Guided Adventure in the Verdon Gorge

Climbing in the Verdon

Posted on 2012-05-20 - filed under verdon

Whenever a vacation takes me near mountains or canyons, I try to sneak away for a day of rock climbing.  So when I was planning the itinerary for our recent trip to France, the Verdon Gorge immediately came to mind.  The Verdon is one of the largest canyons in the world (what we call a canyon is called a gorge in Europe) and is considered Europe’s most beautiful canyon.  It was formed by the Verdon River, which is named after its turquoise-green colour.

Luckily, I was able to find a British guide named Alan Carne that lives in the area and specializes in the Verdon Gorge.  The Verdon is known for its huge white limestone walls.  I don’t do a lot of climbing on limestone and I had heard that the ratings there are stiff so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Alan suggested that we start with a classic route called L’Epéron Sublime (7 pitches, 510c A1 or 5.12).

When climbing in a canyon, you have to either hike or rappell to the bottom first.  In this case, Alan lowered me using a 200 meter static line.  Because the wall was so steep, I ended up hanging in space a good bit.  Our route started from a ledge that Alan called “the garden” about 150 meters above the river.

Once we started climbing, I realized that the climbing was going to take some getting used to.  The limestone on this route tends to be quite slick and the feet felt insecure.  However, there were usually nice pockets and cracks for the hands.   Limestone usually means face climbing, but L’Epéron Sublime is somewhat unique because it follows a crack and corner system and requires the use of crack technique.

I’ve climbed in a bunch of places, but the climbing in the Verdon is unlike anything I’ve done.  The walls are steep (rarely less than 90 degrees and sometimes overhanging) and the climbing is very sustained.   A typical 5.10 pitch involves long sequences of moves at that grade, making the climbing physically demanding with a serious, exposed feel.  It’s as if the wall is trying to push you off.  For this reason, I didn’t ask Alan to let me lead any of the pitches (those of you that have climbed with me know that’s unusual).

All that being said, I loved it.  The moves were very aesthetic (that one’s for you, Arne) and good technique is rewarded.  And as you can tell from the videos, the views are amazing!  One of the highlights was watching Alan free a short 5.12 section on pitch 6.

Despite a late morning start, we moved pretty quickly on L’Epéron Sublime and finished with plenty of daylight.  So we decided to tackle another route, Afin que nul ne Meure (rough translation:  â€So nobody dies”) (5 pitches, 5.9).  Compared to L’Epéron Sublime, this bolted route felt really easy.  Alan and I traded leads and finished the route in about an hour!

After 12 pitches of climbing, I felt surprisingly fresh.  Alan, who is super-motivated despite 30+ years of climbing experience, asked if I wanted to do another route but I was hesitant to push my luck.  After all, when you’re climbing in canyons there’s only one way out!

Overall, the Verdon Gorge is one of the best climbing destinations I’ve visited.  The approaches are super short, the climbing is stellar, and the weather is mild.  And Alan was a fantastic guide — motivated, strong, and knowledgable.  I’d love to go back and spend a week some time.

Originally posted on - Kevin Dahlstrom's blog.

Pichenibule – New Wave Verdon 70s style!

Posted on 2012-05-20 - filed under verdon

 In the 40 year old climbing history of the Verdon, this immortal classic stands at an historical and ethical crossroads in French and argueably world free climbing:  the birth of « Rap bolting »!
By 1976 many of the great crack systems and big aid routes of L'Escales had been climbed (ground up of course!), and one might have thought the golden age of the Verdon had come to an end.  Between these crack systems however were huge pillars and shields of the most perfect grey limestone yet discovered.

Though to all appearances smooth and featureless, when  viewed after rain and from afar the shadows of the finely sculpted Gouttes d'eau (vertical water pockets) were apparent. It was audacious to think of venturing out onto these walls  in the 'ground up' zietgiest of the early to mid 70s but Stephane Troussier and Jacques « Pschitt » Perrier did just that, traversing out of Luna Bong to  establish the wildly exposed arete Necronomicon. Original, and controversial at the time « Pschitt » followed this up a year later with a true masterpiece that ushered in a new approach to the development of climbing in the Canyon. Reasoning, « Why climb new routes from the bottom with bolts, when it seems more logical to start from the top and find the best line? », then exploring and equipping using fixed ropes along the grey shield  that separates Les Dalles Grises from the  3rd belvedere viewpoint,  Pschitt located the intricate traversing line  that would become Pichenibule, and then later  Ctuluh and Gwendal.  

Whether you consider him innovative and modern or a dangerous subversive, the result was a timeless classic. Even today there is a seed of doubt as one leaves the comfort of the Jardin des Ecureuils traversing out above the void of red overhangs to arrive at the point of no return  below the desperate Bombé de Pichenibule. This penultimate pitch was freed by the late great Patrick Berhault in 1980 and remains a  total « sandbag » 7b++! Fortunately it is equipped as an easy A0 giving access to the magnificent final 6a pitch.

4 double rope rappels lead down Les Dalles Grises to the Jardin des Ecureuils. From here descend with care to arrive at fixed ropes leading to 3 further rappels and the base of the Canyon.  Traverse left for about 200m (facing the wall) around a rock spur. Ascend slightly to attain a small ledge. The climb starts on a pillar on the far right of this.


Pitch 1 :  5c. Rock a little 'crusty' Belay in small cave on the right.

Pitch 2:   6a. Traverse right horizontally right to a small pillar and up to belay.

Pitch 3:   6a. Follow the 'old school' corner crack. Physical.

Pitch 4:   5c. Similar to the previous pitch arriving at the Jardin des Ecureuils.

Pitch 5:   5c. From the left edge of the Jardin continue as for "Afin..." traversing left past this route's belay to an isolated anchor.

Pitch 6:   5c. A superb pitch traversing horizontally along huge Gouttes d'eau to finish up a corner(slightly runout). Belay on ledge above tree.

Pitch 7:   6a+. Superb climbing on pockets. Follow diagonal line of bolts leftwards. (avoid gold coloured bolts on Agorgeamocles).

Pitch 8:  6b. A technical leftwards traverse then up a corner crack to a belay in  common with "Les Rideaux de Gwendal". 

Pitch 9: 6c+. 'The Business'! A long, sustained which traverses left(fingery) then follows diagonal cracks to a hard finish.

Pitch 10: 6b. Traverse left to a spectacular hanging stance at the base of the famous 'Bombe de Pichenibule'.

Pitch 11: 7b+ or A0. Easily aided to a 2 bolt anchor.

Pitch 12: 6a. Superb and runout pitch to the top.


Gear: Double 50m ropes, quickdraws, small set of nuts and cams, a few slings.

Black Pot – Prise de Cent – Tentative d 'Evasion link up

Posted on 2012-04-20 - filed under verdon

I had one of those fantastic 'not just another day on the crag' days yesterday with my buddy Simon Aldinger.  This 8 pitch link up defies my literary skills but for those operating around 7c it is a world class wake up call to the dangers of complacency at having the incredible L'Escales in your back yard.

I knew this link up probably hadn't been done before but even so I was stunned and mildly intimidated at the virgin beauty of the first pitch. 7c+ and a kind of super direct  to the first pitch of Mangoustine Scatophage this 45m bulging grey wall was equipped in 1988, the newness of the stone and spider web in the occasional deeper pocket indicates it has probably had only a handful of ascents. What a privilege. If this was at Ceuse it would be one of those pitches on the circuit, like 'Femme Noir', or 'Berlin' with its tell tale tick marks, polish and decoration of hanging quickdraws! Here only the bolts, happily not too Verdonesque, are a sign of passage. Beyond this the climb takes in 2 pitches (6b, 7a) of  'Prise de Cent' on scarily rough and sharp orange rock before breaking through a huge roof (8b+ or A1 for us mortals) into 'Tentative d'Evasion', 50m of wild overhanging tufa crack (7c, 7b) in  mind blowing position with the Verdon Gorge spread out below our hanging belay.

Onsighting this first pitch was certainly optimistic as a warm up but it felt good to get it with a couple of hangs having put in good fight. Its very sustained, no extreme moves but with multiple blind alleys, bad feet and sucker pockets through the bulging crux section. A rest day will see us back knowing the trick is to move fast through here then carefully manage the rests in the slightly easier (7b) finish to the anchor.

Psyched to get back to it tomorrow!

Rappel 'Dalles Grises' to the Jardin des Ecureuils,  traverse 40m right then descend slightly around trees to arrive in a flat area below an imposing grey wall. The offwidth crack of 'Barjots' is on the right.
Pitch 1: 7c+ (7b obligatory). Ultimate Verdon pockets – Mega!
Pitch 2: 6c+ Runout! Belay as for Mangoustine.
Pitch 3 6a Start as for Mangoustine but up to belay instead of moving leftwards.
Pitch 4: 6b Traverse right on amazing sharp orange rock, up past a scoop to hanging belay.
Pitch 5: 7a Traverse horizontally left on same rock to sharp crux and Juniper tree belay.
Pitch 6: 8b+ But who knows? Climb through massive roof to wildly exposed belay. (clip stick was useful for us)
Pitch 7: 7c Awesome overhanging crack and tufa action. (This can be linked in with pitch 6)
Pitch 8: 7b More of the same to top (50m).
Gear: 15 Quickdraws
Quality: *****
I sent it!! 25/04/2012

La Demande

Posted on 2012-04-11 - filed under verdon

We have an expression here in Provence which is "Noel au Balcon Paques au Tisons" "Christmas in the Sun Easter by the Woodfire"  Its turning out like that this year. Winter was just  too perfect to last much longer!

I just got back from a short and rather washout visit to Margalef in Spain, trying to get some climbing in between long bouts of rain.

Driving back I was praying I would be granted some respite for Wednesday when I would be climbing La Demande with London climber Matthew Alexander. Matthew is on a 3 month climbing roadtrip and one of his objectives is to do one of the great classics of the Verdon. His schedule is tight and we really only have the one day to bag it so when it rained all day Tuesday the outcome was less than certain for the following day. Wednesday dawned damp and cold but dry and with a forcast of  strong west wind to blow the cloud away looks like we might get our chance. Arriving at the base the route is actually dry, but will those upper chimmneys  be? 

Matthew is very efficient and we move quickly in order to keep warm and not get caught in any late afternoon showers. Arriving at pitch 10, the first chimmney its as I feared, streaming wet! These upper pitches never feel as easy as their 6a grade would suggest and it looks like I'm going to have to be creative and climb to the exterior of the chimmney bridging wide and trusting my feet on the drier but polished side walls and  avoiding the wet stream running down the right hand side, feels a little scary and insecure. Its the same on the following chimmney but all passes without mishap and we're home and dry so to speak, and on the summit 6hours after starting, just as an afternoon shower comes on – perfect timing. 

Thanks for a great day Mathew!