The French Files: A climbing Road Trip to the Verdon Gorge
At the end of every ski season I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Not because I am excited that the winter is over, more so that I am excited I navigated through the avalanche mine field successfully, that all of my guests/clients were safe, and that seasons are changing, and it is time for rock shoes and chalk.
Running a backcountry ski lodge (Valhalla Mountain Touring) in the wilds of British Columbia is definitely a dream come true, but after you work 100 days in a row, give or take, in avalanche terrain, you are ready for a break.
So this year, my wife and I decided that we would spend 5 weeks cruising around France, sampling the finest in French limestone, red wines, cheeses and baked goods. I may have put the rock first in that list, but the other items may have brought more joy in the end…
We started our journey with 10 days in an area known as the Gorges du Tarn, 1 pitch steep and pocketed limestone cragging, where we could attempt to transfer our ski legs in to climbing arms. We threw ourselves at pitch after pitch of overhanging jug hauls until the aching forearms made us quit and return to our ‘Gite’ to drink some wine (a gite is a French term for a small studio vacation rental. These cost anywhere from 20€ to 30€ a night and are all over France). After a bunch of days we decided we had just barely enough fitness to go try our hand at some long routes.
Ever since I started rock climbing, I heard mythical tales of the Verdon Gorge. The 1,000-foot deep limestone canyon required you to rap in and climb out, with no easy means of retreat. Grades were supposedly REALLY hard, and the runouts between bolts were astronomical. GULP. So there was no choice on our next destination — the Verdon — and to see if the rumors were true.
Far and away, my favorite type of climbing is to do long, multi-pitch free routes. I love doing pitch after pitch of hard climbing way above the ground — maybe that is why I have made Squamish, BC my home with its plethora of hard multi-pitch free climbs. This is what the Verdon Gorge is all about.
I did some research enroute and found us an incredible gite to stay, just right up our alley. The place is called ‘Mayreste‘ and is run by this great couple named JF and Anita. It is a few kilometers away from the gorge on a quiet piece of land with stunning views, running on solar power and spring water. If you go to the Verdon, you have to stay with these guys!
Now there was nothing left to do but climb, and I had a slew of classic routes for Jasmin and I to tackle. We parked at the top of the cliff, walked for 30 seconds, and were at the rap anchors. With wide eyes and butterflies in our stomachs, we decided to start with ‘La Demande’, the first full length route in the Verdon, completed in 1968. Being the first full-length route, it follows a big weakness in the cliff, with cracks and chimneys for large portions of the climb. Jasmin and I are both trad adventure climbers, having done our crack and chimney penance, so the 11 pitch 5.10 route went relatively fast, and before we knew it, we were drinking wine back at out gite. So far the Verdon wasn’t as hard and scary as we thought… But were we getting too cocky?
Next up was something a little harder, Pichenbule, a 5.11+, that weaves its way up the walls for 12 pitches. Back we went to the canyon rim, and rapped in with overcast skies-but rain wasn’t really in the forecast. The first 4 pitches of the route went relatively fast, but then the drizzle started. Being at a ledge, we weighed our options — we had a choice of a 5.5 escape route back to the top, so we wouldn’t have to rap down and walk out 15km back to our car in the rain. We decided to take that option, but halfway up the weather seemed to get better, so we rapped BACK down to the ledge and started back up the original route. Oops, 2 pitches into that route, the skies began to laugh at us, belching heavy rain and hail on us. Luckily we chose another 5.10- escape route at that point with well bolted hand cracks taking us back out of the the canyon. Three soaking wet and lightening electrified pitches later we were back on the rim, running for the car. At least we weren’t walking out all afternoon in the rain!
After some rest (and gear drying!) we decided to try and tackle one of the classic test pieces of the Verdon. ‘La Fete des Nerfs’ which translates to something like the birthday of nerves. Hmmm. At 10 pitches long with all of the pitches being harder than 5.10 and half of them around 11+/12- we were in for a hard day on the rocks. We started early, packed light and rapped in, psyched for the hard climbing and the adventure.
Yeah, there were some big run outs and the climbing was hard, but Jas and I were warmed up for the adventure and right where we wanted to be. A few falls, over all, but pitch after pitch of brilliant climbing, under steel blue skies, with amazing rock. It was so great to be there, and it makes my hands sweat just thinking about it. Lucky for me, I chase my dreams and make sure they come true — and climbing in the Verdon has been a dream of mine for a long time.
After ‘La Fete des Nerfs’ we moved on with our road trip, sport climbing in Ceuse, and then some more amazing multipitch routes in Presles, but by far and away my time in the Verdon was the most memorable of our 5 week road trip. Now I am back home, climbing the granite of Squamish and super excited for the alpine rock climbing season to start here!
For more info on the Verdon Gorge check out this online article