– Kiwi Fate and feta in Greek limestone heaven

Kyparissi and Leonidio

Words and photos by Derek Cheng


Word floated up to the crag that there had been a break-in at the car park.

Most of the others at Babala – the steepest and most famous crag in Kyparissi, on Greece’s Peloponnese coast – had already descended to see what was what, but we had little in our rental car that could be stolen.

In ancient Greek mythology, the Moirae are the three goddesses of fate who assigned everyone’s inescapable destiny according to the grand scheme of things. What had happened had already happened, so what could we do anyway? These things tend to work themselves out, somehow. 

One more pitch, then.

I racked up below Gaining Elevation, a 7b+ (26) on severely overhanging tufa-streaked terrain but considered the warm-up, given the abundance of harder lines at the crag. Such climbing is very 3D, involving protrusions of rock columns to be grabbed, pinched, clung to in any manner possible. It’s physical. Strenuous. Known to trigger hyperventilating. 

It is also a joy because it feels particularly improbable, and, for me at least, dependent on discovering equally improbable body positions to rest or make a powerful move less powerful.

This may involve an awkward arm-stuff, uncomfortable knee-stuff, or a hand- and body-jam rest. Or a drop-knee twist to keep your bum from dragging you off the wall, a heel hook into a tufa armpit which essentially acts as a third hand, or a palm-off which essentially acts as a third leg. 

And then there’s always some kind of body wrap or full embrace with whatever alien structure the limestone is presenting you with. 

But there’s always a finite level of life-force on such physical terrain. With my life-force fading, I pulled up the rope in desperation to clip the chain-anchor at the top of the climb, but my fingers holding me to the wall started failing. 

Abort … snatch a hold with my hand that’s already holding the rope … all as my belayer eyed the loop of rope slack in my hand and readied himself for a fall of intergalactic proportions.

This is another bonus of overhanging tufa climbing: massive whips are often into nothing but air. I managed to avoid it this time by the slimmest of margins, but there would be plenty of airtime during the trip.

It was dark by the time we trudged down the hill to the car, where a friendly local was waiting to tell us where to file a police report. The carpark is a dirt pit on the side of a remote mountain road, the perfect spot for out-of-town gypsies – the prime suspects, we were told – to have enough time and gall to smash and grab from every vehicle.

The front passenger window of our car had been obliterated, showering the interior with shards of glass, and an 80m rope was taken from the trunk. Others had had their vans in the carpark, and the thieves had made off with thousands of Euros.

I drove to a local restaurant where police were taking driver details. A translator, answering my question of what she did as the policeman filled out forms, told me she lived in a nearby town and worked, cooked, walked but didn’t climb, and “netflix”.

I’d sent a message to our Airbnb host about what had happened and inquired about a vacuum cleaner to vroom up the glass-icles. He replied, at 1218am, that he was “very upset”, and if the police couldn’t handle it then the local council will, adding that his “shotgun is armed”.

In the morning several of us – a hodgepodge mix of climbers from around the world – returned to the restaurant to meet police investigaters. With coffee and banter and a view of the pristine waters of the Myrtoan Sea, it was easy to forget our unhappy circumstances.

Kyparissi is a tiny seaside paradise where the only visitors, due to a lack of road access, used to be the rich and famous who had a helicopter or super-yacht; it was supposedly a favourite playground of Bush Senior, and royal couple Charles and Di.

New road access over recent decades has still done little to swell its population of around 400, which is misleadingly large because they’re split into three suburbs, two by the coast at opposite ends of a beautiful bay, and a third slightly higher up the hill.

It has all the charms of a quaint European village: narrow roads that weave around groves of olive, lemon and pomegranate trees; pebble-beaches that offer warm, salty dips; white-washed homes with blue shutters, red-tiled roofs and wee balconies; an infinite number of cats who cuddle at your feet as you eat at local taverns.

The hamlet includes a small smattering of shops including a tiny supermarket and a bakery with many feta-filled goods, a coastal trail to a tiny St George church in the neighbouring bay, and, if you look up, a plethora of limestone cliffs hugging the sides of Mount Parnonas.

At the time of writing, the town’s Wikipedia entry consisted of three sentences: the town’s whereabouts, its official municipality, and that it had recently become a famous rock climbing destination.

There are several crags that range in accessibility from the middle of town to a 45-minute drive along magnificent, hilly roads the plunge to the sea. Most of them have a handful of excellent routes and are worth at least a one-day visit, depending on what grades you’re hunting. 

There’s Kapsala and Psilovrachos, where the best routes are around 7a (23) and move through an overhanging section on bright orange tufas and pockets.

There’s the beachside Vlychada, which includes a scenic drive on a mountain road that passes through goat farms and then drops vertiginously to the coast. With a collection of great routes in the high 6s and mid-7s (22-25) and a gorgeous setting for an obligatory after-climb swim, expect a crowd. And mosquitoes.

Just above the town is Watermill, which has a steep section of awesome 3D stalactite-hugging routes in the high 6s and 7s (22-28), a steeper cave of alien tufa blobs with 8s (27+), and a wall of vertical, crimpier routes starting in the 6s (18-22). 

And for those hunting harder grades, there’s Babala. This is the higher and longer cliffband above Watermill, and is famous for its tufa-mazes on overhanging routes up to 50m long. For the privilege, you walk 50 minutes up 280m of elevation gain, but at least the air up there is thinner on those muggy October days.

It is here that one can best practice the art of tufa-negotiation, which all come into play on Gaining Elevation.

Firstly, chicken-wing jam via the chimney between dual tufas past the first few bolts. Then bridge with wide feet on into a shoulder scum behind an alien bubble-head for a no-hands rest just before the angle steepens further. Pinch some tufas into a knee-stuff, then move higher until you can scum the back of your shoulder into a tufa hip near the top. If you have enough life-force left, power-scream your way to the chain via some big moves between side-pulls. 

It’s a spectacular route, as they all are, with little that climbing in a gym can really prepare you for. 

There’s a sense of going into battle as you don knee pads and crack gloves before climbing, and a sense afterwards of having been through the wars and emerged a more seasoned – and hence a more complete – human being. Or at least a more exhausted one, and hopefully somewhat satisfied.

The satisfaction was momentarily punctured by the gypsy break-ins. The following morning, a police officer dusted the outside of the passenger door and trunk for fingerprints. Not their first rodeo: the buggers had worn gloves.

“What can I say?” the officer said to me, as if I were expecting miracles, which I wasn’t. “Shit happens.”

Afterwards the Airbnb owner loaned me his vacuum cleaner. He did not offer his shotgun, nor did I inquire after it.

Lacking full insurance and with no car repair service in Kyparissi, the silver lining was an obligatory 90 minute-drive north to Leonidio, another of Greece’s famous climbing destinations. We pulled into the local garage there to be greeted by a short, portly gentleman with an enormous smile, a golden thumbs up, and zero English. He managed to communicate that I should come back the day before my flight out of Athens and, according to Greek legend, everything will be as it should be.

This meant, burden of burdens, that we had to kill two days in Leonidio. The town is 10 times the size of Kyparissi, with a farmers’ market, cafes, restaurants – even a climbing shop. It is famous for its agricultural goods – including aromatic tomatoes, sumptuous olives and sweet eggplants – and for monasteries hidden in mountain crannies.

We were relatively inconspicuous in Kyparissi, given the small footprint that climbers had on the small village, but in Leonidio I felt like one of an army of invaders: hundreds of climbers, their commerce clearly welcomed by merchants, but I wondered whether other locals welcomed the influx.

Glistening in the sun above the town is a giant band of red cliffs, but with so many crags to choose from and only two days, where to?

The crag Mars is named for its wall of saturated red and other-worldly features. The first 20m is slightly overhanging tufa and stalactite goodness mostly in the mid to high 6s (20-22), while the 20m extensions are a combination of pockets, fins and slopers in the 7s (23-28).

The routes are only nine years old but so popular that many of the first footholds are already glassy. This did not detract from the awesomeness of the day, however.

My final day was reserved for Elona, the Leonidio equivalent of Kyparissi’s Babala. So sacred is the stone that there is a monastery literally carved into the side of the mountain.

Its immaculate golden rock is streaked with blue, interweaving and textured tufa veins on sustained, 50m walls that overhang at least 30 degrees in most places. It is a sublime wall, with sublime climbs, and I put my tufa lessons to the test on the crag warm-ups, wrapping any limb around any rock protrusion where possible.

On the aptly-named Kneebaropolous (7a+/24), I had to rely on milking an average hand-jam right before – in a replay of Gaining Elevation – punching it to the top and managing a desperate clip just before my body went limp with exhaustion. 

I was then too spent to send Diet Dope (7b), Leonidio’s first rock climb and a stellar one at that, but I considered my tufa education in Greece to have yielded more than enough satisfaction.

The question now was what fate the Greek Gods had delivered for the rental car. We jumped into our group’s second vehicle and snaked our way down an impressive canyon, through Leonidio, to the garage.

The smiley gentleman had not only replaced the window, but also the dented panels between the doors. It was as if no gypsy attack had ever taken place.

In Athens, the rental company didn’t blink an eye when it came to returning the car. It looked exactly as it did when I’d driven off with it two weeks ago.

These things have a way of working out, sometimes.


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