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What to Expect at Seven Places You Wouldn’t Expect to Climb

article-imagephotograph by mbeo/Flickr user

“The mountains are calling and I must go…”

So said John Muir in 1873. And so have many people quoted him since. Climbers are drawn to the outdoors, to the unforgiving and yet loving touch of the rock on the human hand, to the sunshine that shines a little clearer and the leaves and the bark that are a little more colorful in the outdoors. However, despite Muir, it’s not only mountains calling. 

Here are seven places you wouldn’t expect to climb:

DIGA DEL LUZZONE
Blenio, Switzerland

article-imagephotograph by Gattoarturo/Wikimedia

Artificial holds. A functioning dam. Outside. In the middle of Switzerland. This collection of seemingly unrelated words have found themselves thrown together in what could be one of the strangest man-made climbing sites. And it goes by the name of “Diga del Luzzone.”

It’s a little beast of a climbing route affixed to a dam on the Luzzone Lake in the center of Switzerland. The five-pitch route, meaning several belay points, crawls up the unforgiving curve of the dam. The cost to climb is 20 Swiss francs, which gets you a ladder to reach the beginning of the first section of the climb.

article-imagephotograph by Franco Pecchio

While this climbing anomaly may not offer the same rock-human connection as natural features — with that raw feeling of the rock —and despite the route’s flat and expansive exposure and lack of texture, it’s pretty clear that climbing the face of a Swiss dam offers a unique experience in and of itself. 

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photograph by marcom/Flickr user 

ST. BENEDICT’S CHURCH
Manchester, England 

article-imagephotograph by David Dixon

Although it’s not quite a dam, St. Benedict’s Church offers some equally heart-stopping creative climbs. 

When a local church was set to be demolished, a Manchester climber decided to do something about it. Instead of letting it be turned to rubble and be forgotten, John Dunne suggested it be transformed into a climbing gym. 

article-imagephotograph by Neil Tilbrook

And that’s exactly what it became. Today, climbers can scale the 20 meter (65 foot) walls built within the narrow, but tall, sides of the church. Sometimes climbing gyms, often found in unexciting industrial warehouses, become run-of-the-mill. But using a church’s natural height and beautiful natural lighting escapes the monotony. The stained glass windows and skeleton of the church remain intact — and the Manchester climbing gym may create a very new type of religious experience for climbers who enter its doors.

article-imagephotograph by purplemattfish/Flickr user

MONTE RORAIMA
Guiana Highlands, South America

article-imagephotograph by Paulo Fassina

Monte (or Mount) Roraima is on the natural end of climbable oddities. In the Guiana Highlands of South America, this mountain can claim to be in three countries: the peak of Monte Roraima shares the border with Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana. Think of it as a higher-altitude, awesome, treacherous version of the Four Corners in the United States. However, due to the extreme difficulty on the Brazil and Guyana sides, the mountain is ordinarily approached from the Venezuela side.

article-imagephotograph by Luis Castro

This mountain goes beyond this three-country madness in its appearance: it is not conical like the peaks you may think of in the Rockies or the Appalachians. Monte Roraima is actually called a “Tepui,” which is a flat-topped mountain with vertical sides. Rain constantly washes away soil on the top of the mountain, leaving room for strange plants, and waterfalls trickle down all the sides of this peculiar peak. 

Monte Roraima isn’t the only Tepui, but it was the first to be climbed. The credit can be placed with English botanist Everard Im Thurn, who in December of 1884 successfully scaled the sides of this strange rock along with assistant surveyor Harry Perkins.

article-imagephotograph by Peter Ulrich

Most climbers who attempt this same ascent hire a guide from Paraitepui, which can be reached in Venezuela from a dirt road. While there are routes set up on the Paraitepui trail (the most popular and least technical way to climb it), climbers who have been to the massive Tepui say that there is much uncharted rock — a grand, golden opportunity for anyone tough enough to brave the oft-wet conditions that are always a risk in pursuing Monte Roraima.

article-imagephotograph by Luis Castro

MOAB
Utah, United States

article-imagephotograph by Jim Trodel

Moab, Utah, is one location that most avid climbers have either been to, want to go to, or at least know about. The city of Moab is a small community that’s opened its arms to a widening span of both climbers and bikers alike. To those beyond the climbing community, though, the prestige of Moab is less known. 

The extent of climbing in Moab is jaw-dropping, and the versatility is commendable. You can climb on pitch sport routes or you can make multi-day treks to the top of one of the spires, scale one of the famous cracks in Indian Creek, or hit any number of cliffs. 

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photograph by Rob Baird

The spires shoot up into the sky against the rough, red skin of the Utah soil. The curves of the soil bend into the sky and the clouds greet the arching rocks, spires, and rock sculptures with a respect that nature only has for itself. In 1961, Huntley Ingalls and Layton Kor ascended Castleton Tower in the Castle Valley, a part of Moab, kickstarting Utah’s climbing fame. Before this daring ascent, climbers had been afraid that the rock was too fragile. In 1976, Earl Wiggins and Ed Webster grabbed the first ascent of the famous Supercrack route; a route made of a perfect, natural crack slicing through a tall rock face in Indian Creek Canyon in the Canyonlands National Park, near Moab.

Along with Joshua Tree in California, Red Rocks in Nevada, Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and many other famous nature climbing areas in the United States, climbers say the Moab experience offers a little mystery and beauty that’s unique to the area because of its carved and towering sandstone that mixes with the light of the Western sun and sky. 

article-imagephotograph by James Gordon

METEORA
Kalambaka, Greece

article-imagephotograph by Vaggelis Vlahos

Meteora, located just north of Kalambaka in Greece, has an interesting history. Long before climbers came to the peculiar structures there, ancient monks would scale its walls to build monasteries. These men used scaffolds and later rope ladders, and it’s shocking to think of the effort made to get to the top of these peaks.

Some of these monasteries still exist — and on those peaks, climbing is not allowed. There are also holes in some of the rock, where people previously lived, and a very few live there still. The oldest known man-made structure, a wall supposedly built to block wind, was found in a prehistoric cave in the area. In the 9th century, monks moved into the pinnacles and lived a mainly solitary life including chapel visits at the foot of the Dhoupiani rock. According to the Mountain Project website, the monks wanted to be up there to “be alone with God.”

article-imagephotograph by Carlos Pinto

There is a unique magnetism and connection in the area and the rocks. The bizarre gray of the cliffs, the green of the grass growing on the rock sides, and the monasteries tell a long tale of human connection to the land. It’s interesting to see how such an inaccessible area, with peaks soaring upwards, has appealed to populations for centuries, all of which had to climb.

article-imagephotograph by Carlos Pinto

SEA STACKS
Hoy Island, Scotland

article-imagevia Flickr

Surrounded by water, Scotland’s sea stacks are different from their land-locked climbing peak brothers and sisters. They rise from the waves like grasping fingers, while swirling around them are rough seas and torrential weather. 

The stacks are not islands — they are simply too tall to be islands. The only way to the top is to climb. They are formed by many, many years of water degradation and dissolution. Some of the most famous sea stacks — there are over 200 in and near Scottish waters — are Old Man of Hoy, Old Man of Stoer, Am Buacaille, and the Castle of Yesnaby. 

article-imagephotograph by Adrian Fagg

Hoy Island in Orkney is nearest to the stacks. According to the island guide, the stacks are as “remote and wild as you can imagine.” The guide describes how a 1953 climbing guide even said the Old Man of Hoy was unclimbable — although that has not deterred the adventurous. 

Over the years, the sea stacks may erode even more, but they should be around for a good number of generations to brave the waves and the whims of the Scottish sea for a breathtaking climb. 

article-imagephotograph by Paul Stephenson

STONE MOUNTAIN
North Carolina, United States

article-imagephotograph by wonderal/Flickr user

Stone Mountain doesn’t look like other mountains. Other mountains are tall and craggy, slashing through clouds and outlining blue skies.

Stone Mountain is precisely what its name describes: a stone. It does not crawl high into the sky like the famous faces of Yosemite and the mountains of the Western United States. It looks like a large, sprawling stone peeping above a bed of green flora. It is a slab. Imagine a tall, vertical rock with millions of little cracks and crevices and pieces poking out to grab or stick your hand into — this is not what Stone Mountain is. 

article-imagephotograph by Amy Meredith

In May of 1965, George DeWolfe and John Thorne set out to climb “The Great Arch,” as it’s often calledThey failed, and came back in August; however, the climb had already been grabbed by Fess Green and Bill Chatfield. Despite the friendly competition between the two teams, the remainder of the decade and following decades were peaceful, with climbers trying to inch up the sleek slab. 

article-imagephotograph by Amy Meredith

Climbing a rock face like Stone Mountain — a mountain that really looks more like flipped-over deep bowl or an old Cold War-era bunker — is dangerous and exposed. Sport climbing such a mountain, where you can be 20 feet above your last bolt (which means, if you were to fall, it could be incredibly dangerous and injury-prone) and still be looking at a feature-less slab, calls for only a risk-seeing kind of climber. It is mountains like these that would make a climber ask whether they’re looking for a challenge — or maybe they’re a little crazy.

But crazy is what keeps climbing going.