This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 227 (July 2015).
And so it came to pass that some money was waved under my nose just so I would go someplace for some event and ask some people some questions. I said yes right away. That this place was Kalymnos, the climbing paradise just off the coast of Greece, that this event was The North Face’s annual climbing festival, and that these people were some of the greatest climbers of the 1980s and ’90s had nothing to do with it. The money was enough to convince me.
And lo, last November I made my way greedily across Europe, arriving finally on the shores of the island of Kos, waiting for the ferry to little Kalymnos, famous since the time of Aristotle for its prized sponges and soft grades. The gig was to host an opening and closing ceremony plus a main event, where I would be onstage in front of a crowd of young people coaxing tales and memories from six men whom I would once have called The Greatest.
As the ferry chugged toward my port, I began to feel a little nervous, recalling those cinematic lines: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” In a crisis of confidence I stopped at a street seller and spent two euros on a blue cap emblazoned with a tiger and sprinkled in diamantes. It looked like the
sort of hat an interesting person would wear. In its comforting shade I boarded the ship.
On the island: I was met by two beautiful girls in tight North Face costumes. They organized my luggage, got me to the hotel, gave me the keys to a moped and brought me a mojito. My blue hat was working.
“Please come and meet the Legends,” Stephanie said.
The “Legends”? How pompous. I followed her, ready to sneer. Yet there they were, six men active in years past, yet still bursting at the seams with greatness. Yuji Hirayama, Ben Moon, Jibé Tribout, Boone Speed. Some other famous-looking people. Oh god! I suddenly understood how a 16-year-old girl felt in the front row of a Beatles concert in 1964.
Over the next few days I got to know the Legends, a few of them new to me. Gerhard Horhager, for example, was an Austrian based in the Zillertal. I’m not sure what his thing was, but no doubt it involved 8c+ somewhere. Man, he was cool. Super relaxed, one of the most relaxed cats I’ve ever met. He didn’t do loads of talking, but what he did say was really nice. He didn’t trot out opinions or facts or numbers. He was one of those people you could sit
with and not have to say anything, just sit in silence and it would be totally comfortable. He was a Zen master.
Either that or he was one of those really dull people you meet.
My role on stage first involved a night of welcomes to everyone: the climbers, the locals, the workers, the mayor. Another night was the big caper on stage with the Legends. I asked them questions, tried to get them to admit to chipping or lying about ascents, and got the crowd to stick their noses in. This seemed like a big success, and everyone dug hearing the old boys talk and reminisce. Afterwards we all buzzed and it felt great to be one of them, until young people would approach us for a photo, but then ask me to step away and take the picture.
As part of the Legends Climbing Event, the Legends were to develop a new sector on the neighboring island of Telendos as The North Face’s gift to the region. I went there and found, among crowds, the famous old men attempting routes on pieces of rock that looked like the sort of thing people would have to climb on in England. Pros to a man, they were smiling.
I spotted Jens Larssen, the brains behind 8a.nu, and went over to say hello. He was waterboarding some Eurowad to make him confess what V-grade the crux of his latest nine-plus would be.
“I don’t even know,” the Eurowad pleaded. “The information!” Jens repeated.
“I can’t breathe … V12!”
“Excellent. Now take him away.”
I smiled, then noticed a little fresh-faced boy in a yellow down jacket surrounded by older bald men. Christ on a bike. It was Alex I-Onsighted-9a-before-Adam-Ondra Megos, the German uberkind. Megos tied in and started climbing while I went and hid under a rock and looked on. I have seen enough good climbers in my time that I find watching them a bit dull: Megos almost bored me to death. He lowered off, put his trainers on and milled off into a little crowd.
I had to speak to him, to get the tick. After a minute I slid out from under the rock, put my blue confidence-cap on and nudged closer to him. I passed
through the cordon of bald men, who looked toward Megos with a proprietary air, the way scientists would eye a favorite petri dish. He was speaking to Yuji so I wormed my way near. As I arrived they were laughing at something, so I chimed in.
“Ha ha ha ha ha!”
They looked at me oddly but I soon got into the conversation and gave them the benefit of my opinions. I observed Megos. He spoke each word with equal pitch and they came out, every now and then, like ticker tape. He was amazing looking, so young, with the freshest skin I had ever seen. Not a wrinkle or blemish. He looked like something that had just hatched out of an egg. At one point he moved between the sun and me, and I swear the sunlight passed right through him and I could pick out his organs.
But I’ll tell you this about Megos. That little hatchling’s pretty funny. Someone in his position tends to attract floaters, hangers-on and glory hunters. People like me. And a few times I saw him deliver killer lines in a deadpan manner in response to inane comments or questions from the floaters.
In the middle of one conversation, someone wandered over to his group and started mouthing off. The Floater made a big deal out of something, complained.
“You should go and tell them, Alex, you should go and tell them,” he said in a slightly annoying manner.
Amid a quiet, slightly tense pause among the group, Megos looked up from the gravelly floor and split the silence.
“I think you should tell them. You have the big mouth.”
He had delivered a good line with great timing, and you don’t expect that from a 9a climber.
EVENINGS WERE SPENT in seafood restaurants, eating our way through the North Face expense account. Here, to make up for my inadequacies,
I would play the 8c-Or-Above Game. Every time I heard someone saying 8c or above I would knock the table and weird people out. After the first night
my knuckles were raw. This was mainly due to the Pou brothers, Iker and Eneko, who spit out the grade “9a” every fourth word.
The following night I played the Boone-Speed-Super Game. Boone was doing hard sport routes in America around the millennium, back when America was in the mags a lot and had a mythical influence in Europe. Everyone dreamed of trips to the States and a few of my friends who went there came back having picked up various Americanisms: a lack of cynicism, carrying guns and saying “super” a lot. Super-goosed, super rad. Super Tweak.
Boone’s a great guy. Cool, with an artistic vibe and a great speaker. And by the way he used “super” I decided that he must have invented the word, or at least its overuse. Around the dinner table he was super-hungry. Super-amped. Super-relaxed. So every time Boone said “super” I would knock the table. Second night my knuckles were worse than the first. Another night I was witness to an amazing thing. Back when I was a new climber, when sport climbing was young in Europe, a bit of a rivalry sprang up between England and France. The two captains of the teams had been Ben Moon and Jibé Tribout, fiercely competitive, seldom seeing eye-to-eye. They were both here, older now, but still with a touch of 1988 about the way they felt toward each other. Over the course of a few days, I saw them warm up. One night, after some wine, it all came out.
“What about Maginot Line?”
“It was my project.”
“That was never 8c!”
“I downgraded it.”
“You went off route.”
“Didn’t we have a fight on a bus?”
“Yes, what about?”
After that they had a right old cuddle.
They were all grins and you could see they knew the other was a massive part of one of the great times of their lives.
I had a couple of half days climbing. This was all good and I was enjoying Kalymnos’ famous tufas, though not as much as its famously soft grades. However, on the second day I developed something that was to stop my climbing dead in its tracks: a savage hemorrhoid. I have written about this little devil before. She has been my companion now for so many years I have a name for her. Lucille flared up agonizingly on day two, making all movement difficult. I suffered with embarrassment. On day three, desperate for some meds, I tried at the breakfast bars to fall into conversation with pregnant women, then to work the conversation around to high blood pressure, then ask them flat out if they had any pile ointment.
That failing, I found a backstreet pharmacy, a small bright shop at the top of some steps.
“Hemorrhoids,” I said to the pharmacist.
“?” she said.
“Hemorrhoids,” I shouted.
Time to mime. I pointed to my bottom, then made what, to me, is how piles feel. A fist. A big knuckly fist. I pointed to my bottom again.
“Ah,” she said. “Come back at 6:00. Coming from the other side of the island.”
It was 4 now. Blast. I was desperate. And what did she even mean? Not knowing whether to expect some pile ointment or a rough Greek fisherman, I waddled desperately back to the shop at 6.
“Not here yet. Come at 11:00.”
“Tomorrow?” I gasped.
Tonight? What the hell comes at 11 at night! Five hours to go.
In the restaurant that evening I excused myself at 10:30, hopped on my scooter and buzzed to the pharmacist.
There she was, smiling, an angel of mercy. She passed me the ointment kindly, and I gave her a bunch of euros. Thank you, thank you. I buzzed back to the restaurant, ran to the toilets, ripped the packaging off, screwed the long pointed nozzle into the gear and sank it deep.
ONE MORNING I found myself with no public duties. I decided I would be adventurous and do what some people had recommended: a scooter ride around the island. Making that decision felt plucky, giving me a sense of determination and self-confidence. I couldn’t help but boast about it. I saw Eddie. Eddie Gianelloni was a photographer traveling with Yuji. In articles like this, people always write “a great photographer.” I have no
idea what sort of photographer he is.
“Hey, Eddie, guess what I’m doing?”
“Cool. Yuji and I are doing that, too. We’ll do it together.”
An hour later we buzzed out of town on a beautiful two-stroke afternoon. We got on the open road, hitched back on the throttle, and set off around the island on empty roads through beautiful villages. We stopped in a town where we went to a sponge shop, got really excited about sponges and bought some. Eddie called a halt to take some photos of a sweet church. We stopped in a small port village and sat for a while at a tavern waiting for a lunch of fresh octopus. The locals were watching daytime TV and lo, our event was on TV and there on screen was Yuji. The locals were impressed.
“Great climber,” I joked to them, pointing at Hirayama. “First climber to flash 8c.”
They smiled, impressed. Yuji pulled a funny face that he always pulls for photos, his Blue Steel. What a legend. Yuji has the magic. I had always looked out for him in the mags in the 1990s. He always looked great, always on big routes, he wasn’t the generic white man, and you could just tell he was a really nice person. It was no surprise that he is.
Later we rounded a windy col, then dropped down again into the warming light of the setting sun. I was conscious of being present in an amazing moment, a special event that would head straight to the memory bank. As such, the moment is almost nostalgic, even as you experience it. Eddie and Yuji overtook me on a slow, windy downhill, hollering something funny. I gave them the finger, my outstretched fingers pointing straight into the golden carpet of the sun’s long reflection.
NIALL GRIMES lives in Sheffield, England, and is available for hire for any climbing functions or social events. His column “Lines of Weakness” appears in every other issue of Rock and Ice.