crazy verticality and lonely freehanging abseils in cathedral silence
When I first came to the Verdon Gorge in 1979 it was an electric shock to the senses. That mythic photo of Ron Fawcett on the cover of mountain n°61 barely reflected the reality. Endless shields of iron hard stone, sculpted with beautiful holds. The soaring crack systems of La Demande, ULA, Luna Bong and Eperon Sublime. The crazy verticality and lonely freehanging abseils in cathedral silence. Then, the nagging doubts marooned on a terrace in the middle of the 400m cliff, having already pulled the abseil ropes.
No matter where I climbed after that, these images kept flooding back. The history of climbing in the Gorge is now over 40 years old and still evolving, but the near religious experience of a first visit here remains unchanged. The Verdon continues to exert a powerful impression on most visitors.
A Spring Morning in the Verdon
Climbing on the cliffs of the 25km long Verdon Gorge has undergone several evolutionary periods. Starting in 1968 the ascent over several days of Les Enrages on the Paroi du Duc paved the way for the exploration of the main lines of weakness on the 400m high Escalès cliff. Between 1968 and 76 many great classics were born, 'ground up' and in the pioneering spirit of the golden age. Routes like La Demande, ULA, Luna Bong, Eperon Sublime, Pilier des Ecureuils, Castapiagne rouge, Estamporanée, and Les Caquous.
From 1976 the increasing use of abseil access led to a better understanding of the more inaccessible parts of the Gorge and especially to the discovery that the slabs and walls were not blank but extremely well featured. With the 'ground up' ethic still firmly in the 'zeitgeist' but with the increasing use of bolts to supplement nuts, pegs, and skyhooks many masterpieces of route finding were traced up the blank walls. Classics such as Pichenibule, Dingomaniaque, Mangoustine Scatophage and Au Déla du Délire. The remarkable 'eye for a line' of the first ascensionists of these complex itineraries, was in fact based on astute observation of the cliff after rain. The characteristic 'gouttes d'eau', literally 'drops of water,' shaped pockets could be distinguished by observing shields of the blue grey rock darkened by rain falling from overhangs above.
The late 70s was also the era of several visits by Ron Fawcett and Pete Livesey, prophets of the free climbing revolution here who dispensed with the aid on many of the classics. This 'torch' was later picked up in 1984 by Jerry Moffat whose onsight of Pol Pot (7c+) and rapid ascent of the open project Papy on Sight (8a), stunned local climbers.
The redpoint ethic and use of the power drill in the 80s finally domesticated the wild grey walls, and many 'world classic' short climbs(1 – 4 pitches) were created by abseiling in above the stomach churning void. Routes like
L'Ange en Décomposition (6c,7a,6a), Surveiller et Punir (6b+,6c,7a+,6c+), Biscotte Margarine (6b+), Wide is Love (6a) and Debiloff (6c+) are still the epitome of the Verdon style – exposed, dominating, with bolts that seem never to be close enough, and with footholds that become invisible if one is too impatient to grab that next handhold!
The story of the Verdon continues to evolve, and the last few years have seen a renaissance of route development and interest. This started with several outlying single pitch sport areas being developed such as Courchon, Hulk sector, Chasteuil and now some short sport routes accessible by canoe from the Lac Ste Croix. These are generally in the more modern athletic style and are mainly the work of prolific local strongman Bruno Clément. Unfortunately no published topos exist to these superb cragging areas but Bruno is irrepressibly helpful with info if you call by his house in La Palud. Grades start at around 6a and go quickly up! For mortals however some of the finest recent creations in the Gorge have come from Lionel Catsoyannis and Pascal Faudou. Well bolted and modern in conception many have become classics. For the present these are outside the scope of this article but will likely be featured in the future.
Climbing in the Verdon Gorge is a unique experience not only for the quality of the stone...
Climbing in the Verdon Gorge is a unique experience not only for the quality of the stone but for the 'top down' manner by which many of the climbs are accessed.
Reminiscent of some tidal sea cliffs there is always a doubt as one pulls the ropes, descending to an isolated hanging belay in the middle of a 400m wall. You're usually committed to climbing back out to civilisation, so make sure you've located the correct abseil access for the chosen route and that the required minimum grade of the climbing is within your ability. For routes starting from the bottom a u-turn is often possible by abseiling back to the 'Sentier Martel' and walking back out via the tunnels (take a headtorch) to the 'Couloir Samson' parking. For other routes however, escape requires a good knowledge of the cliff and it's major lines. Many newcomers will initially stumble about getting lost in the quest to find the correct abseil descent. Ticking the classics, and walking the 'Sentier Martel' below the 3km Escales cliff, combined with careful use of the guidebook will help you find your bearings, though not rule out the occasional route finding epic.
Also if you're new to the Verdon, looking down at the smooth unbroken walls can instill a feeling of exposure that can range from exhilarating to paralysing. Acclimatising to this is a good idea on short easy pitches around the 3rd belvedere and quieter Mission sector or by approaching routes from the bottom, via the 'Sentier Martel' or other paths.
Of the many cliffs that line the north rim and south rim of the Verdon Gorge it is the 400m high Escales that embodies the essence of the Verdon style. It is also the most developed with over 1000 routes ranging from one pitch suspended sport routes to full-on multi day aid.
Driving the scenic 'Route des Crêtes' along the north rim and stopping at the many belvederes (viewpoints) will give you a breathtaking overview of this amazing cliff and help orientation on your first day.
Shade after 2pm. These 2 routes are a superb and not too committing introduction to multi pitch climbing on L'Escalès. Starting from the 'Jardin de la Castapiagne' they can be approached on foot via the sentier Martel(40mins) or by abseil. From the 1st Belvedere follow the crest of the cliff for 10 mins to large cairn and abseil chains. Five abs down La 'Dérobée'.
Shade after 1pm. A red overhanging wall which is the home of loose and scary aid routes. However the following are superb, with the best rock on this wall. Approach on foot from Couloir Samson via the sentier Martel, or by rapping down 'La Dérobée' and descending the 'Jardin de la Castapiagne' to the sentier Martel.
Shade after 2pm. Famous for the legendary Luna Bong abseil this historic sector is a must. All the climbs have great character, starting as they do from the 'Terrace Mediane', a suspended 'Jardin' 150m up the cliff. The 'lost world' atmosphere of this suspended garden is even more apparent as the traditional style of the climbing has resulted in this area being less frequented than in the past.
Magnificent crack line. A couple of points of aid on the final roof brings the grade down to 6a+. Though now mainly bolted, some gear up to n°3 friend is useful.
6a+/A0 or 7a free
Cracks and corners with a spectacular hand traverse. Some gear up to n°3 friend useful.
Brilliant and bold face climbing.
Shade after 3pm. Here L'Escalès attains an unbroken height of over 300m. A good View of this huge wall and the great crack systems of La Demande and ULA can be had by following the GR49 from Couloir Samson to the Belvedere de Rancoumas on the south rim. The big routes in this area are generally accessed on foot via the Sentier Martel.
Massacre a la Tronconneuse
Good introduction to the face climbing, short but airy and committing. Abseil approach.
A world classic! Long, sustained and not to be underestimated at this grade. Over the years the climb has gradually acquired more and more fixed protection and the once fearsome upper chimneys have lost some their reputation. Nuts and cams up to size 2" are nevertheless reassuring.
One of the great lines of the Verdon following an unbroken 200m crack/corner system through impressive rock scenery in the upper part. Very sustained at 6a with some 6b. Gear to 3" essential unless you're happy running out 7 metres between the bolts!
8a 400m Free version of Jean Marc Troussier's original aid line up the enormous shield to the left of La Demande. The individual pitches having been freed by Yannick Cortez, Alan Carne, and Simon Aldinger, this fantastic 14 pitch wall still awaits a complete ground up ascent.
Routes in this area start from the 'Jardin des Ecureuils'. Quickly accessible in 4 raps down Dalles Grises. Routes to the east of Dingomaniaque get shade after 2pm.
Starts to get some shade after 3pm. This sector is an essential right of passage in any Verdon apprenticeship. Iron hard rock and wild exposure. Possible to do an amazing 9 pitch link up of Les Rideaux, Pichenibule, and Ctuluh.
Shade until 2.30pm. The striking 300m high cliff across the river from the couloir samson parking. At one time only a few rarely done adventure routes existed here owing to an epic approach and descent.The last few years have seen a lot of development with the Hulk sport sector and in particular 2 masterpieces from Lionel Catsoyannis, Serie Limité and Alix. These brilliant routes are well bolted, and steep. With a permanently maintained tyrolean traverse and abseil descent they have become two of the most popular routes in the Gorge at this grade.
Via Ferrata of the Duc: A great way to experience the atmosphere of the south rim of the gorge for those not climbing at the neccessary level for the Duc itself, or for an active rest day from climbing. In the shade till mid afternoon with magnificent views of the gorge and L'Escales.
Description: Cross the river at the fixed tyrolean just before entering the 1st tunnel then follow fixed ropes right and up through the forest. A short vertical step leads to more rightwards traversing underneath the start of Série Limité until steep metal ladders lead up and allow more traversing into the overhanging Hulk sector. Continue up and right following steep fixed ropes until an exposed step round a rib leads to a chained abseil anchor. Make 2 50m abseils back to the forest. Continue down through this to the river which is crossed by tyrolean (this is usually in place in summer but worth checking beforehand) into the Baume aux Pigeons. From here metal steps lead into the middle of the 1st tunnel(headtorch useful),and back to the Couloir Samson.
Superb. Bolted. Top is marked by large cairn and chains. 5 rope lengths lead to the base of these routes. Also possible to descend on foot by traversing around to the south-east.
Very hot in summer. Park at stone wall 2km before Chalet Maline and follow well marked descent with cairns and red markers - 45mins.
L'Arete du Belvedere
North facing. Superb modern route. Descend from Chalet Maline, cross the bridge, turn right, then 5 minutes to start of route marked by new bolts. Descent: from the road on the south rim walk up to the Auberge des Cavaliers and take the chemin de l'imbut down to arrive back at the bridge - 20mins.
When do I go?(and strategies for avoiding the summer heat!)
At an altitude of around 1000m, the weather here is much more influenced by the Southern Alps than the rest of Provence.
Autumn(mid Sept - mid Nov) is probably the best season overall with less heat and more wind from the north. This is very dry and creates excellent conditions for climbing. There are also less people around.
Winter is silent, cold, dry, sunny and climbing days are short. This season is probably only for locals.
Spring(march - may) can be good with long days and not too much heat, but then you do risk some spring rain.
Summer is hot (above 30°) with the occasional thunderstorm. However many parts of the main cliff, L'Escalès face south east, get the sun very early then go into the shade in the afternoon. Although counter intuitive it's often counter productive to get on a climb at dawn as you'll still get cooked before you manage to finish. A better strategy is to have a lie in, stay in the shade, go down to the water (the Lac ste Croix, or better still the Verdon river underneath the Baume aux Pigeons (access from Couloir Samson via the tunnels- description in guidebook). Then to hit the Escalès around 3pm and climb literally till dark - you'll be in the shade in many sectors and it'll be really pleasant. Often there is also more wind in the gorge in the afternoon due to the build up of thermals. The heat is also very dry so there is quite a big temperature difference between sun and shade. If you're efficient you can actually get a lot of climbing done, not get fried to a crisp, and be starting climbing when everyone else has finished! If going on a long route take a headlamp with fresh batteries - it's actually quite fun to finish in the dark! All this said, be aware of afternoon storms as they obviously modify this approach. The weather forecast is usually visible outside the Perroquet Vert climbing shop, or on meteofrance (internet access at the bar 'Lou Cafetié'.
When you arrive take some time to observe at what time different sectors of the main cliff go into the shade and head up there when you see everyone else hanging out at the bar trying to rehydrate!
How do I get there?
The village of La Palud sur Verdon is situated 5km from the main cliffs and is the focal point for all climbing on the north rim of the gorge. If driving from the UK it's a long haul, about 1100km from the Channel ports, but you will have the luxury of being able to take lots of gear. If you're on a short trip it's probably easier to fly to Marseille or Nice then rent a car for the 2 hour drive to La Palud.
Easy Jet and BA operate daily flights to both destinations from London.
Where do I stay?
There's no shortage of accommodation, La Palud has 2 main campsites, a youth hostel, hotels, and several gites. It is also possible to stay nearer to Moustiers and the Lake St Croix. This is 30 minutes drive from L'Escalès but has the attraction of an evening swim.
Where can I buy gear and food?
La Palud has a well stocked supermarket/petrol station, 2 bars, restaurants, post office with cash machine, and 2 gear shops. The well established 'Perroquet Vert' and it's new competitor 'Verdon Designs' at the start of the Route des Cretes.
What gear do I need?
For most routes double 60 metre ropes and 15 - 18 quickdraws will be sufficient. For routes such as Luna bong, ULA, La Demande, Enragés, and Estamporanée, a trad rack will also be needed. On the more committing face routes one or two skyhooks are worth carrying. Bolts can be quite spaced out and if in difficulty, a skyhook may be your only way of reaching the next one!
Abseiling and Ropework:
Ropework and in particular safe abseil practice is important here. When abseiling always leave knots in the ends of rope, and back yourself up with a prusik or shunt. Carry prusik cord or dyneema slings and know how to use them to reascend the rope if necessary. Basic self-rescue skills are also useful, such as knowing how to escape the belay and set up a Z pulley to help a struggling partner.
What else is there apart from the climbing?
Walks, mountain biking or joining a group Canyon trip for the day is a great way to cool off in summer, as is just hanging out by the Lake St Croix near Moustiers.
Escalade au Verdon is currently the only guidebook. Available in either of the gear shops for about 30€. There are also a couple of copies for consultation in the bar 'Lou Cafetié'.
Procanyon run amazing summer whitewater Canyon trips with Lionel Catsoyannis (English spoken)
For professional guiding, rock climbing instruction, and info contact Alan Carne (Certified Guide) at Alanduverdon.
A Spring Morning in the Verdon
Alan Carne or 'Carney' to anyone old enough to remember the Stoney Woodshed days is a Verdon lifer. Hitching there as a young stray in 1979 and tagging on to the British 'dream team' that included Ron Fawcett, Phil Burke, Al Evans,et al... he was hooked, and returned year on year. Having recently been awarded the French Brevet d'état guiding certification, he now practices there as a professional Guide and Instructor. Irrepressibly motivated, he climbs most days in the Verdon or abroad. Recent ascents include El Topo 8a, Les Braves Gens 8b, and in the USA last autumn an all free ascent of Moonlight Buttress 5.12d (trad) in Zion National Park, as well as 5.13 cracks in Indian Creek Utah.
If you need professional guiding or instruction in the Verdon Gorge - or just want to know where the best routes are you can contact Alan through his website.