The drill whirls about in place, boring into the soft limestone. Fine grit clouds kick out at the edges of the hole, puff, puff, puff. The walls echo with the ricochet of millions of years of solidity grinding back into individual particulates. Water droplets sizzle on stone from sweat trickling down forearm and dripping off at the wrist.
The man at the helm is Josh Cook and he is bolting new sport lines. He’s an English teacher at an international school and he’s developing the first sport crag in Škaljari, Montenegro.
Josh never thought he’d end up in Montenegro as a mis-fit kid in Denver, CO.
When he told people he was thinking of going, the response was generally the same: “nobody knows where it is.” He continues, “That’s already cool. Anytime you hear of a country you don’t know anything about, then it’s very enticing. You know there’s something special there.” So off he went.
This type of adventurism is easy for him now—motorcycle trip across the Himalayas? Backpacking in the Andes? No problem—but things were different when he was young. It’s not that he was a misfit, it’s more like he felt mis-placed.
Josh grew up as one of the few white kids in school. Not that he had a problem with it, he just stood out. Then he got a scholarship and was one of the few lower-income students in a fancy private high school. Not that it was an issue, he just didn’t quite fit in. Then he wanted to be a climber. Not that it should have been too difficult, but there weren’t many of those around.
At last, climbing was a place where he felt he belonged. He started when he was 6 and was obsessed by 16. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: Morrison bouldering area. You know the drill.
At 18 he took a year off to travel the country and climb. He started in Yosemite. To boulder. Mis-fit as he was.
If you’re wondering how an inner-city kid from Denver ends up in Montenegro, you have to start with Yosemite.
“I’m driving in and it’s just packed. There’s one way traffic, all these cars, rangers everywhere. I’m looking for Camp 4 and I can’t find Camp 4. At that point, it was briefly named Sunnyside Campground so I’m not seeing signs for Camp 4. I finally pull over then realize [I’m here and] you have to have to wait in a long line to get a campsite, and you have to share it with other people. I’m learning trial by fire, this whole rigamarole,” Josh recalls.
He continues, “I squeeze into Site 17 and there’s these scruffy, complete dirtbag-looking climbers. The youngest was maybe 5 years older, the oldest was probably 10 yeas older. I go, ‘oh, uh, I have to share this site with you guys.’ And they just stare at me.” The climbers were non-plussed but helped him unload nonetheless.
Josh stayed a month and they got to know each other. They became friends. Turns out they were die hard trad climbers from the Welsh tradition. As they would go off to climb big walls, away for days at a time, Josh would be there wrestling pebbles.
They couldn’t believe he was in Yosemite just for bouldering. Josh couldn’t believe they were climbing those walls. They opened his eyes to a larger world.
One day, one of the guys hung back.
“Neil goes, ‘I’m gonna take a rest day and boulder with you,’” Josh reflects. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘oh trad climber, he won’t know anything about bouldering, hopefully he can keep up with me.’”
Josh continues, “We’re at Curry Village, warming up on opposite sides of the boulder. He walks around to where I am, and I present what I’m working on. I was just flailing on this thing, it was like a V4 or something. When he got on it he flashed it. And not only that, he did it with such grace and ease that my jaw dropped.”
“I realized at that point my world of climbing had been all about the media and the value of recognition. [Basically,] you were a nobody if you weren’t in the magazines or at the competitions or whatever it was.”
Of course, Neil wasn’t in the magazines.
“No one knew who he was,” Josh laments. “But he was the best climber I ever met, ever seen climb.” Back home he was known as a Dark Horse. “The best climber you’ve never heard of,” he says.
That interaction changed everything for Josh. Neil and friends loved climbing for all that it was, and they climbed all that was available around the world. They didn’t seek notoriety, they simply did it for fun and self-improvement.
“I really came to respect that, doing everything to the best of your ability, climbing all the different styles and disciplines, and to do it humbly. Not trying to seek attention,” Josh shares, admiration ringing in his voice.
“That shifted how I thought about my goals: to become more about being the best that I can be, and to not let it be about ego… I want to know that I can dedicate myself to challenging tasks and become better at them through the learning process,” he sums up.
Josh applies much of his lessons learned in climbing to his teaching pedagogy.
He explains, “Teaching fits a lot of the same characteristics: constant problem solving and decision making, performance under pressure, mentorship, refining weaknesses, measuring growth and skill development (in the students and in myself), the list goes on.”
And he teaches because in his words, “I influence the lives of youth, hopefully for the better. I help make them critical thinkers, lovers of literature, and attentive writers. I give them opportunities to be good people and work with them through the process of creating their own paths.”
He encourages that the beauty is not in the big send, but the progression towards the goal: “I describe this process to my students as: attempt, failure, reflection, refinement, and attempt again (repeat… forever). The signs that we have done that well, that we are conscious and attentive to our experiences, are what we call improvement. That awareness of our experiences is also just good living, I think.”
Josh has bopped around, having taught in Peru, Bhutan, Japan, Montenegro, and soon, Colombia. Wherever he goes he welcome new people into climbing, develops a local area, and finds connection through the sport.
“As you live this itinerant lifestyle, intentionally drawing away from people, it [can] prohibit you from being a part of community,” Josh says.
He goes on, “I found recently, because I’m always living everywhere, my community is climbers that I meet. It helps me feel connected to something larger.”
Climbers tend to be roamers and travelers, perpetual motion in new lands. It sounds like he’s found where he fits in.
You can read some of Josh’s writing on his blog, On The Move.
Outside the window, overlooking the pool, cherry blossoms are flowering pink bouquets, bright against the grey, and tulips rise up with slouched shoulders and frumpy bed head. Water percolates, circling back to collect in clouds, weighted vest air compressing, then streams its way into puddles. In the early morning it’s cold enough to chill the tip of my nose. Spring.
Last year I missed this.
I had fast forwarded to summer by flying through to acclimatize on another continent. In a matter of hours I advanced the months, April became June, like the the flippant spin of a radio dial. From where I’ve lived, only in New England does spring get it’s fair share of the calendar’s quarter system.
Last summer there were no lobster rolls. No fish flaked wet sand between my toes. No end-of-the-earth-piering off into the depths of the Atlantic. No heavy-packed days in the Whites. No barbecues (my god!).
Instead I traipsed about another eastern boarder, cross stitching old lines of Latin and Cyrillic, Capitalism and Communism, place and no place.
Actually, it has been like this the past four years (where does the time go?): Mountain View (2015), Accra (2016), New Paltz (2017), Budapest, Plovdiv, Lviv (2018). I, a roving settlement, a stick in one hand, a canvas sack with my belongings cantilevered at the protruding end. Leather straps on my feet.
If I had died before last year I may have been discontented. Pardon the macabre. My point is that I had wanted to travel since uni—I’ve since tasted the fruit and can put sense and color to a wanderlust palette, the wine glass has been tipped back.
That tipping and sipping could have continued while overlooking a wine-dark sea. After all, I should be writing this in Albania.
I was supposed to fly out last week: to Dublin, Budapest, Tirana. Flight 2233 ended up with an extra seat. Maybe it made the journey more comfortable for some other lone passenger.
Those feelings have two-stepped and shadow boxed together, seesawed and smelted, fusing at odd angles throughout the travels. A short time in new places make good on that urge to keep going, nothing and no one securing you somewhere. Until its not, and until that melts away too.
For the most part I was rootless, and felt increasingly so as the trip continued. No roost, much roaming. That’s what I went for, though.
Alas the tether was wearing, the leather thong frayed to thin bits. It snuck up on me, didn’t notice until I had been walking several miles on without a shoe. The gravel had been running roughshod underfoot, blisters and stubbed toes alighted the mind to pay attention, eventually, then abruptly.
The last few months were a bit of a trudge, then I came back for my brother’s wedding. It was supposed to be a temporary stay.
In a recent conversation, a young, spirited woman offered, “I think we travel to figure out which places are meaningful to us.” She’s settled into her own nest for awhile, to regain and rebuild a sense of place.
Something changed for me too. Something about wanting to feel connected, about shared memories; a return to old grounds and the chance to look at the land with new perspective. While the lure of the ponderosa pine or mediterranean limestone shrills from time to time, it doesn’t feel right to go back, or elsewhere, right now. In my neck of the woods there’s no Poseidon to piss off or siren’s lullabying; Destiny can be my own.
There are wood nymphs and granite gargoyles, though, schist golems and sonorous stream temptresses, wily foxes and three sisters. We’ll have our fun.
In the end, I had to step back from all the experiences of the past year to see the bigger picture, then step in close to examine the sand grain mosaic for what it is: A lot of little pieces, a collection of days.
For now the grand adventure follows a storyline closer to home, one day at a time.
In 2015, Stanislav “Stas” Kleshnov took his place on the podium, waved to the crowd, and walked away from competition climbing as the Ukrainian champion.
For 25 years, this had been his life. The competitive spirit is marked in his sharp-features and stern look, which cracks with an occasional smirk or glint in his eye. His determined expression offers clues of the hard work it took to rise from the 10 year old kid who was inspired the first time he saw the limestone cliffs over the Black Sea.
He knew then the sport was his escape from a life of mining or metallurgy, the likely paths for those from Donetsk.
Climbing offered a way to see Europe after the dissolution of the USSR, and it exposed him to the training resources and gyms in other countries. For years Ukraine had a strong showing in international competition, from Olga Shalagina (1st, boulder), Olena Ryepko (1st, speed), and Maksym Styenkovyy (2nd place, speed), claiming medals as World Champions in 2005 to multiple podium placements across the three disciplines (speed, boulder, lead) through the early 2010s. Danyil Boldyrev remains one of the best in speed, but the country has seen its position passed in the other disciplines by the likes of Japan, Slovenia, China, and others.
In the end, Stas was proud of the national team’s accomplishments, but disappointed in the state of things and where they were headed.
“The government just hasn’t invested in the sport like other countries. They didn’t build any modern gyms. They thought professional sportsmen would grow up in the private sector [at commercial gyms], but those gyms [here] aren’t designed for that. Ukraine is falling behind,” Stas demurs.
When he decided to hang up his boots, he wanted to leave a legacy beyond his medals. He used what he learned from international competition to open the country’s most modern climbing gym, The Wall, in Lviv, and to welcome others into the sport.
Stas says, “Before the modern gyms, you could only start climbing in a sports institute or in school. There was no other way: Only children’s school or a sports school. We make climbing more open.”
The Wall is taking an innovative approach borne out of necessity, some luck, and a rise in accessibility to the sport, such as climbing gear being more easily available and rising wages.
Stas flashed a smile and greeted me in English, a language he hadn’t had to use in months.
“Добрий день (dobryj den, ‘hello’),” I offered, and he showed me around the gym.
Tucked into the side of an office building, The Wall offers a unique model that is perfectly suited for the small, but growing climbing community in Lviv. At 210 sq. meters (689 sq. ft.), it is tiny by conventional standards, but it suggests a viable “micro” gym for corporate and residential buildings as climbing continues to increase in popularity.
In Lviv, this size works just fine given the cost constraints (rent can be as expensive as in Germany), shifting cultural acceptance around paying for sport, and the gradual but developing interest in climbing in Ukraine. Still, The Wall welcomed over 1,200 unique climbers last year, most of whom tried the sport for the first time.
The gym itself is bathed in light with floor to ceiling windows on three sides. The place is cozy without feeling cramped, and amazingly, it packs in over 50 routes up to 14 meters high. Given the strength of the instructors (many have competed on the national team), the setting is high quality, catering to the moderate range. There is a bouldering area with plenty of features to keep it interesting, and a workout space that doubles as a yoga room.
I spent August, 2018 in Lviv and this was my first dedicated time to top-roping. The instructors were personable and friendly, and were quick to offer encouragement in the form of yelling “давай-давай (davai davai, something like ‘let’s go!’)” at me.
It was a fantastic place to learn the ropes.
Yoga, hang boards, plyometric boxes, personal instruction, instructors who will happily belay you, changing room.
About Lviv: Lviv is a fascinating city with a long and complicated history. It is on the western edge of Ukraine and is one of the cultural centers of the country. There is beautiful architecture from the Hapsburg days, vast parks throughout the city, and a lively tourist scene with many restaurants and bars.
Road tripping is part of the great American mystique, it’s a rite of passage, and for climbers, it can be a way of life.
If you’re keen to head out on the road in 2019, for climbing of course, here is a list of some of the coolest climbing festivals to organize your trip around. From ice farming classic lines to bouldering on an uninhabited island to a bean-based fete and even a 24 hour suffer-fest, you’re sure to find something to catch your eye and make you want to hightail it the hell out of Dodge.
The largest ice climbing event in North America, the Ouray Ice Festival started with a little luck. Scratch that, it started with a little leak.
Many moons ago, climbers in the area found a dripping penstock which carried river water to a century-old hydroelectric plant. The result of the holey pipe was fantastic ice features, including icicles as high as 100 feet.
Fast forward to today, the Ouray Ice Park manufactures over 200 routes using a gravity-fed irrigation system, making this one of the highest concentration of easily accessible ice climbing anywhere.
Thanks to Jeff Lowe and gang, this event now attracts 1,000s of attendees a year, from pros to beginners.
Nearly all of the funding for the Ouray Ice Park comes through donations. The easiest way to support the Park is to become a member, and much of the money raised for the festival goes towards the operational expenses. When you sign up, be sure to consider extras like the Gear Card, which lets you demo gear from the sponsors, including crampons, axes, gloves, jackets, backpacks and more.
Date: January 23-26, 2020 (25th Anniversary of the Ouray Ice Fest!)
Where: Ouray, Colorado
Cost: Free! But you can sign-up for (paid) clinics during the Fest weekend. Clinics run from Intro to Advanced!
Food: Check out Brickhouse 737, Bon Ton, Thai Chili, KJ Wood Distillery or one of four breweries in town, including Colorado Boy Tap Room and Red Mountain Brewery. Like chocolate, be sure to visit Mouses Chocolates. More info.
What to Bring: Ice climbing gear. Warm clothes to be a spectator. A thermos!
How to Get There: About a 5.5 hour drive from Denver, CO and 6.5 hours from Salt Lake City, UT, and just under an hour from Montrose Regional Airport. If you need transport to Ouray, check out Western Slope Rides.
Known as the “anti-climbing festival,” this irreverent event used to be passed along by word of mouth only (so, like, shhhh). It’s a little more accessible these days yet still maintains much of the haphazard good-clean fun of its origin.
Well, maybe “clean” isn’t the right word here. N00bies are likely to be “beaned” by the Bean Master which ceremonially beatifies them into the bean-loving ranks. This consists of having beans smeared across your forehead. Welcome to Beanfest.
Why beans? It all starts when Ray Ringle, Scott Brown, John Steiger, Don Gallagher, Fig, and Steve Grossman, local climbers, got rained out one evening in Bear Canyon. They decided to bide their time with a hot pot of beans and a bottle of tequila. Shenanigans ensued and the rest is history.
Of course there’s plenty of good climbing to be had in the rugged canyons and towering granite domes, which keeps people coming back year after year. And the remote location means no one will hear fart, after you eat all those beans that are good for your heart.
Leavenworth is a tiny town with a massive climbing footprint. At 1.25 square miles and a population of about 2,000 people, the town’s Rockfest, surprise surprise, is actually Washington’s largest climbing festival.
Why’s that? Because of bomb ass climbing! Leavenworth has some of the best alpine climbs in the country, from the big granite spires of Liberty Bell to the West Ridge of Prussik Peak (400 ft, 4 pitches, Grade III, 5.7) to the stunning rock of the North Ridge of Mount Stuart (9,415′, Grade IV, 5.9). If you like staying closer to ground level, there is a ton of bouldering, which makes this the go to destination for Seattle boulderers.
Organized by the Leavenworth Mountain Association, the event is now in its 20th year and features all sorts of goodies from climbing clinics, gear demos, a bouldering competition, raffles, and talks by pro climbers, Will Stanhope and Brittany Goris (who just completed the first female ascent of City Park, once, and possibly still, the hardest crack climb in Washington).
All the money raised during this event goes towards conservation efforts (the dry climate makes erosion problematic), trail maintenance, and even simple things, like paying for porta potties (which are actually desperately needed in the area).
In the words of Adam Butterfield, the Vice President of the LMA, “People should come to the Leavenworth Rockfest because this is one of the north west’s best climbing areas. It’s beautiful, has amazing climbing, and you can ski, climb, and boat all in the same day, where else would you get that?” Another insider tip: Once you’re in town, be sure to try the Timber Town Brown from Icicle Brewery or grab a glass of the homespun Huney Jun kombucha.
Big mountains in a small town and great beer? Um, yea. Who’s coming with me?!
How to Get There: About a 2 hour drive from Seattle.
Flash Foxy Summerfest
Summerfest is about inclusivity, which strikes a chord for climbers of all genders because these events sell out in a minute. That’s right, one minute.
Flash Foxy began in 2014 as an online platform to celebrate women climbing. It has since grown into a series of climbing festivals, women’s outdoor leadership training, and climber education. What started with a women’s only focus has expanded into Summerfest, an event that encourages “all genders” to attend in an effort to move away from binary characterizations. “Our goal is to create and maintain a safe and diverse space where consent and respect are our first priorities,” notes Shelma Jun, founder of Flash Foxy.
If you want to help “shift the climbing culture to be a better reflection of all of us,” as Jun declares, be sure to register before sales close on May 31!
Accommodation: A list of places to stay can be found here.
What to Bring: Mostly sport and bouldering gear.
How to Get There: ROAD TRIP! Fayetteville is centrally located in WV, about 4 hours from Charlotte, NC, Louisville, KY, Columbus, OH, and 5 hours from DC.
Rock the Blocs Bouldering Fest
Come on lucky #7! Okanagan Bouldering Society has turned in a masterpiece (going into their 7th year) in this 2 square kilometer boulder field with over 1,000 problems–with countless FAs to be had.
The Kelowna Boulderfields is one of the largest and best bouldering areas in this part of North America, consisting of highly-featured gneiss for varied holds, styles and terrain. Okanagan also happens to be one of Canada’s most favorable climbing climates, so you’re bound to get good sending conditions. Thanks to locals, Jason Duris, Doug Orr, Andy White, and others, the bouldering scene grows by leaps and bounds each year.
The festival includes a bouldering competition, area development projects, clinics, and fun comps like a pinch and pull-up contest. For British Columbia natural beauty and stellar bouldering, make this your Canadian destination of choice for June.
In its 26th year, this is one of the most renowned festivals in the U.S. And they go BIG in their production: Big attendance (over 600 climbers annually), big list of activities, big mountains, and big swag (from what I hear).
Here’s a sample of what you can expect from this cowboy and climber haven: Plenty of sport climbing from Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon and alpine trad in the Wind River Range, a mini film festival, a Limestone Rodeo red-point competition, nighttime bouldering, a dyno competition, a writer competition with Climbing Magazine(!), an art walk in town, a lip-sync battle, beer, bluegrass, and more clinics you can shake a quickdraw at. Yee ha!
And just look at the pro list…
Volker Schoffl, Craig DeMartino, Kitty Calhoun, James Edward Mills, Kris Hampton, Brittany Griffith, Kate Rutherford, Tommy Caldwell, Elaina Arenz, Chelsea Rude, Eric Horst, Maria Fernanda Rodriguez Galvan, Jessa Goebel, Kai Lightner, Marcus Garcia, Dru Mack, Colette McInerney, Molly Mitchell, Shingo Ohkawa, Becky Switzer, Jonathan Siegrist, Matt Segal, Ben Rueck and more… And more they say!
Yep, go big, Wyoming.
Attendee perspective: “This past summer, a close friend, myself, and a cute dog were on a three week long climbing road trip. We had no set plan, and no itinerary. The general idea was to just cruise around, and see what we could find. After getting chased out of Salt Lake City by thunderstorms, we ended up in Lander, Wyoming.
Unbeknownst to us, we rolled in right in the middle of the 2018 International Climber’s Festival. We took to the festivities, and found a welcoming, vibrant community. We slept in the city park, sampled beers at the Lander Bar, and took to the local crags.
Some locals showed us around Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris. We had a great time, and it reminded me of how awesome the climbing community can be. I hope to attend the ICF again in the future. If anyone wants to meet up and chase down some Alpine route in The Winds, then I am all game!” – Timothy Carlson at Hike the Planet!
Cost: $60 early access, $80 regular price. $25/ clinic.
Food: Grab a pint and a burger at the Lander Bar.
Accommodation: Free camping in Lander at the City Park for 3 days.
What to Bring: Camping gear, climbing gear, and a lot of energy.
How to Get There: About 4.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City, UT and about 5.5 hours from Denver, CO.
Dover Island Boulderfest
Known as Nova Scotia’s Granite Playground, Dover Island provides sweet serenity and over 100 boulder problems on a little plot of Canadian paradise. The festival is only accessible by boat, and Norm, the local blacksmith, will happily ferry you across. No joke. You can also rent kayaks and paddle the 1km from shore to shore, if you please.
Think this sounds more like a chilled out summer canoe trip with your buds than a climbing festival? That’s about right. The organizers, Climb Nova Scotia, cap the number of attendees at about 100 in order to keep the uninhabited landscape closer to it’s naturally low-key ambiance. After all, you’ll be sharing the island with over 50 endangered species.
Oh ya, and there’s stellar boulder problems ranging from V0 to V10, situated right along the shore, next to docile lakes, and in the shade of pine forests. I hesitated to include this because, well, I just hope I can snag a ticket!
You won’t find a lot of spuds here, despite it being in Idaho (branding opportunity?). But, you will get a plate full of off-kilter activities to help you cope with your forlorn potato deprivation.
For one, this is a mecca of moderate trad climbing and a treasure trove of granite bouldering and fun oh fun sport climbing. The festival takes place at Castle Rocks State Park near Almo, Idaho which is next door to the well-known City of Rocks National Reserve.
Some of the shenanigans include a booty easter egg hunt, in which the trails have been magically filled with Ergonomic-Gift-Guards (E.G.G.s) overnight, for you to discover in the morning in child-like reverie. If you’re into trail running, there is a 6-mile trail race, and a climber’s rodeo if you want to playtend at being a cowboy.
And if all that is not enough to keep you entertained, try and rally the 350 climbers to play a game of hot potato. Could be fun.
Food: Breakfast and dinner provided (thanks, sponsors!).
What to Bring: Maybe some empty bags to carry all the swag you win.
How to Get There: About a 3 hour drive from Salt Lake City, UT and a 3.5 hour drive from Boise.
24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
“We are lions in a field of lions!” The proclamation rises in a roar, The Climber’s Creed, the crowd hoots and hollers as they prepare for a merciless 24 hour hunt of the finest sandstone sport climbing around.
“Partner! Do not freaking drop me!” The throng repeats from the MC, making declarative statements of partnership, climbing, and jokes. A lot of jokes.
Teams of two can compete in the 12 hour or 24 hour endurance climbing event (over 300 routes), with a chance to win sweet swag for things like best haircut, best costume, most routes climbed, and most biners returned by team.
Once that’s over, the festival lasts four more days with food (including a Kevin Bacon Bacon Station), camping, music, games, parties, and fellowship. Oh, and costumes! And tattoos!! And haircuts (most likely buzzed, leaving some sort of graphic on your skull)!!!
If you thirst for tomfoolery, go have a hearty chuckle with your lion pride in Arkansas.
How to Get There: About a 4.5 hour drive from Memphis, TN or Kansas City, MO; 5 hour drive from Oklahoma City, OK.
Red River Gorge Rocktoberfest
Celebrate another successful climbing season with the Red River Gorge’s biggest fundraising event of the year. With over 2,000 routes, and hundreds in the moderate range of 5.11-5.12, the RRG is one of the best destinations for sports climbing in the country.
Given the popularity, the area has experienced access issues over the years. Which is where The Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC), a volunteer led org, comes in; They have been the leading advocacy voice since 1996.
The money raised enables the RRGCC to make their mortgage payments, manage over 1100 acres of climbing land and roads, and to save money for future purchases. In the past, this fundraiser has helped pay for the purchases of the Bald Rock and Miller Fork Recreational Preserve.
And what better way to celebrate their Herculean efforts than with climbing and a party! If you want to help protect this magical place, be sure to join them in Rocktober!
Food: Some meals are provided. Bring your own and/ or dine on local fare. Beer on tap.
Accommodation: Camping at the Land of Arches campground.
What to Bring: Sports gear, trad, camping stuff.
How to Get There: About an hour drive from Lexington, KY and 2 hours from Louisville, KY.
Color the Crag
CtC is the first-ever climbing festival to celebrate diversity in the climbing community.
You might wonder why that’s important. Well, take a gander at any climbing magazine (or the expanded outdoor industry, for that matter) and you’ll see a lot of white. As in people. Yet, 38 percent of Americans are people of color. Hmm.
The mission for the festival is to “celebrate diversity in the sport of rock climbing. Our mission is to build community, promote leadership from people of color (POC), provide a positive narrative of underrepresented communities in the outdoors through inclusive and educational climbing festivals and events..” They do this by bringing together orgs like Brothers of Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, Melanin Base Camp, Natives Outdoors, Flash Foxy, Latino Outdoors and more, along with people from all backgrounds to climb for four days in the backwoods of central Alabama.
In the words of Stormy Saint-Val, a participant at last years event, “it completely changed my life! I’ve been able to eradicate this false narrative that black people don’t climb. There were [like] 300 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.”
With very little cell service, a lot of friendly faces, and excellent bouldering, you’ll be sure to make friends and find community here.
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!!!
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.
If I can pin-point one moment when things really shifted for me, it was participating in a Startup Weekend in Boston in 2010. A friend dragged me to it. I didn’t really know what startups were. We ended up taking 3rd place (and bought Indian food with our winnings).
*That video makes me cringe. But hey, the memories*
Since then I’ve been lucky to have some wide-ranging experiences, from teaching entrepreneurship in Ghana to working on a farm to growing a venture-backed startup.
This exposure has taught me one simple truth: You only learn by interacting with the world.
… And you never know where you might end up. Okay, two truths.
Training through the sea
In large part, my thinking around education has been shaped by Kurt Hahn, the Founder of Outward Bound (OB).
Today, OB offers over 1,000 expedition-based programs and focuses on personal development. They work with cohorts from struggling youth to veterans to those interested in developing wilderness skills, and more.
I first learned about OB in university while researching leadership and educational training. Their structure for experiential learning was so different (and more interesting) than my experience in class. I enjoyed science labs because they had an integrative function, but my greatest education about science came from my coops (internships) working in real biotech labs.
When I came to entrepreneurship, I knew this wasn’t something you could download from a book, you had to go through the gauntlet. So I did.
Before Taking Flight on Orla Perć… My Not Very Good Stay in Zakopane
Orla Perć is known as the most difficult and dangerous hiking trail in Poland. According to Wikipedia more than 140 people have lost their lives on the route. For the 4.5km stretch of hiking/ scrambling/ climbing, that comes out to 31.11 people dead/ km.
The hike itself is a ridge traverse that consists of rock scrambling, metal chains, and the occasional slick ladder. The peaks are thin and jagged, rising and falling like sharp spires. To move horizontally across the path requires ascending and descending hundreds of feet (or, like, many meters) — down then up then down then up. As a result, while the line is only a few kilometers long, you end up doing much more with the vertical movement.
The trip I had planned was to take 13 hours, consisting of 16km of distance (about 10 miles) and 3,183m (10,443 total feet) of elevation gain and loss.
I never trust these estimates and figured it would take me about 10 hours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, The Lead Up
The “Eagle’s Path” came onto my radar via S, someone with whom I have an “it’s complicated” relationship. Which is really neither here nor there.
We were on one of our upswings and decided to spend a long weekend together. We were deliberating between four days of climbing in the Będkowska Valley or hiking in the High Tatras, both in Poland.
“I’ve wanted to do Orla Perć for awhile, want to do that? It’s supposed to be pretty dangerous. But I think you can do it,” She offered.
“It’s probably not so bad, you just have to be careful. People do die every year, though.” She can be rather matter of fact.
“Uhh, are you trying to get me to have an accident?” I mean, we have had our ups-and-downs…
Logistically, the Tatras were going to be a challenge. This was high season in the mountains and rooms at the huts had been booked out months in advance (I had called and emailed several of the lodges, and thanks to internety magic (google translate) determined there was nothing available. That is zero. Zilch.). There’s also no camping in the park.
(Later, I’d learn the huts have a rule that prevents them from turning you away. You can show up in the evening and sleep on the floor, wherever you can find space. It’s supposed to be for safety in case of inclement weather, but they don’t seem to make a fuss of it. This would come in handy in a few days.)
In the end, we went to Będkowska.
We camped, we climbed, ate pierogi, had fun. Our transitory, back-and-forth relationship-thingy continued and I followed her to Budapest to stay for a few days. When the going’s good keep it going, I guess.
Now or Never to Hike Rysy and (Maybe) Orla Perć
Rysy, the highest peak on the Polish side of the Tatras, had been firmly on my radar since July. This was the mountain I was excited for. Orla Perć, not so much.
I only had a few free days before flying home for my sister’s wedding, and I wasn’t sure if or when I’d ever be back in Poland. It was now or neverish.
And what the hell, Orla Perć is right there, so I added it to the itinerary.
But but but #YERGONNADIE!, you say?
Well ya, but the pictures look cool.
I took an overnight bus from Budapest to Krakow and would leave for the Tatras the next day.
Day One of the Tatras was a parade of minor frustrations.
I arrived in Krakow at 7am, groggy and achy. The bus had been light of fellow passengers and I’d wrangled the back row to myself. I was able lie down completely. Lovely! If not for the belt buckles gouging my ribs it would have been quite accommodating.
The first step was to gather my gear from an airbnb host who had been holding on to it (thank you again!). I needed to wait for them to wake up, and it was unclear when that would be.
The hope was to leave Krakow by 9am and attempt Orla Perć that day. She’d been responsive the night before and knew I was getting in early. There was a chance.
In the meantime, I wandered through empty squares in the Old Town. Tranquility emanated from huddled walls while the cobblestone streets hummed softly. On the sidewalk, an elderly sweeper gathered dust with gentle strokes from a straw broom.
Around the corner a club was closing up. There was a throng of partiers carousing on the sidewalk surrounded by a moat of cigarette butts. I felt like a grumpy old man. I sat along the Vistula River for awhile and waited.
By 10am I was arranging my pack and made it on the bus to Zakopane at 11. I’d arrive around 1pm which meant I would have to put off the long hike for the next day. Oh well.
Zakopane, You Obtrusive Impediment to Wonderful Mountains
Zakopane is a mountain resort town. It’s full of annoying tourists doing annoying touristy things like clogging up the trails and eating smoked cheese. Stuff I would never do.
That night, I’d have to find a place to stay alongside them. Yuck.
During the bus ride down, I scanned my options on HostelWorld (nothing!), made a desperate plea to a hostel on Facebook (could I sleep on the floor?), and felt disheartened by the listings on Booking.com (every place had “only one room left!”) and was expensive.
While I waited to hear back from the hostel I took a nap in lieu of making a decision.
An hour later, I still hadn’t heard from the hostel and hotel listings were disappearing. I’d be in Zakopane in half an hour.
I bit the bullet and choose a place with good enough ratings at a reasonable enough price. On the map, it wasn’t too far from the bus station.
A Mountain Town
We pulled in around 1pm as expected. I disembarked and made my way towards the bnb. The route zigzagged along traffic circles, up into a residential neighborhood and onto a hiking path. Interesting.
Then the rain started.
Turns out the place was located at the top of a small mountain, a 1,000 feet up (or 300m if I’m staying consistent with units of measurement). By now it was pouring and the trail was muddy. I’d get a hike in after all.
The path passed through spotty tree cover, fields and farm land. 45 minutes later, one last damp road veered to the left and opened into a clearing.
The map said this was my destination. I stared about at a chained compound featuring, seemingly, a ski lift. Huh. I walked around, poked my head this way and that then moved to an awning. Nope. Nah. Didn’t appear to be the place. No sir.
I double checked the confirmation email and, lo and behold, it listed two addresses. The Polish instructions were still unreadable. I plugged the other coordinates into me map and made like Keanu Reeves in Constantine (to get the hell out of here).
Well, I’m Bad at Reading Maps
It looked like I had to follow the road away from the lift. The rain soaked street was flagged by a procession of quaint shops and restaurants. It felt like an empty carnival. A group of kids were splattered over with neon paint, for some reason.
A few hundred meters down things didn’t feel right. I checked my phone and it was the wrong direction. Then where was this place? There was only that sharp left at the top of the hiking trail… I backtracked anyways, found a smaller trail (aha!) that did indeed head to the right, tip-toed across downed branches and came to a field clearing. Map said that a-way. I passed by cows that “moo’d.”
A Quiet, Quiet Place. Except for the Screaming
A mere hour-fifteen after getting off the bus I came to a three-building complex that appeared empty. There was a car in the driveway. I walked into the building closest to the road. No reception. This too appeared empty. I entered the dining room. The place was empty(!), save an open laptop and a disarray of receipts on a table in the corner.
I called out, “dzień dobry!,” and a wraith-like woman slithered in from the shadows.
“Czy mówisz po angielsku?”
“Nie mówię po polsku.” We stared at each other.
But she was a professional and knew the routine. She fished some keys out of a plastic bag all jumbled and clanking with metal. I was guided to the other side of the complex where I saw shoes drying outside a door. Signs of life! On the second floor there were more booties around the corner from mine.
Ah. Home sweet home. We entered my residence, a cold room with a lot of exposed wood. I was ready for a quiet evening when… Noise! Noise like banging and screaming. I noticed. She seemed to willfully ignore the sadistic groans above.
She proceeded to give me a tour consisting of a dirty shower stall, a kitchen counter, and the flicking of some lights this way and that. I just wanted her to leave. She made to the door and gestured concernedly about the keys in the lock and other sorts of handwaving. She wanted to make sure I understood so I nodded like I did.
Her vaporous body shuffled down the hall and slipped into the floorboards.
Finally alone, I began to take my wet clothes off to dry. The compound hadbeen dead silent until now. The only noise was being summoned from hell directly above my room. It was a sort of thumping, cackling horror film blaring with overactive teenagers jumping from bed to bed.