Thursday, 15 October 2009

Blazing sun, a few showers and a wee bitty of ice in the French Ariege - 4th-14th Oct '09

Andy and I took RB on her 1st climbing holiday abroad last week and she loved it, managing to do long multipitches 2 days in a trot, cope with chossy ascents and descents (with much less grumbling than mum!) and cleanly toprope a 6c+!!!
We arrived at Girona airport around 9ish and met up with Andy who had been climbing in the Spanish Pyrenees, and we then drove over some hideously bendy and high mountain pass, taking us around 4 and half hours to reach Chez Arran, our apartment for the next 10 days.

I'd happily recommend staying at the Arran's hoose to anyone going to this region of the French Pyrenees.  Both the apartment and house are lovely, clean, comfortable and well placed for all the local climbing (of which there is an abundance!)  And John and Ann themselves were a wealth of information about different areas and routes and how to get from A to B.  There was even a box of teabags in the apartment for which i was eternally grateful after Andy hadn't managed to get anything other than mint tea.  What is it with the French and Spanish and not having proper tea!?

We arrived around 2am and all collapsed into bed, awakening to blazing sunshine and a leisurely start to the day (with RB rushing off down the street after hearing the bread van peep it's horn around 10ish.  Croissants and Chocie du Pains, num num!)  We head off to Auzat, which is roughly a half hour drive from the apartment but from the word go, I have a headache which gets worse and worse and ends up a full blown migraine.  This happened on the first day of my trip last time!  I think it's something to do with dehydration and being over tired or something, though it's weird I don't get it on return journeys.  Frustrating, as it meant I couldn't climb at all!  I did try, I made 3 or 4 moves on a route that RB led, but on each move my head was pounding and I had to come down.  I took a few photos of RB and Andy, necked some strong painkillers, then went back to the car (auzat has a 5minute walk in!) and lay down and slept for a while.  RB and Andy led a few routes each

Friday saw us having an early start, making the most of the brilliant weather, to take a walk up to the East Face of The Dent D'Orlu, a 2222m peak which was our main motivation for choosing the Ariege region to come too for a holiday.  I'd fancied the sound of an easy route called Les Dalles Blanches, but had heard that it was a bit scrappy looking (and it was!)  Instead we did the recommended Tapas Sans Dalles at 5b+ which was 11 pitches long and topped out on the summit.  I bagged the 1st pitch seen as I didn't get to climb yesterday and ended up messing things up by taking the wrong route, ooooops!   I just saw a line of bolts and followed them which is all too easy to do with no route description of any kind.  We did have a diagram showing the route veering left which I failed to consult.  That was fine though and I also led the 2nd pitch (too time consuming to swap individual leads between 3 people, so we were doing 2 leads each)  So, I'm running out the 2nd pitch and there hasn't been any bolts for ages!  But I finally clock one out right, after much hesitation and 'oh bugger, where the hell do I go!?'  
RB led the next pitch, and found the same problem as I did, but managed to clip a couple of bolts and find a belay.  After some discussion, we looked at our topo and realised that we should have moved left at the first pitch instead of straight up.  So, Andy did a fully run out pitch veering ever left that took us back on line and onto the meat of the route, over 2 overlaps, the first of which was really awkward and the 2nd of which was a big overlap on crimps.  I then led the next 2 pitches of slabs with smaller overlaps, then RB did another pitch which she wasn't too keen on as we were nearing the top of the cliff and it was becoming more vegetated, with a scrambly section at the top which Andy just led a rope up and we followed after. Took us just over 5hrs which wasn't too bad for an 11 pitch route, climbing as a 3, with both RB and I using a Reverso belay device for the 1st time and having a few problems with it, until we got used to the set up.  About 80% of the belays were on hanging stances and we were all tired and achy and eager to be back to the apartment.  Oh, on the way up the hill, I stopped for a pee and left my camera behind again, aaaaaaaarg!  What an idiot!  At least it wasn't as bad as the last time, and I was able to run down the hill and huff and puff my way back up to the others in about 15minutes.

Wednesday saw us climbing at Calamas, a flat topped hill not far from where we were staying.  This ended up being both RB and my favourite venue of the holiday.  Lovely, lovely limestone climbing and something for everyone.  Nice slabs (not icky, horrid frictiony ones, though there were some moves like that on some of the routes)  lovely flakes and pockets and another hot and sunny day, nice!  We did the classic F5+ of the crag, a 7 pitch route on the Pilier De Cathar which was gorgeous.  RB led the 1st pitch, but was finding the spacing of the bolts a bit hairy (she's not used to long sport routes, though the run outs she did on Orlu were much longer!  But Orlu was slabbier so she probably didn't notice it as much)  I led the 2nd pitch, which was utterly, utterly gorgeous climbing!  You would come to a blank looking section and think, hmmmm, don't like the look of that.  Then step up and holds would just appear as if by magic.  And there was lots and lots of laybacking type moves with juggy flakes and pockets.  Has to be one of the most exquisite pitches of rock I have ever climbed, just lovely!  Andy led the next couple of pitches, then I led the next 2.  The top pitches got a bit scrappy really, weaving through vegetation, trying to pick out a line which didn't really exist.  Then Andy led the final and crux pitch which was totally artificial, up a pillar at the top which could be avoided by scrambling through some bushes.  Not that you'd want to scramble up through all those prickles mind!
Andy decided to abseil down to retrieve a quickdraw he'd dropped, but both RB and I wanted to walk down.  We followed the path with yellow paint splodges which seemed to take you deep into some bushes and over the edge of a cliff!  Hmmmm.  This needed some rethinking.  I got pretty worried that descending would involve some hairy scrambling with a rope wanted, and Andy off with our only means of retreat.   But I managed to find a different path down a pretty chossy and loose gully esq thing that zigzagged down ballbearing scree and slippery slabs.  Before long though we were back on a better path and back down at the bottom a good bit before Andy.  RB and I had run out of water and were both parched, so I left RB on the lower path and scrabbled back up to the bottom of the cliff face and our sacks, to retrieve more water.  On the way down we saw an amazing lizard.  About the size of my forearm with a bright blue head.  It scuttled off into the undergrowth before I managed to get a photo.
We went for a meal in the local Thermal spa hotel and oh yum yum!  The food here was delicious!  I take back every word about French food being boring!  RB and Andy had some Pork dish and I had Salmon with a creamy watercress sauce.  We had a buffet for starters and chocolate cake for pudding, none of this crackers and cheese nonsense!  RB was going crazy for cheese over the holiday and at one point I think we had about 5 different types of cheese in our fridge at the apartment, one of which I refused to have anything to do with as it stank so much!

Thursday we were all pretty tired, so planned a day's shopping for food, postcards and gifts in Aux Les Thermes.  We followed this with an afternoons cragging at the local crag there.  Took us ages to find it though!  I don't think anyone has climbed on this crag for a long, long time.  We couldn't find the path there and went back to the car, but were informed by locals of the correct path to take.  This involved crossing over what looked like an electric fence, and scrambling up through steep and chossy woodland.  Poor RB was getting more and more knackered and for all our efforts we were rewarded by what RB and I termed the Green Slab of Doom!  It was utterly, utterly minging!  You couldn't see any of the holds due to all the lichen growing on the rock, but Andy as keen as ever and not to be put off just had to climb a few of the routes.  I seconded one of them, but it climbed just as minging as it looked, and after 3 routes I said, 'enough!'
and we went back to the apartment.

RB needed a proper rest day after that, so Andy went off hillwalking to Andorra whilst RB and I went off in search of a spot by the river where we could go swimming.  We walked right the length of the river from where we were staying towards the next village but all the spots were either too shallow, or too deep and fast or had loads of slimey, green weedy stuff growing.  We dumped our swimming stuff back at the house and went down to the hotel for lunch, which consisted of the most tender lamb flakes ever, with creamy potato puree and a heavenly gravy.  Mmmmmmmm, it makes me salivate just thinking of it!  The rest of the afternoon was spent playing crazy golf in the local parkland which took ages as we had to clean out every station of fallen leaves and twigs!  We were glad by then, that we hadn't gone swimming as it became overcast and rained just a little.   Andy had gone up to check out the Pic De Baillettes where there were some easy routes but was baffled by how steep the cliff was, and was unsure whether the route we wanted could actually follow such steep ground.

On Saturday we were supposed to do another mountain route at the Pic De Bassies.  But it had rained heavily through the night and the cloud was down to valley level, so too damp and misty for the high hills.  Boo!  Our neighbours in crime, Alison and Kenny from the Edinburgh Mountaineering Club had been to Appy previously in the week, and I liked the sound of it, steep with good holds!  But I was disappointed when I got there, to find out it was granite and not limestone, gutting!  And it was pretty green and lichenous in places, only clean higher up.   In retrospect I was being far too fussy as both RB and Andy enjoyed the routes they did.  But I just couldn't work up any inspiration for the place or motivation to climb anything.  And I felt too cold and damp.  I was quite happy to belay though and be on camera duty as Andy and RB climbed a 5c, then Andy tried to lead a route that they both really liked the look of.  We found the topo a bit confusing and found it difficult to work out which route was which, but the route they did was either a 6a or a 6c+
The both found it too hard for 6a, but Andy reckoned it couldn't be 6c+     He didn't manage to lead it though, and I've never seen him having to aid a route before, so I reckon it's harder than what he thought.
It was right up RB's alley though, and very, very suited to her with it having small but positive holds and steep like she enjoys!   She managed it cleanly second go on toprope, and now I'm home and have looked the route up properly it turns out it is the 6c+ route, so she'll be mega chuffed with that!

Sunday we'd planned to do a long route at Sinsat but Andy woke up in the early hours and seen as I was also awake we discussed not doing it, and doing something else instead.  Andy reckoned it was too much for us, but I had been so sure we could do it.  It was 8 or 9 pitches long, and the hardest pitch was 6b, but you could aid it at 5c+
But Andy them mentioned that the guide had estimated 5-6hours for the route and that made me rethink things, realising that we'd climb it much slower as a 3, and Andy was getting tired of having to do the crux pitches on stuff, having not had a rest day for nearly 3 weeks!
So, we decided to go back to Calamas instead.  And that was fab!  We all had a great time and both RB and I were enjoying the limestone.  Andy got pretty stroppy though when he tried to switch leads and I made sure that I got my lead in turn, then got even more stroppy as he seemed to think that just because I was leading a route, it meant he had to do it also, and would then mean that he couldn't lead a different harder route. I didn't get it, and was getting fed up of not being listend too and got stroppy right back!  It put a bit of a dampner on things, but we still did another few routes.  One of which was Andy's harder one.  I thought this route was really sketchy!  Too reachy and really thin holds, and I had to do a few committing moves, high enough above the bolts where I would take a fall.  Then on the next hard section I had to sit on one of the bolts before I could figure things out and by that point when I got to the next reachy section I ended up using a bolt as a foot hold as I struggled to reach anything and was fed up of the route by that point.   RB wanted the quickdraws left in and I tried to disuade her from trying it.  I felt a bit crap, as she climbs far better than I do and is much more confident but I really knew she'd struggle with it and I didn't want her to fall!  But she was insistent and I knew she wouldn't fall far if she did come off.   She did it better than I did, as expected, but she did have to sit on a bolt, too reachy just as I thought.  Andy then led a 5c+ and I finished off on something easier, so as not to end the day on a negative note.

Monday it had rained through the night again.  We had wanted to go to Roche Rhonde to check out the 4 pitch routes there but driving up that valley it was too wet.  So we stopped off in Tarascon for a look around the village and found an amazing French style Healthfood shop were RB and I bought lovely soaps scented with oils, some ginger sweeties and lots of nice, organic chocolate.  We then found a curiosity shop and I bought myself a cow eggcup and RB bought herself an Ariege plaque.

We then drove back up to our valley and payed Sinsat a visit.  Sector Les Pubis was supposed to have some easy 3 pitch routes on it.  It showered on the way up and I had to tell Andy off for dashing into the only shelter and hogging it so RB couldn't get in!  The rain finally stopped, but then we took the wrong path up to the crag and boy was it hideous!  Gave a whole new meaning to steep, loose and chossy!  And I decided there and then, that if the descent down from the routes was going to be minging, that I wasn't going to climb and we would just have to do the 1st pitches of all the routes there then ab off from the belay.  Neither RB or I wanted to lead the routes, all looked a bit damp and vegetated.  I tried the first one but climbed down after the first few moves, with RB continuing.  Then we all did the 2nd one, which was okay to start with, but soon turned into reachy, slabby, yuckiness!  RB wasn't keen either, so Andy led the last one, then ab'd down for the quickdraws and we headed back.  The light on the way down was reflecting off the cliffs and it looked simply stunning, really beautiful!                                                                  
The forecast for the next day was finally looking clear again so we decided to go check out the routes that Andy had found when he went for his walk.  We got some info from John about French descriptions and prayed that the forecast would hold true.

It turned out that the forecast was clear.  But it was bloody freezing!  The outside temperature was 2 degrees in the morning and when we pulled up at the Col du Puymorens, it wasn't much warmer and there was ice on the paths!  It was thermal time, wooly hats and gloves!  This route was 9 pitches long and I could see walking up that it was in shade, being North facing and I just knew it was going to be cold up there all day.  RB had come to France with a slight cough and it had gotten slowly worse over the course of the week.   She was determined she wanted to do something, but there was no way I could drag her up there and have a big, long day.  I felt torn between making sure she was okay, wanting to do the route myself and not wanting Andy to be disappointed, and not wanting RB to feel she was letting anybody down!  So as usual I make it as easy for her as possible to back out gracefully without her feeling badly about it.  She feels happy, I feel happy cos I know she doesn't feel pressurised and she's not going to feel pushed when she isn't feeling too good, and is tired.  And Andy seemed seemed okay with just going for a walk.  So we were all good!
Both RB and Andy were puffing a little with the altitude and I knew that even walking up to the high peak, Baillettes, up a steep Coulour, around the ridge and doing a horseshoe was going to be too much for RB, so I suggested we just go up to the 1st peak and no further.  I could sense RB's relief and she's got grit to even made it as far as she did, as she was very tired.  But, at times it is like pulling nails trying to make her do something less, when I can tell she really doesn't want to carry on.
So, we just walked up to the Pic De La Mine at 2683m.  I was feeling great and steaming on ahead, then waiting for the others to catch up.  I felt really good and didn't seem to feel the altitude at all.  I was a little slower once we got to the steeper top and was puffing more than usual, but it didn't feel hard going and I really enjoyed it.   The views from the top were amazing, right into the east and west basins and mountains as far as you could see.  We could even see a small glacier far, far in the distance.  We ate at the summit and took some pics, but didn't hang round for ages as it was pretty cold.  The sun would beam down from the South and would feel warm but your back would feel icy cold!
We got back to the apartment around 3ish and wanting to make the most of the finer weather in the valley and my last day, Andy and I went back to Auzat, leaving RB to rest and read and laze in the house.  We spent a couple of hours climbing at the Far West Sector where Andy led a 5c, a 5c+ and a 6a.  I only did the 5c, and just on toprope, the granite slabby bit looking hard!  Turned out that was the easy bit and I rested on the rope going through an overlap, but I just got my feet muddled.  It was a really nice route!  The other two routes looked nails for the grade though!

Our last day was spent driving back to the airport at Girona.  We took a different road this time, via Perpignan, driving through the Cathar region of France.  This took us through some stunning scenery!  Trees and trees and trees, valleys and deep gorges, rounded hills with limestone cliffs and towers, castles sitting a top.  It was a long and winding drive (though not hairy!) and we stopped off on the way for lunch, experiencing the French version of a roadside Diner.  It was disgusting!
We were given bread with olive oil.  The oil was cheap and seemed a bit pale and rancid and the bottle was all dirty and sticky.  The buffet consisted of limp lettuce, with black bits, dirt and flies encrusted on it!  Andy had chips and chicken which he seemed to like and RB and I had a bowl of greasy pasta carbonara, with half a raw egg sat on top.  There was no way in hell I was mixing their raw egg into it, and risking food poisoning!  As it was neither of us ate much of the pasta, I declined pudding and RB tried some Fromage thing, which she reckoned was off.  Andy ate his pudding, seemingly oblivious to how disgusting the place was!  The toilet was utterly gross and had a shower next door which was a rank shade of brown.  The hand dryer consisted of a cloth towel that you pull round and round.  Only it seemed that each piece of cloth had been used again and again, and it was impossible to find a clean section, each bit you pulled through being grey and grotty and stained with dirt.  When the owners dusty dogs came into the cafe, that was the final straw, ugh!
Although, I have to admitt, the dogs were lovely!   And I couldn't resist stroking them, all 3 of them and giving Dad dog a cuddle he was such a sook!  Of course, this left my hands with a coating of dusty, dog stoor on them which I couldn't wash off and had to spit out water onto my hands from my platupus which was in the car.

A journey of over 12 hours (after getting lost just before Stirling!  Took the road to Falkirk and don't know how I managed it!) saw me dropping off RB in her Dad's in Dundee.  Home, sweet home now.  Sick of rock!  Roll on winter!

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