Saturday, 23 November 2013

A New Route in Coire an Lochain

There was plenty of activity in Coire an Lochain on Saturday with teams on many of the classics. Plan 'A' had been The Hoarmaster but there were climbers already gearing up at its base. Instead we turned our attention to a line left of Oesophagus that was missing from the guidebook. It looked a strong enough line with a clean corner distinguishing the first pitch. Too good not to try we thought.

The route climbs the system of cracks and corners just left of the centre of the photo
My partner Michael led the first pitch up parallel grooves with sparse protection. Some strong pulls on turf at the top of the grooves confirmed that it was totally frozen solid. Then the left-facing corner, which offered up plenty of bomber hooks and gear. A further short step brought Michael to the belay above an excellent first pitch.

Michael climbing the groove at the start of the first pitch
I led the second pitch, which continued up an obvious off-width crack. I considered that maybe I had a potential fight on my hands were it able to fit my girth. 'Fortunately' this was not the case and I managed to largely bridge my way around the wide crack with the occasional jammed chock stone to facilitate. I managed to lace the base of the crack with gear but this quickly dried up. Steep hooks up the right wall needed some awkward footwork to counterbalance. Finally a sound nut placement five metres above the last piece. Then some delicate moves back left to exit the crack to the belay.

The base of the crack
Photo credit - Michael Barnard
Near the top
Photo credit - Michael Barnard
Top of the second pitch (my camera was having a hard time by this point)
We reckon the route to be about IV,5 despite a couple of run-out sections. The pitches were about 45m and 25m in length and both were around tech 5. The second pitch was the crux (maybe tech 6?) but it is easily escapable so arguably as committing as you want to make it. You could argue on this basis that the first pitch was the crux. It was certainly a good way to start the winter season and demonstrates even at the most frequented of crags that new routes are still possible. We've provisionally named the route Snuffaluffagus.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Cote d'Azur, France

I had plenty of annual leave to take during the second half of 2013 as a consequence of being out of action through the first half of the year. Trips to Ariège, Bregalia, and Lundy had started the ball rolling. Even with an ice climbing trip to Cogne booked over Christmas and New Year I still had a week to play with. Where to spend a week in November? Wadi Rum appealed but was maybe too long haul for a week. We considered the Alps but concluded November might prove too much of a gamble. There was always the UK but the wet weather did not overly inspire us to stick around.

In contrast the South of France sounded appealing. Particularly in light of the great trip to Ariège earlier the same year. There would be sunshine, cheap wine and good cheese on offer and hopefully some good climbing, albeit with weak fingers. Most of my prior training had focused on winter. Lots of chalk climbing and weights. Not much time at the wall pulling on plastic and one very wet weekend at Portland where I had struggled to get up 5s. I was largely hitting the ground standing still for this trip.

We booked flights and hire car and purchased the Rockfax guide. That was largely the extent of our planning. We would start and end our trip in Nice and hopefully visit Verdon Gorge during the second half of the trip.

Shiva (F5+) & Rose Marie (F6a), Mount Coudon


My climbing nerve had apparently also gone walk-about during the first few days of the trip. Psyche and commitment possibly suppressed by too many recent weekends climbing on wet or greasy rock. Maybe my focus was blinkered towards the forthcoming winter season. I managed a couple of easy routes at Gorbio in Monaco on the first day but equally backed off a couple without much commitment. The second day we climbed the nine pitch Le Innominata (F5+) on Saint Jeannet. Anna made difficult work of the crux, for which I was very happy just to second. Difficulties dispatched I chilled out a little and enjoyed the climbing and scenery.

Crux pitch of Le Innominata
View from midway up Le Innominata

Some faint climbing form began to emerge at Mount Coudon, near Toulon. We climbed some pleasant slab routes at the Baudouvin sector on the first evening and enjoyed a pleasant wild camping spot nearby. The following morning learning that we were in hunting area when a gun dog came chasing around our tent with it's nose to the ground. The man carrying the shotgun in tow politely smiled without any complaint but it seemed sensible to drop camp immediately and move on.

With a few more steady routes under my belt my drive began to return. The main crag offered a couple of excellent corners. Firstly Shiva (F5+), whose overhang at half height looked unlikely for the grade. In reality the surprising number of large holds made the moves a relaxing affair.

Shiva (F5+), Mount Coudon

Nearby Rose Marie (F6a) was maybe the best single pitch climb of the trip. It involved sustained climbing up an obvious open corner, with steep lay-backing and bridging, and then more traditional chimney moves right at the top to mix things up further.

By the evening we were in Marseilles. Mount Coudon a worthy stopping point.

Rose Marie (F6a) , Mount Coudon

La Vire au Cade d'Or (F6a), Morgiou


Driving around the streets of Marseilles was arguably more adventurous than our day's climbing at Les Calanques. Particularly the narrow side street close to our hotel. The unwritten rule of Marseilles appears to be that it is acceptable to park / abandon a vehicle anywhere provided hazard lights are left blinking. This included parking at traffic lights, or mounted on pavements at 45 degrees.

We spent only one day at Les Calanques, which wasn't as long as it deserved but heavy rain on the second planned day meant little reason to hang around. Our plan A had been 'the high crag' of Paroi Noire at Morgiou but the manner with which the car was being buffeted by winds in the car park suggested reconsideration. Instead the lower, less exposed l'Abri Côtier seemed a far more sensible option.

We warmed up on some routes in the centre of the cliff, which were uninspiring (and polished) despite their 2 star status. The three routes at the far left end of the crag were much better in contrast. A 6a called La Vire au Cade d'Or was certainly the best route of the day. Some memorable undercut moves low down called upon some acrobatic bridging to traverse left beneath a roof before escaping onto the upper wall.

La Vire au Cade d'Or (F6A), l'Abri Côtier

I'd say Les Calanques would be second on the list of places to return (after Verdon Gorge of course), as much for the waterfront atmosphere as for the climbing.

Cocoluche (F6a), Gorges du Verdon


Our first route at Verdon Gorge. We had expected this part of the gorge to be busy but saw just a single pair of climbers. November as a whole seemed largely off-season despite ideal day temperatures. We stuck to the regular 6a line, which proved pumpy enough for my weak fingers. Lots of good climbing on perfect rock but lacking the features to really stick in my mind compared to the next route listed.

2nd pitch of Cocoluche (F6a), Gorges du Verdon

Saut d'Homme (F6a), Gorges du Verdon


This was undoubtedly the best route of the trip. It followed a steep corner system with the crux third pitch packing a punch. Anna did a fine job leading it - particularly given that she had struggled with her lay-backs on the first two pitches and the third pitch only increased in difficulty. The pitch provided a good mix of sustained bridging, lay-backing, and jamming. It was physical and unrelenting but needed equal application of thought in order to unlock the moves. The bolts on the right-hand wall were at times a long way from the corner. At point a cam placement being required to protect the move out right in order to clip.


Abseiling Saut d'Homme (F6a), Gorges du Verdon

Third (crux) pitch of Saut d'Homme, Gorges du Verdon

Top of the third pitch

The major downside with visiting the gorge in November was the reduced daylight hours, which made the classic twelve pitch La Demande impractical to attempt. The cooler temperatures and off-season feel definitely suited me though. Needless to say Verdon Gorge would be the place that I would most likely return to and very much the highlight of the trip.

Gorges du Verdon
On the whole my climbing performance felt significantly below par compared to other trips this year. Maybe it was to be expected when so late in rock climbing season, and without specific objectives to really drive the advance training towards. To be fair the focus of the trip in the lead up had been to explore the general area and enjoy some climbing whatever the grade. Next time the the climbing objectives can always be a little more ambitious and definite.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

It's Not Sport Climbing Folks...

I was falling… My hip crashed into the cliff three bolts below my high point. I looked down to see blood dripping from my fingers and a bulldog and quickdraw dangling from my rope. The last piece of in-situ gear had blown during the fall. I had fallen a good five metres. Fortunately the bolts below the bulldog were sound enough to catch me. My hip felt sore from the impact. I had been only a few moves below the lower-off of Cold Front (C5+) at the Eastern end of the cliffs. Almost close enough to reach out and touch the lower-off ring with an axe. I was clueless as to what had caused the fall. I had done the hard moves out right above the roof and seemed to have it in the bag. The composure and tension had felt controlled. The last thing I remember was trying to get my feet set above the roof. But then I was off. Maybe a foot hold broke off? I have no recollection.

The Eastern Cliffs
A second attempt was out of the question. Blood was running down my fingers and my hip was sore. The main problem though was the detached piece of gear, which now meant a big run-out to the top. If the highest bolt failed following a second fall from a similar position then I would be close to a ground fall situation. It was time to call it a day and go and find some plasters.

It was a positive day despite the unexplainable fall. I was feeling sleepy and so attempted nothing particularly hard. My axe grip was feeling relaxed and my movement and body tension markedly smoother than my last visit. But most encouragingly my strength feels better than previous autumns. For the first time in a few years I have managed to stay injury free through the summer and so have been able to steadily progress my fitness without setback. 
Back in Time (C5)
A final note: The seas... They were the roughest I have witnessed at Saltdean. We arrived shortly after high tide. The concrete walkway leading to Western half of the crag was close to impassable due to the volume of water crashing over it. Waves exploded maybe eight metres high before retreating back. It was difficult not to contemplate thoughts of being swept off my feet and into the sea. But after ten minutes of watching with nervous laughter we realised the big waves were fairly spaced and so made a break for it. The waves abated for long enough.

Big waves
Next visit to Saltdean I'll be ready for the steep routes on the Eastern side.