Verdon Dreaming I (or how easy can 6a be?!) For those who know me well it comes as no surprise that I don't really like grit. Yes, I've had some great days in the Peak, Millstone, Curbar (predictably Peapod), and playing around on, or should that be in, Goliath's Groove, and getting to the top of The File, but I think it's completely over-rated. Trad-wise I prefer Cornish granite, Commando Ridge with Masa, Tony, and Suzie, NTIAD with Masa, Gogarth and Tremadog with Tony, or multi-pitch routes with a view. My favourite rock is limestone.
Limestone is found all over the place, but my favourite place to find it is France. More pointedly Provence. I don't know if it's just me but French limestone seems to have many features, apart from, generally speaking better weather, that UK, or even German limestone does not have: Vineyards, patisseries, the Côte d'Azur and it's toys, winding B roads with more bends than a very bendy thing in a bendy thing competition (that's more than enough bends to make Tony turn green even when he's the one driving), etc. It also has something else: my favourite 'crag': Verdon. Last autumn Tony, Railton, and myself headed off with the intention of climbing in the gorge. Well Tony and myself did, Andy was going to be our photographer and avoiding our multi-pitch tom-foolery. After I'd grabbed an hour's broken sleep by the side of my car (I'd done my usual night drive on French roads from Calais to La Palud-sur-Verdon, punctuated by a couple of short breaks), and Tony had even more sleep, we headed off for the first route of the trip, the pose-fest that is Wide is Love.
When I first suggested this to Tony via email with a photograph included, his reply was "25 metres of ooooo-shit! Let's do it!!" We did. My first experience of leading in the gorge was fantastic. With a 300m-500m drop beneath our feet, yet not feeling any exposure, the World's easiest 6a (5+ would be pushing it, so I'm unsure as to why some say it's 6a+), vultures for company, sunshine on my back, and Tony's reassuring belaying I proceeded upwards. Sadly the experience was over far too soon, and soon Tony joined me at the top of the gorge where our handy-Andy-cam greeted us with many photographs. The following day Tony and myself returned and climbed Chlorochose, a 170m route (5c) which again didn't last long enough, although our shoulders knew about it the next day, with the knowledge that in a worse-case scenario we could ask Andy to drop a rope down to us. Climbing with vultures flying past, level with your head, being able to hear the wind ruffle their flight feathers as they went past no more than a couple of metres away was unbelievable. Where can you get that on grit? Ring Ouzels at Stanage are not quite the same. A visit to a couple of smaller crags over the following days, including Andy's leading on a two-pitch route meant that we all led that holiday and when our last day in the gorge came around Tony and myself again headed beneath the rim of the gorge for the two-pitch route Face au Public (5c). This seemed more like grading of the sort Verdon has a reputation for. Wide is Love was supposed to be harder than this? Like hell was it! A very good lead, especially given the polish, and raindrops that started to fall, to Mr Hextall. The following day we headed up to Champagne for single-pitch climbing beside the premier cru vineyards of Vertus. All-in-all a very good time and we couldn't wait to return to Vert...Verdon. Verdon dreaming ll: Nocturnal hoisting (or how hard can 6a be?!) So last month Tony and myself headed off to Verdon once more. Again he slept, as I drove Provence-wards, managing to get many, many, many hours of sleep whilst I drove non-stop from Calais and managed >650 miles, before my progress was halted only by the limitations of my car's fuel tank. A quick visit to the gorge to see which sectors were closed for winter and we made our plans. Now when we went in September we carefully selected a multi-pitch route that would be fun, yet leave some margin of climbing ability should we run in to difficult territory. This time, and armed with the three local guidebooks, in addition to the Rockfax book, we opted for a 100m ab' in & climb out route (5c, 5c, ungraded, 2, 5c, 5c, 6a, 5c, 5c) It was only 100m long and with the grades we'd both led outdoors we had plenty in hand. Tony had even suggested following that with a similar route above the road: two multi-pitch routes in the gorge in one day could be possible. We'd avoided routes that were 200m or so in length, anything that had aid grades, so expectantly we started the 110m abseil. I mean, how difficult could a Verdon 6a pitch (6a has been known to equate to 6c in the gorge) be? Well the abridged version is we commenced the abseil at 1100ish, got on the rock at 1200ish, and finished at 0645, before retiring to the warmth of the car, general self-congratulatory feelings that we'd knocked off another Verdon route. The more astute of you will see that we went to some effort to avoid the AGM. Nineteen hours on a 100m route! What could you do with 19 chuffing hours? Well you could have driven from Leicester to La Palud, you could have listened to one of the more pedestrian recordings of The Ring in that time, or got halfway through the long version of Never Land by The Sisters of Mercy. I've even flown out to Milan, seen an opera and returned in less time than we spent on the route, you could even have figured out what happened to Schrodinger's moggy. We however opted for non-orchestral manoeuvres in the dark. After waiting for a party in front of us to get high enough I ran the first two pitches together. Very well bolted but seemingly stiffer than 5c. I was not a particularly happy bunny after those two pitches. Tony led the next pitch, with me bagging the pitched graded 2. Now the alarm bells should have started ringing there. The ungraded pitch was certainly as difficult as the first two but ungraded, but the 2 was, well it was a 2. In the interest of getting out in daylight, and my leading head not being very happy Tony continued the leading. Dusk was now unfailingly upon us as Tony set off across the 6a pitch. Still, we only had around 50m to go...or not. From here on in Tony and myself didn't really see much of each other. The light went as I followed Tony across the seventh pitch, I managed to ping off and found myself beneath a smooth and wet overhang. Seeing the bolts was difficult, never mind the holds. Easy to get out of that situation - you just prusik yourself out of it. Except mine were in the car as I had used a Shunt to back-up my abseiling. Now call me biased but jugging up ropes is best done on semi-static ropes and with rope clamps, not using a Shunt and 6mm dyneema slings on dynamic rope; this was going be a drawn-out event. Thankfully Tony had previously placed quick-draws with 30cm and 60cm slings on them so with much grunting, groaning, kicking the rock and other such shenanigans I joined Tony at the belay over an hour later. I think it may have been whilst Tony was leading, or I was prusiking that the following conversation took place: Tony: I don't have my headtorch with me. Me: No, neither do I. Tony: I'm not joking. Me: No, neither am I At the belay we had a quick chat about what to do next. The options were stay at the belay, experience a grim night and climb out in the morning. I didn't fancy that as I would have been a tad cold come daylight. Or we could continue upwards. In the dark. Without headtorches. In Verdon. What followed was, in the words of Our Lord Clarkson, absolute genius! Tony said he could use the light from his camera screen to see where he was going, and it dawned on me that I could use the screen of my phone for a similar purpose. We must have had less than a quarter of the route and two pitches left. As I saw the occasional lighting up of the gorge as Tony progressed, and heard the occasional crashing of stones hitting the ground beneath us, usually followed by Tony's one man Jean-Michel Jarre show I knew we would be all right. We'd be out of there by midnight! That pitch consisted of my belaying by instinct aided by Tony's radio calls and the occasional lighting up of the gorge with his camera screen as he moved closer to the end of the route, seeing cars high above us, driving on the other side of the gorge towards Aiguines, on the opposite side of the lake the strangely comforting constant flashing of the three red and one white radio masts at Roumoules, passing aircraft, satellites, a few shooting stars and many, many, many stars. Still, as we climbed or belayed we were able to watch constellations rise and disappear. Another first when climbing! Although, somewhat disappointingly, I couldn't see any attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. We'd be out of there by 2am! I had been impressed when Tony said he'd lead in the dark but to see, or more accurately feel and hear him, doing so was genuinely impressive. Differently impressive to seeing Masa on-sight Golva, but in my limited experience of such things the most impressive climbing thing which I've been on hand to witness. The only disappointing thing about Tony during this pitch was his asking "Which champagne does this deserve?" After all I had attempted to teach him, the plonker still didn't realise any would do - just so long as it was chilled!!! Although in fairness to his question we did have five bottles back at the gite. And I hadn't up until that point even thought about champagne. Or patisserie. At least one of us had his mind on the important things of life, and for once it wasn't me. Being able to see holds is definitely under-rated, but there were some great blind moves , almost instinctive climbing on the gouttes d'eau that Verdon is known for, on that penultimate pitch. Pitches 6-8 were traverse pitches, and slowly but surely I made my way across to Tony with my phone screen being used to illuminate proceedings from time to time.
We were now on the final pitch. It was now well past 0200, and with only twenty or so metres ahead of us we'd be out of there by 0300. I revised that to 0330. However at 0400ish I re-revised that revision when he eventually shouted, or called, that he was at the top and there seemed to be less then 10 metres of rope left from a length of 60 metres!!! What I didn't know at the time was that halfway up the pitch Tony's camera had finally given out and for the remainder of it he'd had to rely on the three second time his phone screen would light up for. Still, as we climbed or belayed we were able to watch constellations rise and disappear. I made my usual slow progress towards him, assisted at first by my phone screen until that died and once again I was in darkness, underneath the beautiful starry sky once more, with just a metre or so of rope visible, and somewhere in the space above me, a Tony. I again managed to ping off above a small cave and found myself starring in to the darkness. I'd like to be profound and say the darkness stared back but it didn't. More blinking prusiking! Really annoyingly I was becoming cold and my fingers were almost numb, the only way I was able to use the fingers on both hands was to use one hand to bend the fingers of the other hand around whatever I wanted them to hold and then prusik. This worked for a little while before I finally had to tell Tony that my hands were numb. Up until that point there was no point in saying I was cold as Tony would have been in the same boat when he was belaying me. No point in doing anything else besides concentrating on making upwards progress and getting out of there! Just as I decided to break this news to him Tony suggested that he could get to the car and turn the headlights on to give me some light. I'm not quite sure why, given the terrain, he thought that would work but knowing there were heated seats and steering wheel only a short way from me suddenly got my mind working...I asked Tony to bring a rope and screwgate from the car, he could then drop that down to me, I'd attach that to my harness. I could then prusik on the ropes he'd led on whilst he took in the slack on that third rope and that would get me out of there much sooner. It worked! I was now able to make swifter progress, albeit with helpful comments such as "How ironic, now you can see the holds your hands are too cold to use them?" I laughed. He laughed. At least our senses of humour was still intact even if much of the route wasn't. I'm not sure of the exact time we finished but I remember the look of confusion on the face of a passing car driver as we heroically climbed over the wall and staggered on to the La Palud road, and headed towards the warmth of the car. Back at the gite I discovered the car had featured in many bizarre plans that Tony had for hauling me out of the gorge. I joked about using the towing eye, but Tony being an engineer, and thus prone to over-complicating things had been working out which pillars to use and how to avoid cutting the rope. Also, he never thought to wind the windows down and pop my iPod on to keep us entertained. A bit of Kylie wouldn't have gone amiss. We'd wanted to climb each day and thus far we'd managed to climb on the first two days of the holiday! On Friday we headed the single-pitch venue of Felines. It's amazing how much easier climbing in the light is! Things went a little awry on Saturday when Tony suggested lunch in Cannes. Like you do. So we did.
We returned to the gorge on Monday where Tony top-roped the final 45m or so of Ticket Danger (6a, 6a+, 6b or 6b+ depending upon which topo you're looking at). Tuesday involved me leading a multi-case champagne buying expedition in Ville-sur-Arce (Champagne-Ardennes), followed by on-sighting beer in Epernay later that evening. Persistent rain, grey cloud and a cold wind on Wednesday put pay to climbing in Vertus so we went for a cheerful drive along the Chemin des Femmes, infamous for the three battles of the Aisne during World War l and passed many WW1 war graves. Nineteen hours on a route is nothing compared to the hell those soldiers faced. Roll on Verdon Dreaming lll Anyone fancy Tom et je ris? How hard can 60m of 8b+ in daylight possibly be?! If we'd really thought about it we'd have Googled the route and found that various sites list its length as 235m and grade it 5c, 5c, 5c, 2, 5c, 5c+, 6a+, 6a+, 6a+ (5c/A0 obl). and if we'd really tried we could have translated the name before we decided to climb it. I'll leave you to do that. It's called Hissage Nocturne...