During the spring, summer and autumn we work with Rock and Sun to run bouldering weekends in Fontainebleau. In March they invited us to spend a week in the Costa Blanca with instructors Trev and Dees, to increase our coaching experience, learn more about their sport climbing holidays, and squeeze some top class escalada in between.
When the opportunity for a trip to Spain presents itself it would be daft to refuse. Our last month had been spent in France, in weather conditions more tumultuous than a teething two year old; spitting rain showers, sunny blustery days and the odd snow shower all shaken up together, and temperatures totally failing to rise above 12℃. There was fantastic bouldering to be had during this period and some great days out, but at the same time our choice was easy: run to the sun.
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.
Van life in the summer is, perishables aside, on the whole a lot easier. Our living room expands to include the trees, the grass, the beach; solar showers are actually warm and we can bath in lakes, rivers and the sea without freezing. It is also a teeny bit easier because lots of people go on holiday and we house sit, so some time living wild and some time in domestic luxury with the company of some cute pets.
Summer is not the classic season for climbing in la Foret de Fontainebleau but it can be wonderful, a time for tall trees and damp caves, shady spots and early mornings. We often end up in more esoteric locations, at the quiet, cooler ends of the day, more immersed in the green solitude of the forest and the wildlife that avoids the busier areas. As the days get hotter and longer, we spend more time hunting down these cooler climbing spots and the following are some of the places we have enjoyed the most this summer...
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!
“We are Melloblocco!”
Melloblocco is a meeting of boulderers from all over the world in Val Masino and Val di Mello, deep in the beautiful Italian Alps. For one weekend in May, a small town hosts thousands of people united by a love of nature and the outdoors; everywhere you look someone will be climbing something, all against the wild mountainous back-drop. Although by tradition there normally seems to be quite a lot of rain, watching the clouds bubbling up around snowy peaks makes up for it and the bright sunshine dries everything out quickly enough. Quite simply, it is a spectacular place to boulder, and Melloblocco a celebration of this epic site.
Our days at the festival went something like this: wake up early, for full day's climbing. Look at wet everything outside. Have long slow breakfast, until outside looks drier. Start climbing at midday. Walk up and down hills and rocks, climbing the odd boulder in lovely sunny weather and beautiful surroundings. Return to van late afternoon, eat dinner super quick before evening schedule begins. Do yoga class with fat pasta bellies. Eat/drink samples of tasty local or organic produce. Watch Italian boulder championships/ climbing movies/ presentations in Italian. Walk back to van in the rain, crash out. Repeat!
This year there was the addition of the Italian Boulder Championships to the Melloblocco line-up. As long term fans of bouldering events, we had watched many online but had never watched a live show. The Italian Championships were ace; tonnes of energy, a great set of technically demanding routes that split the competitors whilst seeing everyone top something, a massively supportive crowd and, most excellently, the 4 minutes plus rule had been resurrected for the final. The winners, with style, were Michael Piccolruaz and Giorgia Tesio. It probably couldn't have been any better, without free beer...
One of the best things about the weekend was the people: the MC who gave everything to his role, including his voice (you were Melloblocco); the always friendly and cheerful Zlagboard guys; the awesomely supportive girls on donna bloc C; meeting Laura again and taking her yoga class; the Scarpa folk who took the time to give us a crash course in climbing shoe manufacture and purpose; the guy who put his contact lenses in using our van window for a mirror, not realising that we were inside, watching him probe his own eyeballs...
It's nice to feel like your whole world is composed of climbers for a few days, and rather sad to leave for the real world. It definitely wasn't the worst farewell though, driving along the Northern Italian lakes at sunset. Before leaving we stocked up on tortellini, gnocchi, honey biscuits, Birra Moretti and a speciality of the Valtellina region, pizzoccheri, a pasta made from buckwheat, to make our Italian experience last a little longer.
And finally, back to Schweiz. What, we went to Switzerland? Yeah we did. Read the next one to find out about that.
Six weeks bouldering time in the sandstone awesomeness that is Albarracin, Spain, gave us a seemingly endless amount of time to find, establish and send boulder projects. Naturally, it flew by and we left without having climbed everything that we wanted to, and without even having visited all of the areas. Many of the best days we had were those that we spent climbing any boulder that we saw, regardless of the grade, but working and climbing the routes that were harder for us was also pretty special. Some of these took a lot of work, and others breezed by, but nearly all of them felt like quality routes.
It took us a while (me, especially) to get going as it was just so bitterly cold at the beginning of our stay there. We weren't prepared for the cold, and I think we expected the grades to feel a little easier. Some of the lower grades felt more straight forward to climb than their equivalent in Fontainebleau, but often a bit physically stronger too. The harder grades felt pretty much on the money for the most part, especially when supplementing the NoRop.es guidebook, nicely done but now slightly out of date, with the more current grades on their website.
As the weather warmed up slightly, so did our climbing, and we fell into an easy routine of climbing whenever skin, weather and energy allowed. We would try to get in some stetching and crosstraining when it didn't - although living in a van during cold, wet windy weather can make it difficult to muster up enthusiasm for this, it also makes these extra efforts all the more important to avoid getting all scrunched up. Our existence during this time was pretty monotonous although fun, being slaves to good conditions and needing some routine to pass the time. Sleep, eat, climb, stretch, eat, shower (1 out of 7 days?), eat, sleep, eat, rest, eat, eat, eat, sleep, eat, rest, eat, eat, eat... etc. We definitely got some funny looks during hangboard sessions in the car park.
Because Albarracin isn't huge, and we weren't straying too far from the beaten track, we rarely climbed by ourselves and met and spent time with so many lovely, passionate people amongst the boulders, so many thanks to everyone for spotting, beta, Spanish lessons, and especially the company.
Sam mashed together this video of our time in Albarracin, which hopefully captures some of the fun we had climbing in this beautiful area, and shows a few of our favourite problems (or the ones we remembered to film)...
Albarracin is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Spain, has a long and colourful history of human habitation and has been proposed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. During our first few weeks there, we had spent most of our time between the (also very beautiful) Piñas Rodenas forest, climbing on the boulders, and a small, windswept car park outside and above the town. Thus far, the majority of our cultural appreciation of Albarracin had been from this car park, which does provide a cracking view but is a little lacking in intimacy. We were running low on skin, money, friends, and food. It felt like a good time to do the tourist thing.
A few years ago we were driving aimlessly through Spain and passed a big orange cliff face, not unusual, however this one was covered in climbers. We thought about stopping, but never quite got round to it. We spent that night parked nearby under a small cave and woke up to the most amazingly juggy bouldering micro-site, in an adventure called the “Puigmola Breakfast Boulder” that gave us a taste of what the rock might be like. Three years later we realised that we were only a few hours from that crag, which in the grand scale of Spain isn’t very much, and in need of a sun, sea and sport climbing break. The parking at Albarracin was also starting to feel a little crowded, kicking an idea into a plan. We did the washing up (because we are tidy like that) and headed off...
We sit here, nestled among big dry-green and brown hills, as the wind rocks the van in a motion somewhere between soothing and spewy. Our sleep spot in Albarracin is a good one, a designated car park that is spacious and sunny, if a little exposed at times, and almost empty at this time of year. The other members of our transient family at the moment are Kili and Duci (the Fiat) from Berlin slash Southern Bavaria. A few others have come and gone, the orange juice guy with a tickly morning cough, a smiley Spanish couple, lovely Marty (and Roberta, his big Mercedes bus) from Brighton who so kindly gave us his guidebook, and of course Frances and Will, our vanning buddies for the beginning of the trip. It’s a fairly simple life up here, mainly concerned with food, sleep, bouldering and clothes management. We fill our days...
With the past, passing and present company, there are some consistencies...
Sometimes winter days call for change, and ours was to the warm(?) climes of Spain. Will and Frances were already there, the bouldering of Albarracin is renowned for being awesome, as well as the town itself very beautiful, and south seemed a good direction to take. So we packed up (read: two days of frantically removing everything, installing a gas hob and then putting everything back in), said goodbyes to our ever-patient families and friends, and left an unusually sunny England on the Seven Sisters to Dieppe.
It was obvious as soon as we began driving down through France that it was chilly. The windows all froze on the inside when we slept, and the temperature gauge plummeted as we progressed, reaching a Baltic -9oC around Puy as we drove through an ethereal, frost-tipped landscape over the Massif Central at about 5pm. Our wiper squirters froze at about -7oC and didn’t rejoin the party for about five days. Spain was marginally warmer, hitting an exciting 2oC high, and we arrived in Albarracin to dry, if brutally windy, conditions and a slightly weary Will and Frances, in time for an afternoon boulder. It was fortunate that we took advantage of this, because that night it dropped a fat load of snow over everything.
La Zahora, the super-friendly and generally lovely climber’s bar, allowed us to sleep in their car park whilst we were too nervous to follow every other car through the ice and snow. We spent two days drinking copious amounts of café con leche and eating big bowls of patatas bravas and salad, and then realised that we would have to brave the roads or go broke in the comfort of the bar. The main roads turned out to be fine, but the climbing wasn’t, each boulder capped by a big pillowy mound of snow slowly dripping down the holds. We made an executive decision to go to a nearby sport climbing spot, and similarly beautiful Spanish town, Cuenca, where the temperature gauge might again poke its head above zero.
The sport climbing in Cuenca is vast, on golden cliffs that border a meandering valley. The people of the area seem super active, passing in a constant traffic of walkers, cyclists, joggers and kayakers, whilst a relatively low number of vehicles made for a tranquil area. However, the lack of bouldering gave us itchy fingers, and judging that a couple of days was enough time for snow to melt, we headed back to Albarracin.
We were totally wrong in our estimates; the snow was still heavily present to the extent that whilst we could get up the 24 hour parking and the first car park for the bouldering, we were unwilling to drive the extra few minutes to the main parking as the tree cover had prevented the road from de-frosting. The extra walk was no bad thing anyway, it ensured that we were warm when we began to climb. Those first few days we would just climb anything that was dry, and a bonus if it happened to be in the sun too. It was nice to be moving and pull on rock, but at the same time frustrating, as our climbing was restricted to what was dry and our movement was restricted by the snow and ice, which still lurked about making the ground treacherous.
On what was to be Will and Frances’s final evening we went out for dinner in the old town, which is absolutely beautiful, soft stone buildings and winding streets all under yellow light. We found a restaurant that looked nice, but not so nice as to skimp on portion size, and the very smooth maître-de looked at us and immediately assigned a cheerful young guy with a stud in one ear to our table whilst he served the more refined diners. The food was good, if a little lacking in vegetables (probably down to our ordering) and most importantly, filling for a pretty reasonable price. And they gave us free shots of herby liquor at the end of the meal.
After one more day’s climbing, and a bang-tidy curry, Frances and Will left for the UK. The next day was the great melt, when the snow suddenly started to shift, but made everything soggy in the process, and then we did a rest day Mega-shop, which nearly required a rest day in itself. And since then, mostly just climbing, eating, sleeping, checking the weather, fetching water, the odd shower, the odd beer or coffee…
What better way to start the new year than nearly naked on a sunny beach, climbing, paddling and sunbathing... Not the 1st, that we spent hungover and curled up in bed watching films, but near enough, January 3rd. This wasn't anywhere particularly tropical, but in Cornwall, England. Geddin. Who needs to follow the sun?!
We headed down to Pedn Vounder, a cove at very nearly the end of the country, with Wojciech, Izabella, George and Ben the dog. None of us, except possibly Ben, were prepared for how warm it would be down there after a frosty night, and ended up shedding most of our clothes as soon as we had negotiated the path down. Judging from the number of people swimming in their underwear it seemed that noone* had expected it. The water was clear and turquoise, and the vegetation pretty lush for January; it felt like being in Thailand or somewhere...until the water's cold bite reminded us sharply where we were.
*Other than, that is, the dedicated ensemble of experienced exhibitionists who (considering their flawless full body sun-tan) have most likely been frequenting the beach in birthday suits all year round
Climbing was a delight too, the low sand levels had exposed some tough bouldery starts to the trad routes, and we played on these and other bits and pieces; granite aretes, highball slabs, steep and technical crimp fests and some juggy walls too. It pretty much ticked all the climbing boxes we could ask for.
Following explorations and lunch, we hit the steep walls in the 'canyon'. A huge slanted chasm slices into the cliffside running down to beach level, with a slab of black and red granite on one side providing easy descent for endless flowing water from above. It's counterpart is a similarly red and black patched wall with enough feature to keep your fingers busy for days on end. As mentioned previously, the fluctuation in sand levels also adds another layer of variety, it that you never know where your route will start. The order of things on this day meant lower starting points with slightly stingier features and ultimately crux points between the ground and the third or fourth move. Below is a video of a climb in this style that Wojciech and Sam .
Whilst the boys played on their wall route, Izabella soaked up the sun, Ben dug up the landings and George found creative new uses for our boulder pad, I soloed some of the short trad climbs on the next wall over, gentle routes with plenty of breaks and features. One route on the right of the wall is probably short enough to be a neat boulder problem, with a couple of big, spanny moves at the beginning to a relaxed finish. Happily, all were fully exposed to the sun's warmth - other than, sadly, for the photographer.
As the sun threatened to drop down behind the headland, we began the hike back up the little path before the growing shadows reminded us that we were in the middle of winter. By the time we reached the cars the air was cold and the sun was gone, we drove off with the heating on.
The last half of November and first half of December saw us living in the south of France, an area almost saturated with good sport climbing. Boring stuff like work and short winter days meant that we became weekend warriors; the limitations actually made climbing trips more valuable, and despite the early nightfall the days were sunny and warm...when they weren't being spoiled by r-a-i-n.
A short travel-break in the forest allowed us to enjoy five days of rain trickling through the trees and over the rocks. To be fair, we did have a lovely day climbing with Will and Frances, who stopped off on their way to Spain, but that was about it...
The sunny climb lured us into a false idylism rudely spoilt by some surprisingly squally, and apparently totally unseasonal rain, for about... the whole week. The river next to our apartment grew increasingly torrid and the ducks, coypu and local alcies that had been scattered about the banks on our first day all vanished in favour of, presumably, more sheltered areas. We did manage to sneak in a day's bouldering at Vidauban. There is enough easily accessible rock here to get a good burn on, and some fun problems. It is also very beautiful, with rough red rock and a lovely view over the surrounding countryside. We left feeling satisfied, tired and raw skinned, to the pitter-patter of returning rain.
We finally got round to finishing off editing a couple of reels of bouldering footage from the forest of Fontainebleau. The video was shot during our long trip away over the summer and contains some of the ascents that we were happiest with. There were other climbs that we were also really chuffed with, however a camera wasn't always present. This is probably a good thing. C'est tout.
Neath Abbey Quarry is a dark reddish, sandstone crag on the edge of the Mynnyd Drumau, in the south of Wales just shy of Swansea. Apparently, in 2002 the cliffs fell down (to the surprise of the inhabitants) creating a jumble of rocks and a bouldering playground that has been recently developed, primarily by Liam Fyfe and Alex Mannion. We went to check it out last week on an unusually warm, sunny, November day with Dan and Jonny.
Parking is possible in a cul-de-sac just below the crag, avoiding any imposition on private property. We met Dan and Jonny there, and began the walk up through the woodland, up the slippy slope, across the muddy track, over the swampy stream and along some rocky bits, putting us at the first boulder, and lunch. We climbed a couple of routes here, a nice 6b and 6b+ (Rail to Rail and Rail Diversion) and a few other bits and bobs, before heading further up into the boulders.
It's a good thing we climbed these, as they were the only routes that most of us managed that day. Our only other send was Dan's, of the delicate Techtonics (7b), despite splitting his fingertip on it. Sam and Jonny worked Half State at the top of the crag, with some progress, until sundown snuck up on us. The combination of being behind a hill and the change in clocks meant it got dark pretty quick and the long stumble through the boulderfield and brambles would have been testing had we left much later.
Success and failures - (right) Dan Stephenson keeping the side alive by making a heroic, post-finger-split ascent of Techtonics (7b) and left, Sam making one of many failed attempts to close Half State
Opinions seem to be split on this area - this write-up on the South Wales Mountaineering Club site is fairly scathing, whereas the UKC overview is more enthusiastic. Our opinion is a bit divided, too. The location is rather beautiful, quite wild and very tranquil despite sitting just off the M4. The climbing that we did was nice, on frictionous holds, and the blocs are pretty, featured, and with soft profiles that blend into the vegetation. The approach, on the other hand, is adventurous - a Mountain Rescue Leader that performed a rescue operation at Neath described the ground rather strongly as "exceptionally treacherous..."
Our conclusion; the number of problems here, over 120 with potential for more, make it a rather lovely, worthwhile venue so long as you don't mind a bit of brambles and stumbling. We'll be back for more...with approach shoes, thicker trousers and a smaller picnic.
In the spirit of appearing like we're doing something with this website, and out of habit, this post contains our sHitlist; a slightly smug run-down of the boulders we have climbed this trip. Having just spent the better part of three months on and off in the forest of Fontainebleau through the hot, cold, wet and dry we definitely had plenty of time to scramble atop a rock or two. Without too much beating around the boulder, we've also selected our top three climbs...
Welcome to Tijuana (7c), Apremont Envers
Originally, I got on this boulder late on a summer's morning only to find that (surprise, surprise...) friction was nowhere to be found over 30ºC. Spoiled attempts, thinning skin and lots of frustration led to abandonment until the furnaces of hell had subsided. A month and a half later I revisited it on a crisp September morning and oh my, oh my, it felt good. Every hold had some bite and with a few little tweaks at each section of the climb, I found a solid sequence that allowed me to cruise. After such defeat initially, being able to come back and crush made it all the more memorable.
I was originally captivated by this rock after a visit in spring of this year. I had a play on all of the moves on one of our final days of that particular trip but felt pretty quickly that this was a tactical error. Tired and feeling like my 'go' had got up and gone, I didn't make very good progress.
Still though, after returning home following that stint, I was reworking the moves in my head and found myself quite inspired. It's approximately 12-15 moves on pretty reasonable holds considering the grade. The bulk of the difficulty comes from spanning between slopers, maintaining body tension and having enough beans to make the last few powerful moves, again through some pretty demanding sloper holds. The aesthetics of the line also played a part, it being a rising traverse that requires a strong down-climb sequence followed by an elegantly violent couple of moves to top out. All of this takes part on a boulder that resembles a flying saucer that has crashed into the hillside. Being back in summer required some pretty early starts to get the most of the cool conditions, in the end it went down second go of the third session. Loved every moment of it.
Opium (8a), Recloses
My first true Fontainebleau 8a. With much shock I found myself topping out during the second session of trying it, after being resigned to it possibly taking many more hours of attempts. Yay!
Mémoire d'Outre-Tombe (7a+), Rocher Fin
This striking protruding roof was a vague project of mine from a year ago, when I felt pretty close to climbing it but lacking in endurance. On trying it again at the beginning of October, I realised that not only was my endurance still possibly not up to it, but that the last few moves felt hard enough that I didn't actually know how to do them. I found the perfect sequence for the last moves, and then completely forgot it and had to find a new way, with a high right heel that allowed me to move my hands up the 'nose' of the boulder. Naturally, I was too tired to climb the route.
Two days later we returned to Rocher Fin and I worked the end a couple of times then, feeling fresh and strong, climbed the full route, my fourth 7a+.
La Pierre et le Sabre / La Belle Arête (6c), Cuisinière
I was very excited to climb this route, mostly because it is an arete, which I suck at, and quite highball, which I also suck at. It is beautiful, as suggested in the name. The problem follows a crimpy rail into the arete, where you move round the feature and stand up to a slopey 'jug'. The top out is then, in theory, a relatively simple rock up.
It felt like the route lasted for an age, using a lovely heel hook to move out to the arete, then inching up with micro-movements, just tickling the bottom of the jug and having to trust the feet more, pushing up until I finally had the hold. The jug was less juggy than I had hoped for, and the top out took me more time, more creeping up with shaky disco legs. But I got it, topped myself out, and was just ridiculously excited to have climbed this lovely, tenuous line.
La Joker (7a), Cuvier
'Nuff said! La Joker is a super-classic, a 7a climbed before 7a existed, and a route I didn't think I could climb. We went to Bas Cuvier on our way to the ferry port, a last day burn on a busy, sunny October day. I tried the Joker a few times, moving into the characteristic side pull a few times and getting nowhere. I was ready to move on, but Sam and a few other people that were working the problem harrassed me into a couple of last tries. On the first, I started to push up on the high left foot, and the second I pushed up and then found a right toe. The next moves flowed easily, and left me at the top of the boulder, surprised. A bit of recombobulation later and I managed to haul my ass over the top. Who needs to climb La Marie Rose?! (Probably me)
The heady, sociable atmosphere at Cuvier that day was awesome fun, and just made us sad to leave, and hellish keen to go back.
Below are the lists of our more noteworthy ascents including the climbs mentioned above, along with possibly one or two others...
The change from summer to autumn passed almost overnight, and a moment's pause gives us a chance to reflect on the last few weeks. These have been crazy hectic, full of change and new opportunities, but also full of sunny bouldering expeditions and the odd sweaty sending session in the Forêt de Fontainebleau.
The long drive back through France didn't take much time, our slow, stop-start form of travel was replaced by something almost approaching efficiency. Only approaching, mind; at least three hours were spent traversing out of an enormous, beautiful, really annoying gorge that demanded constant changes between third and fourth gear. The remainder was a little faster, with one night spent at a picturesque 'aire' on a river surrounded by hundreds of large, shiny campervans that dicked on ours - they ain't got no tiger though, yo.
Temperatures in the forest were just as hot as when we had left it, and the weather was just as blazingly sunny. Sending conditions were, at an average of 35ºC, obviously subpar, however we had bigger fish to fry. The last weekend of August was our first weekend working with Rock and Sun, guiding, instructing and generally hanging out for their Fontainebleau based climbing holidays. In an ideal world we would have spent the few days before running over our sites in a relaxed sort of manner, but we were waiting on on a parcel from DHL who were adamant that they would deliver on the Tuesday, until about 10pm when they finally conceded defeat and ruined most of our Wednesday too. So we covered all of our sites in a day and a half. Pas de problème.
The long weekend went really well, and we have since done a few more which have also gone swimmingly. The clients have been, without exception, lovely, and captivated by the forest and climbing. We have tried to be clear about the ethical values that help to keep the forest beautiful for everyone, and are hopefully creating a mini army of clean-footed, chalk-brushing, litter-picking awesome climbers.
Back to what we do best - craghopping. The south of France has a fairly incredible concentration of quality sport climbing sites so a drive across is never going to be quick if you stop as the temptation hits. Everywhere we went we seemed to be surrounded by cliffs streaked with cream, blue-black and ochre or slabs of grey dissected by cracks and seams. What could stop us...
Sam being a sub-standard navigator
Within the Ardèche region of France there are many, many sport crags in an idyllic area of winding rivers and, in comparison to Gorges du Tarn, friendly cliff faces, as well as a small amount of bouldering(!). We wanted to climb some routes, but as we were missing short falls onto a pad we were going to give the limestone bouldering a whirl too.
It's full summer, and like last year we have left our cosy hobbit hole of bouldering for the airy heights of Mordor sport climbing in southern France. It's good to make sure that we can still climb for more than four meters. So where better to head than to the steep mega-routes in the Gorges du Tarn?