Kalymnos, a paradise for rock-climbers

«Why do you go rock-climbing?» ask friends who engage in what I think are far more dangerous sports. I keep trying to find a new, witty answer, but, in fact, I don’t know. It’s not for the adrenaline rush – I’ve never been an adrenaline junkie. Nor is it a sport that gets the social recognition of skiing or windsurfing. The average Greek doesn’t know the name of even one great Greek climber, whereas they all know the name of windsurfing champion Nikos Kaklamanakis. I wasn’t a fanatical tree-climber as a child, and in times of stress my nightmares – like everyone’s – are about endless falls into bottomless pits. But there is something that attracts me to climb rock faces in my free time. I don’t have a scientific explanation for it, and I prefer it that way, because I think that in some things we should follow our instincts. Rock-climbing in Europe started around the same time as mountaineering, which was favored by the elite, but soon broke away to become a sport for all. Nowadays, European and American rock-climbers are part of the sports star system. They appear in television spots and magazine covers, energetically advocating the sport. In Greece, climbing clubs and non-professional athletes have promoted this sport. In a country with intersecting mountain ranges, thousands of natural climbing sites, a huge range of rocks (each demanding a different style of climbing) and an ideal climate, rock-climbing is still seen as «charming folly,» as one Olympic medalist was heard to say, with few prospects of becoming a respected sport that brings honors, medals and revenue. Kalymnos is one of the the islands that lives partly on rock-climbing tourism. This gives the island an authentic air that has disappeared from many holiday destinations. The 15,000 permanent residents earn their living from fishing, sponge-diving, construction work (for which the Kalymniots are still renowned) and handicrafts. In the late 1990s, Aris Theodoropoulos conceived the idea of organizing a series of rock-climbing sites in Kalymnos. A climber since the age of 16, the trainer for the Greek Climbing and Rock-Climbing Federation, and a mountain guide with lots of experience on difficult climbs in Greece and abroad, he was quick to see the importance of linking rock-climbing with the beauties of the natural environment. Through years of systematic work and effective advertising abroad, he has succeeded in setting up 42 sites with more than 500 routes catering to all tastes and abilities, from the simplest to the most demanding. At the end of last summer, Kalymnos hosted the second international rock-climbing festival, with some of the biggest names in the sport participating. Already the island’s name is associated with an attractive image of holidays in Greece, where sea, sun and rock-climbing combine harmoniously. Kalymnos has 12 kilometers of shoreline perfectly suited to diving. It boasts underwater flora and fauna, caves, reefs, gulfs, shipwrecks and even a volcano. The latest news is that Kalymnos will become home to Greece’s first underwater park, which will be dedicated to diving and where fishing will be strictly prohibited. Since I don’t play football, have never shot a basket in my life and don’t have a clue about the rules of volleyball, my friends think I go rock-climbing out of snobbery, because they see it as a sport for the elite. They couldn’t be more wrong. Rock-climbing is a sport that really suits the Greek temperament. It is a sport for groups – the people who share a rope – but also a solitary sport, because apart from the rivalry with the other athletes, the most difficult opponent is yourself. You are the only one you have to outdo to improve. It’s a sport you can simply begin: You can follow easy routes by mimicking the instinctive movements of just climbing a ladder. Natural exercise You don’t need tedious hours of theory before you can take the first step (though that changes when you go up a level or two). It is a sport that aims for the top. This requires no deep analysis to show why it suits Greeks. It is also a marvelous, natural, isotonic exercise that – after a proper warmup – exercises all muscle groups without harming you or making you feel like a wreck the next day. It also contains a sense of danger, which appeals to those who like «men’s sports» – though the female rock-climbers I know are far more capable than the males who share the same rope. Statistically, however, rock-climbing is no more dangerous than skiing or horseback riding. The sport also puts climbers in touch with nature in its purest form, teaching them to respect its needs, desires and caprices. I had promised myself I would stay away from the islands for a while. I was bored with the relaxation of doing nothing, no matter how superb the emerald water at my feet. I was disappointed at walking along the most inaccessible shores and mountains of our islands and meeting only foreign visitors. I was fed up with the indifference of local communities toward anything but easy profits. But this summer I’ll go to Kalymnos. I’ll go rock-climbing, I’ll go diving, and when I’ve tired my body out enough (which won’t take long), I’ll stretch out and rest my spirit. And I’ll read once again the words of Dimitris Korres, one of the great figures in modern rock-climbing: «The beginning of a climb is the composition of a soundless melody. And its repetition might be likened to choreography without accompaniment, a choreography on the notes of the rock.» Perhaps we climb for the same reasons, after all.

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