The Ardeche

We left Céüse on account of its delightful weather (aka rain storms every afternoon for 4 days in a row) and because we had two more areas left to visit on our 3.5 week long French climbing vacay… Les Branches in the Ardeche and the famous Gorges du Tarn.

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The Ardeche, via wikipedia commons


First stop was Les Branches, a pretty small crag in the Ardeche that the Rockfax guide made look quite appealing. The Ardeche river is gorgeous but the area was infested with French tourists. We literally had to go to three different campsites to find room at one. These were not your normal type of campsites, these were mega-campsites, highly developed with pools, bars, full wi-fi service, stores and basically anything you could ask for. It was like going camping without losing the conveniences of home. I thought it all seemed kind of ridiculous and pretty expensive but probably a nice alternative for families who don’t camp much. Luckily the third campsite we found was much more traditional. It was literally a patch of grass near the river that had a  bathroom and sinks to clean your dishes- voila, a normal car camping set up. I don’t speak a word of French but Chris luckily spoke a little bit so we had a very funny encounter with our campsite host. We literally walked in on him and his family having dinner but he was very gracious and patient, following our hand signals and broken French to the best of his ability- he even gave us a small table that we could eat off of when he realized we didn’t have one. Some kid followed us around as he was showing us the place and kept on cracking jokes in French at me to which I could only throw a blank smile at, not knowing what the hell he was talking about. Oh the joys of being a complete foreigner in another country.

There are two approaches to get to Les Branches as described by the Rockfax guide. One of these approaches involves crossing the river and features the vague instructions of “cross the river as you please”. We weren’t exactly sure what this meant; does this mean the river is tame and we could cross anywhere? Does “as you please” include the possibility of needing to have a kayak? The second approach was no less vague and involves a hike and a short traverse on cables to get to the crag. We picked the first one but unfortunately the river was definitely not passable. After wandering around for a good hour to try to find a spot to cross we eventually employed the help of some kayakers who took our gear across as we swam to the other side. (The water was amazingly warm.. quite nice).

So we got there! We had no idea how we would get back but hey that was an issue for 7 hours from then… for the time being we could go rock climbing! Les Branches has 2 main sectors- the left hand side has slightly vertical routes that looked (and as I would discover, are) techy and dirty, whereas the right hand side has overhung tufas that eventually leads to a cave of stalactites (“The Grotte”) on a roof. My skill set basically limited me to the left hand side of the wall since everything in that cave was extremely hard. 

We started on a very nice 6b+ warmup that had a fun little roof-y sequence. I also did a nice 40m 6b to the left of it that had some nice sustained climbing but was pretty dirty. I found a 7a that I figured would have to be at least kind of clean since it was featured in the Rockfax guide- wrong. This thing had spiderwebs and moss pretty much everywhere and I definitely pulled up into bushes here and there. To top it all off the rock was crumbly and the line was not very clear.. all of the holds were hidden and you could easily pitch off just from sheer bad luck. Somehow I made it to the last bolt. Honestly I’m not sure how I did some of the moves I did or pulled on some of the nasty small holds I used but I was determined not to let this dirty monster defeat me! Unfortunately, my luck ran out and I fell because I went for the wrong hold. Basically this route was not enjoyable and definitely not an easy one to on-sight. It might be better if it was cleaned but I would honestly not recommend anything on the left side of this wall past the 6b. One kid who was trying a 7a+ literally pulled off a huge block of rock that luckily didn’t hit his poor dad who was belaying- sketchy. 

Evidently, the right hand side of Les Branches is the reason people came here. Chris got on a 8a (Assedic park) that he described as one of the best he’s ever done and I got on a 7a tufa line that was super fun but I didn’t even bother trying to redpoint because it wasn’t my style at all. 

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As night began to creep up on us we had to solve the issue of how we would get back with all of our gear. We decided that Chris would transfer all of his essential items to my pack and I would hike out using the other approach while Chris would swim across the river so he could get the car. We stashed the rope and Chris’ bag at the crag since we were going to come back the next day. It was dark and as I was pretty much the only person left in the area. Using the cables to get across was pretty fun until I spotted a scorpion scurry into one of the hand-holds I was about to use! At first the nature-lover and wildlife biology student in me thought it was super cool and I kept on observing it until I freaked out realizing that thing could probably kill me. So, from then on I was super careful about where I was putting my hands. The hike takes you straight through one of those industrialized campsites and honestly the crux of the whole journey was navigating through the campsite in the dark- this place was humongous and not well-lit. Eventually I had to ask someone in my crappy French were the exit was and there I met  Chris who was waiting with his car. We decided we would hike in from then on. 

Despite the so-so climbing we had a very enjoyable rest day filled with kayaking, a French picnic of wine, bread and goat cheese and swimming. We bought everything at a local store and the wine even came in these plastic little cups that made us feel both trashy and fancy at the same time- win!. We kayaked at a nice slow pace down some slides and through some baby rapids because we had 4 hours to do 12km.. aka we had some time to relax on the beaches and enjoy our food and wine. I left my keens on an island that was conveniently near our camping so after a very good run through some random trail I found near our camping I jumped in the water at night and grabbed them. The water felt great and refreshing after sweating for 50 minutes on my run in the French summer heat!

The Arceche is a beautiful area but it was  bit too tourist-infested and the climbing that I did was far from exceptional, though it seemed that the very hard stuff was quite good. In addition the Ardeche is filled with a lot of other climbing sectors that we didn’t go to. Originally we had planned to stay for four or five days but ended up staying for only three days because we knew that the climbing that was waiting for us at the Gorges du Tarn would definitely be better- and we were right.

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