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.
Of course the best laid plans, as they say, are a waste of time, and ours were shredded. The drive from Tarn was circuitous (a lax approach to map reading and helping out a friendly hitch hiker were to blame, although the awesome viaduct and ANT FARM at Millau also played their part) and we arrived in the Ardèche mid-morning after a chilled night in Génolhac's camper stop. There was actually a fête on, but we were too tired to bother which was probably a shame. There were grumblings and flashes all night from some rather epic storm clouds, which followed us to the Gorge de Chassezac and proceeded to let rip with a fierce level of ferocity, all afternoon.
The waves of torrential rain washed away our climbing hopes for that day and we went for a very picturesque walk on polished, slippery limestone along the cliff tops. Exciting. We tucked ourselves out of the way in the woods for the night and headed out for an early morning boulder, via the 'green' circuit walking trail. The walk was stunning, a circuit that really follows the landscape in a determination that you should appreciate every inch of the fantastic rock features - and we really did. The bouldering scattered about it also follows coloured circuits, in a Font-style. The development of problems is impressive, if a little polished at times for comfortable smearing. We had a pretty good burn on a handful of interesting boulders that were for the most part nice problems, although the dashed lines marking out the trend of the routes were occasionally restrictive for movement.
'The Heat' had set in again after the storm so we spent the afternoon by the river, reading and swimming rather than climbing. As the day dwindled we recommenced driving, heading to a lofty little village called Méjannes-le-Clap. Their generous camper stop has toilets and taps and sits by a natural park where we jumped about on rocks and watched the sun set, glowing, behind wispy grass and gnarled little olive trees.
Les Dentelles de Montmirail
We spent quite a while debating whether Les Dentelles de Montmirail are part of the Alps or the Massif Central. Wikipedia helpfully reveals that we were wrong either way; they are their own small chain of mountains, made from Jurassic limestone forced high into the sky and then eroded in the distinctive shapes that jut into the sky now. "Dentelles" means not teeth as we had (also wrongly) assumed, but lace in homage to their relief, whilst "Montmirail" means admirable mountain. They also are covered in an inordinate amount of single and multi-pitch climbing routes.
We travelled onwards to the Dentelles. A quick cross reference between our temperature gauge, showing 35º, and our guidebook led us to change our original plans in favour of a north-facing area of the outcrop. On arrival in Gigondas, however, we found that the access had changed, being closed to cars in summer due to fire risk and therefore demanding a hefty walk in. We wandered about Gigondas musing our options, enjoying the shade of the plane trees and admiring their knitted trunks.
We settled on a late afternoon multi-pitch in an area that we had visited before, Chaine de Clapis, figuring that the three pitches, of 5+, 6a+ and 6a would be an appropriate target. Naturally we were wrong, and found ourselves 65m up the cliff needing to lower off at the end of the (delightfully delicate) second pitch as the last tinges of sunset faded from the sky. It was, in all probability, my (Amber's) fault; I took far too long on the first pitch that felt, to me, polished, hollow in places, and quite run out. Bit of an epic. Lovely, lonely nights sleep though. Woken up at four by the vineyard workers, and then again at six by some men putting up a sign to our parking area. We exchanged "bonjours".
The following locations are all in the vicinity of Buis-les-Baronnies, which we visited during our stay with Adrian & Audrey at Alauzon. This area is particularly rich in sport climbing at all levels and in some magnificent locations. Alauzon is an awesome place to stay for access to these, whilst being immersed in the beautiful nature of the area.
Lou Passo, boom!
Baume Rousse is a cracking spot high in the hills above Buis-la-Baronnies; two sectors of grey slab sandwiching an amphitheatre of steep, pumpy tufa climbing across a surprising grade spectrum. Locationally speaking, it's epic. From the top of a route you get a whopping Provencal panorama, forest and vineyard punctuated with ridges and peaks, and a view across to Mont Ventoux that almost seems to sit at eye level.
The russet streaks of these cliff faces reflect their name, Rousse, meaning a redheaded woman
Finally, in this rundown of crags through southern France, we come to one that is only in infancy. We'll call it Alauzon, for now. It only has a handful of routes on it so far, but a tonne of potential. Thanks to Adrian for letting us have a sneak peak but also for our stay with him and Audrey in this magnificent slice of Provence. À bientôt.
Endless cliffs and outcrops scattered all around Buis-les-Baronnies