News from The Verdon- Part 1!

6th Jul 2011

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Hands up who has heard of The Verdon Gorge? That’ll be most of you I guess. If you haven’t, you probably started climbing this millennium when The Verdon has been slightly out of vogue. But when I started climbing, it was just at the end of it’s heyday and was one of THE premier climbing destinations in Europe…and to be honest , it still is. If you haven’t been, then make it a priority. Having just returned from a fantastic two weeks there, I already want to turn round and head back out there. It has been on my list of places to go for years and thankfully, I finally made it out there and am now wondering why it took me so long.

So to the trip.

Alex (Hughes) and I took a leisurely driving route down through France avoiding toll roads, which was fine but obviously took a bit longer. But I was driving my van, so driving fast on auto routes wasn’t really a priority. We arrived in the afternoon, so had a chance to check out the gorge from the belvederes along with all the tourists. Apparently, it’s the deepest gorge in Europe, so people flock there to see it and when we got our first view we weren’t disappointed. The other added bonus is the wildlife, especially the Griffon Vultures that have been reintroduced there. They were circling around on the thermals and we were all taking rubbish pictures of them on our cameras with way too small lenses, oh well. It was awe inspiring anyway to see these birds close up, they really are like flying people, massive.

We hatched a plan to climb one of THE classics � La Demande f6a � the next day. It was Alex’s 24th birthday and seemed an appropriate route to do. Ever since becoming aware of The Verdon, I’d heard about this big E1 that climbs the height of the gorge and had always wanted to do it, so that was cool. The other good thing about the route, is that it starts at the bottom of the gorge. So we managed to put off the adrenaline inducing abseils from the top and got used to the exposure from the bottom up.

Although, tired from the journey, we made an early start to avoid any afternoon storms that we’d heard are quite common (although luckily for us we didn’t encounter any of these while we were there). We found the start and set of on the first of many of The Verdon classics that we were to climb.

It turned out to be a long day with great climbing. I have to admit to not loving some of the chimney pitches near the top and was most relieved that they have been well geared in recent years. Call me a wimp but I’m just not into semi-soloing chimneys. There is a lot of varied climbing in the 12 pitches with a mixture of bolts and trad and it feels like a full body workout by the time you reach the top. The exposure is pretty wild but builds gradually. It wasn’t the quickest ascent ever (!) but we had great fun and found our Verdon heads and techniques on this uber-classic.

Funnily enough we needed a rest the next day, so we explored the area and drove the Route de Cretes which gives you great views of the gorge. Also, it gave us a chance to charge all our gizmos, which was a perpetual problem as we weren’t staying on campsites and all our modern gadgets kept running out of juice- who said technology was a great thing? It’s great when you’ve got a big fat electricity supply!

Our next route was the slightly harder and shorter classic ‘Luna Bong’ f6c. This was the scene of our first top down ab, quite a heady one too. But it’s well set up and the ab stations are easy to find, so within three long abs we were down on the Terrace Mediane. It’s a woody shady place and with the sun hotting up, was a pleasant starting point. I really enjoyed this route but found that taking little notice of the grades is helpful. On climbing like this and La Demande, the style is very traditional and applying French grades is a little strange. The English grading system works better for these types of routes as the f6a/f6a+ type pitches are not to be underestimated and really have to be climbed properly to get up them. We found jamming was an essential tool to successful top outs. Although the last and crux pitch, a stiff f6c, reverts back to classic steep burly climbing. A definite sting in the tail that saw Alex trying out some new found aiding skills. She had got through most of the hard climbing but the rain was starting to fall and getting to the top before the downpour seemed sensible, so out came the foot loops. Not the friendliest of places to learn aiding, the top of The Verdon but hey, needs must- she did a grand job. After this route, we had time to spare so bought a shower on the municipal campsite. Our first in nearly a week, it was a fitting end to the day. Then off we trotted to the bar for a welcome beer and pizza!

By now we felt we had done our Verdon apprenticeship and it was time to sample some classic Verdon wall climbing. Being stuck in large cracks is fun but has limited enjoyment value. So we got some advice from our local man on the ground � Brit Jim Burton (who proved to be very helpful and friendly) � and went in search of the four pitch ‘Reve de Fer’ f6b+. Well to cut a long story short, we had a bit of a day of it. We met a French couple on a way down who thought they were doing ‘Reve de Fer’ but weren’t really sure. So we didn’t head down but instead climbed two very good f6c pitches which were spicy but really gave us a taste of what The Verdon has to offer. We had a little rope jiggery pokery issues which were resolved but took time, so with tired brains, we headed to a busy belvedere and bumped into Jim and two German’s: Annette and Sebastian. They all recommended we finish on a single pitch f6a called ‘Wide is Love’. Wow, what a position! This route starts in the middle of one of the most exposed walls of the Verdon. You ab down to a hanging belay and it really is wild. Pulling the ropes takes a lot of bottle! Thankfully, the route is easy and actually very good climbing, if a little polished. So if you ever find yourself there, do this pitch for that Verdon heart in the mouth experience.

More to follow…