Friday morning I stumbled through the doors of the plane after an all night flight, legs numb from the cramped seats, and shuffled through gates and checkpoints, shaking my head up or down, answering yes or no as I was prodded with question after question pertaining to the reason for my visit. I expected the heat to be oppressive but was pleasantly surprised to find the weather agreeable and fairly dry. I couldn’t think of much except the anticipation of the climb the following day.

The first thing you notice about this amazing city is that it’s encased by huge, foreboding walls, stunning mountains, and deep, dense rainforest all that finally open up to the sea on the most amazing beautiful stretches of beaches that gently slope and relax into the warm, waiting arms of the Atlantic. I only had 6 days for vacation so I planned for at least 3 days of climbing, 2 days inside the city and one peak located between the towns of Petrópolis and Teresópolis, about 2 hours away in the Parque Nacional da Serra Parnaso.

On Saturday, I planned to initiate myself into Brazilian rock and climb one of the classic routes on Sugarloaf, a nine pitch climb called the Italian Route. I couldn’t convince any of my climbing partners to go to Rio with me but I was lucky enough to hook up with some local climbers over the Internet. My partners on the climb were to be Fernando, an experienced Brazilian climber and owner of the local climbing school in the area, and Fabio, an instructor for both NOLS and Outward Bound. We met at my hotel at 7:30 and soon we were rushing through the early Rio morning, weaving through a landscape of small Fiats and Volkswagens, racing the crashing waves down the main beach strips through the heart of Corcovado, and past the numerous Favelas (slums) until, at last, we were speeding toward Sugarloaf, a large mountain jutting 1,319 feet upward from the sea.

We parked in the lot near the square a little after 8:00 AM and walked along the paved path that runs parallel to the beach and leads directly to the trailhead. We spent a few minutes chatting in the square with several locals, the main gathering spot for most climbers. We also stopped on the beach for a moment to relax and for me a chance to take in the views. We struck up a conversation with an older man, wrinkled by the sun, driven by a smile, and carried by his boisterous laugh. He was holding a coconut in his hand from which he was drinking Coco Gelato (Coconut milk). One glance at me and he knew I was an American. He turned to Fabio and asked,
“Sim,” responded Fabio.
He turned back to me and blurted out through a thick Portuguese accent
“You my friend…you are climbing in paradise.”

We hiked for about 30 minutes or so through lush rainforest and were deposited at the base of the climb. There were several other parties waiting for the climb and one party on the first pitch of the route. We gathered our gear and slowly prepared to follow the next party up the route. The first pitch of the route is around 150 ft long and begins up a small crack for about 15 to 20 feet then moves right on the face were you can leverage some small, slanty holds and lots of smearing and edging. Mostly face climbing, the first pitch is a solid 5.9 and ends at a hanging belay. The route is bolted but they bolts are less abundant and further apart than what I’ve typically experienced in the United States.

As we began the next pitch the exposure slowly crept up on me due to the lack of any obstruction between my ass and the ground. A good level of machismo exists with the men in Brazil and you can feel the bravado reverberate between the climbers for anyone moving too slowly or anyone showing the smallest amount of fear. The second pitch was around the same difficulty and the same type of climbing. I found it a tiny bit easier, but I simply believe it was from getting used to the smearing and edging required to climb more efficiently on this type of rock. This was another long pitch around 160 ft. It could have been broken into two pitches but it was fairly well protected with many of the bolts close together (for Rio standards). After some more climbing, finally, we arrived at the first large ledge, the end of the standard route. There was still some climbing above to the summit but a bolted cable and easy scrambling to the top made the rest of the route fairly unappealing.

We decided to join the Secundo route which begins with two short pitches that traverse out left. The second traverse was quite airy and the belay for the pitch hung us directly over a very exposed drop. Both traverses were relatively easy, the first feeling close to a 5.6 and the second around 5.7. The end of the second traverse put us on a decent sized block, large enough to rest all three of our butts. This was the start to one of the last pitches called the Sea of Holds. Let’s just say that the name isn’t as directly associated to the climb as I would have liked. I expected some large holds along the way but only found little crimpers – much better than the other pitches as far as handholds are concerned. This was an outstanding pitch, very long at 200 ft. As I climbed the last 100 ft of the pitch, my feet began to feel the stress from the hours of constant smearing. We arrived at the top of the pitch where you can see the summit and the hundreds of tourists mulling around, looking off into the distance at the city and the amazing view of Corcovado, the mountain with the famous Christ Statue.

We could have simply utilized a cable that goes to the top of the cliff to finish the climb. However, there was a great little 5.9 alternate finish that Fernando suggested we should do. This seemed easier than 5.9 to me but at the time I was feeling so good the adrenaline rush could have given me some extra lift. The alternate traversed back left to a slightly over hanging wall which caused my back to lean pretty far out while making the move through the crux and then finally I mantled up onto a ledge. From there a simple scramble to the top put us near the railings and a cold, refreshing Skoal – the Budwiser of Rio. The climb itself took about 4 to 5 hours and we were headed back down on the cable car a little after 2:00 PM. We showed the operator our ropes and he let us on the car for free.

The next day I was shooting for two shorter climbs: Gavea’s Neddle and Corcovado. Gavea’s Neddle was interesting because the summit is a huge plateau that they run paragliding trips off the top, which you can schedule after you climb. I was ready to climb at 7:00 AM again but the night before we were hit with a tremendous rain storm that made the climbing nasty and pretty much impossible. We decided to hold off until the afternoon to see if the rock would dry up. The sun was pretty strong for most of the day so around 2:00 PM, we bushwhacked to the base of the classic route on Corcovado, another 5.8-5.9 that’s about 4 pitches long. This is definitely a bushwhacking adventure and we were scarred from the sharp fauna by the time we reached the base of the climb. On the way we passed a part of the wall that had several difficult bolted routes. Most were around 5.11.

Corcovado is actually the largest peak in the sprawling urban area of Rio and offers numerous long routes including some big wall action. The route we were climbing was much shorter. The rock is Granite and the first pitch is a dihedral that is rated around 5.7. It felt right on as far as rating is concerned and I was pretty happy to be jamming my tiny little digits into a crack and doing several laybacks after the day before of pure face climbing. We traversed over and started up the second pitch to discover nothing but slime and wetness. The route was just too wet to continue up and we decided to bail. We rapped down and hiked out the same way.

Rio, as I quickly discovered, is a remarkable city with open, fun, beautiful souls. Much like certain areas of Europe, dinner is served fairly late, around 10:00 pm, and the nightlife doesn’t begin until much later. Many Caipirinhas later, I was out enjoying much of what the city offers…but that’s another report.

Monday morning we went to the street market, vendors screaming and peddling their fresh wares. One man ran up to me and ripped a Mango open shoving the rich, dripping fruit into my hands, motioning for me to try. This was truly the best piece of fruit I’ve ever had.

Tuesday, my final climbing day, I was aiming for Dedo-de-Dues (God’s Finger). An amazing spire with an elevation of about 5,400 feet, located several hours outside Rio. This is a long day and, as I was forewarned, takes about fourteen hours round trip with the drive. We hit the road at about 5:00 AM and it was an hour and half drive with no traffic to the park. We decided to do the most popular line which is rated 5.7, a classic, old style, grunt line that winds itself around the mountain through chimneys and crevices. There was a 5.10 route that we were eyeing but we could see from the road it was still to wet to try, due to the rain the day before.

The trail head is actually fairly tricky to find and we almost started up the wrong trail, which could’ve cost us several hours in bushwhacking. Once we located the right trailhead, we immediately were huffing and puffing up a very steep grade that never eased until an hour and a half later when we were standing at the base of the slabs and the beginning of the technical climbing. The slabs run for several hundred feet and are sparcely bolted to protect only the cruxes. They are also lined with bolted cables which we anxiously grabbed hold of so we could easily pass up this section. The slabs were still very wet and at some points I found my feet slipping all over the rock. After we passed the cables, we once again immersed ourselves into the dense jungle and some steep sections, mostly protected with cables. The Rainforest in the section is quite astonishing with several different types of Bamboo, some sharp enough to rip your clothing. There also is an abundance of, what I thought was, abnormally large Venus fly traps, which I stayed away from like the plague. OK, so I saw The Little Shop of Horrors one too many times as a kid!

About an hour later, we eventually wound our way to a ridge were we stopped to refuel and re-rack. The climb continued up the ridge for several hundred feet and the views of the surrounding mountains were breathtaking as we slowly left the forest behind. Happy to be on solid rock and not muddy jungle, we raced up around corners and through crevices, up exposed edges and ridges, all of it 5.5-5.7 climbing but pretty much alpine oriented (of course, minus the cold and snow) until we reached a highly technical looking section that swung out over a very exposed edge and gave us a great feeling of the height we had just gained in such a short period of time. At this point we had to haul our small pack because it was difficult to work the next section of the route, with its sloping overhanging edges, carrying the pack. The end of this pitch put us in the first of three narrow and long chimneys. Having little experience in chimney climbing I was very hesitant at first but found myself moving up fairly quickly, that is until the chimney narrowed about 40 feet up. After much, grunting, huffing, and puffing, I was finally able to worm my way out of the hole. Of course my knees still have not forgiven me. I did learn a few techniques during that first chimney that helped for the next two, which were somewhat shorter. Before we knew it we were only a few pitches away from the summit. The wind started picking up and the temperature was dropping.

During the final two hours of climbing the skies had sprayed us with some moisture that was now threatening to become a serious downpour. We threw on our parkas and darted up the final technical pitch which ended at a metal ladder that connected the separated edge that we were on to the summit of God’s Finger. Standing on the summit I was struck by the richness of the rock and for the life of the “most important mountain in Brazilian mountaineering history.” A plaque was on the summit that described the first ascent by several local villagers from the near town of Teresópolis. None of them were climbers or new of basic climbing techniques but they decided to try to summit the mountain after several failed attempts from foreigners. It is said this amazing feat and subsequent success of the party was the genesis of Brazilian climbing.

The rain began to hit us pretty hard on our descent which was mostly made up of numerous rappels, a lot of groveling through mud covered trails, and bushwhacking through wet bamboo and leaves. It was a fairly steep down climb through many of the trails and I was happy the fixed cables existed to get us down some of the steeper sections. We poked our tired heads out of the forest at around 5:00 PM as our weary feet hit pavement and we meandered the final hundred yards to the parking lot of the grocery store where we first parked early that morning. We immediately changed our wet clothes and about an hour later we were stuck in Rio rush hour heading back into the heart of the city.

That night, I stayed up until about 5:00 AM and got up early enough to spend the majority of the day driving around and soaking up every remaining ounce of Rio. I sat on the beach, drank Coco Gelato, experienced the Hype Fair (hippie market) and ate some amazing Brazilian fare. I didn’t want the day to end and I sure wasn’t looking forward to getting onto the plane at 10:00 PM. It’s only been a few weeks now and I am sure the thoughts will soon fade, but as I walk home from work down 43rd street, I imagine the buildings in Times Square are the peaks and walls surrounding Rio and that I am back embraced by the warmth of the southern sun. I think about the climbs and the friends I’ve gained in such a short period of time. And I wonder where the old man we met on the beach is? If I saw him again I would tell him he was right.

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