No Country For Old Men

Thursday: And so this years climbing holiday begins. Sol & I are heading down to the Gorge de la Jonte to meet up with Adrian Berry, and a few new faces. It’s all a bit exciting, as we’ve never climbed in France before, and the area seems to be quite adventurous in places, with tales of monster run-outs, antiquated gear, and soaring crack lines that are completely unbolted. To prepare for this I bought a new cam. With hindsight, this preparation may not have been the most thorough. Still… what’s the worst that can happen?

The first stop of the day was Cambridge station to pick up Alex (Alpinist, explorer, bon-viveur and astonishingly accomplished photographer) and Awesome Tim (bouncier than Tigger on dexedrine). The drive down through France was almost enjoyable, with high spirits and anticipation filling the car. Eventually we rolled into the campsite at about midnight, threw the tent up, and slept.

Friday: The scene that greeted me as I opened the tent was astonishing. Rock walls pretty much encircled the campsite, stretching off as far as the eye could see. The Jonte river flowed past the campsite, with crystal clear water cold enough to take your breath away. Vultures swooped lazily overhead, trying to find early morning thermals as the sun got going on the landscape. If there is a more beautiful place on earth, I’ve yet to see it. Sol & I headed into the village to get coffee, croissant, baguette and a topo so we could decide what to go at first. The local tabac came up trumps with a topo, and I have to say, it’s a first rate bit of work, and well worth twenty euros of anyones money. Back at the campsite, all four of us agreed that a nice warm-up would be the ‘les patates’ face in the secteur révérend, with lots of 12-20m single pitch climbs. So, we walked up, chalked up, and got to it. First up was ‘quatre est mon chiffre’, at an easy 4c… Heh. I thrashed my way up it, got to the top, and wondered how I could be so unfit as to make a 4c into a struggle. Sol then had a crack, followed by Alex. Both of whom pronounced it undergraded, so I felt a bit better about things. Next up was ‘la vipère endormie’. Graded 5c, I wondered what lay in store – I needn’t have. It was a great climb, and not really more difficult than the 4c next to it. Excellent! Alex then led up the neighbouring route, ‘la grosse et le vampire’ at 6a+. He struggled, which is really saying something for such an accomplished climber. Eventually he got the chain, and lowered off. “That one should be in the guidebook as six quickdraws and brown trousers. It’s at least 6c, probably 6c+, and run out at the hard bits”.

At this point I started wondering about French grades.

Next up was ‘calumette’, a full 20m graded 5c/6a. I fell off. Lots. Partly because I didn’t really trust the booming flake that made up the bottom 5 metres of the pitch, but mainly because it was hard. Alex managed to lead it after a few thoughtful moments, and pronounced it sustained 6a climbing, and worthy of three stars in any guide book. So I had another go, and started to understand what a three star route is all about. The climbing flowed from one move to the next, the moves were all fluid and dynamic, the bolts were in the right places, and the crux was a beautifully balanced step left when all the handholds went right. Lovely. Last up for the day for me was ‘chalaindrôme’. This was graded 6b, and looked nails. Alex eventually led it, and I top-roped the bottom half before peeling off, my fingers pretty much done for the day. The rest of the day was spent walking through the crags, before having a cold beer and chips in the local brasserie. How much better can life get?

Saturday: The project for the day was the fearsome looking ‘aquò es quicon’ – 150m of thuggy looking climbing in the secteur fusée. Graded 5c, 6a, 5c, 5c, 5c I had teamed up with Alex for this, and Sol with Tim. The plan was for Alex to lead the first two pitches, and for me to take the lead when I felt confident on the 5c pitches in the upper sections. Once I’d left the first belay, Sol would then lead that pitch with Tim seconding, and Tim taking the lead for the 6a pitch. Got that? Good. What could possibly go wrong?

The first pitch was lovely. Quite thuggy in places, with big cracks to get my hands in, and plenty of positive footholds just when you needed then. The belay stance was quite accommodating as well, with enough room for three, as we found out when Adrian zipped down a fixed line to join us. I mentioned that I might struggle with the 6a pitch, and he handed me a Jumar and foot loop before vanishing again. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to learn to use it in the next few hours, as I’d never seen one before. But, I needn’t have worried. The 6a pitch was fantastic. It was a bit off-widthy in places, but never enough to be uncomfortable or painful. The vultures swooped lazily around, below me now. The third 5c pitch was then started, with Alex again leading. About 20 metres up the shout came back: “****ing hell! This is desperate. Give me lots of slack and get ready to catch me”. Gulp. After about 30 minutes, he’d battled his way through, and it was my turn. Soon, I reached the crux. A shallowing, narrowing chimney with glass-smooth sides, How the **** was this ever 5c? I struggled, thrutched, squirmed, and swore in at least four languages. Eventually the inevitable happened. I fell out of the chimney, took a big swing with about 100 metres of air beneath my feet, and was left dangling in space. “No problem” shouted Alex. “Use the Jumar”… I tried. I really did. But to cut a long story short, I ended up being lowered back to the second belay, and waiting there for Alex to abseil down. I felt terrible. I’d loused up his climb with my inability and lack of knowledge. What a pillock. Still, it looked like things would be plain sailing from here on in, with a two pitch abseil to get us off. Sol and Tim had already bailed after failing to negotiate the 6a pitch, so that left the way below us clear. The last thing we needed now was for something to go wrong that would turn an otherwise eventful but safe day into a complete epic. I pondered this, and how lucky I was to be climbing with someone as experienced as Alex, when he joined me on the belay, clipped in with a big smile, and said “Don’t worry. That was easily a 6c move, and we’ll soon be down”.

“Fuck. The rope’s jammed at the top” said Alex. We both put all our weight on it, but to no avail. And without a single word of complaint, Alex threw a couple of prussics and a shunt on the ropes, and ascended 35 metres to the top. Given that I’d completely exhausted myself trying to ascend three metres earlier, I was completely overwhelmed by this. With no fuss, drama or histrionics Alex retrieved the rope, and a couple of abs later we were on the ground. About an hour later we were in the bar, where cold beers were drunk, and blessings were counted. It’s safe to say that I was humbled. I had gone out for a laugh, and ended up risking the life of my partner because of my incompetence.

My hatred of French grading was reaching it’s zenith.

Counting my blessings at the end of the day
Counting my blessings at the end of the day

Sunday: A new day, a new project. Sol & I decided to have a crack at ‘zébulon’, a 4c, 4c, 4c, 5a climb in the l’arete area of the secteur ravin des échos. And, it was a great choice. The climbing was good, the sun was shining, and although we had to wait around at the bottom for a bit for the crowds to clear, it didn’t matter. All too soon we stood at the top. Probably not a three star climb in the grand scheme of things, but as a beginners multipitch, it cannot be beaten. 90% of it is on big positive holds, allowing you to enjoy the exposure without struggling with the climbing itself. The bolts are spaced just enough (about 8 or nine metres at the biggest run-out I’d guestimate) to keep your concentration up as well, while the tricky bits have bolts directly before, and after. I was glad that I’d had the mini-epic yesterday, as it really spurred me on to get this one done. Again, Sol & I had a cold beer at the end of the day to celebrate our first multi-pitch. Something we’d both been very much looking forward to for a long time. I shall remember the moment that we had standing on top for a long long time. It’s the stuff that great friendships are bonded by.

Sol, sitting at the top of Zébulon
Sol, sitting at the top of Zébulon

Monday: Todays project was ‘le bitard’, a 105 metre route graded 5b, 5b, 5c, 5a which is a classic, and gives it’s name to the entire sector. The plan was for Sol to lead pitches one and three, and we’d swing leads for me to take pitches two and four. Only it didn’t happen. Sol had been wiped out with a digestive problem, and after three bolts on the first pitch, slumped onto the rope, exhausted. To be fair, I thought even getting that far was a bloody good effort, as he looked completely drained before even starting. It wasn’t a hard decision to call it a day. We just packed up, and spent the day enjoying the scenery and ambience of the place. We drove back up to the sector late in the afternoon to see if we could meet up with Tim and Alex, who were going to attempt the two-pitch extension of ‘à moi la légion’, 5c, 6a which went from the top of ‘le bitard’ to the top of the cliff. And, sure enough, just as we got to the start of the walk-in, they appeared out of the bushes, and told tales of terrifying exposure and hard climbing at the top. Before leaving for the day, we popped down to ‘la vénus de millau’ for a spot of light-hearted top-roping and bouldering to finish off the trip, in the company of Monsieur et Madame Le Shouty, and all the Petit Shouties, the noisiest family in France. How we laughed when they managed to get their rope stuck around the top of a tree, all accompanied by even more shouting. Truly, they were the noisiest family you could imagine. Their normal conversation was something like a stand-up argument between Brian Blessed and Ian Paisley.

The four of us spent the final evening back in the brasserie with Adrian, eating chips and enjoying life. I’m very glad to have met Tim and Alex, and I’m sure we’ll climb again and more importantly, remain good friends. Tim’s enthusiasm for life is truly addictive. Alex’s passion for exploration and appreciation of what he finds is inspirational. Thanks guys. And of course, Sol – the journey to the top of zébulon started way back before we even thought about climbing. I can’t wait to see what other peaks we can scale.