As soon as school got out I ventured beyond Spain’s borders to see what its next door neighbor, France, had to offer in sport climbing. They say that sport climbing was born in France so I had high expectations, though was pretty skeptical; I just couldn’t imagine anything topping Spanish crags like Margalef , Rodellar or El Chorro. Our first stop was Céüse, a cliff band that is perched on top of a hill near the French Alps.
Céüse is the place of legends; it houses the first 9a+ (5.15a), Biographie in the world, whose first ascent was done by none other than Chris Sharma. The entire Céüse experience is committing, hard and exhausting. Everyone camps at a campsite right below the cliffline and right where the trailhead starts. The approach is pretty damn brutal- you have to walk 45-1 hr uphill with all your gear (though you usually stash your rope at the top after the first day) in the baking sun. I’m not one to complain about long approaches (though I did my fair share I’m sure when I was there), I love hiking and I like the fusion of a good hard hike with a good day of hard climbing, but after a week and a half there I was getting more and more excited about the prospect of short approaches in places like the Gorges du Tarn. The hike is worth it though for two reasons- the amazing climbing and this view:
Okay, this picture does not do the view justice at all but hey I always admitted to being a terrible landscape photographer. In fact, landscape photography frustrates me so much because it is physically impossible (without nicely done HDR and a whole lot of patience) to capture the scene exactly as you see it(which I think is kind of the point of landscape photography)every time I try it comes out flat, bland and not nearly as beautiful as the scene itself, but I digress. I will always be the first to say that there are some things you just can’t capture in a photograph. At the top you are surrounded by gorgeous Southern French landscape. You have the French Alps, other mountain ranges whose names I don’t know, and a whole lot of green Southern French countryside- it’s quite nice. The gray-ish/white misty areas are from rain.. which we received a whole lot of.. but more on that later.
The climbing in Céüse is much like the hike- hard and unrelenting. The rock is immaculate limestone; it has sweeps of gray and blue rock with perfectly sculpted pockets and crimps. Céüse style climbing is technical on small holds, and I was hoping that it would compliment my own style very well and I could send something hard. The problem is.. everything in Céüse is hard. From 6a-9a+ every climb requires full engagement and attention; basically you can’t fuck around on these pitches. There are, of course, the “crux” moves (or the hardest move on a climb), but even if you get through that it’s hardly over. There’s not usually a nice jug haul to the top or anything like that.. you need to think about every move and execute them well. Even if you onsight 7a+ you could easily fall on a 6b if you weren’t climbing it well. Basically, climbing in Céüse is a huge mental workout. To top it all off Céüse is known for its runouts. There can easily be 10-15 feet between bolts at times and it increases as you get higher. Thankfully none of this is actually “dangerous” per se.. The rock is so clean that really if you fall you will not hit anything. It definitely adds to the psychological challenge and makes every climb that much more memorable. So basically, between the difficulty and the runouts, you better have a decently good head if you want to climb at Céüse. I know that after every hard route I lowered off of I would need a good break just to get my motivation up again and before every hard pitch I would really have to focus and collect my energy, thoughts and psyche. Sometimes the entire experience felt to me as if I was holding my breath the entire time and when I lowered down I could finally exhale. (I swear, rock climbing is fun!) Céüse can kick your ass but when you occasionally send something, it feels all the more sweet.
For the first week we spent much of our time in the Berlin and Demi-lune sectors. Honestly it took me a few days just to get used to the run-outs.. I definitely chickened out at some points but after some adaptation I was fine. Some notable routes/ascents in Berlin/Demi-Lune
- I tried to project a classic 7a+ at Berlin called “Le petit ilusión” which was one of the funnest 7a+’s I’d ever tried but the route got soaking wet after a storm and didn’t end up drying in time for me to try it again. (since we had 4 days of rain in a row..)
- I flashed “el Doü” in Demi-Lune which is given a grade of 6c+ but which felt like a pretty tough 7a to me. Evidently the good people of 8a.nu agreed with me and I logged the route as a 7a. That send felt great- thanks for the flash Chris!
- I also tried one of the classic 7a’s in Berlin- “St. George’s Picos”. It’s a short route, only around 8 bolts, but the 8a part is literally condensed into the first three bolts- very anti-Céüse style. There were two cruxes right on top of each other that involved some small holds and big moves. In the end I was never able to link it, but it was an enjoyable climb nonetheless.
So yes, basically I didn’t send too much, but I had a good time getting my ass kicked!
One day we went to Berlin and left around 1 PM as usual to start the hike (it’s just too hot to climb before then.. really it’s too hot to climb before the area gets shade before 4 PM but we were always optimistic) There were some gray clouds in the horizon, but we were in a mountainous area- there were always gray clouds in the horizon and it hadn’t rained yet. So, when it started to pour one day we sort of just huddled underneath an overhung part of the wall waiting for it to pass in what we assumed would be 15 or 20 minutes. 45 minutes later everyone at the crag was huddled against the wall shielding ourselves from the huge hail coming down at us. The thunder was overpouring and I was quite a bit concerned that someone would get hit by lightning. Eventually we all ran to Biographie, which has a huge overhung section that allows you to sit comfortably. Someone started a fire to warm people up and a climber even started up the ONLY route that wasn’t completely drenched.. when I asked him if he was really going to climb it he just shrugged and said “carpe diem!” Hell, I would have been in line to try that thing too if it wasn’t rated 9a.. damn. When it seemed to clear up we headed down… or rather we slid down on the hail covered trail. This continued for 4 days in a row .. we always got soem climbing in but were stopped at around 5 PM where like clockwork a storm would roll through. It never got as desperate as day one but the downhill hike just got worse and worse… it was so muddy that I would have to stop every 2 minutes just to scrape the mud off of my shoes. Mini-rivers formed and sort of sketchy parts of the trail turned into pretty damn sketchy parts of the trail.
( I Swear, climbing is fun!) The whole expeirence was a good reminder that while sport climbing is in a sense the least committing and safest form of climbing.. it still is an outdoor activity and when it boils down to it your enjoyment is subject to the whims of mother nature .
About halfway through the trip we began to go to another sector called “Cascade”. Cascade is in the shade in the morning but gets sun around 1230 or 1 so during the summer it is a morning crag. It’s quite a nice area and we quickly got into the routine of going to Cascade to warm up and then going to Berlin when Cascade got into the sun to climb some more … (though half the time we only got a few pitches in before the rain screwed us over at Berlin yet again).
In general I really enjoyed climbing at Céüse, but it really is the entire package-deal climbing crag. All of the routes are hard for their grade, bolts are spacey and you have to hike for an hour uphill in the baking sun to get there. It can be hot of freezing and obviously conditions can change rapidly. I didn’t climb my best but I think Céüuse is a crag that requires some time to get broken in. I think I’d need 1-2 weeks just to get used to the place! We ended up staying for just that amount of time, from June 30th-July 10th.. so as we were leaving I was finally feeling like I had Céüse climbing sort of kind of dialed. But, without a doubt it has some of the best rock-quality of any crag I’ve ever been to and I have every intention of returning. So far, our France trip started out strong. Next destination: The Ardeche to climb at Les Branches.