When Peter and Anika put the idea of a September Albarracín trip to us we immediately came up with a bunch of reasons why we couldn't do it, like money, time and a possible trip next year. And then, we remembered that we're living in a small van so we can travel, and spend time in beautiful places with good friends. So we made the decision to go, slowly to save fuel, and make the most of the journey as well as the destination. This is our account of the trip.
Every year they rise like the living dead, moist and purple, white and delicate, brown and stout. They appear overnight, swelling through damp undergrowth. Culinarily, they are grouped with vegetables, but they are closer in structure to animals than to plants. They add flavour and texture to foods from many different cuisines, and can be found in your garden, in forests, in fields, for free... Mushrooms.
The rain splatters outside, washing away the last little tidelines of snow. We are watching an exhilarating climbing competition, Le Championnat de France 2018, and wondering whether the rock will be dry enough to climb tomorrow. A fairly normal way to spend time in Fontainebleau, but the last few weeks, our first here this season, have been...interesting.
Spain in January was so lovely last year that we planned to start this year in the same vein. Unfortunately, life did its thing and got in the way, and we remodelled plans to enjoy some crispy February connies in Fontainebleau. The 'Beast from the East' delivered crispy and more and I think we probably wish that we'd headed as south as possible regardless of the date. C'est la vie!
The days out climbing have actually been lovely, once (if) you get over the cold. The sun has been shining most days so we have headed to clear areas like 95.2, Cuvier and Rocher Fin, which capture maximum warmth. Sometimes we have been projecting harder boulders, the fierce burns keeping our cores fired up, and other days just enjoying moving on rock regardless of grade. The colours in the forest have been stunning, making time spent outside a pleasure, and it's been surprisingly sociable for a freezing late winter with friends out and about locally and from the UK and other countries.
To promote longevity during cold days we have developed a series of not particularly original tactics; climbing shoes in down jackets for the walk in, taking hot drinks everywhere, eating constantly. Sam has even been climbing in a jumper occasionally. I have been climbing wearing everything I can fit on at the same time. I still have giant, red, gross chilblained fingers and toes. Winter is not always a kind season for outdoor sports.
It would be a lie to imply that we have spent the whole period living in the van; instead we've mostly been hanging out with our buddy Uly, a large ginger cat who tolerates us in his house if we feed him. Excepting our time with Uly, our first few days were spent comfortably in the van and we took a misguided two night hiatus from housesitting to spend the coldest two nights out as well. Temperatures dropped down to a spicy -13°C and froze everything. There was ice on the ceiling, the duvet, ice instead of water... It seems that -10°C is probably about our limit.
Thankfully normality has returned with the rain, and we are back to trying to keep things dry instead of liquid. The variety probably stops us from getting bored. We are already excited for summer, when the main challenge is working out the perfect maturation level for cheese in the heat.
Autumn flew by; a lovely final Rock & Sun weekend, a month of living wild in the bivouac sites and meeting some really great fellow van-dwellers and climbers, visits from friends and mushrooms season. Our climbing fire was stoked by all the different people we had the pleasure of bouldering with, finding new excitement in old areas and exciting new areas. A late summer arrived in October, softening us all up for when the cold weather arrived with a kick towards the end of the month.
One day we woke up to frost-tipped golden bracken and fantastic climbing conditions to see off those sticky projects - when it wasn't too damp. The forest, which had swelled with people during September and October, returned to it's quiet, close depths and the bivouac sites emptied when the taps were finally shut off. We retreated gratefully to a work exchange arrangement with some friends and the warmth of their guest house, fitting shorter climbing sessions more appropriate to the cold in between crafting an oak and tiled worktop shelf.
Was at the right time, for us. It had been cold for long enough to enjoy the good conditions, but the bad were becoming more frequent too. Most of our friends had been and gone, and we spent a lovely meal with those that live in the area. Sam boarded a rather impressive send-train towards the end, fitting in last minute ascents of classic 8a's Les Beaux Quartiers and Amok amongst others, and I re-climbed Close Contact for the gazillioneth time, until I was happy I had finally done the right line. The fun we have...
We headed back to the UK in an appropriate farewell mizzle, content in our decision.
Couldn't talk about winter without mentioning training... Despite being predominantly outdoor climbers now, we both started climbing indoors and still enjoy it. I love messing about indoors, and try to incorporate a bit of order and training into my sessions, whilst Sam just really digs training. When we are in the Stroud area we usually climb at TCA in Bristol, a great wall especially for steep training, and always a good crowd of people. In Cornwall, we have the ace Vortex Climbing Wall to retreat to.
There is one advantage to being back for the cold, damp, dark British winter – it's climbing competition season. For us, they are a great way to try some different styles of problems, catch up with friends and meet other climbers, and get a bit of a buzz on.
At the beginning of December I went to the redpoint comp at Rockstar Climbing in Swindon. The routes were good, they have some nice volumes and holds and are using them well to create some fun, athletic routes. I was incredibly pumped through the whole event; climbing more than three problems was a bit of a novelty, and it was definitely a call to work on my power endurance as my hands were just letting go on their own by the end. However, for the first competition back, and almost my first indoor climb for a month or so, I was pretty happy with my climbing...and definitely chuffed to finish second in the adult female and climb surprisingly well (if not well enough..!) in the finals.
The Great Outdoors
The other advantage to the cold, damp, dark British winter is that sometimes it isn't at all. There is the odd day when the sun shines over sparkling snow or the windswept coastline, and they are all the more special for their scarcity. If work and life allows we try to get outside and make the most of these days, even if we're just chopping wood in a patch of sunshine. The snow days after Christmas were super fun, running around with the dog out in the drifts on Minchinhampton Common (true name) and watching the sunset reflecting off icy particles turn our whole world molten orange.
New years eve was lovely too, we blew off pub celebrations in favour of a wild night on the cliffs, listening to the waves crashing and watching a distant fireworks celebration. Morning brought coffee and breakfast, and the obligatory walk with some friends that we (very randomly) bumped into in the car park. All quite idyllic really. Other than some old biddy smashing her car door into the van in the morning, and then getting cross that we had ruined her day when we apologetically called her on it...
Happy new year!
Late this summer we braved the stormy roads across Europe to reach Slovenia, and a family holiday near the beautiful, mountainous lake town of Bled in the north of the country. The week that we had allowed for the roughly 1,600km drive gave us lots of time to explore, and the flip-flopping weather meant that we mixed up climbing and culture to try and dodge the rain. It resulted in a hopscotch trip stopping in some fairly random places, and we would inevitably get drenched at least twice a day when the storms caught up with us. It made the journey quite exciting, like a race against the elements. With regular coffee breaks.
Our first stop. The previous night's sleep had been a strange one, driving miles into nowhere for a camper aire that turned out to be, in the middle of the night, anyway, a super creepy commune appearing to be charging 15€ a night for basically being creepy. We woke up at seven to sneak out, and drove past the free parking on our way out, a bit shamefaced, but well on our way to arrive in Ticino by midday.
The original plan was for three days bouldering, however the rain was due to set in the evening of our arrival demanding a reevaluation. We had lunch, a power nap, and then set off to Area Centrale and the nearby Vitruvian Man roof, a boulder that both of us had been keen to try since our previous visit in spring. It juts out of a grassy field, an inviting cave of crimps and micro-jugs where we happily wore ourselves out until darkness arrived, and with it the first spits of rain. Rain fell heavily overnight, and the morning view of wet, fog shrouded granite held nothing more for us than a farewell photo. Sunny Italy was just half an hour away, and weirdly it was actually sunny.
Val Daone, Italy
Deprived of two days on Swiss rock, we detoured to some of Italy's reputed finest. Val Daone sits above Lake Garda, away from the tourist rush. Quite a long way above, as it turns out, we were a bit surprised to find ourselves passing 1,200m, but a very nice drive up a pretty gentle mountain. The bouldering area appears to be large and full of potential, but a little dispersed and complex for the short afternoon session that we had time for. We drove up and down for a while, getting out occasionally and poking at bits of rock, and then stumbled upon the Boulder Park which was ace and exactly what we needed. Three Font-style circuits of crispy granite with perfect wood chip landings, and all that is asked in return is respect for the environment. No problem. As usual, the rain caught up as night fell; we drove back down to the main road and spent the night at a lovely tourist info centre between the hills.
Switzerland has some of the most famous bouldering sites around. By some coincidence it also sits on roughly the most direct route to Northern Italy, where we had intentions to go to the bouldering festival Melloblocco. And so the idea for a mini road trip was born out of a weekend away, and we set forth from France with the vaguest outlines of a plan, a few bags of wholegrain pasta and a kilogram sack of madeleines (in case the rumours about prices in Switzerland turned out to be true).
The journey across France was long but relaxed, through green countryside that gradually grew up as we reached the Alps. We stopped in a foggy town by a river, with late night grumps and indecisions. The next morning the fog had cleared along with any teasiness, and we started out early to hit... Switzerland!