How Aris Theodoropoulos turned Kalymnos into a top climbing destination for Greek Australians

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By Ilias Karagiannis.

The night before our meeting with Aris Theodoropoulos, the man to whom the development of Kalymnos as the world’s top climbing destination is owed, he enjoyed his dinner with a couple from Australia.

“By chance, I met them, we talked and we went to eat,” Aris Theodoropoulos tells The Greek Herald, creating in our thoughts the sense of the archetypal Greek hospitality.

“The man was of Greek descent. The couple lived in a small town, Townsend (about 650 kms from Sydney), and we had a similar discussion about Kalymnos and how it became a top climbing destination.

“Before the borders were closed due to the pandemic, it was quite common to meet Greek Australians or Australians in Kalymnos. The sport of climbing is quite widespread there, so we expect several Australians this year to visit the island. I have met many Aussies because of climbing and have maintained good relationships over the years.

Photo: supplied.

“Of course, we are constantly visited by the Kalymnians of Australia. Do not forget that in the past many left the island and migrated to destinations such as Darwin, in search of a better life.

“It was the curse of the rocks at that time, which today has become a blessing because of the climbing.”

Economic boost and the secret

Under normal conditions, before the pandemic, climbing was an economic boost for the island of Kalymnos. As Aris Theodoropoulos reveals, almost 15,000 visitors arrive annually in Kalymnos for climbing, in a landscape that used to seem discouraging to the locals. 

“Many climbers who come to Kalymnos stay for 15 days or even a month, because when traveling from countries like America or Australia you cannot stay for just a few days. The long duration, as you understand, stimulates the economy. The locals, however, embraced climbing from the first moment,” Mr Theodoropoulos says.

The landscape of Kalymnos is of incredible beauty. The winds sculpted the wild rocks that contrast with the sea, especially when the daylight blue of the sky connects with the special light that bathes the island.

But what happens to Kalymnos and why it is visited by thousands of visitors every year, including Australian Greeks or Australians such as the famous climber Lee Cujes, turning it into the ideal destination for every sport lover?

Photo: supplied.

“Amazing infrastructure has been created on the rocks, with about 4.000 climbing routes, which have plugs per meter, on which the climber can be secured,” he says.

“This infrastructure is the pole of attraction for climbers in the world. Of course, Kalymnos combines the whole package as an island. It is not only that it has good rocks, fantastic climbing routes and infrastructure but also great climate, the sea, good food and the whole package to attract tourists.”

In a country like Greece, where everyone grumbles about the lack of infrastructure, if anything it sounds impressive to have the groundwork set up to launch the climb.

“We started in 1999,” Mr Theodoropoulos says and reconstructs in his memory the imaginary journey to the top of the climb. “Some Italian climbers discovered the prospects of Kalymnos and created 45 routes. Then I came and tried to mobilise the local authorities so that there are the right specifications and the new climbing routes are properly opened.

“Little by little, either with volunteer climbers from all over the world, who opened new routes, or through some programs we did with the municipality, we were able to increase the number of routes to over 4000.”

The speech of Aris Theodoropoulos is calm, as when he is on the rocks, where any nervous movement can be costly. Mountain man now. From an early age, in Trikala, Corinthia and Mount Ziria, he began exploring the mountains and continues to this day.

Mountain guide, mountaineering and climbing coach, author, since he has written books and technical manuals on mountaineering and climbing, as well as climbing guides for Kalymnos and the rest of Greece.

He has made Kalymnos a top climbing destination, tries to do the same with Leonidio in the Peloponnese for the winter and worries only about one thing.

“We cannot afford to stop checking, maintaining, cleaning and creating the new climbing routes for a single minute. However, they cannot continue to be done mainly by a group of volunteers. Today (on the day of the interview) we have a meeting with those in charge of the area in order to discuss what needs to be done” tells us the restless Aris Theodoropoulos, who never stops working to improve the conditions and to fully exploit the island.

Today, Kalymnos is probably the only place in Greece with alternative tourism for at least 8 months a year, as Aris Theodoropoulos tells us, who with his tireless effort turned the island into the top climbing destination on the planet.

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