Vertical Pilgrims

By Cameron Smith

XW 114 smallWe are in the Western Highlands of Guatemala at a mountain resembling a giant tooth, formed by the volcanic violence of ancient and recent history. A hundred feet of thin mountain air below me, not far from the base of this sheer cliff that I am inching up, there is a Mayan woman crying loudly, sobbing and wailing in a hoarse voice, begging for absolution. “Sin” and “senor” and “dios” and “mi culpa” echo up to me, and in the distance there is, on backup vocals, chorus upon chorus of singing prayers and sobbing pleas.

There are pilgrims at the base of this mountain face that I am on, there are pilgrims at the top of the mountain face that I am on, and, unbelievably, there are pilgrims inside the vertical mountain face that I am on. Their sobs spill from the lightning bolt cracks that split this particular section of rock. It sounds like the mountain itself is crying to the heavens. “DON’T LEAVE TRASH ON ME!!!”, I hear it scream.

Sometimes when I’m up there on the wall, I find myself in a beautiful bubble created by inhabiting that state of blissful flow, and I don’t even notice the wailers sobbing below. Other times I’m scared and sweating, hanging from a half-fingertip deep side-pull grip on a crack, my rockshoes reluctantly sticking to a small edge, my leg shaking like I’m doing an Elvis impression and I’m counting down the seconds until I lose my hold on the earth and I begin to fall into space. And it’s at that moment when I hear some noisy evangelical below me, crying out prayers whilst slamming a fellow repentant sinner’s face into black volcanic rock. At these times I feel like screaming out obscenities at the acolytes below. Sometimes I do. The devotees, dressed in their güipiles and impractical footwear, look at me as a I hang there gripping small cracks and undulations in the rock like I’m some kind of circus performer.

But I’m a pilgrim here too. I make the short trip from my house in Xela at least every Sunday and as many times during the week as I am able to find a willing partners who can join me in my vertical mission.

I come home bloody sometimes, flagellated by geology and still eager for more. On the upward pilgrimage, some insanity, or fervent self-trust or blind faith, whatever it is, works to transcend fear and gravity. Being less than sane in the membrane helps me when I climb, but explains why my climbing partners are sometimes less than eager to accompany me up new routes, protected by second hand equipment I’ve taught myself to use via an instructional book.

I clip a leg strap into a bolt, secure my harness, and think about what I can learn from this. I wonder if I may have more confidence than competence…? You can find God at the top of the mountain here, but you could also meet God splattering into the horizontal plane at the bottom. They say that if you climb for a year without dying, you’re probably going to make it to old age.

My alpine initiation took place less than a year ago, up here at La Muela (a particularly popular local mountain face), with Denise and Juan-Pablo, both bakers that switch from kneading to rock climbing as often as possible. I whip up an anchor and lower down to the ground. It’s time for one of my partners to scramble up. Despite the fact that I am still a noob at climbing, the local climbers have accepted me as one of them. I suppose that this is because I have come to share some kind of insider world view with them that comes naturally to climbers. Or perhaps it could be due to the sheer responsibility that falls upon climbers when they are forced to belay each other as they scale their way up perilous mountains. Or, I humbly surmise, it could just be that they respect my studly prodigious abilities when it comes to rock dancing.

The Xela climbing gang here is a tight-knit congregation of locals, extranjeros, boys and girls that practice at the gymnasium weeknights and are lead outdoors by their earthly founding father, Miguel Arango. The Teddy Roosevelt/John Muir/Tenzing Sherpa of Xela, Miguel started out climbing in the 1960s, with home-made wooden pitons and scrap bits of metal tied into the rock with surplus nylon rope. He was an escalade addict long before the X-Games and climbing gyms. As climbing technology developed, he brought the new technologies here, and we have him to thank for almost the entirety of the laborious work that entailed drilling holes in the mountains and installing bolts in the rock in order to allow for protective carabiners and safe climbing. However, like a sprained finger tendon that won’t heal, age has been cruel to these protective measures here, and there are many climbing routes in the region that have bolts in need of restoration and many other routes that have no bolts at all.

But, there’s good news for the Muela: the climbers, the not-for-profit guides and the Quetzaltrekkers, have been raising funds and will be spending 2015 fixing up old routes and making new routes for all to enjoy. We also are also organizing a clean-up day for La Muela, which has been buried in almost as much toxic trash as it has volcanic ash.

Now, it’s my girlfriend Kat’s turn to accept the challenge of the edifice that lies before us. In the “rock faith”, men and women are true equals and most women I know climb better than men. She ropes up and heads over to grip the wall, stepping over a baby’s nappy, an empty plastic bottle and something that probably isn’t flowers in a black plastic bag. I say my own prayer: “Lord, if you are listening, please smite down those who dare to defile our beautiful mountain. I know that this may entail quite a lot of smiting to stop the enviropockalypse that we see before us, but at least keep your sheep in check! AMEN!”.

More than 330 million people (and growing) become pilgrims every year and they become so swept up in their spiritual connection to heaven that they forget about their spiritual connection to earth and consequently there is a devastating environmental toll on many pilgrimage sites. This is such a common a problem for pilgrimage sites that municipal and religious authorities from Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Daoist, Islamic, Jewish, Shinto and Sikh sites have created an organization, named the Green Pilgrim Network, dedicated to addressing this issue.

Kat battles her way to the top, while I chat with fellow climbers Juliana (see cover photo) & Kevin and belay (secure her rope). This is a hard climb and I can see that she’s maxed out but she continues up steadily. It’s getting late and most of the Muela wailers have gone home but there are some local men that have surrounded us and are watching Kat climb. Here, isolated in the wilderness, I wonder what I would do if they were actually ladrones (robbers). I think about my expensive 4K cinema camera and touch the small folding knife in my pocket. They eye me and speak suspiciously in Mayan. I imagine what Chuck Norris would do faced with 5 opponents and realize that, this being a holy mountain, they could totally rob all of us (except for Kat who is well out of their reach) and then repent, say some hail Marys and then be on their merry way home, absolved of all sins. It would be the perfect crime! Deciding to ignore the Chuck Norris on my shoulder, I quell my paranoia and decide to slay with kindness and offer my dried fruit and nut snacks to the men, who gladly accept, although they graciously decline my offer to belay them while they try climbing the mountain.

Above, Kat yells out a hoot which means she is at the top and is very stoked about it! She takes a minute to look around from her high vantage point. The cathedral of our natural transcendence is an ancient rock formation of basalt that stretches out a kilometer to the east of the blown apart remnants of volcano Cerro Quemado. This rock formation is older than Christ, older than the Mayan culture, older than our species and indifferent to our reverence, with the exception of the occasional volcanic explosion. To the north lies our city of Xela, which lies in a valley that may itself be a volcano’s caldera. These volcanos are still active and the next big eruption could be a day or a millennia away.

Kat lowers to the ground, beaming ecstatically, full of endorphins and pride and we begin to pack up. We bid farewell to our new friends and on the way down, we carry a bag full of trash, which hopefully will not eventually be dumped into a river somewhere. Within 15 minutes I am back down in Xela, which now looks different to me as I remember having seen it from above. My spirit is still high, and I think about when I can return to nature for the next adventure.

To see photos and videos of rock climbing, and to find out how to start climbing in Xela, go to the website: And if you’re feeling like a real boss, you can contribute to our fundraiser which will go to making climbing in Xela a safer experience.




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