We could have been climbing by mid-afternoon. Fly to Lyon, pick up a car, drive to Buis-les-Baronnies, dump the bags, 10 minutes to Ubrieux and we're on. Flight was on-time. Small, not overcrowded airport, so far so good. Pity the immigration officials didn't seem to be expecting a planeful of people from the UK. Perhaps they were on 'lunch'? Perhaps England were beating France in Paris? Either way, not a single passport control booth was open. At least we had some entertainment whilst we waited - there was a down-escalator into the now jam-packed immigration hall with people backed up right to the escalator and up the parallel stairs. Did that stop people getting on it at the top? Of course not! Anyway, eventually they arrived and we were through and heading for the car rental hut. Seems they weren't expecting many customers on a Saturday either. Ho hum - another long wait.
A bit of luck in navigation to offset some poor planning and we arrived in Buis-les-Baronnies. Nadine was waiting for us in the house. The plan to dump-the-bags-and-head-for-the-crag was a good plan, but no one had told Nadine. She was 'house-proud'. Every room had to be introduced, inspected thoroughly, commented on appreciatively and generally stood around in while making vaguely franglais noises. Just when we thought she was leaving, we got onto the subject of when would be leaving. "5am? Oh, that's very early!" There was much sharp in-taking of breath and muttering about how she must be here before we leave to check we haven't been slacking on dusting the mantelpiece. Our cup-of-politeness was getting low, so with an unvoiced 'well that's your problem' approach we started putting climbing gear in the car and 'leaving'. We're not complaining though - she'd rustled up some heaters for the house, so we weren't going to get as cold as we'd feared.
In 10 minutes we were at Ubrieux. Pity the sun was going down - we had time for perhaps one route if we didn't faff too long choosing it. Relying on my memory rather than the guide book I grabbed the first route that looked plausible, tied on, slung some quickdraws and headed up. And ground to a halt 10 feet up as the nice crack ended up as a slippery polished layback. Hmm. Not ready for this yet. I dithered for a short while and then decided to let someone else (younger) have a go whilst there was still some light. He didn't disappoint - swarmed up it in no time at all - "Well that got rid of my headache!"
We'd learned our lesson on previous trips not to hit the crags to early and too cold, so breakfast was 'traditional' - wander down to the boulangerie for croissants and baguettes, brew a pot of coffee (for thems that like that sort of thing), peruse the guidebook for a sensibly graded gentle start to the climbing week. The terrace at the back provided a great view of St. Julien (a crag for another day) and Mont Ventoux (a bike ride once hell freeze over).
Baume Rousse was the crag-of-the-day, with its lovely slabby right hand side and a crop of well-starred easy routes. Climbing being about starting at the bottom, we headed for the easiest route around - Douce Colere (3 **). There would be time later for more challenging stuff.
Douce Colere may be '3', but only if you follow the zig-zagging breaks. Taken more directly, it's as hard as you like, but a great way to get a feel for the rock. Long too - needs to full 70m rope to get to the lower-off. It also shares a lower-off with Le Tyrex (6b+ ***) which was too good a chance to miss.
Le Tyrex may be '6b+', but only if you avoid anything which looks like a nice hold. Which is hard - there's plenty to be had. It's still a nice route, getting steadily steeper and smoother the higher you get with 'just enough' to reach the lower-off. Attempts to get John to lead it were rebuffed with practiced ease.
We went on to do Sikarate (5+ ***) and Julie Quensand (5+ *) before declaring 'beer-time'. Apart from one team working a route at the far left end, we had the crag pretty much to ourselves. A good first (proper) day.
Never having been there before, the Dentelles de Montmirail were planned for today.
Of the various Dentelles, we were heading for the Chaine du Grand Traverse. As happens so often in France the road disintegrated into a maze of rough tracks long before any 'large parking area'. After some umming and ahhing about large rocks and limited ground clearance we found our way to the base of the crag. John also found that he'd left his climbing shoes back at the house. Did he get any sympathy? No, of course not - but he did get (initially) my spare pair, even if they were 3 sizes too big.
Unlike most limestone crags, the top was easily accessible, so promised some respite from the usual 'bum-shot' photography. It was however quite difficult to correlate features from the topo with what you found wandering around at the top which resulted in me tying myself on what proved to the the 'unstable boulders' which had led to the closure of the left-hand end of the crag.
Chris had had his sights on L'Annie (5 ***) since arriving, so that was our next target. The crag was very 'featured' with plenty of blocks, bulges, roofs and cracks to provide variety and (hopefully) entertainment. It didn't disappoint...
After much huffing and puffing - and sliding and pedalling - he was through the crux and onto the steeper finishing moves. These obviously weren't a problem, since he was at the top in no time with the satisfaction of a 'challenging' lead well done.
As expected, John had no trouble with the jamming crack, but perhaps found the top harder?
I didn't fancy the pain, so was determined to avoid the jams and find 'something' on the wall to the left. I half succeeded - at least I had shoes which fitted. After that the top was easy.
In a fit of enthusiasm, I had a look at La Gauche de la Droite (6a **) which looked plausible, but seemed to hinge on a hard pull on a very sharp one-finger pocket to get over a bulge. The prospect of ripping a pad this early in the week didn't seem like a good idea, so I bailed. My winging and whimpering was obviously impressive - neither John nor Chris had even a sniff at it. Just next to it however, was La Fissure (5+ ***) which was promptly declared by at least two people as 'John's sort of route'...
... so with a bit of determined 'encouragement', John was launched up it. Predictably, he had no trouble on it, even though he did resort to swapping my too-big shoes for Chris's slightly tighter pair.
On the way in we'd driven past a rather friendly-looking crag - Tyrolienne - which we'd planned to visit on the way back, so we left a bit early in anticipation of a nice relaxing play on some short scenic routes above the Saint Chistophe gorge/waterfall.
We should have known better. Despite the car being parked within a few yards of one of the lower-offs (you park at the top and walk down), could we find the crag? No. We tried just about every path and always ended up at the bottom of the gorge in the stream. The climbs all started on a ledge ("Don't step back") 10m below the top, but all we could find was impassable undergrowth and steep unstable scree. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Eventually, coming up from the bottom, we found some blue paint markings which led us to the ledge. Hooray! (sarcasm). Mulot Intrepide (4+ *) was fun for all, but Les Blairaux (5 **) looked more 'interesting'. Curiously, it proved to be John's lead again - "It's only a 5, how hard can it be?" Answer: Ridiculously hard! Chris and I laughed so much, we were completely worn out by the time John 'french-freed' his way to the top and had nothing left with which to follow him. Beer-time loomed large...
We had some unfinished business at Baume Rousse (so much to do, so little time) so Tuesday morning saw us back where we had left off two days previously. Tilt (4 *), Route 4 Unnamed (4 *) and Fleur Bleu (5+ *) all passed pleasantly and without any drama.
Chris had again been whiling the quite minutes looking through the guidebook and for no obvious reason (to John and me) had set his heart on Aphrodite (5 **). Pity she wasn't at Baume Rousse (unlike us), but you have to humour the youth sometimes and she was pretty much on the way back to Buis at Ubrieux. So we packed up and headed down. The beer was beckoning, but what could go wrong with just one last route? And right next to the road, so our usual route finding ineptness shouldn't strike too hard.
"Ooh, that looks ... interesting." Steep (overhanging) bulges with a few spaced pockets - the youth has talked himself into a good one! We wondered aloud how shallow, slimy and slopey those pockets might be. And then left the youth to go and find out.
Half way up was what looked like the crux bulge. Fortunately (for me - Chris didn't much care at this point) there was an easily accessible 'photographer's ledge' just to the left.
After the crux bulge, interest was maintained all the way to the top. A cracking route deserving of a third star, we thought. The best route of the week? Certainly so far.
Time shift? Yep, it rained all Wednesday, so just for change our 'rest day' was a rest day. No kayaking, no biking, just resting. And checking the forecast for Thursday. Again.
Thursday dawned - as expected - bright and cold. Mont Ventoux had a fresh covering of snow and apparently the pistes and lifts were open again. Having sat and admired the rocks of Saint Julien from our terrace all week, today we thought it was time to pay them a closer visit. But not too early. Must let the sun dry the rock a bit first.
After Ubrieux, Saint Julien came as a bit of a shock. It had a walk-in and a steep one at that. 20 minutes up a awkward, slimey (from the rain) path (of sorts) that petered out in the middle of nowhere. Not again! No, the base of the rock were visible just up the slope, so no circuitous wanderings this time. Most of the routes here were multi-pitch ones (and quite hard), but we were keeping things simple by aiming to do just the first pitches. More than two on a multi-pitch route can be slow and frustrating and we didn't need that.
The 'original' route here was Les Guepes (5 **) which seemed like a good place to start. Perhaps I should have asked what 'les guepes' means? It wouldn't have helped since neither John nor Chris had a clue, but I might have been forewarned. 'Les guepes' = 'the wasps'. Anyway, it was a good route, mainly by not living up to its name. Chris's next choice, La Direct des Guepes (5+ *) was even better, big moves between good pockets on blank rock. Chris's forte it seems. It would have been nice to carry on to the top of the crag - it's a very thin fin of rock - but that'll have to wait for another time.
A good day's rest and lovely rock again got me looking at something a bit more 'interesting'. Xinibition (6a **) looked OK - perhaps a hard start, but it's only 6a. How hard can that be? The moves off the ground seem obvious enough. There must be holds after that? Surely? I got past the high and awkward-to-clip first bolt. Hmm, tricky. I'm not sure how this goes. The problem here was that the lower pitches were generally the 'easy' approaches to the harder pitches above. That meant that you were probably finding the bottom pitches easy, weren't you? So you don't need many bolts if it's easy? Hmm. I wobbled up a few more tenuous moves and just about reached the 'grip-clip' second bolt. My courage was rapidly unscrewing from its sticking place, and with the lack of a Lady Macbeth, I bailed. John was in hiding, so it was Chris's turn. There were quickdraws at stake now, so 'team failure' was not an option.
He didn't get any further. At least it wasn't just me. And so John made his big mistake and reappeared from wherever he'd been hiding - and taking pictures, it seems. Before he could utter his usual defence of "I've only come for some nice easy climbing" he was tied on. It also transpired that - oddly enough - both the quickdraws on the route were his, so really he had no option.
There may have been some snivelling just before the third bolt and I'm sure I heard a short prayer between the third and fourth - it might have been swearing, it was heartfelt either way - but John made it to the two-thirds ledge with cheers (and relief) all round. And that's the trouble with nice ledges: whilst you're wobbling from thin move to thin move, you have to keep going, but once you get to a ledge that little voice starts... "I could just stay here a bit. This is quite comfortable. And safe. Niiice ledge!". It also an unfortunate fact that ledges are frequently followed by steeper bulges. All in all, John decided that (a) his adrenaline had run out and (b) a bail-biner here could be rescued from the adjacent easier route, so job done. He certainly got further than the rest of us! Not the route of the week, but definitely the lead of the week.
For the second time this week we noticed that we weren't the only people at the crag. Someone was coming up the path and greeted us in English. Turned out to be Enty of the UKC parish who was coming up to finish bolting a 'project' he had on the go further along the crag. I'd recently been in touch with him about 'rest day' cycling options (he runs cycling holidays not far from Buis), so a curious coincidence. Turned out there was another couple at the other end of the crag and they were brits too (Jon de Montjoye and Hillary Sharp). Don't the french climb this early in the year? In 6 and a bit day's climbing on 5 crags we only encountered 5 other climbers.
Chris and John finished off with L'Aeroplane Direct (5 **) where the hardest bit seemed to be finding a lower-off. John got to retrieve his bail-biner on the way down and we were done. Enty had finished his bolting, so it was off to the bar in Buis for some beer and stories of expat life in the sun.
Some browsing of the nether regions of the guide book and Enty's recommendation saw us heading off to Combe Obscure on Friday morning. Will we never learn? The name should have been a hint, even a warning. The guidebook said 'turn left up a rough track opposite La Madelaine". But what the hell is 'La Madelaine'? It didn't say. We drove over the Col de la Madelaine so we were 'warm', but no idea after that. Plenty of tracks going off, but which one? Back up to the col. Perhaps here? No. Back down towards Bedoin? Technology to the rescue! Before leaving the UK, I'd found that IGN (French national mapping agency) had all their maps online and my phone had a signal. Sure enough, get the right map and 'La Madelaine' turns out to be a church at the bottom of the hill. With a rough track opposite, head off to Combe Obscure. Bingo! Up the track - I'd thrown John and Chris out of the car to maximise my meagre ground clearance - and up to a parking area (of sorts). There were no other cars there - not surprisingly - but it was flat and wide, so this had to be it. 'Past the ruined buildings' said the guide, so we did. And then surprise, surprise, the path turned left and started to head off in completely the wrong direction. Then disappeared. Deja vu I think they call it round here. Or perhaps they don't. But we now had IGN and I still had a signal, so a bit of a navigational post-mortem and some remedial cross-country rambling got us to the crag. Eventually.
There was definitely a topological 'theme' to this crag. It was distinctly concave - smooth slabs in the bottom half and somewhat steeper - and with hopefully some holds - in the upper reaches. Vision (5 ***) was reputed to be the 'must-do' route here, so Chris - keen as ever - tied on quickly and started padding up the slab past the first bolt. And the stopped. Pity he'd started up the wrong bolt line, although perhaps an easy mistake on blank slabs. Ziziben (6a **) was not going to be a push-over, so he managed to traverse across onto the right line and then all was well.
Once established on the right route, it proved no problem. The crux was a bit tricky, requiring some faith in a lay-away up a grove with a long reach a good pocket, but 'all there'.
La Perle Noir (4 *) provide a gentle interlude with the hidden agenda of easy access to a lower-off above some harder routes. L'Oeil Bleu (6a **) looked the most amenable, but John was wise to our tactics now and grabbed the 'soft' end of the rope first.
He needn't have worried - it was hard but not too stressful on top-rope with a juggy start into a lovely mini-gaston crux (just two thumbs) through a blank bit of slab. Fun!
The week was drawing to a close, but I fancied one more route before packing up. 2000F le Kilo (5+ **) looked worth a stab: Totally holdless, pure friction slab to start into a steeper headwall. Like Vision, but a better line, I thought. And so it proved. Friction when you need it and pockets when it gets too steep. A lovely way to finish the week!