Hidden Treasure on the Amalfi Coast

Sunset over the Amalfi Coast

What comes to mind when thinking of the Amalfi coast? Most likely picturesque towns, wine, Sorrento, Pompei, and Vesuvius. I doubt that basking in winter sunshine and sport climbing on perfect limestone springs to mind though. The climbing here seems to be a very well kept secret, so in this post, I’ll do my bit to correct that.

It’s worth admitting that until the day before I arrived in Positano, I had no idea there was climbing on the Amalfi coast either. We had planned to head into Spain when winter chased us from Finale, but a bit of Googling turned up the Amalfi coast. A quick Spain / Amalfi coin toss came up ‘Amalfi’ and we decided to take a punt on it. There were definitely no regrets!

Almost Homeless

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Before I get to gushing about how awesome the climbing is, here are a few logistical points…

The whole area is very quiet in the winter time. This means that you get the crags more or less to yourself, but the down side is that many of the camp sites and hostels are shut. My penchant for showing up to a place with no accommodation booked nearly landed us in trouble this time… We spent a fairly torturous few hours driving along the Amalfi coast road, knocking of the doors of shuttered hostels, and pulling into ‘closed for winter’ camp sites….

Eventually, we found the camp site Nube d’Argento, just on the outskirts of Sorrento. This requires a ~45 minute drive to the nearest climbing, but it’s a short walk into Sorrento. A reasonable compromise to have the cafes, bars, and restaurants on your doorstep. The Taverna Sorrentina is no more than a five minute walk, and it does a decent pizza for €5, and a glass of local wine for €3 on top – can’t argue with that!

A final logistical note. Make sure that your car insurance is up to date, and prepare yourself for some truly terrifying driving experiences! The driving has to be seen to be believed, as does the road up to the climbing in Positano. My van emerged with only a couple of scrapes, and I considered that a win.

Getting A Head?

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My last post on the Euro trip left me buzzing for more climbing, but quivering a bit (okay, quivering a lot) when moving above ‘highball boulder’ territory. There was progress in Finale, but it was slow progress and my climbing was very limited by poor head games. Amalfi seemed like a perfect destination to work on the head games.

So on day one, I set out with the intent to do a bunch of fall practice and really work on the mental side of the sport… Of course, I did not do any fall practice… We did find an amazing coastal crag and started get into the slabby and crimpy style. I’m not exactly a ‘powerhouse’ (matchsticks for arms),  and so the technical climbing was right up my street. I felt at home immediately. The switch in style also did wonders for my confidence, giving me an ideal excuse to continue to neglect the fall practice. Oh well, progress was getting made regardless, confidence was coming back and with it a real enjoyment of roping up again.

It is worth admitting upfront that I definitely used the change in style as an excuse to neglect properly training the head games. One of these days I’ll learn to love fall practice and fingerboarding, but those days did not come on the Amalfi coast, and at the time of writing, I’m still waiting!

Sorrento

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We had planned to stay in Positano, near the climbing, but there was no room at the inn  (actually, there were no inns..) and so we we ended up camping near Sorrento. I think this was likely a blessing in disguise as it was good to be withing walking distance of civilisation. There’s no shortage of cafes and restaurants, and the prices are generally not too bad.

Christmas was in full flow when we were there, and Sorrento looked the part! The lit up streets streets were pedestrianised at the weekends and were very lively with shoppers and families. Sadly it was not busy with patrons of the local bars, which were typically very quiet even though the streets were full. The Christmas tree (above) dominated the end of the high street, bringing festive cheer and good will to all men – or something like that.

This is all great if you want to do your Christmas shopping and get a glass of wine. Be warned though, if you’re looking for climbing supplies, you have come to the wrong place. Further underscoring the secretive nature of the climbing here, there aren’t really any climbing shops in Sorrento. Make sure you’re stocked up with chalk, tape, and other climbing disposables before you arrive.

Sorrento is cool, but it is a strange kind of place to visit in December. More of a family vibe than a touristy vibe, and certainly not a climbers hub. An excellent base though for launching climbing missions to Positano, and so highly recommended in that respect!

What about the climbing?

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As I said above, I’m quite partial to a crimpy and technical slab, so I was absolutely at home here. The crags we visited seemed to be typified by this style. You could occasionally shave on the handholds, so either pack some climb-on, or man up! I should note that there are a number of steep or caved out crags that we didn’t visit. I’d expect there is something for everyone here.

I’m not sure about paper guide books, but we did fine with the Vertical Life app and topos.

We mostly based climbed on the crags around Positano. You can park at the local football pitch for free and walk out to most of the crags in about 45 minutes or so. We spent a good amount of our time in the Selva area, which has a decent spread of grades and long sustained routes with an excellent outlook. The obvious ‘thread the needle’ as you approach Positano (Monte Gambera) has some excellent climbing as well, again with a great spread of grades and decent length routes.

The crags are generally facing the sea, and as picturesque as you could ask for. Watching the sun set over the sea while you strip the last route of the day is as close to a religious experience as I ever get. The December sunshine is pretty much bang on for me, easily t-shirt weather without getting fried. And given that this whole area seems to be a secret, the only interruptions you may encounter are inquisitive donkeys coming to see what the humans are up to.

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Repeat Customer

I struggle to pick out a specific highlight from this part of the trip. The climbing was all generally excellent, the settings were all beautiful. The standout for me of this part of the trip was the gradual re-emergance of some kind of head for climbing, and associated massive increase in enjoyment. After years of neglect I left Positano feeling about as positive as I had in years about getting roped up.

I’m not sure that there is a better winter climbing venue out there, especially if you value a bit of solitude. The climate, setting, and local amenities are all bang on, and the climbing is also fantastic. I can’t imagine that this place will stay a secret for long, so get in while it’s good. I’ll definitely be making an effort to get back here at some point.

The Amalfi coast was the last destination that we visited on the outward leg of the European journey. Leaving here was the start of the long drive back home, and a good opportunity to revisit some destinations, and hopefully close out some unfinished business…

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Fear and Self Loathing in Finale Ligure

Sunset in Varazze

I set off on this year long climbing trip with a warning ringing in my ears. “Be really careful if you try anything over 8000 metres” Err… okay, that’s fairly easy advice to follow for someone who is primarily a boulderer! I arrived in Varazze after ten weeks on the road, obstinately on a climbing trip, and I’d not been over 8000 millimetres yet!

Dope on a Rope

Bouldering is hard to explain to non-climbers. Actually, bouldering can be hard to explain to climbers at times, and in doing so exclusively I was certainly challenging a few folks expectations of what a climbing trip should entail!

This exclusivity had to change at some point though. I set off on this trip with some grand designs on doing some multi-pitch along the way, maybe even a big wall in Yosemite. And as much fun as bouldering is, it certainly is not training for a big wall! I had to get on a rope.

I’ve been climbing for years now. I started when I was about 25 I think, mostly doing trad on the Aberdeen sea cliffs. I transitioned to sport climbing at some point when I decided that trad was too scary, and eventually chickened out of that too to become (mostly) a boulderer. My ‘head games’ have never been anything to write home about. The last few years though I’ve been mostly a quivering wreak on a rope, with a few brief interludes of passable climbing. Getting to Finale was finally an opportunity to blow away the cobwebs, dust off the ropes, and get my head games in order for some ‘real’ climbing…

But before I manned up and got to that, of course I treated myself to some bouldering in Varazze. For two weeks….

Varazze Bouldering

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Varazze is a fairly typical Italian seaside resort. Hotels and restaurants line the shore alongside touristy shops and cafes. I would guess that the place would buzz in the middle of summer, but showing up in November is a different story! Aside from one holiday weekend, the camp site was very quiet – we were the only people there at times. The restaurants were similarly empty, and the bouldering was pretty quiet too.

Varazze’s most famous son is ‘Gioia‘ (8c+ / V16), Christian Core’s 2008 contender for worlds hardest problem (at the time). I guess the existence of this problem is probably the only reason that we had heard of the place, although of course it is way too hard for me to try.

A point to note: The Varazze bouldering guide is out of print, and is not available in any of the local shops. There does seem to be copies available on Amazon though, so a bit of forward planning could help out. If like us, you show up clueless and guideless, there is a cafe up the hill called Trattoria ai Cacciatori that has a copy of the guidebook. They are happy for you to snap photos of the pages on the assumption that you buy a coffee. The coffee is €1.00 so no excuses !

The bouldering in Varazze is… okay. It’s a good destination, but probably not a world class venue. The guide is an inch thick and there seems to be 10 problems up every sliver of rock. I guess I was a bit spoiled arriving there after bouldering in Chironico and Fontainebleau prior. Some of it is very good, but there is a lot of digging to do to find the gold.

We did find gold though. In particular, there are some cool problems at ‘La Cava‘. The Mu/Muu/Muuu traverse problems were fun, and the highball stuff on the back of the Equilibrium boulder is really good, even if it did elude me on this trip…

The main area – Potalla – has a lot of good stuff as well. Mike got ‘Cuicciati il Calzino’ for the hardest send of the trip so far at 7b+/V8, and Keith and I ‘made do’ with a number of V6 and V7 problems. There is loads of cool stuff all the way around the ‘Adams Sleep’ boulder. ‘Mr. Ciabatta’ (6c+/V5) and ‘Adams Sleep’ (7b/V8) itself probably the highlights, with a mention also for the crack traverse ‘Nebulosa’ (7b/V8).

I think if you are in the area is is definitely worth spending a few days bouldering at Varazze. The sport climbing at Finale Ligure is excellent, and splitting up a trip between Varazze and Finale will definitely make for a good time.

Roped up in Finale

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I’ve done a few routes over the last few years, but I’d guess I’ve been doing about 95% bouldering. Even on a good day, I don’t have a particularly good head for routes. So of course, the first thing I did in Finale was to get straight on a f7a/5.11d sport route. And of course, I got totally shut down. Coming off the back of months of bouldering, I could do the moves okay using a clip stick to go bolt to bolt, but actually leading the route was a different story. Moving above the bolts I was a quivering wreak and climbing like a brick. And worse, I continued to quiver no matter how much I dialled down through the grades… Clearly there was a lot of work to do.

An entirely inglorious start to the climbing part of this climbing trip…

When it comes to physical training, I tend to disdain the fingerboard, preferring to just go climbing and get strong slowly (or not at all…). I take a similar approach to training the mental side of the sport. Even though I know that fall practice is a short cut to performance, I tent to just shake and wobble my way up a load of low grade routes until some semblance of competence and confidence emerges. I’d like to say that I did the sensible thing and took a bunch of falls early on, but that is not the case and I went for my tried and tested, if time consuming method.

I think I spent about ten days climbing in Finale in total, and I think the hardest route I got up was f6b/5.10d. My previous high point was f7b/5.12b, so not exactly at the top of my game! I did a little bit of fall practice, but not nearly enough to push through the head games issues and really make the most of the climbing…

Which is a shame, because the climbing in Finale is excellent. I can’t really say what the ‘typical’ style is because there is so so much rock there and we didn’t even try 1% of it. There is a lifetimes worth of routes. We were mostly on juggy and steep short pitches, although we did try out a few slabby problems as well. There are massive bolted multi-pitch climbs at relatively low grades, as well as short and pumpy coastal crags. The setting is hard to beat, climbing on crags overlooking the sea and watching the sun set on the walk out is not a hardship, regardless of how the actual climbing is going.

I’d be lying if I said I really ‘enjoyed’ the climbing at Finale in the moment of actually doing it. It was torture! Or maybe ‘type 2 fun’ – fun only when I was safely back on dry land. But, there was something there. I used to love sport climbing, and only in my dotage (my thirties) had I really lost my bottle and switched to almost exclusively bouldering. The perfect limestone overlooking the sea in Finale did serve to relight the fires and remind me why I got into this sport in the first place.

Winter #3

The green shoots of progress were finally starting to break through when winter caught up with us and chased us further south again.

The bouldering in Varazze was excellent. I really think I consolidated the improvements made over the prior few months in Font and Switzerland. The venue itself disappointed at first but came good with a little bit of exploration, and ended up being a really worthwhile place to spend a few weeks.

In terms of climbing performance, Finale Ligure did not go well. But in terms of rekindling my enjoyment of getting roped up it had done the job. As much as I love going bouldering, there is definitely something missing if it’s not complimented by roping up and going climbing, and it was great to get back into it.

And of course, the climbing trip was just getting started. There was and still is plenty more to come!

Andy