This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of our print edition.
The clouds began to flush pink over the Caribbean as Amber started up the last route of the day. She cruised the steep 5.9 studded with big pockets and the multi-colored caymanite formations that local artisans use to make jewelry, while I kept an eye on the turbulent ocean below. A bit of spray hit me in the ankle.
Half an hour earlier, I’d shrugged off Amber’s concern about the increased size of the swells. The Wave Wall, I’d reasoned, always feels wild and atmospheric, but it’s usually more intimidating than dangerous. Now, however, I wasn’t so sure. Surges of foaming seawater were inundating the slabs that we had traversed to get to the route. The waves had been impressive at midday when we came in, making the approach wet and sketchy. Now they were twice the size. I watched in awe as a particularly powerful set came in, pummeling the slabs, washing up past the second bolt of a climb to our left, and shooting spray 30 feet into the air.
No question, that set was big enough to sweep us clean off the slabs and into the sea. For a swimmer, the nearest safe exit through the jagged rocks was five miles down the coast. It would be dark in an hour. Denial slowly turned to incredulous acceptance: We were stranded.
Cayman Brac is a small island about 150 miles south of Cuba and about the same distance northwest of Jamaica. While the other Cayman Islands are upscale tourist destinations, “the Brac”—lacking the fancy hotels of Grand Cayman or the bucket-list scuba diving sites of Little Cayman—just isn’t. But desirability depends on what you’re after.
Brac is Gaelic for cliff or bluff. From a square mile of flats on the southwest tip of the nine-mile-long island, limestone bluffs rise steadily in height and prominence until, for several miles at the far northeast point, they drop 150 feet directly into deep ocean, forming one of the most impressive sea cliffs in the Caribbean. On both sides of the island, above either the ocean or a narrow band of coastal flats, lie steep, clean sectors of cliff riddled with bolted sport climbs.
The Brac’s climbing potential was first recognized by Colorado-based climber and scuba diver Skip Harper, during a diving trip to the Caymans in 1994. A tsunami of enthusiasm followed: Over the next three years, Harper and a small crew of Colorado climbers—most notably Jeff Elison, Liz Grenard, Craig Luebben, and John Byrnes—visited repeatedly, putting up more than 70 sport routes. Due to the very featured nature of the steep limestone, most fell within the sweet 5.10 to 5.11 range, with a few good easier lines, numerous 5.12s, and a few 5.13s to challenge the restless and the fit.
With friendly, overhanging sport climbs, ocean sunsets across the beaches and bluffs, and dreamy warm waters full of sea life, Cayman Brac seemed like the perfect place to take my girlfriend, Amber, for a romantic getaway.
That was my sentiment going into our first visit to the Brac. This trip, our second to the island, was intended to make good on that initial attempt, which neither of us would describe as “romantic” in hindsight. On our first try the previous March, the white limestone became the setting for black comedy, produced and directed by my uncanny ability to ignore some basic principles of climbing and human relations.
The first fundamental climbing rule I violated: Never mix romance and route development. A romantic climbing vacation needs an easygoing attitude, and the climbing must be tempered with other activities, such as swimming, so it doesn’t take on too much importance. Hard projects, which foster obsessive focus and a performance-oriented drinking agenda (read: less booze), should be avoided. Fall asleep with a crux sequence in your head, and you know you’re blowing it. New-routing—with its early starts, long days, and love-killing work ethic—is even worse. Heedless, I headed to the Caymans packing a drill.
The trip had started out auspiciously enough. We’d flown out of Denver in a midnight snowstorm, traveled all night and most of the next day, and arrived in sunny, humid, and exotically warm Georgetown on Grand Cayman. Chickens and lizards patrolled the airport grounds as we walked out on the tarmac to a little Twin Otter prop plane for the 90-mile hop to Little Cayman and then the Brac. The plane sounded like a weed whacker as it taxied down the runway, but it lifted easily into the calm air. We peered out the windows at swaying palms and the emerald to cobalt hues of the water.
John Byrnes, the island’s unofficial climbing ambassador, greeted us at the Brac airport. A retired engineer, John had a house on the island that he visited for a couple of months every spring. He rented out half of it to climbers and hoped to develop more of the island’s climbing potential, so he’d invited me down to help. I should have foreseen the risks of having our love boat captained by a task-oriented engineer.
John whisked us back to his picturesque Bluff View house, gave us 15 minutes to unwind and unpack, and then hurried us out to the Orange Cave for a few moderates by the sea in the last evening light. The climbing was as good as we’d hoped, and the showpiece crags were yet to come.
The first ill note sounded that evening at the Reef Beach Resort restaurant and bar when we saw the price of a beer—$6 for a Red Stripe was definitely going to cramp our style. The diver clientele was a pleasant crowd, but mostly in their 60s or older. More reality checks quickly followed.
First, the Caribbean Current that bathes the island with warm water also carries an alarming amount of plastic garbage to Cayman Brac, forming a broad, multi-colored berm about 100 feet back from the shore. Faded shampoo, pop, oil, and detergent bottles, netting, floats, Styrofoam bits, and thousands of shoes of all kinds—sandals, pumps, clogs, Crocs, slippers, sneakers, loafers. Never in pairs.
As the trip progressed, protracted new-route scoping and equipping would occasionally give way to short bursts of climbing in an inefficient party of three. One day, John invited along a 15-year-old tourist girl who didn’t know how to climb, and Amber ended up belaying her for two hours on the first 10 feet of a route at Dixon’s Wall while we were off bolting. Excited about my new route, I barely noticed. After a few long outings where she averaged two or three pitches, Amber started skipping climbing days and going on bike rides, alone. It pains me to recall some of my blunders that trip. I think, in the end, our relationship got stronger because of our tropical vacation in the Cayman Islands, but definitely not in the way I had envisioned.
On the second go, I was determined to bring Amber back and do the trip right. And now, there we were, first day out, having an epic. Seriously? Another massive wave set thundered in, making me shudder at the thought of us out on the slabs that blocked our way home. I imagined us belly down on razor-sharp rock, clinging for dear life with bleeding hands as a wave exploded over our heads. We had 45 minutes of daylight left. I called up to Amber. She couldn’t hear me, but having understood our plight long before I figured it out, she needed no explanation. I gestured vigorously for her to come down. She said “I told you so” with one look.
We quickly collected our gear and sprinted back to the center of the wall, where the belay zone was more protected and a long 5.10d topped out the bluff. I’d been up top during several new-routing forays, and though there was no walk-off through the impenetrable thicket beyond the rim, I had something of a plan. Anything would be better than risking those wave-battered approach slabs.
Burdened by our packs, pulling on draws with abandon, and oblivious to the superb climbing, we yarded through the overhangs and topped out at last light. Sans headlamps, we tiptoed across upturned blades of limestone in the few feet of exposed rock between the thorny vegetation and the abyss. Waves thundered below, and lightning lit up huge storm clouds on the horizon.
After a stressed half hour, we reached a point above a new route on a section of cliff climber’s left of the wave-threatened slabs. At least that’s where I thought we were. An exceedingly sketchy belayed downclimb brought us to that route’s anchor, and we rapped to the ground. The hike back to the car—normally a 15-minute stroll—took us more than an hour in the dark, but we were so glad to be alive that we didn’t care.
Most climbers would find it difficult to get in as much trouble on the Brac as I have, though. The routes are generously bolted with corrosion-proof titanium, and for the most part they’re clean and easy to get to. True, the Wave Wall approach is to be respected, but getting to the excellent venues of Dixon’s, Love Shack, and the Orange Wall sectors requires no derring-do.
Further reading: The Road to Island-Safe Bolts
Dixon’s, behind the neighborhood of Spot Bay, is the Brac’s most gymnastic crag, with a dozen long, overhanging routes on shady flowstone; most are four-star classics in the 5.11c to 5.12b range. Love Shack is often too hot and sunny, but in cooler conditions its concentration of testy 5.11s and 5.12s is not to be missed. The Orange Cave/Orange Streak/Theology sector is the island’s most moderate and popular venue, with enjoyable routes from 5.7 to low 5.11 in a beautifully aesthetic seaside setting.
And then there is the Point, the dramatic northeast terminus of the island’s bluff, where vertical and overhanging cliffs drop directly into the ocean. With access only by rappel, it’s inconvenient and intimidating, but no climbing trip to the Brac is complete without at least one “Point day.”
Despite our apparent penchant for disaster, the rest of our stay unfolded without further drama, and our Point day proved to be pure pleasure. We piloted our rental car up onto the spine of the island. The forest on either side was cut occasionally by side roads, but there were no ocean views or indication of the cliffs. Finally, at a small lighthouse on the northeast tip of the island, the road ended and an incredible panorama opened. A stone’s throw from the car, cliffs dropped 150 feet into deep water. The blue Caribbean stretched to the horizon, flecked with whitecaps. Frigates and boobies patrolled the sky. We peered over the edge and spotted a green-backed tortuga basking on the surface.
A hundred yards away lay the top anchors to our chosen route, Blackbeard’s Revenge (5.10b), and we dropped our packs near a small booby colony. We’d climbed in plenty of airy places, from Yosemite to the Alps to Verdon to the Black Canyon, but agreed that starting a “sport” route at the Point was as intimidating as any of these. I tied a double knot in the end of the static line we’d borrowed from the Bluff house, and Amber rapped down first, clipping a few directionals to stay near the wall.
As Amber led up, a crab scuttled out of a nearby pocket. The water sloshed and thumped in the undercuts below my feet, but the sea was relatively calm, thankfully—climbers have been completely doused by waves at belays here. The runouts were noticeably longer than at the Brac’s other crags, and with the noise of the waves and the long pitches, good leader/belayer communication was difficult. The rock was excellent, albeit with the occasional loose hold. With the exception of the sporadic fishing boat and whomever you bring with you that day, you’re more likely to see dolphins than another person.
As Amber neared the top, a booby flew by low and fast, chased by a frigate that was trying to steal its fish. They swerved and dove in synchrony, the booby eventually eluding its pursuer. The sea around the Caymans is teeming with fish, and I couldn’t help think it would be a lot easier for the frigate to catch his own. But I guess it’s a matter of temperament. Like certain climbers on a romantic, tropical sport climbing vacation, they find a way to make life a bit more interesting.
Tour the Brac’s most classic lines.
Beware the modest rating—this long route has great climbing but traverses some rock too sharp to risk a fall! Climb the spiny slab past a bulge or two and into a steep dihedral.
Old School (5.8)
On the far side of the wave-protected platform, climb generous features up the gently overhanging wall to a baffling anchor clip in a cave. As the guidebook says: “If you’re not on a bucket, you’re off route.”
Spiral Staircase (5.10a)
This one isn’t located at the main Point area, but at an isolated sector called Edd’s Place, located to the south. A fine, adventurous outing with a wilderness approach hike, great climbing, and guaranteed solitude.
Ick! Theology! (5.10b)
Steep and bulgy, with holds that prove God loves climbers. Clear the initial overhang and you’re in there—maybe!
Fake Left, Move Right (5.10d)
Techy, devious climbing with some tricky traverse sequences that require some back and forth. Try not to miss the invisible clipping hold at the anchor. Make sure your belayer is paying attention!
Parrot Preserves on Rye (5.10d)
Long and technical! Up a moderate wall (a nice 5.8 in itself, with its own anchor), out a pumpy bulge, and then more testy moves on an exposed headwall. You can extend this for another couple of bolts and top out the crag.
Throwin’ the Tortuga (5.11b)
Climbs at the Point are impossible to see before you commit, so if you’re new to the crag, it’s hard to decide where to start. If you climb at the grade, this is a great option. For an easier intro, try Shiver Me Timbers (5.10b), which has a short crux, a huge palm tree anchor, and a belay ledge high off the water.
Dixon’s Delight (5.11b)
Awesome overhanging flowstone, just like the routes nearby, but a bit easier. If 5.11+ to low 5.12 is your grade, you’ll have a blast in this easily accessible and mostly shady zone.
Leapin’ Lizzards (5.11d/5.12a)
Park-and-huck climbing. Stick-clip the first bolt and start throwing. Huge holds, huge reaches, huge fun, but usually sunny and hot.
Pirates of Penance (5.12b)
Steep and stout! Make long, contortionist moves between big holes and pockets (harder than it looks) to a sequential crux up high and an airy run to the anchors. Don’t give up until you’re at the top!
Cayman Brac Beta
Fly into the international airport on Grand Cayman, then charter a puddle jumper to the Brac. Most climbers rent a car for their stay, but the island is small enough (9 miles long) to navigate by bicycle.
Camping is not allowed on the island (a bummer), so you’ll need to rent a place. John Byrnes’ Bluff View house is a great option, and it provides several key amenities such as a stick-clip and static line for Point rappels.
Activities include biking, hiking, exploring the island’s numerous small caves, and, of course, snorkeling. You can rent snorkeling and scuba gear, as well as bikes, on the island. Or, hire a boat for a day of fishing or sightseeing. See Byrnes’ website Climb Cayman Brac for a wealth of beta on all of the above and much more.
December through April, the dry season, is best for climbing. Expect daytime highs in the mid-80s. Even though average temps rise a bit, early to late March is cooler for climbing than midwinter because most crags get more shade.