For me like many rock climbers in the UK, the front cover of Mountain 61 was a revelation. Somewhere in Europe there was at least one crag that had weather and rock comparable in quality to that in California. Article after article had emphasised just how good both of these were in the US, and not just in California; most places in the US seemed to have rock and sun in abundance. This issue of Mountain brought the promise of the same close to the UK - you could drive there!
My copy of mountain 61 has succumbed to mould in the loft, this is a b/w scan of the cover photo showing Ron Fawcett on the Traverse of Triomphe de Eros, taken by the late and great Pete Livesey.
The following summer I embarked on a modest road trip with my then climbing partner Dennis Lee, we started in a traditional vein, driving to the Dolomites, in a couple of weeks we scored a number of significant ticks, the most memorable being an almost free 'Pilastro' on the Tofana de Roses.
Finishing the steep stuff on the Pilastro, Tofana de Roses. It is not the vertical chose pile it appears!
This was quite a deal and made us feel a little less mortal, if not a pair of studs and worthy of venturing to the Verdon. We had the Mountain article as a guide, it couldn't be too hard to find, could it, things were looking great and could only get better...........
A day later we had pulled into La Palud, for those of you who have been to the Verdon, and La Palud, you should understand that what you see now is a metropolis. Back in 77 (or was it 76?) there was no campsite, we pitched our tents on a little field that is occupied by the Camping Municipal's fence - we had a campfire that used an old gendarmerie soccer post as fuel - that August, when we were there, we were the only people there!
The next day Dennis and I set off to have a look at the crag and see what we fancied, We stopped off at the Belvedere Sublime for the obligatory 'have your breath taken away moment'. Looking across the sweeping verticality of the Falaise de L'Escales, it was easy to comply, (indeed it still, is every time go!).
From the belvedere we could, we thought, see Eperon Sublime in profile, this was a very worthwhile tick, so we parked up and headed off to look for the descent. Eperon Sublime is one of a number of classic five or six pitch routes which launch off La Terrasse Mediane, a huge wooded ledge half way up the cliff. Getting to the route involves a committing abseil. Back then the only descent was down Luna Bong and it had justifiably earned a significant degree of notoriety.
Walking along the cliff edge we eventually came across two shockingly small bolts, connected by a rusting brown chain only suitable for suspending a small medallion, not a human being. Peering over the edge it was clear that the abseil would only contact the rock for a short while before is hung free, a full 1000' above the green ribbon of the river below. I volunteered Dennis to go first, we grew the ropes and he gingerly lowered himself over the edge - I followed, spinning slowly in space, with two turns of the rope around my leg to add friction to the Sticht Plate. It was very, very, spooky!
Looking down the first Luna Bong abseil. The trees below are on the Terrace Median, a huge ledge half way up the cliff.
Approaching the first anchors on the Luna Bong abseil. You got dangerously close to the end of the rope, then had to hook a tree with your foot, get a bit of a swing going, and grab it!
once on the ledge we set off up Eperon Sublime, three long pitches up a tapering corner lead to an impasse. the corner and crack in the back of it disappear and the yellow, crozzelly featured rock turns into a solid grey sheet of featureless Limestone. At that time we had never encountered rock like this.....
Thankfully, out to the left was a horizontal line of pockets that shot out left around the face of the buttress to god knows where.
Dennis on the traverse of Eperon Sublime, it's the 70s; headband -check, Whillans harness - check, EBs - check, Hexes - check, power tache - check!
Around the corner is a flake that leads to one of the dead trees that litter the crag like petrified veins. He brought me up and I shot off up the next pitch using a bolt for aid (that had yet to be eliminated) and we were soon at the top, wondering at the exposure, rock and fragrances of the crag.
The next day we drove down to Couloir Samson and walked through the tunnels in search of La Demande (The Question). It had been described to me as unmistakable, and sure enough the line was clear, a sabre cut slash up the full height of the crag.
Looking up the height of the L'Escales cliff. Le Demande finishes in the chimneys on the right hand side of the prominent buttress. The lower half follows the ramp line that curves up from the low right side of the photo.
Le Demande is one of many five star classics that climb the full height of the cliff, 11 pitches of 6a+, perhaps a little harder if you aren't used to cracks and chimneys. It has the benefit of being shady once you hit the chimneys at half height. Back in the seventy's the bolts were truly manky, as were the soft steel pegs, and the penultimate pitch, a flared groove with a hideous crack was very becky, one shitty old bolt just above the belay followed by about 40' of unprotected squirming up the groove - All very manly with a high pucker factor, it's now protected by three bolts and is much more mellow!
We did several other routes on that holiday, on no occasion was anyone else on the crag - we had the entire place to ourselves - hard to imagine today. One memorable route is no longer included in modern guides; Voie de Gros Surplomb. this followed a crack and chimney system on the front of L'Imbut. The chimneys eventually got very deep and led to a Y shaped apex at the big roof. This space was occupied by an ancient Vultures nest. Branches as thick as you forearms choked the chimney and made exiting on the ramp out right a bit tricky. Nowadays, thanks to a lot of ecological encouragement the Vultures are back, and the nest probably occupied. - any contemporary ascent would probably have a Jurassic park feel to it!
Low down on Voie de Roumagou, Falaise de L'Imbut.
Dennis deep in the chimney, approaching the nest!
I returned the following year with some other mates,
Left to right; Kevin McLane, Nigel Robinson, Bob Smith and Blakey having a coffee outside Bar de la Place - 1977 -ish
and repeated most of the classics, but added Pilier des Ecreuils to the tick list, memorably finishing in it a storm that saw a lot of folks in shorts and t shirts benighted on the crag. That year I did La Demande again, this time with Bob Smith, our three hour time could have been improved on, but in one year the place had become popular and there was a log jam in the upper chimney that turned our sprint into a crawl.
Snow at Easter - it's not always hot in the South of France!
Bob's pose attempted to be more heroic than mine. The storm came out of nowhere, and being in the gorge you couldn't see it coming. We heard the thunder, but mistook it for artillery on the nearby ranges.
My camera BITD was a little Rollie B35 half frame - one reason why the slide scans aren't so good I guess. I have no idea where Bob and I are on here! Close to the top of something.
Several more visits took place over the years, some with my wife, and some with servicemen and women who I was taking on courses. Another ascent of the Demande took place during that period, it was noticeably more polished, but much better bolted. This would have been in the mid 90s.
Then more recently (last September) the opportunity arose for a short trip with a local climber, Graeme Read who hadn't been to the gorge before. We worked out a sort of sports plan, which was kicked into touch somewhat by the debolting of ULA, the closure of the tunnels, the unseasonably hot weather and ubiquitous polish.
To cut a long story short, amongst other things we did The Demande, my fourth time up it. it was no less fun, and abseiling in, down the Dalles Grises and Pilier des Ecruiles added to the sense of commitment.
Graeme on the penultimate abseil down Pilier des Ecruils
Looking down one of the early pitches. these are a mixture of face and crack climbing on a sometimes slender ramp.
Looking down the most slender section of the ramp, about half way up.
In the chimneys,on one of the more open pitches, Graeme turning an overhang.
In the chimneys now, Graeme is looking past me to his lead, the flared spooky pitch.
Graeme approaching the sanctuary of the tree. BITD one low bolt protected this pitch.
Shoes off - bliss!
We took a light rack, if your climbing well you won't use much of it at all, but it's nice to have something. Grade is very debatable, I'd judge low to middle 5.10. Some water is a good idea, but unlike most routes on l'Escales this does get some shade, and there may be an updraft which can cool you down, tangle your ropes, and make communication impossible ;-)
Some other observations
The pitches are all quite long, we did it in 12, the stances are all bolted, with two large, cemented in, ring bolts. Most of the stances are good. The usual approach is through the tunnels from Couloir Samson, one small torch is useful. If you have just one car, and leave it there you can usually hitch back to where you're parked. Abseiling in has the advantage of getting you back to your car quicker - parking is 5 minutes from the top of the route.
So four ascents thus far - I turn 60 in four years and my nipper will be sixteen then, I wonder.............
It's real late here now and some of my old photo's won't for some reason upload. I'lll sort it and add them later.
meanwhile here a web link to a good article on UK climbing posted by Alan Carne, a british guide working in the Verdon.
BLAKEY!!! Love these TR's from you man. Your Riglos TR fully coincided with my trip there and this one is doing the same. The Verdon has been a dreamtrip of mine since the early 80's and we're looking for tickets NOW! I love where your heads at man!!
Great TR. I got a tour with Joel Coqueniot in 79' From Calanque to the Verdon. We did Squirrels Pillar and something else right near it. We walked in and saw no other climbers only a few river rafters. Joel was an early Verdon climber also put up some good stuff in Cham. I remember topping out almost right at the car in the Verdon.
There's accommodation to suit all tastes, a couple of formal hotels just outside La Palud that offer B&B through to full pension. In the Village itself are a couple of climbers accommodation spots; La Perroquet Vert, which is part of the climbing shop set up has new clean rooms and offers a pretty good continental breakfast, La Wapiti is a bit more basic. In September we stayed at Perroquet Vert and were pretty happy with it.
There are two bars in the village centre, one has a proper restaurant, though both are cool with you buying a pizza from the wagon in the square and eating it as you have a beer.
I don't know if you have a sports plan, but for that 'Old School vibe' that you two seem to enjoy, i'd recommend: La Demande, Triomphe De Eros, Luna Bong, Eperon Sublime, Dingomaniaque. All of these will be polished to some extent but are not so hard that it turns into a show stopper. A good introduction to the polish will be found on say, the 6c routes on Mirrior de Fou.... If you are comfy on these then head for Pichnibule! But I wouldn't want to be out there on that in any heat ;-) And sh#t, if you can do that then you can do loads!
(My partner in September thought La Demande was harder than Biceps! It's not but.....)
Unlike the Luna Bong raps, The Dalles Grise raps are straight forward, we used twin ropes so the length wasn't an issue. You can continue down Pilier des Ecureuils. Walk dow to a cord that takes you to a tree, the chains are to its left looking out - keep pushing yourself to the right to hit the belays. 3 raps to the ground, the last free. There are other abseil pistes, but I'm not familiar with them.
If it gets unfathomably hot, then Annott, about 70kms East offers some really good shady/leafy dragging on unusual sand/limestone studded with huge ammonites.
I'd guess that when your not climbing you'll be jumping? The top of Wide is Love seems a popular jump off point....
The walk through the gorge from Chalet Malines to Couloir Samson is a classic - 11 miles with stellar views, tunnels(torches a good idea), funky steps and huge crags.
Above La Palud a short walk leads to a deserted village, follow the old road East from this and you come to an old medieval chapel up in a crag, theres some easy spelunking (no torch required) out it's back that takes you to the upper cave/overhang.
It's all fab, and the first view of the gorge takes your breath away.