Haute Provence

June 2012

We rode into the empty village like a bunch of doomed bit-parts in a spaghetti western. A shutter banged in the wind. Somewhere a baby’s cry was stilled. Tumbleweed cats drifted across the street.

“By the church, the brown veranda”, we’d been told. We edged up the street, keeping in the shadows, unsure what to expect.

There was no-one around.

Up the hill we saw the church. Old, two bells. Seemingly just part of the village walls.

They came from behind – we had no chance. “Bonsoir messieurs. Etes-vous ici pour le gite?” We grinned nervously. I made my move, it had to be decisive: “Oui madame”.

It was clear we were not what they expected. “Ces fleurs sont pour madame” she said. Oh dear. I looked around – we were short of a “madame”, so we had to bluff it. I push John to the front. “Merci. Merci beaucoup”.

The gite was at the edge of the village. Like a leper colony – close enough to watch. But not too close. We were shown around. A bowl of cherries on the table, a vase for Madame’s flowers. The kitchen was a mystery: a bunch of appliances – kettles, toasters, sandwich makers – lounged on top of the washing machine like jungle cats: their tails hanging down, waving slightly in the breeze from the window. But why? There wasn’t a single socket we could see in the kitchen. We edged past them and left them in peace. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that you were expecting it, it still comes as a shock. “Le caution?” Rattled, but glad of my preparation, I turned and gave it to them. 200 euros, but how was this going to end? “Nous partons tres ... err.. early le samedi matin – cinq heure.” I hoped that would be enough. I had to rely on their realising that they did not hold all the cards. Even if they held all the euros. “Ah.” There was silence. Furtive glances. “Vendredi, huit heures”. Smiles all round - we had a deal.

Welcome to Haute Provence.

The Gite.

The crag behind is Bellecombe. More on that later.

John in search of St-Sauver-Gouvernet nightlife. It was buzzing. Literally.

The gite is just behind the light of the third lampost.

Close, but not too close.


It’s an old observation, but when external threats recede, internal strife blossoms. Three people, two bedrooms – I made my move. I turned and swung and my bag was on the double bed. Now this could turn ugly – what would Chris do? He held my eye, then blinked, looked down and slowly dragged his bag into the other room were John was already testing a single. I breathed again – he’d learned from his mistake in Spain. He wasn’t going to make it again. But there would be more education for him on this trip. An education you couldn’t pay for. Which of course he didn’t.

Sunday

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that you were expecting it, it still comes as a shock. I woke up with sun streaming through the window. No rain, no clouds. Slightly disoriented, I threw open the window. Not good – it was already much warmer outside than in. We were going to feel the heat today. Baume Rousse was the plan. Renown for its challenging competition routes (“... if you can climb all the routes set for the junior girls then you are climbing well...”), but we were more interested in the wings: Gauche Facile and Droite Initiation. More our style.

You just can’t trust the French to organise anything. Rockfax clearly stated that Murmuroa (4+, 2*, “...perfect holds on perfect rock...”) should start left of the tree, just right of a long crack feature. There was certainly a bolt there, so mindful that Chris may try to get his revenge for last night’s manoeuvre, I tied on, grabbed the quick draws, and clipped the first bolt. OK, just need a belayer now. As it turned out, I needn’t have waiting for the snap of John’s Grigri. Easy climbing led me upwards, over a slight bulge, but where was the next bolt? Bolts all around, but none anywhere close to me. Hmm. Groundfall potential from here. Ho hum, it’s only 4+, what can go wrong? A delicate rising traverse ends with a bolt at my feet – awkward to clip, but curiously satisfying. There’s now a clear line of bolts heading up the crag and I’m in the “zone”.

Marek 'in the zone' on Murmuroa (eventually).

A quick fumble at the top, trying to remember how to thread the chain, and I’m soon down and the tick list is started. “Murmuroa?” asks Chris. “It’s round here.” Twenty feet to the right, round a boulder, behind a tree he’s found where the Frenchies have misplaced the start. Can’t they read? The book’s even got pictures!

John and Chris decide to humour the locals and use the “misplaced” (but properly bolted) start. Not that it’s an easy option. A hard pull over the boulder with some nifty arboreal footwork get’s them up to my “awkward but satisfying” bolt and we’ve soon all got a route under our belts.

John on the French (i.e., bolted perhaps, but nevertheless wrong) start to Murmuroa.
John back on the 'proper' route.

Concombre Masque (4, 1*) falls next to Chris’s onslaught. We get into a rhythm – first one up leaves in the quickdraws, but pulls the rope. Last one strips the route. This is holiday rock after all. Small positive holds, friendly angle, plentiful bolts, hot sun, gentle breeze. The UK, work, the rain – they are already receding memories.

John really must learn to wear something more photogenic!

Something more... French!

Oh dear! "Suck it in, Chris!"
The view down to Buis-les-Baronnies and the beer. More - much more - about the beer later.

Mont Ventoux in the background - where it was destined to stay.

Le Diedre (5, 3*, John first up) makes a change. More like a VS crack, but with a bolt every few feet. Good, but perhaps not 3*. It’s hot now – sunscreen slapped on, hats on, belaying in any shade you can find.

Buis-les-Baronnies shimmering down in the valley. We’ve brought 1.5L of water each which is not really enough given that the temperatures are in the 30s. Pilier (5, 1*) is dispatched quickly. By now the rock isn’t encouraging a leisurely approach – it’s fun climbing, but the rock is getting too hot and it’s a bit of a sprint up the route and then shoes off and back into the shade.

By 3pm we call it a day and head down to Buis for satisfied slump with a beer or six, a lesson in French grammar from the barman (“verre d’eau” not “verre de l’eau”). A small cloud is seen in the distance on the drive back, but we ignore it.
[JH]

Monday

Saving the local crags for a rainy day (does that even translate into French?), we headed off the next day to Orpierre, about an hour's drive east through quiet passes and valleys of Haute Provence.

Orpierre is reputed to be a bit of a hot-spot for mixed grade convenience climbing. Seemingly endless rock within a few minutes walk of the village with everything from easy slabs (“our sort of routes”) to blank walls, massive overhangs, via ferratas, sentier botanique. Having said that, the rock isn’t as inviting as at the other crags we’d seen. Instead of pale grey or white limestone, this was much darker, less friction and less positive holds. Still very solid, certainly better than initial impressions, but just somehow less attractive.

We headed for the easiest section (Chateau) where we spent a few hours on some pleasant but frankly unmemorable routes before the heat got too much and the area was overrun by school kids on some sort of adventure week in Orpierre. I wouldn’t have minded, but they were climbing routes hard than we were! We declared it beer time.

Chris bring a small bit of Hawaii to Orpierre.

Ah, the best drink of the day!

We didn’t fancy more climbing, but it seemed a pity not to explore the other areas, so we wandered up towards the Cascade area. More kids and generally more people courtesy of the more shady aspect. There was loads to do here, but we were in chill mode, so "perhaps another day" we said and wandered back to the bar for some more beer.

Note the cutting edge footwear.

There were a few more clouds on the way back. We put them down to statistical variation.

Tuesday

The “Rest Day” was looming large and Tuesday was it. There were various suggestions: road bike up Mont Ventoux and mountain biking were fancied by some. Eventually we agreed on the default option (so often in a French summer): Kajaking down the nearest decent river. In this case the Gorge d’Ardeche. Being manly men with a complete disregard for age (two of us anyway) and the fact we hadn’t sat in a kayak in years, we opted for the full length descent of the gorge: 32km or about 6-7 hours of paddling. John regaled us with tales of grade 4 and 5 river he’d negotiated, so we were quietly confident on the way there. How hard could it be?

Not too bad! This is OK!

Hands up who doesn't know where this is?

That's John and Marek in the two yellow boats.

Actually quite hard. It’s a long way and we quickly lost map contact as the river wound through the gorge, we weren’t sure how far down we were, how far there was to go. Every few hundred yards you’d round another bend and hear the roar of the next set of rapids. John did sterling work of paddling ahead and scouting out the best lines. Chris and I just followed him and trusted to rusty paddling skills and blind luck.

Sometimes the luck just ran out...

And not just for Chris. I’d gone in at about the same place and in fact about 50% of people coming down the river failed to negotiate this spot successfully, i.e., the right way up.

Stonking crepes at the end though.
[JH]

Wednesday

Sometimes, despite your best attempts to mess things up, things just work out fine. As a rest day, yesterday had been a total failure. Two of us were feeling our age and the other was feeling a lot more – we’ve rarely been so relieved to hear thunder and rain in the early hours of the morning. A lazy start was on!

Ubrieux was pencilled in as the ultimate roadside crag for hot summer’s day - albeit south facing, you can’t have everything. Ten paces from the car to the base of the crag and a river to swim in just over the road. With clearing clouds, we were set for an easy afternoon’s climbing before heading down to the hot spots of Buis-les-Baronnies in the evening.

The routes in the Tchernobyl Droite section were good. Steeper and more featured than at Baume Rouse or Orpierre – proper massive flakes to lay-away on, big holds over looming bulges, none of that tip-toeing up delicate slabs. Something to get the heart going a bit more. Kipertou (), Rambo Varrior (5, 1*) and Beaux Parleur (5+, 3*) got plenty of stars from us as well as from the guidebook. The only oddity was that the lower off chains were just out of reach from the last decent holds. Why? Was this a joke? Was the bolter built like an Orang-Utang? Seems a pity to make the crux move the one where you try to get your cow’s-tail clipped into the chain!

Chris on Rambo Varrior (5, 1*) - quite hard.
John on Rambo Varrior

Marek on Beaux Parleur (5+, 1*)





[JH]

Thursday

Even yesterday after the rain, it quickly turned too hot to climb. We’d cooled off in the river and then sat in the bar looking up at the north facing crag of St-Julien. Scouring the guidebook to see if the was anything we could do on a nice shady crag like that. Sadly the answer was no. Only hard stuff. So we hatched plan B: Get to a local crag early in the cool morning climb before it gets too warm, retire back to the gite for lunch and a siesta. Then head back to another crag later in the day when the temperature drops and enjoy the cool of the evening.

Hover mouse over picture to see location of Upper Tier.

So early morning saw us heading up the gully under our local crag, Bellecombe. Unfortunately the only plausible routes were right at the top, the Upper Tier. A loose, steep gully with occasional fixed ropes got us nervously to a small sloping ledge under the Upper Tier. Some bolts were visible, but not obviously related to the topo in Rockfax. The exposure was unnerving even at the base of the slab. The steeper lower tiers dropped away below us and the slightly bulging slab above us looked thin with no obvious line. We pick the first bolt in – supposedly the start of Local Roc (5+, 1*) – tied into a tree-stump and looked for a volunteer for the sharp end. After a few minutes of peaceful silence I sighed, picked up the quickdraws and tied on.
[JH] Marek running out of ideas on the exposed Upper Tier of Bellecombe

A rising traverse about the drop got me thankfully to the first bolt. The second looked a long way away, but at least it showed me the way. The good cracks and pockets looked rather spaced, but a delicate pull and I reached a perfect three finger pocket. From there it looked like a hard pull with feet smearing as high as possible might get me to a crack high to the left. First attempt: not even close. Second attempt, using the pocket as more of a side pull and I reached the crack. “Bugger.” Nothing positive. With ebbing strength I caterpillered my fingers up and down the crack, but it was all shallow and flared. I retreated.

John's turn.

John: Looking for a way out?

He took a different line a bit to the right, bridging out to a flake about the belay ledge. That allowed him up to clip the second bolt. But no further. Mutterings of “It’s only 5+, how hard can it be?” were brought into play but to no avail. He retreated.

Chris got to John high point, but after our failures, I don’t think his heart was really in it. He too retreated.

Chris checks out the back of the Upper Tier. Bellecombe really is just a thin fin of limestone!

So, plan B was going well, up to a point. We were in the shade, Bellecombe was certainly an interesting crag, the scenery was magnificent, but we felt that somehow something was missing. Ah, yes, the ability to climb any of the routes on it. The other routes on the Upper Tier didn’t look any more promising that the one we’d failed on, but down at the bottom there was one solitary 5+ (Le Sas) which was on the way down. We’d try that. We really didn’t want to leave without at least one tick.

Hover mouse over picture to see line of Le Sas.

Le Sas (5+, 1*) is actually just an approach pitch to a cluster of hard and impressive multi-pitch routes on the right of the Grande Arete. But it looked interesting and Chris was keen to use up some of the adrenaline he’d worked up on the Upper Tier. It was steep – for a 5+ at any rate. A bulging, slightly overhanging start promised some jug pulling, but after that? We couldn’t tell. The rock looked a bit easier angled but blank after that. It was confidently declared as ‘Chris’s sort of route’ and he was tied in and told to not hang around on it. It looked like the sort of route that in a traditional guide book would get “best climbed in a confident manner”. And we all know what that means.

Some dynamic moves quickly got him over the initial bulging start, but not as fast as we’d expected. There was a lot of groping and slapping, so perhaps the holds weren’t as good as we expected. John’s “Well done, Chris” provided some well timely encouragement – to John at least – and Chris moved up above the bulge. There appear to be a thin ramp rising to the left but with very little for the hands. Chris moved up slowly, just balancing on his toes till he could reach the arête and some temporary security. The rest looked tricky. A steepening headwall looked very blank. And steep. From my side view it was definitely the crux and I hoped Chris didn’t start to hesitate on it – it look like very much like a sprint-for-the-top-and-don’t-hang-around-or-you’ll-be-off sort of section. I needn’t have worried – Chris’ blood was up and he clipped and cruised up with great style. A yelp from the top chain proved he’d found it as tense and involving as it looked to John and me. Great effort, particularly with blood oozing out from under his toe courtesy of the bashing he’d received from the Ardeche.

Strenuous moves at the start...
Delicate moves in the middle...

... and a sprint for the finish!

Yes!

I took the opportunity to top rope the route. I was still a bit frazzled from the failure on the Upper Tier. John led it in good style. This was certainly the best route so far and perhaps for the whole of the week. Great location, sustained but varied with a crux at the top. And in the shade. What more could we want?

John's last dynamic moves for the final good hold.

In the evening we were down at Ubrieux again for the ‘second half’. Good routes, finishing of the sector we started earlier, but really just a stop off on the way to the river pools and the beer in Buis.

Red Kite hunting just outside our veranda at the gite.

Friday

On the far right of Baume Rouse there’s a featureless slab of grey limestone with some long well starred routes at our sort of grades. Unfortunately south-east facing – no hope of shade – the picture we’d seen suggested this would be an ideal finish to the week. There was more of a breeze than previously and good shade at the base, so we that’s where we headed.

From below it looked like a very slightly concave slab with a steeper headwall which held the short top pitches. I made a bid for Sikarate (5+, 3*) which seemed to be the pick of the routes. With our 70m rope there was a good chance I could run the two pitches together. The guide book mentioned ‘more bolts than holds...’ – which could be good or bad – and indeed there seemed no lack of bolts. Due to the smoothness of the slab you could see the bolts as a straight line up most of the first pitch, so I skipped some of the early bolts on the easy start. As the slab steepened, the urge to skip bolts lessened. There were well spaced small but sharps holds, but every now and again I had to rely on just friction for a few moves. 20m up this was starting to wear on my toes and nerves. In the middle of the featureless slab where up, down, left and right all look much the same, I started – for the first time this week – looking to see how far it was to the chain. You’d do a few more thin moves, look around and you did seem to be any nearer the top. Still the same slab in all direction. Eventually, when I got to the chain it was a relief. The route and the rock were great, but I’d found it oddly stressful. After a bit of a breather at the top of the first pitch I did some accounting: it looked like 6-7 more bolts up the headwall but only 5 left on my harness. “Bugger. Should have skipped a few more bolts at the easier section.” With three people and the sun getting hot, multi-pitching this route with hanging belays in the full sun didn’t seem very attractive. We’re on holiday: I lowered off.

John setting off on Sikarate.

Chris’s bloody toes didn’t go well with dimpled slabs, so he bailed early. John breezed up the first pitch, but like me didn’t hold back enough quickdraws to string the pitches together so lower from the first chain. The second pitch was only 10m, so no great regrets from either of us.

Chris then led the less tip-toey Douce Colere (3, 3*) and got to enjoy the breeze at the top of the crag. Just as good as Sikarate, but with slightly better holds and not the walk in the park that the grade suggested.

Just to the left was the hard route of the slab: Le Tyrex (6b+, 3*). Unlike the other routes, this one reached the top in one 30m pitch, so fewer bolts and looking very thin at the steep top. Tempting with the rope still on the adjacent Douce Colere. Too tempting for John. We watched him set off expecting some stalling or at least stutters. Nothing – he flowed up like it was a grade 5. Even the finish didn’t seem to slow him down much. His verdict? “I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll enjoy it.” And he was right. Definitely not 6b+ unless you were ridiculously blinkered, more like 6a. Lovely moves and always the anticipation that perhaps top moves are the 6b+ bit. Which they weren’t – just hidden finger-tip holds just enough to reach the chain with a grin on your face. Nice. So nice that John did it again – this time on lead.

And that – as they say – was that. Apart from some more beers, of course.