Climbing Cariocas

I went to Rio de Janeiro last November and I’m happy to tell you that every single stereotype about this energetic city is true. The beaches are packed with people wearing bathing suits that would get you arrested for public nudity in many US states. The city of Rio shouldn’t bother painting lanes on the roads (the locals find it way more fun to drive wherever they want and use the horn.) Don’t be surprised if someone tries to sell you something that belonged to someone else five minutes earlier. This place has spirit.

Rio is also a place of iconic images. The statue of Christ with arms stretched wide on the summit of Corcovado. Sugarloaf; the dramatic column of rock rising from the sea near Copacabana beach. The twin peaks called Two Brothers that resemble body parts in a Picasso (use your imagination.) Tourists jump into cable cars and trams in their pilgrimages to take the ultimate selfie atop these mountains. I chose a more challenging approach to reach the summit.

The first peak I wanted to climb was Sugarloaf. I found a local guide named Mingo willing to lead me up the classic route called ‘via dos Italianos’, named after the group of Italians that pioneered the First Ascent in 1981. Apparently these guys had a big night out prior to the climb, which had at least one consequence. The route ends before you get the the top because they figured the hard was behind them so there wasn’t much point climbing the rest (a bit like the port that the local authority started building 6 years ago near my house in Italy that remains, um, unfinished.)

On the approach to the base of Sugarloaf, Mingo described the climb, and indeed most of the climbing in Rio, as ‘delicate’. I really had no idea what he meant but looked at him with a knowing air of confidence. Shit. I should have read the route description. Turns out that ‘delicate’ face climbing means you’re constantly using fingertips and toes, and smearing with your feet like crazy. Not a crack in sight. You can’t jam into anything. There was apparently a nice flake you could hang off on the second pitch but it came lose and fell (with help) the year before. Super.

Although I came off the face twice, we made it to the top heading up ‘via Ferrata’ following on from ‘via dos Italianos’. The German tourists at the cable car station at the summit stopped taking pictures of Rio for a moment and started talking quietly among themselves as they stared at me and Mingo. The views from this climb were unbelievable and well worth the struggle.

On a final note, I thought I would compile a few ‘top tips’ for non-Brazilian climbers taking on some of Rio’s finest routes:

  • don’t panic if your local climbing partner looks really hung over – this is Rio… he probably is
  • don’t panic if your local climbing partner belays off a single anchor – this is Rio… it’ll be fine
  • don’t panic if your local climbing partner sings loudly in Portuguese – this is Rio… well, this is Rio
  • don’t panic when you finish a route and see Jesus – you’re not dead, this is Rio, he’s everywhere.


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