Climbing Rio’s Sugar Loaf James Bond Style
Monday, December 5, 2011
I had been enchanted with Sugar Loaf Mountain ever since I saw it in the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker, in which Bond battles with Jaws on a cable car traveling up Rio de Janerio’s most famous landmark (along with the Christ the Redeemer statue that sits at its top).
The grey granite massif that rises roughly 1,300 overlooking Copacabana beach is a formidable climb, and I decided then and there that I would climb up its face someday. I am skilled rock climber, but when I found out the Brazilian Mountaineering Club had installed a 900-foot via ferrata cable (a fixed climbing path for you non-climbers) called the “CEPI Route” up the west face of Sugar Loaf, I was excited. This crazy feat of engineering, a lifelong desire, and the uniqueness of the route immediately appealed to me.
During a trip through South America, Carole, my life partner, and I decided to finally take on Sugar Loaf. We arrived on a hot, sunny morning, and after our third coffee we hailed a cab to Praia Vermelha where the Sugar Loaf cable car up is located. Once at the beach, we walked along the asphalt jogging path that starts at the north end of Red Beach and continues around the bay. We saw some Brazilians bouldering in the jungle but resisted stopping and jumping on the sweaty routes and continued along the paved walkway until we came to a muddy trail that headed uphill into the jungle.
We stopped and looked around and had a discussion about whether or not it was safe to continue into the jungle. “Was anyone following us? Could we see any would-be muggers ahead on the trail?” We quickly headed up the steep path for 20 hot and sweaty minutes, constantly looking out for rustling in the bushes or people approaching. After reaching a plateau, we took a two-minute breather and hiked through dense jungle for the final ten minutes and arrived at the base, drenched in sweat but happy.
The sight of the massive chunk of granite in front of us gave us a jolt of excitement. For the first 30 feet of the via ferrata route, the Brazilian Mountain Club wisely installed bolts so inexperienced people could not access it without the use of proper safety equipment and skills. So after the difficult start, we reached a two-inch steel bolted cable that crept up the rock face until it finished beneath the cable car station at the summit. Every 150 feet or so there was an anchor and a ledge where you could secure yourself, have a rest, catch your breath and enjoy the view.
The basic technique for climbing the CEPI route is easy: just use the continuous cable and the rock to climb your way to the top. We opted to add a bit of security to our ascent and tied into a rope, and attached our leader-secured carabineers to rings or bolts along the cable line. Once Carole and I made it to the start of the steel cable, we clipped our lanyards into the cable and began to follow it up. The rock face was vertical, and we were happy for the rope’s added security, but we only felt the need to clip three carabineers on a 150-foot pitch. We quickly hauled ourselves up the first pitch of the thick cable with our hands while smearing our feet on the cobbled rock. It was an intoxicating sensation to move so high up on the cliff at such a quick pace.
The first rest was situated on a massive boulder that jutted two feet out of the matrix of granite. We gazed out to admire the colorful cockatoos and macaws that were chatting loudly around us in the jungle. We chugged some water and saw the cable continue vertically up.
Carole went next and the birds cheered her on; she grunted back to them as she quickly heaved herself upwards. After she arrived at the second ledge she belayed me up. We took a few pictures and continued our ridiculously fun ascent up. Climbing the suspended rope was like gym class in elementary school. I climbed next and wrapped my hands on the abrasive and grippy cable and rapidly ascended. My hands were tingling and my muscles began to burn. I looked beneath me and noticed I was 50 feet above Carole and decided to clip a carabiner and my rope into the bolt that was at my waist. I continued my hand-over-hand thug-style ascent and was at the next ledge in a few minutes.
The views of Copacabana Beach, Christ the Redeemer, Botofogo Marina, Gauanbara Bay and Cotunduba Island in the distance were spectacular. We looked above us to inspect the route and noticed a small roof section. When I climbed to it my feet swung out from underneath me and the ground below dropped away; a sense of exposure and panic overtook my mind. I gripped the cable tightly and hauled myself into a small cave above and waited for Carole.
She soon arrived at the roof, and with surge of energy she seized the cable with monkey-like grip and quickly pulled herself up. We stood in the small cave eating a fruit bar as a cable car passed overhead; an image of James Bond hanging with one hand to the side of the cable car while battling away Jaws flashed into my mind. I laughed, smiled and waved to the people in the cable car. They waved back and took some photos.
Carole left the shaded cave and pulled herself up the cable for the next pitch while I belayed her and gazed back at Rio. I hooted and hollered as she scampered along until she disappeared after climbing over a ledge. I quickly followed, and each time I brushed up against the rock the invigorating granite particles charged my being. Finally, another 150 feet later I reached a groove on a small ledge.
The last 250 feet of the route followed a slabby groove on the cliff face and looked like you could run up it without safety gear, if not for the fact that you were 650 feet above the ground. Carole said her hands were starting to get a little raw. I looked at mine. They were brown from the rust of the steel cable, and I thought gloves definitely would have been a good idea. We left the groove and I quickly scrambled up the last section of the route, towing my safety line along the cable and neglecting to use any carabineers. I scrambled up the rock until I arrived at a grassy ledge next to the cable car station: I had made it to the top.
I waited for Carole and then we climbed over the metal railing and followed a few stairs to the viewing platform of the summit. Once we arrived at the summit there was a restaurant with a patio that served hot snacks and cold drinks. Now this was the way to climb. We bought two cold caipirinhas, sat in comfy chairs and toasted the thrilling adventure we spent above Rio de Janeiro.
I noticed that my hands were a bit pink from the cable but the cold cocktail felt good on them. Carole and I felt energized and full of adrenalin, and we were buzzing from the climb. We sat at the patio for an hour enjoying the afternoon sun, cold drinks and the views of Rio’s beaches. Finally, we decided to take the easy way back to the bottom: riding the cable car, which took all of 20 minutes. Not exactly the preferred mode of transportation for an international spy, but I was content knowing I had already fulfilled by Bond dreams for the day.
By James Cruikshank
About the Author
James Cruikshank is a freelance writer, urban recycler and abuser
of languages. He has traveled extensively; climbing mountains in
Argentina, Bolivia, and Scotland; paid baksheesh and bribes in Mexico, Honduras, and India. He survived a very traumatic and painful elephant trampling in Nepal and worked abroad as a kayak guide, movie extra, and house sitter covering 38 countries on 6 continents.