As a team, Sweetie and I have been rock climbing and mountaineering for almost two years now. Through all those years, we have developed a certain high for heights. We definitely feel exhilarated as we ascend new rock climbing routes, sit quietly on a mountain peak and enjoy the vista below our feet, stand up at the lip of a waterfall, or even climb treetops to feel the cool breeze. We didn’t even spare the water tower in the housing subdivision where we reside in the hopes of having a good glimpse of a V22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at the military base a few miles away.
However, nothing could prepare us for another level of high, excitement, adrenaline rush, and fear that awaited us last December 1, 2013. And for us, it was an unexpected yet kick-ass way to start the Yuletide month! You see, that date marked our first ever multipitch climb in Cantabaco in Lutopan, Toledo, Cebu.
What’s multipitch climbing? Well, it’s like this: the climbing rope has a fixed length. Normally, a climber can only ascend half that length; for instance, you can only climb a maximum of 25 meters if your belayer is using a 50-meter rope. The distance from the ground to the anchor is called a pitch; in Cantabaco, most of the routes are single pitch.
But what if you want to climb a higher, longer route? The longer routes are divided into pitches. After the lead climber reaches the top of a pitch, he sets an anchor and belays the second climber up. The second climber cleans the route (i.e. removes the quickdraws) until he reaches the lead climber at the top of the pitch. Once both climbers are reunited at the top of the anchor, the leader begins to climb the next pitch. The process goes on until both reach the top of the route.
On December 1, we were supposed to simply work on some single-pitch projects for the entire day. However, when the usual gang arrived, out of the blue, we decided to try out Cantabaco’s three-pitch route. We decided to climb up to the second pitch where we can stay for a few minutes to enjoy the view. And if we have time, we’ll attempt to send the final, ultra-high third pitch. For the entire morning, we warmed up on the easy routes on Area 3.
Close to 3 PM on a hot afternoon, we went to Area 2 where the base of the multipitch route starts.
Since this was our first multipitch climb, Sir Enie taught us a few essential safety tips and techniques. Since we would be hundreds of feet up on the cliff, safety is paramount.
After a few minutes, it was time to commence the multipitch climb. Italian climber, Ascanio, and his beautiful, sexy partner local climber gal, Gretchen, were the first to go up. They chose to start the first pitch through the 5.9 route Wild Boys.
Ascanio and Gretchen reached the first pitch and immediately prepared for the next pitch. Sir Willard, Sweetie, and I were designated as a single team with Sir Willard leading the climb. We started the first pitch at Wild Boys.
After Sir Willard reached the first belay station at the first pitch, it was my turn to climb. Now, look closely at the photo below. You may notice that I was wearing a backpack while climbing. Well, that pack contained delicious warm puto and a bottle of Coke that we planned to consume after reaching the second belay station.
Almost at the belay anchor…and a chance to rest! Climbing a crag with a heavy backpack surely makes the climb more challenging.
After reaching the first belay station above the Wild Boys route, I immediately set up an anchor so I can belay Sweetie up the route and give Sir Willard a rest.
Belaying from above was pretty tricky because I have to set up an anchor and position myself in such a way so that the belay loop won’t twist downwards. Also, belaying from above was quite strenuous since I had to keep the rope constantly at full tension, which meant that I constantly had to pull the rope up. And just consider: I was belaying Sweetie on a ledge just several inches wide and 100 feet above the ground!
Whoa! That’s a topsy-turvy setup. It may look really confusing, but everything served a purpose. The two-bolt anchors were used to set up a belay anchor to lessen the load. To accommodate three people at the belay station, we bridged two quicklinks together with a quickdraw so we can have more room to anchor ourselves. A slung hueco (a piece of climbing rope or sling tied through a hole in the rock, not visible in the photo below) served as an anchor for our backup safety anchor.
How does the ground, so comfortable and inviting, look like 100 feet above? Well, just check out the photo below. Those blue and orange tarps, which we use as mats, are on the ground. Even professional climbers feel jittery upon seeing the ground below at a dizzying height. And if you consider the fact that you’re standing on a ledge just a few inches wide with nothing but two flimsy-looking Dyneema slings as your only protection from meeting the Almighty, then you would think that it would actually be abnormal if you don’t feel afraid.
Can you see Sweetie working up her way to the belay station?
The photo below gives you a better idea on just how tiny the first belay station is. That’s Sir Willard’s water bottle and shoes attached to the gear loops of his harness. If that water bottle or pair of shoes fall, it will go straight to the ground!
That’s Sweetie halfway to the first belay station.
Almost there! Sweetie’s mind somewhat played tricks on her, and she was quite panicky while climbing the route. In fact, it took her quite a while, around half an hour, to finish Wild Boys. For us, it was quite surprising since she has climbed this route many times; and this is our usual warm-up route. It turned out that she got really frightened of the idea of a multipitch climb.
Here’s another great view of the tiny ledge of the first belay station. Check out the foot.
At last, Sweetie reached the first belay station and secured herself on the anchor. Whew! That was fun, wasn’t it, Sweetie?
The slung hueco and several rock protrusions make perfect places where we could hang our heavy bags and shoes. Yes, we took our shoes off for relief
After a short chat and rest, Sir Willard lead climbed the way to the much higher yet more comfortable belay station at the top of the second pitch.
That’s me at the belay; Sir Willard’s life is in my hands. It was a pretty new experience to me, which also made me realize that in multipitch climbing, my responsibility of keeping my climber safe doubled in magnitude. Just think: I was belaying someone more than a hundred feet up on a tiny ledge.
Sir Willard made his way on the second pitch and reached the second belay station after several minutes. Now, judging from the photo collage below, you may think, “Oh, it’s not that high.” Well, wait until the next set of photos to see how high the second pitch really is.
The nice thing about the second belay station is that it has plenty of bolts, hangers, and huecos where climbers can hook up. That also means it is easier to set up a belay anchor with so many “choices” at the belay station.
Flor, another climber pal, and her partner local guide Sir Enie climbed up an adjacent route, which also has an access to the second belay station.
Unclipping anchors! Safety is off! Climbing! After Sir Willard gave the okay signal, I started my ascent on the second pitch.
That’s me, working my way to the first belay station. We were actually way above the tree tops, and at this height, we can’t help but get dizzy and jittery when we look down. Hell, we can’t even see the ground! Also, look at how vertical the wall is.
With all its terrifying height and sheer vertical face, the second pitch was surprisingly easy to climb. In fact, it’s even easier than Wild Boys, the first pitch, or the 5.9 Area 3 classic route Hait, which is considered a beginner’s route.
After a few minutes, I reached the second belay station. Check out the handholds; they’re pretty big and easy to hold on to.
As you can see in the photo below, the second belay station was a much more comfortable place to be in. The ledge was sloping, relatively smooth, and easy on the feet. Furthermore, there were plenty of anchors, huecos, and slings to clip in. In fact, we could carefully “walk” around as long as we remained clipped in (i.e. via ferrata).
We could see the entirety of Silangan, Cantabaco at this vantage point. The scene was simply awesome and calming at the same time. The bellow of a rooster, the drone of a motorcycle, the sermon of an afternoon mass, the muzzled cheer of a nearby cockfight, and the faint laughter of gossiping madams all add to a calming, lively cacophony of Filipino sounds and culture.
Sir Enie took the lead to the second belay station via another route. The two routes actually converge at the second belay station.
After several minutes, Sir Enie reached the second belay station and set up an anchor for his climbing partner, Flor.
Flor followed and cleaned the route while climbing towards the second belay station. It was also her first time to climb a multi-pitch route, and she said it was frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
Just one more push! A liter of sweat and a pound of lactic acid later, Flor reached the second belay station. Finally, it was a chance for her to relax and admire the view.
After I set up a belay anchor, I belayed Sweetie as she started to make her way to the top.
Earlier, we told Sweetie not to panic and to remember that she was safe and on belay. However, upon reaching the bottom of the second belay station, which was slightly overhung, she suddenly panicked. Suddenly, Sweetie didn’t know what to do. She screamed and cried hysterically even though the holds were just above her head!
She didn’t know what to do and ceased climbing altogether. Sir Willard and I had to haul her up the belay station so she can recover from her panic attack.
Don’t trust Sweetie’s smile; she just smiled when Sir Willard took a photo of all of us at the belay station. She was actually trembling in fear. Hehehe! Uhm, sorry for the blurry photo. The sun was already setting, and it was difficult to snap a nice photo in dim light without a tripod.
It took Sweetie almost an hour to climb the second pitch; in fact, the sun was already setting the moment she stepped on the belay station.
Not that the route was too hard for her; in fact, she later remarked it was one of the easiest routes she climbed. But Sweetie got overcome with panic. That’s okay; when climbing a cliff this high, it would actually be unusual for someone NOT to be afraid. However, fear should be controlled and contained, meaning, one should keep calm and composed amidst a stressful situation. In any extreme sport, the real trouble usually starts when someone starts to panic since he or she is unable to think straight.
We witnessed a magnificent, super-cool sunset on a ledge 250 feet off the ground. The scene was definitely breathtaking, but it also caused us a great deal of concern. Why? Well, we didn’t anticipate that the climb would take this long (due to the time it took to “rescue” Sweetie), so we didn’t bring along our headlamps and flashlights. That meant, to get down to the ground from this point in time, we need to do a “blind” rappel, something that all of us haven’t tried doing.
Needless to say, we weren’t able to take our snacks up the ledge as we planned earlier. What a bummer!
Are you willing to rappel down in pitch black? We really wouldn’t, but we had no choice.
My Mammut Tusk rope was long enough to reach the ground from the belay station. In other words, we didn’t have to stop at the first belay station so we can set up another rappel anchor. But the problem about rappelling in the dark is that we didn’t know what went on below us or if the rope really reached the ground. And this was what exactly happened.
Sweetie was the first one to rappel from the second belay station. When she reached midway, she discovered that the rope was tangled in the branches. Without fixing this, no one could get down.
Since Sweetie was too short and far away to reach the mess from her position, Sir Willard, who was taller and had longer reach, rappelled down to lend a hand and untangle the rope.
In a few minutes, the rope was untangled, and Sir Willard prepared to set up a belay anchor for Sir Enie, who was the last one to go down. As mentioned earlier, my dynamic rope is quite long. However, since we couldn’t see if the rope reached the ground for the final rappel (more on this when we write a Rock Climbing 101 article about retrieval and cleaning a route), we didn’t want to take any chances.
One by one, we safely rappelled off the belay station to the ground.
Time check: a really late, dark 7 PM, the latest we’ve ever been at the crag! Finally, after more than 3 hours on the rock face, our feet finally touched ground! Wohoo! Except for Sir Enie and Sir Willard, this was one heck of an experience. Not only was it our first time to do a multipitch climb successfully, but it was also our first time to rappel at night in the middle of a forest without the benefit of illumination. It was exciting, but, for the sake of safety, we hope we wouldn’t do it again.
Finally, Sir Enie came down. All of us celebrated our successful although unnerving climb by snacking on puto and softdrinks.
The Next Day
The afternoon before, Ascanio and Gretchen climbed the third and final pitch. They were under the assumption that we would attempt to ascend the third pitch, so they asked us if we could retrieve the quickdraws they left behind. However, due to the lack of time, we weren’t able to climb the third pitch; so they decided to come back the next day to clean the route and retrieve the precious quickdraws.
The duo, together with Sir Enie and another great climbing buddy, Brian, went up the same routes our team climbed yesterday. Sweetie and I decided to stay on the ground so we can document the climb. We also want you to see how the multipitch climb looks like from below.
After both teams successfully climbed and reached the first belay point, Sweetie and I exited the shady belay area to have a better view of the rock face. Can you see Ascanio making his way to the second belay station?
Awhile later, Sir Enie reached the second belay station from the Wild Boys route.
The two lead climbers, Ascanio and Sir Enie, set up anchors and belayed Gretchen and Brian, respectively.
After awhile, the two teams were reunited on the rocky belay station 250 feet up in the air.
After setting up the belay, Ascanio began to lead climb the third pitch. The guides mentioned that the third pitch is a bit harder than the first two pitches, with a grade of 5.10. On our next multipitch climb, I’ll try to onsight (i.e. successfully lead climb without falling and without any prior information on the route) the third pitch.
Ascanio was now midway to the top of the third pitch. He was at the critical crux, the most difficult part of the route, which featured a slight overhang. A lead fall here would be safe (as long as the belayer knows what he or she is doing) but extremely scary!
Inch by inch, foot by foot, Ascanio conquered the overhang with determination and reached the very top of Cantabaco’s crag. The top of the third pitch must be around 300 feet from the ground!
Ascanio retrieved the quickdraws while Gretchen belayed him down. Since the route features an overhang, it would be difficult to clean the route (sans cleaning while top roping) while rappelling down.
The photo below shows an excellent view of the multipitch route from the road. Can you see the people high up on the second belay station?
The Cantabaco crag has around 60 or more routes. However, the rest of the pure, clean limestone rock face in the photo below is still unbolted. Thus, there is still a whole lot of room to bolt more multipitch routes and make Cantabaco an even better, more extreme climbing area that we, Cebuanos, would be proud of.
Just because the photos look cool and fun does not mean that you can take climbing lightly. Climbing is inherently DANGEROUS! Every time you climb, your life and the life of your partner hang in the balance. There are only three things that will happen in climbing: you succeed, you get seriously injured, or you die. Your safety depends on you and SOLELY on you! Thus before you go out there, it is vitally important that you get some basic training on climbing principles, techniques, and safety first. Visit a local indoor climbing gym to practice for a few sessions before heading out to the big rock wall. You should also get training from professional guides. Although blogs (including ours), books, tutorial videos, and articles could be a good source of information, you should find a certified climbing instructor to properly coach you through the sport. We got our training from Cantabaco’s guides and climbing instructors, and even if then, we’re still learning. Let us be clear on one thing: we are NOT climbing instructors.
1. For rock climbing guideship services and equipment rental, please contact Enie Yonson at 0943-0688985 or 0948-7124875. You can also search his name on Facebook or visit the Cantabaco Climbing Friends Facebook page.
2. For itineraries, budget, tips, and other information regarding rock climbing in Cantabaco, please refer to the post titled Cantabaco: A Rock Climber’s Mecca in Cebu.
3. Multipitch climbing is not for beginners. Practice climbing for a few months before attempting a multipitch climb. As a gauge, you should be able to climb a route graded 5.10 with little difficulty to attempt a multipitch climb. Assuming you can easily climb 5.10 routes, you will find that the first and second pitches are quite easy.
4. When trying out multipitch climbing for the first time, always hire a guide for safety. Don’t try to do the climb yourself; setting up the anchors at the belay station is tricky and should be error-free. Always listen to them during the briefing.
5. Ensure that you have a redundant personal anchor system that you can use to anchor yourself at each pitch; at least two Dyneema slings with locking carabiners are needed. This is for your own safety. Remember that you will be standing hundreds of feet off the ground.
6. When anchoring yourself, make sure you clip your main personal anchor on a hanger or a quicklink. Your backup anchor may be clipped to a hueco.
7. You can move around at the second belay station. However, before moving, make sure that at least one of your anchors is attached to a clipping point. For instance, you may unclip your main anchor to another ledge, but make sure your backup is still attached to a hueco. Once you’re in position, clip in your main anchor, unclip the backup, then re-clip the backup on the hueco nearest to you.
8. If you are the second climber, you need to clean, or take out the quickdraws attached along the pitch. Make sure you collect all quickdraws and give them all to the lead climber waiting for you on top of the pitch.
9. Since the ledges of the belay stations obstruct the view from below, the belayer, at times, won’t see your climbing progress. Always make sure to effectively communicate with your belayer. Specifically, you would want the rope to be always on tension as you climb. See basic climbing commands here.
10. Belaying from the top is quite strenuous and painful to the hands. Thus, take it easy on your belayer. As much as possible, don’t fall. If you need to take a break or if you feel you are about to fall, call out to your belayer; and clip your anchor to the nearest hanger, sling, or hueco.
11. Your primary enemy in multipitch climbing (and even single-pitch climbing) is fear. People are naturally afraid of great heights, and as you climb higher, you’ll feel fear taking a grip on you. Do not hesitate to tell your belayer that you’re going to rest and anchor yourself on the wall. Relax, take a deep breath, assess your situation, and visualize how you are going to attack the route. Ask the belayer for tips in accomplishing the route.
It is normal to be afraid at this height, but never give in to panic. When panic sets in, you’ll lose control and you won’t be able to think straight. This happens, what is supposed to be easy and solvable will become very difficult or even impossible—if you panic.
As long as you have an attentive, experienced belayer and a bombproof anchor, there’s no reason for you to panic even though falling, loosing a foothold, loosing a handhold, or not knowing where to go can definitely make your heart skip a few beats.
12. Due to the extreme exposure of the rock face, it will be quite hot at the belay station. Thus, do bring the following:
- a water bottle (preferably one that can be hooked to the gear loops of your harness)
- a sarong, bandana, hat, or piece of cloth to protect yourself from the sun