Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Cheer

We were joined by Jen's family for the week before Christmas, and celebrated the week away in this fabulous gite in Le Laus, a tiny hameau near Cervieres, which is up the road from Briancon ... somewhere in the southern French Alps. The weather obliged by providing the area with a cover of white, making it the perfect location for a winter Christmas.

... and the fire kept roaring!
Of course, much champagne was drunk ... 

The table set for dinner on Christmas Eve - roast chook!

One night, we caught skidoos up to Refuge Napoleon on the Col de l'Izoard to have tartiflette for dinner - yum! Jen and Mark then toboggan'd the 7km back down again ... if only the road was a bit steeper, we could have gotten enough speed to beat the skidoos down.
Mum and Dad braved the snow and cold to walk around the area and the fortified city of Briancon too ... 
... Steph headed out to Serre Chevalier to learn to ski, impressing Jen and Mark who joined her for a day or two on the slopes ...
... and whilst Mark and Jen didn't quite get ice-climbing ...
... it's a beautiful part of the world just to be out and about in.
What a week! 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Ice climbing at last ...

After hours of scouring the internet for reports of ice, browsing through all the ice report sites we know so well from last year and even finding some new ones, we headed to Arolla, Switzerland - two ice falls were meant to be in good enough nick to climb, and we had new gear to try out!

Shiny new gear! Crampons for both of us, and new ice tools for Jen too ... time to scratch some of that yellow paint off, eh?

L'Usine Electric - the first of the two falls in nick. A wee bit thin and steep for the first climb of the season ... 

... but a thorough examination through the rabbit hole indicated that the column was solid.

And on day two we headed towards the second ice fall - Cascade du Ignes. Relatively fresh snow made the approach a wee bit arduous, but we enjoyed the walk and checked out another team (who had skis!) on the route.

Spotto the climber, if you can - the small dot in the centre of the gully ...

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

All fairy tale castles ...

... especially this one, Neuschwanstein ...

... need a princess or two.

Eating and Drinking (Bavarian Christmas Style)

The day in Munich at Rho and Brett's started with a typical Bavarian breakfast - white sausages (peeled after cooking, like the locals do), a sweet pickle/mustard sauce, fresh pretzls with butter ... and a wheat beer.
Lardberg ahoy!
Heading into the Christmas markets, it was only right to sample the local produce on offer: even more sausage, deep-fried potato patties, deep-fried apple, deep-fried plum jam sandwiches ... all washed down with gluhwein and some other sort of hot liquor with an unpronounceable name.

You could request the message of your choice on your gingerbread: eg "Diabetes?" or "A present for your dentist!"
In between times, there was chocolate in a variety of shapes and sizes and gingerbread and marzipan biscuits. Just in case we got peckish.

And of course, there was the lights and colour of the markets and city centre itself - filled with people shopping, eating and drinking and just hanging out in the cool evening, enjoying the spectacle like us.

Ice-climbing bunny - and coming up the other side, an ice-climbing monkey!

Of course, we needed all this food and drink to sustain a very competitve round of Carcassonne and several days of hanging out and catching up with the family R. Voegele.

Merry Christmas, guys - and thank you again for your hospitality and all the good times. We'll see you in the new year!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

It's Officially Winter

... but where's the snow?

With Jen's new ice tools to try, we headed north - straight to Cogne, where we hoped the cold weather had recreated some of the ice falls we enjoyed climbing so much last year.

The town wasn't quite like we had remembered it ... it was a lot barer in the carpark with no mounds of snow to hide behind, and the overall colour scheme was browns and greys, not sparkly white. We set off for a walk to find the ice falls, and found only their prototypes.

According to our guidebook, there should be several ice falls here.

So, despite the cold weather, no ice climbing ... yet! But it will come, and we'll be back.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A birthday in Saint Jeannet

What a birthday!

Saint Jeannet, a small medieval village in the hills above Nice, was the location for a small party to celebrate the end of Jen's 20's. With Steph flying from Oxford, Evelyn and Emily from Amsterdam and Rho from Munich, as well as a special bottle of champagne and loads of food and drink, it was going to be a very special weekend.

We found a quirky but perfect "gite" in the village, called "The Studio of the Artist" - obviously because it is frequently inhabited by a local painter and sculptor and is still inhabited by his works, which cover every available space. At the top of an old building in the town and facing south, it caught all the sunshine going - providing much needed vitamin D for the northerners.

Some people had some work to do, some read books, others lazed in the sun or went for walks or runs around the village or up the hill behind it. Jen really enjoyed catching up with her sister and friends; it could only have been better by being longer.

Everyone helped cook (and clean up after!) the numerous meals consumed - proper English bacon for breakfast, a Morroccan inspired banquet for dinner, and no shortage of French cheeses and saussison inbetween.

One highlight has to have been the gift of new ice tools for Jen from Mark - Petzl Nomics, to be precise ... can't wait to try them out on the ice this winter!

And that special bottle? A 1990 vintage Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin, purchased from the cave in Rheims a while ago and carefully kept for this very day. Whether it was the company, the location, the occasion or even the anticipation - it was by far the best champagne Jen has ever tasted, and the whole experience was unforgettable.

A big thank you to all those who made it such a special day, whether through your presence or your messages from afar. It was truly the most memorable and most fantastic birthday I have ever had.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Verdon (Part III)

Our last days in Verdon were spent enjoying the scenery,
and making a leisurely tour around the gorge. 
We'll let these pictures speak for themselves.


Monday, 21 November 2011

Verdon (Part II)

So with the success of having climbed La Demande, we were more disposed to enjoying Verdon.

Since then, we've done a couple more single pitch routes – one that wasn't in our guidebook, but had everything to recommend it: great rock in a fantastic location. Beautifully shaped holds, delicate but physical moves, curving up for more than 40metres from an exposed belay above one of the favourite haunts of the vultures.

And we've also jumped on “A Tout Coeur”, with 7 short pitches up from the Jardin des Ecureuils. The first pitch was a polished sandbag, and whilst not the hardest pitch – it felt like the crux! But the remaining 6 were just lovely, finishing the route on Passion d'amour: delicate face climbing, requiring constant attention to feet and body positions.

We've continued to free-camp at the top of the cliff, driving into the extremely quiet hamlet of La Palud or the larger (but still quiet) town of Castellane for supplies, laundry and (only once!) a free hot shower, courtesy of a local climber. Our hands have toughened up once again, and we're taking every opportunity we can to enjoy the sun for the brief time it is out. The vultures and the steep drop to the river never cease to amaze, and the good weather continues.

This place is growing on us, it seems.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

La Demande – The Question

"THE major classic, it should be on the itinerary of any serious climber who visits the Verdon.”

Twelve pitches. 320 metres. Right from the bottom to the top of the gorge.

This route is a mega-classic in the genuine sense of the word: it was the first route climbed on this side of the gorge, by Joel Coqueugniot and Francois Guillot in 1968. This was back before rappel-bolting, with the ascents done from the ground up, before modern climbing gear, ropes and shoes. The route may have gained some fixed protection in recent years, but its history was intimidating – not to mention its length and popularity. Despite its moderate grade, to climb La Demande would call for a strenuous effort.

We set off as the sun started to hit the rock, and headed down the four rappels to the Jardin des Ecureuils. A short scramble lead us to three more rappels, and we were in the scrub at the bottom of the gorge. Bashing through this, following whichever pig-path seemed the widest, we arrived at the rather uninspiring base of our route.

From the bottom, looking up - not so inspiring from this angle, admittedly!
We'd been advised not to judge the route from the first three pitches; as more parties start out on these than finish the route in its entirety, they are more polished. They're also not what the route is famous for! Linking a couple of these pitches together, we were soon happy to be half-way up the cliff – 6 pitches and about 160 metres of climbing done.

Up ... 
... and more up!

But we were not at all half-way through the climb in terms of effort required! A fun, but delicate and strenuous, pitch followed, as the route lead us into the wide fissure that forms the top of the route. One more easier section, and we were at the two crux pitches: the so-called “fearsome upper chimneys”.

The view from inside the chimney.
As a rule, climbers these days don't climb chimneys. The rock is generally softer; that's why there's a massive split in the cliff in the first place. They collect water, moss, vulture droppings and other mess from above, and no-one likes to get wet and grubby. Even with all the fancy modern climbing gear, they can be hard to protect too – although old-school climbers will no doubt tell you that once you're jammed into a chimney, you can't fall out… so why would you need protection anyway? Aside from for your mental health, that is?
"Star" bridging by Mark.
So, whilst this chimney was mostly dry and solid, the motions used to climb a chimney feel strange and strenuous to us: bridging the distance with feet and hands on either side, using the friction of feet on one side and bum on the other to shuffle your way up, and generally thrutching, puffing, panting and praying until something like a hand- or foot-hold appears. It's also not very dignified. In parts, the right-hand wall has been polished to a light shine by the passage of so many backs and bottoms: it's comforting to know that you are not the first person to use more body parts than hands and feet on this part of the route.

"Bum and feet" bridging by Jen
Thankfully too, a few extra bolts have been placed on these two pitches – certainly not nearly enough to aid from one to the next, or to prevent the leader from feeling like he's going to slam into the belayer if he pops off, but reassuring nonetheless.

And with part of your body on the the left, and part on the right, the climber looks straight down the middle to the river in the gorge, far, far below. Even though we were in a chimney, it feels fantastically exposed!

With sighs of relief, we reached the penultimate belay – the sun was dipping lower and the temperature was already dropping. The days are short in November! The last pitch was a bit of a tired ramble, but we were then at the top – just as the sun lit up the neighbouring cliffs before disappearing for the day. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A van pet?

We've met a fair number of van people who had a pet along with them for the ride, for company and security. Many rescue a stray dog on their travels – the Dutch and German from Spain, and the Spanish from Turkey – it's just not the done thing to rescue an animal from your own country.

But when we heard strange rustlings outside one evening, we didn't think that we had acquired a little French pet of our very own … it was only on closer inspection of the battery compartment that a selection of leaves, soft rubbishy bits and half-chewed acorns were found.

Perhaps we should be thankful that Mousey had acorns rather than decide to chew on any wires, and that the rumblings of the engine scared Mousey out of his / her new home, before we had to issue cruel eviction orders. 

Or rather, we think he / she has been scared away .. was that noise coming from outside, or under the bonnet?!