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.


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.


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.



Heading North

Dubbed as the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown is a mecca for mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, parasailing, skydiving, and water sports. As much as I would love to retail you with stories of jumping off of stuff and careening down things, I did very little (read: none) of that during our couple of days in Queenstown. What we did, mostly, was enjoy being in town and catching up with some of Tim’s old friends. We spent a couple of days drinking our way around town and enjoying the bustling, light-hearted atmosphere of the place. Queenstown itself is beautiful; surrounded by hills, perched on a gorgeous lake, it is certainly your picturesque New Zealand town. This is somewhere a person could happily spend a few months out of the year.


It was then time to begin our long journey north. We left in the afternoon, after Tim squeezed in a quick mountain biking trip, and headed towards Castle HIll. Castle Hill is an area dotted with very unique rock formations, and has become a popular spot for climbers and boulderers. We pitched out tent for a night in the nearby campground (for a whopping $12/night) and managed to get a solid half-day of climbing in amongst the boulders. We had a long drive ahead of us back to Picton that evening, where we were to catch the 2 a.m. ferry back to the North Island. Upon arrival in Wellington somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6 a.m., we didn’t waste any time before commencing the 8 hour (ish) drive back up to Auckland. The hurry was purposeful, though, as we got back to Tim’s family’s place at a reasonable hour in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We had an amazing Christmas – my second in a row in this half of the world – and I was completely spoiled and  felt right at home with stockings, a turkey, and thoughtful gifts. Though missing all of the crew back in Canada, I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better time in New Zealand.

And there we have it! (I’m finally almost caught up!) We had a couple of days to pack, and pack again, and shove all of Tim’s remaining stuff into closets in the garage, and we were all of a sudden off to Mexico in a very short amount of time!


We treated ourselves to another night in a cabin at the holiday park in Fox Glacier. And steak. And bakery treats, chocolate, and deliciously cold ciders. That’s the thing about spending five days in the bush, you feel as though you deserve all of the indulging in the world when you come back. After our indulging session and our comfy night in the cabin we took a quick visit to Fox Glacier in the morning. The glacier was beautiful, but it felt distinctly odd due to the overflow of tourists, considering how secluded our last few days had been. We then began the trip inlands towards Wanaka, which could be compared a bit to Banff – adorable mountain town, picturesque lake, and a healthy combination of gear shops, trendy cafes, and tourists. We spent two nights in a campground just outside of town, right on the lake, and happened to be checked in to our campsite by Adriana, an incredibly sweet Mexican girl who definitely helped peak the excitement about the fact that we were leaving for Mexico in around a week. Tim used to own a mountain bike guiding business that operated out of Wanaka, and looking at the hills surrounding town, you could certainly see how it would be an excellent area for it. On this trip, however, our aim was climbing, not biking. We went out for a few drinks the first night we got in, mostly in an effort to be around people for a couple of hours – too long in secluded mountain huts doesn’t sit well with my system, I’ve discovered. We then woke up in the morning and headed off towards Hospital Flat where we aimed to spend the day climbing.

We played around for a bit on the rock, and even brought Adriana out to do her first ever climb. The pinnacle of the day was what we accomplished at the end: a three-pitch climb that ended in a very exposed but easy traverse before a two-stage abseil back down to the ground. Multi-pitching is, again, a whole different ball game. It involves one person leading the first pitch of the climb, anchoring themselves at the top, pulling up most of the rope, and belaying the second climber from above. Once the second climber reaches the first, the whole process is repeated again. This involves belaying on the wall, anchored to a point 15, 25, or 40 metres off of the ground. Scary? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. Would I jump at the opportunity to do another multi-pitch climb? Absolutely.

Climbing - Wanaka 2


Climbing - Wanaka


Wanaka Abseil

Big Up

Adiós ocean. Hola rock. We left the Abel Tasman behind and headed out to the Golden Bay area, a single destination in mind. Paynes Ford Scenic Reserve is well-known as a prime rock climbing spot, with over 200 climbing routes along several large, limestone walls. The Hangdog Campground, a minute and a half walk from the entrance to Paynes Ford, housed ourselves and our tent for $10 a night, along with a hodgepodge of climbers from all over the world, staying in every manner of tent, caravan, and vehicle. When we offered to pay our dues upon arrival, Troy, the terminally chilled-out head of the place, waved us away with a leading smile and the comment “Pay us when you leave.” Which somehow seemed to drift into the unsaid “Because you’ll never leave …” And indeed, it appeared to be one of those places. We met a couple of people in the camp who had come for a couple of days, or a week, and were still there – climbing every day – months later. We’ve already said we’ll be back, for a longer stint next time. (Although we did actually manage to check out after two nights.)

We headed out of camp bright and early after our first night there, eager to do our first bit of climbing in New Zealand. The sun was shining, making a good effort to dry up the last of the damp rock that remained after several days of rain. Excitement!

Perhaps the first thing we noticed was that rock in New Zealand is different from rock in Australia. Limestone vs. sandstone. Hard vs. soft. Sturdy vs. Break-y. Climby vs. fall-y. More than once, I grabbed on to a nib or a nub or a narrow strip of rock and tugged at it apprehensively, fully expecting it to break off in my hand. More than once, it did not. I’m not much of a climber. When we got chatting with the others, and compared my six months of very sporadic, generally indoor, climbing with their years of intense devotion that had taken them to crags around the world, it really brought to light how long you can chase this sport and have it still be challenging.

Still an amateur, I was – without question – challenged on this wall. There were a handful of climbs in a grade that I could attempt, so I did. Sport climbs are graded on a scale based on difficulty. This scale is quite subjective, as different body types and styles mean that some people find certain climbs significantly harder than someone else might. This scale can be noticeably “harder” in some regions (perhaps where the climbers are better) and is also completely different, depending on where you are in the world. (A 20 in Australia is roughly a 5.10c in America and 6b in France.) I’m going to go on the assumption that you don’t know very much about climbing because, up until a few months ago, I didn’t either.

There are two main ways to climb a wall; by leading it, or by top-roping it. A top rope is just what it sounds like: a rope fed through a bolt or carabiner or what-have-you, securely attached at the top of a climb, which you then attach securely to yourself. As you climb up, your belayer (your buddy on the ground) takes in slack on their end of the rope the entire time so that you’re always well protected, if you should fall. Of course, with this method, you first need to get a rope to the top, which generally involves someone leading it.

When you lead a climb, you start at the bottom of the wall, looking up at a blank – save for a few bolts – canvas. You are attached securely to one end of the rope, and the other end of the rope falls loosely into your belayers hands, who is standing on the ground right beside you. The goal at this point is to reach the first bolt on the wall, where you can make yourself secure (read: not fall on and subsequently crush your belayer). The first bolts at Paynes Ford seemed to be a lot higher off the ground than they were at ye olde indoor climbing gym in Sydney. Once you make your way off the ground and find a steady enough place close to your first bolt, you remove one of your precious, life-saving hands from the wall, grab a quick draw (essentially a bit of rope – but not rope, really, more like webbing – with a metal clip on either end) from your harness, clip the draw into the bolt on the wall, pull up slack from the rope dangling from your harness, grab it with your teeth, pull a bit more slack, clip it into the draw on the wall, and then replace that precious, life-saving hand back on the rock. When your belayer pulls your slack tight, you are officially safe. Clearly, lead climbing is a whole different ball game to top rope. Not just physically harder, there is a psychological aspect as well. You are often in a position to take some very real falls. Bolts can be several metres apart, and if you stuff up, you are falling the distance to your last clip. You are, in theory, safe the entire time. There’s a huge amount of trust that you’re placing in your partner and in your gear, and it makes the experience seem about 1000 times more real than being able to lean back on your top rope at any time. I led my first climb at Paynes Ford. And then a few more. It’s exhilarating and calming at the same time. Having the confidence to move, when you know that having a poorly positioned foot or a weak hold could send you down the wall is a big step up from what I’d been climbing before. This confidence is slowly and grudgingly growing, not least from being stuck on a portion of given wall (several times) with Tim coaching me patiently to let go and climb. I can’t wait to get on the next wall.

Paynes Ford