Barren rocks are great places for making new buddies.
Several weeks ago during a work meeting, I segued the conversation to rock climbing and was put in touch with a Rio native named Aloisio Viana, who promptly invited me to climb with him. Of course I accepted, then I got worried. I hadn’t climbed in a month, how would I keep up with Aloisio? I made an 11th hour visit to an indoor bouldering gym called Evolução (pictured left) in the neighborhood of Botofogo. There were only two people climbing that Friday morning: me, and a New York University professor here on sabbatical, who invited me to climb with him, too.
Prepped, the next morning I rendezvoused at Pão de Açúcar with Aloisio, who arrived with all our climbing gear. “Eu nao escalande em uma mes,” I said apologetically.
Aloisio said he’d gauge my skill level on an easy climb — fine by me — so we did a 20-meter (60-foot) route up the north face of Morro da Urca. Aloisio led, clipping into the bolts until about halfway up the route, and called for me to follow. On each end of the rope, what trust! He trusted that I could competently belay. I trusted him to do the same, and also to set a secure line. I followed. Trust was built. Etc, etc.
In the photo below I am climbing the second section of the route. In the background is the neighborhood of Urca jutting into Guanabara Bay.
That went well, so afterward we walked to the south side of Morro da Urca to an island with a bunch of 5.10-rated routes — several degrees harder than the 5.7ish route we first climbed. Aloisio led and set the line. He never fell, although at one point he yelled “take!” for me to hold the line while he rested before his final push to the mantle. He self-belayed down (I don’t think he totally trusted my belay skills) and then it was my turn. I fell. Repeatedly fell. Climbing here is so much different than in the US! These rocks have no real holds, just tiny nubs for your toes to touch and fingertips to grasp, which is called “face climbing.” Strength is useless on these routes without balance and technique.
My climb must have taken 20 minutes, at least twice as long as Aloisio. Here I am looking down, and then of the view behind me out to the Atlantic.
The following Saturday we again met at Morro da Urca and warmed up with a few bouldering routes. Here’s Aloisio expertly bouldering the length of a 10-meter (30-foot) horizontal route called Travessia Rio Terê, rated V2. Aloisio turned it into a five-minute-long V3 by going across and back without ever touching ground.
Warmed, we hiked a narrow dirt path to the approach of the more difficult 110-meter Coringa route (rated 5.8) up Pão de Açúcar. Here’s a nice interactive map of a number of the routes up the mountain, including Coringa.
Aloisio led until the final 15 meters, when he told me to climb ahead and set the line. This was my first time lead-climbing, which requires a higher level of mental focus, because it’s a bit scary. Each step makes the potential fall that much greater, as the rope stretches further and further until you reach the next clip. If I slipped, I would tumble a good 20 feet before the harness caught my fall. Aloisio coached me, saying, “doing good, Steve” and “you won’t fall, Steve, take it easy.” It was especially good mental preparation considering the situation I would find myself in the next day.
From the top of Coringa we connected to the Costão route — which I climbed two few weeks earlier — and summited Pão de Açúcar. At the top, I bought us each a celebratory can of Brahma, even if it wasn’t quite noon. We made plans to return the next day and climb the classic Italianos route up the west face of Pão de Açúcar.
Then it rained. The rock was too wet for a morning session, and a rainy forecast canceled any big wall climbs. So instead, once the rock dried off a bit by early afternoon, I returned alone to practice the bouldering route Travessia Rio Terê that Aloisio had flashed the day before. After a few attempts, another climber strolled up and said something in Portuguese. “Falla ingles?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, introducing himself as Andre Neves.
Turns out, Andre wrote the book on bouldering in Rio, literally. You’ll be able to find it soon online when he revives his old website, www.viacrux.nex. In his spare time, he is the executive producer of the online magazine NooTV. We spent some time on Travessia Rio Terê, and then Andre showed me a bunch of other bouldering routes around Urca. One great section was actually around a former hermit cave. The hermit was only evicted several years ago from his rock-lair, Andre said, showing me the smoke stains from the hermit’s kitchen stove.
That hermit story sounds a bit ridiculous — I swear it’s true!
After bouldering a few hours, Andre asked if I wanted to summit Pão de Açúcar on the Costão route and I of course said hell yes. We scrambled up to that 10-meter section of death, where I briefly wore a harness. All good. Then Andre suggested that I try a new route that veered off onto a steep rock ledge that required scrambling.
Andre led, pointing to where I should place my feet. Soon I was terrified. The scramble was not so much difficult as simply dangerous without a harness or ropes. I was balancing on the edge of a 60-degree ledge, holding onto a couple of nipple-sized nubs. If a toe slipped then I would slide several hundred meters into death. I began to lose my nerve, and I could feel my legs growing wobbly. In climbing parlance, this is called sewing machine legs, scissor legs, disco knees, or Elvis Presley syndrome.
“You’re almost there, Steve, c’mon!” Andre yelled. Translation: Nerves be damned, keep climbing!
Once past the dangerous section, we paused and I switched out of my climbing shoes and we each ate a granola bar on a ledge hanging 1,000 feet above the sea. Andre invited me to train with him and some of his climbing friends that Tuesday on a small indoor climbing wall at his house. More new buddies!