Rock climbing in Guatemala is a rewarding, challenging undertaking. While almost all of the crags are remote, hard to access, and completely undeveloped, if you are willing to cut your own trails, clean the routes, and put in the extra effort, there are many first ascents on incredible rock just sitting there for the taking.
I found myself only 15 meters off the ground slipping off the rock once again and watching my belayers feet leave the ground as my weight hit the rope. “Damn it!” I yelled, “this should not be this hard!” Once again I swung back into the rock and hooked my right foot under a large undercling, holding myself to the wall. I had been working on this climb, trying for the First Ascent for almost 6 weeks, it couldn’t be harder than a V4 boulder problem, the trouble was it was 23 meters tall. Since we use ropes for this climb and it’s well within the height of ‘climbing’, not just ‘bouldering’, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out a good rating due to the high level of physicality involved in the climb . I stared at the last 4 moves above me, trying to figure out the right sequence. I shook out my burning forearms and grabbed a good jug, just 6 moves from the end, but the last decent hold. From that hold I had to traverse left and slightly down, utilizing a shallow indented sloper with my left hand, matching with my right (even though I could only fit 5 fingers total in at a time), and moving my feet to a smear on the vertical face. I dropped my left hand to a 3 finger pocket that only fit to my first knuckles, this time though I managed to stick the move, wincing a little from the pain, I fully weighted my arms and swung my left foot out, hooking the side of the face I was clinging to desperately.
Finally, I found something solid to catch my toes on and pulled with everything I had. Somehow, I managed to get my left hand up to one of the worst slopers I’ve ever stuck. From there, I found a knee bar and pulled myself to the webbing around a tree at the top of the route. I yelled for joy and let go, my arms completely spent. I finally decided to rate the route 5.11C but it climbs much more like a tall V4+ boulder route.
There was so much that went into the first ascent of Cerro Justicia. First, I had reached out to some local climbers about this crag that I could see from town. However, I was informed several times that it was just a mud-slide–there was no climbing there. Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I had to go and find out for myself. I walked the 5 kilometers from town out through the rural roads until I was standing on the highway looking up at the crag. As I started walking up the hill, I quickly discovered that I was vastly under-prepared for what lay ahead. There is a reason that everyone in Guatemala has a machete on their hip. First off, it’s self-defense, should the worst happen. However, it’s also because the forest is impenetrably thick. I walked back to Antigua and took off to the market, for just Q20 ($2.90) I was provided with exactly the tool I needed, a wood-chopping style machete.
I spent two days hacking my way upwards, pretty blindly I might add, as I couldn’t even see the crag I was trying to get to through the thick forest. Finally, drenched in sweat, I was standing at the bottom of what I would later name “Lower Panchoy Crag”. The next step was to choose the proudest, most fun looking line, find a good anchor at the top, and start cleaning. I spent three full days just bouncing around on a rope scrubbing every hold and removing all the loose rock I possibly could!
The rocks are out there, sometimes when you put in the extra effort it becomes the most rewarding route of your life. I will never forget Cerro Justicia. Although it’s not the hardest or the tallest I’ve ever climbed by far, it required specialized training for some of the moves like I’ve never had to do before. That route is mine, I am still the only one who’s ever topped it and I’ll never forget all it took.
One of my other favorite times climbing here in Guatemala was at El Cantil, down near the town of Escuintla. I had one of my best friends Sarah here visiting from the US and I had seen these huge crags just off the highway on my way to Monterrico earlier in the month and had been itching to get back out there to check them out in more detail! I had also seen the rocks from base camp at my work on Volcan Acatenango. The first time I ever saw them I was on a tour with a senior guide and a native Guatemalan. Naturally, I immediately inquired about them. What were they called? Do people climb there? Have you ever been there? Do you want to go with me? However, all the questions where answered by one explanation: this is where Siguamonta lives. Siguamonta is a myth throughout many parts of Central America. Long story short, she is a snake who will eat you whole. However, she seduces her prey by taking the form of a woman, with a horse’s head. Yeah, not quite my take either.
After being told this story, I really didn’t know what to expect when we boarded the Chicken Bus that morning. I almost cautiously asked for El Cantil, the name for the area I had been given by the shuttle driver when I asked about it on our way back from Monterrico. After conversations I had with a few Guatemalan friends I really did believe people just did not go there. However, the hawker (guy who takes your money and kinda organizes the bus, not the driver though) responded “OK” with a smile. About 45 minutes later he announced the stop for El Cantil. When we hopped of the bus, we discovered not scary woods, but a park! After we paid our Q5 entry fee, we began exploring. First, we wandered as far up a river as we could walk and rock-hop, only spotting 1 potential route. We turned around and walked back towards the entrance, figuring we’d maybe find another trail and better rock. However, it was mostly soft conglomerate.
On our way back to the entrance we passed a guy who not only recognized the climbing shoes hanging off both of our bags, but knew where there was climbing! He pointed us up a trail to the top of the hill and gave us some directions. On the very off chance that he reads English and ever reads this, 5 minutes my ass! About half an hour later, we reached the top of the trail. I had looked up a little more info on my phone and actually found photos of someone climbing on bolted sport routes! There was no way to identify where the rocks were from the photos though, so we headed off, trusting the local’s advice. We arrived at several large free standing conglomerate mounds–the final of which had a wonderful overhang under which we ate some lunch. I walked around the corner just to check it out, and there was a bolt!–an actual, honest-to-god, Petzl brand titanium bolt–the first that I had seen in Guatemala.
This country will never cease to surprise me when it comes to climbing. I went from expecting tons of opportunities from what a few people had told me, to discovering there is almost nothing developed, to just becoming stubborn and developing it myself and feeling so rewarded for it! It is intensely beautiful climbing that continues to strengthen my abilities as a climber! Keep your eyes open for my post coming soon about my first ascent of any climbing route on Volcan Acatenango.