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.


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