Saturday, 21 September 2013

Learning to love the tufas in the Grande Grotta

The Grande Grotta is possibly the most well known, and well visiting crag on Kalymnos. It looms above Ameos, a dark maw of a cave with stalactite teeth, ready to bite climbers who approach with a less than respectful attitude. It’s steep, three-dimensional climbing takes many prisoners, a fall into space the penalty for weak biceps and forearms. The climbing is perhaps more intimidating than technically hard; there are rests aplenty, but you have to find – and use – them, and fitness is essential for battling the inevitable pump.

An Austrian climber finding the rests on Priapos (7c)
N and I plodded up the steep approach path in the early morning like convicted criminals on the way to our final punishment. Not that we didn’t want to climb, or indeed to climb in the Grande Grotta, but we were both feeling a bit nervous about the projects we had set ourselves for the day; me to get on DNA, the classic, pumpy 7a/+, and N to have a go at the gigantic roof route, Priapos (7c).

When we arrived at the base of the cave we found that a group of friendly Canadians had already beaten us to the warm up routes. There was nothing for it but to jump straight onto DNA, though I would hardly class thirty-degree overhanging rock as a warm up, no matter how big the holds! N went first, putting the clips in, then I followed, working out the moves and resting on each bolt so as not to get too pumped.

It may be steep, but all the holds are good – once you know where they are – and there are various rests that you can contrive, from an obvious sit down on a tufa seat, to a bum wedge in the tendrils of the jellyfish tufa higher up. At the top you can choose to move out left on massive holds, then back right to clip the chains, or go straight up from the bolt on smaller holds. I chose the straight up route, using some of the smallest holds on the route to gain the huge jugs at the top.

After a rest, I tied in for another go, to see if I could link the route in a few sections. Surprisingly, I made it through to the tufa seat, and sat there for about ten minutes shaking out and recovering. Fully recovered, I made the moves up to the jellyfish, then got a bum wedge / head jam rest to get another shake - no one said tufa climbing was elegant... From there I headed up the final steep moves, to dangle and wrestle with the huge tufa at the top and clip the chains. I had thought DNA would push me to the limit, prepared myself for a physical and mental struggle, but I had not expected to enjoy it so much – a great route, worthy of its three star status.

N was next up on the beast that is Priapos. Harder, steeper and longer than DNA, and requiring a more three-dimensional style of climbing, bridging between stalactites and wrestling tufas. N described it as ‘steep walking’, though that does not do justice to the effort required to walk this roof of tufas. The climbing is so steep that you belay with your back to the wall, looking outwards, not upwards, across the roof. Sometimes N disappeared from view behind a huge stalactite, at other times, you see a leg or an arm, wrapped round or through the hanging needles of rock. Carefully, he made his way through the first crux, past the missing bolt (replacing temporarily by a scarily thin rope looper through a fragile looking tufa) to the final crux section. But Priapos had taken its toll,and this was to be left as a project....for the next trip! 

Looking out across the huge roof of the Grande Grotta, to a climber far out on Priapos
Still feeling like I had some energy left in my arms, I decided to have a go at Aphrodite (7a/+), a short route with a hard crux move. I misread this on the onsight, but quickly worked it out with a bit of beta from N and ticked the route second go. Walking down from the cave in the hot afternoon sun, arms and legs scarred from tufa wrestling, I finally felt that perhaps I could come to love the steep, intimidating tufas, with their good holds and unique, gymnastic style of climbing. And for me, that in itself was an achievement.

Spot the climber...

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