The Stairway to Heavean
When DRpure.com was informed by a reliable source that a group of American missionaries had been spotted in the sleepy town of Las Galeras, we scarcely gave it a second thought. However challenging religious conversions had become these days, the practice hardly constituted an extreme sport. 'But wait, there's more,' continued our man in Las Galeras.
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'Unless these guys are carrying bibles for every pagan in town, there's something else afoot. They've got enough baggage to sink the Titanic; and I've even seen ropes'. Our eyebrows raised. Devil-worshipping cults sounded much more promising. 'I've heard that a guy called Chad Wallace is in charge'. The penny dropped; and an hour later Julius and I had packed our bags and were off to the northeastern tip of the Samaná Peninsula to check out one of the Dominican Republic's best kept secrets.
Chad Wallace was one of the men responsible for establishing rock climbing in the Dominican Republic. He arrived with his wife, Krista, in 1994, and soon fell in with two other missionaries, Scott and Jennifer Steele, and Willie Hunter, an American doctor who had first suspected the country's rock climbing potential some twenty years ago. They spent the early days exploring the length and breadth of the land for new rocks, built the country's first artificial rock climbing wall in Santo Domingo, started to teach the Dominicans how to climb, and in 1998 established Exposure, an organization dedicated to developing the sport at a national level.
The sighting of Chad in Las Galeras, the access point to a beach with some of the best climbing rocks in the country, was too much of a coincidence, even though there was no sign of the missionaries when we arrived in town. 'Maybe they've already gone to the beach,' suggested Julius, who was anxious not to miss the spectacle. The intrepid web designer had come armed with a top-of-the-range digital video camera, an expensive camera and plenty of film, and, with his wide-brimmed, khaki hat and multi-pocketed shorts, had the aspect of someone who was 'on safari'. Indeed, given that rock climbing is still a relative novelty in the Dominican Republic, spotting a climber in Samaná is rather like seeing a rhinoceros in Kenya, and it was only natural that Julius was excited. It was thus that we decided not to waste any time in Las Galeras, opting instead to head straight for Playa El Fronton.
The beach known as El Fronton was just beyond the eastern-most point of Las Galeras Bay, and the short boat ride was the perfect appetizer for what was to come. Although it was a sunny day, most of the voyage was spent in the shadows of the huge, overhanging rocks which dominated the coastline. Under their influence, the sea was a profoundly dark blue and seemed to reach to the very core of the Earth. I looked up and down, and felt as small and insignificant as an ant. Then, all of a sudden as we rounded the promontory, the sun reappeared and shone on a slither of golden sand strewn with coconut palms. The foreboding rocks which had formerly plunged straight into the ocean were now set back behind the beach, and viewed from a distance El Fronton looked like an immaculate garden in front of an imposing stately home.
Julius and I clambered from the boat and made our way up to the escarpment. Sure enough, as we passed through the trees we saw signs of life which confirmed Julius' earlier suspicion that the missionaries had set up camp at El Fronton: sleeping bags, bottles of water, half-eaten boxes of Oreo cookies, dog-eared copies of Cosmopolitan and, indeed, one or two Holy Bibles. Beyond the palm trees there was an area of open ground separating the beach from the rock face; and it was here that we met out first set of climbers.
For as far as the eye could see, the escarpment seemed to have been sculpted by God as a gift to rock climbers. The wall (rock face) rose to well over 100 meters and was riddled with footholds, ledges and intimidating overhangs. On closer inspection we noticed a couple of ropes dangling from slings near the top of the wall, as well as numerous bolts hammered into the rock face at various intervals, one on top of the other. These were the routes developed by Chad and the others for both top rope and lead climbs. There were about 11 in total, although El Fronton undoubtedly has many more just waiting to be exploited. In mountaineering language, every climb is graded according to its difficulty. Grade 3, for example, represents a steep, rocky slope; Grade 4 might mean that you have to use your hands to get up; and Grade 5 is fully-fledged rock climbing. Likewise, Grade 5.1 represents the easiest rock climbing and Grade 5.14 the hardest. At El Fronton, world class climbers would have no difficulty in finding Grade 5.14 climbs.
'Welcome to paradise!' beamed a chubby girl with red cheeks, after we had made our introductions. 'You wanna try it?' she asked.
'I'll film as you're going up,' said Julius to me, although I felt that the initial question had been directed rather more at him. 'Cheers, mate!' I thought: 'As if I'm not just as terrified of heights as you are!' I accepted the offer, however, and after about five meters of steady if not very pretty climbing I arrived at an overhang: 'Where should I go from here?' I shouted down to the guy holding the safety rope. 'Up! of course'. And so I did, heaving myself over the protruding rock and nearly wetting my pants in the process. Enough was enough! I stood on the ledge and gathered my composure, preparing to jump back down to terra firma. The view - even from my rather pathetic height was magnificent, and as I leapt from the ledge I had the impression that I was flying over the palm trees and would have landed in the middle of the ocean had it not been for the safety rope which was firmly anchored to the top of the wall. Instead, I was left dangling in mid air before being gently lowered back down to earth. When I had regained solid ground, Julius handed me the camera: 'I'll show you how it's really done!' And with that he proceeded to retrace my faltering steps with the surefootedness, speed and grace of a mountain gazelle although he jumped with about as much conviction as a sack of potatoes. 'I once took a rock climbing course,' he revealed later, 'and if it wasn't for my fear of heights, I'd rather fancy spending more time on the "Stairway to Heaven"'.
With that we went back to the beach. Chad, we were told, was not at El Fronton today, and a guy called Roy was in charge of the expedition. We found him at the beach's second wall, which was almost flat and perpendicular to the ground with precious few places to put sweaty hands and trembling feet. 'Awesome Rachel!' shouted Roy, as he lay in the shade of a palm tree holding the end of the girl's rope. Rachel, meanwhile, was struggling to touch a small American flag which marked the end of the climb. 'Fancy trying this one?' I asked Julius, who had gone slightly pale.
'No. And you?'
'What do you think?'
And so we went back to the beach.
Quite apart from the rock climbing, Playa El Fronton is an intrinsically nice place to be. The water is warm, calm and clear, there is a reef for snorkeling, the sand is soft and white, and on the whole it is very quiet and unspoiled. There is also something for those who enjoy spectacular views without necessarily wanting to climb up rocks to get them. A path to the left of the first wall leads up to the top of the escarpment from where, surrounded by cacti, you get a panoramic view of the beach, reef and surrounding hills. It was to this place, then, that Julius and I trekked before leaving El Fronton. From our perch, we could just make out the Stars-and-Stripes fluttering in the light breeze, and, with the aid of Julius' zoom, it was apparent that our friends were still putting their hearts and souls into trying to touch it. Just as we were looking down on them, He must have been looking down on all of us wondering, perhaps, what peculiar people he had chosen to create.