In 1897 Salomon August Andrée, a Swedish engineer, believed that he could reach the North Pole by flying in a hydrogen balloon. Not long after Andrée and his fellow explorers took off on their adventure, things went miserably wrong. Fog froze on the balloon dragging it down as they ‘flew’ only feet above the ice pack. Sadly Andrée died in the attempt, but he does have a nice Wikipedia page. In the same spirit of discovery I went rock climbing in the Aeolian Islands, however, no one is going to create a Wikipedia page for me after this little adventure.
The Aeolian Islands are a volcanic archipelago where ancient eruptions of molten geology solidified into some of the most fascinating cliffs I have ever seen. To any rock climber they are a frustrating tease. Most of these faces descend straight into the sea, preventing the ambitious climber from ever accessing their cracks, curves, and spectacular overhangs.
I’ve spent hours on my boat wondering how these cliffs could be climbed, searching for routes, and considering the logistical challenges. This year my theoretical curiosity was overcome by the spirit of exploration and folly. Rock climbing would arrive in the Aeolian Islands.
There is one spot on the south end of Salina (one of the islands) that has a beautiful cliff with a narrow beach at the bottom. As one of the rare faces that does not drop directly into the sea, it was the logical place to explore first. I could free-solo up a section of the cliff with the equipment, set the anchors, drop the line, repel down and then belay my friends from the beach.
For some reason, I thought the initial step of getting equipment from the boat to the bottom of the cliff would be an administrative trifle. I had pictured myself confidently swimming from the boat to the shore while hoisting a 20kg pack of climbing gear above my head. I’m such an idiot. As soon as I took the pack off the boat I headed straight for the bottom. I almost lost my bathing suit trying to keep the pack out of the water with the frantic gymnastics going on with my legs. When I eventually flung the pack on shore, everything was wet. Thankfully I was spared the humiliation of nude rock climbing.
Climbing up the cliff face went according to plan. The wet pack was the weight of a large Italian man (after a wedding reception), but I managed not to fall. The task now was to find an anchor point above the beach without knowing if I was in the right spot. I yelled down to the guys on boat looking for reassurance that everything was lined up. “Yep, you’re good.” I set up two anchors and threw the line down. “Splash”. Really? I chucked the line right into the sea and now have serious doubts that my friends really speak English.
I repelled down the line to find myself at the bottom standing on slippery rocks in about 1 metre of water. The waves gently lapping against my harness. I waved over one of my friends on the boat, helped him put on his harness, then asked him to belay me up the face while I tried to find some descent routes. “Is this going to work?” he asked. “Sure. Sure. It’ll all be fine.”
There are no instructional videos on YouTube about climbing while partially submerged in sea water. Better off checking out the last Mission Impossible movie. Getting out of the water involves putting your feet onto ledges that are covered with slime. I immediately stepped on a sea urchin and ended up with spines in my toes. Both feet. These things takes months to get out.
I did get out of the water, and I did climb up about 15 metres before calling a halt to the proceedings. The wet rope would not run through the belay device, and my friend Steven was getting pruny feet standing in sea water for so long. We almost drowned getting the equipment back on the boat, and then promptly headed for a bar.
The fish are still laughing.
PS This ridiculous first day has been followed by far more intelligent attempts to climb over on another island called Basiluzzo. Spectacular routes and amazing climbing. More to follow….