In September 2017, hurricane Maria barreled across the Atlantic and slammed full force into Puerto Rico. With winds recorded at up to 175 mph, the natural disaster devastated the island, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. For Bryant Huffman—a 39-year-old climbing guide from Cupey, Puerto Rico—and all other surviving Puerto Ricans, life was forever changed. From day one after the hurricane, however, Bryant and his fellow climbing guides realized that the only way up and out was to use their climbing skills. Now, they’re using their ropes and gear not to just bolt and climb new routes, but to pull their island out of disaster. Check out this film featuring the guides of Climbing Puerto Rico as they face the aftermath of a brutal hurricane, and read the Q&A below with Bryant.
How did you discover climbing?
Bryant Huffman: It was suggested by a friend that climbed back in 2004. He took me climbing two times and gave me my first pair of shoes. I immediately fell in love, but my friend had to move to Mexico and I never got to meet anybody else that climbed. Those shoes stayed dormant in my closet until 2008 where I walked into a friend’s house and saw a climbing magazine on his coffee table. I asked him what that was all about and he told me he had been climbing for four months. I told him I had shoes so we went climbing and I haven't stopped since.
What drew you to it?
I've always enjoyed movement and the way it stimulates the body. I've surfed, danced, practiced capoeira, tai-chi, etc. I've also always loved nature and being outside. I guess the mix of those things added to a personal and mental challenge that can be worked on and overcome just clicked for me. Climbing is basically what I live for now, it's what makes me go to bed early, it's what makes me want to stay healthy and in good shape, it's what I want to share with the world, it's the short and long-term goals I think about, it's ALL I think about. Climbing has become my life.
What inspired you to start your guiding company Climbing Puerto Rico?
When I discovered climbing on the island it seemed absurd to me that nobody knew about it. The community was super small back then, maybe 25 active climbers at most, that was 10 years ago. Also, when I started climbing, every time I would hang out and get asked the classic question: "Hey man, what have you been up to?" I would answer: "Well, I'm super psyched on climbing right now.” To my amazement, people who I never imagined answered: "Really?! I've always wanted to try that.” I guess that sparked the idea that there is a lot more interest to this sport than I imagined.
So, at first, Climbing Puerto Rico actually started out as a blog created to spread info and share stories about climbing on the island. That evolved into making the Facebook page and eventually opening our Instagram account which is what has helped us share the real potential of the island throughout the world. Through the Facebook page we set out to see if we could spread the climbing seed and let people know that climbing is an option here in Puerto Rico. We started giving workshops for a $5 donation just so we could at least eat something afterwards. After 10 solid sessions and impacting more than 100 locals, I asked the crew if they were willing to invest to travel and get certified to take Climbing Puerto Rico to the next level and try to live out of what we love. And that's what we did.
The ball is slowly rolling. At least it was rolling forward—we had seen the increase of clients since day one—until Maria, which basically killed tourism for the island.
What were your initial thoughts when the hurricane hit?
"Ok, here we go ...!" As soon as it hit it took me back to previous hurricanes and instantly made a reality check of what was to come. It was a mix of "OK let's deal with staying safe for now, but damn we're going to be screwed after this" sort of feeling. I remember seeing the radar the day before it hit and saying to my friends "Well, see you next year if there is light" and laughing about it.
How has it affected your daily life?
It changed my life completely. In an instant there was no communication, no electricity, no radio stations, no internet, no food, no gasoline, etc. You had to deal with a day-to-day basis and focus on small tasks. I just focused on helping whoever needed help with clearing access and opening roads to keep my mind occupied.
Everybody's life was affected, and I mean everybody. This didn't have status or economical preference, everyone suffered. It ripped right through the middle, everywhere you looked there was devastation.
Did you think your climbing skills would help after the disaster?
I didn't think anything like that. We were just dealing with the situation right in front of us. But from day one I realized how my climbing skills were helping after bringing an old climbing rope to the scene, setting up a directional and tying the right knot to a van so I could haul all the giant logs off the street.
Were you already a skilled arborist?
Luckily my right hand in ClimbingPR, Jorge Lassus, was already a skilled tree climber/arborist who has his own tree work company. So, he showed me the way. The first project we worked was climbing trees every day for a month and a half. That really helped me polish my skills quickly.
The need for any source of income was and is real, so we basically jumped in on the same opportunity. It was an amazing feeling to share this new climbing experience with your climbing crew.
Tell us about the new climbing potential that Maria uncovered?
Maria did us a great favor in cleaning a sector of a wall that we started clearing. We think about eight more routes can be set up in that chunk of wall. The colors and features of the wall are amazing, ranging from gray tufas to pink crimps.
How many routes have you and the crew put up there so far?
We have already set up 23 routes in that area, but about 40 around the island plus multiple re-bolts. We have also established more than 200 boulder problems and developed the main bouldering areas.
Is life finally settling back to normal now? What’s the current state in Puerto Rico?
The San Juan area is a bubble right now. It seems as if everything is already back to normal, however, if you travel around you will see that there are still a lot of towns without electricity, hospitals and hotels still closed, roads still collapsed, and piles of rubble and debris that haven't been picked up. On the positive side the spirit and vibe you feel is that everybody is stronger and ready for any battle know. The vegetation is also back and thriving even stronger and the beaches are clean by now. So, there is no reason to doubt if you plan on visiting.
What is your daily life like right now?
I basically have no life right now. I'm working on another project on the east side of the island, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week . I'm working as a tree climber clearing all the state roads from any dangers like leaning trees. On the positive side, hey at least I'm still climbing...
Follow along with Bryant and his crew @ClimbingPR.