Le Pilier Sud (TD-, 6a, 1000m), Dent d'Orlu

I started up the steep corner lay-backing and bridging off thin holds. The footholds soon gave way to smooth granite at half height needing a powerful crimp to overcome. At first attempt I backed-off and quickly retreated down to my bridged stance below. I felt at my limit but with twenty-three pitches to follow I simply had to dispatch the initial steep 6a crux pitch. I tried again, this time improving my footwork to aid my upward thrust. Above the difficult moves I stopped to control my heavy breathing and let my pumped arms recover. Easier slabby ground rose left towards my belay with some minor seepage to cross. I clipped onto the belay above the tree line with relief. With the crux dispatched I felt halfway to the summit already.

View down the first pitch crux corner

The second pitch continued in the steep vein up an arête that formed the edge of a slab but the rock was now juggier and technically easier to climb. By the third pitch the route had eased back and now smooth slabs prevailed. I balanced my way up the thin holds with relative speed compared to my efforts on the first pitch. The first terrace was reached and the first section of jungle bashing was undertaken in order to reach the rock continuation.

Above the forest

Four more pitches on mainly slabs led to the second terrace. This one was larger and finding the continuation bolts was much harder work. Dan, our guest house owner, had warned us about one of the pitches above a terrace being particularly difficult to locate and soon we concluded that this was it. Dan had lost an hour trying to identify the route's continuation. We'd a had a chat the previous night about their location being at the right end of the terrace but in spite of this we struggled to spot them. Much of the rock was steep so we needed to be confident that we were following the right line. The pair of us peered up lines we thought might offer weakness but saw nothing. Pero changed tact and instead focused on looking for worn rock. Quickly we identified a line up the right-hand side of a slab that looked as though it had seen traffic. Soon enough we spotted with relief a high bolt camouflaged against the shades of granite.

I started up the pitch, only at closer quarters noticing a closer bolt at half height to the one we had initially spotted from the ground. The pitch broke right, heading up a steep, exposed wall on glorious large holds that provided some of the best climbing of the day. Time to place some cams to supplement the spaced bolts. A couple more slab pitches and we were at the epaulette where more scrambling was needed. Fortunately the route-finding was fairly obvious on this occasion.

Our only company on the route

It was already 3pm. It had taken 5½ hours to climb the first 10 pitches. The climbing in the lower half of the route we knew would we fairly sustained and that much of the climbing in the upper half would allow comparatively rapid ascent. Three more pitches of 5+ needed to be dispatched before the start of more easier climbing commencedThe first pitch that Pero led above the epaulette proved to be one of the more memorable ones climbing a steep cracked stab that called for precise footwork.

Pitch 11 on Le Pilier Sud

With the three pitches dispatched we took in coils and moved together, clipping the occasional bolt that presented. Much of the terrain involved scrambling with the occasional section of F3, which was usually accompanied by a bolt. Soon we were at the Epaule, above which a couple more easy pitches led us to a short short of 5 before another brief pitch brought us to beneath the final headwall of La Main, the fore-summit of Dent d'Orlu.

We knew the pitch to the top of La Main would be tough finale according to out guest house owner Dan. But we were still one pitch away by my reckoning and whilst the wall above looked steep it was appeared juggy from the ground. I started up the wall, pulling on marvellous holds. Soon I was delicately bridging and balancing my way between moves until an awkward diagonal crack forced me rightwards onto a fantastically exposed arête. I stepped back left onto the wall and continued up. The ground rapidly eased back to horizontal ground and was soon to find myself on the summit of La Main. My calculation had been wrong and the last difficult pitch was now below. Relief swept through me. We still had four pitches to climb but the remaining climbing was easy and success was a formality. The summit of Dent d'Orlu stood before us. The stress of clock-watching and chasing time that had dogged the corners of my mind all today quickly evaporated and started to reflect on what we had achieved.


20 pitches down, 4 to go

We rigged the abseil and descended to the exposed sharp arête that bridged towards the summit of Dent d'Orlu. We pitched it out of precaution as the slabs either side appeared to drop away to nowhere. Then it was time to take up coils again and climb the easy pitches to the summit.

The exposed traverse beyond La Main on Le Pilier Sud of Dent d'Orlu

La Main on Dent d'Orlu

It was 8pm by the time we reached the summit. It felt a massive achievement and my longest rock route by a large margin. For the first time could completely relax for ten minutes, eat and drink, and reflect on the climb. Then it was time to descend.

At the top of Le Pilier Sud (F6a, 24 pitches)

8pm: On the summit

On the summit of Dent d'Orlu

Our dilemma was now how to descend. Having descended as far as the Col de Brasseil on the North side of the mountain we knew the quickest way was a long loop round to the south side via high ridge, eventually to drop down through the forest to a track that would lead us back to the car park. But it was already 9pm and light fasting fading. We anticipated that the light would hold until 10pm but would that offer enough time? The loop back looked long and the undulating terrain raised concern about just how long it might take. We had lost an hour trying to find the start of the route in the morning and now maybe it had cost us our quick ascent. The guidebook described 'lost climbers' and 'mini-epics' after failing to correctly navigate through the forest. We probably should have gambled given that we both had ample route-finding skills. Instead we played it safe and descended in totally the wrong direction to the East Face car park hoping that good fortunate would allow us to hitch or take a cab back to the South side via Ax-les-Thermes.

The car park on arrival was not surprisingly empty so we followed the track that descended 6km to the road where optimistically we hoped our lift awaited us. The track was a particularly gentle gradient. I knew it switched back lower down and so I suggested we descend directly down the hillside to where it swung back. The reality as we were to find out was that the track only swung back after maybe 4km from the top. Therefore we were never reach the switchback by direct descent. What's more, deep water rapids separated the road from the hillside which we had chosen thrash down through. By pot luck we arrived a broad concrete bridge spanning it to the road. This proved to be the only crossing besides where the forest track that joined the road further down. Without this good fortune we would have been left with a painful bushwhacking session along the banks of the rapids back to the forest track. The road was empty but optimistically we hoped to quickly arrange a cab once at the camp site.

... The camp site office was closed. Everybody had gone home. In fact it felt as though everybody in Ariège had gone to bed. It was after 10pm and by now dark. Our only company was a full moon. Hitching a ride now seemed a faint prospect given that not a single car had passed us by. Grudgingly we continued down the road. It was still 7km to Ax-les-Thermes but it would be much further out of town. The prospect of walking through the night felt a distinct possibility but probably no less attractive than sleeping on the doorstep of a camp site office.

Then we stumbled across a small gîte with an attached bar that was still open. The man behind the counter dismissed our enquiry about a cab on the basis that it would be far too expensive and insisted he personally drive us back to our car. We couldn't believe our luck. We couldn't believe this man's generosity. The least we could do was spend some money at the bar whilst he prepared himself for five minutes. And so we ordered a glass of Leffe each to quickly down. Maybe not the best choice given our dehydrated state.

Soon we had half-circumnavigated the mountain and were back at the car. All that was left was to drive back to our guest house. By now the neurons were ready for shut-down. I drove back along national highways at maybe 40km/h, paranoid of veering into a hedge at any moment. Tomorrow would be one of the rare days in the Harrison calender of climbing. A REST DAY.

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