This was a stupid fucking idea.
I’m frozen in place nearly three quarters of the way up the southeast face of Pao d’Acucar, a quartz and grant spire that rises from Guanabara Bay and towers over the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. I’m trying to slow my breathing and relax, but I can’t stop thinking about the Simpsons.
Specifically, I’m thinking about the “Blame it on Lisa” episode. In it, the family travels to Rio de Janeiro in the hopes of rescuing an orphan who Lisa has been secretly sponsoring. Hilarity ensues and Homer ends up kidnapped. The story crescendos to a showdown between the Simpsons and the kidnappers where Homer jumps between two cars on Pao d’Acucar’s famous gondola in an escape attempt. He makes the jump, but cable between the gondola cars breaks. The Simpsons dump out of the gondola car, tumble down the face of the mountain and land in into a pile at the bottom, which is exactly what I’m certain is about to happen to me, just with a lot more blood and cracking bones.
So how did I end up here, convinced of my certain doom? Let’s rewind.
In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Brazil for the Rio+20 environmental summit. For two weeks I woke up each morning and boarded a shuttle bus to spend twelve to fourteen hours in a sprawling conference centre in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Each day, as I made a bleary eyed march to the shuttle stop I stared up at Pao d’Acucar and fantasized about climbing it.
I should have searched out a reputable local guide to take me up the mountain. Instead, in a mix of hubris and just having spent what little extra cash I had on a trip up the Amazon, I decided to free solo the mountain, climbing without a rope and harness (or any other safety equipment for that matter).
I decided one a route called Costão, a long slabby climb that guiding companies and online beta described as a steep hike, some mellow slab and a short, easy vertical ascent. According to trip reports, the vertical was and easy 20 meter ascent, a 5.6 or 5.7 at the most, both grades that I was more than comfortable climbing.
At this point, I had very little experience climbing on real rock. I had spent a few days at small east coast top-rope crags and had taken to “buildering” – a sort of parkour/climbing mashup – on the old stone walls of McGill University’s downtown Montreal campus. But in the end, this all this added up to one thing; Pao d’Acucar would be the highest climb I had ever attempted and my first climb up an actual mountain.
On the second to last day of the Rio+20 conference, I helped organize a massive act of civil disobedience with hundreds of youth from all around the world. We paraded through the conference center to stage a sit-in right outside where heads of state were meeting, and eventually marched out of the conference in protest. To us, and to most of the world interested in doing things like stopping climate change, the gathering had been a pretty epic failure, and so with the catharsis of a walk-out mixing with the adrenaline of dodging United Nations security and the Brazilian state police for the past six hours, we all needed a drink – or twelve.
The ensuing party was a a blur that ended with me half naked in my hostel bunk, a demonic hangover coming on and all of my clothes piled soaking wet and full of sand in the adjacent shower stall that I was meant to share with at least 10 other guests. I was a fragile soul that day, and as I shielded my eyes from the sun, heavily medicating a throbbing headache and trying to sooth my roiling stomach, I stared up at Pao d’Acucar and decided it was time to climb it.
The next morning, I woke up shortly after 6:00 a.m., dressed and hopped on a bus headed for Botafogo, the neighbourhood at the base of Pao d’Acucar. I promptly got lost, but after a couple strong espressos in local cafes and partially understood Portuguese directions I found the approach trail at the base of the mountain. After walking about fifty meters up a wide asphalt trail I started to see massive rocks covered with chalky fist sized white polka dots – the tell tale signs of bouldering. Finally, I was on the right track.
At the end of the asphalt trail, an imposing cement tower marked the end of the casual walking trail and the start of the approach proper to Costão. The tower was a sort of near-black shade of grey imprinted with a dark, deep green indicative of the rain-forest constantly trying to overtake the bricks and mortar of the city. A large that read “HIGH DANGER” followed by a series of specific warnings in Portuguese cautioned my progress. Ignoring it, I squeezed around the tower and followed a narrowing trail below the east face of the mountain towards my goal.
A series of dirt and mud switchbacks took me to the base of the climb proper, a sprawling apron of granite that angled ever so slightly towards a short vertical section a few hundred yards above. I changed into my climbing shoes and scrambled upwards.
Behind me, an imposing palette of blue and greens made the sky, sea and forest around Guanabara Bay seem more like a postcard than a view. As the details of the beaches and city slowly faded, the stresses of the past two weeks began to evaporate.
The route flowed beautifully, staying just below the fine line between exhilaration and terror. As I got closer to the vertical section, I scoffed at pitons and bolts clearly left for weaker climbers.
By late morning I had arrived at the vertical section. With most of the climb behind me, and my confidence soaring, I craned my neck to take in the 20 meters of vertical rock above my head.
It might as well be a ladder!
An easy chimney start gave way to plentiful jugs with perfect footholds. The sun was out, but still low enough that the cool breeze off the ocean kept the temperature down.
I stopped about halfway up the pitch to rest and scope the rest of the way. The handholds looked a little smaller, but I pushed any doubt from my mind, confident that I would cruise through the last few moves. If I noticed that the rock above me was a few shades darker than the rock below me, I shrugged it off as a trick of the light.
As I moved up, I ignored the shrinking holds and the tiny rivulets of water, pushing upwards towards the end of the vertical a few meters above me. That's where I froze.
The rock in front of my eyes had changed colour from light grey to nearly black. The pleasant sandpaper like feeling of the holds had turned slick, clammy and become streaked with mud. As I searched for a dry handhold, I absentmindedly set my right foot beneath a tiny seep of water, rendering the specially formulated rubber grips of my shoe into something as slippery as it was useless.
I took a few deep breaths, cracked my neck and started upwards. One move in, I slipped on a handhold. Although I quickly caught myself, I came dangerous close to evacuating my bowels in the process.
Where I was, between 10 and 15 meters off the deck, a fall could have easily killed me, but even if it didn't, I was all but guaranteed a suite of broken bones from the fall alone, let alone the slide I would take down the apron after bailing off the pitch. I thought about down-climbing, but as I walked through the reverse moves in my head my right leg started shaking, my knee flipping in back and forth, doing what what climbers call "elvis leg".
There was an old, rusty piton beside my head, and a few test pulls confirmed that it was at least solid enough to take my static weight. I took off my t-shirt and grabbed a blue plaid shirt from my backpack. I twisted both, tied them into something like a bed sheet rope from a cartoon prison escape, fastened my lone carabiner to “rope” and tied a crude hitch to attach the whole contraption to my backpack, using it as a sort of make-shift harness.
With the chest and waist support of my pack cinched up tight, my self-styled anchor barely reached the piton. I clipped in and, little by little, let the Macgyvered safety system take my weight. By some miracle of physics, it actually held and I gave myself a little high five.
But my respite didn't last long. As the immediate threat of falling receded, the flaws in my safety system came in focus. It was possible the makeshift contraption could have arrested a fall, but more likely, it would just imbue me with a false sense of security and then fail to come through if I took a serious fall. Beyond that, even if the whole thing worked and I made past the crux, the “rope” was so short that I would need to lock off with and unclip from the piton, or drop the backpack and leave the whole apparatus dangling like some kind of junkyard quick-draw, in what looked like a very precarious spot. Shaking my head and cursing my own shortsightedness, I disassembled the system.
I spent the next half hour taking half steps up onto wall in a vain attempt to find some kind of hidden hold or feature. I would place my hands, then pull up ever so slightly and try one move, then another, never committing to anything that I couldn’t easily recover back to my resting spot from.
Nothing worked and I was left trying to remember if any of the guiding websites mentioned a daily climbing tour up this route, ideally one with a rope and some rescue gear. I doubted it, and no matter how hard I squinted, I couldn’t force a climbing party to materialize on the route above or below me. I thought about trying to call for help, but had broken my phone during a night out earlier in the week. There were some boats in the water far below me, and according to the route description, above me there the top of a cable car where tourists were sipping coffee and snapping photos. Unfortunately, I still don’t know the word for “help!” in Portuguese, let alone “help, I’m an idiot who got myself stuck on a climbing route, and no I don’t have any safety equipment”. The only way I was getting off this rock was up.
My forearms were throbbing and my hands were raw from my various aborted attempts to find a trick to finish the route. After so many false starts, it seemed like the best, and perhaps only, way up started with a lateral move to a right toe hook that could line me up beneath a narrow flake with a line to the top out. Beyond that, I could only hope there was something I could grab hold of, or at least bump off of to try and grab a tree branch or something where the rock ended and the forest started again.
I shimmied to the edge of the ledge and stretched my right foot as far as it could reach. I could reach the hold, but my shoe was so wet that it slid right off. After another stomach dropping recovery I made my way back to the ledge and swore loudly for ten minutes.
With one last “mother fucker” I wiped my shoe with my t-shirt, closed my eyes and tried to muster whatever courage I had left in reserve. With arms and legs shaking, I got into the first move. I pulled my body up and extended my right foot as far as I could stretch. The tip of my shoe reached the hold, and this time it stayed put. I had reached the point of no-return. One more move and I was fully committed, with no way to down-climb.
I pulled with my toe, the my leg and shifted my whole body to the right. Jamming my hips towards the wall, my left hand moved gingerly to the edge of the flake, followed by my right. I brought my left foot up and balanced it atop the rusting piton. I moved hand over hand along the flake. At it's highest point, I took one deep breath and shot up.
My right hand found nothing but slick rock. My hand was slipping.
I pushed off from my footholds and and threw my hands up wildly, reaching out for anything. Amazingly, my right fingers wrapped around a thick root, maybe the size of child's wrist. I instinctively pulled it down towards my chest, and by some miracle, it held. I matched hands, worried that the root could give way at any moment, smeared my feet on the face and threw my body over the ledge and towards the trees. I wrapped my arms around a slender tree trunk, too afraid to look up in fear of seeing another pitch of vertical rock.
Mercifully, the route leveled out. I found an overgrown trail that looked like something out of Jurassic Park and, after a few minutes walk and a hop over a short security fence, I was standing in the middle of the cable car offloading platform. Shirtless, sunburned, dehydrated and caked with a mix of dirt, sweat and blood, tourists parted around me like a river around a rock.
Standing on that summit, my brain coming to terms with the flat terra firma beneath my feet, I felt a sense of elation that was like nothing I could remember. The pain in arms and legs, the dozens of tiny cuts all over my body, the sunburn, dehydration and even the taunts and pointing of Brazilian children pointing to my pale, too soft midriff didn’t matter. The feeling buoyed me, convincing my legs that I could ignore the easy ride down in a cable car and instead make the downhill hike to the base of the mountain. It carried me all the way back to the hostel with a smile on my face and into bed that night with a deep sense of satisfaction.
The next morning though, the feeling had already started to fade. I stared up at the summit of Pao D’Acucar longingly. I imagined climbers gearing up to make the ascent and got jealous, as if the mountain were an old lover and each of them a new flame. I knew I had to find that feeling again, and that I would have to find it beyond Costão, beyond Pao D’Acucar, beyond Brazil and maybe even beyond mountains all together.
Since that day, I’ve been chasing that feeling. And, while I don’t go out and intentionally try to end my life or hurt myself, I do partake in a lot of activities that I know are going to hurt and that carry some risk of death. Last weekend I rode over 100 miles between Vancouver and Seattle off the couch. A little over a month ago I climbed three of the highest mountains in Spain in the same day. Right now, I’m looking at a trail map of the Baden Powell trail, a 50 km traverse across Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains, and thinking about trail running the whole thing in one day, despite the fact that I’ve never run more than 15km in one go. The truth is that I do these things because there is some kind of guarantee of suffering, and while there is a certain degree of masochism in it, what really drives me is knowing that on the other side of that suffering is a feeling of pure, unencumbered joy, a hit of that Brazilian high.