CLIMBING IN THE CAYMAN ISLANDS
Liz Grenard charging up 'Chum Buckets' on the southeast coastline.
"Climbing is not a sport, it is a way of life.
The way you get to the top expresses who you are, your values and the type of life you are living.
Climbing takes place in nature. It is a school of life."
( Patrick Edlinger )
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It was nearing 2:00 AM on Grand Cayman Island and the oppressive shroud of dense humidity was suffocating. I was fighting a nasty headache acquired from a rollicking time at Billy Bone's Bar as well as an unquenched desire to climb. Knowing there was nothing higher than the Hyatt Resort clock tower on the island (the highest geographical point on Grand Cayman is 18'!), I settled for traversing the coral block walls of the Owen Roberts International Airport - and got caught by the local police! Without doubt they thought I was 'under the influence', and upon spying my little bag of white powdered gymnastic chalk, they knew it for sure! After being taken to Police headquarters and questioned for an hour, I finally convinced them of my generally intact mental status and harmless intentions. One smirking gendarme said "you should go try the Bluff on Cayman Brac Mon, they gots some high cliffs on that place over there". WHOW!! I headed out over 90 miles of open water towards Cayman Brac by seaplane right after sunrise. Looking down through bloodshot eyes, the island appeared out of the haze like a little paramecium floating in a cobalt blue expanse of sea, and much to my amazement, there really was a vertical adventureland on its northern tip. And in my rather fragile state, I had little problem imagining how it must have been when these remote islands were first encountered by explorers centuries before.
During his fourth (and final) voyage, Columbus was heading for Cuba when he was blown off course by a storm of prodigious proportions. Consequently, he mistakenly came into sight of a small, but long island with a thin strip of coastal plain surrounding rocky highlands. He noted in his log on the 10th of May, 1503, that "we are in sight of this island ... full of tortoises, as is all the sea about, insomuch as they look like little rocks". He claimed the island (actually all three Cayman Islands, known today as Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) for Spain and then the little triad of islands languished for nearly another century in the warm tropical sun awaiting further discovery. Sir Francis Drake sailed through Cayman waters on a land acquisition mission for England in 1586, claiming the islands and named them 'the Caymans' for the presence of "many great serpents ... large lizards, which are edible" (Caymanas is the scientific name of marine crocodiles). Soon, the activities of the fearsome, lawless 'Bretheren of the Sea' (Pirates) began to escalate and the Caymans made a great hideout, providing many small natural inlets which were well protected by dangerous hidden reefs. Characters as infamous and hideous as Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackam, Henry Morgan and Ann Bonney walked the Cayman shores. Of course, nowhere in the Caribbean was there better hiding places for booty than the caves along the Bluff walls of Cayman Brac. Perhaps these really were the first known safe deposit boxes - and perhaps the pirates turned into climbers to get there ... we'll never know.
Despite their seemingly colorful history, not many came to these islands voluntarily. The early mariners came only to provision their ships with fresh water (mainly from the Bluff's convenient aquifer) and stock up on turtle meat, leaving as soon as they could. There was virtually nothing else of value to be found. Aside from being far away from the main trade routes like the Windward Passage, it was an extremely inhospitable place. One could not walk here without risking serious injury from a fall on razor sharp ironshore (rock they call 'Hell' on Grand Cayman today), there was almost no tillable soil and the inland swamps swarmed with biting creatures and dense clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. Today, however, things are very different. Grand Cayman is a tourist mecca, receiving over 1.3 million visits per year not counting over 900,000 visitors from cruise ships. It is a financial hotspot with over 600 banks and investment firms represented within its shoreline, the fifth largest financial center in the world. Over 850,000 divers come to Grand Cayman each year to enjoy the underwater spectacle of pristine visibility, highly decorated reefs and a wide variety of fish species. However things are different on Cayman Brac. It is a small, laid back place consisting of about 1,500 hearty individuals mostly stemming from a few core families that settled here around 1850. Everything moves along on "island time", roughly half-speed, genuine friendliness and warmth prevails, there are no traffic jams and not one traffic light. The fact is, a Cayman 'Bracker' of 75 years ago would still find much that was familiar to him in the every day scene today - EXCEPT CLIMBING !
After my impromptu plane ride two month's before, I returned to Cayman Brac like a pirate in search of treasure with a trusted climbing buddy, some bolts, a rope and a dream in August of '94. Through a stroke of luck, I convinced Ernie Johnson there was great climbing and diving on 'The Brac'. I didn't mention that I hadn't set foot on the island, but I just knew things would pan out. One learns to improvise in a forced situation like this. Bolting sport routes on limestone at sea level in tropical conditions proved more than we had anticipated. We guzzled water by the liter and roasted like pigs on a spit in the relentless heat. We quickly found out the color of the rock correlated with 'sharpness', buff for buttery smooth and dark grey was similar to the main course at a piranha feeding frenzy. Ernie named the first route after looking me over when I returned to the ground from bolting it - the top 1/3 was grey in color! He called it "CHUM BUCKETS" - use your imagination. Moreover, half of our gear hadn't arrived and neither did Ernie's clothes - getting to Brac was difficult back then. The gear came the next day, but Ernie's clothes didn't and we ended up sharing my 4 pairs of shorts for 5 days - not good!! We did manage to finish two routes near what we called 'the Orange Cave' on the southeast coastline and left the island with tails dragging.
I did an enthusiastic sales job on a group of very skilled Colorado climbers and in the Spring of '95, this core group, Luebben, Bracksieck, Grenard, Elison and Roberts (Las Vegas) returned to "The Brac". Here are a few 'thumbnails' of the trip scanned from old color prints......
World traveler, climber, diver and magazine owner/publisher George Bracksieck tops out on a North Wall route at sundown. By this time, we were protecting our ropes from abrasion with palm fronds. I think he liked this climb!! George staked his claim on the exact Northeast Point of the island, so he put in "What's the Point", a great recreational bucket pull right there.
Forever the hardest of hardwomen and competitive sport climber, Liz Grenard starts up her very first climb on Brac near the Orange Cave. We all agreed that the climbing here got a little sharp up high, so we set off to explore the rest of the Bluff. After chartering Shelby Scott to take us around the entire North End by boat, we started scouting out the North Wall. Liz started bolting right away, and some of her very best work, like "Frolickin Frigates" and "Parrot Preserves on Rye", is found at Wave Wall.
Here's Craig Luebben heading out for a normal day's work ... (if you consider bolting a 5.11c sport route over pounding waves in the middle of the Caribbean Sea "normal"). I've seen the same scene on Mona Island off of Puerto Rico, when we went to Cuba to find climbing there and many other places. He's always the same, full of energy, very highly skilled and someone hard to keep up with - but you want to. Craig was only on Brac this one time, but his inventive routes like "Going to Cayman with a Snorkel in my Jeans" and "Pillage and Plunder" are a telling remnant of his presence here.
Jim Roberts is a climber and EMT from Las Vegas. Here he is practicing his trade by giving a loudly snoring Luebben a lobotomy with a power drill. This was probably the only day I have ever seen Luebben not up before the sun, a fitting commentary on how much effort it took to climb, bolt routes, dive and party - all in the same 24 hour period in the tropics. What a tough life.
By the end of our trip, we added 18 more exciting routes, mostly along the spectacular North Wall overhanging the sea. This adventure was written by Luebben and me as an article published in Rock & Ice Climbing Magazine entitled "Hidden Treasure" (Vol. 69, 1995). Since then, several individuals, of particular note Jeff Elison, Liz Grenard and (less so) myself, have contributed climbs in additional areas to take advantage of secluded locations or those more difficult to access (see a second article by myself called "Back on Brac; New sport routes on Caribbean Limestone" in Rock & Ice, Vol 101, 1997). Today, there are nearly 80 climbs on the island, a couple of 5.8's, a few 5.9's, and many from 5.10 through 5.12. There's also a home owned by climbers within walking distance of some climbs, a testament to their dedication, tenacity and how much they enjoy living and climbing here. Go to the Cayman Brac section of TradGirl.com, nicely maintained by John Byrnes, for lots more climbing information, helpful hints, interactive messages and more photographs......
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