One fine day in 1993, Skip Harper, a resident of Colorado, was relaxing on a dive boat off the coast of Cayman Brac. An avid climber, he was looking back at the Bluff, when it occurred to him that the cliff face looked like good rock for climbing.
A few weeks later he was back, with climbing gear and a friend in tow. The pair set about putting in bolts and establishing the first few climbing routes, returning home ‘almost hysterical’ about the virgin climbing territory they had discovered.
That was the beginning of a secret that, 20 years on, remains fairly well kept, says fellow Colorado resident and climbing veteran, John Byrnes.
John, who has scaled rock faces all over the world, rates rock climbing in Cayman Brac as world-class.
“The quality of the rock is excellent” he says.
“And the location – a tropical island where climbing routes rise straight out of the ocean, where you can climb in the morning, and dive in the afternoon – is unique.”
John spends several weeks at his home in Cayman Brac each year and can safely be considered the authority on climbing there. He has built a website which maintains an up to date climbing guide on the site which rates each of 63 existing routes.
So what is it about climbing up cliffs that is so appealing?
“I’ve been an athlete all my life and practiced lots of sports,” John says. “But climbing is totally addictive. There are so many factors involved – it’s a full being experience.
“There is the physical strength and conditioning you need, but there is also the mental aspect – it’s a problem solving exercise and you need to be able to look at the rock face and quickly work out what to do and how to do it.”
There are numerous techniques and approaches you can take but you also need to get through the tough spots quickly to be able to get to the resting spot, he adds.
“You need to be relaxed, confident and moving fluidly, even though you’re exerted and breathing hard – and all the while the wind is blowing and the waves are crashing below you.”
Climbers can thank John for continuing the work begun by Skip Harper in establishing many of the 63 climbing routes that now exist on the Brac.
They can also thank him for temporarily closing down climbing in there in 1999. When the original bolts were put in, in the early 1990s, he says, they used stainless steel. Nobody knew back then that a chemical reaction between rainwater, rotting vegetation on the rocks and the stainless steel itself would lead to an effect called Stress Corrosion Cracking in the metal. The cracks in the bolts were often not visible to the naked eye, so climbers thought they were in perfectly good condition. But when reports started to come in of bolts breaking, John put the word out that it was not safe to climb in the Brac.
It was only after a metallurgist contacted him, and explained the chemical reactions that could be causing the steel to crack, that they were able to remedy the situation: in November 2000 John returned, and replaced the steel bolts with titanium ones. Thirteen years on the bolts still look brand new.
Brac climbing is advanced
Although the climbing is excellent, Cayman Brac is not for complete beginners, says John. It’s the rock itself that isn’t suited to novices. In climbing circles, grey rock is bad, white rock is good. Overhanging rock is white rock. It’s challenging because of the angle, but good quality for climbing. Rock that is less than vertical, on the other hand, is less steep – and therefore easier for novices – but because it is exposed to rainwater, the rain turns the rock grey, slightly dissolving it, which gives rise to the flutes and sharp edges typical of ironshore. This is ‘bad quality’ rock.
Only six of the routes on Cayman Brac are not very steep and good for beginners, says John.
Because it’s not suitable for learning, only a handful of Cayman Islands residents climb there. Most are visitors from elsewhere.
Learning to climb is much easier, however, now that there are indoor climbing walls in gyms and sports centres. One can learn basic safety and different techniques indoors this way, explains John, whereas in the past the only way to learn was to find yourself a mentor who would take you under their wing.
Although Cayman Brac offers advanced climbing, the sport itself is not an extreme sport, he insists, and while people tend to think of it as dangerous, in reality you’re more likely to sprain an ankle playing soccer than rock climbing.
John returns to the Cayman Islands in February and will be establishing some new climbing routes, giving rock climbers all the more reason to visit Cayman Brac.