This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of our print edition.
“If you could go anywhere in the world to climb right now, where would you go?” I asked my boyfriend on a subzero January night in Colorado. It was barely 6 p.m., already pitch black outside, and we were sunken into our comfy leather couch at home, giving in to the overwhelming apathy toward activity that only cold winter nights can bring. Part of my inquiry revolved around finding the motivation to keep stumbling to the gym to follow a cobbled-together training regimen. We both wanted some fun in the sun—nothing big, nothing too adventurous, just a climbing trip that would remind us how much fun this sport is.
Kalymnos, Greece, and Anywhere, Spain, were at the top of my bucket list, but after some quick research, the plane tickets starting at $1,200 seemed out of our price range, especially when combined with food, housing, and all those other little expenses you inevitably incur along the way. Ever since a story on Virgin Gorda appeared in the now-defunct Urban Climber in 2011, I had been eyeing this magical island that was home to a somewhat improbable scenario of humongous egg-shaped granodiorite boulders (similar to granite) dropped onto the pillow-soft white sands of the British Virgin Islands. In this place, I could satisfy my hyperactive rock climber self at the same time as my inner fruity drink–sipping beach bum. A quick search revealed we could get a plane ticket for less than $500. That can’t be right, I thought, as I refreshed the tab five, six, seven times. It seemed too good to be true: a tropical paradise filled with high-quality, climbable rock that’s also affordable. We were headed to Virgin Gorda!
About a month later, I was lost in the frustrating world of planning a trip to a place where “on time” actually means “whenever we feel like it.” Any specific times, locations, or details provided online mean precisely jack squat. The relaxed vibe of “island time” is amazing when you’re actually on your chosen island, but it can make getting there a lesson in going with the flow.
The cheapest way to get to Virgin Gorda is to fly into St. Thomas, take a taxi to the ferry station on the other end of the island, and then take a boat—or two or three—to the eight square miles of sand and boulders on the far east side of the British Virgin Islands. Plane tickets were purchased, but I still had to figure out the incredibly confusing ferry schedule, which went something like this: A few of the ferries run nonstop from St. Thomas to VG, but only a couple days a week. The other days you’ll have to take at least two boat rides, most likely from different ferry companies, and there’s a good chance that the boat will make an unexpected stop somewhere else, which could in turn make you late for your next ferry. Oh, and by the way, you could arrive at the dock for your scheduled ferry and the boat just won’t show up, meaning you shouldn’t buy your tickets in advance.
I could meticulously plan and obsessively check ferry departure times beforehand as much as I wanted, but any small incident completely outside my control could leave us stranded on any of the islands with no escape. It wasn’t a lack of organization on their part necessarily—there were, after all, plenty of ferry schedules available online—it was the indifference toward that organization that made the planning process nerve-wracking. After several days of research, I had a good idea of which ferries we would need to take based on our arrival and departure times, but that could crumble like a sand castle during high tide if the luggage handler had a whim to enjoy “just one more” lunchtime Red Stripe at the marina’s bar.
However, stepping off the plane in St. Thomas to blue skies, sun, and the warm Caribbean wind a few months later retroactively erased any frustration, anxiety, or annoyance from my memory. Then a grinning local handed me a free shot of some tasty mango-flavored rum, and the syrupy sweetness washed away every single shred of negativity I had felt over the past six months. We all travel for different reasons—to be rewarded with new friends, interesting cultural experiences, and hilarious stories to name a few—but here in the Virgin Islands, I could feel the darkness and malaise of winter sloughing off like a useless, hollowed-out shell. With the rum adding a layer of fuzzy warmth to my body, I stood up a little straighter, and my heart lit up with the excitement of what was to come in this heaven on Earth.
The next morning we hit the archetypal Virgin Gorda bouldering locale: Spring Bay. With gigantic boulders lining crescent-shaped sandy inlets filled with crystal-blue waters, Spring Bay has dozens of problems of all grades, with most of them falling in the V0 to V3 range. One thing that attracted me to Virgin Gorda in the first place was the plethora of moderate climbing. Most of the problems are V5 or easier, with a few in the V8 to V9 realm and plenty of open projects for more serious crushers. This heavy emphasis on lower grades is ideal considering that the warm and humid climate doesn’t lend itself to the crisp temps needed to pull on tiny nubbins and slopers. The average year-round temperature is 80°F, and it only varies by plus or minus 10° in any given month. But thanks to a consistent, cool breeze, it never felt too hot, especially when climbing right on the beach.
The geology of Virgin Gorda is fascinating and complex, but the basic gist is that an enormous batholith, or large igneous intrusion, formed in the Earth’s crust, then cooled and cracked. The combination of various tectonic plates shifting, faults being created, and erosion led to these boulders (which used to be much bigger) being exposed about 20 million years ago. Mildly acidic rainwater then wore them down and helped to form incredible pits, pockmarks, and grooves. With cracks and crimps and jugs and curvy huecos, we quickly fell in love with the bomber rock and ran around frantically trying to climb everything we could. Top out, down climb to the ankle-saving sand, take your shoes off, and jump into the blissful ocean to rinse and repeat.
We visited in May, which is essentially the very beginning of the tourist off-season for most of the Caribbean. May through July and the month of October are prime times to head down, as travel and lodging costs are cheaper and there are far fewer non-climbing tourists. August through September is the height of hurricane season, so while prices are still low, it’s somewhat risky and many local accommodations close down for this part of the year. November through April is extremely pleasant, but expect to pay more and be swarmed with folks asking you what that big backpack-looking thing is. (Our responses varied from “weight training for Everest” to “portable couch.”)
Other than the headache of planning the ferry rides, traveling to Virgin Gorda—so named by Christopher Columbus because he thought 1,370-foot Gorda Peak in the middle of the island resembled the protruding stomach of a fat woman—is straightforward compared to other international destinations. The official currency is the U.S. dollar, most places accept credit cards, there are no travel visas required, and you don’t even need a power outlet converter. Plus, the sand is so soft and cushy that you could easily go without a crashpad. Because it is a British territory, you drive on the left side of the road, but that’s a rite of passage for any American traveler—just watch out for the chickens and cows that openly roam the island.
While plane tickets are surprisingly inexpensive, the cost of lodging is depressingly expensive. There are limited places to stay on the island and no huge hotels, but we found the lovely and climber-friendly Grape Tree Villa, a two-bedroom house that is only a few minutes’ walk from several climbing areas, including Spring Bay, the Baths, Honeycomb Palace, and Guavaberry Resort. The owners provide crashpads to people staying at the villa, and folks not staying there can rent them for $5 per day. The best part? Grape Tree has numerous colossal boulders right in the backyard, with a few established problems and even a little potential for new (read: really hard) climbs. Every morning we would wake up, make breakfast and coffee in the kitchen, walk five minutes to our chosen climbing area, spend the day playing on rocks, then return home to cook a delicious meal of fish and veggies on the gas grill. Post-dinner time was filled with adult beverages (VG has an odd assortment of beer, ranging from America’s Yuengling lager to South Africa’s Savanna cider, which is highly recommended), hours of conversation, and messing around on the backyard boulders.
One vital lesson for international travel: The people you’re with can make or break the entire trip. Similar to glacier travel where you can only move as fast as your slowest party member, the group dynamic will rise and fall based on the mood of the lowest common denominator. Meaning if one person decides to be cranky and irritable, it will undoubtedly bring everybody else down. There were six of us on this island escapade, a group that would prove to be so perfectly matched and well-balanced it was hard to believe we hadn’t all been traveling and climbing together for half our lives.
Jimmy Webb and Matt Gentile were our resident pro climbers and crushers of the hardest, tallest boulders, both having such an insatiable appetite for establishing new problems that when the rest of us mere mortals collapsed after 12 hours of climbing and hunting for new lines in 80° heat, Jimmy and Matt were gearing up to go out again and “just check out a few more lines.” We would find ourselves following this duo through rock corridors for hours everyday—dripping with the type of sweat that only a muggy, jungle-like climate can provide—simply to witness these masters of rock in action. It truly was a sight to behold. Find a boulder, set to work cleaning loose rock and dirt, and keep trying hard until it went down. As individualistic as bouldering is, Jimmy and Matt established first ascents together like it was a team sport, without a trace of ego or possessiveness.
There was photographer extraordinaire Rich Crowder, who authored A Guide to Bouldering and Traveling in the Virgin Islands ($25, fixedpin.com; a must-have for any trip to VG) and came along to help show us around and provide comic relief. Strongwoman and world-class routesetter Jackie Hueftle brought her understanding of movement technique that makes her a champion at figuring out difficult sequences, and luckily for me, she helped balance out the male-to-female ratio. Last but not least was Alton Richardson, one of the hardest-working media makers out there, who regularly schleps around 50 pounds of video, camera, and climbing gear in a crashpad with nary a complaint. (He also happens to be my boyfriend.)
From sun up to sun down, the six of us were together, hiking around in the various boulder labyrinths, cooking and eating meals, gearing up for long hours of first ascent hunting, and decompressing afterward with cold beers and exhausted bodies. No one griped when four hours of searching for climbable rock in one area proved to be fruitless, leaving us each with a dozen new scrapes and bruises and a few pounds lost in sweat, and no one whined when hot temps that would make most high-end boulderers scoff repeatedly thwarted successful sends of hard first ascents. I couldn’t have hand-picked a more laid-back, hard-working, and psyched group of climbers that were just happy to be outside in such a dreamy place.
Thanks to spectacular winds coming through the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the Virgin Islands are one of the most sought-after sailing destinations worldwide. With more than 60 islands, weaving through these small landmasses on a boat is the best way to see the sights, and we were fortunate enough to hook up with Captain Charles Hamel of Climb VI (climbvi.com), a company offering chartered sailing and climbing trips in the islands. Captain Charles is equal parts climber and sailor, spending part of the year sailing in the San Francisco Bay and climbing in the High Sierra, the rest of the year doing the same thing in the Virgin Islands.
We met up with him on our rest day in the middle of the week, with plans to explore deep water soloing potential on some of the rocky outcroppings near Virgin Gorda. Our initial objective, a freestanding spire a 45-minute sail from Virgin Gorda, was getting hammered by waves, and the water below proved too choppy and dangerous to risk falling into, so we moved on to another cove. Captain Charles anchored the boat about 100 yards from the rocky shoreline, and we all donned the provided snorkeling gear. After about an hour of swimming around with angelfish, yellowtail damselfish, and tarpon, we reached an enclosed amphitheatre surrounded by walls of questionable rock. We scrambled around on the loose rock, never getting very high, before swimming under a small archway and back into view of our majestic catamaran, the Pentesilea II. Here we were, lounging in the toasty sun after a morning of snorkeling while resting up for the leisurely swim back to the boat. I couldn’t believe this is how I was spending a rest day on a climbing trip.
Early the following morning we set sail again with Captain Charles and first mate Andrew, a veteran sailor originally from North Carolina. This time we were headed to the island of Fallen Jerusalem, 48 acres of bird sanctuary, dense vegetation, and rocks. Andrew moored the catamaran offshore then ferried us to the beach in a dinghy, making a few trips to accommodate our pads and other gear. After taking the dinghy back to the Pentesilea II, he swam back to us on the shore with a machete in his mouth in a true “Pirates of the Caribbean” moment.
The next hour of trying to get to the boulders on the far side of the island put a whole new meaning to the word bushwhacking. The plants weren’t tall or intimidating, but they were so unforgiving and sharp that it took all my energy to push through small patches of the waist-high flora, coming out on the other side covered in dozens of shallow but painful cat scratches. We forged on around the island, skirting the large area in the center that the birds have claimed as their own, and our temporary pain was forgotten when turning the last corner revealed the biggest pile of granitic boulders I’ve ever seen in one place. Like kids in a candy store, we immediately split up to run around and explore. Matt and Jimmy were on a mission to find unclimbed rock, and the rest of us had caught the bug too.
Running up easy slabs, commando crawling on our bellies through dark tunnels underneath the boulders, and getting on top of every summitable rock for a few hours provided us with several options for new lines, but some required too much cleaning or so many pads that we’d need to come back another day. Unfortunately that wasn’t in the books since Captain Charles had to return the boat, so we settled for repeating some of the classic moderates like Staff of Ra (V6) and Dumber Than a Chicken (V2). Jimmy managed to finish off a dyno problem that had denied previous climbing visitors, as well as add a sit start to Staff.
We loaded up our gear (plus Alton hauled out an extra crashpad stashed by previous climbing visitors that was heavy and soaking wet) and started the tricky “descent” back to the landing spot. The approach had felt easy that morning when psych and energy levels were high, but pulling 5.9 moves here and there with a weighty pad on my back in approach shoes over a 25-foot pit seemed a lot harder and more real when fatigue was starting to set in. There is zero human development on Fallen Jerusalem and no hospital on VG; the closest medical treatment center is a boat ride away at Road Town, Tortola, so we all narrowed our focus to the task at hand. We got back to the sandy beach without incident, save the dozens of cuts of various sizes that we had all accumulated after another exhausting bushwhacking session. While we hadn’t ticked the numerous first ascents we were hoping for, it proved to be a wild day of exploration and off-the-beaten-path fun.
Into the Black
On the afternoon of our first full day on Virgin Gorda, Matt and Jimmy discovered an incredible oblong boulder that jutted out horizontally, resembling a blimp. Located in the complicated maze of the Honeycomb Palace, the boulder was scooped out on the underside, forming shapely jugs and huecos in a roof that was about 15 to 20 feet over sharp and deadly talus. After climbing through the roof, the line went up the side of the boulder and into a huge hole that an adult male could easily fit in. After this brief rest, the problem traversed a horizontal crack with smeary, barely there feet, and then up into a 5.12 finger crack to top out after about 50 total feet of climbing. Anything after the first handful of moves was purely a no-fall zone, so the guys rigged a rope from the top, clipped a Grigri onto it (without clipping in themselves), climbed up into the roof with a harness on, then someone else would swing the rope and Grigri to them so they could safely clip in from a solid stance to work the problem.
As the light faded from the sky, Jimmy decided to go for it. He pulled on with an air of calm and focus that only a true professional possesses and quickly dispatched the roof sequence. He rested a beat and started into the sketchiest section and crux, a spot where a fall would result in pinging off a nearby boulder and being tossed wildly into the jagged rocks that were now 30 feet below. Moving seamlessly up into the hueco, he only stopped for a minute before continuing out into the traverse and the finishing crack. At that point I realized that the five of us watching him hadn’t breathed since he pulled on. He topped out to cheers of congratulations and a collective sigh of relief, later calling it Into the Black (V8).
Since it was almost dark, we decided to come back the next day so Matt, a climber from Flagstaff, Arizona, known for putting up daring highball first ascents, could give it a go. We returned at a similar time of day, and Matt worked the opening moves a few times, then decided to commit. He pulled on with the same quiet concentration and executed the opening moves perfectly. After sitting in the hueco for a few minutes, he moved out onto the traverse and performed a foot sequence that was drastically different than the beta he had figured out on toprope—the tension coming from the spectators was palpable when his feet danced around looking for any semblance of a decent foothold. He never lost his composure and was able to push through and top out about a minute later. It was one of the most impressive feats of climbing any of us had ever witnessed.
On this trip, we found climbing that ranged from cruiser bouldering on the beach to bold first ascent pioneering and everything in between. As the group enjoyed our last breakfast together, I looked out over the ocean and savored the utter relaxation that comes from being in a tropical paradise for a week. The end of any vacation is depressing, particularly when the time away is filled with superior climbing, warm-water swimming, good company, and exciting adventure, but I had a wide grin plastered on my face because I got exactly what I needed. On this tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Caribbean, I had fallen in love with climbing all over again.
How to Get There
Fly into St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, take a taxi to the ferry station, then a boat will deliver you to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. Some accommodations provide shuttle services from there, or you can take a taxi. We rented a car since we had so many people and a few pads. You can rent for the week or for 24 hours at a time from Mahogany Car Rentals; they’ll drop the car off and pick it up wherever is convenient for you. You can also fly directly to Virgin Gorda, but tickets start around $1,500.
Where to Stay
With free crashpads, Wi-Fi, beautiful decks and patios, a full kitchen, several backyard boulders, and a super-short walk to most of the climbing, Grape Tree Villa is by far the best spot for climbers. The awesome property manager Howard Levenson escorted us to the villa from the ferry station, showed us the best restaurants, and was a quick phone call away for every little question we had. Wherever you stay, bring earplugs because the roosters that wander around will try to wake you up every morning at 4 a.m.
Where to Eat/Drink
Save money by buying groceries at Bucks Market in the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour Marina and cooking at home. Restaurants on VG are really pricey, but the local grocery selection is about the same cost as it is in the U.S. If you do decide to go out, head up Gorda Peak to Hog Heaven, an open-air restaurant that offers delicious barbecue and unbeatable ocean views.
Where to Spend a Rest Day
Island life centers around water activities: scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, etc. There’s plenty of hiking on Virgin Gorda, or spend a day at one of the other nearby islands.