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Sport Climbing in Kalymnos Featured in National Geographic

The National Herald Archive

Climbing Odysseia Field in Kalymnos. (Photo by Zaharias Sdregas at Greek Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons)

The Dodecanese island of Kalymnos was featured in National Geographic (NG) on July 27 as a top destination for sport climbing due to its unique terrain. With “steep cliffs, stalactite caves, fine limestone crags, and breathtaking sea views from the top,” sport climbing in Kalymnos “is helping to revitalize the local economy, drawing both amateur and expert adventurers, and is gaining global attention this year as a new Olympic event,” NG reported.

Antonis Kampourakis was a sea sponge diver for more than 50 years on Kalymnos and harvesting the valuable sea sponges was the tradition work on the island for centuries, with generations continuing the family business until “a catastrophic disease began decimating the sea sponges in 1986,” and “the islanders' main source of income also plummeted,” NG reported.

“Now the barren yet picturesque island is one of the world's top spots for sport climbing, a type of rock climbing in which the routes are fixed with permanent anchors,” NG reported.

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Kalymnos Island. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Christos Bonis)

“Sea sponge harvesting- a pursuit mentioned in Homer's eighth-century BC epics- has been practiced in Kalymnos since the 1800s,” NG reported, adding that “the sponge fishermen became legendary, descending to depths of more than 250 feet and using resourceful yet risky techniques, from free diving naked and weighted with a marble stone to breathing through a long hose that snaked to the surface.”

“Although hard and dangerous, for me this job was a fun fair. I longed for daybreak to come to plunge into the sea,” the 80-year-old Kampourakis told NG.

“For 52 years I kept diving for sponges, even a thousand times per day … but it was well-paid, I raised six daughters, bought houses for their families,” Kampourakis, whose likeness is depicted on a local statue honoring sponge divers, told NG.

“While islanders were sponge hunting, merchants were selling the `Kalymnian gold' at far-flung markets,” NG reported.

“There used to be 200 to 250 sponge boats, sailing all over Greece and the eastern Mediterranean,” Nikolas Papachatzis, a sponge trader, told NG. “Now only a few remain.”

“The decades-long intensive harvesting, the disease that hit the sponges in the 1980s, and the increased frequency of extreme climatic events since the 1990s all combined to nearly wipe out the sponge harvesting industry,” NG reported, noting that “now, the local sponges are scarce, but surprisingly the sponge trade still flourishes. Because of the islanders' know-how, sponges from elsewhere are processed here.”

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Kalymnos. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

“Everything is done by hand, sponge by sponge; cleaning, washing, trimming,” Papachatzis told NG.

“Kalymnos accounts for 80 percent of sponge exports worldwide, and it imports sponges from tropical waters to satisfy the demand,” NG reported.

“A Mediterranean sponge, though, has an unsurpassed quality and a 10-year life span,” he said, NG reported.

“As global efforts focus on reducing the use of plastic, natural sponges may seem more sustainable than artificial ones,” NG reported, adding that “care should be taken with the remaining fragmented sponge populations,” according to Thanos Dailianis, a marine biologist at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research.

“For sponge fisheries to continue, it is imperative to establish sound management schemes and endorse sustainable practices,” Dailianis told NG. “Cutting part of the sponge instead of wholly removing it from the substrate is proven to minimize harvesting impact, since it allows the remaining part to regenerate.”

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A traditional diving suit and scuba gear demonstrated during the event titled “The Sponge Divers of Kalymnos” in Myrties, Kalymnos. (EUROKINISSI / Giorgos Rigoutsos)

Dailianis “also advocates for the designation of protected zones, which he says, `can have significant long-term benefits by promoting restocking of depleted areas,'” NG reported.

“While sponge harvesting was declining, an altogether different industry was emerging,” NG reported, adding that “along the island's coastline, high yellowish-orange cliffs rise from the sea- dramatic features that caught the eye of Italian climber Andrea Di Bari when he vacationed on Kalymnos in 1996.”

“Enchanted by the rock's high quality, he returned the following year with climbing partners in tow to open up 43 routes,” NG reported, noting that “published images by photographer Andrea Gallo grabbed more climbers' attention” and “then Aris Theodoropoulos, a mountain guide, climbing instructor, and author of the Kalymnos Climbing Guidebook, collaborated with the municipality to help make Kalymnos a bona fide climbing destination.”

“In 1999, we noticed some strange guys, loaded with gear, then saw their figures hanging on the rocks,” George Hatzismalis, head of the Municipality Tourist Office, told NG. “Soon, we started looking for what interventions should be made in order for this to evolve: opening new routes, maintaining them, organizing a climbing festival.”

“The first festival took place in 2000, and since then there have been 13 more, with the biggest names of the climbing scene ascending the most impressive routes and putting up new ones,” NG reported, noting that “today, there are about 90 climbing sectors and 3,900 routes, most single pitch and ranging in difficulty from 4c to 9a (beginner to pro),” and “neighboring Telendos island offers an additional seven sectors and 800 routes, some multi-pitch.”

“The numbers are continuously growing,” Lucas Dourdourekas, president of the volunteer Kalymnos Rescue Team and a top sport climber/instructor, told NG, adding that “[the combination of] the huge vertical walls, the negative cliffs, the routes with pockets, the great variety and all close to each other… and the spectacular sea view while climbing… is awesome.”

“The easily accessible routes accommodate different levels and styles, from adrenaline seekers to more-cautious amateurs and families,” NG reported.

“Kalymnos is great vacation climbing, good for beginners,” the elite American climber Alex Honnold previously told NG, noting that “they have these huge caves with huge stalactites and it's just like super fun featured limestone, but then you can swim if you want in the sea after and it's really beautiful.”

“Spring and fall are the best seasons for climbing, but the island's climate is mild year-round,” NG reported.

“The rise of climbing led to the extension of the tourist season, from three or four to at least eight months with all the subsequent benefits to the local community,” Kalymnos' Hoteliers Association President Nikolaos Tsagkaris told NG.

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A free diver in Therma, Kalymnos, uses the weight of a wide stone, which also serves as a steering wheel, to drag him to the bottom of the sea. This method was used in sponge fishing in Greece for about 2,000 years until scuba gear came into use. (EUROKINISSI / Giorgos Rigoutsos)

“Typically some 12,000 climbers arrive each year to challenge their skills and stamina,” NG reported, adding that “some have bought houses on the island and others waited out coronavirus lockdowns here.”

“The bond between climbers and locals is strong…personal relationships are developed, visitors are not strangers,” Hatzismalis told NG.

“Our mountains, once a curse on our island, inaccessible and non-cultivable, have now become a blessing… Our goal is to make good use of them in all possible ways… such as developing hiking and mountain biking,” Kalymnos Mayor Dimitris Diakomichalis told NG.

“Kalymnos has claimed a place on the global climbing map, but for it to be sustainable in the long term the island's natural heritage needs to be safeguarded,” NG reported, noting that “officials established the New Route Protocol in 2018 in an effort to prevent uncontrolled expansion, ensure safety, and minimize the negative impact on the environment.”

“No interventions were made to the natural surroundings, and the climbers, being environmentally conscious, they appreciate the untouched scenery,” Hatzismalis told NG, adding that “as long as places of archaeological interest and age-old formations, such as Grande Grotta's stalactites, continue to be respected,”… “potential challenges can be avoided.”

“With care and maintenance of present and future routes… she [Kalymnos] can be a model for other destinations,” Dourdourekas told NG.