Life On 'The Rock'

The geology of Bermuda is iconic. While the photographer’s lens usually centres on pink sand and turquoise water, their images are customarily framed with limestone pinnacles written in a thousand shades from black to white. Bermuda’s limestone is as variable in its form as it is diverse in its services to natural ecosystems and human communities. Our limestone stands as a bulwark against the relentless gnawing of the Atlantic Ocean; it supplies an indispensable building resource; it provides nesting habitats for a variety of seabirds; and it serves as one of the last refuges for the endangered flora and fauna of the islands. While Bermuda limestone enjoys considerable attention in brochure covers and celebrity instagram posts, it lacks formal recognition from a cultural or legislative perspective—a challenge we must address if we are to conserve the beauty and services of this natural resource. Why are rocks such a critical part of sustaining life in Bermuda? What threatens the preservation of rocks and what can you do to help? Why is a marine biologist with no professional prospects in geology so bent on writing about them? If any of these questions occurred to you, read on!

Before discussing the nuances of Bermuda limestone, it helps to clarify exactly what it is. Though our island’s rocks take many forms, they are all made of the same basic material: calcium carbonate (CaCO3). This calcium carbonate was created by marine organisms, and any who has seen the extent of Bermuda’s coral reefs can easily grasp the capacity for living organisms to contribute to the creation of vast quantities of rocky material. But how does material created by marine organisms end up on land? Did the sea level once reach the 79-m summit of Town Hill, Bermuda’s high point? Geologist and explorer Angelo Heilprin beautifully describes the transition of Bermuda rock from the marine to the terrestrial world in his account of his visit to Bermuda in the year 1887, an excerpt of which proceeds:

“The first process toward the forming of this rock must necessarily be the pounding up of the material out of which it is constructed. Wherever the polyps build close to the surface their habitations are attacked by the surf which they themselves create. The long white line of foam which meets the eye of the observer gazing southward from any eminence, and parts the blue waters of the outer world from the more nearly green within, is but the line of battle between the organic and the inorganic forces. It is here that life asserts her supremacy over the sea, and it is here that the sea maintains her right of domain as an inheritance of prior birth. Blocks of coral and coralline are detached and broken, their parts are rocked to and fro in the withering crest, and ultimately, when the fragments have been sufficiently punished by the sea, they are handed over for further chastisement to the action of the wind. In this way the particles are ground finer and finer, a true sand is formed, and dunes begin to rear their heads above the ocean level. Traveling in the line of the wind the dunes pass onward, climb over one another’s backs, and comb the gently flowing crests ; from pigmy hillocks they rise into well-fashioned knolls, and ultimately stand as the eminences which to-day are the Bermudas. No one who, on the south shore, has watched the great tongues of moving sand,—the sand glaciers of Tucker’s Town and Elbow bay, for example—stealthily encroaching upon the hill-tops of the interior, and burying everything, in the manner of the locusts of South Africa, beneath their mantle of destruction, can have failed to be impressed by the character and the magnitude of the work that is being accomplished. It is truly but the music of the sea and wind, but there is enough of it to turn water into land.”

While I cannot possibly add more colour to this description, I can perhaps repeat Heilprin’s words in a 21st Century register. The ocean is full of chemicals, including calcium (Ca2+) and carbonate (CO32-) ions, the main ingredients for calcium carbonate. Marine organisms, specifically invertebrate animals like corals and molluscs, take these chemicals out of the water column and use them to build their skeletons. The action of waves and moving water breaks up this skeletal material to form sand (erosion). Biological processes also break up this material (bioerosion) and if you have snorkelled in Bermuda or other coral reef systems, you may have observed fish consuming material from the surface of the reef and later excreting it into the water—pooping sand! The sandy material is deposited on the submerged Bermuda Platform where it accumulates in vast quantities. This is when things get wild. Consider that the sea level is not constant and actually fluctuates up and down by about 300 metres throughout geologic time. At some times in the past, the entire Bermuda Platform was submerged and at other times vast areas that are currently underwater were exposed to air. During these latter periods, wind blows the sand into dunes which reach several hundred feet in height. At the bottom of these dunes, time and pressure contribute to the gradual compaction and hardening of the sand, producing eventually the rock we call limestone. 

In even simpler terms: marine organisms make rock, physical and biological forces erode the rock to form sand, eventually the sea level goes down and this sand gets blown into sand dunes and these dunes cement over time to form limestone. The origin of Bermuda’s limestone as sand dunes is plainly evident in the striation seen in road cuts across the island (Figure 1). This process did not happen all in one go but rather over the course of millions of years. In fact, the Pleistocene Epoch, a 2.5 million year period of repeated glaciations which ended about 10,000 years ago, was responsible for raising and lowering the sea level around Bermuda numerous times. When the sea level was high, corals and other organisms overgrew the platform, creating a ‘carbonate factory’ of sandy deposits. Then, at times when the sea level was low, this sandy material accumulated in dunes beneath which formed limestone. This cycle played out at least seven times in Bermuda and is represented by five distinct limestone formations. In other words, different blocks of Bermuda limestone formed at different times in our island’s history and the quality of each formation tells us about what was happening on the island at the time. (Dr. Mark Rowe gives a spectacular overview of Bermuda’s geology on his website: We are now ready to know Bermuda’s rocks by their full name: aeolian limestone. “Aeolian” (from Aeolus, the Greek god of wind) means deposited by air and limestone is a calcium carbonate rock of marine origin. At this, Heilprin’s words ring louder: “It is truly but the music of the sea and wind, but there is enough of it to turn water into land.

Figure 1: Layers in the rock indicate accumulation of wind-blown sand. The inclination of the layers indicates the direction of dune progression, in this case west to east (right to left).

While the origins of Bermuda’s geology are complicated and call on us to reckon with many different aspects of the Earth System, a brief overview is crucial for us to understand the major qualities of Bermuda rock: it is delicate, it is immensely beneficial to plants and animals and it is non-replenishable (on human time-scales, at least). First, its delicacy: as Bermuda limestone derives from the compaction of wind-blown sand, it is only loosely packed together. This makes the rock extremely weak. If you have walked our island's roads or waited in our iconic limestone bus shelters, you might have noticed that a fingernail is quite sufficient to scrape away material from the surface of Bermuda limestone. And abrasive forces are not the only destructive power at play here. Rainwater is weakly acidic and readily dissolves limestone on contact. Yes, you read that correctly, Bermuda limestone dissolves in water! Dissolved calcium carbonate is slowly redeposited elsewhere, filling the pore spaces between sand grains and leading to the gradual hardening of limestone over time. However, truly hard limestone is only to be found in the island’s oldest deposits, which have experienced multiple dune-building events and thousands of years of hardening through redeposition of calcium carbonate, and occur in a few isolated patches throughout the island. The majority of surficial limestone is from more recent dune-building events and is consequently weaker and more water-soluble.

The delicacy of Bermuda limestone facilitates its second quality, that it is extremely useful for both humans and the native flora and fauna of the islands. The early settlers quickly discovered that the limestone was soft enough to work with a handsaw, and used their tools to establish the iconic style of Bermuda architecture that layers individual blocks of limestone together. Plants and animals have likewise made their homes in the rock, taking advantage of the dissolution of limestone caused by rain which has created intricate matrices of perforated rock on a smaller scale and vast networks of hollow caverns on a larger scale. The smaller cavities readily become the refuge of native plants and animals, such as the endemic and endangered skink and the white-tailed tropic bird or ‘longtail.' The larger caverns, which in the absence of sunlight might be supposed to lack in biodiversity, are actually the biodiversity hotspot of Bermuda. In fact, Bermuda’s caves are home to over 50 endemic species (mostly crustaceans; Figure 2). Many of these species are associated with only a single cave, and with over 200 caves we can confidently state that there are more species to be discovered. Cave entrances also host a variety of ferns, many of which are also endemic to Bermuda and critically endangered. The combination of these two factors—first, the delicacy and, second, the value of Bermuda limestone—helps us to understand the importance of the third: that our rocks are a non-replenishable resource.

Figure 2: (Left) Each summer, 2,500 - 3,000 pairs of longtails (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) nest in the shoreline cavities of Bermuda, making Bermuda the home of the largest nesting population of this subspecies of tropic bird. (Right) Examples of organisms from a Bermuda cave system (Iliffe and Calderón-Gutiérrez 2021) 

As we learned earlier, Bermuda limestone forms during periods when sea-level is lower than at present, exposing the sandy deposits of the Bermuda Platform to wind and allowing for the formation of dunes. While there has been documentation of dune formation since human settlement (in particular, a few 19th Century recordings of sand encroaching on cedar forests and burying entire houses!) there is no mechanism that allows for the formation of Bermuda limestone in the modern era. As Bermudians, we are familiar with the importance of protecting native flora and fauna which run the risk of exploitation. But even species like the Bermuda skink, the cedar tree, the queen conch, land snail, blue bird and endangered ferns can, with sustained effort, be cloned, propagated or otherwise grown in order to replenish wild populations. There remains, however, no conceivable way of generating new limestone, at least not on a time scale relevant for humans, as these rocks take tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to form. It is important for us to bear in mind the rarity of our rocks when making decisions about how we use them, especially as the changes we make to Bermuda limestone are largely irreversible.

My obsession with Bermuda’s rocks began early on in my childhood. Contrary to millions of years of human evolution, I thoroughly enjoy enclosed spaces. The smaller, the better. Bermuda was therefore a paradise for me growing up as I never had a shortage of caves to climb, crawl and swim through. I loved exploring the rocks of our island, and seeing thousands of people laying in the sand on South Shore or dozens of kids lining up for cliff jumping at Admiralty House, I came to the conclusion that everyone else appreciated the rocks as much as I did. But at the end of the day, they were still just rocks to me—dead, grey and permanent. There was no geology, no sense that the chemistry, physics and biology I was studying in school applied as equally to the rocks as they did to the coral reefs and water cycle. It was not until I moved to California for university that I finally understood the importance of geology in influencing human communities, and it would be several years more before I achieved a similar understanding in Bermuda.

My revelation came (as so many often do) during a trip to the desert. I was on a weeklong expedition with a class, traversing through Death Valley National Park and the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The days of the week seemed to be in competition to see which could present the most impressive spectacle: a volcanic crater; a salt flat 100 metres below sea level; the rock that a native tribe regarded as the “Centre of the Universe.” Nothing, however, struck me as directly as the view from Father Crowley Point. Our professor, Dr. Gail Mahood, pointed to a mountain in the distance and asked us to observe that the top hundred metres or so was a distinctly different colour from the rest of the mountain. Never one to answer a question with anything but another question, Dr. Mahood slowly worked us around to the conclusion that this mountain was once an island and that the line between the lighter colours of the base and the darker colours of the top was a sort of primordial high-tide mark. “Then the water used to come up this high?!” we demanded with bulging eyes. “Not water… Ice,” she responded. I was dumbfounded. Bear in mind that I am coming from an island that does not even rise 100 metres above the sea. Now here I am, standing well over 1000 metres above the sea, looking up at a mountain and I’m finding out that this entire area was previously covered in ice. This was the moment I started to fully reckon with the temporary nature of my existence. I saw the Earth taking mountains too big for me to climb and covering them with ice, then uncovering them, covering them again and then crushing them up into tiny bits of sand. I started to see the world through what geologist John McPhee calls Deep Time, and rocks became the medium for me to do so. I do not know if the purpose of that trip was to make students obsessed with geology for the rest of their lives or just to prevent students from falling into typical spring break debauchery, or perhaps there was some third motive. In any case, the effect on me was evident: obsession.

I lived in California for the next five years and as I continued to learn and explore the geology of the state I developed a deeper understanding of why my world looked the way it did. I no longer saw mountain ranges, valleys, bays and hills as generic landforms but saw each as their own individual works with their own stories. When I moved from the flatlands of Silicon Valley to the towering hills of Marin County, it was not just a change of scenery—it was a change in the fundamental composition of the landscape. Moving from the muddy deposits of the South Bay to the volcanic mountains of Marin meant trading the endless sprawl of perfectly level sidewalks for the gravity-defying steep roadways of the North Bay. I learned how the movement of tectonic plates created the epically steep hills in Marin and San Francisco, and that I could even follow the boundaries of different rock types throughout the city in order to find the best hills for skating (gotta go faster!!). I learned how certain rock types were more stable during earthquakes and how higher-income communities were preferentially constructed on these rocks and subsequently faced less significant damage during seismic events. I learned how the draining of lakes and river basins to supply water to Los Angeles County exposed toxic salt deposits that cause respiratory problems in neighbouring communities. I learned that there were rocks throughout the state that were covered in plate-sized dimples because indigenous communities used them to grind acorns for thousands of years. Everywhere I looked I saw a living geology, a patchwork of different rocks types each with their own influence on the cultures humans built around them.

During this time, I also became an avid hiker. I bought my first pair of boots and quickly fell into an addiction with 4 AM wake-ups, steep terrain, peanut butter sandwiches and commanding views of land and sea. I spent (still spend) hours pouring over the satellite view on Google Maps, looking for unmarked summits and hidden coves. My growing fluency in California geology was invaluable to my hiking and made me confident navigating off-trail. I learned that the quickest way from A to B was often not a straight line but rather a meandering course following the natural inclinations of the landscape. I looked closely at the rocks beneath my feet and figured out how to deduce which rock types could support my weight and which would break under stress. I started to think about how much sunlight fell on a route, whether the rocks would absorb or reflect the sun’s heat and how that would affect the rate of snow melt: would a river be passable in the afternoon or would the flow from snow melt be too high? I accumulated this knowledge through countless errors, missteps, bruises and wet trousers. The more comfortable I got in a wilderness setting, the more I met other people who were equally addicted to eating sweaty blocks of cheese in the shade of withering pine trees. But no matter how many adventures I went on, no matter how many outdoor enthusiasts I met, there was always one invitation that I would perpetually decline: “Want to go rock climbing?”

I never liked being told what to do. In school, I would intentionally disregard instructions in favour of finding my own way of learning. I never meant it as disrespect, though I am sure it came across that way a lot of the time. It was more about me proving, to myself and to others, that there were always multiple possibilities in problem solving. So many times teachers and classmates would tell me, “You’re making this harder for yourself than you need to,” and in my head I would reply, “You might be right, but I won’t know that unless I try.” I am thankful for my not-so-humble beginnings because that approach to learning and creativity is what made me gravitate to the hobbies I still enjoy today—skateboarding, music, video editing, dancing. All of these activities are most fun in those moments when I get to break the rules, to go against dominant notions of what is good and bad. At the same time, as I have progressed in these disciplines I have discovered what people were trying to tell me the whole time: learning the rules actually makes it easier to step outside of them. Today I have swung to the opposite side of the pendulum from my school days. Now when I am learning something new, I try to learn all the rules; the history of the rules, who came up with the rules and when and why. I have transitioned from overt-carelessness to overt-caution. But as careful as I aim to be, I still try to reserve for myself the possibility of disregarding the rules and doing something however feels the most natural to me: turning my brain ‘off.’ Then considering rock climbing, an activity where disregard for rules leads expediently to death, I was content to spend the rest of my days without ever putting on a rope and harness.

I injured myself ollying into the hill behind the fire station in Sausalito, California (very fun hill, good and fast). It was 12 March 2020, the day before we all got sent home from work at the start of the pandemic. As much as I would have loved to spend those first couple months surfing and skating, I spent that time at my house which had become my de facto artist’s retreat. It was a beautiful time of cooking, painting and planting, but everyday I was craving to be back on the trail and back on my board. Slowly but surely my condition improved and I was able to join my mates on hikes or calm skate sessions in our little cul-de-sac. Then one day some of my mates invited me to go climbing with them. Maybe it was all those weeks I had spent nursing my injury and wishing I could be outside exploring or maybe it was the sense of impending doom that prevailed throughout the pandemic—I don’t know because I did not pause to think. My response was reactive, “Hell ya.” We went up to the top of the hill behind our neighbourhood where there was an outcrop of radiolarian chert (an epic rock which deserves its own blog post!). My friends set up a rope and we climbed up the 4 metre face of a 100 million-year-old rock. I definitely enjoyed it, but I did not think it was anything spectacular. I thought I would like to do it again, but to me the cool part of rock climbing was still the rocks, not the climbing.

Fast forward a couple months and I am in the mountains of Western Maine. I was in Maine to visit family when some friends who I had met in Joshua Tree earlier that year invited me to go on a weekend climbing trip. I thought of every excuse, but when they said they had a spare harness, shoes my size and a sleeping pad, I figured I might as well give it a go. We went to Shagg Crag which I later found out was the premiere spot for hard, overhanging granite climbing in New England (tied with Waimea at Rumney, New Hampshire). We spent about 45 minutes walking the wrong direction then another 45 walking the right direction but still fielding the sensation of being lost, until we finally heard the tell-tale grunts of exertion and jingling of metal carabiners that accompany most climbing crags. My first climb that day felt similar to the climb I did earlier that spring. Fun, but not remarkable. I had climbed these two routes on ‘top-rope’ which means I was tied into a rope that ran through an anchor at the top of the route—I was protected from falling the entire time. My friends suggested that I ‘lead’ the next route, which means climbing up a rock and clipping your rope into fixed bolts as you go up—I would be protected, but if I slipped or let go I would fall as far as the last bolt I clipped, plus whatever length of rope was between me and that bolt. This was the exact situation that made me hesitant to start climbing: there were rules, hard rules and the consequence for failing to follow them was potentially severe. My friends assured me they would walk me through the entire process. I remember looking at them and saying something along the lines of, “Do you promise me that if I follow your instructions I won’t get hurt?” They nodded, giggling to each other at my superstitious caution. I wanted to scream, “C’mon girls, this is my life we’re talking about!” But I trusted them. I trusted that they were weighing the different factors—my lack of experience, the difficulty of the climb, the probability and consequence of failure—as much as I was, if not more. “If they say I can do it,” I thought, “then maybe I can.”

That was the climb when I found out I am afraid of heights. I cruised up about two thirds of the route through alternating soft and jagged bumps of granite and mica. About this point, the route shoots out left to an arête. An arête is an acute angle in the face of a rock (Figure 3). A rough analogy for climbing an arête might be climbing up the side of a ladder—you can reach around to the rungs on either side, but your main point of reference is the thin rail of metal in front of you. It is a pretty secure way to climb, but the tricky part is getting into it. Imagine climbing up the face of rock to the right of the arête in the photo below (indicated by the red line). If you go to reach out left to the arête, all you can see is a sharp outline of rock and beyond that nothing but empty space. It is like looking over the edge of a cliff. Picture me, first time leading a route, high enough off the ground that I see leaves instead of trunks and the people who talked me into this are shouting, “Just reach out to your left!” In retrospect, they were giving me completely sound advice… but at the time! I remember burying my face into the rock in front of me, like I was a barnacle trying to cling on in a flooding tide. The option of lowering down to the ground truly never occurred to me—my fear left me paralysed. I felt stuck, I thought that I was stuck, gripping desperately to the rock as the sweat building on my palms made it harder to hold on.

Figure 3: The red line marks the arête on a climb called “Cracked Up” in Camden Hills, Maine, USA. This was not the climb I did for my first lead, but I would have a go at leading this route later that same year.

After a couple minutes leaking silent tears and ruminating against the side of the cliff, I started to make slow, certain moves toward the top. I do not know what gave me the motivation to resume my ascent, but as each move brought me slightly closer to the top a quiet confidence came over me. It was not long before I reached the top of the cliff and took in a view that is still burned into my memory: the hot white light of the sun glistening off the surface of a pond; boundless hills of emerald green trees; the horizon dotted with wind turbines; birds flocking like clouds of dust in the distance. When I clipped my rope into the anchors at the top of the route, heard the reassuring metallic rebound of the gate closing on the carabiner, suddenly the fear and anxiety that I had soaked up poured from my body like a bucket getting tipped over. It was like taking a breath of fresh air after being stuck underwater. It was there, in that moment, that I knew I was hooked. I lowered off the route with a cheeky grin and the sudden idea that the rest of my life was about to change.

Over the course of the next year I climbed outdoors about 15 times, mostly in Maine and back in California. I continued to experience the exhilarating joy and paralysing fear that came with each climb. Every route was different. The more I climbed, the more I imagined I was learning to forecast the physical and emotional demands of a new route, but time and again the rock would reveal to me just how little I understood about the internal and external processes of climbing. I am deeply indebted to the partners I climbed with that first year for the patience they had when climbing with me. Some days I wanted to go fast, climb hard; other days I dragged my feet lethargically up the routes, manoeuvring through pockets of volcanic rock while simultaneously navigating a landscape of emotions equally intricate—a mixture of emotions I had felt at different times throughout my life but which seemed to come crashing together all at once whenever I put on a harness.

I find it interesting that my climbing career began during the pandemic, a time when people around the globe were also struggling with the intensity of their emotions and self-doubt seemed to be at an all-time high. Why was I climbing cliffs, putting myself in situations that fiercely exacerbated my anxiety at a time when I was already so anxious about my place in the world? I still do not know. But one thing is for sure: I am glad I did. Climbing was how I learned to breathe through my fear, to increase my focus at times of uncertainty, to communicate calmly under pressure—and learned the commensurate consequences of failing to do so. Usually when you’re freaking out about life, people will say, “Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world.” True, but if you freak out while climbing, it just might be the end of your world. I was lucky in that the only unintended consequences I experienced from climbing that first year were a few clearly avoidable scrapes, minor falls and emotionally-charged verbal exchanges. I owe my safety and success that first year to the risk management and leadership skills of the climbing partners who taught me.

The following summer, I moved back to Bermuda. Of course, my climbing shoes came with me. I knew there was something in the way of a climbing community in Bermuda because my friend Sophie used to be keen on it. During a snorkelling excursion along the cliffs at Admiralty House many years ago, Sophie encouraged me to climb out of the water and up through the inverted roof of the cliff, pointing out pockets of chalk which she said indicated a history of people climbing there (a route I would later learn was the go-to introduction to deep water solo climbing on Bermuda). I also remember going past St. David’s head on my way to the east end SCUBA dive sites and occasionally seeing small parties congregating in the Great Cave, staring magnanimously up at the goliath of black and white limestone. Beyond my hope of finding a climbing community in Bermuda, however, I was filled with the relentless desire to climb as much as I could, and I knew there were limitless exciting rock features to satisfy my hunger because I had already been obsessed with Bermuda’s rocks from a geological perspective for several years. It is difficult for me to describe how stoked I was to start climbing. Imagine growing up in a mountain town and being obsessed with snow. Imagine pouring through literature about snow, learning about its formation and effects, spending your days exploring its intricacies, learning its secrets. Then one day someone taps you on the shoulder and shows you for the first time what skiing is. That is how it felt to return to Bermuda with a knowledge not just of the specificities of our rock, but with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the process of climbing rocks in general. I was the kid in the proverbial candy store.

Once I began climbing in Bermuda, I formed a connection with our rocks that went beyond the textbooks, beyond the brochures, guidebooks and route descriptions. The intimacy of the experience was driven forward by the fact that most climbing in Bermuda is ‘solo’ meaning that you are ascending above water or sand without the protection a rope or belay partner might offer. You either successfully climb to the top of your objective, or you fall back down into the water or sand below (not a far fall—hopefully). I was enamoured with the experience of it. Just me and the Rock. I would arrive at a climbing area alone, bringing with me all sorts of emotional states and worries about the tiny little slice of consciousness I call my life. Climbing alone, I felt like I could move without embarrassment. I did not feel compelled to leave my emotions on the ground; I would carry that emotional baggage with me through the movements of the routes. Sometimes it would propel me through difficult sequences, other times impede my motion. One thing I especially enjoyed about climbing in Bermuda was that the rock too felt emotional; it would change texture and character depending on the season, day or even the hour. At high tides, waves lap up against the foot of the main climbing area, leaving the holds in the rock wet and cold. On windy winter days, the fresh air gives the rock a coarse, dry finish. After a midday rain shower, water seeps down through the cliffs leaving the holds icey slick. And on scorching summer afternoons, moisture from the humid air congeals on the rock surface, making it hot and slimy. In these and other ways, the cliffs are continuously changing in nature and appearance, shifting like the mental and physical states of the humans careening through their limestone pockets. I could perfectly dial in sequences of movement to get through challenging sections of rock only to find that a particular hold would be unusable for a day due to being covered in algae. Suddenly a rock I had climbed a dozen times, and had come to expect to appear before me in a certain way, would demand from me an entirely new mode of movement and expression. 

I have fallen ever deeper in love with rocks since I started climbing in Bermuda. One of the greatest blessings has been the opportunity to connect with new people in old environments; to take a seemingly mundane chunk of limestone that every Bermudian has seen a thousand times and turn it into an arena of physical and social discourse. In fact, the ease of access to climbing areas in Bermuda is one of the reasons I believe this activity has so much potential on our island. As with many (if not all) outdoor activities in the United States, rock climbing entails a fair amount of red tape. There are logistical constraints (e.g. number of parking spaces at a climbing area), physical constraints (the difficulty of established routes, with most climbing areas prioritising more challenging climbs), knowledge constraints (you have to actually know where the climbing areas are), cultural constraints (certain groups have less freedom to roam outdoor spaces than others) and financial constraints (“Thank you for visiting your public lands, that will be $30 payable at the kiosk”). I do not believe the socioenvironmental constraints around climbing in the US are unjust in their own right, but rather are the reflection of the nation’s broader societal values (the problematic nature of which warrants its own reflection). In fact, these constraints can in some instances contribute to a greater sense of wilderness and isolation that further augment the physical and emotional rush of climbing. But climbing in Bermuda takes place at the complete opposite end of the accessibility spectrum. For better or worse, Bermuda’s road network is so extensive that you can access almost any climbing area by a sub-five minute walk from wherever you park your scooter or car. And once you get to the climbing area, as most routes are directly over sand or water, you do not need any technical climbing equipment to get started except for a sturdy pair of shoes and a bag of chalk. Most climbing areas in the States and internationally require the purchase and understanding of a rope-based protection system and even a modest climbing setup is going to set you back around $300 when all is said and done. In Bermuda, on the other hand, it was so cool to have friends asking, “Hey, what do I need to bring for climbing today?” and to be able to respond, “Oh, just comfortable clothes to move around in!” (Figure 4). These days even my climbing shoes rarely leave my backpack as I have taken an even more ascetic approach to climbing—shorts on my legs and chalk on my hands, I am good to go.

Figure 4: (Left) Karim setting out on the traverse of an unnamed boulder. (Right) Miles celebrating his first send!

I do not want to make false promises about the ease of climbing in Bermuda. To be frank, the climbing itself is far from easy. From a non-climbers point of view, one would say the climbing in Bermuda is very difficult. Even judging from an experienced climber’s point of view, one would have to admit that most of the climbing in Bermuda begins at the intermediate difficulty level and any increases in difficulty convey you rapidly to advanced physical and technical climbing movements. But what I love about this arrangement is that the limitation is entirely internal. There is nothing in the outside world saying that you lack the appropriate gear, knowledge or cultural standing to begin a climbing career in Bermuda. On an island so clearly divided by race and socioeconomic status, with divisions that manifest chiefly by the types of spaces and activities available to different groups, it is a beautiful thing to have an activity where your participation and success depend solely upon your own mental and physical preparedness and dedication. The rocks in Bermuda are brutally honest. If you want to climb them, it does not matter how much money you have, what your last name is, when and how you came to Bermuda, what you do for work, what colour your skin is. All the rocks care about is if you are willing to put in the time to learn them in their many permutations. (This has been my experience and I remain entirely open to considering new points of view and finding ways to destroy whatever external barriers may exist in order to get more hands on rocks).

In addition to relating my love of rocks and climbing in Bermuda, I need also to submit a cautionary note. Bermuda limestone is principally a limited resource. Although it is regenerable through extensive periods of dune formation, this process takes thousands of years. On our human timescale (~100 years), our limestone resources are unequivocally unreplenishable. Yet most natural processes (e.g. erosion) and human activities (e.g. extraction) only contribute to the removal of limestone, not to its conservation and enhancement. As climbers, we are humbled regularly by the remarkable beauty and utility of Bermuda limestone as a natural resource. And yet, there is this feeling that to care so deeply about our rocks is to depart from the cultural norm. In spite of many cultural icons being lost to erosion—the destruction of Natural Arches during Hurricane Fabian; the complete erosion of the hillside that used to separate Baby Beach from Horseshoe Bay; the steady disintegration of North Rock—rocks are wholly absent from discourse surrounding environmental change, save for a token mention when sea level rise is on the table, though even then the conversation is about how close the water might get to our houses rather than how rising seas are already causing erosion of waterfront limestone. I am compelled to mention this because I grew up in a Bermuda where I was always told that the ‘natural ecosystem’ had already been lost. I grew up envious of early settlers, oh what it would have been like to see an old growth cedar forest or to see reefs replete with tuna and grouper. But as I have weaved together my own perceptions of our island’s ecology, I have come to understand that many of our limestone crags are intact remnants of that ancient, pre-human system. Monoliths of rock, carved by wind, waves and time, encrusted with all sorts of native plants and animals. What I want to make clear here is the double offence of disregarding rocks from the popular discourse on Bermuda’s environment. Not only are our limestone cliffs left out of the conversation, but they are one of the only ecosystems of the modern era where Bermudians can actually interact with the species and processes that we are ostensibly hoping to restore. Geology is not excluded from public discourse through any malintent, so far as I know anyway. But without a deliberate strategy to bring geology into greater public awareness, it is difficult to imagine protecting our rocks, in spite of the evident and critical role they play in life on our island.

Geology has afforded me a unique view into life in Bermuda. 60,000 people crammed onto a water-soluble rock in the middle of the North Atlantic is not a paragon of sustainability. And yet life found a way to persist in Bermuda for hundreds of millenia prior to human settlement and may likely continue to do so long after humans have fled its shores. In the meantime, however, we are faced with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to find a way to live better, to show greater appreciation for the natural wonders of our island and to curtail our activities to better promote their health. The opportunity is that rocks themselves furnish an excellent space for Bermudians to congregate and have the experiences that inspire conservation ethics to begin with. With remarkably easy access, our limestone crags have the potential to become congregational areas where people from all ways of life on our island can learn from each other and learn from the rock itself. While the climbing is hard, there are ample opportunities to train and get better and an ever-growing pool of local and expat climbers with whom new climbers can connect and learn. Although our island is marked by social division, I truly believe our cliffs can be a safe harbour where all Bermudians can be equal. There is a lot of rock in Bermuda and much of it is unclimbed. Whatever the future may hold, I look forward to seeing more hands on rocks.

Beautiful Rocks And People!

This is my friend Grant. He came to Bermuda from the UK and has established most of the island's documented routes. Grant really pushed me outside of my comfort zone with challenging, exposed routes and I am grateful to him for that. Check out his website for more info on climbing in Bermuda! 

This is my friend Eli. A native of Colorado, Eli came to Bermuda to teach music and was my climbing partner for the 2021/2022 winter season. We can only climb on ropes during the winter months because during the summer the routes get humid and slippery and climbs that start at 5.11 and 5.12 quickly jump up a grade when friction is lost. Here Eli is working through the traverse out of the Great Cave in St. David's. It is a short section of 5.7 climbing on good rock but there is no protection and a fall would be an epically bad time.

This is my friend, Dara. She taught me the basics of rope management and how to rig an anchor system. She was also one of the people who encouraged me to send my first lead climb. I am grateful to her for that. She had the chance to visit me in Bermuda where we sampled a bit of all the different varieties of climbing on offer: sport climbing, beach bouldering and deep water solo.

This is my friend Mollye. She taught me how to lead multi-pitch climbing (climbing through multiple belay stations to reach areas and elevations further than the length of your rope). We tried our skills together at Pinnacles National Park in California, a difficult place to learn climbing due to the wandering routes and fragile nature of the rock. Mollye is a great teacher and I am glad she taught me to climb here because it gave me the confidence I needed to start doing multi-pitch climbs in Bermuda and emboldened me to teach other people how to climb.

Me and my friend, Dom, approaching the Great Cave in Bermuda.

Dom taking a rip on "Crackhouse."

Eli belaying me through the opening sequence of "Crackhouse."

Dom putting up a hangboard at the office.

Chris thinking about his dry pants.

Where's Waldo?! Climbing with Grant helped me build confidence in climbing with greater exposure.

Working my way up through the cliff at Stag's Bay. Grant says there is no record of climbing here and that the moves I made were likely the first time this rock was "touched by human hands."