Kalymnos: A Climbing Trip Part 1
Eight months after quitting my job, I booked a climbing trip to Greece. I’d met Charles online and he had been to Kalymnos twice already and was well acquainted with the island. Charles posted in a climbing group on Facebook and invited others to join him. I talked with him briefly on the phone to confirm he was a real person and booked my flights shortly after.
“So who is Charles?” my friends asked.
“He’s a climber I met on Facebook,” I said.
“Oh so you met him?”
“No we just talked on the phone.”
“So you haven’t ever seen him.”
“No but we talked on the phone — he’s legit”
Charles planned to spend two and a half months in Kalymnos. He wanted to climb as much as he could during the day and work at night. He wasn’t going to tell his company he was traveling and they would still think he was living in Virginia. I was happy to hear Charles was planning to stay for a long time and told him I’d come for the entire time too. He was pleasantly surprised to hear that. Charles arranged for a few other friends to join us as well.
The plan was to sport climb at the limestone cliffs of Kalymnos, a well-known European climbing destination. I told friends about my upcoming trip, and they were probably more excited than I was. For me, going to Greece was a natural progression of how my life was going and I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. I was excited, of course, but was focusing more on training hard to prepare for the trip. The stoke was high and I was feeling good about my climbing.
Months passed quickly in the Bay and I got in some practice climbing outside at my local crags. I cut my teeth on the soft sandstone at Mt. Diablo, the smooth glassy gneiss of Turtle Rock, and the lovely beach crag at Mickey’s. I found more climbing partners to lead indoors too. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Athens for my connecting flight.
I met up with Charles in Athens and we spent the night there before flying to Kos. At Kos, we ferried to Kalymnos and our journey was over. Two flights and one boat later, we arrived at our destination. Once we walked onto the port, our Airbnb host greeted us. We got into a small car the size of a PT cruiser — most cars in Greece were this size. Even the trucks were sized down. The streets were also proportionately wide.
He drove us through the narrow alleyway streets of the port town, passing cafes, bakeries, and small markets. The closeness of the houses near the water reminded me of Amsterdam. In the background, you could see the mountains, dotted with old monasteries and ruins. Charles told me there was one stoplight on the entire island, but I don’t think I saw any the entire time.
This was my first international trip since the pandemic started and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but so far things were going smoothly. Our host was friendly and showed us around our house. There were three bedrooms and one bathroom. The sewage system was not modernized so we were told to not flush any toilet paper, and instead had to dispose of it in a separate bin. There was also no dryer, only a washing machine so we would have to hang our clothes to dry on a clothesline.
The kitchen had an induction stove and no microwave or dishwasher. A door connected the kitchen to a small patio which had a few chairs and a table. The patio opened up to the backyard, where there were orange trees and lemon trees. Oranges were not in season anymore but there were a few ripe fruits that our host gave us. They were very sweet and fragrant. We were told we could pick the lemons whenever we wanted. It was springtime and the lemon tree flowers perfumed the air and it smelled wonderful whenever the breeze carried the aroma. Hens and roosters roamed a small pen and would end up being a natural alarm for the light sleepers.
After unpacking our things and settling down, we drove out to the main town to buy a climbing rope. Neither of us had packed one since we didn’t have room in our packs. I picked out a bright pink eighty-meter rope and we were on our way to try it out on a couple of routes. But then it started raining. It rained lightly at first and we said maybe we should head to the crag to see if we could still climb. And then it rained harder. We laughed about the timing and went home.
I liked Charles because he was one of the few climbers whose stoke was higher than mine. In the following days, we were willing to brave the weather and get some routes in. The jet lag had us awake at six in the morning and it was very cold on those mornings. We were both too restless to sit in the house until it warmed up and decided to head to the crag early. For breakfast I fried eggs in butter and ate them with bread. Our host sometimes gave us eggs that his hens laid. Their yolks were a deep orange that reminded me of the color of poppies. The fried eggs and hot butter would warm the mornings considerably.
After breakfast, we would pack our gear and load the car. Driving down the main road, you would see the mountains tower over the town. I felt like we were heading to the entrance of Jurassic Park. I had never seen this volume of rock so close to a town before.
There was one main road that ran through the towns so navigating to the crag was simple. The road wound around the edge of the island. Heading to the crag, the Aegean Sea was on our left and the mountains were on our right. Wild olive trees were scattered along the roadside and goats walked freely. There were no stoplights or signs but you had to take care not to hit a goat. We were also warned not to park under trees because goats often climbed cars to eat leaves from the trees.
“So when did you say you started lead climbing again?” Charles asked.
“In September,” I said.
“So six months ago? What the fuck?” Charles said.
Small stone pillars marked the trails leading up to the crags. The pillars had signs that displayed the name of the crag, the sector you were in, and how long the approach would take. Never trust a sign to tell you how long an approach takes. The approach trail would be obvious enough but you still had to walk through small loose rocks and bushes sometimes. There were no trees once we started hiking up to the base of the mountain. Thyme and oregano bushes scattered themselves and sometimes you stepped on one of these and it would smell herbaceous and fragrant.
The first couple of days at the crag, my hands were stiff and it was hard to climb. Charles said the cold was unusual and it was warmer the last time he visited. I dressed in a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, a thick jacket, and sweats. It would still be cold. The approach to the wall warmed us up a little but it was not enough for me. Charles seemed fine but it’s harder for me to climb when my body isn’t properly warmed up. Still, we got in some routes — and a bad day outside is still better than a good day inside.
The limestone’s texture was impeccable and the routes were well-bolted. Climbers also enjoyed the benefit of having the names of routes marked at the base of the climbs. The route’s name would either be written at the base of the climb or painted on a rock that was glued on. Sometimes the route’s grade was included. Most of the time we had a good view of the sea which was nice and made up for the cold. I’ll talk more about the climbing in the second part. Conditions were never ideal enough to get a quality day in.
Cold days persisted and some days it rained lightly. The wind blew hard as well and we had to choose crags that sheltered us from the wind. Charles misinterpreted the wind charts one morning and we went to a crag where the wind was blowing directly on us.
I was in the middle of climbing a route another morning and noticed small white flakes float in the air. Charles thought it was chalk at first. I looked down at Charles and shouted, “Dude it’s snowing!” and was laughing hard. Snow in the springtime. I quickly finished that route with numb hands and we went home.
On the less cold and windy days, we were able to climb a handful of routes. It was still off-season for the town and many restaurants were not open yet. We ended up at a family-owned place near our house and ate there after climbing most days. After food, we went home and Charles went online to work. I would stretch and watch documentaries on Netflix. Charles would occasionally walk out of his room, shirtless, and ask me where we should climb the next day. We spent the first two weeks like this.