreme Banja Luka, they set out to “playfully combat the status quo.” If you like to travel and climb off the beaten paths, Bosnia and Herzegovina offers a diverse landscape of forested mountains and an abundance of untamed limestone
Last year the festival focused on the development of the Tijesno canyon, which is nestled in alpine terrain and offers a plethora of multi-pitch climbing.
The Gods shine bright on this rock climbing Adonis of crag and sea.
(Just don’t piss off Poseidon or he’ll blow you straight back to Troy — where the climbing isn’t quite as nice.)
Today, the island has over 2,500 sport routes on Mediterranean limestone. The majority of the routes are single pitch, around 20 to 30m, with some 3-5 pitch climbs as well. You won’t be able to cover it all during the three day festival, naturally. Like laying eyes on Helen, you may find yourself drooling uncontrollably… at the anchors staring out at the breathtaking blue Aegean.
The festival features a Climbing Rally, clinics, the chance to chat with pros, deep water soloing, traditional Greek dancing lessons and, of course, parties.
In the words of Rock and Ice, “The search for climbing paradise ends at the greek isle of Kalymnos” (Feb 2001).
Perched in the North West Highlands of Scotland this festival offers some of the best scenery and landscapes in the UK — plus pure dead brilliant climbing!
Organized by Hamlet Mountaineering, they cater to all your Scottish needs: Salt water, clean lines and a pub two minutes on from the campsite. Workshops are offered for those who want to improve their skills or deepen your understanding (and appreciation) of the sport you love with the “Geology for Climbers” talk. Want some evening entertainment? Rope up in your Highland dress for the Saturday night Ceilidh with accordion accompaniment.
Other activities include a half-marathon, kayaking and yoga. Gie it laldy!
Four days in Mediterranean sun. In November? Yes, please. The tenth edition just wrapped up, for what has become a hallmark event in Sicily, Italy and around Europe. The festival features big names, big sponsors, and big crowds (hundreds of people attend) in this idyllic setting of beach, history, and climbing.
Activities include the “Baby speed climb” (for 6-10 year olds) and the main draw, the “Crazy Idea Boulder Event” where competitors can go against national athletes. For non-climbers there is mountain biking, trail running, slacklining (including a 160m line), stunning beaches, and the opportunity to test new gear, in addition to film screenings, live music, and social hours. Of course, if you want more climbing there are over 600 routes in the area.
What to Bring: A rack of 12 – 15 quickdraws and a 70m rope
How to Get There: Cheap flights to Palermo. Rent a car or take a bus to San Vito.
Leonidio Climbing Festival – Greece
Can you name the three most popular crags in Europe for 2018?
If 8a.nu’s Tick List is the be-all-end-all, we have 1) Frankenjura, 2) Kalymnos, and rounding in to form, 3) Leonidio (which saw more ascents in 2018 than the beloved Rodellar, Arco and Railay Beach combined).
Just three hours south of Athens, Leonidio is sheltered along the Peloponnese coastline and surrounded by red and grey cliffs that keep temperatures warm and wind down, making it an idyllic winter climbing destination.
The festival itself is only entering its fourth year, yet attendance skyrocketed with over 700 participants in 2018. Come to enjoy more than 1,000 routes from single pitch to multi-pitch up to 250m high, ranging from 5a to 9a.
Hopefully you found the list useful (and even signed up for one or two!).
If you have been to one of these events or are planning on attending, I’d be keen to hear about your experience. Any festivals that we missed?
Please note: The aim wasn’t to be comprehensive, but rather to focus on interesting festivals. I was hoping for more ice climbing and from places like Scandinavia, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, Macedonia, Bulgaria, etc. And nothing for Spain? Really?!
If you have any festivals to add, please share them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.
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