Kalymnos is a Greek island in the Dodecanese archipelago of the Aegean Sea. It is 12km north of Kos, 2km south of Leros and near the Bodrum peninsula, Turkey. Covered with impressive cliffs, it has been a world famous rock climbing destination for only a little more than a decade. We had a busy March discovering the island’s hidden gems.
[Words in italics are explained in a lexicon at the end of the article and the name of each route is a link to its description.]
Good excuses to stay a while
For two weeks, we split our time between climbing and organising the next stages of the trip. We got back into shape smoothly whilst managing our damaged gear. Visits to the village for internet are daily and never useless thanks to the remote assistance of Ian, Adam’s dad who sends us text messages the moment a new email arrives. Optimus will send us a spare valve for our stove. Hilleberg agrees to replace our inner tent that has started to leak. Ciclopia, the Austrian bike shop that repaired Adam’s brakes (which have failed again) promise to send a bleeding kit. James from Mikulici Nature Park in Croatia is forwarding a parcel that arrived after we left. Adam’s parents are in charge of a package with two t-shirts (without holes) and a finger-board (a piece of wood with holes to train during our long periods of pedalling without seeing rock). Affixing patches, sewing, cleaning. In the midst of all this admin, our motivation for climbing is not what it used to be. Single pitch sport climbing is fun but we get bored of it quickly. What we like is the adventure of long multi pitch routes. We found two that we liked: Oraia Stithi, 6a+ and Space Walk, 6a+. But with only 5 pitches each, we remained hungry.
Telendos, the small neighbor who has everything of a big one
Now that all of our packages are on the way, we’ve got nothing else to do but wait. By the sounds of it, we’ll have to be patient. We’ve just learned, a little late, that the Greeks themselves don’t use postal services since the crisis. Workforce and funding have dropped so drastically that the delays are staggering. At the end of March, the greengrocer received a Christmas card… We decided we had time to explore another island facing us, Telendos.Separated from its big sister by an earthquake in the 6th century, there are no roads or cars here, only a few bar-restaurant-apartments and three kilometres of 300m high cliffs overlooking the sea. In this isolated paradise, there are a few long bolted routes. We start with the most recent one, opened in November 2016, Prometheus, 6b+. Perfectly signposted approach, beautiful rock, incredible view, we’re pretty convinced. It’s decided, we are moving here for good. A secluded beach is found that will be perfect for the next few weeks. We take the opportunity of a rest day to get a few things left at our disco-club-squat-camping. Listening to Yannis’ advice, a local climber who owns Rita Restaurant, we leave the next day for Wild Country, 6a+.The approach is a little longer and complicated (because we took the wrong path …) but the effort is worth it. We pass through caves, airy traverses and a view we can’t get tired of. Time flies over the following two weeks. Our parcels in transit are only a false excuse to climb all the main long routes of the island. Eterna, 6b+, swimming rest day, Wings for Life, 6a, rest day in Kalymnos, Scyllas and Charybdis, 6b+, raft-making rest day, single pitch climbing rest days. We have now done all the multi pitches of the South face under 7b+. Is it time to leave?
In good company
Hard to leave our paradise. The few inhabitants of the island know us well and we now feel at home. One of the ferry captains left us at the control of the ferry coming back from shopping in Kalymnos. The shepherd introduced me two lambs born the day before and promised us a delivery of fresh cheese on our beach. Our conversations with Yannis, from Rita Restaurant, where we spend most of our evenings, are always a great time. He talks about his new project, Rita – his wife’s name – that great route he is bolting with three Italian friends. The level will not exceed 6b, not that he has already climbed it but his doctor has forbidden higher grades because of a heart problem, so it’s 6b max… He tells us about his life before the restaurant, before climbing. Formerly, the most common work in Kalymnos was sponge-diving. Many lost their lives for it, techniques and knowledge on scuba diving effects being limited at the time.
He was a hunter on land. In groups of about ten Yannis – the most common name in Greece – they were going for week-long expeditions on uninhabited islands. Now he’s got to deal with the consequences of the Greek crisis. The new taxes he is being asked to pay each year, the absence of competent doctors on the island, the postponement of the retirement age from 62 to 67, the suppression of daily connections with Athens by ferry, the importance of climbing for the survival of the island. We tell him our last climbs, ask him for advice, call him for help when we miss the last ferry.
On Telendos, we also met Rut and Jan, a couple of retired Belgians like no others. They were among the first to climb here, when there was no guide book yet and they had to get random informations from people. They come back every year, before the beginning of the season, to enjoy the rock they never tire of. She was a teacher and he a mountain guide. Together, they set off on expeditions to the world’s highest peaks in the 80s/90s. India, Nepal, Pakistan. We talk about our plan to pedal the Pamir or the Karakorum Highway. Each of our encounters on the terrace of Rita Restaurant is an opportunity for exciting conversations.
The day we climbed Wings for Life, Greta and Leo, a German couple our age, had the same idea as us. We had reached the summit a few minutes apart and took advantage of the long way back to chat. We shared dinner in their apartment and we met again for a final climbing day the day before their departure. Without being foreseen, we had embarked for another great route, Les copains d’abord. Another memorable adventure…
Two epic days
One of our packages still has not arrived. We start to ogle on the north face. There remains a route that Yannis has never done, which seems interesting. Gelitokit, described as committing and reserved for experienced climbers with slabs, cracks, caves, exposed pillar and ‘alpine style bolting’. Impossible to know when it was climbed for the last time. Here we go. Finding the bottom takes us ages, but the first four rope lengths are well worth it. Completely different from the other routes on the island, we climb run out slabs and even find an off width on Kaylmnos. We feel like we’ve found the icing on the cake… And suddenly everything is spoilt. The fourth belay is attached to a huge block the size of a car that seems ready to throw itself from the cliff. Adam manages to keep his weight over his feet without putting any tension through the chain, while I start up this sketchy pitch. I’m supposed to climb along this hanging rock and sit on it to belay Adam. In my head, images flash by. If the block comes off, Adam leaves with it and pulls me with him. Out of question to even touch it. It may hold but I would rather not try. I hesitate and finally decides to cross to the left where the rock is solid, unprotected, hoping to find a better place to finish the climb. After an endless psychological fight with myself, a run-out of 20 meters brings me to a ledge with two trees, enough to make a belay and bring Adam up. Still shaky, we walk down wondering how such a route can be on Telendos. Back at Rita Restaurant, we meet Rut, Jan and Yannis to tell them about our misfortune of the day. They advice us to declare it on the dedicated website to avoid anyone going back to Gelitokit or for someone to place new bolts and make it safer. We are used to climbing in the alpine, but this ‘designer’ danger is a little strange for us, almost as if the first ascent took a line that was purposefully more dangerous than it needed to be, there is good solid rock just next to the existing line… A rest day tomorrow is well deserved.
That was without counting on Greta and Leo, super motivated, who invite us to join them on Kalymnos. Here we go. After a few climbs, Leo looks at the guide book and say “There is a multi-pitch here that you haven’t done yet, would you be tempted?”. Les copains d’abord, 6a+. He reads the description. At the word “chimney”, an immense smile is drawn on my face. I love chimneys. Within a few minutes we are on it. Our two parties are progressing well and we reach the summit faster than we thought. Perfect. Less frightening than yesterday. Now the descent. We choose to abseil, the walk back being unmarked and very long. After the first abseil, the rope get trapped by a bush. We climb to free it. Problem solved. The second abseil is impossible to find. After forty minutes inspecting every corner, we decide to use the only belay we can find, for which a helmet would have been welcome, there are blocks waiting to fall off everywhere. All four of us are together on the next ledge. Two of us try pulling our ropes down. Then three, then four. No way. It’s stuck. Adam, who is, unfortunately for him, the most experienced of all of us, is getting ready to prussik back up the ropes. After 50 meters of hard work prussiking a free hanging rope running over loose rock, the mystery is solved. Our two ropes were so wrapped around each other that they did not move. He comes back down. We pull again. It doesn’t budge. Time for round 2! Installing the prussik, pulling with the arms, pushing with the legs … We try not to laugh looking at him. He’s back down as the sun disappears on the horizon. Hip Hip Hip Hooray! We’re not going to spend the night there! The ropes fall at our feet, we install our last abseil and we hurry back.
This was our last route. In two days we’ll leave the island to resume our journey. Feelings are mixed, between sadness and excitement. The adventure continues nonetheless!
Equipped: A cliff on which permanent high strength bolts have been fixed to the wall at regular intervals, if the climber were to slip or fall they would be caught by the rope after falling the distance that they were above the protection, plus the same distance past it.
Single pitch: A route that’s climbed in a single rope length, typically between 10 and 40m high
Multi-pitch: More than one successive rope length, climbing cliffs of several hundred meters. The junction between two routes is made at the belay, typically a small stance where you can secure yourself and your partner.
Run out: A section of climbing with spaced protection, requiring concentration and calmness it is a test of both the physical and mental.
Abseil: Descending ground that is steep by sliding down a rope
Prussik: A loop of thin cord which can be tied with a special knot to act as a third hand. With these you can safeguard an abseil or climb a fixed rope.
Chimney: wide crack in which the body can be inserted. Opposition techniques are needed.
Offwidth: A crack that is too small to get your body inside of and too large to jam handsfists. Usually accompanied by sweat, blood, tears and swearing. More akin to a boxing match than actual rock climbing.