Summer is over and the leaves are falling and changing colors ushering Autumn to the gorge. The green and red mix in the valley looks great as backdrops from whichever climb you choose to rap down and climb out off.
Welcome to Gorge du Verdon, we are in southern France with really shitty weather when we arrived 3 weeks ago. It was raining every other day and if it was not raining, it will be really foggy in the mornings, cold and overcast in the afternoon. With weather like this in the gorge for sure we did not do anything crazy and so we stick to climbing some single pitch on beginner’s crag like Valute to get use to the face climbing and at new age crags with mega overhangs like Hulk. Climbing in overhanging caves means that you stay dry no matter if it was raining or if a storm is coming your way. But it also meant that the Verdon adventure has not begun without crazy raps into the valley and the ‘no way out unless you climb’ out of the gorge adventures.
Climbing in Verdon is a new experience for me. It is usually approach, climb, descent and hike out or bivy. In Verdon, we stay in the town of La Palud camping in Uncle Morris lavender farm with endless cow or horse moaning day and night( I’m sure because they are cold) and drive to the crags which is usually within 10km in windy roads. You will find the route which you want to climb, by very good guess work or the occasional names which is written on the rocks near to the anchors. And rap down from the chosen anchors, into a sea of bolts in a clean sheet of gray or orange limestone. Sometimes you end up in a garden in the middle of the wall other times you end up at the bottom of the gorge with 2 ways out.
1 – climb up the way you have chosen and if you climb a wrong route, good luck in looking for the right way up.
2 – bushwack northwards to Le Verdon, you should come to the GR 4 hiking route which is 14km long and you walk back to Sentier Martel or to Maline Chalet. Either way is not fun in climbing shoes and that is if you manage to bushwack to the trail. Sometimes you find a sharp drop off which could be another crag or just choss. Did we mention hitch hike back to your car?
We did 1 most of the time and almost never have to do 2 and hope we never will need to do that.
So we were climbing a few ‘get ready climbs’ in Verdon and thinking we are pretty ready for some Verdon adventure and I’m dying to get on some harder and longer climbs in Verdon. Kelly and I discussed for sometime and looked at the topo at the dish washing area in the campsite for like 150 times and decided that we should climb Pichenbule as our first serious outing since our good friend Sebastian also recommended the climb.
So weather is good, 2 more days to highline meeting in Riveria and we decided that it is the time to execute the ‘SOF’ style planned climb. We did the guidebook recommended way of rapping off Ticket Danger (what a name to give a descent route) and traverse across the garden before doing another 2 raps to the base of the gorge.
We found the base of Pichenibule with some bushwacking and with the help of some stray cords on a plant on the route. As we were already kinda late from the usual snooze monster in the morning and the longer than expected breakfast we take, I took the first lead on the traversing 5c pitch which feels a little like Tre Cime with some loose stuff here and there. Kelly took the second traverse + down climb and got to the belay alright. It all seems good and fast until I hit the long 6a dihedral 3rd pitch. There seems to be 2 way up, a newly bolted dihedral on the left and some old bolts on the right. I thought to myself ” ah great! new bolts ! It should be some bolts replacement program to make this mega classic safer.” So off I went and shot off to the left and climb it out on the strenuous dihedral until a point where you have to top out on a small ledge with little or no hand holds. I was thinking ” Hell, old school Verdon 6a is hard !” Sweaty palms, 3m runout below me and rock humping action, I barely make it up that ledge and staring at me is a traversing face with some raindrop holds and clean grey wall. I’m doubting that I’m on the wrong route and just keep telling myself 6a can’t be that hard and started to blast up that grey traverse.
About 3 bolts up the face I took a fall. And after a couple of hangs and serious pump on the forearms, I was thinking this is a little too much for a 6a and the old bolts look like the right candidate as our chosen route. I climbed off into a cave and belay Kelly up. Kelly screamed “Why did you even bother to try this route!” Haha yes its one of those climbing couple thing screaming at each other.
I traverse back to the 6a route and up to the Ecureuils garden and look at the time. 1500hrs. 1 more hour of sun and 3.5 hours of daylight. With 9 more pitches ahead, I think we will need to do the 7b+/A0 pitch in headlamps and Kelly was feeling giddy from the lack of water and warm warm day (warmest in Verdon we have seen). We bailed and climbed up Dalles Gris 6a which happens to be a nice abseil route. Ended the day with 9 pitches of climbing and one serious pitch with unknown grade. I was kinda tired but Pichenibule was still on my mind.
The following day, we decided to go back to the route and rap off Dalles Gris and finish it off from where we left it. We knew it was not the best style but hey its better than not finishing it at all. From the Garden which is about 120m from the gorge we did 6 pitches of run out traverse ranging from 5c – 6c+. Arriving at the 7b+/A0 pitch I did not even think about climbing the route since we were shit tired I linked the A0 pitch up with the 6B while the sun set behind the gorge leaving us with howling cold wind blowing up from beneath.
My toes hurt so much from climbing Pichenibule leaving us to conclude, Verdon climbing needs serious foot work and some balls to pull moves on those run outs.
So Kelly and I pack our tents and drove to Saint Jeannet near Nice for the Riveria Highline Meeting. It was a great day away from climbing visiting Saint Jeannet (also a climbing crag), living in a vineyard and walking some highlines. The meeting is great and I’m already thinking how to create something like this in Singapore to boost our slackline community 😉
3 days break from climbing, we decided that we should go back to Verdon and climb more since I’m growing to like that kind of old school climbing. We planned another mission on La Demande (The Question), at a moderate grade of 6a but really old school and bolted/FA in 1967 we wanted to be really careful with the climb. Many comments on the internet is about how people bail, how bad the climbing is and how hard it was. At this point of time, I really don’t think grade matters at all since we have climbed some really sandbagged routes in Verdon.
Off we went rapping in from Dalles Gris the day after a heavy rain. This time we were almost on schedule until our rope got caught 3 times on the 5 X raps down the gorge. Never mind about that, during the approach to the climb in our climbing shoes, I slipped and fell and cut my palm open. C’est la vie, I gunned off the first 2 pitch and Kelly stitched up pitch 3 and 4. Apart of being polished, I feel super comfortable on this route with laybacks, jamming and placing gears where run outs are more than 5-15m bolts apart. It feels like crack climbing with a occasional bolt but with some character in it that is hard to describe.
Pitch 5 and 6 were linked with some wide cracks and strenuous layback and greasy feet. Kelly got pitch 7 to a nice little garden where we took a break and have our baguette. I linked 8 and 9 which are 2 pitches of back to feet chimney and some steep wide cracks on 9 busting some deadpoint moves to a nice finger crack to the right. Kelly was getting tired as she finished off pitch 10. It was getting dark at 1730hrs and the 2 pitches of chimney above us looks cold and unwelcoming.
I quickly shot off 11 and 12th pitch in some serious chimney moves and bird shit smelling crack. Back pack was hauled up to prevent either party climbing this full feet to feet or back to feet pitches with a pack. The race with the fast diminishing sunlight was lost when Kelly tried to link the last 2 pitches and ended up in the dark vegetated gully without headlamps. She anchored off the tree while I came up with the pack and finished the job off in headlamps. We topped out at 1930hrs taking 8hrs on the 380m climb and 2 hours on the descent.
La Demande have a lot of history in it being the first climb in the sector and also the first climb in Verdon to be above 300m. The FA guys certainly got balls when they climbed it in 1967 without cams and vibrant rubber; and possibly homemade nuts. We are proud to have link up most of the climb onsighting every pitch without killing each other =D
Next up! We haven’t made plans but there are tons of things to climb in Verdon from beginner crags, new school overhangs, old school face or steep climbs (when hardest grades were 7b or so) and some mega multi pitch which requires some gears (cams most welcome but nuts will do most of the job) . There is something for everyone to try so email me if you are thinking of coming to Verdon for some adventure!