Powered by pizza and espresso for the Sicilian challenge
After flying into Trapani airport on the Sicilian west coast and driving the tiny rental car 60 km to San Vito Lo Capo. I was in tourist mode, critically incompetent, babbling like the Safeway vegetable guy, driving slowly, and gaping at everything. At the town of Valderice, I strained my neck to see the ancient city Erice perched a thousand meters above when a car swerved past. I was going 40 km in a 30 zone and had been driving in Sicily for two hours and noticed 50 was the slowest people went in their miniature automobiles. I decided to turn the brain on, not be the mentally inept tourist but try to blend into the landscape like a local and put the pedal to the floor.
Thus began the rally race to San Vito but still Italian driving is erratic, predictably dangerous and my reflexes slow. Arriving at the beach side town of San Vito Lo Capo the Calamancina massive called to be climbed so we drove past the town’s cemetery and onto the rocky dirt track that led out to the crag. My partner uttered her mantra, ‘Don’t be gentle it’s a rental’ as the Fiat Panda bumped and scrapped its way along. Looking around there was lots of sheep shit, dried out desert grasses, fantastic clean limestone, the clean and clear Mediterranean and the thousands of brilliantly green coloured lizards.
We hurried to do a few quick routes in the evening light with the sectors of Calamancina, Campo Base, Grotta dei Santi, and Grotta del Cavallo (which is shaded all afternoon and has a few fantastic tufa routes; Archeotalpa -12b, Balu Yoghi E Bubu – 12c, Moquitos – 12d). The sun was about to set and a swim needed to happen to wash off the thick layer of sweat and fear that covered my body from the exciting driving. Then it was another bumpy trip into town for some delicious Italian wood fire oven Pizza, for the first supper as we watched the sunset.
Sicily is a desert island, a rock covered by olive grooves, powered by espresso and blown by warm African winds from 200 km south. There are many different climbing areas at San Vito Lo Capo; The Calamancina cliff band stretches from San Vito Lo Capo to behind El Bahira Camping, Macari (5km from San Vito Lo Capo) with the crags Lost World, Crown of Aragon, Cinema Paradiso, the area of Custonaci/Cornino (20Km from San Vito Lo Capo) with Parco Cerriolo and Never Sleeping Wall.
Most climbers mainly visit the crags along El Bahira Camping (Camping, Sinistra Pietraia and Pineta walls) and Calamancia. Sinestra Pietraia is the home of some 3 star routes Wilkinson -10a, Rosso e nero -10b, ashes to Ashes -10c, Red Peroni – 11d, Pipe line – 12d, Red Alert – 13a. These areas have a high concentration of routes, are the easiest to access from El Bahira Camping (if you have opted to not rent a car). Pineta Grotta is shaded all day and it makes for a good afternoon crag. With steep classics like Cavemen – 10c, Il Mintauro – 12b, The Wish – 13a, and Schattenlinie – 13b.
Schattenlinie translates as the dark line and the light was fading and bats were circling the squealing climbers, as I put my shoes on for a last blast red point attempt. I could only just see the two feet clearly above me but that is how big the bubble should be, two feet above, below and sideways. The climb pulls wildly out a roof on massive side pulls, the steeply up long moves on buckets. There is a nice knee bar rest but I only paused for two breaths and pulled with intent through the tufa crux to arrive at the chains as the bats squeaked past and my ‘bubble of focus’ was broken. As we walked back to the camping, the screams of ‘ Ich bin oben’, (I made it to the top) could be heard. The struggle of the newly inducted climber making their way to the top of the cliff behind El Bahira Camping Village was heart warming and brought back fond memories of my first climbing trips to far off places to hone skills and seek adventures. Sitting down to a cold Aperol spritz, we noticed the crag just outside of El Bahira was lit up at night till 10pm and would be good for a few routes after dinner such as Just for Fun – 5.6, White Shark – 5.8 (27 meters), Shirtcut – 10a, the 29 meter long Pilar – 10 and Knochenmanderl – 11d.
The days became a mix of sunrise, climb, swim, eat, climb again, swim, watch the sunset, and head into town for food or BBQ, this continued till for ten days without a proper rest day.The next day was time to experience Sicily’s culture but where to go Palermo (the capital of Sicily and the center of preforming arts), Erice (a well preserved ancient fortress town with plazas, stone churches, narrow cobbled streets and castles), Mt. Etna (the islands highest point, 3600m, a still active volcano).We decided on Erice and it did not disappoint, only an hour from San Vito and with great views of the sea, lots tourist souvenirs, 500 year old churches, coffee shops, cobbled streets, and the friendly animated, hearing impaired Italians in their travel vests (like a fisherman’s vest full of pockets) and aviator sunglasses.
The ricotta desert Cassatelle is not to be missed, it is a cookie sandwich with ricotta between two fillo pastry biscuits, for the North American red neck, ‘Its like a copy of a nabisco Oreo’.
One of the must see crags is Cala Firriato, the psycobloc or deep water solo area. The top outs are about eight meters high with endless problems and is not psycho, but intoxicating and addictive. The recorded problems range from V0 to V5 but there is potential for much harder routes. The cliff stretches and bends into caves, beside dihedrals, yielding roofs, and always looms above the six-meter deep water. It is textured limestone with a cobble matrix is some places, sandstone like slopers, tufa secretions and perfect limestone pockets. Each day I went to Cala Firriato (3 times) there were child like screams from 30-40 year old Canadian, Italian, German men and women. There are no lifeguards to stop the excitement, horseplay, insanity, nudity, only two old Italian fisherman who showed up an hour before sunset one evening and they did not seem disturbed or angered by our splashing and Cliff Jumping.
One day we decided to drive to Macari and check out the fantastic Lost World cave for a sunset climb.The long steep tufa fins and someone’s hanging draws on the 5.12d of ‘In vinum veritas’, called to be climbed. I thought it would take all my tufa trickery to warm up and on sight the route so taking all the gear off the harness because I needed to be that 200 grams lighter. Now light and free I swung my way up the tufa rails and blobs, using egyptians, knee bar rests, blasting through the cruxes and the rusty bolts did not phase me until the last rest. Here I noticed that the next bolt did not have a quick draw, the route was not completely equipped, ‘Shithouse’. I was already two meters above my last draw, with numerous rusted and questionable bolts below and the anchor was another five meters away. Not bothering to look down I looked up and the anchor did have a single lower off biner, ‘ whew that is a positive’, I calmly thought. Thoughts of breaking holds, bad bolts, and a gut wrenching long fall into space swirled in my mind. Taking some calm deep breaths, clearing my mind and focussing on what needed to be done, I climbed lightly, swiftly and with intent to the anchor.
About 20km west of San Vito Lo Capo is the town of Custonaci or the village of Cornino which has two of the best walls to climb at, Never Sleeping wall and Parco Cerrilio.
The long vertical wall at Never Sleeping wall has solid white orange tufas and a 100-meter approach from the parking lot. The 25-meter Silent Sleep – 10c on long white tufas steaks is a super wake up, along with Fun & Seitenstrang – 10d, Long Sleep – 11a, Sweet Dreams are made of this – 11b, Bela Susana – 11d, and Tears of Freedom – 12a. Tears of Freedom has been described as the best 5.12a tufa route in the world and it does not disappoint with 35 meters long vertical tufa tears and blobs only be broken midway by the transfer to the upper tufa streak. As the sun peaked over the cliff we drove 2km to the endurance routes at Parco Cerrilio.
Half of this wall stays in the shade all day and usually has a nice breeze blowing. With Festivus Reglettas – 12c, Tratt – 12b and Frederich – 11d, all having a mega overhang eight meter boulder problem followed by 24 meters of enjoyable slightly overhanging endurance climbing on slots, pockets, flakes, and jugs. The other half of the wall comes into the sun around noon and has the best 6a in San Vito and my favourite single pitch, Ginger her 28 meters of steep fluid movement on crisp pleasurable holds has a full bosom. To come over to Custonaci were some my favourite days to escape the crowds and climb some ‘bella routas.’
San Vito Lo Capo is easy to access and a culturally rich destination worthy of climbers looking for sun, pizza, pasta, espresso, swimming, gelato, olives, pistachios, sea food (octopus, squid, fish), relaxation, friendly climbing and super beaches.
Swimming in the sea is a real pleasure but at some times the jellyfish (Medussa, Pelagia noctiluca), litter the shallow water and their sting can be more irritating than painful.
One stung me when I carelessly jumped into frothing water and never noticed the little fuckers floating around. A venom is released from the tentacles and the burning sensation occurs or painful itchy red rash at the point of contact. I later found out that the stung area can be covered with house hold vinegar to reduce the severity of the sting. A few days later my partner was stung in the foot by a wasp, and we went to the Pharmacy to buy some cortisone cream. Surprisingly no prescription was necessary here, “Prego, si, si, si, va bene e mille grazie Senora” uttered loudly and with extravagant hand gestures seems to be appropriate for every situation in Italy. The brilliant routes have water dropped pockets, jugs, steep overhangs, tufa balls, long tufa rails, huecos, and lots of moderate graded climbs. A car adds to the flexibility of a trip to Sicily it lets you see a lot more of the crags but can result in a side mirror smashing event. This has to be expected after two shots of espresso.
One last tip is try to visit during the Couscous Festival this is usually each year in Sendtember. There are concerts, fireworks, dancing, arts, crafts and the town is filled with food stalls.