Climbing Sugarloaf

Rio is a rock climber’s dream. From any vantage point in the city, countless sheer rock faces beckon, rising up from favelas and suburbs, adding a jagged edge to Rio’s beauty.

I would hesitate to call myself a climber. More accurately, I do a bit of climbing. I was only introduced to the sport a little over a year ago, and for half the time since then I have been travelling and have hardly touched a rock.

But here we were, in the city that offers probably the best urban climbing in the world. When we found out this includes the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain, we were chomping at the bit to do it. You know Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese). It’s that round, kind of pointy mountain that’s featured in nearly every photo of Rio.

20140714-IMG_2320Sugarloaf gets its name – are you ready for it? – from a sugarloaf. The shape which refined sugar was traditionally formed into. Like this. Not far off, I reckon.

Sugarloaf (the mountain) is easily accessible by cable car (official Bondinho website here). One car connects ground level to the top of Urca (which you can also walk to), and then a second car takes you all the way to the top of Sugarloaf. This method will cost you R$62 (about $30). And will be way less fun.

As we weren’t carting around the 20 kilo or so of climbing gear that would be necessary to haul our butts up the mountain, and also had no sweet clue where we were going, we decided to splurge and hire a guide. The opportunity to do the climb was too good to be missed.

After much googling, emailing, and researching, we opted for the crew at Climb in Rio to take us on our adventure. They let us know that Climb in Rio and Ancorauê Climbing are in the process of merging, so they are, for our purposes, the same.

Prices for a handful of different companies were pretty comparable, and Andrew at Climb in Rio got back to us quickly, answered all of our questions, was very professional, and chatted about the climb that would best suit our abilities.

Though most companies offer climbs all over Rio, we wanted to summit Sugarloaf, so that was the mountain we were focusing on. With over 50 routes on all sides of Sugarloaf, ranging from a North American 5.4 to 5.13a (and between 2 and 12 pitches long), Sugarloaf basically has something to offer to every climber. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) has a useful climbing grade conversion chart here.

Italianos is one of the most famous routes on Sugarloaf, a 5.9 multipitch. Due to the fact that we hadn’t climbed in a while, and at best I would probably consistently climb at 5.10a on a good day, we opted to go with Andrew’s other suggestion, a 5.8 multipitch on the west face called Coringa, that included some unprotected hiking and scrambling, and then a handful of short 5.7 pitches to the top. Climb in Rio’s price for two people climbing with one guide for a half-day was R$600 total (around $300). This includes all equipment.

We waited a few days for the rock to dry off and then met Andrew and our guide, Eduardo, at the base of Sugarloaf at 8 a.m. After doing a quick gear sort, trying on shoes and harnesses, and loading up our packs, we were off.

We hiked the easy path up the base of Urca and, where it ended, jumped over the barrier and continued around the side of the mountain. After 10 minutes or so, we reached the beginning of our first pitch. Eduardo led the climb, I followed, and Tim picked up the rear, cleaning the wall of carabiners as he went.

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Photo Credit: Tim Binks

It had been awhile. Sugarloaf lends itself to balance, good footwork, and small movements. It was very different from most of what I’d been on before. It took some getting used to.

I had a rush go through me as I began to scale the wall. Despite being rusty, it was something akin to riding a bike: these movements were familiar. The rock felt trustworthy beneath my hands. I was doing it, getting closer and closer to where Eduardo had leashed himself to the wall at the belay station. At one point, I got stuck underneath a ledge, running my hands over the bumpy but smooth surface above me. There was nothing to hold on to. I knew what I needed to do but it wasn’t until Eduardo yelled, “Move your feet!” down at me that I mustered up the courage to simply try to walk up the wall, moving my feet bit by bit, and using my hands only to balance – there was nothing to grip.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Finally, I reached Eduardo and anchored myself, slightly awkwardly to the wall. When Tim reached us (much more quickly than I), we were crammed together around a single bolt. Eduardo took off again and, despite the fact that this pitch was harder, it came more easily. The rust was coming off.

20140714-IMG_2315We alternated between climbing and, thankfully for our aching feet, donning our running shoes to do a bit of walking/scrambling/crawling.

Not the least bit afraid while attached to the rope, as soon as I was asked to walk across some unprotected (and often slippery) stretches of rock, with a steep drop my only fate if I were to slip, I became a bit useless. I trust my feet a lot better if my hands are on the ground, and so that was the method I went with.

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Photo Credit: Tim Binks

On one of the final pitches, there wasn’t an established belay station, so Eduardo belayed us by just sitting on the ground and digging his heels in. “On this pitch,” he informed us, “It is best if you do not fall.” Considering that our very talented guide had free soloed a handful of the last pitches, we figured we could at least get up it without taking a bit fall.

Despite having chosen one of the easier options, the day was still exhausting. It was a triumphant but tired pair that finished the final pitch, with incredible views of the beaches and the ocean surrounding Rio. We consolidated our gear and hiked the rest of the way to the top. As we ducked under the guard rails, sweaty and carting a lot of rope, we got some funny looks from the well-dressed and very clean tourists that had arrived on the cable car.

20140715-IMG_2402We hardly cared. Literally grinning ear-to-ear from our accomplishment, we took a few minutes to enjoy the views from the top before riding down on the cable car (which is offered free to any hikers or climbers who need a ride down).

20140715-IMG_2526Eduardo was an excellent guide. I felt perfectly comfortable with his ability, he never rushed us during the climb, and he offered an interesting insight into carioca culture. He even showed us to one of his favourite restaurants after the climb after our request for lots of cheap food. Thanks to Eduardo and Climb in Rio for a truly epic day!

One of the absolute highlights of Rio, Brazil, hell – even the entire trip, this climb was a thrilling experience, a unique way to visit an established landmark, and a fantastic way to finish off our big trip.

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