BD athlete Neil Gresham reports on the sport climbing paradise of Kalymnos, Greece
The climbing world seems bigger than ever to me these days and I find myself increasingly overwhelmed by a never-ending tick-list of tempting new destinations. So why in view of this, do I always seem to end up on the paradise Greek island Kalymnos every year without fail! The explanation for this might possibly have something to do with the word “paradise”. Kalymnos is a place that can satisfy any sport climber’s wildest fantasies. The cliffs can only be described as perfect, with giant orange, tufa-covered caves right next to grey, sweeping pocketed faces in unlimited supply. There is also a unique holiday vibe about this place—no need for a car, you can simply stroll up to the crag, then back down to the beach, or jump in the pool at your hotel, relax with a beer and then wander in to town for a Greek slap-up in one of the many quiet tavernas on the seafront. If you can find somewhere better than Kalymnos, please let me know!
One of the main attractions for me over the last decade has been the potential for new routing in Kalymnos. Although my routes are certainly nowhere near the cutting edge of sport climbing, I’d like to think that I know a “King Line” when I see one, even though my offerings are a little more modest than those of Mr. Sharma! For me, the challenge is to search out a line that will be truly memorable, and the grade has always been a secondary concern. I’ve also had a lot of fun giving projects away to friends in the past; ranging from an 8b+ which provided an afternoon’s play for Steve McClure (which became O Draconian Devil, 8b+) to a 3+ at Odyssey which challenged a pal of mine who had just started climbing! But the highlight for me was when first I stumbled upon the giant, blank and entirely unclimbed amphitheatre of Kalydna in 2005. I just couldn’t believe that the obvious tufa-system and soaring groove up the centre hadn’t been touched and I just couldn’t get the bolts in fast enough. I’d like to think that Aurora, the resulting 8a is as good as any route of that grade in the world, but I guess new routers shouldn’t really say things like that!
The rewards are so great for those who are prepared to make the effort to equip new routes, and I often scratch my head in disbelief that so few people can be seen wielding a drill in Kalymnos. But I guess most who go there are looking for a holiday, and there is nothing too relaxing about lugging a 30kg rucksack up scree-slope in the blazing heat! Then there are the problems locating the top of the route and the inevitable epics with abseiling in and getting your ropes snagged on the spiky boulders and vegetation at the top. Worse still are the issues of dealing with loose rock and angry climbers. There are no hard-and-fast rules here and whilst you can only do your best to work at quiet times and stay away from big stalactites, inevitably there will be a few big trundles, and a few resulting confrontations! Above all else there is the need to know when to stop. An area like Kalymnos desperately needs new crags and some of the blank gaps blatantly need filling at popular crags, but it’s important to realise when an area has reached its potential.
Strangely, for the last two years, I didn’t spot any lines that captivated me during my visits, and I had actually started to question whether Kalymnos was starting to run dry. I decided to leave the drill at home for my November visit, and then of course, the inevitable happened. Suddenly the lines just kept popping up in front of my eyes out of nowhere, and I was forced to borrow a drill and set to work in a frenzy! The first were two extensions at Spartacus sector, a 7b+ above the popular 6c, Les Amazones, which I named Ares, and then a wild 8a above Monbatcha which I called Chameleon. The name reflected the way the rock changes colour and the fact that we had stood below it for ten years without noticing it. (The photo above and the two below are of Chameleon.) Next up, just around the corner from here I added The Shield (7b+), a technical, fingery vertical wall-climb, which provided a pleasant contrast to the usual Kalymnian jug-pulling. After this, I spotted another blatant gap on the left side of the central cave at Jurassic Park. Raptor (8a), blasts through some sublime steep juggy tufa-territory, and I guess it is a sign of the times that this route had two onsight repeats from eager French climbers within hours of me making the first ascent. The nicest part of all was to see them grinning with pleasure whilst lowering off and this for me sums up what new-routing is all about.
My final offering in Kalymnos was a line at Iliada that I had been contemplating for some time. There is a big cave in the middle of the crag with one obvious line up the centre. I was a little saddened to see that this had been climbed to an arbitrary point, halfway across the roof and claimed as a 7b+ called Dollonas. Not that I have an issue with routes having “halfway lower-offs” and being available to lower-grade climbers, (and indeed I’ve put up routes like this myself before) but in this case, it seemed to spoil the line, rather like putting a lower-off halfway up a hard classic like La Rose et le Vampire or Punks in the Gym. The reason I had avoided taking a look at the extension on previous trips was because it looked so hard, but this year I just couldn’t resist. I was pleasantly surprised to find Valley of the Dolls weighing in at “bouldery 8b”, a grade which so many people seem to climb these days. It just goes to show that your eyes and your instincts can deceive you in climbing and it often pays to keep an open mind.
So what next in Kalymnos? Far from running dry, I feel like I’m only just getting started out there. In fact I’m just rushing off to catch a plane straight back there to attend to some unfinished business, but unfortunately, I seem to have run out of time to tell you about that one! If you’re heading out there yourself and you get there before me, then please stay clear of that perfect overhanging line that isn’t in the guidebook. You’ll know the one I’m talking about when you see it!