In October 2017, Leandro Taraborrelli gave the most important belay of his life. The Red Cross Team leader was standing on a washed-out bridge over Puerto Rico’s Arecibo River, using a rope to belay 20 doctors and pharmacists up a rickety ladder. In the riverbed below, a team of fellow climbers guided the volunteers, who’d come to help Puerto Rico rebuild after the devastation wrought in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. A pipe had ruptured upstream, contaminating the river with sewage.
Their goal was Río Abajo, a neighborhood in Puerto Rico’s mountainous Utuado region. Sixty miles from San Juan, the community had been isolated for weeks after the category 4 hurricane, going so long without aid that its residents had come to call it El Campamento del los Olvidados: “The Camp of the Forgotten.”
In the months since Maria, Taraborrelli and other Puerto Rican climbers have worked full-time to bring aid to the remote corners of the island—to places like Rio Abajo.
“We’ve been in those areas climbing and canyoneering,” says Nicole Vidal, another team leader, who worked alongside Taraborrelli and local boulderer Carlos Salinas and who is also Taraborrelli's wife and business partner. Through their company, Moca Climbing + Coaching, Vidal and Taraborrelli have spent two years guiding clients around the island’s half-dozen sport crags, jungle canyons, and caves. While most Red Cross crews performed bulk distributions, the “mountain-climber teams” hit the back roads.
“Our motto was always to go to the very, very end,” says Vidal. Often that meant clearing roads with chainsaws and rigging Tyrolean traverses across otherwise impassable rivers. They distributed food and water, water-purification systems, solar panels and lanterns, and small generators on an island where almost a third of the 3.4 million residents still lack power and tens of thousands lack running water.
Before the storm, Vidal and Taraborrelli were among about a dozen guides working on Puerto Rico. Faced with a sharp dip in tourism, many guides have hung up their climbing shoes to find work elsewhere.
“For our adventure tours, our canyon tours, our caving tours,” says Rossano Boscarino, co-owner of outfitter and guide service Aventuras PR and godfather of Puerto Rico’s climbing scene, “we just don’t have the people. Tourism has been hurt really bad.”
In partnership with his wife, Edda Jimenez, the late Colorado legend Craig Luebben, and local hardman Jorge Rodriguez, Boscarino developed the majority of Puerto Rico’s sport routes. He did so despite conflicts with landowners, jungle vegetation, government bureaucrats, and Africanized bees, the latter of which once stung Rodriguez more than 500 times as he cleared vegetation from a Bayamón cliff, nearly killing him. Over a hundred climbers reside on the island, where they enjoy the drippy limestone on gymnastic single-pitch routes or multi-pitch romps like Lizard the Wizard (5.11c) near the mountains around Cayey.
But many Puerto Rican climbers are on unsure footing. Ten years into a recession and faced with $123 billion of debt, Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy last March. That deal came with strict austerity measures, which were forecast even before the storm to send the island’s economy into a full-blown depression. Faced with a slow recovery and robbed of a profitable tourist season, many locals have exhausted their savings.
“I know three or four climbers who left because they don’t have jobs anymore,” says Rodriguez, who lost his own income when the senior partner of his financial-services business left after the storm. Rodriguez is considering a move to the mainland, but for now he’s still a fixture at Nuevo Bayamón, a collection of about 100 short sport routes just outside San Juan.
“For me, it’s like a therapy,” he says. “When I go climbing, I just focus on climbing and forget about everything else.”
For the most part, Puerto Rico’s tourist amenities are open. Major roads are clear, and hotels and restaurants operate as before the storm. The climbing community, armed with arborist gear, has reopened crag access and approved the safety of the bolts post-storm. The routes themselves are cleaner than ever, power-washed by the storm, with excess foliage removed. Local climbers have already repopulated the cliffs, and have even established a few new routes in Ciales and Cayey.
“The climbing is ready to go,” says Boscarino. “We just need the people.”