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.



Rio. And the End of the World Cup

AKA: The All Best Finale for a Trip of All Time

Somehow our humble plans of a couple of weeks in Manaus had transformed with us ending up here: in Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup final. I had a hard time seeing how life could get any better.

Let me clarify that when I say “for” I mean “in the city for” not “at the stadium for”. We had about five days in what has to be one of the most beautiful, iconic, and captivating cities in the world. I have a well-travelled friend whose favourite city in the world is Tel Aviv. Or it was, that is, until she came to Rio. It didn’t take a day for Rio to take over the number one spot in her mind.

We were here, in reality, only because of her. We had met Brit, a fellow Saskatcheawnian (I’m not kidding about that, by the way. Person from Saskatchewan. Anyways.) on the boat from Colombia to Manaus. After being hammock neighbours and bumping hips for four days, we became quite close. She and her boyfriend had booked a place in Rio for a handful of days overlapping the World Cup final which, luckily for us, had some floor space. Suddenly the ridiculously expensive city, where hostels were charging upwards of $150 for a night in a dorm bed during World Cup, became a lot more reasonable. How we could not go?

So go we did. We arrived on the 11th of July. The third place match was the following day and the final the day after that. Without functioning phones, it made the logistics of meeting up a little bit harder, so we ended up having a few drinks in a pub just down from their place, hanging out around an outdoor table, with the hope that we’d just run into each other. And, after the little paper they kept track of our beers on told us that we’d been there awhile, we did! Rio was falling into place.

The place was great, a decent-sized apartment in Flamengo, which was close to most of what we needed, and accessible to transit for everything else. Tim and I headed off to see the Escadaria Selarón, or the Selaron Steps, in Lapa. The steps are brilliant, and I’d only recommend trying to go at a slightly less busy time (as in, not World Cup or Carnaval or New Year’s) to see them in their full glory as, of course, they were covered in people.

The steps, created by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, consist of 250 steps decorated with over 2000 tiles, many of which were donated from people around the world. It took Selarón twenty years to complete the project. The result is a beautiful, glorious, mosaic-like staircase, where one can often successfully find tiles from their country or somewhere they have strong connections. It’s fantastic. It reminds me of something you’d find in Spain, maybe residing comfortably in Gaudí’s Park Güell.

20140711-IMG_2248While we were scaling staircases, the rest of our team had gone to Sugarloaf, the iconic rounded mountain in Rio, accessible by cable car. We had discovered it was, in fact, possible to rock climb Sugarloaf. Drawn to the general epic-ness of this option, we picked it. Our climb had been rescheduled to the 15th, Tim’s last day in Rio, due to some rain.

That afternoon we headed out with the masses to the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana Beach for the third place match, Brazil vs. The Netherlands. We planned to meet the team at the entrance, but they had gotten held up at Sugarloaf (they reckoned they probably spent about five hours in line that day) and didn’t make it. We followed the thousands of people streaming into the gates and prepared for the match.

20140712-IMG_2277Again, for those of you who know what happened, you know that things didn’t turn out well for Brazil. The Netherlands took the third place match 3-0. The crowd was less than enthralled for the entire match, which can only be expected after Brazil’s recent performance. Still, for a moment, I missed the square in Manaus which would, undoubtably, be packed full of fans sweating in the sweltering heat. Everyone from kids and families to groups of teens to old couples would be out. And they would all be watching the game, figuratively or literally biting their nails. Copacabana definitely had a higher ratio of teenage girls on smartphones, there to be there, to see, to be seen. After the match, we met up with the rest of the crew for a couple of drinks and then moseyed on home.

The next morning, we woke up early with intent to beat the crowds at Christ the Redeemer, perhaps Rio’s most famous landmark. The statue is situated at the top of Corcovado mountain, and buses or trips will mention Corcovado before they mention Christ the Redeemer. It should be relatively simple, but there are a couple of things that are handy to know when making the trip up to the mountain. For the interest of not bogging down this post with logistical details, I’ve added a short informative post on the how-to.

We took a bus to the base of the train station that takes guests up the mountain. Long story short, the lines were massive. After standing in line for around an hour, someone finally started letting people know what was going on, and it turned out the next available train was going to be at 11 a.m. (It was about 8 a.m. at this point). We decided to bail, as we could return on another day. Brit and Shay went with one of the shuttle vans that operate as an alternative transport source. We returned to the apartment and began preparations for the Final that afternoon.

Argentina vs. Germany. This was going to be an interesting one. Despite Germany’s demolition of Brazil in the semis, Brazilians’ dislike of Argentines, and a long-standing football rivalry, meant that Brazil was rooting for Germany, rather than their South American neighbours. Due to proximity, Rio had been infiltrated by huge numbers of Argentina fans. Personally, I wanted Argentina to win.

So we took a bit of a gamble, and went out in Argentina colours. Somehow we had heard, or predicted, or just knew that Copacabana Beach, where we planned to watch the match, was going to be full of blue and white. Turns out we were right, and were welcomed into the Argentina fold with open arms.

We eyed up the official Fan Fest lineup which had to be nearly a kilometre long. Then we looked at the other massive screen set up on the beach, with no gates, barriers, lineups, or exorbitantly priced beer. We decided to stay out in the open. The crowd and the atmosphere was already pretty insane. Enterprising locals had set up portable bars serving beer, caipirinhas, and pretty much whatever else you’d want. Food vendors trotted through the crowds. Argentina was already singing.

The waves were crashing fiercely into the beach and people using the ocean as a port-a-potty struggled to stay on their feet. It wasn’t too far into the day (the match hadn’t started yet) before Tim saw someone go underneath the surface, out past where the waves were breaking. Lifeguards were something you couldn’t hope to have on a beach like this, at a time like this, but luckily Tim is very strong in the water. He made his way out to where the guy had disappeared, and as he came upon him, the guy latched on and clambered up Tim to the surface. Apparently they teach you in lifesaving courses you may have to knock out the person you are trying to save in order to prevent them from pulling you both down. Tim was very close to having to do this, but luckily managed to bodysurf a wave in, pulling the guy with him. When they made it to shallow enough water, the lucky guy finally got the message that he could stand up, and went racing onto the beach in shock. Scary.

After that debacle, things went much more smoothly. We partied out the rest of the game, singing the words we knew for the Argentina songs, and cheering our way in generally good spirits all of the way to the end, a 1-0 victory for Germany.

We stood, in our group, for a moment, surrounded by thousands of fans rooting for a team that had just lost the biggest game in the world. Despite the loss, Argentina didn’t become a hateful, violent, aggressive football mob. Still, as we made to leave the beach,  we were almost immediately pushed back by a group of people rushing in the opposite direction. We weren’t sure why … a fight, police? And didn’t stick around to find out. But as we went with the crowd, the same thing happened from the other direction, this time more forcefully. We grabbed on to one another, making sure not to lose anyone, and waited for a minute or two for some of the crowd to disperse. Then we skirted out the back of the crowd, away from the screen, and circled around. As we headed down the street, we were pushed this way and that by the huge numbers of people rushing each way. Tear gas flooded the air around us, twice, making for more waves of people (this time covering their nose and mouths) rushing in the same direction. The goal was, I imagine, to simply disperse the crowds. The night before, after the third place match, thousands of fans scattered afer a fight broke out (according to police) or a mass robbery  (reported). Luckily, we weren’t even aware this had happened the night before.

We made the decision to leave the area, as tensions were high and it wouldn’t take much for a volatile situation to pop up. We eyed up the massive line for the metro, left to grab a bite to eat, and then returned to an only marginally diminished line. We decided to just wait it out, and it actually moved reasonably quickly. It wasn’t long ’til we were back in our much quieter neighbourhood. We had definitely felt as though we had soaked up enough of the atmosphere during the day and evening, and were happy to be back, safe and sound, in one piece, at home.

We woke up early the next day. It was our turn to go up to Corcovado. We took a van transport from Largo do Machado at around 8 a.m. The early start for Corcovado is well worth it, as there is no allocated time for people to leave the monument, so it just gets busier and busier as the day rolls on.

You know Christ the Redeemer is huge, but somehow seeing one of the Seveb New Wonders of the World, in person, on top of a steep mountain in the middle of Rio, is more impressive than I would have thought. The statue stands 30 metres tall (plus the 8 metre platform he stands on), and his arms reach a span of 28 metres. Christ the Redeemer was finished in 1931.

20140713-IMG_2298As you navigate the viewing platforms set up around the statue, you’re constantly dodging people laying on the ground taking photos, attempting to get their friend and the entire statue into a shot. I had a lovely moment where a man travelling by himself asked me to take a photo of him and, in fashion, I got down on the ground to capture the massive statue as best as I could. Five minutes later, he came and found me again, asking me to take one more of him in a different shirt (for his Colombian friend) because I’d actually put effort in to getting the shot the first time. Sweet.

20140714-IMG_2320After checking out the views, which were amazing, taking the requisite tourist shots, and circling the statue a few times, we headed off. Brit had left the night before, and we were moving house today to a hostel in Santa Teresa. Rio had, overnight, become a reasonably priced place to sleep.