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Cuban Climbing and its Complexities - Courtney Hemphill

Cuban Climbing and its Complexities - Courtney Hemphill
Cuban Climbing and its Complexities - Courtney Hemphill
Cuban Climbing and its Complexities - Courtney Hemphill
March 07, 2012 -  Courtney Hemphill    

Every climbing trip comes with its own unique flavor of complexity. Fontainebleau has you watching your boulder projects getting soaked for days on end in the drizzling rains of northern France, Switzerland buries you in snow and drains your bank account before you have a chance to clean up all of your projects on the perfect granite, and Hueco has you standing in line at either the boulders or the gate depending in your luck and the crowds that day. Yet I think Cuba wins the prize in level of complexity. With the recent ease in restrictions for travel of US citizens to Cuba, the illicit island has opened up to a vast array of publicity recently. From being listed as one of the top 50 destinations to visit in 2012 to gracing the covers of National Geographic and ..., Cuba is the hot ticket this year. If US sanctions truly ease up over the next couple years, the island lost to time will potentially once again become overwrought with American citizens eager to to take advantage of an affordable island vacation destination and with the influx of money the Cuban landscape would change forever.


Cuba doesn't necessarily give herself over very easily.

About a month ago, my friend Tom casually mentioned with a heavy dose of sarcasm that he had been hearing great things about the limestone cragging in Cuba. I'm not sure if Tom knew my incessant need to sample climbing in as many locales and on as many rock types as possible but for better or worse he roped himself into the trip the second the words left his mouth. The next weekend found me pulled over on the side of the 120 heading toward Yosemite, Tom on one line booking tickets from SFO to Cancun and Juri from Nash travel in Canada on the other line booking our Cancun Havana leg. For the next couple weeks Tom would pepper me with emails from friends that had traveled to Cuba and updates from his friend and fellow Access Fund champion Armando Menocal. Armando and Anibal Fernandez, a local Cuban climber, had recently published the guide to Cuban climbing in the Viñales area of Cuba. The reports were universally effusive, Cuba was a worthwhile experience in every respect. It all seemed to be lining up perfectly... right up until the Cuba paradox kicked in.

A week before we were to leave, Tom gets an email from Armando with the news of a recent increase in the restrictions on climbing in the Viñales valley. The restrictions extended to the majority of the best climbing and from what recent visitors had to say, prevented access to the majority of the best cliffs. Then just days before departure, Tom's wife receives news of her father falling gravely ill. With much regret, Tom sadly had to cancel his trip.

After hours of deliberation, and some encouraging phone calls from friends that had been to Cuba in the past, I made the decision to go anyways. I had no idea if I would be able to climb, what traveling solo in Cuba might be like and if I would even make it back without incident. Around midnight the night before my 7am flight, two friends from Berkeley that had recently made the trip to Cuba arrived at on my porch with letters, photos, and gifts for their friends back in Cuba. I figured if nothing else, I would hopefully bribe my way up at least one route and enjoy some nice anejo rum.

A six hour Virgin America flight, one overnight stop over in Cancun, a quick 30 minute hop on a Cubana Russian Ilyushin plane, and a final 3 hour taxi ride and I finally found myself settled in at my casa paticulares: Casa Neri. The next morning I payed a visit to Oscar’s house that effectively acts as the center of climbing activity in the Vinales valley. I met a group of Belgian climbers there that tried their best to explain what was happening with the climbing ban. The basic takeaway was this: you can climb... but like most things in this country of paradoxes, there are some tricks to it.


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