Dec 2013: Rio Big

My first climb up the iconic 700-meter western face of Pão de Açúcar took a bit over five hours, via the routes Italianos (rated 5.9) and Secundo (rated 5.8). My second time up the same mountain was nearly an hour faster.

I can understand how familiarity on the route allows for quicker climbing. But I cannot fathom how local American-Brazilian climber Andrew Lenz raced up the same route in a record 27 minutes. He simul-climbed it with a buddy, meaning they climbed it simultaneously while tethered together at either end of a 30-meter rope, and neither ever took a break. Lenz climbs the route almost weekly as a guide and instructor, but still.

I climbed the route each time with my buddy Aloisio, who said his personal record on this route is about two and 1/2 hours. He led and set our protections and anchors and never once rested between bolts, much less slip or fall while I belayed him. I, however, fell repeatedly, failing to see how Aloisio had easily floated up the crux or how Lenz raced up the mountain in 27 minutes total. I’m so weak!

The western face of Pão de Açúcar is a beautiful, classic climb in Rio de Janeiro. The route is almost directly below a cable car that motors to the summit (and which is free to climbers going down, so long as you can climb up using your own manpower).

One section along Secundo was particularly challenging mentally because it required an unprotected 15-meter traverse, meaning that if I fell, I’d swing down like a 15-meter-long pendulum, grinding over the cheese-grater rock-face. I told Aloisio I was too scared to keep moving, that he had to add another protection to the traverse so that my potential fall wouldn’t be so far.

“Steve, c’mon,” he said, “put your left foot down and your left hand over, I’ve got you, you won’t fall.” And if I did fall, it’d be a memento to bring home from Rio de Janeiro. I gulped big and climbed on. My legs were shaking. But I was ultimately fine.

After that pitch came an 80-meter section that required us to simul-climb. Aloisio led, quickly disappearing from view and ear-shot. When the 60-meter rope was finally taught (meaning Aloisio, who was tied into the other side of the rope, was exactly 60 meters above me), I started climbing as well, not knowing where Aloisio was or if he was secure, and without anyone but me to coach myself along the tougher sections.

“I don’t know if I like this,” I found myself saying. But afterward, I was immediately plotting my next time on Pão de Açúcar. That night as I slept, I found myself repeatedly jolted awake thinking I was still on the mountain.

The first time we climbed was a busier day on the mountain, and we waited 30 minutes before the route cleared for us to start. A two-person group immediately began tailing, with their lead climber coming dangerously close and bolting himself into our anchor (the more people on an anchor, the higher chance of something breaking or coming lose) and overall being an annoying distraction from what should be a controlled and calm experience.

The second time was overcast and forecast for thunderstorms, and we were the only ones willing to risk rain (which held off until just as we summited, although a few sprinkles and some heavy gusts had me worried about potentially being stuck on a slippery rock 600 meters up).

Up the backside of Pão de Açúcar is an easier route is called Costão — this was the first route I climbed in Rio three months ago. It begins with a half-mile hike through the jungle, then a steep ascent up a granite slab, and finally comes one short vertical section of grade 5.7.

My first four times up Costão, I was on belay. Then I went alone. I’d seen people do the route “free-solo,” without a rope, which a warning sign advises against. I ascended ropeless and came to the crux, which I had rehearsed mentally — a high left-leg stretch and strong right-arm reach — and trusted my feet.

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