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Place of Happiness

Stefan Glowacz and friends make a first ascent on South America's largest rock monolith, ground up and all out.

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An acrid cloud of smoke from the fireworks wafted across Sao Jose do Divino, a small village in the remote northeastern corner of Brazil. Throbbing drum-beats and angry roars from an excited crowd filled the tropical air, and it wouldn’t have taken much to imagine this as the scene of an ancient ritual. In fact, our crew—an international climbing team comprised of Edemilson Padiha of Brazil; Horacio Gratton of Argentina; and Holger Heuber, myself, and a photographer, Klaus Fengler, all from Germany—were witness to the village’s most important rite of the year: It was the final soccer game and the southern part of Sao Jose do Divino was to square off against the northerners.

For months the locals had been feverishly awaiting the event and people arrived from all directions in rusted jalopies, cram-packed buses and by horseback. One villager even rode a cow. But despite the run up to the match, ultimately and ironically it didn’t matter who won. As soon as the ref’s final whistle blew, loudspeakers began pumping out South American rhythms, the village girls’ hips began swaying and the party started.

Our group stepped up to join in the celebration while keeping a bleary eye on the prize, the Piedra Riscada, a 2,600-foot rock that rises from the lush tropical forest just outside the village. The Piedra Riscda is the largest rock monolith in South America. It’s the “Ayers Rock of Brazil,” and would be a remarkable geological wonder anywhere on earth.

The jewel of Piedra Riscada had been revealed to me five years before by Pere Vilarasua, a climber from Spain living in Argentina. I’d met Vilarasua while climbing around Bariloche, Argentina. He had made the first ascent of Planeta do Macaco on the formation of Filhoce, also near Sao Jose do Divino, and showed me photos of the area. The Piedra Riscda already had several routes to its summit, but the most striking line up its prominent nose was unclimbed One look and I knew what had to be done.

Arriving, we had been welcomed by the man behind the scenes of Sao Jose do Divino is Edemilson Duarte, son of the previous mayor, rock musician, farmer, passionate hobby politician and the leading village visionary. Duarte boldly dreamed of crowds of tourists and climbers making pilgrimages to the Piedra Riscarda, and to accommodate them built a modern guesthouse that would seem better suited to Mars than among the tile-roofed dwellings of this lovely area. Duarte kindly offered us the guesthouse, and after many glasses of Cachaca, a rum-like beverage made from sugar cane that can blur vision and render even seasoned drinkers into blithering jellyfish, he put his arms around us, winked, and said, “Guys, no matter what you do, I´ll take care of you.”

We were in paradise. The temperature was pleasant, the humidity low and the scenery spectacular. From our quarters we could easily see the Piedra Riscarda and numerous other imposing walls, none less than 1,000 feet high, along the horizon. We felt as if we had discovered Yosemite. That the walls were barren of cracks appeared but a minor setback relative to the issue of the plant life that sprang from them. A botanist would have been amazed by the sight, but it filled us with dread. Only the right edge corner of the Piedra Riscada, looming like the keel of the sinking Titanic and split at least in part with a clean crack system at mid-height, gave us any hope.

Our “climbers’ code of ethics” dictated that the first lead went to our South American friends, although anyone examining the first 600 feet of wall might have thought our intentions malicious. A sweeping slab of delicate friction plates protected by the occasional bolt steadily kicked out to the upper, gently overhanging headwall spackled with knobs. In the midday equatorial sun, padding up the low-angle rock in tight rock shoes was almost as masochistic as drinking as that Cachaca, but Edemilson and Horacio persevered. Soon we had the initial section behind us, and we retired to Duarte’s comfortable abode, a routine that we’d repeat for much of the lengthy climb.

Our situation became more dramatic. The increasingly steep route became more difficult, but back in town our growing late-night social responsibilities began to exact their toll. The stress of the partying peaked with a mandatory rock concert with Duarte in center ring, in a village 25 miles away. The red orb of the morning sun peeked over the ragged skyline before we made it back to Sao Jose de Divino, where we quickly changed clothes and plodded off toward our climb. After that episode, we split into two teams. One would climb while the other stayed behind to entertain the stream of visitors, whose numbers continued to swell like a rain-fed jungle stream.

The climbing went from foot-cramping friction slab to knobs, and real ledges remained non-existent with hanging belays. We cleared some pitches of dried-grass tufts, but overall the line was remarkably clean and vegetation-free. At half height, we entered the obvious dihedral and a thin, tricky bit of 5.12d crack climbing and stemming protected with Friends and nuts. After those three pitches, we ventured onto a sea of knobs and long but not dangerous runouts between bolts.

Sleepless nights back in the village were followed by nerve-wracking days as one of us would have to go up on lead, set a hook, and hang from it to drill. Each time we headed up we rolled the dice, never knowing if the climbing ahead would be 5.10 or 5.13, if a hook placement would appear and if it would hold. Doubt nagged at us like a chieftan’s fat wife, and always in the backs of our minds loomed the prospect of getting stranded out there among the knobs, unable to continue, unable to reverse. Amazingly, hookable knobs always appeared just when we needed them, and after equipping each pitch, we pulled the rope and redpointed it. Midway up, we set up a portaledge and lived off it for several days until our Bosch batteries died. From the portaledge we could watch monkeys on the lower ledge climbing about with the greatest of ease—thank God they didn’t climb our route!

In the mornings, the valleys remained shaded and covered with a silky layer of fog. After expeditions in dangerous wand far-reaching corners of the earth, we experienced unexpected feelings of harmony and security. No rockfall or Patagonian winds threatened to sweep us away, and even memories of hard-partying Sao Jose de Divino faded. Realizing our personal limits and peaceful moments such as we had then are life’s true riches, providing happiness and moments we never forget. We do not travel halfway around the world just to climb walls with hooks. This was “The Place of Happiness,” and we could not find a better name for our route.
We spent the last days all together on the wall, redpointing and pushing the line higher. After 10 days of sustained effort, we finally reached the end of the technical difficulties. We climbed hard and celebrated even harder, leaving with adventures we will longingly look back on while freezing our tails in Patagonian ice caves or igloos on Baffin Island. For those of you who are considering a trip to Sao Jose de Divino and getting on some pristine granite yourself, I recommend training up your fingers, steeling your nerves, but mostly arriving with the capacity to drink tub-loads of alcohol, wiggle your hips and utter a few charming Portuguese phrases.

Stefan Glowacz has won the Arco Rock Master and free climbed at the highest grades in remote regions all over the world. He is the founder of the manufacturer Red Chili and father of three.