Friday, June 22, 2012

Nature, Culture and Pleasure in Corsica

Corsica is a mountainous French island in the Mediterranean, and according the The Lonely Planet Guide, "it's hard to find a better combination of nature, culture and pleasure". With a description like that, it's pretty hard not to want to make a trip there! But as I was planning my annual spring Euro climbing vacation, I found it hard to get a sense of the quality and quantity of the climbing in Corsica, and after visiting many of the ultra-classic French climbing zones like Ceuse, the Gorges du Verdon, Presles and the Gorges du Tarn, all of which I could easily revisit, I wondered if Corsica was going to stand up to my high standards of French stone.

I shouldn't have worried...

I travel a lot and when I arrive in a new place that really inspires me I feel energized by the new smells and tastes and seeing new landscapes and combinations of colours. I run around taking a million photos of weeds and trees and bugs. Through my "fresh" eyes all of these commonplace things are national-geographic worthy spectacles, although a few weeks later when I am home and wading through all of my mediocre-at-best shots, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. A few years ago near the Verdon Gorge in France I went for a long solo hike on a rest day and witnessed the a parade of nose to ass caterpillars that was so long I couldn't even see the end of it. I took 50 photos and several movies, which is pretty funny considering that I took almost no photos while climbing up the steep and exposed walls of the beautiful Gorges du Verdon. "Ho hum, just another multi pitch rock climb, yawn. But these bugs are so cool!"

Caterpillar train near the Gorges du Verdon, France
Showing up in Corsica brought on a flurry of that feeling of excitement, wonder and super-energy. The landscape was beautiful, rugged and very different from what we had just experienced the previous week on the neighbouring island of Sardinia. It sounds silly to say that a certain rock type has special meaning to me, but there's something about granite that I completely love. Perhaps it is the fact many of my formative dirt-bag adventures were played out on the granite walls of Squamish and Yosemite. 

After driving off the ferry in the town of Bonifacio on the southern tip of Corsica, we bought a map and made our way towards one of the main climbing areas - the Col de Bavedda. 
We bought this map of Corsica in a gas station, not knowing that it was an actual-size representation of the island. Trying to navigate with it from the passenger seat of our teeny Fiat 500 usually resulted in me blocking the entire windshield, and Evan's view of the narrow and winding road. Folding this map was pretty much the crux of our week in Corsica. 
We bought the only guide book we could find - a beautiful french guide book called "Bavedda - Auguilles entre ciel et torrents by Jean-Louis Fenouil and Jen-Paul Quilici". The route topos were all done on exquisitely detailed watercolour paintings, and although I loved the uniquely artistic appearance of the guide book, it turns out a photo or a detailed route topo is actually pretty helpful when you are figuring out an area for the first time. We spent two days attempting to find, then climb our chosen warm-up route, Esperanza, on Punta Rosso. It's a 6 pitch, 7a+ route with a steep 1.5 hour approach, which we got thunder stormed off part way up on both days. Although we weren't able to complete the route, from these pitches and some single pitch sport routes we did closer to the road we got a sense of the high-quality and mind-bending geometry of the Corsican granite.

Watercolour image of the Punta Rosso from the Bavedda guidebook
Sunrise on some of the spires at the Col de Bavedda
Climbing up steep and wild features on Esparanza
No energy bars in sight, this was a fresh, pine-nut studded almond tart from the Boulangerie in Zonza. 
Post-thunderstorm sunshine on the beautiful scenery at the Col de Bavedda
Huge flowers on the hike up to Esperanza

A crappy weather forecast drove us out of the Col de Bavedda and towards the town of Ajaccio on Corsica's west coast. Descriptions of 7-9 pitch lines on the Rocher des Gozzi in the Falaise de Corse guidebook had caught our interest, but we had nothing in the way of first hand information on the climbing and hadn't run into any other climbers in Corsica so far. Thanks to the awesome details in the guidebook, which was in english as well as french, we easily found our way to the climbing, and spent our day climbing up a well bolted 9 pitch route called Gozzilla, 7b (6b+ obligatory). The climbing was technical through the lower and upper sections, with edges and huecos. The middle section climbed out a wildly overhanging cave which would have been amazing to send, but the cave was entirely moist either due to seepage or condensation on the rock. Thanks to the close bolting, we could pull through a few of the greasy moves and enjoy the rest of the climbing.

Evan and the base of Gozzi, figuring out what's what
The lower pitches on Gozzila were surrounded by these giant cacti, which were thankfully thorn-free
Starting up the steep and damp cave section of the route. By the appearance of the rock, I expected it to be crumbly kitty litter, but it was completely solid!
Evan in the fog on the summit of Gozzi
Beautiful plants and flowers on the descent
Evan hiking past a ruin on the decent
After all this climbing, it was time for some replenishment, and this is one area where Corsica will not disappoint. A rich local cuisine filled with amazingly fresh cheeses like Brocciu, a signature Corsican product made from sheep and or goat's milk, dishes made from wild boar and the addition of chestnuts to everything from stew to ice cream, to beer to tiramisu. With all those steep approaches, we had a significant appetite for refuelling. A sport climbing trip this was not, and we feasted like alpine climbers who had just starved for days in the mountains.

Salade de chevre chaud with some organic Corsican wine. I'd say the dirt-bagging days are officially over. 
Me getting cosy with the wild boar... the stewed wild boar with chestnuts at this auberge in the town of Zonza was amazing.
It's hard to beat wood fired pizza on the beach, with some frosty Pietra (a Corsican Beer) or refreshing rose.
Next we made a quick visit to the cultural and geographical centre of Corsica, Corte. Our main draw was the Vallee de Restonica, a beautiful valley next to Corte surrounded by Corsica's highest peaks with numerous long and short route possibilities. When I return to Corsica I will definitely schedule in a good week or two to climb in the Restonica, but on this trip we didn't have the time or the weather to do much more than drive up the valley and get a few roadside sport climbs in between thunder showers. But if the amount of rock and the quality of what we sampled is any indication, there is a lot of potential for great climbing on existing routes, as well as lots of new route potential with relatively easy access. 

We did a few pitches of 5.11+ to 5.12 at this crag called Frassetta in the Restonica. The climbing was up cracks, edges, and crazy round-features that almost felt like Maple cobbles. 
With only one climbing day left in Corsica, we really wanted to climb Jeef (7b, 14 pitches) at the Col de Bavedda. The weather was calling for afternoon thunder storms, and bailing from this climb isn't really feasible before the top of the 8th pitch, where it joins the easier and popular route "Dos d'elephant". We got an alpine start and managed to climb the route, which completely exceeded our expectations, which is saying something for a couple of rock snobs who didn't get enough sleep, had not taken a rest day in a week and got in a giant fight about whether to keep going to the top despite the menacing clouds (me) or bail from the top of the 9th pitch (Evan). Even better, our rappel route took us down the route Delicatessen (8b), which along with Jeef was established by French hardman and Arnaud Petit. Delicatessen looked hard but so good... those of you capable of that grade who like granite climbing should check it out! By the time we hit the ground, the sun was again shining and my day was taken to the next level of awesomeness when I took an icy dip in the beautifully sculpted smooth pool in the creek at the valley bottom.

I was worried I shouldn't use this for pro...
But then Evan gave it the MOG test
Evan on the 3rd pitch of Jeef
Climbing up through crazy huecos on the wild 7th pitch of Jeef.
The cave pitch.
Thunder-storm-aphobe Evan preparing to rap down as I basked on the summit, refusing to be rushed off our last summit in Corsica.
A profile view of the climb, taken from the descent raps down Delicatessen
With guiding work commitments drawing us home to rainy Squamish, our trip to Corsica had come to an end. Despite the fact that we experienced fairly unsettled weather, we managed to climb at least a few pitches every day we spent on the island. As with all of my favourite climbing trips, this one finished with me hungry for more and scheming for an opportunity to return.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Multipitch sport climbing in Sardinia

Every spring Evan and I are faced with the somewhat daunting task of getting back into climbing after a full 5-6 months on our skis. Even though I go through the process every year, it's still hard and at times frustrating. There's always a phase of wondering if we even like climbing anymore, and we find ourselves drawn to running and mountain biking, sports that we actually feel better at after ski season thanks to our strong legs and huge lungs. After cruising around in ski boots for so long, climbing feels uncomfortable, unnatural and really really scary. I find myself checking my knot several times mid pitch and my toes scream for mercy even in my most comfy rock shoes. Even the soles of my feet get sore from walking rocky trails in sneakers after literally months of treading on soft snow in stiff plastic ski boots. As you can imagine, the whining gets completely out of hand, and the last thing I want is to subject my Squamish climbing partners to this pathetic display... the only option is to run away!

The perfect antidote for the early season lack of climbing mojo is a trip to Europe, and we have made this part of our spring routine for the past few years. Clipping bolts on some steep Euro limestone, enjoying good food and wine, and just being somewhere new really helps us get fit and re-psyched for the climbing season. After spending last fall clipping bolts in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, I was really craving a trip with a bit more of a multi-pitching/adventure climbing element. Browsing our favourite Euro-climbing inspiration source, a book by Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit called "Parois de Legende - Les Plus Belles Escalades d'Europe" we were drawn to the multi pitching possibilities on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, conveniently located close together in the Mediterranean, but each with different rock types, topography, culture and language (Sardinia is part of Italy and Corsica is part of France).

We flew into the main airport on the north end of Sardinia and hopped into our rental car, an adorable but gutless little Fiat 500 (say "cinquecento" not "five hundred") and made the slow and windy drive to Cala Gonone, a small village on the east coast bracketed north and south by rugged, undeveloped coastline.

Evan dwarfing the Fiat 500

We were warmly welcomed by the italian family who were renting us a studio apartment in their 6-unit building, and it turned out they spent most of the 80's living in Squamish a few doors down from where we live now. The father worked as a pipe-fitter at the pulp mill and his son, who was born in Canada, now runs the vacation rental apartments with him in Sardinia. Their apartments are clean and bright and right next to the beautiful town beach in Cala Gonone - if you are going to Cala Gonone, I would recommend this place completely.

 Our first few days were kind of rainy, but we kept ourselves busy...
Enjoying the local food - this thin bread is a Sardinian specialty called Carta Musica (music paper)
No trip is complete without sampling the local beverages - strictly for research purposes

Evan making friends

 Giant blooming cactus plants lined some of the roads

I love the unstructured but aesthetic details common in many of the places we have visited in Europe

Our first few days we hit up a number of crags in the Cala Gonone vicinity, and even made a 1.5 hour drive to a nice looking area to the south called Jerzu. The combination of super humid conditions, polished rock and the frequency of super rusty bolts and manky anchors left us underwhelmed with the climbing, even if we were loving everything else. 

Cala Luna - a lovely beach with steep climbs right off the sand. Rusty bolts and damp rock detracted from the climbing, but we had a great day complete with a total 3 hours of hiking after we missed the last ferry back to town. 

Cala Luna

We decided to ditch the cragging in favour of some multi pitch climbing and checked out Mediteraneano, an 8 pitch 12a route on Punta Girardili, a 700m cliff on a wild and undeveloped section of coastline. At last, we felt like we were climbing something worth flying over the Atlantic. The climbing was vertical and reminiscent to what we climbed in the Verdon Gorge, but more remote and wild feeling and no one around.

Salami to be, on the approach

Just another crappy Med view on the approach to Punta Girardili

Evan seconding some super tech-ness on Mediteraneano

Higher on the route the rock is steeper and the scenery remains mediocre

Our final day in Sardinia we climbed the classic spire Goloritze, which has many 4-6 pitch routes on it and sits above one of the most scenic beaches in Sardinia, which can only be accessed by boat or a 1 hr steep hike.  We opted for the hike, and snuck in our four pitches of awesome climbing before the heat hit and we had to retreat to the smooth white slabs and round pebbles of the beach for some rest and refreshment. It was quite epic. I almost got a sunburn and the beer almost got warm. 

Evan climbing on Goloritze 

Clowning around near the top of Goloritze

Testing out some Sardinian beer

...and discovering the perfect beer holder

The Goloritze spire and beach

There is even an arch beside the beach. Seriously? This place is too much.

Smooth, clean limestone pebbles at Cala Goloritze - you don't even get sand in your butt crack. Heaven on earth. 

All in all, Sardinia was an awesome place to check out. I would not recommend it for those seeking a sport cragging trip, but from what I sampled of the multi pitches the quality and options on this front are somewhat endless. The hard men and women out there can check out Hotel Supramonte (8b, a bunch of pitches) and there seems to be plenty for 5.11 climbers too. The beaches are beautiful and Cala Gonone is low key, a welcome change from the packed beaches and high prices in some of the other  Mediterrnean beachside towns I have visited.

Although we easily could have stayed longer and climbed more multi pitch routes, temps were climbing into the 30 degree celsius range so we decided to head to Corsica, where mountainous granite and cooler temps awaited. Trip report on Corsica coming soon!