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?!


At last, the forecast was for something other than rain. It was time to leave our campsite haven, with its superb internet, and head to a crag.

Taking a chance that it would be warm and dry enough, we headed towards Verdon Gorge – a place Mark has been itching to get to for quite some time. Verdon is a deep limestone gorge, famous for long routes approached from above – rappel in, and climb out. (And if you can't climb out? Well... you're stuck half-way up a massive cliff, aren't you?!)

The first day there was spent either watching the rain come down or, in the breaks in the weather, checking out the soaked slabs and the intimidating drop to the roaring river a long way below. Jen was sceptical that any climbing would be done.

Oh ye of little faith! The next morning dawned clear and sunny with a light breeze - and whilst still cool with some seeping patches on the rock, the slabs were dry. It was finally time to climb.

First impressions? Let's be honest. Jen didn't like it at all, and Mark was less impressed than he'd hoped too. We chose to climb single pitch routes – a single rappel down to an anchor, before climbing out. If it wasn't for the position on the gorge walls, high above the river below with the vultures circling around, they surely wouldn't get as many stars as they do – some loose rock, some polish and only a few funky moves. And quite frankly, you get that view from the balcony above with the rest of the tourists.

The day was redeemed by two routes – Wide Is Love, with its precarious hanging belay and disappearing foot-holds, and Biscuit Margarine, that once again started out in a tenuous position and climbed up to safety.

Perhaps we had just picked the wrong lines.

So the next day we tried something harder – a 2-star, 5 pitch, 6a+ charmingly called Les deux doigts dans le nez. And it was a lot harder, and more effort for us than the grade would normally suggest and still a contrived line, weaving left and right to pick out the most solid rock in a wall of choss – great scenery not withstanding. Two fingers in the nose indeed.
Rapping into the fog
Jen, feeling overwhelmed, picked the next day's outing, choosing Cocoluche – disparaged by our guidebook as being one of the most popular multi-pitch outings for no good reason. We actually really enjoyed it - although it was the weekend, it wasn't at all busy, and the optional harder penultimate pitch provided a welcome challenge.

Next, we headed to a different part of the gorge to the Arete du Belvedere – and despite it's three stars, we were in for another disappointing route. With inconsistent grading, it rambled up the arete to a scrubby finish: have a few of the top pitches crumbled away?

But in good news – every day brought clear blue skies, and in the sun at least, it was warm. The days are getting shorter, and the nights are crisp and cold, but with the sun on your back and reflecting off the cliffs, it was easy to forget that it's late November. We've seen a few other teams of climbers, but most of the time it feels as if we have the place to ourselves. In the scrub, we've heard wild piggies and seen deer and a fox; and of course, overhead, the vultures keep playing in the thermal updraughts. Oh, and there was the mouse too … but more of that later!

With continuing good weather, and many more routes to chose from, there was no question of us moving on just yet …   

Saturday, 5 November 2011


It's been raining for three days, and there is no end in sight to this terrible weather.

We've had every variety of rain conceivable so far - from a light mist to heavy drops to torrential, soaking downpour. Sometimes with a strong wind that brings the dying leaves down from the trees, sometimes with thunder and lightening loud and bright enough to wake you up and cut the power.

So, we've been in hiding - retreating behind a good internet connection, some new books downloaded to the kindle and a stock of fresh food, whilst our muscles and fingertips recover. "Van Fever" is an increasing risk, as electronic media will soon cease to satisfy, but surely this rain can't continue too much longer?!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Jen and Mark go to Green Castle

Chateauvert sounded like exactly what we needed: lots of routes in our grade range, a short walk from the car, in a pretty little valley.

So we stocked up on some food and prepared to move in - and discovered that there isn't anything, really, to dislike about Chateauvert!

Camping (or "parking up") isn't really allowed in the valley itself (despite the handy public toilets and rubbish bins at the climbers' carparks), and we thought that it would be best to humour the locals by ensuring we stayed on a quieter road or at the basic but cheap municipal campsite in the nearby town. Others just stayed in the climbers' carparks, and as it's fairly quiet at the moment, there's really no harm in doing so.

There's a local bakery in Corens is open all hours of the day, and stocks delicious breads and brioches, and is staffed by a lady so friendly that she insisted Jen wear a plastic bag on her head (!!!) as it happened to be lightly raining. Whether it was due to the bag or not, thankfully Jen was not noticably negatively affected by a bit of water. And for all other essentials, it was a 20minute drive to Brignoles nearby.

And the climbing? The routes are long single pitches, on vertical or overhanging limestone, overlooking a quiet river and local road, and surrounded by forest. Some of the popular ones show a little polish from wear - indeed, when the weekend and the school holidays hit, we saw how busy it can get - but for the most part, the routes listed with three stars in our guide were routes well worth climbing.

All in all, a great little spot. And if it wasn't for this rain, we'd still be at the crag ...