Sunday, 6 September 2015

A return to France. The Tarn.

Where to begin?
I've been pretty fortunate so far this year in that I have finally started to pursue and take my climbing further afield. Away from the comforts and the increasingly tedious and often boring nature of the UK.

The Gorges du Tarn. Every climber has heard of this French stomping ground. Situated just outside of Millau in the Midi-Pyrenees, lies a beautiful deep gorge, carved out by the ages with towering rock faces as far as the eye can see.
When I arrived home from Spain my original plan was to head back out during the autumn to catch some much needed cooler temps. However plans end up changing like the wind and I got asked by my very good friends, Jon and Pete Clark, if we fancied a couple of weeks in the Tarn. These guys have got this place totally dialled up, having both made around six or seven trips in the past. They would do all the driving and organising and basically chauffeur me around for the entire time. How could I refuse! It was an easy decision to make.

I said yes within an instant. The idea of a jolly in the sun even got my Dad tempted and so for the first time he decided to join us on a euro adventure. Four Brits on tour!

Even though my experience of foreign climbing destinations is still rather limited, I've got to say that I think this place has the most amount of rock that I have ever seen! Route styles range from short bouldery gnarl to huge 100 metre+ outings, with grades across the entire spectrum. The adage of there being something for everyone could not be more true for this place. 
One thing to bear in mind though, is that this is France. It's old school in parts and certainly not a place for cheap Spanish holiday grades that is for sure. They make you work hard for your route of choice out here!

First day psyche on 'Rasta Vaut Rien' (8a+)

Driving up through the gorge on our first day, our eyes hardly knew where to look first. Akin to memories of the first time we ever drove up the Llanberis Pass. 'Like a kid in a candy shop' I remember it well. Seeing the Cromlech for the first time was out of this world. The itch and fire to start climbing increasing with every turn in the road, as another huge sector would come into view. Our faces pressed up against the car windows, straining to see but unable to take it all in.
Huge blank walls flanking us on both sides. Steep prows and towers standing tall and casting enormous shadows. The river flowing below us, kayakers gently making their way down in the sunshine. I kind of knew what to expect after hearing so much about the place and seeing all the photos/videos, but to see the place in the flesh was breath taking.

What makes the whole thing even more spectacular is that the big established crags suddenly seem to come into view out of no where. You spend a good amount of time twisting, turning, winding and weaving your way up from Millau, past farms, fields, the odd 'village' and tiny pockets of civilisation and then BAM. You turn a corner and you are there. Paradise. Neck ache from craning your head up against the car windows is something that you just have to accept! 
The one thing that was so blindly obvious from the start was how much cooler it was down here than the 2 weeks prior in Rodellar. You could actually breathe, and walk about without verging on collasping in a heap!

Sunrise. The stunning, soaring arete of 'Tennessee'

Being the only one of us all who would be climbing meant I was free to climb from route to route, and pick any crag I fancied for the day. It was definitely a bit of luxury and I am super grateful for the all the guys time, belays, commitment and effort they gave me. But it did mean we had to be careful not to constantly go full burn the entire time! 
In between belaying Pete would disappear daily off up one of the gorges for a couple of hours and bosh out the odd 100 mile on his road bike! The guys dedication, commitment and psyche astounds me. It is hugely motivating when someone like that is so passionate about their goals and what they want to do.

 The daily crag commute with the obligatory patisserie stop off.

Rest days were needed and luckily there was always something to do in town. Side streets full of little shops, cafes and bakeries to discover. Old buildings to walk around and explore. Millau is an historic place that is always bustling with life and colour, a hive of activity, with a weekly market that blew us away. Such a variety of food from all over. Stalls laden with local fresh fruit n produce, beautiful, straight out of the oven baguettes and enough pastries and cakes that left you not knowing what to try first. The mind boggled! 
We would then retire back to the campsite and doss around in the sunshine, chat late into the evening before hitting the sack, already fired up and champing at the bit for the morning to come round and with it, a new climbing day. Life could not have been simplier.

One afternoon we joined JC and Pete for a hike up to the top of Gorge du Jonte. Home of the majestic vultures! The lads had already trekked to see these huge beasts a few days before and we figured it was an opportunity not to be missed. Seeing these creatures up close at 3000 feet, circling above your head and hearing the wind whip up all around you, was breathtaking and a pretty special way to end a day. These birds are always made out to be nasty, dirty and evil things and while they may be scavengers there is no doubt that they are magnificent creatures and with their 8 foot wingspan they truly are a sight to behold.

We visited such a huge range of crags and climbed such an abundance of fantastic routes, that I am sure it would eventually bore you to death to read about them all. 
Every day was a good day but one of the stand out days was the session I power screamed my way up one of the areas hardcore pocket pulling test pieces. No surprises that this line resides at the aptly named sector 'Gullich'! The steep and fierce 'Le Spectre de l'ottokar', clocks in at around 8b+ and stands proud, jutting out high above the winding river below. A route that would fit like a glove in the forests of the Frankenjura. 
It still amazes me how some of these routes are so perfectly formed. Each pocket immaculately shaped for a human hand and fingers. And not just shaped, but positioned in such a way that it creates one exact sequence of moves. I find it all rather bizarre but it really is like these cliff faces were always made to be climbed, but somehow it has just taken centuries for the human race to realise.

It was full pedal to the metal, all out screaming on every move throughout the crux sequence. A very memorable experience and to managed to get it done on my 2nd try made the success even sweeter!
Afterwards we trekked slightly higher up the gorge for the classic 7a and mega popular route 'Le Trésor du Zèbre'. For anyone visiting the Tarn, this route is a must! It is probably one of my most favourite routes I have EVER done, an absolute gem of a line on some of the biggest and craziest holds you can think of. A huge diagonal traversing pitch across pristine rock, with truly breathtaking scenery all around. One of the best positions you could wish for and the swing after stripping the draws is rather spectacular too!

Early morning sessions pay off with on onsight of 'Hoy me Voy' (8a)

I could probably write an entire blog about Cantobre alone. The ancient, fortified medieval village itself sits atop a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Dourbie valley and looks out across at the streaky, rainbow limestone cliff. It truly is a fantastic place, full of history that spans the ages. Stone Age man once roamed about these parts, the Celts have been here, the Romans, Saracens, the list goes on. It is perhaps more well known however for being a bastion of the Knights Templar. Everyone seems to have wanted a piece of the pie at some point! These days however its occupants and visitors are slightly different.
The cliff is something akin to Ceuse, albeit on a much smaller scale. A multi-coloured swooping wave of compact rock, carved out through the ages with routes left, right and centre that range from 7a to 8c! It is a climbers playground and I quickly found it to be totally my style. It was plain to see straight away why JC had been ranting on about this place for so long and urging us to make the trip.

The general style here is big moves, powerful lock offs, and pockets, pockets, pockets galore, before many of the lines ease off as the crag begins to slab out at about half height. You have to be prepared to go big on some of these but with the safe knowledge that you'll soon reach a bucket of joy ahead.

We made a vague plan to return on our final day before starting the long drive back home. As the crag virtually gets full sun throughout the summer period we crossed our fingers the night before in the hope some cloud would roll in. And boy did it come good!

We awoke the next day to perfect cloud cover, and an incredible mild breeze made for some of the best climbing conditions I've ever experienced. Thankfully we were able to make it count. A quick stop for bread and we made the easy, quiet drive up through the Dourbie.
Within the first hour an onsight of the classic 8a of the crag 'Les Dernières Plantations du Christ' was in the bag and then the true prize of the day was my surprise first 8a+ onsight, 'Torticolis'. What a beauty! Big all out leaps between pockets and a head wall to rival climbing in Ceuse made for one very unforgettable climb. It was one of my best and favourite days of rock climbing I have ever had and the perfect way to round off a fantastic 2 weeks.
We celebrated back at camp with a brew and one final pain aux raisin before bidding Millau au revoir, and then began the journey home.

I seriously cannot thank Pete and Jon enough for all the driving they did and for showing us a such a good time! Not to mention all the sick photos! It is a trip that will sit long in the memory and I already cannot wait to make another journey out here next spring for some unfinished business and to sample more of what this wonderful part of the world has to offer.

Here's to our next adventure together chaps! Wherever that may be... :)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015


Another trip is over and another world class climbing destination is ticked off the list. I say this every time and it is seriously cliche blah blah blah, but on these trips time really does just seem to vanish in the blink of an eye. One minute you're walking out your front door full of anticipation and no sooner do you know it but you're then having your last day and preparing to travel back home. You would think by now I'd be used to it but it continues to baffle me.

Anyway, Rodellar. The land of of the steep, the home of the pump. I have heard so much about this place over the years and I really wanted to travel back to Spain after finally getting my first trip to the country smashed in back during the Spring, I decided to book flights and see what all the fuss was about. Stories and dreamy pictures of endless cliff faces jutting up out of a mind blowing gorge, dripping with tufa and enough routes to last a lifetime, was all too tempting. That coupled with the knowledge that all of this was within a maximum 20 minute walk from the famous refugio that is Kalandraka, had me fairly convinced that this would be a pretty sweet trip.
I love a good crag walk-in but the prospect of getting up in the morning and having the climbing smack bang in front of you was rather mouth watering.
Ceuse is fantastic, world class and probably my most favourite place on earth (at the present) to climb. But the approach, after a few weeks starts to mentally beat you up. What I was after this time around was somewhere that you could put your entire concentration into the actual rock climbing.
Joining me was the young Buster Martin, fresh from finishing his schooling and exams. After not climbing much for a year or so he was really eager to get back into the swing of things and I was relishing hooking up with the youth.

It was going to be hot, we were prepared for that. June + Spain means it is inevitable. But so many people go here during this time that we figured it'd be just fine. Besides it was such a cold winter for me, and bearing in mind just over a month ago I had a hand warmer stuffed in my chalk bag while climbing, the idea of sun, heat, blue skies, shorts, vests etc etc was extremely appealing.
Nothing could have prepared us though for the scorching 40 degree record temperatures that we actually ended up getting! Don't get me wrong, it was pretty nice, especially at first, but I have never felt such intense heat like that before in MY whole life. Even the locals were virtually dying and saying how crazy it all was. You could literally fry an egg on every surface you touched. Even the areas in the shade!
After getting record rainfall during my first trip to Spain back in March, I was now in the middle of a record heatwave on my second trip! Us Brits just can't win! ;)

The heat unfortunately meant that we both had to lower our expectations and re-access what was actually going to be possible. At times even just getting up to fetch a glass of water felt like a chore and physically draining. We had to time our sessions quite accurately and show a huge degree of patience. One morning we even got up at 4.30am to try and catch the cool temps! Not only were we greeted with darkness, being much further south than the UK, (surprise, surprise) but it was also already 25 degrees!

I very quickly decided that I would just treat this trip as a good time away from home and more of a relaxing climbing 'holiday' than anything too serious. These routes ain't going no where and it would have been a shame to spoil some of them when we can easily come back in the autumn with cooler temps.
I was more than happy enough just to be abroad, climbing on some whacky rock, chilling by the river, catching a decent tan and eating tasty fresh bread, straight from the oven, first with chorizo and then with dollops of nutella.

By the end of the trip we had checked out most of the main sectors and worked out which crags were best to climb on at particular times and developed a good knowledge of when the shade would begin to come around. The dominate style here is arm busting pumpfests up steep steep terrain. However you'll still find a whole range of types of climbing, even sketchy slabs with the odd big runout for those that like to live on the edge a little...

 Probably the most famous route in Rodellar... El Delfin, 7c+

The whole 'patience is a virtue' thing was definitely taken to new levels for us both. There was a lot of down time spent hanging around the refugio, snoozing, watching Wimbledon and generally trying our best to keep the boredom at bay. With so much quality rock and amazing routes constantly in your face, beckoning and crying out to be climbed, it was quite frustrating. But we were in Spain after all, and not the UK, which I kept having to remind myself. I am pretty lucky and fortunate getting to travel to some of these places. Each morning I would sit on the balcony, having breakfast in silence, surrounded by endless rock and scenery, trying to soak it all in as much as possible. Whats to complain about!?

As always on these trips it is not all about the climbing but the culture you immerse yourself in during your stay and the different people you meet along the way. Once again it was cool to hang out with some folk from all over the world. People from all walks of life, America, Japan, Israel.
For me a climbing trip isn't a proper climbing trip without meeting these people. You can learn so much from different cultures and ways of life. It is all rather fascinating,  especially when you get to sit down with these guys and swap stories, lifestyles, jokes etc. I always find it amazing how even just a single phrase can have a totally different meaning in another culture or language. Sometimes good, sometimes bad but always amusing to find out these things nevertheless. It also always puts me to shame chatting with others about not being able to speak another language. Pretty dam lazy and something I would really like to start putting right. It literally opens so many doors, being able to speak even a little fluent in just one forgien language and certainly makes travelling in general a heck of a lot easier.
Anyway to all the guys n gals we met, I hope we'll all bump into one another again sometime in the near future and there is always room for you all to come visit the UK anytime you wish. Just hit us up!

Despite all of this we still managed a short tick list. Lots of onsighting and just general tufa pulling fun. With one or two fairly decent hard ish sends along the way.
My favourite by a country mile has to be 'Les Chacals'. A fantastic long 8b on a beautifully carved out cliff face, high above the gorge and river below, with a selection of some of the most perfectly sculptured holds I have ever climbed on. From running tufa, fat and thin, to crazy pockets and dripping stalactites. It was probably the only day of the trip when we got lucky with both the shade and temps. My perfect sort of route and I was over the moon to get it in the bag. I'd say that it instantly made the top 10 of my all time favourite routes and is one that I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for a quality route at around this grade. You will not be dissaspointed. Muy bien!

Andreah Hah, high up on Les Chacals

Our last night in Spain was spent wandering the streets of Barcelona, picking our way through the crowds and the hustle bustle of the famous La Rambla and dining on authentic Paella. It is a crazy city, packed full of history, shops, food and general craziness. A little smelly in parts though... Next trip we will hopefully get to spend a little more time here to explore the place properly and drop by the beach too!
A huge thankyou has to go out to our Finnish homie Joonas who gave us the tour before dropping us off at the airport in the early hours. Hope to see you again soon man and return the favour!

Homies for lyfeee - Buster n Mari

Final day pump!

On returning home I had the weekend to chill before a busy week away route setting down south. Rather annoyingly I seriously injured my ribs Monday evening while having a brief session at the wall. Long story but basically running at a climbing wall, and smashing your ribcage against solid resin holds is rather painful. In fact, the worst pain I have EVER experienced in my entire life.

Somehow and rather miraculously I managed to fight my way through the remaining days of setting and get back home to rest. I guess I should be thankful that it didn't happen before we were due to fly out to Spain!

It is definitely on the mend and after getting a quick x-ray yesterday to confirm nothing was broken or badly damaged, my mind is at rest and with a bit of a luck I should only be out of action for a week. Frustrating but these things happen and you just have to suck it up. Easy to say when you know you won't be out for long, but I cannot imagine what it must be like for the people that have months and months of rehabilitation ahead of them. I should be and I am pretty thankful to be honest.

As soon as we are fully mended my main goal over the coming weeks is to spend as much time in Yorkshire as possible. Before leaving for Spain I had a very brief look at Bat Route so I am real eager to return and give it some efforts.
The idea of climbing such a showpiece route such as this, is for me rather mental. My climbing has come on a long way within the last couple of years, but it still feels all a bit surreal when I get to tie in and try such a hard and historic route, straight up the middle of one of the most impressive and arguably best bits of rock in the UK. Psyched to get stuck in, back into project mode and having fun with the process again.

Then come the autumn time I would absolutely love a return to Rodellar for round 2 and this time with my Dad in tow. I think the vast scenery and chilled Spanish lifestyle whetted his appetite so it'll be cool to show him around as well as try some of the routes that we saved from this trip.

A trip to Gorge du Tarn is also currently in the early stages of planning... Another place never visited before but somewhere that has been on the radar for quite a while. Plenty of my friends have been and all have said how much we need to visit. It'll be good to cruise on down through France again roadtrip style!
We should be heading here with a small 'film crew' so keep your eyes peeled for more info on that. I know that the location will look incredible on camera so we are all pretty excited by the prospect of this mini project...

Some sponsor plugging here but I would just like to give a massive shout out to Scheckters Energy who very kindly sent us out a couple of crates of drinks with the help of Gourmet Bio Natural. Delivered straight to Kalandraka! They went down an absolute bomb in the heat and were honestly a bit of a life saver.
Lastly a big up to the guys at Kalandraka for providing such an awesome place to stay! My kind of scene and we'll see you all again soon for sure. Maybe next time I'll even try to stay up past 1am for the flamenco!