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Eye of the Storm

When Eli Helmuth moved to Puerto Rico, he was seeking the potential of new limestone routes close to surfing. After the catastrophic Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, he envisioned something better, a way to help the island and local people build a new economy through climbing.

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hen Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, it devastated the island, seriously damaged the country’s tourist industry and crushed a lot of dreams. But one person it didn’t knock down was recent Colorado transplant Eli Helmuth. The storm only helped fuel his ambitions to turn the Caribbean Island into one of the premier climbing destinations in the Western Hemisphere. “The 150-mile-per-hour winds stripped away so much foliage that we were able to identify numerous crags that had been hidden from view,” he says. “It only reconfirmed my belief that this island is a gold mine of untapped climbing.”

As one of the first fully certified mountain guides and instructors with both the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) and International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA), Helmuth, 54, has spent three decades in the mountains. From his home base in Estes Park, he has led 52 guided ascents up the Diamond Route on Longs Peak (a record), summited numerous peaks in Alaska and South America and served as the executive director for the AMGA Alpine Guide Training Program for eight years.

So when he called his wife from the midst of guiding a ski trip in Alaska four years ago to tell her that he wanted to move to Puerto Rico, she told him he was nuts—but he had a vision. “We had just visited the island a few weeks earlier and I could not get it off my mind, I decided that that’s where our family should be,” he says. It took some coaxing, but two years later they sold their house in Colorado, and moved to the Ciales on the northern side of the island with their two young children in tow.

An Island of Potential

With a population of nearly 19,000, the town of Ciales sits near world class surf breaks, endless beaches, craggy canyons and steep summits, but what really drew Helmuth to the town was the seemingly endless array of limestone cliffs that encircle it. When he and his wife, Joanne, perused Google Earth images of the town, the topography. suggested that, just underneath the jungle cover, there were even more cliffs than one could imagine.

Climbing in Puerto Rico is still in its infancy. It was only a little over two decades ago that Colorado native Craig Luebben first arrived on the island during his tour of the Caribbean in search of cliffs and crags. As he wandered into the jungle, many in the climbing community thought he’d lost his mind.  But Luebben laid out sport routes on both the juggy limestone and sticky granite endemic to the island. When he left, the climbing seed took root with the locals and over the last 20 years several areas have been developed, many by Rossano Boscarino, a noted caver and climber based on the island and the owner of Aventuras PR.

But, the climbing infrastructure and industry on this island paradise are still in their infancy. Bouldering and sport climbing areas on Puerto Rico are scattered and piecemeal. There are a few climbing and guide shops. Beyond Luebben, no off-island climbers really recognized what the scene on the island could be, and no one considered how it could benefit Puerto Rican people. So Helmuth made the development of  the climbing business here his mission. He wants to help build an eco-friendly climbing economy that’s both financially profitable for the local populace and long-term sustainable.

Sleepy Ciales sits at the base of the steep mountains that run down the spine of the island, 30 minutes from the beach. From the first day that Helmuth and his family arrived, they felt welcome. The locals were shocked and surprised that someone from the States would want to live inland, and not next to the ocean like so many other transplants. When the Helmuths bought a home and put their kids in school there, they quickly went from being a novelty to accepted members of the community. As Helmuth talked to his neighbors and told them about his dream for the surrounding cliffs, most of them were skeptical. Climbing seemed like a novelty, not something you could build a life around.

From his experiences in spots around the globe, Helmuth knew that a thriving outdoor industry could be built on the island. It’s never cold, the rainy season is short, and the sun always seems to shine. His numerous trips to the Red River Gorge and New River climbing areas showed him the financial help that climbers brought to the local communities. He just had to convince his new friends.

Every morning Helmuth would load up his truck with gear—machete, pack, rock drill, ropes, lunch, and anything else he would need—and head out, often with a local climber in tow. He would hack a pathway into an interesting piece of rock and once he saw a line, he’d dive into it, cleaning the stone with brushes and knocking loose any pieces of rock too fragile to climb, and bolting titanium clips and belays bolts into the walls. His goal was to lay out one new route per week. Soon the residents of Ciales and others on the island heard about this crazy American who spent all of his time building climbing routes.

Disaster Strikes

By the time the hurricane hit, Helmuth and his hardy crew of locals had started making a difference. In the first year, he estimates they put up 30 new routes and spent untold hours stripping old gear from the walls and putting in new bolts. “So much of the gear was rusting. I knew that to really do it right here I would have to ensure that the existing routes were safe and up to standard,” he says. 

He and Joanne had turned the lower part of their house into an Airbnb and were starting to get renters. They had decided on a spot of land to buy to build their dream business, an ecolodge that would serve as a base camp for climbers. While he still was guiding trips in South America, he found he longed for the island and the continuation of his dream. Things were going well. Then the winds started blowing.

When the hurricane hit, the worst of the storm slammed into his new home. The damage was catastrophic: Trees were down and denuded, roads were washed out, houses were stripped of their roofs, and there was no power for six months. Helmuth was relatively lucky: The storm wiped out power on the entire island and caused $90 billion in damage, prompting FEMA to declare all of Puerto Rico a Federal Disaster Zone. Nearly 3,000 people died due to the storm and resulting devastation. 

There was a small silver lining, however. Over the next few weeks as he and his neighbors worked together, Helmuth would find himself eyeing the nearby cliffs. The hurricane had done something that all of his reconnaissance had not been able to accomplish—it uncovered a myriad of limestone routes. His mind started to swirl with the possibilities, and he was able to convey his vision to his new town.

When you are without power, and the money dries up, it forces people to start to look at things a little differently. In his conversations with people in his community and others nearby, his promise of climbers coming down and bringing money with them started to get their attention. Once they dug out his town, Helmuth dove back into creating routes on all the limestone cliffs.

At the same time he moved his guiding company, Climbing Life, from Colorado to Ciales. He dove into Mountain Project to update their database and used his blog as a way to promote the island. At his house, he put up a climbing wall and started to teach the local kids how to climb.  More locals came to him to get their AMGA climbing certifications. A movement gained momentum.

“He has become the main go-to guy on the island for teaching and promoting climbing,” says Diego Garcia owner of Rocaliza Adventure Tours, which runs everything from zip line to climbing tours in Puerto Rico. “In the few years he has been here he has really helped transform the Ciales area around his home. When he is done it will be the premier sport climbing area on the island.”

The Word Is Out

It’s been over two years since Helmuth and his family moved to Ciales. He’ll soon break ground on a lodge with camping and tree houses, all built from sustainable products. In the last six months, word has started to spread about about the climbing on the island. Helmuth is seeing groups showing up from New York, New Jersey and Colorado primed to hit the rock. More importantly, the Puerto Rican climbing community is growing and young people are embracing the wave.

When asked if he misses his old life high in the Rockies, Helmuth pauses for a moment and says, “I don’t miss the cold one bit. I get to climb, surf and swim all while helping create something special. I wouldn’t go back in a minute. What we are creating here is special.”

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