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Rock climbing in Cuba
by Armando Menocal
Rock climbing on Cuba

Climbing in Cuba isn't like climbing in any other place. The climbing is superlative, cracking jugs and pockets in chiseled karst limestone on improbable lines through stunning overhangs of stalactites and tufa columns. Its multi-pitch classic climbs define big wall sport climbing with their remote locations and mandatory techniques like tag ropes and back clipping on rappel.

But, climbing in Cuba is as much about Cuba as it is about climbing. Few visitors to Cuba come away equivocal. Most become passionate about Cuba. The first Americans climbers went again and again, obsessed to keep returning, despite U.S. law threatening $250,000 in fines and 10-years imprisonment. The visiting climbers donated gear, clothes, even drills and bolts, and as a result, perhaps unlike any other climbing destination, the vast majority of first ascents have been done by locals.

Its lighting fast development and passionate popularity indicates that Cuba is quickly becoming one of the finest sport climbing destinations of the world. It has seen an influx of leading climbers, such as Lynn Hill, Neil Gresham, Timmy O'Neil, and Jim Donini, and the development of a strong contingent of Cuban climbers, who are eager to climb with visitors.

Travel, digs, food, and climbing partners are no sweat. Perfect climbing days, mild weather and everything from isolated beaches to caving and cockfights on rest days make for a one-of-a-kind vacation. Add an exciting, sensuous nightlife, the gregarious, vivacious Cuban people and the country may already be the best outdoor experience anywhere. A true adventure awaits you.

Crag Routes Grades Beauty
Mogote del Valle 250 4a - 8b+

Rock climbing on Cuba

Planning your trip
Getting Settled in Viñales
The town of Viñales has remained a cozy, rural village of just a dozen streets or so. Despite its popularity with tourists, Viñales itself has no large hotels, restaurants, or souvenir shops. The majority of the people live in traditional thatched-roof Cuban "bohios" (huts) on the farms that are enveloped with rich red soil, perfect for growing tobacco. About 10,000 people are scattered throughout the valley. Plows and carts are ox- or horse-drawn and the local farmers—"guajiros"—are seldom without a horse and machete. After a couple of days in town, you will feel at home and at ease finding your way around.
One of Cuba's charms is its people. The quickest way to meet them is stay in the homes of Cubans who rent rooms. These are called "casas particulares," and almost any casa particular is better than the hotels. Camping? Don't ask, unless you want to spend your time as camp-guard.
Staying in a casa particular in Cuba is not the same as a bed and breakfast elsewhere. Cubans are accustomed to large family settings and share whatever they have with family, friends, and neighbors. When you are their guest, they naturally accept you as another family member or neighbor.
Climbers have a few favorite casas. In Havana, it's the home of Esther Cardoso, the mother of Cuba's first climber, Aníbal Fernández. Esther, an actress, has a beautifully reconstructed colonial home with high ceilings, balconies and shuttered windows. Phone: 53-78-62 04 01. E-mail: esthercardoso@hotmail.com, and esthercv2551@cubarte.cult.cu.
In Viñales the climbers' base camp is at Oscar Jaime's This casa particular is exceptional, and the house, amenities and food are all excellent. Oscar welcomes visitors with open arms and acts as host, friend and protector while you stay in his village. The compound of several houses includes grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins. There are numerous casas particulares in Viñales and if Oscar is booked, he'll ensure that a quality alternative is made available. Phone: 53 486 95516. E-mail, oscar.jaime59@gmail.com.

Gear Donations
To sustain the local climbers, please pack extra climbing gear and leave it all behind. The Cubans need climbing equipment, as it's impossible to get it locally. The majority of visitors now follow the tradition initiated by the first visiting climbers, who left their rack, ropes, shoes and harnesses in Cuba. Try it—you will feel very gratified. Some suggestions: Most useful are the basics: shoes, harnesses, ropes, chalk, pads and packs. However, the single biggest need to propel Cuban climbing forward is bolts and hangers. Check cubaclimbing.com for the latest recommended contact and donations.

Cuba Libre
Cuba Libre (3 pitches, 7a+) is the quintessential Cuban route -- steep, acrobatic, and heavily featured. The eponymous route of the stunning Cuba Libre Wall is the home of some of Cuba's finest routes, both in quality and lineage.
Craig Luebben and his fellow Americans did the dramatic Cuba Libre in the first days of the initial exploration of the Viñales Valley. The route ascends a tufa column, through stalactites, and finishes on a spectacular roof which reaches the crest of the cliff. The final roof is split by an off-width. For someone not schooled in off-width technique, the climb may prove straight-forward, although probably way harder.
On his original attempt at the roof, Luebben climbed by jamming his feet above him, cutting loose his hands, and reaching through to the next handjam. Textbook off-width technique by the author of seven climbing instructional books. A crowd of campesinos taking a break from cutting grass with machetes stopped to watch. As Luebben hung from his feet, he began to let out a long, gruesome scream. Then, he fell. It appeared to all that he had come out of the off-width. But that was not what had happen. His pull-on climbing slippers were stuck in the crack, just as he wanted them to be, but he was slowly, uncontrollably slipping out of his climbing shoes. Luebben returned to the ground, switched to lace-up shoes, and completed the first ascent.
After Cuba Libre was done in 1999, the row of parallel virgin tufa columns that ascend the Cuba Libre Wall remained unexplored. Then, in one month, the majority of the lines were done in one push by a team of Sheffield climbers. These gritstone climbers included two of the world’s best, Neil Gresham and Tim Emmett, and no surprise, they arrived with honed, rock-hard bodies. In Cuba, however, their evenings started with salsa lessons, and then a full night of dancing in the Viñales clubs. One night, they sashayed into a club dressed in tank tops, right pass a table of Viñales’ young gay men. “Aye, we are going to have to become climbers,” one of boys cooed.
Somehow the Brits managed to make it to the crags by 2 p.m. everyday, and they added many hard routes, including seven new multi-pitch routes on the overhangs and stalactites of Cuba Libre Wall. One was special, Charlie Woodburn's The Rum Diaries, (7b+). This added a direct, acrobatic start to Cuba Libre, or as Charlie says, it "gives Cuba Libre what it might have been looking for - sustained moves for the grade. Long, and wicked!".

Mucho Pumpito. The Best 6a In The World!
The best 6a anywhere is a big claim for just a two-pitch sport route in Cuba. Yet, that is the consensus of all who have climbed Mucho Pumpito. As British climber and writer Mikey Robertson gushed, “Mucho Pumpito is the best 6a I’ve ever done, and in the top 5 of all climbs.” Lynn Hill called Mucho Pumpito, the “juggiest climb I’ve ever done.”
Mucho Pumpito ascends the chiseled edge of a overhanging limestone cathedral called “La Bóveda de Las Españolas.” The wall is a climber’s fantasy. It's big-wall sport climbing: severe overhangs, big air, and technical descents. Without a tagline to get back to the wall, you can be stranded in space. Add, it's north-facing, shaded, and cooled by sea breezes.
Mucho Pumpito may be the only “Cinderella” in climbing, an unplanned, even unnamed route. It pedigree, however, included three Americans who excelled at gobbling up long classic lines through Cuba’s “three dimensional” limestone walls: Cameron Cross and Craig Luebben of Colorado, and Dave Ryan, an Exum Mountain Guide from Wyoming.
In March, 2000, Cross and Luebben climbed a three-pitch route called Pssst. To link its much harder faces, they ascended the overhanging edge of the striking corner of the main wall. To their astonishment, the pitch was only 6a.
Dave Ryan picks up the story: “Craig and Cameron showed up at dinner one night raving about this amazing line they'd done.” Ryan, who later found the direct first pitch (also 6a), was immediately converted by its steepness and the elbow-deep pockets, saying, “Even after timing out my pump-clock three of five times I've climbed it, I’ve got to admit there aren't any moves over 6a and considering it overhangs nearly 40 feet in a 90 foot pitch that's incredible!”
Ensuing climbers quickly started linking the two 6a pitches into a single climb. Its period as a nameless "must-do" climb was short. The next winter, two American legends jumped on the route. John Middendorf, flaming and gunning for the no-hands rest behind a stalactite on the second pitch, yelled a warning to his belayer, Jim Donini, “¡Mucho pumpito!” Way better than “watch me,” and the name stuck.
The following spring saw the arrival of a team of talented Gritstone climbers who added Cuba’s hardest routes to date -- Tim Emmett’s The One Inch Punch, 8b+. After climbing Mucho Pumpito, Seb Grieve could not be restrained. With a Cuban cigar clamped in his teeth, he pounded the table with his glass of aged, caramel-colored rum, and proclaimed with the certitude that only an Englishman can, “That climb we did today was world class. If it was at any of the top climbing areas of the world, it would be the absolute best, without a doubt.”

Cuba's Mr. Mogote
In 1999 four North American climbers were the first foreigners to go to Cuba to climb - and with bolts, drills, and gear for any Cuban climbers they could find. One of them, Craig Luebben from Colorado, fell in love with Cuba and its vast virgin stone, and returned to the Viñales Valley again and again. His novel idea to bring shoes and harnesses for Cubans who wanted to climb grew into the tradition of foreign climbers leaving their gear and led to a full-fledged donation program supported by a dozen climbing companies that permitted the Cuban climbers to take the lead in exploring routes in their own country.
Craig Luebben was tragically killed climbing in the Cascade range, Washington, USA, on August 9, 2009. Craig was a globe-trotter, endlessly searching for new climbing areas from the Caribbean to Africa and China. Craig was one of climbings' best ambassadors, always seeking locals to include in his explorations, teach them to climb and eventually take over. Craig authored seven instructional book, and invented Big Bros, the first expandable chock designed for wide cracks. At heart he was a teacher who could inspire an infectious passion for climbing. A teacher, author, loving husband, and father. Craig was all of those.
In Cuba, he will always be just "Mr. Mogote." "Mogotes" is the unique Cuban name for its mountainous karst landscape; rounded, jungle-covered hummocks, packed with jagged rocky formations and carved-out vaults and caverns that drip with stalactites and bulge with tufas. From his first visit, Craig demonstrated an eye and ardor for the biggest walls of Viñales. Craig pioneered walls and routes that, ten years later, remain Cuba's longest, and perhaps finest routes. It earned him the apt nickname, "Mr. Mogote". In Cuba, the name essentially links Craig's name with climbing itself.
In probably the last article he wrote before his death, an essay written for the Cuba Climbing guidebook, he reflected,
Climbing in Cuba was like a dream for me... I have often said, if I could only keep one set of my climbing adventures over the past three decades, it would be my trips to Cuba. I can't wait for my daughter Giulia to grow older... so I can return and share with her the magic that I found in this Caribbean paradise."
Craig Luebben remains Cuba's Mr. Mogote.
Rock climbing on Cuba
Getting there
Fly to Havana, then head west to Viñales. Getting to Viñales is about the easiest transport in Cuba. There are two bus lines, each with one bus a day, seats on demand, and lots of taxis. Renting a car is expensive and is not necessary. Within the town of Viñales everything can be reached on foot. All the climbing areas are within walking distance or a short cab ride.
Best time of year
Cuba's subtropical climate is ideal for a climbing vacation most of the year. Although it may feel hot to winter-hardened northerners, the weather in Cuba is far from the muggy, sweat-box climbing conditions of Southeast Asia. This is primarily due to the country-wide influence of the moderating, gentle Northeast Tradewinds that help cool the air and lower humidity. Temperature fluctuations are rather minimal throughout the year. Instead, Cuban weather can be loosely categorized into two "seasons": a warm, rainy summer (May to October) and a dry winter (November to April) with slightly cooler temperatures.
Due to the abundance of overhangs and north-facing walls, it's possible to climb at any time of the year, but the very best conditions occur during winter. The coolest months are December, January and February. Hurricane season, especially the tail-end months of October and November, can also provide good climbing conditions as can March and April, but the probability of precipitation starts to rise as the rainy season approaches.
Number of routes
Rock climbing on Cuba
The Cuba Libre wall by Elio Ramos
Cuba climbing by Quickdraw Publications

kalymnos guidebook

Perhaps the only thing Cuba lacked to make it a "must see" climber's destination was a world class guidebook. Now, the first guidebook to Cuba has been published. Cuba Climbing (Quickdraw Publications, 2009, cordeebooks.co.uk), however, is much more than merely descriptions of routes and approaches. As one would expect following the initial decade of climbing in Cuba, the guide reflects Cuba's history of commitment and devotion. It's authors, Aníbal Fernández and Armando Menocal, are the first Cuban climber and one of the first foreigners, albeit a Cuban-American, to "discover" Cuba's climbing potential. This guidebook is unique, intended to be a keepsake, a souvenir of a visitor's Cuban experience. Every photo, map, and topo is full color. No other guidebook has so many contributors, and every one of them donated their images and labor. The images are by many of the best professional photographers, including Andrew Burr, Jimmy Chin, Fernando Nuñez, Mickey Robertson, and Beth Wald. Personal essays of their own experiences were written by Neil Gresham, Dan Duane, and Timmy O'Neil. The young Cuban climbers in Viñales have also created a useful website, escaladaencuba.com. It's a great source for last minute climbing news. On Facebook, you will also find cubaclimbing.com, Escalada en Cuba, and Cuba Bouldering. Cuba is a major tourist destination, and there are many good travel guidebooks available including Bradt, Eyewitness, Fodors, Footprint, Insight, Lonely Planet and Rough. Our recommendation is the Cuba Moon Handbook.
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