French Leave

This article, by Ken McKinlay, was originally published in the IMC’s 50th Anniversary Journal in 2000, and has been revisited and revised by Ken. The top and bottom photos are from the Belvedere de la Carelle.

Then, 1992, we were innocents abroad – me, Colin, and Robert and Lynn – tripping out on ‘Sun Rock’ seduced by dreams of guaranteed sunshine and the massive climbing opportunities in the south of France. It had to be Verdon, the biggest gorge in Europe with walls hundreds of metres high. The A-team picked out La Demande, one of the classic routes and hard enough, but do-able rather than a modern desperate. Me? Oh, I thought the scenery would be nice.

For a prelude we had planned a gentle warm up in the Ardeche. This is another limestone region, and the rivers flow in large sweeping curves, having carved out amphitheatres of tall cliffs on the outside of all the bends, and one of these cirques of cliffs was our number one target. The first routes we came to were supposedly the easiest, maybe suitable for the B-team of Lynn and me. Inevitably, accessible low-grade single-pitch limestone routes quickly get polished through use, and become not quite so easy. But they were still low-grade climbs, so after fighting off the kids and the mums and dads jostling for routes I reached the top of one. Bolted climbing was substantially new to me, and I passed the belay chain and faffed about at the top of the cliff to set up some anchors that I could abseil off! Of course nowadays everyone has been on a climbing wall and would expect to be lowered off. And eventually even I picked up the technique, almost, except that…

I date from ‘the leader must not fall‘ era of climbing, and this is one of the first rules that must be broken in sport climbing. Ages ago I’d heard someone on the Slabs say that ‘if you’re not flying, you’re not trying‘ but I’ve been unable to embrace this ethos wholeheartedly. There are bold climbers, and there are old climbers, and I know which one I am. For the first week I felt more at home on the occasional unequipped route that we came across, and I’ve found them to be more memorable. My slow progress and statue impersonations are well known to anyone who has climbed with me, and I can make seconds think twice, so perhaps it’s not surprising that on one occasion Lynn declined to follow. Limestone gives you great situations, but the routes I’ve climbed, and the way I’ve climbed them, have a sameness about them: stretch to clip the gear, stretch to reach the next pocket or hold, move up, repeat, and so long as your forearms don’t give up you’ll get up.

The Pont d’Arc, in the Ardèche

 After a week it was time to move on and we were off on our way again, off to Provence and the Verdon. There’s a small outcrop (in relative terms) the other side of the village from the gorge, and we went there to see what the rock was like. Oh Joy! Oh Bliss! it was rough, it had friction as well as holds. I remember top-roping from the belvedere when one of the occasional tour buses arrived. I couldn’t see them, but I knew when the tourists reached the guardrail and looked over. “Ooo, Ahhhh” and it sounded as if a thousand camera shutters were going off, capturing the daring climber, me. I thought, “This must be what it’s like being Ron Fawcett.” I could have died then and gone to heaven, enraptured.

Anyway, the A-team were there for a purpose, La Demande. Despite disagreements, they’d reached a consensus of approaching from the base rather than abbing down the line of the climb. Early in the morning we drove them to the base of the gorge, dropped them off, wished them well, and promised to see them at the top belvedere later in the day. The B-team had a day off, doing touristy things and then domestic chores to relieve the inevitable squalor of prolonged camping. Come the appointed hour we drove up to meet them: no Robert or Colin. We drove back to the base just in case they’d had a problem: no Robert or Colin. We drove back to the campsite, and a bit later we repeated the whole process: no Robert or Colin. When the dark-skinned Italians returned we asked them whether they’d seen our party.

– “What were they climbing?”
“La Demande.”
– “It’s a long climb.”

Yeah, we know, Luigi, but have you seen them? No they hadn’t. We’d been there long enough to know that late afternoon thunderstorms were common. It would be absolutely horrendous to be caught on the climb in those conditions. We were worried, not panicking, but worried. We almost set up a shuttle service between the top and bottom extremities of the gorge until we picked them up as they tramped back from the base of the gorge.

Colin, from the Belvedere de la Carelle

The approach along the base of the cliff involved going through some tunnels, and the guidebook misled them into going far too far, through a semi-flooded tunnel, and coming out at totally the wrong place. After spending a lot more time retracing steps and casting around for something that might match the guidebook description, and taking a ground fall from 20 foot or so on something that initially seemed to fit, they finally arrived at the base of the route. So, it was later than they wanted, they’d had a mini-disaster already – and then they found that on this climb ‘partially equipped‘ and ‘popular‘ meant ‘scant protection’ and ‘polished and slippery.’ They backed off just as the thunder and lightning started. I’ve seen a photograph of one of them performing what looks like circus acrobat tricks on a rope miles out from the rock while abseiling. I read that the route’s name relates to a proposal of marriage (‘la demande de mariage‘) made by one of the first ascensionists. If that’s the case, I suspect it was because he was looking for an excuse to avoid such excursions in the future.

Could this holiday get any better? Possibly not, but we tried, oh how we tried. On the way back across France we stopped off at Fontainebleau for the bouldering. It was a complete contrast to the limestone in scale and technique and the landings were sandy, but you needed a combination of strength and delicacy of movement to cover the range of problems.

What a great holiday. Anyone got a spare seat going to France next summer?