Guided Adventure in the Verdon Gorge

Thanks Steffen and well done!

Posted on 2012-10-05 - filed under verdon

Photo: Following the 7a+ on L\'Eperon Sublime
Following the 7a+ on L\'Eperon Sublime

Balmy days, chill nights, and a little rain. Perfect conditions for long days on L’Escales in sun or shade and for the formation of those magnificent cloud inversions typical of the time of year. It was exactly this for a fantastic 5 days with Steffen from Liepzig in Germany, clocking up an impressive total of 38 pitches and 1200m of climbing. Afin que nul ne Meure (6a+), L’Eperon Sublime(6b), ULA (6b), A Tout Coeur (6b+), and La Demande(6a) - a monster  week by most people’s standards.

Especially memorable for me was re- climbing ULA, recently re-born as a trad route for the 1st time since the 1980s. Over the years more and more bolts had gradually appeared on this magnificent crack line, detracting and obscuring in my opinion its detail and the beauty of the climbing. Then last year an anonymous person removed these (with the exception of the belay anchors) and we now have a superb and sustained 250m trad route.  A double set of camalots from 0.75 to 4, (a size 5 could be useful though not essential), a set of nuts, and slings will protect it sufficiently.  I was particularly struck with how much more creative the climbing felt. Being now obliged to look for natural protection placements my eye was drawn to the detail of the crack system, the work of nature, and the surrounding rock architecture instead of running quickly between quickdraws clipped into bolts.

Wanting to demonstrate and evaluate with Steffen  the different protection possibilities offered by the rock, I took a wide range of different camming devices, -  old style hexentrics, nuts, camalots, rigid and technical ‘Friends’, and state of the art ‘Aliens’.  In the ‘organic’, smooth and irregular cracks and holes found in limestone much more care was necessary to place gear in such a way that it didn’t ‘walk’ or move due to rope movement.  The rigid forged ‘Friends’ came out badly as even the slightest tension due to rope movement could cause them to shift in their placements  and it was clear that the flexible stems and tape of the camalots, Aliens, and hexes gave more confidence inspiring and stable placements.  Although not always necessary, I laced up each pitch with as much gear as possible. Cams, hexes, nuts, threads in pockets, and slings on trees, some good and some bad, demonstrating the richness of available natural protection. This of course probably made following and cleaning more hard work for Steffen who nevertheless superbly climbed the whole route without any falls whilst also critiquing my gear placements.

After our crack fest on ULA,  a more ‘Verdonesque’ face climbing day was in order before more cracks on ‘La Demande’ so I figured ‘A Tout Coeur’, a 180m high wall of perfectly sculpted limestone would be the perfect canvas on which to practice my oft repeated mantra of ‘let the feet lead’.  This wall is a ’Swiss Cheese’ of countless irregular slopey pockets and holes, and any attempt to lead with the arms and ‘grab that next jug’ is totally unforgiving and quickly results in flamed out forearms.  In anticipation of this I had been coaching Steffen in the art of ‘rear wheel drive’ – predicting sequences of footholds ahead of handholds and allowing balance and fingers to adapt to available rock features. Steffen’s friend and regular climbing partner Martin also joined us for this sustained face climb with pitches of 6a+, 6b, and 6b+.  Both climbed superbly, and Steffen put up an awesome combat to flash the crux, all the time repeating ‘let the feet lead!’

‘La Demande’ was of course a great finish to an intense  5 days of Verdon classics, and Steffen lapped up what he called his favourite style of 3 dimensional crack and chimney climbing with one particular 5c crack reminding him of an Elbsandstein grade 3 offwidth!!  Although technically easier than what we had done on previous days it is a fair bit longer especially as the approach now involves abseiling the full height of the Gorge, the quicker access via the ’ Martel’ trail being currently closed for renovation work.

Taking the summit photo opposite the huge cairns I was aware that although having climbed this great route countless times over the years it is always memorable  to repeat it and even more so with a partner 100% absorbed in the climbing and by that special Verdon  presence.

Going Solo!

Posted on 2012-09-23 - filed under verdon

Photo: L'Ange en Decomposition 7a
L'Ange en Decomposition 7a

Been gradually getting my systems dialled and head in gear for going lead roped solo in the Gorge. Its hard work, leading and cleaning every pitch, but very fulfilling in a creative sort of way and gives an extra adventurous dimension that is not really satisfied by pure sport climbing. Today I was on the spectacular 3 pitch 7a 'L'Ange en Decomposition' - not a soul in sight anywhere, save for the Vultures circling below on the thermals.

I also made a short video showing the wonderful panorama I had from the hanging belay on pitch 2. You can see it here...


Eldorado Video Panorama

Posted on 2012-09-10 - filed under news

Swiss Granite video panorama.

Grimsel Granite - Trip Report - L-o-n-g !

Posted on 2012-09-09 - filed under news

Photo: The fantastic granite of 'Metal Hurlant'
The fantastic granite of 'Metal Hurlant'

So after coming frustratingly close and taking several 15m falls on the famously runout  8a+ ‘Femme Blanche’  I could sense that impatience and recklessness was kicking in. I got back on for ‘one last shot’ but I was ‘flogging a dead horse’. I fell again, but this time becoming clumsy as I ran low on precision and power, the fall was badly executed. I only touched the rope with my foot and it was enough to flip me upside down and headfirst.  Thankfully Jack’s alertness and expertise with the dynamic belay was enough to prevent injury any more serious than a sprained wrist and painful rope burn. It was time to walk away from this route for a while and the overheated atmosphere of Ceuze in August. 

In many ways August is the least beautiful time of year in Provence. The heat is exhausting , and once the lavender has been cut in July, all is dry and burnt.

It’s at this time that my mind always drifts off to a cool paradise in central Switzerland. At 2500m, set in green meadows and surrounded by waterfalls and the superb alpine granite of the Furkahorn and Bielenhorn its one of my favourite wild camping spots in the whole world.  Unfortunately a lot of rain keeps those meadows green and those waterfalls flowing, and every summer I follow the weather forecast waiting for that elusive 2 week slot of perfect weather. It rarely happens but even a 5 day window of high pressure is gift enough to get me packing for the 8 hour drive to Eldorado, and the Furka and Bielenhorn.

My relationship with this wonderland goes back almost as far as with the Verdon.  In 1982, hitching to the Grimsel pass and climbing at the nearby Handegg   with the talented German climber Milan Sykora, there were already rumours, but no information, of a secret spot higher up the valley.  A 600m high dome of smooth and compact granite, that Swiss brothers Claude and Yves Remy had been furiously developing since the year before.  Already there existed ‘Motorhead’ (14 pitches 6b), and ‘Septumania’ (16 pitches 6a+) two now legendary masterpieces, and that same summer they were creating 2 more; ‘Metal Hurlant’ (16 pitches 6b) and ‘Venon’ (12 pitches 7b).

4 years later I returned to the region with my partner Kate to discover that the reality was better than the rumour.

Approaching along the Grimselsee on a path that resembled a botanical garden gradually revealed after 1 1/2 hours the aptly baptised ‘Eldorado’; a dome of glacier polished granite stretching out of view and framed by glaciers and 4000m peaks;  I was in awe. Bivouaking underneath a boulder for several days we climbed ‘Septumania’, and ‘Motorhead’ at that time equipped very sparsely with hand drilled 8mm bolts.  The granite was incredible, a joy to climb on. Polished smooth but with subtle texture and patina edges demanding great concentration, balance, sensitivity and route finding between the spaced out and difficult to see bolts.

Like the first visit to Verdon this experience became my yardstick for perfect granite climbing which wasn’t to be equalled until I first went to Yosemite and the high Sierra of California in the late 90s.

Over the years we have climbed most of the routes on Eldorado including ‘Septumania’ and ‘Motorhead’ several times and on many of the other superb granite cliffs of the region, ( the ‘Furkahorn’, the ‘Bielenhorns’, ‘Graue Wand’ and ‘Handegg’), but this visit I wanted to repeat ‘Metal Hurlant’, a classic I hadn’t done since 1987, and also experience a roped  solo  ascent in this ocean of granite slabs.

Kate needed a few days to chill out and adjust to the altitude so with superb weather predicted for the week, now was the occasion to solo one of the easier and better protected routes on the dome. ‘Gletscherwiess’ (16 pitches) mostly 5c and 6a with a couple of harder pitches of 6b and 6c has recently been re equipped by the Remys as part of a 30 year anniversary renovation of the cliff, and some climbs such as ‘Gletscherwiess’ and ‘Schwiez Plaisir’ have been rebolted in the spirit of ‘Plaisir’ climbing, reducing the runouts and obligatory sections while retaining the original subtlety of line and quality of climbing. 

Arriving just ahead of Italian team Paolo and Mariana I set off on the first pitch, 40m of perfect friction slab, self -belaying with a clove hitch. My first friction climbing for some time I was a little hesitant until my eyes tuned into the subtle smears and irregularities in the granite and  I started to ‘walk the walk’! The clove hitch method worked surprisingly well and I was able to stand in balance on the slab, anticipate the next section, feed myself a sufficient length of slack with one hand, climb to the next resting position or bolt, feed more slack, climb on…

Paolo and Mariana climbed until pitch 6 collecting my quick-draws for me meaning I didn’t have to re-climb and clean those pitches. However, they bailed after 5 pitches, the insecure friction climbing being a little too tiring on their nerves, and I was then alone. Leading, fixing at the anchor, descending and re-climbing self-belayed with a mini traxion to clean the draws.  This was fantastically liberating, up here in the middle of this huge granite face. I didn’t feel alone or scared, only unrushed, calm, focused and privileged to be taking in the amazing backdrop of the Lauteraarhorn, Lauteraargletscher, and the other parties over on Septumania and Motorhead.

At pitch 9 a very technical but well protected 6c, I misread a move and involuntarily tested my belay system taking a short fall onto the clove hitch which locked immediately. This also served to increase my confidence and focus on the climbing. At pitch 14 the sun began to set over the Lauteraarhorn so I opted for the long abseil descent rather than summitting and descending in the dark. Rapping in wonderful golden light, I arrived back at the base by headlamp. Walking out I reflected on an incredible day feeling I had travelled a rare learning curve in becoming ever more self- reliant and feeling I could take this much further with a self- feeding  belay system such as a ‘Silent Partner’ or ‘Soloist’. 

Along with ‘Motorhead’, ‘Metal Hurlant’ must be one of the best granite routes anywhere, easily up there with the best of Yosemite or Tuolumne.  An elegant line of crack and corner systems linked by improbable and run out friction slabs. Indeed it always seemed that the hardest move was just before it was possible to clip the bolt! Incredible that these had been hand drilled on lead.

One of the most memorable pitches was the 8th, a perfect ‘Yosemitic’ dihedral, protected with cams and the odd bolt.  Reminiscent of a low angle version of ‘Astro Man’s enduro corner it is one of the most prominent features on the dome drawing you towards it from the moment you start padding up the first intricate pitches.  At this point the route looped round to the right in 2 committing 6b pitches on the purest granite, bypassing a 50m magnificent and blank unclimbed dihedral. Inspecting this more closely on the abseil descent confirmed quality and a difficulty of at least 7c. Definitely worth coming back for armed with RPs, hybrid Aliens, and a few bolts!

Atop of pitch 11 we stopped for lunch and the view at the ‘Long Ledge’ of Eldorado. A glacier polished smooth bivvy shelf so comfortable that after 40 minutes we were in danger of dozing off and had to shake ourselves into action to complete the final 5 easy pitches. Above here the rock quality deteriorated slightly but ‘hell’ this was still Eldorado and we were still climbing on stone equal to the best of Ailfroide!

Wanting to savour  the texture and spectacular sweep of this amazing granite for as long as possible, we opted for the long abseil descent as opposed to the much quicker walk off down the east side of the dome.  The prospect of walking out in the dark wasn’t inviting either so sun burnt, dehydrated and desperate for infusions of tea we hobbled back to the sleeping bags and one final night in the boulder bivvy before heading back to the end of a very hot Provence summer.

I'll be putting up a short video panorama showing this alpine wonderland in my next post.