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Between a Rock and a Far Place
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Sep 12, 2003, 4:29 PM
Post #1 of 2 (1902 views)

Registered: Jan 4, 2001
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Between a Rock and a Far Place
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Between a Rock and a Far Place
.......Learning to climb a tiny Mediterranean island's vast cliffs.
--By Stephanie Booth

Hanging by my fingertips 70 feet above the ground is the last place I ever thought I'd be for fun. But here I am, learning to rock climb in Malta's Wied Babu, a narrow valley of limestone cliffs just a mile from the island's southwestern coast. The bluff I face is studded with purple pom-poms of flowers, and delicate lemon- and vanilla-colored butterflies flutter about my head as if I'm the newest exotic plant to emerge from the rocky crevices. If I crane my neck, I can just make out the gauzy blue of the Mediterranean. Although my fingers are burning and my legs shaking, I have to admit: I've picked exquisite surroundings in which to be terrified.
Malta may have a reputation as a sun-and-sea destination, but it's a virtually undiscovered haven for rock climbers. Thousands of years ago, this cluster of islands just south of Sicily was little more than the peaks of submerged mountains. But thanks to a series of tectonic plate movements, its bluffs are now hundreds of feet above water and ripe for climbing.

I've put off learning to rock climb for years. In my 20s, I honestly didn't have the time; since reaching 30, procrastination has given way to intimidation. I've dreaded walking into a climbing gym and asking what a carabiner is for while seasoned pros scuttle up the walls past me. My trip to Malta was inspired by the prospect of visiting a completely different kind of rock—the kind used in tempju (Neolithic temples that predate even the Egyptian pyramids). But when a cab driver proudly pointed out that much of the island is a natural climbing gym, I decided now was my chance. If my pride was going to take a fall—not literally, I hoped—at least I would enjoy the scenery.

While I get outfitted in a waist harness and sticky-soled climbing shoes, Bernard, my instructor from an adventure-travel outfitter called Malta Outdoors Limited, hikes to the top of the 75-foot cliff he's chosen for our lesson and anchors a rope, the ends of which he then clips on to me. As Bernard tends the rope to give me enough slack so I don't fall (a technique called belaying), I start my ascent. It's not pretty: I hug the cliff, taking refuge in a thick fissure that offers a solid foothold and scrambling, knees first, onto any ledge I see. My desire to feel stabilized is overwhelming—you could probably say desperate. After a good 20 minutes, I finally make it to the top, but without any demonstration of grace, as the scrapes on my legs and arms prove.

Bernard tightens the rope and instructs me to rappel, or abseil, down. This part I instantly love—it's a smooth backwards descent, a slow hop down the face of the cliff that I actually find relaxing.

"It's hard to give up a good hand- or foothold," Bernard explains to me on the ground. "But sometimes you have to, to find your way up."

This strikes me as a useful metaphor, and not only for climbing. How many times have I been fearful of leaving my comfort zone, even when staying in place wasn't an option?

Vowing to slow down, I start my second route. Maybe because I'm now taking time to plan each move, I see plenty of big, meaty bumps to grab, and cracks to hold my feet. Halfway up, though, the cliff suddenly juts out before me like an angry chin. The rock has become as smooth as tree bark.

Bernard calls for me to use the sides of my feet, and at first I think something's been lost in translation from Maltese to English. But I trust him—he reminds me of a 30-something, deeply tanned Harry Potter—and give it a try. My shoes stick to the wall, giving me just enough leverage to reach what's known as a crimper—a handhold barely big enough for fingertips—and haul myself up over the bump.

"Good!" I hear Bernard say—and then I lose my grip. The rope catches me before I fall more than an inch or two, the harness pulling snug around my hips. Relying more on willpower than on arm strength, I grab for the handhold again. This time I succeed in pulling myself over the bump and, exhilarated, I reach the top of the cliff.

For my final climb, Bernard suggests I retry the first route. My ascent is cleaner this time; I'm trusting the rope more, confident it will hold me up even if my fingers and feet don't. After one last blissful rappel down, I'm back on the ground, unhooking my harness and trying not to look too pleased with myself.

According to Bernard, some Maltese climbers challenge themselves to scale these cliff faces without the safety of a rope. I don't see myself doing that anytime soon. Then again, that's what I said about rock climbing in the first place. Give me a few years to get used to the idea.



Sep 14, 2003, 10:07 PM
Post #2 of 2 (1902 views)

Registered: Dec 10, 2002
Posts: 286

Re: Between a Rock and a Far Place [In reply to]
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nice story for a new climber. good to remember the point of view so well expressed.

btw, your belayer lowered you--you didn't rap.

may all your climbing be as fun and safe as your first time!

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