What to do when winter strikes but exchange one wild, wet, atmospheric coastline for another? After the loveliness of Christmas, an underwhelming New Year's Eve and a hurried TEFL course in London, we packed up and headed south to northern Spain. We paused for a dry day of bouldering at Jaizkibel, a pretty coastal spot just across the French/Spanish border (Atlantic side), and then the rain set in and it was time to explore the coastline and make our way southwest.
Our meta-data says that we use the word rain a lot in our blog articles. This isn't going to change much with this one.
The third video in the 2018 series of seasonal climbing in the Forest of Fontainebleau including highlights from our autumn bouldering. After a dry summer the rain didn't arrive until late October, and then didn't seem keen to stray too far away. Nevertheless, the weather windows occasionally opened. When they open you've got to go for it. Allez Allez!
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.
Summer 2018 was long, hot and quiet in Fontainebleau Forest. We had some great weekends guiding for Rock & Sun, climbing classic boulders in the shadier areas with enthusiastic climbers. In between we would get up early and head out to try our projects before the heat ramped up too much. We picked roofs and overhangs in deep shade, boulders that are frequently damp through most of the year and boulders with positive holds. This was not the time for sloper-slapping. With a little care and some sneak tactics (see: Seven Ways to Boulder Better in Summer) we both managed to climb some of our projects and I even managed to climb my hardest graded boulder problem to date.
We hope you enjoy this video of our summer climbs and any comments or feedback are, as always, gratefully appreciated.
This year, we went on holiday. Holiday is great, with relaxation, nice food, swimming, drinks... but sometimes more movement is necessary. We had checked out Mount Pantokrátor both in the guidebook and from our little 20hp boat, looming above Nisaki. It is the highest mountain on the gorgeous Greek island of Corfu, standing at 914/911/908/906m, spelt Pantokrátor/Pantocrator/ Pantokrátorus/Pandokrátor (all depending on source) and meaning “ruler of all” or “almighty”. Walking to the summit felt like a challenge, but not an excessive one as long as we left early enough in the intense July heat.
Information on the hike is sparse and poor on the internet, predominantly the same article rehashed in different places. The most useful accounts that we found were a couple of detailed personal descriptions on Tripadvisor, hidden amongst short pieces about the scariness of the drive to the summit. After a lot of research we concluded that trying to follow idyllic footpaths would probably be near to impossible to plan from the night before, but that walking from the village where we were staying would be fine. We used Google Maps to find a route, bought a pile of snacks (us: Italian maize biscuits, peanuts, apples; Sam: a huge local fruit and nut bar, fig pate, jelly sweets) and set our alarms for 6.15am. Preparation complete.
Hike in Numbers
Moving Time: 3:31:54
Total Time: 3:47:52
Calories (!): 955
Sam, my brother Sam, and I set off in the early light from Kalami, a village made famous by the Durrells and still pretty despite prolific tourism. The distance to Pantokrátor is not dissimilar to that from Kassiopi, and slightly further than from Nissaki. We tailored our route slightly to leave from our apartment above Kalami, hiking straight up to the main road rather than dropping through the village. This had mixed success; it's a nerve-racking road to walk along, sandwiched between a crash barrier over a steep drop, and the trucks thundering past, drivers honking and waving cheerfully, frappes in hand. Nevertheless, the views across to Albania from this height are stunning and the villages have a more authentic feel than the tourist oriented sites below.
At Kentroma we made the turn inland, through streets bright with geraniums. The climb began in earnest, up a tree-lined lane passing fields, farm houses, olive groves and of course the odd villa. The quiet road took us steadily up to Porta, a peaceful village. A well-reviewed restaurant, “The Old School” looks both nice and intriguing, but shut until dinner. The road vears up again, towards Megoulas. This hamlet was tiny and lifeless at the time we passed through, other than an insistently friendly little grey cat with a long face and big eyes. There is a big old mill house in Megoulas, derelict, but the millstones can still be seen leaning against each other, huge and rough, through the barred windows.
We took a track up from Megoulas, and that was the last we saw of civilisation for a while. It meanders round the hillsides, through course yellow plants and little rocky outcrops. As we walked, we could hear the rustles of lizards and snakes retreating from our footsteps, and flutters of crickets. Some flashed coral as they flew, then became invisible as they tucked their wings away on reaching the ground. This part of the walk was the most tranquil, no habitation around other than the abandoned village of Old Sinies below, just wildlife, open skies, and stunning views of Albania and Corfu..
After so long isolated in the hills above the coastline it was almost a shock to emerge onto a tarmacked road. Vehicle traffic was regular, bikers and walkers scarce. The last stretch felt long, despite cheerful assurances that “it was only ten minutes” from a Germanic family on their way back down. It was hard to get a gauge on where the top was, with the hillside appearing in and out of cloud. Some goats emerged out of the shrouds, looking quizzically down at us. We finally emerged to a chaos of parking arguments that made us happy to be without a car, and the stout legs of several radio masts that loom over the tiny monastery crowning the summit. It is all a bit surreal.
The monastery has stood in some form since the fourteenth century, and is still inhabited now. We wandered around the gardens, becoming surprisingly quickly accustomed to the mast squatting overhead, and entered the monastery itself. It is small, intimate, warm surroundings and cool temperatures. Paintings illustrate the walls and amazing pieces of beaten metalwork form internal doors. To enter, you must cover your shoulders, (and presumably more but that seemed to be all that was specified). We finished with a frappe at the cafe on hillside seats, where the clouds finally broke around the view.
There appear to be a few options to return down, but all involve at least some walking unless you hitch. We had enjoyed the 'up', and were happy to retrace our steps... to a point. Just after Porto we were feeling pretty weary, and stuck out a tentative thumb to a small car that passed by. A lovely couple from the UK stopped and happily squashed the three of us into their little back seat, dropping us five minutes from home. It was only the summit we were aiming for.
Birds Eagles? Buzzards? Serious bonus point to anyone who can identify the bird in this fuzzy photo, we'd love to hear from you; shrike – The quiet hillsides above Megoulas were dotted with scrubby bushes, and in some of these we saw pale, black streaked shrike, eyeing us suspiciously; hooded crows: hopping indolently in and out of the fog near the top, shrieking occasionally.
Insects crickets were everywhere, all different sizes and some with a slightly alarming habit of flying loudly into your face. Play it cool... On the descent we saw a couple of large praying mantis, swaying drunkenly on the path. Possibly European green mantis?
Reptiles at early afternoon we saw several big green lizards, possible Balkan Green or European Green. We also saw the tail end of a few snakes of varying sizes.
Plants the plant life was probably past its finest, in the heat of July. It still made an atmospheric backdrop to our hike, with seed heads standing jaggedly against the horizon.
If anyone can give us any further information on the wildlife in our photographs or on the island of Corfu, please comment or get in touch, especially for the 'eagle'. Thanks!
The Rough Guide to Corfu, Nick Edwards, 2003. Old, but still useful and very cheap now!
Walking the Corfu Trail: With Friends, Flowers and Food, John Waller, 2015
The Companion Guide to the Corfu Trail, www.corfutrailguide.com/ (Hilary Whitton Paipeti?)
The first time tactics nudged into our summer routine was during a hot week in July sport climbing at a small conglomerate crag in southern France, La Rochette. On our first day there we nearly killed ourselves staggering up the approach mid-afternoon, with all of our gear and a dubious volume of water. We began to climb, which was actually an improvement on walking up hill, but the overwhelming feeling was that of sweaty hands on the big, rounded, polished cobbles that jutted out of the rock. Keen to avoid a repeat of this unpleasantness, we began to head up instead at 7pm and climb for the cooler couple of hours into dusk. It was a pleasant novelty. Go figure....
Since this, we have spent a lot of time in Fontainebleau over the summer months, which, with its friction dependant slopers is not usually recommended for climbing at this time of the year. However, we have had some our best climbing days during these times; the forest in summer is quiet and tranquil and the weather is glorious. The rock dries within hours of rain. In order to enjoy our time and keep climbing projects (as well as the fantastic circuits) we have had to adapt our style, tactics and expectations. Here are some of the ways that we have found to improve our climbing in summer, predominantly trialed in 'Bleau but certainly applicable to other hot weather destinations.
May saw us return to the UK for, primarily, a wedding of two close friends (popular one for weddings, May) and take advantage of this to get stuck into a bit of the British bouldering scene. We also worked our butts off on various landscaping and gardening jobs and such to make up for our spring of sloth. Life needs a bit of balance.
Biblin's Cave is a small but thoroughly developed bouldering area near the Welsh border. It is environmentally very sensitive and only open May – September to allow for it's other residence, bats, which makes it feel a bit special that we are able to climb there at all. I visited for the first time with Em on a sunny afternoon; bumping into some more friends in the car park made for a good crew to work a few routes. I climbed the deservedly classic route The Bulge, and fell off Pop for the Top and Peckitt's Traverse for the rest of the session.
On a second visit, with Sam along too, we were absolutely stoked to catch up with the ever wonderful Frances, Will and Alice at Biblin's. I fell off Pop for the Top and Peckitt's Traverse some more; a less constructive session now I've climbed The Bulge, but fun nonetheless. Sam put away a reasonable first time visitor's list of The Bulge, Pop for the Top, School of Burl and Rock the Kasbah. We finished around dusk and followed Will's sat nav on a scenic route back to a very late dinner. The next day's climbing plans dissolved under a hot sun and a lazy morning spent drinking coffee and chatting peanut butter prices and milk alternatives. It couldn't have been nicer. We began the pilgrimage to Cornwall.
After a few days of seeing family and friends, a short sunny boulder session on a rather damp Godrevy Beach, and of course a bit more gardening, we started making our way back up through England. An important stop en route (other than the wedding) was to Tintagel, an esoteric bouldering spot in northern Cornwall. We drove through the faux-fairy surreality of the village, beautiful buildings, heavy spirituality peddled on every corner, heaps of wandering people and hiked down to the bouldering with Danny, Cai and Danny's dogs. Asked by at least four separate groups what the pads were for. Gave assorted answers.
The rocks at the site were outrageously slippery, everyone fell over. The sea was a bit lairy too, trying to snatch our pads, bags and Danny's dogs away. A bit of head scratching led us to suspect we had miscalculated and arrived around high tide. We waited a bit, then resumed falling over on the algeous rocks when the sea had retreated a bit. Nearly everyone was bleeding by this point.
We started climbing again, with a tentative cat dance down to the boulder pads. Everyone dispatched the classic Purple Haze deftly except me. One move is big (not too big to climb, just big enough to be too hard - this session...). Sam also climbed highly rated The Apprentice and AWOL Apprentice, a shoulder sit start to the aforementioned. Danny and Cai both climbed All Along the Watchtower. It was a fantastic first taste of this rather iconic (in the south west, and maybe even a bit further) boulder.
This video captures some of the boulders that we enjoyed climbing in the Forest of Fontainebleau this spring. It was a relaxed time for us, spent meandering round climbing areas with various visiting friends, the warmth (or burn) of the sun on newly bare shoulders and surrounded by the vibrant green of fresh leaves. It was also productive, seeing Sam have his strongest season ever and my return to projecting.
After a week of easy going limestone sport climbing in a warm Costa Blanca (The High Life - Sport Climbing in the Costa Blanca), my various niggling injuries were fading. Although I was excited to start pulling hard again, this was tempered by an unsurprising drop in fitness...that somehow still managed to be surprising. With a bit of patience, however, I climbed a couple of lovely 7a's before we left – one of which, Bégnot's Story, was a project that had eluded me for a few years..
Sam came back strong(er) and the slightly warmer temperatures saw him demolishing a bunch of hard projects, including his first Font 8b boulder, Elephunk, in a jump from 8a. He also completed a 'life goal' of climbing the notorious 'Big Five' boulders at Cuvier Rempart, with the final boulder Atrésie going down with a real fight over about six lengthy sessions with over fifty attempts. Elephunk, in contrast, took three short sessions.
It is predominantly composed of Sam climbing lots of problems, with me sneaking in for a couple in between. We hope that you enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
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...