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The Forbidden Island: Climbing in Cuba, Part 5

New partners and the future of Cuba's climbing


Climbing in Cuba may be “restricted,” but for some—foreigners and Cubans alike—the allure of the island’s towering rock faces is too much to resist. Four women took the vertical allure, added a touch of salsa (dancing, that is) and spent two weeks charting the fine line of vertical legality, Cuban-style. Majka Burhardt tells their story in five parts. Today, part five.

It is not hard for four women to find extra climbing partners in Cuba—even in spite of climbers’ general scarcity. The day after Mucho Pumpito, we climbed with twins Yohandri Gellando Palacio and Yosvany Gallardo Palacio and their friend Yan Michel Orges Camacho. We met up at daybreak in Cueva Vaca and hiked to cliff Paredon de Josue for a chance to climb there before the day’s heat set in. The 23-year-old twins have been climbing on and off for five years, and though I tried to find the differences between them, with identical education, climbing experience, and unemployed status, it became easier to just ask Yohandri questions for the both of them. I wanted to know if it’s difficult to be unemployed in Cuba; Yohandri wanted to know how he could get better climbing gear. “See all of yours,” he said, “how it matches? Look at ours.”

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By then we’d all been climbing for an hour, and it was currently Tara’s turn up on the rock. She was easily finessing the three-dimensional stone, no matter how it presented to her. In three days of climbing here, we’d all learned to move with the rock first and with our expectations second. The twins and Yan Michel seemed to also appreciate this development and spent more time watching us climb then getting on the rock themselves. I looked closer at our coordinated gear and then over at the twins’.

Their rope was worn and frayed, and their quickdraws, what they use to attach the rope to bolts with on the rock, were a motley group of different shapes, sizes and ages. It’s impossible to buy climbing gear in Cuba, and local climbers rely on donations from foreigners to get started, or to update, their equipment.

Tara came down and offered her end of the rope to one of the brothers. Yosvany hesitated. “Don’t you want to climb this one?” I asked.

“We only climb that one,” Yohandri said, pointing to the climb he and his brother had already done.

“Always?” I asked. “Only?”

“Again and again,” Yohandri confirmed.

Paredon de Josue has seventeen different climbs on its cliff. Already that morning I had done two. “Do you wish you could climb more?” I asked Yohandri.

The answer was an emphatic yes, from all three men. But the difficulty, Yohandri explained, started with the transportation. Just that morning, they’d woken up before five to catch a carro d’estado from their home in Puerta Esperanza twenty miles away. “Have you been on a carro d’estado yet?” Yohandri wanted to know. He went on without waiting for my response. “It is like this—“ he stood with one foot in midair as if about to do a karate move. “The mothers go the front, the next ones hold them in.” He puts his arms out as if he is bracing. “We stand on one foot in the back. That is how much room we have with 50 other people.” Yohandri laughs. “But now we are here, and we are climbing.”

The twins didn’t want to move to Vinales, per se. They would rather have climbing be easier to get to and have the equipment to do it. Their family and lives were in Puerta Esperanza. Climbing was not the thing they most wanted, but what they did want was the chance to do it when they pleased.

The seven of us all stood on the ground together and talked about climbing and Cuba as the sun began to broil the rock above. Sweat pooled in my armpits and glistened on all of our faces. When limestone gets hot, it’s decidedly more slippery—and less fun. Or that’s the way I have always thought about it. But on that morning, it seemed like the best idea in the world to climb what was possible, not what was perfect.

“Yosvany,” I said. “I’ll make you a deal. You climb this new route, and I’ll give you my rope when I leave.”

We’d be in Vinales another day yet and would climb a bit more, visit the beach, and dance to 80’s romantic ballads in the central square. But for now, our time in Cuba seemed best spent holding out the end of our rope to Yosvany.

The twins looked at each other and Yohandri nodded. Yosvany went up, tentatively at first, and then with exaggerated flair, posing equally for the camera and for the crowd below. He made it the whole way to the top without falling, and rode down the green rope at the end as if it was already his.

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Majka Burhardt is an author, professional climber and filmmaker with an uncanny knack for blending vertical exploration with multi-stage international ventures focused on current issues of cultural and global significance. Learn more at www.majkaburhardt.com

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