San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rock Climbing on the Rise in Costa Rica

MOST weekends, Carlos Mora andFabián Lizano dangle from a line 40 feetabove the ground in a river valley hiddenbehind the Forum office center in SantaAna, southwest of San José, or from a rockface towering above a spring in theprovince of Cartago, east of the capital.They are rock climbers who have discoveredoverlooked nooks of their countryfrom inside a harness, by probing a hairlinecrack in a rock face with a finger taped atthe joints, and smearing a flat-soled slipperon a rocky nub for balance. They describetheir sport in terms of quickdraws, chalkbricks, rope lengths, belay devices and figure-eight knots. Though Costa Rica mightnever have earned a mention in Climbingmagazine, and climbers perched in thecrags of Patagonia or above Utah’s desertin Moab might think of Costa Rica’sbeaches, not its exposed rock, the sport isnascent and growing here.Mora and Lizano are part of a smallknot of dedicated rock climbers who havebeen sucked in by the sport’s challenge,thrill and beauty.“People who climb, they could go backand climb every day. It becomes an addiction,”Lizano said.SPORT climbing, for the uninitiated,is climbing aided by metal hangers drilledinto the rock where the rope is attachedwith quickdraws – two carabiners and anylon strap.It has only been possible for the lasttwo to three years in Costa Rica, since 21-year-old David Ulloa, one of three CostaRicans now climbing in the World Games2005 in Germany (see related article), andhis cousin, Andrés Ulloa, drilled hundredsof bolts into five sites in the Central Valleynear San José. They also began developingroutes around the country’s highest mountain,Chirripó, in the Southern Zone, buthave run into access problems because it islocated within a national park.The Central Valley routes are alongboth sheer and contoured faces, the mostextensive of which, believe it or not, is in atree-choked river valley right behind theForum office center in Santa Ana. It, likethe others, is one of those rarities in theworld’s climbing capitals: a private spot. Ithas all the range of difficulty and diversityof challenges – fissures from a hair’sbreadth to fist size, finger or bucket-sizedholes, routes like ladders or like a polishedmarble column – and there are never otherclimbers to compete with. They’re secretnot because the climbers are quiet aboutthem, but because there aren’t many peoplewho climb.THE difficulties on Costa Rican rockare endemic to the jungle: moss growsquickly and has to be brushed off, and, duringthe rainy season, trails are muddy andclimbs are best made in the early morningbefore the afternoon showers.Pushing to expand the routes availablein Costa Rica, members of climbing,spelunking and mountaineering organizationshave banded together under theumbrella of the Costa Rican Federation ofMountain Sports. The pact, which includesthe country’s oldest mountaineering organizationstill running, was inked last weekbetween the country’s oldest mountaineeringorganization, the University of CostaRica Mountaineering Club, and two othermountain-sports associations.Using their newly federated classificationas leverage, climbers hope to opennational parks to the sport, work to protectthe natural beauty around the rocks, andentice newcomers to take it up.“It’s a more individual sport,” Morasaid. “You have contact with nature; youmake good friends. The friendships youmake are real – I wouldn’t climb with justanyone.”FINDING the sites is difficult withouta guide, but here is a brief explanation:Rated by the Yosemite Decimal System(YDS), the standard in North America, theForum site offers climbs from a beginner’s5.7 to a 5.13a more suited to spiders andsuper-spies than people. There are about 30routes, the highest of which are 20 meters.The Cachí site in the Cartago provinceoffers 20 routes, rated 5.7 to 5.12b, thehighest of which are 25 meters.Those are the biggest sport-climbingsites; smaller ones can be found in RíoOro, near the Forum site in Santa Ana;Coliseo, in Piedades de Santa Ana; andAserrí, about 20 minutes south of SanJosé by car. The two routes in Chirripó,about five hours by car south of San José,are the tallest in the country – 30 meters,rated 5.10a.The outdoor gear supply shop MundoAventura (221-6934) hosts the country’sbiggest climbing gym in downtown SanJosé, and organizes day trips for climbersof all levels. The Mountaineering andClimbing Association, one of the membersof the federation, can also help organizetrips with its members. To contact the association,e-mail Ulloa at The Web site is incomplete, but it providesscanty information on climbing here, andshould be remodeled within a month as theassociation’s official site, Ulloa said.“People should come out; it’s not awell-known sport, but it’s not like socceror normal sports because it’s a personalchallenge,” Ulloa said. “There is alwayssomething harder to do. There are no limits– there’s always something more.”

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