Friday, 31 December 2010

It's climbing time.

When we first arrived here in the Oisans valley, we were a bit concerned about the ice - or rather, the water. But the temperature obligingly dropped on Christmas Day, meaning we had some fantastic days out climbing.

On Boxing Day, we headed up to Vallon de la Selle (or, Vallon du Diable - depending on who you ask!) for very cold temperatures, clear blue skies and - after a stunning but long walk in - a short and mildly disappointing pitch of ice. This was merely a reconnaissance mission though!
Looking back down the valley ...

... and up the other way.

We were also joined by a mate from Amsterdam, Dan, who was keen to get out there on ice for the first time. So we headed with him back to La Grave, for more of the falls up the north side of the valley ...
Jen starting off on Croupe de la Poufiasse, in La Grave
... and then up to falls near the small villages of Notre-Dame and Reymond, too. The drives to these places were adventures in themselves, consisting of steep, narrow roads that cling to the sides of the mountain and sometimes tunnel through, with large chandeliers of ice dangling above (and sometimes smashed onto the tarmac).
Villard Notre-Dame

Each village, perched so high above the valley, has its stone church tower and a small cluster of oddly-shaped old buildings, and of course spectacular views to the mountains. Not bad, eh?!

A great way to round off the year - and lead into 2011: The Year of the Holiday.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

A White Christmas

Merry Christmas!

We hope you had a wonderful day with friends and family, celebrating, giving, eating and drinking. 

Christmas morning in the Ecrins

We elebrated on Christmas Eve with some steaks, a bottle of pinot noir and phone calls home. And then woke up late on Christmas morning, here in Venosc in the Ecrins. There had been snow overnight, making it a classic image of a white Christmas morning. Jen may have been brought up with the hot Australian summer Christmas, but for her snow somehow feels appropriate at this time of year.

Being cool and crisp, we headed out for a walk towards a nearby ice fall that afternoon... with our gear, just in case. But sadly, the icefall is still a waterfall (although a rather pretty one).

We saw animal tracks on the fresh snow - deer, wild pig, and maybe a fox or feral cat? - and came across a ramshackle hiking hut, with an incredible purple woodstove, an eclectic but vast array of cooking equipment and a few candles in old wine bottles. Although it had recently been fitted out with new windows, even with the stove going it would be chilly overnight to stay there ... but we can't say it wasn't a little tempting.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Le Pylon

Le Pylon - a stunning line, of a low grade, within view of La Grave. No wonder it gets three stars!

And it looks pretty great from afar ...

... but sadly it was more water than ice up close, when we popped by on the 23rd December. It would probably have been okay on the steeper right hand side, but the left had quite a few fountains running out of it, and we weren't in the mood to get soaked. So, we left it for another day, and instead drank tea and ate stinky French cheese. Yum.

(Edit to add: the temperature has since dropped. We'll be back!)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow time ...

Oh the weather outside's delightful,
But the icefalls look quite frightful,
Oh don't be such a tease,

Although it's hard to imagine, having just arrived in the Alps from the sunny Costa Blanca, we are slightly distressed by the warm temperatures. Today was almost 10degrees! And overnight, we don't think it really froze at all.

This is not good news if you want to climb ice. Not good news at all.

However ... we did manage to climb a beautiful line today. Perhaps a little damp in patches, but nevertheless three pitches of easy axe-swinging fun in a great location. Jen tried out her much improved axes, now with extra horn, thanks to Mark's early Christmas gift (which included installation, too).

Ooooh! Check out the horn!
AND more snow is on its way, and then winds from the north to follow. Many of the icefalls have formed, others are getting there, and hopefully the refreezing cycle will kick in. A little bit of melt that then refreezes can make the ice more solid (as long as the melt doesn't destroy it completely, of course...)

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Millau Viaduct

We saw a program about this engineering marvel once ... it didn't quite prepare us for the stunning drive across it.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Arrrr me hearties ...

A day spent here.

On the walk in.

Mark on belay.

On the climb out, at the end of the day.
And if you're lucky, maybe even videos to come.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


We'd printed out the online topo to this area a while back, knowing we'd pass back through the area. And sure enough, on our way back north we decided to drop in on Ferrari wall.

OK, so we got a bit lost trying to find the place (I wouldn't recommend taking the online map too literally) but we got there in the end and camped up overnight under the marked pine tree. And woke the next day to blue cloudless skies and a strong, extremely cold wind. Breakfast was slow as we lingered in the warmth of the van.

The rock has an incredible texture, huh? And check out the line under the roof!
When we did venture out, it was a short walk to the cliff edge - and once over the edge, we were out of the wind and in the direct sun. The rock was warm to touch, so the layers of clothing were stripped off and it was climbing time.

We both had fun on the overhanging, jug-filled rock - deceptively tricky in parts - and so much so, we decided to spend another night there and climb there again in the morning. Jen worked a steep 6a, and Mark a 7a ... as well as trying that line under the roof, too.

... and Mark attempting the incredible rooftop 7c.
Jen working the steep 6a ...

The online topo we used, again, is not something to be taken too literally, showing many more climbing lines than currently exist - it must have been quite crowded intially, and now the routes have been re-drawn, re-bolted and clarified. Whilst this means the routes are better spaced, it does sometimes mean you end up climbing something harder (they're never easier!) than expected.

It's also very much a local's crag; I think we were quite unusual, not being from that province let alone anywhere in Spain. It won't be an internationally famous climbing destination any time soon, but it was definitely worth the visit!

Monday, 6 December 2010

A Rest Day in Ronda

If you can't climb due to torrential rain and strong wind at the crag, then it's likely that your touristing will also be rather ... damp. We started very well, with tapas and a glass of red wine, but then decided to venture out and see some of the pictureque (read: tourist trap) old town. We raced around between shelters, and still got soaked through. Hot chocolate works wonders ...

Friday, 3 December 2010

El Caminito del Rey

First view - the old walkway, with via ferrata below - and the bridge.
Starting out across the cliff ...
... scrambling up to the pathway.

The pathway, being old, is missing some bits ...
... some of those bits are bigger than others ...

... so you want to be good on your feet ...

... or willing to think laterally.
But this is all worth it, for the soaring cliffs above ...
... the stunning construction ...

... and the terrific exposure.
And what a view, looking back!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

El Chorro!

We arrived last night in torrential rain. Not exactly an auspicious start, eh?

But today dawned bright and sunny … and that meant we could get our laundry done! Yay! (I'm sure you're all crazily jealous of our lifestyle now.)

And yes of course it also meant we could go check out the cliffs. El Chorro was one of the destinations we were most excited about before we left, so it's great just to have arrived here; and looking up to the Gorge, El Chorro is worth the hype. Jen isn't feeling the strongest at the moment, and is still having back troubles, but we headed up to Frontales and successfully sent a few low grade routes … including the beautiful 4-pitch Valentines Day.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Celebrations in Granada

The famous Alhambra and a culture of free tapas with your drink? 
A small university city surrounded by snow-covered mountains?
Granada really is quite easy to love.

And being someone's birthday, it was also a good excuse to celebrate.

Tile detail ...
... wall detail.
We woke up in our hotel (second and third nights not in Fred for over a month; feels quite strange), and headed up the hill to the famous Alhambra.

This is a complex of fortress and palaces, and town supporting these, dating mainly from the times of the Islamic sultans (13th century) and taken over when the Christians "reconquered" in the 15th century.

Lately it's risen to fame again as Romantic authors in the 19th century, such as Washington Irving (who is considered akin to a god in these parts), wrote about their beauty, and the mystery and allure of the court of the sultans – and tourism, and along with conservation and restoration, followed.
And even more detail.

The main palace, the Nasrid Palace, is truly stunning; from the fountains and pools, to the corridors and courtyards … and of course, the most intricate decoration carved into the walls and ceilings.

Intent on audioguide.

It's hard to describe in words what it is like to move between the airy chambers, as I am no Romantic poet, but each (and there were many) had a timeless elegance, a unique design and atmosphere and decoration that, whilst intricate, was never overpowering.

Shame about Charles V's renovation in the background, eh?
And it doesn't end with the Nasrid Palace, either – there are also the battlements and fortifications, the Moorish baths, the Charles V Palace … and, not to be forgotten, the extensive gardens and the summer palace of the Generalife.


In the afternoon? We decided to indulge in more local culture, and headed to an Arabic bathhouse … for two hours of soaking in hot and cold pools, followed by a massage. Very indulgent and extremely relaxing – perfect!

Being Friday (and of course, someone's birthday), we hit the town that night – delighted to discover that tapas is free with your drink, and with the size of the portions, it wasn't hard to have a full meal just by ordering a few beers or wines. Despite a steady drizzle of rain and cold temperatures, the bars and restaurants were packed with mainly locals also enjoying a night out and it was the wee small hours before we decided we'd had enough jamon iberico with our wines …

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Costa Blanca - a retrospective view ...

Our initial impressions regarding the population of the Costa Blanca were not wrong.
This was clearly proven by the local cuisine:

All-day-full-English-breakfast ...

... and fish and chips, with mushy peas!

But once you acknowledge that, like Gibraltar, the Costa Blanca isn't really part of Spain - you can really begin to enjoy it. And the climbing opportunities are extensive and varied - in both scope and quality, too.

We were at first hampered by a bit of bad weather and our need for a rest day, and lingered lazily at the Orange House (which really was a great place to stay, having a lounge like home and loads of recommendations and advice from its staff and residents). And our next excuse is the constant need to drive to the crag - which meant packing Fred up every day - and so we were consistently later on the crag than expected.

Our first route on our first day climbing, at Sierra de Toix, had both dodgy rock and dodgy bolts, too - but thankfully the area redeemed itself in the afternoon, catching all the sun that was going in a natural amphitheatre, on a hill over looking the sea. Apparently near by there is a newly developed sea cliff, the Pirates of the Caribbean area ... we've saved it for later!

The next day we headed to Echo Valley, a crag with great atmosphere, but again soft and loose rock ... making the five pitch route we chose, Through the Looking Glass, a bit more exciting for us than anticipated - although it was a great opportunity to use the trad rack, and the views were magnificent.

Then Jen twisted her shoulder somehow, and so in the interests of avoiding large amounts of pain, exchanged climbing for Voltaren and rest. As Mark now had a willing belayer, he took the opportunity to go on a sending spree. He started at the Monsters of Rock wall, working left to right and proving that not all 7a's are created equal, and then he headed up to Olta to be photographed on Tai Chi (it's compulsory) ...

... although he enjoyed the less-photogenic line of Tufa Groove more.

Mark even headed all the way up the pot-holed road to Bernia, just to have a crack at the thin tufa line of the Magic Flute ... We even set up the camera to record his onsight attempt (but, um, that's another story and no, you won't be seeing the footage!)

We've certainly left behind a lot of fantastic climbing in this area (Jen in particular ...), and we can definitely see ourselves returning. There's not only the Pirates of the Caribbean area, but routes on the Penon and the entirety of Sella that we've not yet been able to touch. Until next time!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Costa Blanca! Initial impressions ...

More high-rise buildings than surely are necessary - can they all be hotels for cheap package trips? And even more development going on, with sets of identical villas popping up all over the place and the constant roar of construction.

More Brits than Spanish. And they are mostly retired, and enjoy wearing matching tracksuits (leisure suits?).

The "International" aisle of the hypermarket, helpfully divided into nationalities, had a larger "British" section than "Oriental" section. And yes, "Oriental" was meant to cover all cuisines from Moroccan to Thai. And this really was a hypermarket - it sold everything from tyres, to laptops, to seafood so fresh it was still alive.

Oh, and it also sold a wide variety of hams for Christmas.

Can we fit one of these in the van?
But also ... a fat guidebook of climbs on those rugged hills just off the coast, or on the cliffs overlooking the sea. A super-friendly and relaxed climbers' refuge / hotel. And some warm weather and bright sunshine, too!


We all know that chocolate is an essential part of breakfast. Naturally.

But ... really?

As if one All-Bran chocolate variety was not enough!

Mark tried this one, and to his credit ate the whole packet.