Sun sea and stalactites

With the rheumy UK summer looking to be over before it had begun, I was surprised to get a call from my colleague Fran asking whether I would like to go to Kalymnos. Although the thought of a sun-drenched Greek island sounded good anyway, he explained that The North Face had offered to take us to their first Kalymnos Climbing Festival. It was a short conversation.

Vague notions of a competition started to worry us. When we found out it wasn’t just for the climbing glitterati and punters were expected to take part in an ‘Open Marathon’ we headed for the wall. An intense cramming training regime was devised and Foundry membership cards were dusted off. The few days of Peak summer sunshine were ignored, there would be enough of that later. What better way to prepare the body for never-ending overhanging pitches on nature’s silliest holds than pulling on greasy plastic crimps in Yorkshire?

Before we knew it the day had come and we were being told that we couldn’t choose which of the 250 free seats we wanted to sit in on the last Ryanair plane to Kos for the season. After arriving at the port the decision of whether to take the slow ferry or the fast ferry to Kaylmnos reared its ugly head. We took the slow ferry which was faster than the fast ferry and had a bar.

The island was decked out in Kalymnos Climbing Festival banners and even before we had arrived at our hotel somehow a tanned Swede with a rope had hitched a lift in our taxi and introduced himself. The atmosphere was thick with chalk dust, everywhere you looked someone was looking at a guidebook or playing with quickdraws. From the balcony of the rooms at the Apollonia Hotel you could see the neighbouring island of Telendos a short swim away, the beach three minutes below and enough gloopy limestone caves to last a lifetime.

View from Apollonia Hotel: Telendos, Masouri town & Grande Grotta just visible (right)

To give the other competitors a chance we headed straight to get some beer and kalamari, which we promptly made disappear. We were then presented with some more free beer and some free cake, probably some sort of competition handicap system. Gus from The North Face joined us and got our crag plan sorted out for the next day, but something was missing.

The next morning a trip to a scooter hire shop was in order, but Gus’ preferred option ‘the safest on the island’ had run out. So we went across the road and after making the difficult choice between red and yellow (red obviously) we were off. Well sort of, learning to ride with your boss sat pillion is a nerve wracking and cautious experience.

Having wasted enough morning to ensure a suitably ‘British start’ and a quick lesson in Mausori’s one-way system (and how best to ignore it like a local) it was time for some climbing. We had one day before the start of the competition and went to reccy the Iliada sector. It was very hot and walking in (and getting lost) uphill in the sun was a great way to lose all that pesky hydration and get to fighting weight.

Gus had cunningly brought us to an area which stays in the shade longer than most and incredibly manages to have three star 6a and three star 7c cheek by jowl. The rock was fantastically featured, the bolting friendly and the lower-offs all weighty steel wiregates. Given that the last thing I probably lowered off before the trip was the Windy Ledge tree and its karabiner stamped ‘NOT FOR CLIMBING’ this was a welcome sight. Fran too must have felt the stark contrast to the Peak as it wasn’t long before I heard ‘This is nothing like the sidepulls at Stoney!’ from above.

Climbing at Iliada with Masouri below

No indeed, it might even be said that it was better than the mighty Horseshoe Quarry. Somehow one day off in six, the midday sun and all those other excuses left me seriously pumped and I’m not sure that the pump really left my arms until I got back to England. Gus politely suggested that I had got flash pumped on my last hero burn. I was inclined to accept his assessment.

With this excellent last minute preparation in the bag, we headed to The North Face HQ to get registered. 20€ got you a competition entry, a nifty The North Face shoulder bag, t-shirt and travel canister, a Kong screwgate, some Climb On! and most importantly a drink token for the post-comp party.

That night I had trouble getting the air conditioning in the room to work. No bother, I thought, I’ll get a breeze the old fashioned way and save the planet at the same time and opened the balcony doors. I woke covered head to toe in bites in the morning and went to find the owner, Nik. He discreetly showed me how successfully closing those same doors activates the power to the bite prevention device.

After another late start to make sure the competition had a sporting chance, we scooted back up to Iliada to get ticking. The Open Marathon (3c - 7a) and Big Marathon (7a+ - 8a) competitions were simple, tick as many routes in your band as possible over two days. Three types of ascent were possible with points awarded for a clean ascent (onsight or otherwise), one with one rest and one with two or more rests. A complex algorithm also took account of the difficulty. With the emphasis firmly on hard graft, it was time to find some excuses.

With a few routes in the bag the sun was slowly creeping across the crag, queues started to form for the ever diminishing number in the shade. Suddenly an American well into his ticklist bellowed a panicked ‘Take! I’m off!’ to his girlfriend. Anticipating a juicy fall we all turned, climber, belayer and snacker alike. A moment passed. ‘Slack! Slack! I’m not off!’ Instant laughter. The atmosphere was genuinely friendly and everyone was enjoying themselves.

Odyssey and its sought after shade

We escaped to the popular Odyssey sector for a few more routes in the afternoon shade, though it was too late for me. I had paid the price for travelling fast and light without sun cream. After swapping Day1 scorecards for Day 2 ones at The North Face HQ we did the obvious thing and went in search of the Aegean’s answer to Jack Sparrow. Kalymnos regulars will know about ‘the pirate bar’, its ridiculously good beach views, its replica Black Pearl and eccentric staff. Sadly even pirate captains have days off, either that or the costume was in the wash.

Piratical row-boat beneath acres of quieter crags 10 minutes from Odyssey

We had alternated breakfast venue between rival cafés who provided: Greek warmth (a smile and a handshake upon crossing the threshold) and Scouse humour (‘What the **** is a Greek omlette?’). That morning we braced ourselves for a dose of home. Suitably chastised and with just one day left we made the obligatory visit to the Grande Grotta. That Grotta is seriously Grande.

Grande Grotta with Afternoon (left) and Panorama (right)

Gus hopped straight on the classic DNA, which with a measly 20m of seriously steep tufa wrestling is considered a quick warm-up (its extension is 50m). Fran and I headed just right to the neighboring Panorama sector for some moderately more forearm friendly fare. However note that the any use of the word slab in the guidebook is relative, very relative. We were treated to a lesson in how coax someone out of a no-hands rest that they desperately need by Eneko Pou (increasingly loud shouts of ‘A muerte!’ if you’re interested).

With a few more ticks, well sort of, we nipped out of the sun to Afternoon, which unsurprisingly gets shade in the afternoon and was very busy. With the deadline for returning scorecards looming, almost every route had someone on it. A goat made an appearance and craftily surveyed the distracted scene. The minor celebrity picked an unattended bag and gracefully removed and emptied a packet of biscuits on the floor. For a starter it ate the plastic packaging, then the biscuits for a main and still wanting dessert found a scorecard nearby and ate that too.

Lock up your scorecards!

Despite being sun burnt, bitten, dehydrated and physically spent I was still smiling. Scorecards were dropped off and it was time to enjoy the jammed poolside party with pros and punters, locals and foreigners, priests and non-priests. After an epic display of oratory from the mayor of Kalymnos, traditional dancing, a Greek buffet, prize giving ceremonies and several speeches the music started. Gus had people jumping in the pool in no time and for the record don’t get in a dance-off with Nico Favresse, you’ll lose.

Anyone could sign up to climb with the pros for the final day of the festival. A few routes were done at Kasteli, the world’s best hangover crag, in the morning and we watched Hervé Barmasse ‘Venga!’ someone up their first 6a with smiles all round. All in all it was a fantastic trip to a fantastic place. The crags were easily accessible, the routes fantastic, the atmosphere on the island from just about everyone was unrelentingly positive and I didn’t drop the scooter. Big thanks to Gus, Helen and everyone at The North Face for making it happen.

Gabriel is the Web Editor for Outside

By Gabriel Morrison
Web Editor

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Gabriel Morrison
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