Trip Report
Old Soldiers Never Die: A Flying Visit to the Verdon, April 2013
Sunday May 12, 2013 2:07pm
Bold Text
Looking down the gorge from the top of Le'Escales. La Demande finished...
Looking down the gorge from the top of Le'Escales. La Demande finished in the trees on the right
Credit: Blakey


I looked above me at the flared groove, usually considered the crux of the route, mostley because of its apparent insecurity.
The notorious flared groove. The crack is lined with a cross between s...
The notorious flared groove. The crack is lined with a cross between sharp coral, and broccoli!
Credit: Blakey
Best dealt with by some confident back and footwork, while ignoring the fact that the smears and footholds generally slope the wrong way. Back in the day this section, up to the tantalising tree 50’ or so above was protected by a manky bolt low down, and a peg in a pocket about halfway up. These have long been replaced by three bolts which make the pitch a much more reasonable, but still reasonably exciting prospect. My intention was to link the last three pitches (two in some guides) and get to the top in one long pitch.

I reached the security of the tree and was able to enjoy the limited view,
Looking down and out. I first stood on this tree in 1976. It seems non...
Looking down and out. I first stood on this tree in 1976. It seems none the worse for wear, or any bigger.
Credit: Blakey
the slender horizontal branches grow out of the back of a crack, in the back of a groove, in the back of a very wide, deep chimney. The architecture is stunning and the view of the gorge below a vertical splash of colour against the shaded walls of the chimney. It was all ending too soon. Places like that are special, and even if a trade route, not many people ever get to experience that awesome sense of place you find on a long climb.

In an earlier Trip Report I have recounted my involvement with the Verdon, from the first visit in 1977, to my last in late 2011. Over the years I have had the privilege of introducing a number of climbers to the gorge. This has usually involved a trip up the Demande – ‘The Queen of the Gorge’ and while doing it on my last trip (with Graeme another first timer) an idea formed that it would be cool to do the Demande with my son, when I am 60, and he’s 16. That would be my sixth trip up the route, though, it is still three years off, and on this trip, the aim was to climb ULA the Demande’s slightly harder but debolted neighbour. These carefully constructed ambitions however were stymied by a convergence of bad weather and injury, and the most feasible long route became once again La Demande.

The final complication in all plans is the weather. On the run up to the trip I was following developments which were not good – the weather icons were a mix of unseasonably stormy, with a chance of snow! The gorge is at about 6000’ altitude and so can be subject to some unpleasant weather, and indeed that is what was forecast, accurately so as it happened.

I would be accompanied on this occasion by my recently retired (from the Army) climbing buddy Loz Owen. Our flying visit of two and a half days was the start of our Trad preparation for our Valley trip in August, and Loz had not done the Demande. Given it’s a bit of a grunt it seemed sensible to have a go.……
Loz in climbing rig - not at all self conscious!
Loz in climbing rig - not at all self conscious!
Credit: Blakey
But about Loz; Laurence, Larry, sometime ‘orrible little man!’ he had just retired from the Coldstream Guards Band as a Sergeant in August after 22 years service as a Tuba player.
He's there - third man back on the left, hidden by a Tuba! That's him....
He's there - third man back on the left, hidden by a Tuba! That's him....
Credit: Blakey
There are not many events he has not participated in, and it gives him an interesting perspective of state functions, as seen from underneath one of those enormous black bearskins. We first met at an Army Climbing Competition in 1996 and have climbed together of and on ever since. Our last visit to the Gorge was in 2004, (the year I retired) when we did Pilier des Ecrueils, an old school 11 pitch 6b+ up the left hand side of Le Escales and we hadn't been back there together since.
The Army life has equipped Loz with a number of attributes; he has a prodigious level of stamina, borne of carrying and playing an instrument in a uniform that weighs half a ton, has an endless supply of very rude jokes, and of particular use to a climber, forearm vascularity only matched by a Sperm Whale’s penis. He is most, if not almost all of the time completely irrepressible and great company.

Our flight from Newcastle would take us to Nice, then a hire car to our accommodation in La Palud, arriving on a very cold clear night just before midnight.

A combination of factors had made the Demande the obvious choice; 13 pitches up to 6a (“10a/b), Loz hadn’t done it, and I was nursing a wrist injury due for some attention when we got back, but the thuggish nature of the route, which has a lot of chimneys, and my knowledge of it made it seem a sensible choice.

We had two approach choices to make; one is to park at the top and make six long abseils to the base of the gorge. I had taken this approach in 2011 with Graeme. It’s simple for most part though the last two raps down Le Pilier des Ecruiles are tricky. The alternative, more complicated (but much safer) approach sees you park at Couloir Samson and walk through the initial tunnels into the gorge, You then have to hitch, or get a taxi back to your car.


We were up early for our booked breakfast, collected our baguette and croissant from the bakery and met the other occupants of Le Perroquet Vert; four Russians on a climbing trip. We chewed the fat and discovered from them that it had been very cold the day before and had snowed, (the rim of the gorge is at about 6000’), but the word was that it would stay OK until around five. We decided to grasp the nettle and if we got on with it we should be up well before five. So we quickly finished our breakfast, threw the gear into the car and headed off to park in Couloir Samson and approach the base via the tunnels – the ‘Felchers approach’.

The tunnel is long, dark and damp - we listened carefully for the soun...
The tunnel is long, dark and damp - we listened carefully for the sound of a seven ton rodent coming the other way. Thankfully.....
Credit: Blakey

Having done the route recently we trimmed the rack to my recollection – small, and took an 80m 9.4 single (you could almost certainly do all the links we did with a 70m cord)

The rack - still didn't use most of the gear - it's just nice to have!
The rack - still didn't use most of the gear - it's just nice to have!
Credit: Blakey

We were at the base after a bit of approach scrambling by 09:45 (we were jogging and almost overran it).



We got ourselves sorted and Loz set off on the first pitch. It was indeed cold and there was a frost in the shade, but the sun was already on the first stance, and weather wise all seemed well. One of the problems in the Verdon is that you rarely see trouble coming, the gorge is very narrow, and on the Demande your world view is even further restricted by being in the chimney system. The seemingly blue sky can be seductive, as I know from personal experience.

We had decided to link as many pitches as possible, and there was a natural sequence that if I remembered rightly would avoid any hanging belays in favour of good stances. Pitch one is tricky low down, where a slippery crack has to be laybacked for a move or two.

Loz on the first pitches hard bit. After this it's much easier. The st...
Loz on the first pitches hard bit. After this it's much easier. The stance is on top of the pinnacle where the sun and shade meet.
Credit: Blakey

Loz paused here momentarily, but quickly figured out how to swarm up it and get to the base of the easier corner above. This gradually eases and finishes at a flat stance atop the pillar.


My lead was to link pitches two and three up the first section of the ramp/crack – this cuts steeply from bottom right to top left, slowly curving to the vertical when the juvenile crack decides to become a very adult chimney (in the middle of pitch six).
Linking pitches two and three, both about 5.8.
Linking pitches two and three, both about 5.8.
Credit: Blakey
All of this detail contrasts with the first time I did the route in 1977. We had no topo, and the sum total of our knowledge were some instructions to go through the tunnel and look up and right. And it was indeed enough!

Anyhow two and three were linked, between 60 and 70 metres, probably at 5+/6a, (around 5.8/5.9) in US money, enough bolts, so no need to use any of our small rack. The pitch finished at a good ledge where you can sit and take in the view. Loz trotted up, and now definitely warmed up, led off above. This was to be a regular 30m pitch which climbed up to and through a V shaped slot.
Pulling through the V shaped slot.
Pulling through the V shaped slot.
Credit: Blakey
Again finishing at a good ledge on the right. Another 5+. I scampered off up to Loz and led through, Linking the next two. This is probably the most exposed pitch on the route as the ramp tapers into the wall near it’s top and a series of marbled solution pockets have to be used confidently. Again about 60/70 meters 5.9, finishing at a good ledge on the right.

Credit: Blakey

Up till now the climbing has all been face – there’s the occasional jam required but jamming doesn’t characterise the climb. It’s face climbing on or around the ramp. But with the next pitch it all chamges. Stepping left across the bowl in which the belay sits you climb a slender pillar to a crack. In short order this leads to the base of a tightish hanging v groove. As you worm your way up, your butt is plastered on the ‘back’ wall and to your disappointment while the footholds/smears continue, they get further away, which means you don’t gain much height from them.

Looking down pitch seven.
Looking down pitch seven.
Credit: Blakey

Eventually with your torso in the groove you can whip a leg in and exert some force in the place and direction you want and it all becomes progressively easy. Some folks make the mistake of drifting into a crack in the rib on the right. At around 6b+ it’s a much tougher option than the groove, but more appealing if your chimneying is a bit rusty!

The next pitch crosses the gulley and climbs the right hand corner, passing a small overhang with some great moves. It then traverses back to the main crack in the left side of the gully.

Loz pulling the overhang on pitch eight. He dislodged a flake on the t...
Loz pulling the overhang on pitch eight. He dislodged a flake on the traverse left that I'd stood on. Seemed solid, but he just peeled it off with his toe!
Credit: Blakey

Loz then linked pitches 9 and 10, whooping his way up the crack come groove, come chimney in intermittent rain, he made light work of this , in particular the awkward chiney section that leads to the stance.
He's up there somewhere, Loz linking pitches nine and ten.
He's up there somewhere, Loz linking pitches nine and ten.
Credit: Blakey
The architecture here is stunning, with smooth grey and yellow walls flanking the chimney your eyes are continuously drawn to the coulored green ribbon of the river below. The contrast in the colours inside and out of the chimney is remarkable. If you’re lucky you’ll have a fleeting glimpse of a giant Vulture floating by on the updraft. You could be in Conan Doyle’s Lost World. It’s just an amazing place to be.

That kind of other worldliness, the outrageous positions you get in, the stunning architecture where nature has provided enough for a route is what continues to draw me to climbing. It a privilege to be in these places.

Above loomed what was planned to be the last pitch this would involve linking 11, 12 and 13, all progressively easier, but all with some funky climbing. The first half of pitch 11 used to be notorious with one bolt and one peg protecting some insecure, slightly flared back and foot work up to a tree some 45’ above.

Credit: Blakey

Loz, 'in di groove'. A superlative belayer!
Loz, 'in di groove'. A superlative belayer!
Credit: Blakey

There are now three bolts sensibly placed, but it is still a little spooky until you get involved and trust your feet. I was even comfortable enough in the middle to take a photo. That said it’s still a relief to reach the tree! Above, a wide crack in a corner leads to the first stance, immediately above which is a water washed ‘off hands’ slippery crack. A couple of resolute pulls gets you established and it leads eventually to another pedestal belay. A double sling on this allowed me to swing left back into the chimney using a couple of tiny crimps, and sort of body penduluming action into a smooth wavy section. This soon passes and you are into real easy ground with lots of leaf litter to slip on. 30’ or so of such scrambling gets you to the belay which is set just 10’’ below the rim. This pitch was perhaps 70m, and the reason we had brought compact radios – they were great.

Loz swarmed up and we were both soon on the rim. It was 14:15, so about 4.5 hours for the route which is respectable. Opposite a very dark and impressive cloud was looming, the probable source of the showers that had touched us a couple of times. We sorted the gear and took the obligatory photos, before heading to the road and trying to hitch back to the car.

On the rim with the rain looming.
On the rim with the rain looming.
Credit: Blakey

Credit: Blakey

Half way back into La Palud the heavens opened.

Credit: Blakey

We were eventually offered a lift by a local who only had a front seat in his tiny Peugot – the back having recently been occupied by livestock.

Still it was a lift. He dropped us off at the Hotel Samson and we hiked back to the car. We hopped in and drove back to the village and spent a while in our room ‘biggin ourselves up’. By the time I went in the bath you’d think we had simul soloed the Rostrum!

After a civilised and warming soak we headed up to the bar to eat. It was quite busy when we arrived, but Loz put on his ‘Whillans’ face and a space magically appeared at a table.

The bar was real busy until Loz pulled this face.......
The bar was real busy until Loz pulled this face.......
Credit: Blakey

I know you American's like arty shots of hands, so it seemed a good id...
I know you American's like arty shots of hands, so it seemed a good idea to include Loz's hands. Despite the JCB levels of hydraulic blood pressure operating these puppies - they do not bleed.
Credit: Blakey

We got a couple of beers and eventually a smart young waitress came over to take our order. As we ate there were a few blue flashing lights heading for the gorge – a sign of trouble. We ate, drank and left.

The next morning we headed down to breakfast to find two, not four Russians. Something was clearly amiss and it transpired the other two had got cragfast in the storm yesterday and had called for a rescue – (hence the blue lights). They had had a late start and were doing a long diagonal route somewhere, and couldn’t go up or easily ab off. But they had made it too a ledge with a cave, were OK to wait until daylight and were now in the process of being recovered by helicopter. (It’s always worth taking some waterproof matches or a lighter on long routes, just for this eventuality).

They arrived about 40 minutes later eating burger and fries, which seemed to be part of the rescue package! With nothing damaged beyond their egos.

The forecast was for much the same, so Loz and I opted to loose some altitude and go cragging at Chateauvert. We were to be fair a bit fatigued but more in our hips and thighs that arms, Five routes and we were done, back in the car and 40 minutes later, approaching La Palud, back in a big storm – the forecast was again very accurate!

It wasn’t set to improve any so the next day we headed to the coast and the crags of Le Gorges de Loup. It was OK, but we were still on the edge of the weather front and it was all a bit uninspiring and not what you travel to France for. Still we had one major tick done, and given the weather it was a steal.

The day I got back from France I logged on to Supertopo on the to see what bitchin was going on; where would the gun sandbox be going, or the jibber jabba about Chechens and terrorists. Sadly amongst all the ‘stuff’ the most notable thing was the post informing the community that Layton Kor had died. As a young British climber in his early teens I had soaked up the reports of his and his peers adventures. Frost, Robbins, Chouinard, Herbert, Harding and all the rest, became heroes engaged in infeasibly difficult adventures in the magical wonderland of Yosemite. These tales fuelled a modest ambition, much of which I have been blessed enough to realise, and for that I am very grateful.

  Trip Report Views: 1,085
Blakey
About the Author
Blakey is a trad climber from Newcastle UK.

Comments
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Rick A

climber
Boulder, Colorado
  May 12, 2013 - 02:29pm PT
Steve,

Great TR! Looks like a limestone Steck Salathe, which of course you two must do as soon as you get to the valley.

But you'll have to explain,"biggin ourselves up". This is ST,after all, and it is bound to attract comment.

Tunnel looks creepy and looks like the crux. I'd take the rappels anyday.


Rick
Hankster

Social climber
Golden, CO
  May 12, 2013 - 02:38pm PT
You're my fave Blakey. CANNOT wait to get to the Verdo bro, this just stoked the fire under my ass to DO IT!
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
  May 12, 2013 - 02:52pm PT
Great TR. Verdon forever!
Ward Trotter

Trad climber
  May 12, 2013 - 03:16pm PT
An excellent report. A harrowing " Whillans face" had me at the edge of my seat.
When I noted the title of the trip report my mind automatically defaulted to the awful events of WW1 and the Verdun. Being an insensate American I had confused Verdon with Verdun. I realized my error when the elevation was reported.

duncan

climber
London, UK
  May 12, 2013 - 04:07pm PT
Thanks for the TR Blakey.

Well done on beating the weather. Those storms can appear in the middle of the sunniest days. Last summer I had a long weekend in the Verdon to try Les enragés on the Paroi du Duc. It is the first route of the gorge from 1968, though out of fashion these days, and had been on my hit list for 33 years. For various reasons, mainly that I didn't think we were quite up to the task, we switched plans to something less ambitious. A spectacular and unforecast thunderstorm hit at 2.30pm which would have been very unpleasant indeed had we been half way up the Duc.

Les enragés 1979


Les enragés 2012

moacman

Trad climber
Montuckyian Via Canada Eh!
  May 12, 2013 - 04:03pm PT
Thanx for the pics and story about your trip.....Always wanted to climb in the Verdon Gorge but never did make it........Cheers......

Stevo
Brandon-

climber
The Granite State.
  May 12, 2013 - 04:10pm PT
Thanks for the write up. I've always wanted to visit the Verdon. Someday.
Fritz

Trad climber
Choss Creek, ID
  May 12, 2013 - 04:49pm PT
Thanks for taking the time to post the photos and the story.

Great writting and it sounds like a great climb for two old friends to have an adventure on.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  May 12, 2013 - 09:05pm PT
Very nicely put - top shelf pics, too!
Loved the Freudian spelling slip a la the Prince of Whales!
So what's that 'orrible tunnel for? And couldn't you have abseiled back down to your car?
Did the Bolshies get nicked for the rescue or did they have insurance?
thebravecowboy

climber
walking, resin-stained, towards the goal
  May 13, 2013 - 12:13am PT
nice to see something of interest to me in that part of the world. thanks for sharing!
Blakey

Trad climber
Sierra Vista
Author's Reply  May 13, 2013 - 03:03am PT
Hi Reilly,

Last time I did the route we parked on top abbed in and climbed back up to the car. But we used 70m twins. I'm not sure you could do the abseils on an 80m single.

The final abseil on the Pilier des Ecureuilles is long and free.
The final abseil on the Pilier des Ecureuilles is long and free.
Credit: Blakey

On this occasion if we had, abbed back down then we would have been going into the rainstorm....

I'm not sure, that we could have done all the links we did on a 60m cord (my twins are 60m), and in their own way the tunnels are fun, and usually you can get a lift a bit quicker than we did - and it won't rain!

As to the spelling - sadly I cannot claim a Freudian slip, it was just a mistake, now fixed, ta.

Steve
Blakey

Trad climber
Sierra Vista
Author's Reply  May 13, 2013 - 02:45pm PT
Another view of the 'Duc', mentioned by Duncan. It is accessed by a ty...
Another view of the 'Duc', mentioned by Duncan. It is accessed by a tyro lean, but I've yet to see it in place.
Credit: Blakey

The Eperon Sublime buttress, at the far right hand side of Le Escales
The Eperon Sublime buttress, at the far right hand side of Le Escales
Credit: Blakey

The morning after.
The morning after.
Credit: Blakey
crunch

Social climber
CO
  May 13, 2013 - 02:58pm PT
Great photos and story, thanks!

Brings back memories of the same route, a few years ago. And of the same route back around 1980. Fine adventures, both.
Magic Ed

Trad climber
Nuevo Leon, Mexico
  May 13, 2013 - 03:08pm PT
Nice trip report. Thanks.

You blokes should come check out our big limestone in Mexico!

http://magicedspotrerochico.com
Blakey

Trad climber
Sierra Vista
Author's Reply  May 13, 2013 - 03:59pm PT
Hi Ed,

I'd love to, but I can get to France and Spain for peanuts......

And Spain it's huge and I've only tinkered around it's edges, so sadly Mexico may have to wait. It does look amazing though!

Steve
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
  May 13, 2013 - 05:20pm PT
Great trip report and photos. It definitely brings back memories of doing the route in '81. Don't remember many bolts on it back then, but a fair number of fixed pins. Some of my strongest memories are of belaying standing on some of those trees growing, improbably, horizontally out of the crack. I remember standing and belaying on one about 1/2-way up, rubbing one of my eyes and having one of the lenses pop out of my--very necessary--glasses. Amazingly the lens landed--and stayed put--on my belay tree and I was able to recover it intact instead of having it end up on the gorge floor several 100 feet below---it was the only pair of glasses that I had with me in Europe. I followed the next pitch "one-eyed"---an interesting experience. Fortunately we had some tape with us and were able to tape the lens back onto the frame sufficiently for it to remain in place, not only for the rest of the climb but for the remainder of the trip as well. Fine route. Great memories--thanks for bringing them back to me with your report.
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