The Homeland: Sicily
A third-generation American, the author journeys back to Sicily to find his roots—and a whole lot of awesome routes.
My trip to Sicily’s sport-climbing paradise, the fabled limestone of San Vito Lo Capo, started with a massive disappointment—a reminder to not fly too high until you could—nothing major and nothing to do with mother Sicily, since it happened in the Rome airport, but it was aggravating because I had to relearn a universal truth first debated at length by Plato and Aristotle in their 4th century B.C. philosophical Academy. Never expect great things from airport pizza.
At the airport I had ordered a pizza margherita, the Toyota Camry of pizzas. Simple, reliable, time-tested. In my mind, I was already in Italy, and, to be fair, I was inside its borders and keen for the best food the Mediterranean country had to offer.
What was put before me two minutes later—yeah, it was microwaved—was a sad sponge, the cheese little squares of bland something-or-other and the sauce … a watery, tomato pasty wash.
Never expect great things from airport pizza. It is a truth as verifiable as the second law of thermodynamics, and yet, smuggled within this truth is another, secondary truth—one that didn’t immediately occur to me, the pizza thing led to it—a truth of climbing, and onsighting in particular: Don’t let your guard down until you clip the chains. Freud’s reality principle meets climbing.
THE LAST DAY OF THE TRIP
A high plateau rimmed by craggy limestone the color of burnt skin, dried orange peels and pan-fried cheddar soared above me. Bristly green grasses held where they could, between, below and above the crags—dig down only a few feet anywhere in this part of Sicily and it’s rock.
Below the expanse that sauntered out of sight to distant crags and sheep trails and carved into the limestone hillside via millions of years of geo-human forces, was an overhanging amphitheater, the Lost World crag.
The Lost World dripped, literally and figuratively. Literally because of a cold rain the night before and the occasional shower that taunted our otherwise stunner of a day. Figuratively because tufas are geological marvels, inverted drip-castles kids make on beaches, minerals in creative posture, things that, I learned, to use successfully you must be awake, not in a yogic sense of being “woke” to the enlightenment of climbing, but three-dimensionally awake. Tufas can grow behind you when you climb. Awake means knowing how to navigate them.
On those tufas in said cave, high drama was unfolding. Cognizant of it being my last route of the trip, I was desperate for a knee bar on an epic 5.12b, pumped out of my gourd from 35 meters of tufa wrangling, easy, yes, but 35 meters of anything ain’t so. And you can bet your shit I wasn’t going to botch it. Remember the secondary pizza lesson?—don’t let your guard down until you clip the chains—I was putting that into practice.
Tu Ri, a local Italian we befriended, had told me the route was 11d, but he also downrated everything with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders in what can only be called the local’s sandbag, the belief that something is easier than it is simply because you’ve done it dozens of times. That’s like believing that everyone should be able to juggle four balls since you’ve been doing it for 10 years.
On an adjacent route Ben Rueck was cruising a super steep 13b, but the last-move crux loomed just above him, a rare crimpy sequence, the gatekeeper, and he was resting, shaking out.
After a mutual “Come on man, you got it,” we both clipped the chains. My forearms were so wrecked I promised myself I’d take a month off when I got home. Which of course I didn’t.
Throughout our day at the Lost World, a scrappy little wildfire had been wreaking havoc on a hillside a few miles distant, flaring up, calming down, raging, abating—a little smoke show. As I lowered, I noticed that the wildfire was out. Curtain closed.
THE TOE OF THE TOE
If Sicily is the toe of the Italian boot, San Vito is at the toe of the toe, peacefully residing on the far end of a small peninsula, a beach town with a crescent-shaped shore on its northern edge, the Zingaro nature reserve to the east, a multi-pitch limestone sentinel, Monte Monaco, at its rear. An abode where middle-class Italians escape and trade their polished leather scarpas (shoes) for flip flops and a lipsmack of Limoncello. Here, you can be sinking your toes in the sand of San Capo’s beach and in 15 seconds by foot be downtown, but not before encountering gelato stalls and plein-air cafes, which, since it was off season when we were there, were boarded up.
As the crow flies, San Vito is 30 miles from Palermo, the big city to the east—yet home to only two rock gyms—but San Vito is an hour and a half drive on one-laners that slice through the heart of every village, town and hillside curiosity. My partners for this sojourn were Ben Rueck, whom you just met, Lena Palms and Jeff Rueppel: friends, crushers, artists.
A pro climber, Ben wears a shaggy, half-mop of brown hair, hails from Grand Junction, Colorado, and is rather serious except when he’s not, then he’s 12 and as giddy as my eight-year-old daughter. He’s a friend of years, a top all-arounder, equally at home on hard Indian-Creek splitters as he is the dura of Céüse, and always climbs as if he is setting a speed record. Typically, he’s clipping the chains on his warm up, something in the 5.12 range, by the time I look at the guidebook. On a given year, he teaches courses at five or six Craggin’ Classics. Ben and Lena just got married. In addition to being a climber—she just sent her first 5.13 this past year—Lena is half Japanese, half Canadian, a former on-air news reporter, and translates Japanese news stories to English, which she would do throughout the trip. Lena is tall and lean with straight dark hair and climbs deliberately and boldly.
A San Fran native, Jeff Rueppel was the man behind the lens. Jeff is forever unshaven and has studied, focused eyes and is always down for an adventure. He has been a Rock and Ice photo-camp instructor for years and has two Masters degrees under his belt, one in Computational Linguistics and another in French Literature, which explains why he is in his element—at least when he is not editing photos, which he is constantly doing—when discoursing about the finer points of Brexit and United States trade policy towards China.
NEW THINGS ON THE ROCK
Sicily is a special place for me.
I’m Sicilian, the third generation of East Coast immigrants who docked below Lady Liberty in the middle of the last century. Today, my Sicilian kin grow lemons and produce wine, the former going to market while the latter, well, “that never leaves the farm,” Vicenzo told me when I visited Sortino, on the eastern side of Sicily a while back. I have a soft-spot for the old country—the crumbling walls, cured meat, the blue of the Mediterranean, how history is inscribed on all parts of life there, an abstract sensibility that reveals itself in the gardens and stone fences and exaggerated mannerisms. In grad school, I studied Italian art history, read Italian philosophers and now it was time to go there to learn how climbing had taken hold on the island. Naturally, I’ve been looking for a good excuse to go back.
Of the 26 guidebook areas in vicinity of San Vito Lo Capo—lots more on the outskirts—you couldn’t finish your cappuccino before arriving at 17 of them. In fact, you’ll probably still be sipping the foam when you kill the engine. The remaining eight crags, 20 to 30 mins out, still would qualify as local spots in my hometown.
Closer to Tunisia, the northernmost point of Africa, than to its own capital of Rome nearly a thousand miles to the north, the 150-mile wide island of Sicily has been invaded by Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines and countless others since, umm, forever. For thousands, maybe even millions of years, the countenance of the cliffs and crags around San Vito have remained the same. The same whipping of the wind. The same slow drumbeat of history. And yet, appearing on the cliffs around town for the first time in San Vito’s history is something new. Metal objects that must be put there—bolts.
Being Sicilian and emotionally invested in the island’s success, I decided to visit this climbing paradise to mainly inspect the quality of bolts—someone had to do it, coastal bolts can be sketchy—a rigorous, selfless and arm-twisting process that would consist, necessarily, of clipping a lot of them and conversing about said bolts at dinner over generous portions of fresh salami, farm-aged cheese and fish that hours earlier had swam offshore. Ben and Lena were already traveling, and Jeff was looking to tamper down his training on account of feeling too strong. While it is normally ice and alpine season for me, I, like Jeff, needed to gain a few pounds and our doctors advised a Sicilian diet. What timing!
But as with many postcard Mediterranean locations, Sicily is struggling, economically, even culturally, and more than a few locals expressed that very thing.
“There is no culture,” said Salvatore Costanza, our waiter at Caffé Savoia, with perfect English, who moved to Los Angeles when he was 6 and stayed for 24 years before moving back.
I disagreed but understood. Sicilians are down on themselves courtesy of a 21.5 percent unemployment rate that, compared to other European economies, is soul-crushingly high. Some rural communities have such high unemployment they are offering free homes to anyone who will move there. In Sambuca, about 30 miles south of San Vito, you can buy a home for $1.
But on San Vito, courtesy of those new bolts, glimmers of hope were breaking through the clouds, an alternate economy of sorts, at the very least the entrepreneurial spirit, which isn’t to say San Vito has been handed a lifeboat. Rather a small life vest.
HUNGER IS THE BEST SAUCE
Courtesy of jet lag, I woke up at 12:33 on day one. I hadn’t slept until lunch since college and that night with the Jagermeister. My back hurt. Airport seats.
I staggered into our villa’s central area—a single room with a round white table as its axis, conveniently situated between the couch and the TV. Ben handed me a coffee and bowl of couscous with eggs, carrots and salami, and hinted by gesture and quick handoff that I scarf it and we get to it. Our chalkbags were lonely. Ben was all smiles, Jeff too, which was remarkable, as they had been up since 6:30 a.m. That’s six hours of waiting. If I were them I personally would have handed me a scowl and a cup of dude, wtf? But Lena hadn’t emerged yet, so I didn’t feel so bad.
“Are you stoked? Did you bring your smiles?” Ben said, then proceeded to toss out an excuse for the entirety of the trip. “I really haven’t sport climbed since August.” It was a pro move for sure. I eyed him up suspiciously. It was now mid-October.
“Yeah, me too,” Lena chimed in. “I haven’t climbed on bolts since the summer.”
I, of course, was thinking this was great news. It only lessened the degree to which he’d be sandbagging me, which was guaranteed. Jeff putzed about in the kitchen, snacking on some Italian cookies and sipping coffee that could stain your teeth in a single sip.
We packed our things asap. Within minutes I was nosing our two-horsepower Panda—our rental car—to Calamancina, a miles-long coastal cliff with generous, 50- to 70-foot-tall swaths of bomber gray and orange-streaked limestone and an atmospheric hang: waves crashing and echoing out of the caves, dreamy and romantic and all those things our mind conjures, and right outside of town. If you didn’t have a car, you could hoof it.
Given the rain, huge puddles flooded the road.
“The Panda’s got it,” Jeff smirked, totally confident, dismissive even, tossing his brown mane from out of his eyes.
“Oh yea,” Lena added, “nothing stops the Panda.” She said it as if it were a fact.
“Don’t worry—the Panda is a beast,” Ben chirped.
I gunned it.
We sniffed out Grotto de Cavallo, a massive squinting eyelet of a cave, and a 15-minute stroll down the cliff, to sample some of the best the area had to offer. Like a grandmother foaming to hijack the local infant, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some tufas.
We approached in awe. Just as I dropped my pack, sat down on moist soil, and continued to stuff another pastry down my throat—was it my fourth?—Ben finished racking his last draw. He then proceeded to hike a beautiful 5.12c, Balu’, Yoghi E Bubu on the crag’s right side, cruising the cornery and featured tufas, the route capped by a bouldery roof and photo-worthy foot cut. Apparently, his two months off hadn’t slowed him down an inch. I clipped up a dead-vert .11d to the right of that. Lena styled Baldassarre, an excellent .11a out the cave’s left side, finding a generous sit-down rest, to which she indulged herself.
Below us, the shoreline ran ragged with grasses, giving way to razor-finned limestone the closer you got to shore. Taking a dip here would have been like being dropped into a bucket of knives—out of the question.
Deep inside the cave there were prehistoric anthropomorphic drawings dating from the third millennium B.C., but, the selfish modernist that I am, I was more concerned with climbing the side of the cave than inspecting the history of civilization.
We packed as much climbing as we could into the day then strolled downtown and nursed beers we got from a vending machine—seriously America, why do we not have these?—then it was dinner at Ristorante Agora, which was opening for dinner at 8 p.m.
Starving, I ordered the fried calamari and shrimp. Pronto! Ben ordered wine for the table then Jeff and I downed said glasses of wine within 10 seconds, only on account of there being no water on the table. Naturally. The fish was crunchy, and came to life like a flower in the sun when we dipped it in a vat of Lena’s not-so-fishy fish soup, red and milky. We were equally satisfied by the day’s bolt inspections. Those had checked out just fine, but my work was only beginning. It’s a big island. It felt good just to be here, a pacifying contentment of having come “home,” no longer a fragment or a yearning to know something more about something our family had hung onto, but the real thing.
“There are two locals in San Capo, and I’m one of them,” said Tu Ri. He seemed mildly annoyed. He had my sympathy.
Tu Ri lives in Castelluzzo, a village six miles up the only road out of San Vito. Brown -haired with sharp features, quick to smile but with a serious and unshaven face, Tu Ri loves climbing and doesn’t mind taking the whip. Of the three things most Americans associate with Italy—a love for soccer (sorry, futbol), Nutella and Il Padrino (“The Godfather”)—Tu Ri hates every single one.
“There is no cultura. Only football,” he said, and the way he said it gave me the sense that his realization was a Freudian “killing of the father.” It was his way of saying that he wasn’t one of them.
We partnered with Tu Ri and despite his sparse English and my barren Italian, we worked together like an old married couple, intuiting when to take, when to feed a loop at the anchors and whose turn it was to stack the rope. Tu Ri insisted I meet Daniele Arena, 49, whom he said was the man around town. Tu Ri arranged the introduction, said he was going to take care of it. Fuggetaboutit.
After a second session at Calamancina, where I managed my first-ever 5.13 onsight—yep, proud of that one—we met Dani at the Climbing House, which he owns and operates, a humble slice of business early on one of the main arteries into town, recognizable by the picnic table with bearded men and women in puffies. Jeff and I were thirsty, and the Climbing House serves up a solid pint, fills your bowl with potato chips, and is the de facto climbers’ refuge, where you go for guides, beta and chalk. I awkwardly offered to buy Dani a beer—he owned the place. He didn’t rib me for my faux pas and instead told me about his love for San Capo.
Born in Catania, Dani first visited San Vito from Singapore in 2002, at age 26, when, he estimates, there were about 60 routes in the area. The first routes then were on Monte Monaco, the town’s backdrop and sentinel, a craggy north-facing wall sporting, to this day and growing, a roster of quality multi-pitch routes, some gear some bolted. Below Monte Monaco, olive trees line the fields—it was harvest time when we were there—and, in the mornings, restaurateurs pull snails from the limestone-ridden soil.
Alessandro Gogna put up routes in the 1980s and Thomas Fickert bolted the first sport routes in the Cattedrale nel Deserto sector of Monte Monaco in the early 1990s, Maurizio Oviglia in 2000. After that, many other climbers arrived to contribute to the development of San Vito, one of the most productive being Tommaso Tamagnini, who developed the Nuova Ossessione sector. Other developers who left their mark are Chiara Cianciolo, Jonathan Bunaventura, Myrtle Monaco, Turi Poma, Christian Leube, Dario di Gabriele, Augusto Rossi, Marco Puleo, Kein Olzen and, of course, Dani, among others.
Two years after his first tour of San Vito, Dani returned and brought with him the developer’s curse. He pitched a tent in a cave that would become Calamancina, which remains his favorite spot.
“The place was deserted, no one around,” he said, his arms scissoring across his chest, the Italian gesture for niente. Nothing. “Every day, I woke up, I bolt new routes. I climb these routes. The next day, I do the same,” he said, his eyes just wide enough to betray golden-age nostalgia.
Today, word is out about San Vito. Able to accommodate loads of new climbs, the area sports hundreds of routes from 5.6 to 5.14+. In 2012, Ondra put up Sicily’s first 9a, Climb for Life, which he sent while there for San Vito’s Climbing Festival. In 2014, Tommy Caldwell, Sonnie Trotter and Josh Wharton ticked a six-pitch 5.13a, You Cannoli Die Once, on Mount Monaco. Story goes the trio did the route while on “holiday.” You can easily bring kids here.
Though climbing cultures are notoriously self-organizing, it’s hard to say what the scene in San Vito would be without Dani.
Dani organizes the Climbing Festival, which started in 2009, rebolts entire areas that didn’t get proper equipment in the first place, authored the San Vito section of the digital app Climb Advisor, and donates proceeds from the app to rebolting efforts, which are neither inexpensive nor simple. Dani estimates that 1,000 routes need rebolting—coastal climates are notoriously harsh on the hardware. “Man, that guy is busy,” Lena said after meeting Dani. It was an understatement.
Dani said that bolting new routes had been like the Wild West—anyone could show up and do what they want, and they did, but that he is now trying to take more control of the process. “It’s about safety,” he said. “Some people were just coming and putting up new routes without any idea how to bolt.”
I asked Dani if San Vito was helping him with his vision of an alt-economy, which had the potential to bring in serious dollars. In the Red River Gorge in 2017, for example, climbers dropped $2.7 million into the local economy.
“Are you getting any help from the local Chamber of Commerce or tourism board?” I asked. He laughed. “In winter the villagers, they don’t care about the climbers,” he said, clearly frustrated.
Dani at least was doing his part. He has employees, thanks to climbing.
SMELLS LIKE SHIT
Matt Pickles recommended the Crown of Aragon crag. Matt was a Brit living in Australia and we’d met him at the Never Sleeping Wall. “Just tired of living in the U.K.,” he said.
Tears of Freedom at the Never Sleeping Wall must be one of the best 5.12s on the planet, a 35-meter 15-bolt journey that rides a hide-and-seek tufa with concretions and cauliflowers and handlebars, like an organic, half-sunken telephone pole pasted to the wall. Ben had already placed the draws—his warm-up—but I had to inspect the bolts.
Closer to San Vito, and with a brutal approach of 10 minutes of mild uphill walking along a beaut little trail, we then visited Crown of Aragon, a splendid hill-top cliff with mostly steep 5.11s to 5.13s, tufas, skin-friendly pockets, sun-baked orange limestone, and bookended by some 5.10-5.11 warm-ups.
Whatever Aragon lacked in volume it compensated in quality, the highlight for me being Tricheco (5.12a), an overhanging dihedral traverse on slopey tufas, each one hiding outward-pulling slots and forcing the occasional smear. Ben quickly dispatched Mega Dave, a steep 5.13b with big moves down low, while Lena gave some burns on Tricheco, the bouldery crux at the lip giving her consternation. Jeff milled about in space, camera in hand, waiting for the best light to immortalize us.
As we were packing up, a funny thing happened—the place smelled like a barnyard. That proverbial fragrance of nature, a musty generic-shit of a smell, shits-combined, you could say.
“It smells like shit, doesn’t it?” I said to Ben and Lena. They inhaled deeply. Yep, sure does, they agreed.
The rain, which had just begun, had rehydrated the thousands of goat droppings littering the area, little time capsules of perfume they were.
After enlightenment, laundry.
Jeff estimated that it would take 30 minutes to get to Corleone from San Vito. In my mind, Jeff’s too, any trip to this part of Sicily was incomplete without a rest-day pilgrimage to Corleone, where Don Corleone—the central character of Godfather I—gets his name. Plus, it would balance out the trip, get us to an inland village, see a different side of Sicily.
Ben and Lena were still learning the ways of the 1971 Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece The Godfather, but Jeff was up to speed, able to argue whether Michael did right when he offed his own brother, poor Fredo, at the Corleone’s Tahoe estate in Godfather II.
Three hours later, we were still racing through the Sicilian countryside, me at the wheel whipping the Panda around tight turns and ripping through giant puddles that, in more than a few spots, had washed away the road. Eventually, we pulled onto a “two lane” road with concrete so twisted and undulating it could have been poured by Salvador Dalí.
When we at last pulled into Corleone, a town on the way to nowhere, the villagers immediately and accurately pegged us as “mafia tourists.”
Corleone, population 11,000, was no tourist town, which is what any good traveler seeks to avoid. After nosing the Panda into a parking spot that would be reserved for a motorcycle in America, we did what most Americans would do when dropped in the middle of a stunning Medieval hillside village—we walked around in awe reading placards until we got hungry, then debated which cozy cafe to dive into. After the half-day’s drive, a quick bite was all we had time for before zipping back San Vito. Just as we were about to leave, I poked my head into a bread shop.
A tired-looking 20-something breadmaker emerged from the dark echelons of the back room, excited to have a customer. I knew what he was thinking. Mafia tourists!
“Francesco,” I introduced myself, patting my chest. “Luigi,” he gestured to himself.
Due, I said, pointing at some loafs, and paid three Euros when Ben, Jeff and Lena entered, the bell on the door ringing like Santa’s sleigh.
Luigi perked up again. More mafia tourists!
“Uno momento,” he said, then retreated back into the darkness.
Two minutes later, Luigi returned with a quartered loaf that he had doused with olive oil, salt and pepper and pasted with fresh garlic. God strike me dead if it wasn’t the best thing I’d eaten in 10 years: the seeds slightly burned, tasting like salted popcorn, the bread elastic and chewy, the raw garlic masquerading as an acrid spice, very unlike garlic, closer to wasabi. That little snack was reason enough to visit and it confirmed, again, that Sicilian food has no equal. Then, on a shelf, I saw it. A plastic bottle, a few of them in fact, two-liter Evian water bottles filled with a purple liquid, their labels removed.
“Mafia wine!” Luigi said quietly, as if revealing a secret he shouldn’t have, and believing he had just harpooned me. They can’t, and won’t, resist. He unscrewed the cap and dribbled a taste in a paper cup. Another customer, in his 50s, overheard the show and laughed and gestured to his pockets, pulling them inside out. “Mafia, I have nothing,” he said. We all had a laugh.
“Quanto?” I asked, wanting to turn down the offer and move onto something else. I hate when people try to sell me something. “Tre Euros,” he said, holding up three fingers. Three bucks!?
“I’ll take one.”
On the drive back from Corleone, an edge softened inside of me from having just been there, I nearly killed us all by almost driving off the side of the road on multiple occasions. Rock everywhere. Big sweeping walls. Even a giant pillar in the middle of a cow pasture. Ben and Lena checked the guidebooks and indeed, there was climbing. Unfortunately, only one thought occurred to me. I had to return. If there was climbing, there were bolts, and I needed to inspect them, to give back to the community.
My humble advice is to stay away from all of these areas, between Corleone and San Vito, until I return.
It was time to go home. My forearms were blitzed, my body like a wizened tree, achy and stiff. Ben and Lena would continue their trip, next stop Greece. Jeff would stay a few extra days, then back to San Fran. The flights home—four in total—promised to be long and torturous, but I would be comforted by the fact that I wasn’t leaving home empty handed. I got to know Sicily that much more, and especially, got to join a part of the community there that I had always been part of back home—a climbing community. I also learned the true meaning of jealousy, on account of experiencing first hand that the climbing in Sicily was as good as the mortadella, the salamis and vino.
At the Rome airport, with a four-hour layover, I found myself in a familiar situation, starving and with little options. In front of me was a corner café with artisan pizzas behind smudged glass, a bored Indian woman wiping down the counters, her hair pulled back tight. I neared. Man, that pizza looks amazing.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 262 (March 2020).
Francis Sanzaro is the editor of ASCENT and Gym Climber.
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