Story: Nick Dunn
Photos: Nick Dunn and Matt Murison
I managed to get some big climbing in by going to the Verdon in France with Matt Murison for a weekend. The whole thing turned into a bit of an epic. We were only there from Friday to Monday, so as soon as we got to the place we were staying, we dumped the bags and headed straight to the crag.
We’d been up since 4am in order to get to the airport and catch the flight – so we decided to take it easy for the first climb and do a four pitch 4c. This was my first ‘proper’ big wall, multi-pitch climb – so for me it was a chance to get used to hanging belays and rope management. So much fun to be had …
The journey so far been a peach – Straight to the airport without getting lost, found the medium-term car park no trouble. Caught the transit bus to the terminal and we were the 5th and 6th people to check in. No delays, and after a grim and greasy airport breakfast we got onto the plane which took off on time. We even landed a few minutes early.
Nobody stopped us at customs and the much feared strip search just didn’t happen.
Picked up the ‘VW Golf (or equivalent)’ car from the rental place. This was the first bad thing. We definitely had the ‘equivalent’ and not the VW Golf. Strange thing ‘equivalent’ – in car rental terms this translates as – ‘equivalent number of wheels’ or ‘equivalent colour’ but not ‘equivalent comfort’ or power or handling or style, or anything else that you’d like ‘equivalence’ in.
Still, we weren’t going to complain too much. The whole trip was cheap-as-chips. £100 for both flights (return), and £90 for the car. Accommodation was going to be €140 (roughly £100) for the three nights we were there – this included breakfast each day and one evening meal. In total £300 split between two.
There were supposed to be three of us, but Matt’s friend Andy couldn’t get a visa to leave the UK. Working in the UK on a SA passport has it’s restrictions it seems.
The drive from Nice to le Palud De Verdon was easy enough, we got the main road out of Nice without any bother – even though all the signs were in French, this did not stop my brilliant navigation. Well, not until we got to Grasse – which we toured the suburbs of until we found the right road out of town. If you’re thinking of visiting Grasse, I can assure you that there are better suburbs in lots of towns. Better signposted ones at least.
After finally getting out of Grasse, we got to the wiggly roads. Wow – do they like ’em wiggly up in the hills of Provence. I guess the Romans never made much headway there. Not a straight line in sight. Still, Matt got a good forearm workout from all the bends and turns.
The lady at the gîtes spoke no English, and between us me and Matt can speak very bad French. So it took a while to explain that there were now only two of us and that the third person (as reserved) would not be arriving.
No time to waste – we ordered breakfast for 7:30am, dumped our bags in the room, grabbed the climbing gear and consulted the guide book. This is where we selected the ‘easy’ 4 pitch route – according to the guide book 4c, 4c, 4c, 4. In other words a piece of p**s all the way. Just the ticket for getting us in the mood and warmed up for (what we hoped) would be some stunning climbing tomorrow. Today was about acclimatisation more than grade chasing – it had been a long day after all.
We got to the crag at about 2:30 ish and abseiled in the 150m to a tree covered ledge. As Matt went down the first pitch of the abseil, a couple came by and asked what we were climbing. They were French of course, and being that way inclined asked me all this in French. At once I jumped on the chance of using my huge knowledge of the French language and said “Pardon, parley vous anglais si vous plate?”
After gesticulating at the guide book and pointing at where Matt had just disappeared from view, we soon had an understanding of what we were doing. Well I did anyway.
“Ah wee. Eees gooud rroute. Trois – is theese ‘three’?, wee three ‘ours. Bon chance.”
I followed Matt down the face. We had tied both of our ropes (newly bought for the trip – one 70 and one 60m) together with a double fishermans, threaded one side through the bottom link of the belay chain and thrown the ropes out as far as possible. Isn’t it amazing how tangled a rope can get?
The abseil down was brilliant. At the top there had been a slight breeze so I kept my wind proof jacket on, but on the way down the wind had either dropped or was not blowing down in the valley. Even in November the south of France does not get cold if the sun is shining, and ‘shining’ was how to describe the sun that day.
The gorge is stunning. 300 meters of limestone cliff in places. From the top you can see the Mediterranean in the distance. The scree slopes at the bottom of the gorge
At each set of chains we tied in, re-threaded the rope and followed each other. I had a small rucksack with the climbing gear – quick draws, chalk bag etc – into which the jacket went, as did my shirt. At the top, as we were unloading the car I’d carefully taken out anything we were not going to need – no point carrying extra baggage.
Along with Matt’s down jacket and my fleece, we left a spare bottle of water, a pair of walkie talkies a few re-chargeable batteries and some clip-on torches.
“ha, we won’t need these will we Matt?” – “oh no. Leave them behind!”
Whilst massive eagles circled on the afternoon thermals we watched two other climbers start their last pitch just as we arrived on our starting ledge, 150m down the cliff. The only way out was up.
Off we went – the climbing was easy and the views were stunning. The rock was top quality. Matt lead the first pitch and I lead the second. Easy peasy. It was nice and warm in the sun, a little light breeze. We were on a slab, but there were enough bulges and twists in the route that the leader was soon out of sight. Watching the amount of slack paid out was fairly easy, and the views of the eagles were stunning.
The guide book we had was quite old – 1992 I think, and there were obviously a lot more routes on the crag than in the book. Finding lines was quite difficult. It had been a long time since I’d been on rock, let alone leading, and although Matt is a much better climber than me, I think it had been a while for him as well. We took our time.
There was no rush, as the sun was warm and the climbing a pleasure. I got to enjoy the leading. There is something very different about lead climbing.
Our bubble of climbing serenity was burst, when at about five thirty we noticed that it was starting to get dark and we were still only just past half way up. Matt started the third pitch knowing that we’d have to get motoring so as not to get caught in the dark.
At six o’clock it was proper dark.
Having belayed Matt up to the start of the last pitch I needed to follow him up. I’d collected together everything, the short rope coiled and strapped to the rucksack, slings and quick draws stowed properly.
We were tied into either end of the long rope, and in order to keep the small belay ledge clear, I’d let the rope loop down below me. As Matt called out that he was safe and off belay he started to take in the slack, so that I could follow him.
Whizz whiz whiz went the rope as Matt pulled in the slack then ‘whiz-wap’ it stopped. There was still a load of slack below me, but the rope going up to Matt had gone taught. Looking down into the gloom, I could see the cause – a tree stump stuck out about five meters below me – and the rope had pulled up neatly into it. The stump pointed downwards and was about the size of a forearm – not something you could snap without serious drugs.
I called for ‘slack’. I got just enough to start flicking the rope clear and then Matt must have felt the jerks on the rope and tightened things up again. Call for slack again. More flicks. Lots of curses.
More calls for slack.
Big bad curses (the your’re-going-to-hell-for-saying-that kind of curse).
Resignation. I start to unstrap the short rope, thinking – the only way out of this fix is to tie off, secure the short rope to the chains and abseil down to get the long rope un-caught, then climb back up and start again.
Look down and give the rope a ‘you-bastard-I’ll-cut-you-into-tiny-pieces’ look together with a heartfelt flick. ‘Sping’ – the rope slides away from the stump as if it had heard me. Shitting bricks – ‘cos now it really is dark I call on Matt to take in the slack and get to work climbing.
Seconding is easy – but in the dark, when you can’t see foot holds or handholds and the only way you can find the bolts is because the rope goes there via the quickdraws – you start to think : whose fu*king idea was this?
I got up to Matt quite quickly, but I wasn’t happy about leading under these conditions. I whimped out and left Matt to lead the last pitch. After all my faffing about with the snagged rope he’d spent enough time sitting on the belay ledge and was keen to get off.
We only had quickdraws with us – no trad gear at all, so we had to find the hangers to protect the climb. Matt went off in the dark and found a couple, but he then strayed off route and went at least ten meters beyond the last bolt. He was on much harder ground and couldn’t find any bolts. You couldn’t see more than about 10 feet, but everything was grey – finding footholds was a nightmare and as for bolt heads – forget it.
Oh bugger. Matt put a sling and quickdraw around a loose block and I lowered him back down to the belay ledge.
The ledge was just about big enough for the two of us to stand on – but we couldn’t stay there. Going up was no longer a safe option, staying on the belay ledge was going to be very uncomfortable so the ledge we’d started from looked the most promising. The only other option was to call for help – I did have my mobile with me, but unlike in the UK, the rescue services in France charge you – our insurance probably would have paid, but there we couldn’t check this and we were not in any imminent danger.
We tied the two ropes together – this was tricky. It was now what can only be called ‘night-time’ and although one rope was pink and the other blue, they both looked exactly the same in the dark – I had to use the small light from the mobile phone screen to distinguish between them. It would have been very silly to have tied one rope in a loop!
Here is a tip – When buying ropes make sure that you can tell them apart in the dark. Two Beal ropes, even if one is pink and one is blue look exactly the same in the dark! (of course a better tip is to take a torch, and an even better tip is not to get caught in the dark in the first place – but lets not go there).
We threaded the chains on the belay and off I went to try and find the abseil route. I had to go off way to the right trying to find a set of chains in the dark. I was only a little bit worried about running out of rope we had a 60m and a 70m, but this was not enough to get to the ledge in one go, so I had to find something to thread again.
I’d come at about 45 degrees from the where Matt was and I was starting to feel the pull of the rope and once or twice thought I was going to take a massive pendulum when my feet slipped.
I found a tree and hugged it.
Nice tree (obviously no relation to the stump – this tree is on my Christmas card list)
We found the chains about six or seven meters below the tree and from there it was fairly straight forward getting to the ledge.
Now we were on the ledge, but we were not sure how big it was. When we had first landed there we hadn’t bothered looking around, and now it was too dark to go exploring. We couldn’t check the guide book either to see if we could go further down, the last thing we wanted was to abseil down an unbolted cliff and then have to prussik back up again – especially as my shoes didn’t have any laces, so I would have had to fashion some string by tearing my underpants into strips or something.
We resigned ourselves to an overnight stay. We were lucky that the wind dropped, and there was no sign of rain, but f*&k me was it cold. We hadn’t exactly planned to stay on the ledge in the dark – no torches, no warm clothes, no food, no water etc. etc. (all of that stuff was in the car 150m above us). I was wearing a pair of trousers and a t-shirt – luckily I had a light jacket in my bag, but it was wind protection only. I gave Matt my long sleeve shirt that was also in the bag as he only had a sweatshirt.
My jacket was a cycling jacket – a high visibility thing and I was so glad I’d taken it along. In the pouch on the back of the jacket were my cycling gloves and my hat.
We scouted the extent of the visible ledge to see how comfortable we could get. In order to alleviate the stupidity of our situation, we congratulated ourselves on how manfully we’d dealt with it – we’d made the right decisions given the knowledge we had at the time. There were no regrets.
To keep warm we did ‘step-class’. Simply find a suitable boulder – and step onto it. Then step off it. Repeat until warm. If warming fails to happen, then speed up the steps – try not to fall over. Star jumps are good for warmth also, but extra care must be taken about uneven ground. If you want to get your upper body warm, then I can’t recommend rope coiling enough. I must have coiled my ropes twenty eight times.
There was nowhere on the ledge comfortable to lie – too may tree roots and loose rocks about for that. So we laid the ropes on the floor to provide some insulation and then lay back-to-back. This gives maximum surface area contact without having to get too intimate and start saying that we’d call each other, move in or anything serious.
The worst part of the night was waking up after dozing off. I was woken by shaking and it was me that was shaking and shivering with the cold from head to toe – it took about half an hour to stop shivering – horrible.
The night wore on in fits of trying to doze, waking because of the cold and then exercise to warm up. I guess that I managed no more than one hour of sleep in the whole twelve hours we spent on the ledge.
The most scary part was when I sat down on a rock near to the edge of the ledge and dozed off with my head bent forward and hands in my armpits. You know when you start to fall asleep you kind of nod and it feels like you’re falling? I woke up practically screaming, convinced that I had slipped off the edge. After that I found a tree and clipped in with a long sling.
At about 10:30pm I noticed that I could see a shadow. The moon had risen (only a half moon) and after the utter darkness it seemed as bright as midday. I was convinced that we could climb out by moonlight, we simply had to wait till the moon had risen enough to shine on the route and expose the elusive bolts that we’d have no trouble in getting out.
The moon moves slowly.
Especially when you have nothing else to watch.
After a few hours, I realised that what had looked like brilliant light was now only marginally better than starlight, and we were going to have to wait until dawn after all. Back to the step class to keep warm.
It started to get light at about 6:30am. We were both knackered and cold, but we knew that the climbing was going to be straight forward. We started off at about 7am and topped out just after 9.
The people at the gîtes thought we’d done a runner in the night without paying, but were confused that we’d left all of our stuff. We had ordered breakfast for 7:30am, but only got back to the place at about 10. We tried in very poor French to explain that we’d spent the night on a ledge, but the woman somehow thought that we’d been in a car accident?
But she offered us breakfast, and that meal was surely the best meal I’ll ever have.
Warm baguette, jam, honey and coffee – heavenly.
It was now Saturday lunchtime and we’d been up since 4am on Friday, with only a bit of a doze on a cold ledge – so … we set the alarm clock for two hours, had a quick sleep and then back to another crag for some single pitch stuff!
That night we slept well.
I’m looking forward to my next trip – and I’ve got a head torch on my list for Christmas!!
For those that want to know the routes we did that weekend are named as follows –
Dalles Grises (4c,4c,4c,4c 150m) – This took 15 hours to climb!
Jardin des Ecureuils – A pleasant place to spend a night
Over the whole weekend we also climbed –
Voie En (6a – 27m)
La Dalle di Clou qui rend Fou (5b – 27m)
Le Fou de L’Extreme Droite (6b – 27m)
Afin que Nul ne Meure (5c,5c,6a,5c,6a – 150m)
les Rois Noeurs (6a 27m)
Saluts les Berlots (7a 20m)