The starting point remains one: to move away. Be bold, be positive, and move. We’re talking about a 2-weeks unplanned climbing trip across many countries with your car - yeah, still too poor for a van - or even to migrate somewhere else because you’ve got your reasons.
Davide, known by everybody as “il Cata” - “the Cata” - chose to play the second option. He was raised in Northern Italy, but not the place where you would picture a climber - Alps, crags everywhere, farmers and tiny wooden huts kissed by the sun-. The outskirts of Varese are flat, surrounded by some of the most fascinating lakes in Italy, but you can only see the mountains on the horizon.
Not the place where a passionate climber would love to spend his time, especially in winter. You’ve got a good job, opportunities, a beautiful girl along, but… why not move to the Sicilian countryside? You would have fresh air, it’s always sunny, stunning landscapes, Giorgia would love it, life is slower and you would have time to enjoy it.
You may say “What should a climber do in the countryside? In Sicily? Fair enough. But the thing you didn’t know - and that I didn’t tell you, my bad - is that Cata really loves to explore, to go off-the-beaten-track. Hard to do that in Varese!
A few years later I met him, I found Cata grilling vegetables in the backyard of his new home, close to the tiny Sicilian town of Ummari. If you’ve ever climbed in Sicily, you’ve probably been to San Vito Lo Capo. That’s the main climbing area in Western Sicily, with thousands of sport-climbing lines. That’s the Italian Kalymnos: sea, sun, tufas, cheap life, no worries.
The sun in Ummari is the only character playing in a clear-blue sky, which seems to never witness bad weather, and it’s way quieter than San Vito. Cata travelled around the world for some time, but in the end he came where he was planning to come. He’s happy, and in a pure way. He seems to be part of the environment, and the landscape as well. Like he’s always been there and you never noticed him, this wouldn’t be as true as it is if Cata chose another place.
Giorgia welcomes us a few moments later, while Cata is already buzzing, showing us the outdoor climbing wall he’s building with his hands - Climbers… they can only think about one thing - . We spend the whole day chilling between the outside hot-tub, the barbecue, and Cata and Giorgia’s tales about their new world, now focused around this splendid 100-year-old stone farmhouse they renovated and turned into a Bed and Breakfast they run. Guests are mostly their climbers friends, since there’s not that much tourism flow in the countryside.
That’s a real shame actually, because in the last 4 years Cata cleaned up and climbed more than 130 lines from 4A to 8A on many boulders he discovered in a magical forest just in front of his door. He actually moved here in order to develop this new climbing area, which - as we discovered during the next bouldering days - it is a real paradise for climbers. Very short approach, flat landings and beautiful beautiful movements, superb sandstone quality - almost untouched if we exclude Cata and his friends Lele and Paga - and a climbing potential still unexplored. Cata explained that he explored approximately 60% of the woods in 3 years of almost full-time work, considering here you can find good climbing conditions the whole year. Situated at 600-meters of elevation above sea level in the middle of a forest, Bosco Scorace really offers climbable conditions during the hottest sicilian summer and perfect climbing days during winter and mid-seasons.
But, still, this gem is still undiscovered by the masses.
The days here flow smooth like the rare clouds in the sky and the courses on the table in the backyard. We’re in Sicily after all. And even if life seems easy, we dig deep in ourselves, especially me. Cata is quiet: no one but him chose this life, he’s happy and he can easily run the B&B together with Giorgia.
But you don’t spend hundreds of hours chopping bushes covered by grass, soil and chalk just for your own climbing ambitions. You want action. You wanna explore not only the environment around you, but also the others. And you would love to let all the other people feel what this sense of exploration and satisfaction is about.
This bittersweet story highlights a problem. And a solution as well, right after. The fact that thousands of people flow into the same famous climbing areas every season - sometimes even in the same crag - it’s something that over time affects the place as well as the environment. On one hand, climbing is gold for bringing tourism to remote local communities.
But I wanna talk straight out of my teeth, after spending many hours on books and sitting in a university classroom talking about tourism, sustainability, the circle of life of a destination, tourism flows, tourism sustainability and so on all the time. Climbing promotes a respect for the environment, a sustainable way of life and a way to interact with things - people, nature, other cultures… you choose -, and also promotes new tourism destinations ignored right now, because climbing has never been so popular. Nothing is perfect - “Climbing destroys flora and fauna!!”, “You can’t drill rock and throw down loose rocks wherever you want!” - but it’s all about how we manage the phenomenon. Last but not least, climbing offers many opportunities to the local people and businesses. I could list many towns who are actually living out of outdoor sports 12 months a year (read: Kalymnos, Finale Ligure and so on), and they’re doing pretty well. 1 That means, potentially, climbing is a vector for sustainable and low-impact tourism.
On the other hand, it’s extremely hard to make a new climbing destination thrive. Most of the time local climbers/bolters, natives and small businesses don’t have so much money, skills or support from the local administration in order to make it happen. And that’s sad because if those people can’t change this, nobody will.
I’m not saying people who are going to Finale Ligure, Arco, Kalymnos, Ceüse, Siurana and so on are wrong. I’m the first who’s not gonna stop to visit and interact with these places. I’m in love with them, because they’re unique.
But I would like to let you know there’s more. There are hundreds of Finale, Arco, Kalymnos, Ceüse, Siurana all around the world, it’s just that you ignore their existence. Western Sicily is right below San Vito Lo Capo, but probably 97% of people who climb there - maybe planning 2 to 3 trips per year from Northern Italy/Europe - ignore the potential of Bosco Scorace and the crags around. As well as I did before joining Mapo Tapo, a start-up focused on designing and organising climbing trips and which aims to actually fill this gap between Cata, who can’t manage all the things involved in the promotion of his climbing area while running his B&B and cleaning new lines, and the creation of a more equal climbing tourism flow.
You need a few things to make this happen:
• The desire to look for different spots. Not only for your climbing ambitions, but also for the good of the others. You should be aware that going climbing just once in another place can be really helpful for the pub you’re going after climbing, the local groceries shop, the butcher, the bakery for the post-send cake… Who knows, maybe you get used to it. If in doubt, bring a friend with you.
• To go off-the-beaten-path, knowing your trip is gonna be a little bit more shaped by adventure and what's-around-the-corner mindset.
• Any climbing level. You don’t need to be Chris Sharma who explores a remote bouldering area in Venezuela supported by tons of sponsors.
• Adaptation. While exploring places you’ve never been climbing to, you need a few days in order to let you skin, body and mind adapt and understand which kind of climbing and rock you’re connecting to. Plus, it’s gonna be hard to focus on one single hard project. After all, not a single Pro-climber visited a new off-the-beaten-track area for the first time and started projecting a single streak of rock.
In my honest opinion, 1.000 climbers spread over 5 beautiful climbing destinations are better than 1.000 climbers crammed into one famous climbing spot. For the local businesses, the environment and more equity, because I truly think climbing is one of the better ways to do tourism. Responsibly.
For the italian-speakers, I actually wrote my bachelor degree thesis on Finale Ligure and his climbing-related tourism 1 and evolution through the years. Hit me up at email@example.com if you’re interested in reading it. “L'arrampicata sportiva come fulcro del processo di destagionalizzazione turistica a Finale Ligure” (Palazzi, 2016)