Cuban Rock Climbers


By Eduardo Gonzale  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES — The Vinales Valley looks different from above. Several meters above the surface, every landscape is different. Twenty meters above the ground (like Yaro’s small, muscular and strong body is right now), every move is dangerous; every tip of a jutting rock can be your salvation or your fall; every bolt fixed into the rock is a part of a bigger map that these people call a “route”. Word has it that there are hundreds of routes scattered throughout the Valley.

Yarobys has been climbing for a few minutes. He has domesticated the mogotes (outcroppings) thousands of times, by forcing himself to repeat these routes. These mountain climbers don’t care about people yelling at them, that the authorities scare them off, that climbing isn’t a formal or a permitted sport; that Cubans are accused of charging foreigners: climbers keep on coming back to Cuba and Vinales, where he lives.

“Rocks are rocks, it’s true, but climbing in Cuba isn’t the same as climbing anywhere else. Climbing in Cuba has as much to do with Cuba as it does with climbing,” Jonny Miles said. “It’s something that only mountain climbers understand and that leads them to put their lives on the line to take on the challenge of climbing a mountain.”

In Cuba, “Yarobys Garcia is the undisputed leader today, there’s no doubt about it, an exceptional climber who is committed to taking on the challenge of making new routes and continuing the teaching tradition,” explains cubaclimbing,com, a website dedicated to promoting mountain climbing on the island.

He took on the role of being the driving force of a movement which is becoming more and more usual, and there are even national competitions. New areas have been opening up all over the country, but Vinales is still the perfect place that Cubans and foreigners set out on conquering at the end of the 20th century. Because when Yaro first started climbing, it had already been going on for several years. He would be the one to continue the work of the first generations of Cubans who dared to take on the rocks, in spite of this being a forbidden practice.

In his backyard, Yarobys Garcia put up an artificial climbing wall made out of wood. He uses it to practice and to teach novices. It simulates a natural mountain and it’s quite hard to go up, but it will never be like the uncontrollable situation of a real rock wall.

He has been climbing in Vinales and other places in the world for a decade now. Like many other climbers, he started out by caving. But, he received a guide and instructor qualification from the Exum Mountain Guide in the United States a few years ago.

Like everything that was once prohibited, the beginning of mountain climbing has its dose of legend and a beautiful name. Raul, who is a quite a few years younger than him, is his demonstration partner. Even though they hold organized competitions, climbers just meet up as friends and go whenever they feel like. There is a spirit of freedom, of rejecting authority, which infects everyone. This is how both of them decided to climb Cueva de la Vaca today, after a phone call.

Sat in the Cave’s entrance before beginning their ascent, Yaro told me that the sport began decades ago. In 1999, Craig Luebben, Cameron Cross and Armando Menocal climbed up one of Vinales’ most emblematic mogotes, La Costanera. To their surprise, they found old anchors. A farmer told them about two Spanish women who had allegedly climbed it 15 years before them. Even though the story is full of mystery, La Costanera’s main and arched wall cavity went on to become “The heavenly vault of the Spanish women”.

Speleologists were the first ones to develop mountain climbing in Cuba, via the Arne Sakknussem group that belonged to the Cuban Speleological Society. However, they would climb in their own way, with speleology equipment. Foreigners coming to the island with the right equipment fueled this practice on the island. However, the Cubans had already equipped themselves, with their own resources, routes in Jaruco and even climbed the walls of the Castillo del Morro.

The “tradition of foreign climbers’ donations which sustained and eventually placed Cuban climbers as the leaders of exploring new routes in their own country” was established, “a unique situation when compared to the majority of third world climbing destinations.”

This hasn’t changed very much today. Equipment comes from abroad because Cuba doesn’t sell what is needed. Rope, shoes, bolts, all of these are specialist equipment for this activity. Visitors and nationals are the ones who bring these, which are then shared out among climbers a lot of the time.

“In Cuba, leadership involves responsability. Nearly all of the donated equipment that is sent for Cuban mountain climbers has gone through them, and only they have been entrusted to distribute this essential equipment among novices,” Cuba Climbing explains.

And this is what Yaro does. He keeps all of this equipment in a shed in his backyard, a lot of it. Rope, shoes, bolts, they are all piled up in the wooden shed. “They don’t sell any of this in Cuba, there isn’t a trade in it. The equipment is quite expensive. All of it must be worth between 1000 and 1500 USD,” he says.

After the first US climbers came, others from many other different countries also came. It’s normal to see them climbing alone or in a group, on one of the over 480 routes that exist in Vinales, Yaro explains. However, access to the mountain makes visits difficult and it’s a problem for this sport.

“As some of the places are closed, there are problems, because sometimes the park rangers come and kick you out of there. Mountain climbing isn’t an official activity because there isn’t free access,” he says.

Yaro explains that in many parts of the world, there are free areas and other areas in parks, where you can pay a fee to have access to all of the areas. You go alone, without a guide. “But in Cuba, everything has to be done with a guide and that is the greatest contradiction we face right now,” he says: the search for total control of an activity that historically, was never controlled 100%.

However, because of its appeal, Palmares declared Mountain Climbing a tourist product. It was Yarobys himself who made the management plan, the regulations and he would supposedly be one of the guides because they need people certified by international schools. Cuba already has climbing equipment but the product still hasn’t been launched onto the market.

What’s going on? Well, people just keep coming of their own accord. Every year, there are competitive festivals which attract dozens of people. In his proposal, Yaro spoke about creating an office with a register, but fees would be minimal and they would have free access. He explained that the service of going with a guide or going alone should be optional.

“Palmares will use the same routes we ourselves created. Just imagine that they then force you to pay the same price a tourist does,” he adds.

Cuban mountain climbers don’t want to be limited, they rather want to be recognized as a Federation. Last year, for example, 80 climbers came together with this proposal. They could create schools (a “school” is a climbing area) such as Vinales or Sancti Spiritus.

Formalizing the practice with well-defined rules would prevent clashes with Park authorities. It would be a sacrifice of the freedom they have right now, in order to continue dominating the Valley so that they are allowed to climb. So that people from all over the world can see Vinales from above, like Yaro can now, after a few minutes.

Photos courtesy of the interviewee