Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Roaming around France

Musketteering in the Gorge du Verdon 

This summer it seems, the Gorge du Verdon is the place to be. Everyone we met it seemed had flocked there from elsewhere in the Alps to escape the bad weather, as had we, for the blue skies of the Verdon. The summer in the south of France, however, can get quite toasty! We could usually wait out the morning for the walls to come into the shade before climbing, but it made trying some longer routes quite challenging, as we were to discover. We went to investigate a route I’d noticed in the guide a few years ago, El Topo, which looked to climb some nice rock and included many challenging pitches. The hardest are at the top and we went down to have a look at them in advance of any ground-up efforts. The crux 8a is actually relatively easy, while the 7c below felt much harder!

Once we were satisfied we could probably wing our way through the upper pitches we went down for a go from the ground, which meant climbing the ‘easier’ pitches in the sun. We couldn’t take the heat, by the time we got to where El Topo leaves Les Marches du Temps (the start of the route!) both of our hands and feet were in agony! Our luck – or is it planning? – shows no signs of changing. We descended to the ground and ambled out through the tunnels for a refreshing swim and a hitch back to camp. On other days we climbed Au Dela Du Delire and Les Naufrages that were both awesome, tried highlining with Olivier and even saw the world’s biggest toad.
Wild abseils in the Verdon
Low on El Topo
Au Dela Du Delire
Brilliant 7a pitch on Topo shared with Marches du Temps
One very serious toad
The Etape du Tour 

Every year the Etape du Tour sportive is held on a mountain stage of the Tour de France a few days before the Tour passes, making use of its infrastructure. This year something like 12,000 cyclists took part and the course included the Col du Tourmalet and the Hautacam covering 148km of road. I think that it is probable that this year, I was the cyclist to take part who had done the least road biking and the least training for this event, maybe even by a large margin; I was not well prepared. On the few occasions I had used my road bike this year, however, I had really enjoyed it. So, while a part of me was dreading the Etape, another was quite looking forward to it.

I’d heard that the atmosphere of the event would be amazing and that the scenery should also be stunning as well and the weather, of course, would be good? This was mostly true, except the weather was a disaster! The first 75km, up to the start of the climb of the Col du Tourmalet, is relatively flat and I arrived at the feed station already having done the longest ride of my life feeling a little tired. This is also when the rain properly arrived and the next 20-30km up the Tourmalet was one of the more gruelling experiences of my life so far. I was soaked to the skin and cold, but being surrounded by a few hundred people in the same boat made this easier to endure. Cat had caught me up at the feed station and so we got to tackle the Tourmalet together which was also nice. We were looking forward to an amazing descent, but this was worse than the ascent! So wet as to prevent any speed and very, very cold, we were both worried about shivering ourselves off our bikes. We passed many people on the descent who I assume had given up due to the cold and had abandoned their bikes, stopping to help wasn’t an option though as we also had no way of keeping warm.

At about 120km, shortly before the start of the final climb up the Hautacam, the route passed our campsite. We were in no doubt when we arrived here that what we needed was to put down our bikes and get into our sleeping bags to try and get some warmth back into our bodies. This event was a mighty challenge for me, and not one I was equal to given the conditions, I am very pleased to have gotten as far as I did. Now that my arse has stopped hurting, I am starting to consider taking part again next year, on the assumption that I get out on a bike in the months before the event. Hats off the all the finishers of the event, it was a very tough outing in my opinion!

Cat is very excitied about the tour!
The Tour passing our campsite
Grande Vignemale 

Here are a few photos from our ascent of the Classic Route on the north face of Pique Longue on the Grande Vignemale. This is a really stunning mountain in the Pyrenees and the route is D+ and around 900 metres long! This was a great and tiring day out and the climb is in incredible surroundings. 
Early on the North Face of Vignemale
The upper ridges on the Vignemale
Upper ridge of the Classic Route on Vignemale
Back in the Verdon! 

The rest of our time in France was spent in Gorge du Tarn and Gorge du Verdon, which are both some of my favourite places to climb. We had hoped to get back to the Alps, but without an outstanding forecast, I was reluctant to head back into the mountains. Our final few days in Gorge du Verdon were great; perfect (but hot) weather and classic long routes. Me and Cat climbed almost endless chimneys on La Demande and laybacked our way up Caquous. I also teamed up with a young French lad called Joel, just back from Sheffield, to climb Le Marches du Temps, a long route with loads of great wall climbing on pockets.

Cat makes a belay in an interesting location
Joel on Marches du Temps
Cat on Caquous

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