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Exploring the un-explored: Sicily – the hidden heaven for climbers

As a “winaholic”, I have always wanted to go to Sicily. I have fallen in love with the white wines from the region ever since I visited Rome last year. However, I have never thought I would be visiting Sicily as a climber and not just a typical tourist.

My journey to visit Sicily as a climber started when my friend Anuj introduced me to the climbing trip to Sicily. I reached out to Alessia, the co-founder of Mapo Tapo right away and asked “is this trip okay for an amateur who barely even climb before?”. The answer is “yes” and I signed up right away.

The ticket is booked. I was added to the Telegram group. I counted down for the trip. And here is where the magic started.


Day 1: Descending to the climbing heaven

My first day of the trip was right after the “virtual graduation” of INSEAD MBA 20J. I remembered I was drinking until around 1 am before I realized that I really should go to sleep before I get too drunk.

Sicily trip was my first time flying from Orly Airport after nearly one full year in France! The impact of Corona Virus Crisis on the airline industry was very clear. One terminal at the airport was closed. There is strict control of entrance into the airport (those without a boarding pass cannot enter the airport). There is even a passport and visa check before you go to the gate – this is quite uncommon given the free travel within the Schengen region.

Landing at Palermo Airport, I could already see why people love Sicily and how it can be climbing heaven. There are a lot of mountains, cliffs, and beaches. One surprising thing about Sicily was how warm and dry the island is. My experience with Italy was Rome, Milan, and Florence – all of them are very cool and somewhat humid. The landscape of Sicily is almost like northeastern Thailand to me.

Our main BnB was with B&B Polvere di Stelle, owned by Cata, our local guide himself. This is the first time our full group eventually meet! The first dinner is a BBQ (pork belly and beef) and A LOT of side dishes (e.g., salads, rice). The star of the meal however was the pesto dips! There were two versions – the red one with tomato flavor and the green one with pistachio. Both are super yummy – especially when paired with grilled meat and Sicilian wine!

As usual, a Western European meal cannot be ended without digestifs. We had 3 choices of amaretto and a bottle of limoncello. As a self-claimed alcoholic, I really want to try all amaretto, but I held back as I have already drunk quite a lot of wine, and I rationalized that we will have 2 more nights to try the other two (never actually happened by the way). After digestifs, tiramisu was served, but we were already super full! At that point, I really believe that one can die from eating too much in one meal…

My BnB was at the place called Dependence, which is ~300m from the main BnB. The place is super nice! We have a big swimming pool and our host is very welcoming. Honestly, I didn’t get to see much of the view since we arrived at the place around midnight and crashed nearly right away.


Day 2: First ascend to the mountain top

The next morning I got up at 8 am. Done some yoga before waking up everyone else in the house. Everything was normal until we reached the BnB, where we finally found out that our breakfast was actually pastries! Sicilians eat pastries (e.g., cakes and soft bread) for breakfast!

Our first climbing started with 5A – 6A top-rope climbing. It was the first time I have heard of “lead” – as in setting up the rope line for other people. It was really amazing to see Cata and Peppe, our other local guide, climb up so fast to set up very difficult routes that, even with rope, we still struggled to finish.

It was a race against the sun because we have to finish climbing before the sun hit our spot. I managed to climb one 4B / 5A in the morning. However, it was a successful climb only because my belayer was pulling me up during the last stage of the climb.

As the sun started to hit our spot, we moved to another location with better shade. This has more difficult routes (probably around 6A / 6B). This is beyond my current fitness and experience level for real. However, I tried one of them anyway with the target of just reaching the third lock. I ended up reaching the fourth before being completely dead.

By the end of the morning climbing, most of us, despite putting on sunscreen, were quite burned (literally) and burned out. We had a quiet lunch at a random road-side restaurant, which turned out to have very good sandwiches, arancinis, and local desserts!

My pool was put to good use today as we all needed to cool ourselves down from all the burns today. I also had some time to practice handstand, which is a complete opposite of all the pulling from climbing. At some point, the BnB owner came out to warn us to lower the volume of our music, but also ended up offering us some home-grown berries. Thinking back – that was quite a funny conversation!

We had a BIG dinner, which seems like a theme for this trip! The restaurant was a 30-minute drive from our place, but it was well worth the drive. We had 7 appetizers, 3 mains (pasta), and some ice cream for dessert. Wine is, as usual, free-flow with a digestif. By the end of the dessert, I was both tipsy and full!


Day 3: Floating in bouldering heaven of Scorace Forest

It was such a pleasant surprise that I was not sore at all in the morning after such a strenuous use of my upper body muscles the day before. I guess a big thank you to all my yoga practice that gave me the flexibility to not get easily injured is in order.

After the usual pastry breakfast, we drove to the Scorace Forest for bouldering. It was actually quite an adventurous drive – zig-zagging through the forest and mountains. We were nearly lost on the way to our climbing spot. Lesson learned – do not trust live location on Telegram…

The climbing spot was, at first, a very vast area with nothing much to climb really. However, as we walked for 5 minutes into the forest, it IS bouldering heaven! Cata is very prepared with 20+ of his crashpads being stored in some hidden cave nearby. Within less than an hour, we had at least 4-5 spots with different difficulty levels for us to climb.

As an amateur, I started off with an easy one which is only around 2-meter height. One rookie mistake that I made was that I climbed without any spotter. I made it, and it rendered me a great shot from Massimo, our on-site photographer, but it was also quite dangerous to be honest – especially in a more difficult boulder.

The second one I tried was a fun one where we have to use a lot of push from the feet to climb up diagonally to a quarter of way up, then it was an easy climb. I failed on the first 1-2 attempts because I am used to using my upper body quite a lot. However, I managed to climb it on my third attempt (third time is a charm right?), and it was such a great experience and view from the top of that boulder!

The third one was a tricky one. Instead of using a lot of lower body, this one is all about hanging, pulling, and pushing. I ended up using all my upper body strength to hold myself and push it up to the top of the boulder. Not a nice view – but felt super accomplished!

The fourth, the failed, and the most difficult for today (for me at least) was a 6A/B one with which doesn’t have much to step, hold, or grip. Especially mid-way through, being a short person, I extended my arm to full length, managed to grip with 3 fingers, then I donated some blood and skin sample to the boulder on the way down. I tried a few times after that but still didn’t make it.

Another fun part of the trip was actually to see great climbers and your friends climb like a monkey to the top of the boulder. One of us injured his knee but still conquered the one that I failed! However, it was fun to actually see how far I can go in this difficult route so that next time, I can try to go further on this boulder.

The lunch was packed from this morning, but the surprising thing was the Sicily’s award-winning cannoli! It was delivered on-site – fresh and cold with runny cream. I was so yummy although I don’t think I could ever finish an entire piece on my own.

After lunch and cannoli, a lot of us left for some beach time. However, being the crazy sporty person that I am (or would like to think that I am), I decided to stay and do some more climbing. We did a crazy overhang one that I managed to climb only halfway. Another one cool one was the overhang with slope, which I failed multiple times before I managed to get it. However, some other people went even crazier and jump up to grab the rock before climbing to the end of the cliff. Hats off to that!

The afternoon ended with a farewell to our photographer – Massimo. We headed back to our BnB to enjoy the hot tub. For me, I ended up drinking some beer, see the sunset, do some handstand, and lastly, munched on the BBQ and Pizza like there is no tomorrow!


Day 4: Floating in the sea and last ascend to the canyon

This is the day that made me nervous the most because it is something entirely new for me – free deep water solo on a cliff with nothing to save you but a clean bed of seawater.

The morning climbing started off with a trek down to the cliff where we ended up seeing a large U-shaped cliff to climb. We separated into two groups – one who wanted to do deep water solo and another who want to just jumped into the water. At first I was planning to just stay at and chill, but I also gave into my desire to just try once – and I did! The overhanging climb in the middle of the sea is a bit nerve-wracking, but once I got really tired and dropped myself into the water, it actually felt very safe. After a few attempts of climbing and falling, I ended up at the cliff again to do some fun yoga with some headstand and flying split.

Funny thing was Cata came up and said “Wow!”. Then, he went off to do the human flag on a cliff… In my head, I went “what was that wow for?” … It’s still very impressive to see a human being doing this stuff though!

Lunch was by the beach today, and we had a chance to see the beach for 5 mins. Now, I understand why Sicily is known for beaches. However, it’s also a bit sad that we didn’t have a chance to actually experience the beach in full.

Last, but my most favorite part, the spot was the canyon. It is two tall walls with multiple climbing routes while providing us shades at the same time. Here, there are multiple routes from 5A to 7A/B. A lot of people got to lead for the first time and it was an amazing sight to see and cheer each other.

As a photographer, the canyon itself is very photogenic also – especially the more difficult side (6B+) where you can literally see people climb straight up with the only sky as a background. I also love the multiple shades of rocks on the wall – it is so colorful and beautiful!

I managed to climb 5A, 5B, and 5C in that order. At first, I was a bit scare because I saw that some of the leaders struggle to go up and set the path. However, I managed to get up there just fine. Perhaps, seeing other people do it gave me quite a lot of mental preparation. Plus, there is no way back down haha

The last dinner was in Trapani, a small sea-side town in Sicily. Again, the food was terrific! Lots of seafood, wines, and a lot of liquors for us to finally get drunk since we are not climbing tomorrow haha – well… let’s just leave it at that.

To be honest, I started this trip thinking that I will just be enjoying nature, do some climbing, and drink a lot of Sicilian wine. I ended up liking the climbing activity, the climber group, and being immersed in nature much more. I really look forward to another Mapo Tapo trip!

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