I looked above me at the flared groove, usually considered the crux of the route, mostley because of its apparent insecurity.
I reached the security of the tree and was able to enjoy the limited view,
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.……
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 Whales 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’.
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)
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 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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Half way back into La Palud the heavens opened.
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.
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.