Friday, May 28, 2010

Adventures in the Verdon Gorge

Prior to coming to France on a climbing trip, the Verdon Gorge held mythical status in my climbing imagination. Friends who had climbed here spoke of long, rad, sparsely bolted or mixed routes that could only be accessed by long, steep, intimidating rappels. If you weren't able to get yourself back up and out via your chosen route you could expect an all-night hike in your rock shoes just to exit the gaping maw of the Gorge.

The good thing about having the Verdon Gorge built up to mythical proportions by these stories was that when I finally got a chance to climb here it wasn't nearly as intimidating as I expected. Don't get me wrong, the week I just spent climbing in the Verdon Gorge was anything but mellow; as different from last year's Kalymnos club-med bolt clipping vacation as an Indian Creek offwidth is from a Ceuse pocket ladder.

We started off the trip on La Demande, the popular moderate classic of the area. 10-11 pitches up to 6a (5.10b). Really fun climbing but I wouldn't recommend it if 5.10- is your limit, some of the pitches only have one or two bolts in 50m. I appreciated my trad background on the final several pitches which are full on back-and-foot chimneys. Don't forget to dangle your pack and move your gear to the front gear loops; my lucky leaver biner with my Houdini, knife and prussik loop did the old magical unclip as I writhed my way up. The saddest part was Evan actually caught it while belaying but then fumbled it as he tried to clip it to his harness and it did the full 400m plummet into the scrubby bushes at the base of the route. Unfortunately, this wasn't the only item we sent into the abyss... more to come.

Next we decided to climb Pichenbule, a slightly more difficult and highly recommended route. Half way up we got slammed by a storm. Lightening, thunder, slashing rain, and we were still 150m from the rim. We were able to traverse into a neighboring easier route and race upwards as the limestone got wetter and slipperier. Lucky for us the easier route was a bolted crack; slimy hand and foot jams between pulling on bolts on provided an exit that the slick crimps on our original route never would have. The next morning we returned to Pichenbule to complete the route. Evan was climbing an easy, traversing pitch with our 7mm static rappel line coiled and strapped to his pack. The rope caught on a scruffy tree and was wrenched from his pack and fell 300m to the bottom of the gorge. All we could do was laugh and be grateful that there was no one anywhere near the base of the route that day. After completing the climb, we drove to the trailhead for the Sentier Martel, the highly popular hiking route that travels through the bottom of the gorge, beginning with a several km of pitch black tunnels blasted out of the solid limestone where the gorge is too narrow to provide a trail. The tunnels were ankle deep in water, increasing the fun factor exponentially. We bushwacked up steep crumbling scree and after an hour we were incredulous to actually found our tag line within 20m of the base of the route. We also went looking for my Houdini at the base of La Demande, but couldn't find it. We did find a locker, a nut, a quickdraw and a broken camera though!

The best fauna viewing of the trip, besides the ripped Frenchmen in spandex at Ceuse of course, has been the birds. Beautiful melodious birdsong is what woke me early on our first morning in France and we have seen many interesting colourful birds at the crags and while driving. The Griffin vultures that inhabit of the Verdon Gorge are one of the most majestic birds I have ever seen while climbing, topped only by the California Condors in Zion. These birds have a 2.5m wingspan, and have a beautiful brown and white pattern on their back that you can see when they soar below you.

Maybe it's just me getting soft as 30 stares me in the face, but these days a big part of the enjoyment factor on climbing trips is the quality of accommodation. I'm not talking about king-size, pillow top, room-service, jacuzzi-tub stuff here, but a bivi with a great view, a nice little shop to get some good groceries and cook up a tasty meal after a long day, or a grassy spot to do some stretching on rest days will go a long way towards making a good trip great. The Verdon wins the top prize for amazing accommodation within my price range. We stayed in the Mayreste Gite (gite is the name for self-catered apartment-style rentals in France) owned by Anita and Jean-Francois Monier, a couple in their 70s. The gite is a 4m by 10m rectangle with a sloping roof built onto the side of the couple's stone farmhouse on a small plateau of land looking down into the western end of the Verdon Gorge. Studio style, with a fold out bed, tiny stove and fridge but really well thought out for comfort and efficiency, right down to the roomy tiled shower and uncluttered main room with plenty of space for stretching on the floor. The full window door has an amazing view, and their is a flagstone patio for outdoor eating or reading in the chaise-lounge. A 100m walk takes you to the spring where you can collect delicious drinking water on-site, and the property is covered in a progressive combination of vegetable gardens and solar panels which provide all of the power for the house and gite. Jean-Francois is a very friendly gentleman. He stopped over several times to share wine or a special prune liquor made by his friend, educating me on how to pick a good bottle of Cote du Rhone for under 5 euros, apparently it's all about the viex vigne (old vine). He's an avid skier and sailor, and may even come and visit us at Valhalla Mountain Touring next winter. Apparently the Mayreste gite is not very popular because it's 8 km from town, meaning you have to drive or do without the morning dose of baguette or croissant that the French seem fairly dependent on. For us, the peace and quiet of being out of town was relaxing; we cooked simple but delicious meals from groceries we stocked up on after climbing. Staying out of town kept us from spending too much money and spending time on the internet - the climbers pub has free wifi. The most unbelievable part was that the studio was costing us 24 euros per night (less than $30 CAD).

The high point of our climbing time at the Verdon Gorge was the route La Fete des Nerfs, which we did on our last day there. The climbing on the 10 pitches of the route is difficult and technical, engaging but reasonably safe. The day we did it was especially entertaining because a posse of young French climbers had strung up a slackline and gigantic rope swing across a 60m wide, 200m deep span near the route and spent the day walking to the middle of the span on the slackline, then swinging with unbelievable abandon through the void.

I am excited to be climbing in Ceuse, but already I am scheming for my return to the Verdon Gorge for more epics, adventures and limestone schooling, and especially for the comfortable, peaceful and unique accommodation of Mayreste to return to at the end of the day.

Topping out

Putting the trad skills to work on La Demande

Very soggy post storm

Another Verdon appoach

Upper pitches on a variation of Pichnebule

Living it up in the gite

Solar powered luxury at Mayreste

Best route of the trip

Friday, May 14, 2010

Whipper Therapy

This is dispatch #1 from France, where I will be on a climbing vacation with Evan until June. We flew into Paris one week ago and picked up our rental car, a cute and peppy little Opel hatchback, and cruised 7 hours south to the Gorges du Tarn. The main concentration of climbing here is on a collection of limestone crags between the two beautiful medieval villages of Les Vignes and La Malene.

The unfortunate daily rain showers have the upshot of succelent spring vegetation: delicate irises and other wild flowers, cherry and fig trees with unripe fruit bursting from branches hued the freshest green imaginable, feathery pines interspersed with limestone spires and sweeping cliffs descend to the River Tarn, winding a pebbly and playful path through the bottom of the gorge.

Our best accommodation of the trip so far was at the Gite Dardenes in the village of La Malene, where we spent the last 6 nights. The gite is a suite in a medieval stone building in a picturesque and quiet narrow alley way. The suite is quaint, warm and very clean with more than enough amenities to make two aging dirtbags at home: a bedroom, bathroom, hot shower, TV and comfy couch. The walls are decorated with original paintings of the local natural scenery. There is plenty of room to do yoga, and a well outfitted if small kitchen with a toaster oven for warming up breakfasts of croissants or pain au chocolate from the boulangerie two doors down. The gite was pre-booked for the Ascention Day national holiday so we had to leave this morning. I am already missing our warm and cosy little home while I write this from a tiny, sterile and cold mobile-home at a campground close to the climbing. We brought a tent, but with multiple rain showers every day we are opting for a bit of dry, luxury living.

The climbing here is, well, engaging. I am definitley not a bold climber, and am really out of shape after 5 months of not climbing at all. I tend to enjoy a spring sport climbing trip to ease back into the climbing season in a relaxing and fun way, but this trip is more like a sudden and icy plunge. On our first day here I climbed a traversing 7a (5.11d) but couldn't commit to the top moves just below the anchors with a mega pump on, so I downclimbed halfway to the previous bolt and jumped off, thinking it would be good for my head to get in the game. Because of the traversing nature of the route there was a bunch of rope drag and Evan (who outweighs me by 45-50 lbs) couldn't give me a soft catch. I slammed the wall pretty hard, but luckily escaped with nothing worse than a bruised toe and some serious misgivings about lobbing myself off of climbs because its 'sport climbing' and 'clean air'. Since that day I have realized that bigger runouts than I am used to are pretty much de rigeur here at the Gorges du Tarn. The only way I can describe them is dizzying. I clip a bolt, climb and climb and climb, then look up towards the next bolt glistening in the heavens, then look down at the last bolt, a tiny speck on a white and orange wall (if I am lucky, sometimes it is a grey wall of stony knife-blades pointed up towards me). The rope trails out from the knot at my harness like a slack fishing line, swaying slightly in the breeze of my frantic exhalations, and the yawning void beneath pulls me slowly, steadily and determinedly from the rock. Something tells me that this spring trip is going to be all about whipper therapy...

One of the cool medieval villages close to the climbing

I love the fact that this is someone's house, AND they have a satellite dish for TV on the roof (look to the right of the chimney)

The main intersection in La Malene, with untapped rock behind

The village of La Malene, which we called home for 6 nights

The River Tarn

Our cosy gite, looks bigger on the inside, even if Evan had to crawl to get in.... just kidding! Someone's woodshed or root cellar or something!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Womens Crack Technique Clinic - July 10-11, 2010

I will be teaching a two day Women's Crack Technique climbing course July 10-11 in Squamish. The course is open to women who have some climbing experience who would like to explore techniques and skills that will help you to become a more fluid and efficient crack climber. The course will be top-rope format, with the focus on movement techniques rather than gear placement or technical systems.

The ratio will be four students to one ACMG certified Assistant Rock Guide or Rock Guide. Students will have to provide their own shoes, harnesses, belay devices and helmets. I will provide all other climbing gear.

Investment for the course is $250 for the weekend, which will include a BBQ at my place and some yoga.

If you are interested in a similar course on different dates or a custom climbing course or guided experience, contact me at jasmincaton @

Womens climbing clinic in Joshua Tree, CA