Sunday, January 20, 2019

In search of world-class winter climbing

Does a world class winter climbing venue actually exist? Still not convinced it does.
Winter is when I have vacation time each year, so Kyle and myself set off on our annual search for the best winter climbing venues.

First stop this year was Leonidio, Greece, which was supposed to be the "best winter climbing venue in Europe". Greece got hit with “Storm Sophia” this winter, which brought epic rain and cold weather to most of the country. As a result, our sunny climbing vacation to Leonidio, Greece was rather washed out as many of the (good) rocks were seeping and weather was cold/wet. Luckily we were able to find some dry stuff to climb and milked the sunny days for all they were worth. We also timed our trip with X-mas holidays, thus witnessing the craziest climbing crowds I’ve ever seen, made worse by limited dry rock. Very hard to complain though as we were in beautiful Greece. And wet rocks really aren't that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, especially after watching local farmers nearly in tears whilst desperately trying to move water out of their flooded fields.

Rain brings rainbows :)
Regardless of rain, this trip was a delight. Leonidio is a beautiful and friendly town surrounded by mountains, red cliffs, small farms and sea. Greek food is my absolute favourite and was undoubtedly a trip highlight. The way life in small-town Greece just makes sense to me, they literally live and eat off the land. They farm oregano, goat, chicken, fish, honey, almonds, oranges, olives, olive oil, fresh vegetables, and all of their meals end up being delightful combinations of all of the above. Goats wander through the roads in giant herds with dogs and sheep herders close behind, oregano grows wild on the hillsides and fills the air with a strong herbal scent, sounds of goat bells, roosters and locals zipping around in scooters create the soundtrack for the daytime. Everything is just simpler in small town Greece. Weather and climbing became less and less significant as we grew to appreciate the beauty of where we were. Its not all about the climbing after all.

Leonidio, Greece
Our little yellow car "Kitronis Legolas" stood out from the white rental crowds

Leonidio town square with the giant red cliffs that guard the town from weather and invaders.  

Elona Monestary

Elona Monastery 

Our home for our trip with beautiful sea and cliff vistas

Wandering around the amazing Voidokilia Beach on an icy cold New Years Day

Voidokilia Beach all to ourselves

We ate like kings!

Yes we did do some climbing! In fact we had incredible weather to start our trip, but still many of the best crags were soaked. The climbing was good, but honestly it was also shit at times. I would do one of the best routes I've ever climbed and one of the worst in the same day. The character of the climbing varied from grey slabs to steep tufas and it was more bouldery than expected. We spent the first week adapting to the rock, and I soon found a mini-project that I left my draws on. Weather then made a permanent turn for the worst and it got cold/rainy for the rest of our trip. We bailed out from Leonidio to check out beaches on the other side of the peninsula where the weather was a bit better, and hoped to return to better weather in Leonidio. Instead, we returned to worse conditions and I threw my neck out. Our friend Greg Williamson then arrived with his two kids and hanging out with them was a welcome distraction to the weather. He is such a great guy and his daughters are both incredibly sweet and talented. Gracey is an absolutely gifted climber and Mackenzie is a super talented musician, already making money as an artist.

Greg Williamson crushing rigs at Hada Cave
Gracey Williamson following in the footsteps of her dad
Like father like daughter :)

I still had many memorable sends and onsight battle's this trip. The most memorable route was undoubtedly “Charaktis” 5.13+, the route I left draws on earlier in our trip. I didn’t return to it for 2 weeks due to weather/my neck/travelling. We finally had enough of wet rock and decided to return to the climb to get my draws down and bail to Spain. I didn’t have high expectations of sending, but to my surprise I fell super high on the route first go. I worked out better beta and on my next try something really clicked. I've been struggling with the way I talk to myself when I climb ever since I got really sick a couple years ago. I continue to expect disappointment as it had become "my pattern", but I am healthy now, not sick and in the best shape of my life. This last try I changed the negative talk and said “YES” every single move right to the top, leaving no room for negativity to consume me. SO simple yet so effective. It's like I "YES'd" myself right out of that cycle and have since slipped into a trance of living in the YES and appreciating each moment, not fearing the next. This was a memorable send because I feel like it was the end of a long streak of injury/health setbacks that have put me into that cycle of negativity. Psyched to break the cycle! 

Chipotle 5.12d at Twin Caves

Crazy tufas at Twin Caves

Fighting the pump on the spoon fed flash of Chipotle 5.12d, props to Greg.

Amazing rock at Mars sector, that one day it was dry....

Kyle doing it for the gram at a very wet Vlychada

Gracey Williamson dances up rocks at Hada
Knee bar no hands on the send of Charaktis 5.13+

A perfect finish to our first trip to Leonidio, and most certainly not our last. We enjoyed our last two days in Leonidio, not climbing, but soaking up every ounce of Greek culture that we could before leaving. Also known as eating copious amounts of baklava, feta, lamb, eggplant, etc.. lol. We have just arrived in Chulilla Spain and how long we stay depends on weather but this place is magic!
I wanted to offer some advice for planning a trip to Leonidio, Greece that can hopefully help other folks plan their own trip... our trip there was from end of December to mid January


Climbing Season:
Personally, I would not describe Leonidio as a “winter destination”. It is doable in the winter as it is located in one of the warmest parts of Greece. with some sunny crags. In the future, I would go in spring or late summer to late fall. In December through February the rocks tend to seep and they also get a fair amount of rain fall in Leonidio. There have been winters where it is drier but based on what I was told by locals, it is like rolling the dice. If you do plan a trip in the winter, your main spots to climb would be Twin Caves, Theos Cave, Limeri, Kamares, Hot Rocks, Hada (right side), Skiadianiko, and Mars (all of which were still quite wet during our trip) and a few others.

Climbing style:
Many of the routes in the 5-6c range are slabby/facey grey rock, Mars being an exception. 6c+ and up climbing tends to have more tufa features. There is a good variety of styles and grades in Leonidio: steep, face, slab, tufas, blobs, crimps, pockets, etc. A lot of the climbing we did had very defined boulder problems but there were endurance based routes as well. The bolting was interesting, very well bolted most of the time, but often there were squeeze jobs (routes really close to each other), an awkward anchor clip, or an uncharacteristic run-out.  The climbs weren’t as long as expected and you could get by with a 70m rope on most of the climbing, especially as extensions often had mid-anchors. Most extensions were wet for us though.

Cliff Aspect:
There are many cliffs in the sun, shade or both. The best cliff in Leonidio is hands down Elona which is high in the mountain and in the shade all day, as is Nifada. Both these cliffs were mostly un-climbable for our entire trip due to seepage. Twin Caves is another classic cliff (albeit crazy busy) and has all day sun. The other best cliffs offer a bit of both sun and shade.

Driving, Approaches and Accessibility:
Leonidio is very accessible from Athens, just a 3.5hr drive. Having a car to get around is a necessity, especially a small car as roads are super narrow in town; and if you have never driven in a Greek town you will quickly discover how narrow. Many people fold in their side view mirrors for driving/parking in town, and often you will have to reverse and pull aside to let another car through. If you chose to not rent a car, you will be very limited to where you can climb. Climbing approaches can vary from a flat 2 minutes to a steep 45 minutes. The bases of many of the climbing areas were not very accessible for families with small kids as they would sit high on a terrace, or slippery slab. There would also be rock fall from the top of the cliff as goats often knock rocks off. 
Helmets are HIGHLY recommended while belaying or walking around the base.

Accommodation and Food:
There are many different apartments, rooms and studios are available for rent in Leonidio, Plaka (5mins from Leonidio) and Poulithra (10mins from Leonidio), all of which are good base camps for your stay. Greek food is amazing! Eat what the server says is fresh that day, or take their recommendations on traditional meals, these were always the best culinary experiences for us. Highlights are Kalamata olives, thyme honey, baklava, fresh oregano, feta cheese, yogurt, eggplant dishes, lamb/souvlaki, pork belly, octopus, rooster, whole fish, mountain greens, ouzo. Best restaurant was hands down Myrtoons in Poulithra, it is right on the ocean with amazing service and food.

We found that they really appreciated when you tried to speak Greek but many people in Leonidio can speak English and are happy to. I still think it is polite to learn how to greet someone and say your please and thank you’s!

Hello/good bye=Yassas
Please/You’re welcome= Parakalo
Thank You= Efkhareesto
Yes= Nay
English= Aggleeka
I don’t understand (Greek)= Then Katalaveno (Aleneeka)

Greeks take a “siesta” from 3pm-5pm so you will notice most stores will close then (except coffee shops). They also eat dinner a lot later than North Americans (8:30pm earliest). The town has adapted to tourists though and many restaurants (“Tavernas”) open earlier now. Sunday is a day of rest/religion so many things will be closed as well.

Guide book:
Two books are available. The Leonidio book is the one I would recommend as it is more current for Leonidio in particular. You can purchase it at Pangika cooperative in town. If you plan to travel around Greece and check out other areas then I would get the Greece guide book by Aris (does not include Kalymnos, you need a separate book for there). You can get this book at a place called “Walk 4 Fun” in town and a couple specialty shops.

Hope this helps!
Stay tuned for updates on beautiful Chulilla, Spain :)

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