“Just breathe Kristi. Breathe.”
I look down at my surroundings and try to focus on their peace-inducing beauty. I see the sun dousing the Portuguese countryside with its rays, giving it a dry and warm glow, I hear a dog barking off in the distance and I see a crumbling old farmhouse across the valley. Yes, I think, that’s better. Then I look down again and realize that I’m clinging to the side of a rock, by choice. What the hell am I doing? I’m terrified of heights! I think to myself.
“Kristi you’re fine. Trust the ropes. You’re fine. Breathe.” Our climbing guide, André tells me with a calm and practiced voice.
I know that I’m safe…well, safe-ish, and in good hands, but I still can’t help my panick attack.
You see at this point I had been bouldering for just over a year, and had yet to try outdoor rock climbing, or sport climbing. I had ventured up to our local climbing playground of Squamish, BC on occasion to try some outdoor bouldering with my boyfriend and other friends and had been thoroughly humbled by that experience, being a gym rat and all, but I was not prepared for the mental barriers that I would face on the side of that rock in Portugal. Though I’ve always known I’ve had a pretty severe fear of heights I’ve always loved being in the mountains, so on an unassuming day in May of 2014 I somehow got roped into trying bouldering, no pun intended. My friend Leslie and I fell for it on the same day – we loved the intense mental and physical focus that it demanded, we loved being free of ropes and equipment and the need for a belay buddy (bouldering is climbing without ropes to about an 18 foot height), and we loved that it basically was a giant puzzle for your brain and body. It just clicked with us. So, despite my serious fear of heights I continued to boulder and fight that fear on the higher climbs. But, when you start off by bouldering, you really aren’t prepared to have to put trust in ropes or equipment. So, as I stood there, midway up a very easy problem, I found myself completely and utterly paralyzed, unable to think of the reason why I thought this would be doable for me.
Let’s take a step back into our trip. My boyfriend Zeke and I had arrived in Lagos, Portugal on the Algarve Coast just a few days before. Neither of us had ever been to Portugal before so we didn’t know the area or what it had to offer. We had the fleeting hope of finding someone to take us climbing but as each day passed that hope seemed to be slipping away. We later discovered that climbing is still very much in development as a recognized sport in Portugal due to the usual things like bureaucracy and a lack of understanding about climbing so much of the climbing has been done in very restricted areas or on the DL. So, as we were walking to our Airbnb one day I happened to turn to my left and see a sign saying “climbing” at the very bottom. I did a double take before we excitedly walked into the little office along the winding old streets of Lagos. To say we lucked out by walking into that office that day is a massive understatement. We had inadvertently walked into the office of Volta do Mar, a fantastic small adventure tour company owned and operated by our soon to be climbing guide, André Glória. The kind staff in the office told us that we could go climbing no problem and put us in touch with André to arrange a time and day. Within a few hours we were all set for a day of sport climbing, Portuguese food and cultural experiences. And it was all that and more.
We met up with André, an experienced climber, scuba diver and travel guide who had lived and traveled all over and his equally adventurous friend Anna (originally from Perth, Australia, but living and working in Paris and a fellow writer and photographer like myself) and the four of us set off to drive to Rocha da Pena, in Loulé, a hilly area about an hour’s drive North East of Lagos. André had suggested that we begin climbing later in the afternoon after the hottest part of the day had passed so on our way we stopped in a traditional Portuguese restaurant to try their famous Chicken piri-piri, a Portuguese specialty. Side note – for vegetarians (like Zeke), Portugal is a tough country to eat out in. We had delicious chicken (and Zeke had an omelet that they had put together for him in their effort to make something “vegetarian”), and rich and delectable cakes and by the time we left I couldn’t imagine being able to pull myself up any kind of rock due to the heavy ones in our stomachs. Luckily we had a bit of a drive and hike to get up to where we would begin our first climbs of the day. Although we waited until the hottest part of the day had passed it was still ridiculously hot, with very little shade and us poor West Coast Canadians were sweltering in the 30 degree heat. As you can see in the photos below, we tried to use every little bit of shade that we could to stay as cool as possible. André had brough along everything we might need – tons of water, lots of snacks, sandwiches and all the climbing gear of course. Europeans sure know how to make a day out of – well anything, really. It’s one thing I really appreciated about living in Europe and still miss.
André set up top ropes for Anna and I, and because Zeke had considerable sport climbing experience (though he hadn’t been sport climbing in over a decade) he challenged him to lead the route. For those who aren’t familiar with all the climbing lingo, top roping is where a rope is already set up for you (by a fellow climber) so that you don’t have to worry about clipping yourself in as you go up and is the easiest way to learn to climb outside (and inside for that matter.) With lead climbing you have to clip yourself in as you climb since you’re the first to go and it’s a whole lot scarier since if you fall you may end up falling 15 feet or more depending on where your last clip was. So, I was pretty damn proud when Zeke seriously rocked a number of climbs on lead.
Although I had only taken one short class on belaying, André thought I was up for the task and both Anna and I received quick belay refresher courses and Zeke and Anna ended up lead belaying as well. We were all a little nervous, but I happily soon caught on and felt confident and happy holding someone else’s life in my hands by the end of the day. Thankfully we were protected by gri-gris, assisted braking belay devices, which basically give you an extra back up as the belayer if you aren’t paying attention for a moment – and I was sure grateful for that. Incidentally that was also one of my Christmas presents from Zeke – I think he wants to make sure he’s extra safe in my hands all the time as well. For me this was a huge confidence boost and although I still have a ton to learn about rock climbing knots and belaying and all the intricacies of the equipment I felt happier after that.
As the day progressed we each had turns on various routes and eventually ended our day at the base of Escadas do Inferno, aka the Stairway to Hell. By this point I was exhausted, mentally more than physically by my various attempts to overcome my fears and get used to the feeling of trusting the ropes, but Zeke climbed until sunset and us photographers enjoyed taking as many photos as the light would allow. On my last climb of the day I had really frozen completely at one point and with André’s guidance I was able to push through that and eventually make it back down to the ground in one piece. Fear is such a strange beast and will completely take over at the most unexpected (and really, expected) moments and completely take a hold. But the thing I have learned through climbing is that this fear is usually only about 20% based in real dangers. Sure, rock climbing may seem very dangerous from an outsider’s perspective, but when done properly the risks of serious injury or harm are relatively low. There is a fine balance between taking calculated risks and being reckless, especially in climbing, every good climber learns his or her real limits and abilities and uses those as a general gage. In those moments when I have pushed through my fears I can’t even describe how amazing it feels. You can feel the mental barriers falling away every time it happens and afterwards you’re able to climb things you never thought you could before. I think this is why climbing continues to be as popular as it is. It’s not a sport that allows ego or unacceptable fear and it pushes us in every way to overcome or at least deal with our weaknesses.
As we hiked out in the dark, with head lamps strapped to our helmets, dirt and grime covering our feet, scratches covering our legs and big grins on our faces all I could think was, “boy I could use a beer.” As soon as this thought was uttered out loud André followed my lead happily and took us to an authentically Portuguese “dive” bar in the countryside where he ordered us four Portuguese beers. I can’t remember a time that a beer tasted so good. Except maybe the time I had slept in a bothie overnight on the Isle of Skye on a trekker tour after a massive storm. But that’s a story for another day. In any case, if a beer could hit the spot, this one saw the spot and just dumped all over it gloriously. As we chatted and laughed all the way back to Lagos I reflected on what a truly phenomenal and memorable day it had been, fears and all. We got to know Portuguese culture, eat real Portuguese food, climbed real Portuguese rocks, drank real Portuguese beer, hang out with some fantastic people and were given the gift of directions for an incredible day of beach bouldering the next day (that post to come soon) all thanks to our guide, André who went out of his way to make our experience the best it could be – authentic, challenging, eye-opening and most of all – fun! For any of you climbers who are thinking about a trip to Portugal – do it! For anyone else, André offers a whole other set of tours from food, fado and wine tours to biking tours to extreme snorkeling (yes it’s a thing and you need to get André to tell you about it). No matter which one you choose, it’ll be five stars. Muito obrigada to André and the Volta do Mar team!
Links and further reading
Volta do Mar adventure tours and more: www.voltadomar.pt
Volta do Mar on Facebook: www.facebook.com/voltadomarpt
Anna Hartley’s article on our day out in Rocha da Pena was posted in Australian lifestyle magazine PRIMOLife in November 2015. Check it out: www.annahartleywrites.com