Feb 16, 2021

I've Climbed The Cursed Cliffs of Kalymnos


Aris Theodoropoulos

You just want to climb—you need to climb.

A big part of climbing is pure instinct; if you think about it, we climb before we can walk. When I was younger I was also motivated by a challenge, be it a harder grade or a first ascent. Now that I’m older I’m mostly in it for the beauty—being present, enjoying the moves, climbing natural lines. And always, always passing down knowledge to others. Being a teacher is one of the greatest motivations. When I became a mountain guide at 28, I was one of the first in the country. At 54, I am now one of the most senior. I guess that makes me an old dog, though I definitely don’t feel old.

I am from a small town named Xylókastro. It’s about 1.5 hours southwest of Athens, and not far from the city of Corinth. My hometown is built along the coast of the Corinthian Gulf and it is backed by Mt. Kyllini (also known as Mt. Ziria). The beach was within walking distance from my house, but I chose the mountains over the beach every time. At the time, we didn’t have any sophisticated equipment or official training; we pretty much improvised. Until 1997, when Kalymnos was discovered, I spent the bulk of my time climbing and developing routes in Varásova (a 900m limestone face dropping into the sea on the west coast of Greece) and Metéora (an out-of-this-world venue with conglomerate towers in the plains of Central Greece), or climbing at Mont Blanc.

When I heard about the cliffs of Kalymnos, my first reaction was disbelief. I had been to Kalymnos before en route to Symi island, which is farther south and also has some cliffs, but the port of Kalymnos, which was the only part I’d seen, showed no sign of the magnificence hiding in plain sight on the west coast. Still, I was eager to give it another chance. So I came to Kalymnos for the second time in 1999. I went straight to the west coast…and my jaw dropped. It was unbelievable. Caves, stalactites, immaculate gray limestone faces, wild beauty, all near the road, all with incredible views of the sea, all concentrated within a small area… It was like meeting the woman of your dreams: one look at her and you just know.

Credit: Nikolaos Smalios

Almost nothing grows on Kalymnos—it is bone-dry and the terrain is steep, so not much can thrive here besides woody herbs, fig trees, and goats.

This has pushed Kalymnians to the sea for centuries, and they’ve made a name for themselves as divers and fishermen. According to local lore, the gods sifted earth through a fine-mesh sieve to create this cluster of islands. They sprinkled the island of Kos, which is only thirty minutes away by boat, with glimmering golden sand. Then they looked down at the sieve and saw all these pieces of rock sitting there—so they just flung the rocks over their shoulders and Kalymnos was born. So the locals did feel cursed, at least until the climbers showed up. It has become my second home. Kalymnos has given me everything that matters: some of the best rock in the world; the most welcoming community; the chance to make a real difference in people’s lives; a sense of purpose; and a sense of awe for the beauty of this world. There is no place in the world I’d rather be.

While a climbing gym offers convenience, a fully controlled environment, and an excellent way to train for strength, climbing outdoors introduces the element of the unknown. It requires time (at least half a day); problem-solving skills (footholds and handholds are not color-coded or always obvious); excellent belaying skills (one of the most important aspects of safe climbing); rope skills not easily or rarely taught in the gym; and a general crag/outdoor etiquette which may not be intuitive for gym climbers. Transitioning from indoor to outdoor climbing can be tricky, but on Kalymnos, the bolting is very user-friendly, the rock is very solid, the routes and crags are quite easy to find, and there is a great variety of climbing styles and grades for all climbers, regardless of skill level.

Climbing teaches us that it’s okay to be afraid. To keep moving, even if it looks like there’s nowhere to go. Climbing forces you to be in the moment, to get rid of all distractions and to focus on the task at hand; I think that’s a pretty good rule to live by.

Credit: Aris Theodoropoulos, Pictured: François Legrand

One of the most interesting, but definitely not most difficult, is “Frapógalo” 6c (5.11a) at sector Secret Garden.

It is hard to find so many rock features, variety, and fun moves at such a relatively low grade (6c/5.11a is middle-of-the-road difficult). The route starts off at quite a steep angle on limestone full of tufa blobs, which is a type of 3D rock formation that Kalymnos is famous for. The tufa blobs on the 1st half are full of massive handholds (steep angle + massive holds = gym-style route). Then comes the crux (the hardest move), in the shape of a long rightward move to reach a large stalactite which defies gravity as it protrudes from the rock like a giant mushroom.

Once you reach the giant mushroom you can enjoy a sit-down rest. (Incidentally, this tufa “saddle” inspired the route name: Frapógalo is an awful-but-ubiquitous instant coffee that people bring with them to the cliffs because it is so portable. So the idea was that the sit-down rest on this massive tufa is so comfortable, you could even enjoy your coffee while you sit there.) Anyway, after you have recuperated mid-way up the route, the angle eases on the second half—but it is no less interesting. For the remainder, you need balance and good tufa-column technique up until the very last move and the final clip.  

Translated by Katie Roussos

Aris Theodoropoulos

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