Le Saussois - the forgotten crag?

by Justin Timms Jan/2012
This article has been read 10,510 times
In this article we explore a French limestone crag just an hour and a half drive from the famous sandstone bouldering mecca of Fontainebleau.

The French limestone crag of Le Saussois is a magnificent sprawling crag composed of limestone buttresses and bays spread along the side of the Yonne.

The lazy river unspoilt village of Merry Sur Yonne provides a stunning backdrop for your hard redpoints. Although the crag is south-west facing, shade moves around the sheltered bays through the day and there is normally somewhere cool to climb, although the long routes on the main buttresses are better left for morning / evenings in summer. The crag has been rebolted at some stage in its life; on many routes rusty old ring-bolts add a touch of historical interest while you're clipping the more reassuring glue-ins!

+saussois, 75 kbsaussois
© joolskilly

At one time Le Saussois was a very popular crag; home to the classic Chimpanzodrome - once the hardest route in France. The crowds have moved elsewhere leaving behind a legacy of test-pieces up to F8c+, a few unclimbed projects, and a wealth of quality single and multi-pitch outings starting from more accessible F3s.

Grades here feel fairly stiff, the style of climbing encompasses short power routes on steep pocketed rock, longer routes on the buttresses often have cruxy sections passing bulges and thin balancy climbing between.

Merry Sur Yonne is only an hour and a half drive from Fontainebleau so a worthwhile day or two out if you suffer from bouldering fatigue...

+brixton climber in France,Le Saussois, 156 kbbrixton climber in France,Le Saussois
© brixton climber, May 2010


Justin Timms gives us a personal account of a visit to this 'forgotten crag'...

Hammered from an afternoon of impossibly blind, fingery climbing at Ablon we zip along the country roads leading to the autoroute. We're heading for the stop-off crag, breaking our journey home from the Alps. Le Saussois - picked from the few sheets printed off the UKC crag map before we left, the write-up had been too invitingly concise to resist: "A VERY polished crag" it had boasted. But we're Chudleigh locals, we can handle a bit of glassy limestone. And Moffatt had climbed there - it said so in his book.

This is the time sat nav really pays off. I resisted for years, always insisting that a map, vague sense of direction and blind hope would save the day, and mostly they had. Finally I relented after a solo trip trying to make my way out of South London in the small hours had gone badly wrong. Even the Douglas Adams method of following someone who looks like they know where they're going had failed. The Astra van just couldn't keep up with the crack dealers circulating that time of night and, being from the West Country, I had no idea whether the signed "Low Emission Zone" applied to me.

The evening dusk melts to pitch black as we drone along the Péage, a satellite-guided diesel wasp trying to outrun the subtle blend of camembert, eau de 5.10 and unwashed merino marinade.

+Steep pocketed loveliness at Le Saussois, 208 kbSteep pocketed loveliness at Le Saussois
© Justin T, Jul 2010
As we draw closer to our destination a nagging doubt creeps in that perhaps we've winged it too much this time. The surrounding blanket of black gives no clue where the crag might be, and we have no idea what sort of place Le Saussois is anyway. Bivvying had sounded a grand plan in the bravado of daylight, but there's nothing but endless fields of crops behind narrow ditches flickering by in the dim midge-spattered headlights.

As the miles to destination roll to zero with no sign of life my anxiety peaks but we drift into a village - Merry-sur-Yonne - and a trail of signs beckon us to a very welcome campsite. The tent goes up in minutes under the glow of headlights and we're asleep.

In the morning we scrape out of stuffy down bags too late, zipping the morning in. Thankfully the bright sky is filled with light clouds and the air is cooler than it had been in Argentière. Tea restores a little vigour but the campsite seems eerily empty for a July weekend; only a couple of other tents and no sign of life. We rock up to the reception but it's closed - leaflets flutter on a windowsill behind locked iron bars. But there's a poster for the guidebook with a photo of some honed grimpeur rocking up a steep wall that looks promising.

The toilet block is painted bright marshmallow pink and white, the urinal cakes smell strongly of tropical fruit, and as I squat above the traditional french-style porcelain it fells like I'm trapped inside a retro 70s cocktail. The place is clean, well-kept, but hasn't quite kept up with the pace of change.

We're in the van, gear fettled into what semblance of order is possible given the detritus of a fortnight's road trip, about to leave in search of rock when a rugged-looking man approaches.

"Bonjour" I say in my finest accent.
"Hello. You were looking for me?"
"Ah. Oui. Nous ... arrivons dans la nuite. Nous depart ... demain?" "You will leave tomorrow. That is okay. Is there anything I can help you with now, I am going soon but will be back in the afternoon."
He's good, I'll give him that, but no match for my GCSE French.
"Um. L'escalade ... c'est pres d'ici?"
He stares at me quizzically for a moment. I think I've foxed him.
"Yes of course, look," and he points to where limestone prows are
embarrasingly obvious through the trees on the perimiter of the campsite.
"But you came at night, of course, you would not have seen. You must go down here to cross the river at the bridge."
We thank him and move off.

Le Saussois, as it turns out, is a stunning crag. A series of bays, buttresses and sculpted, fluted arches line the road behind a few authentic Borgogne cottages in various states of ramshackledom and a restaurant that doesn't appear to have opened recently. A few gravelled parking areas line a grassy bank by the river Yonne. I scan around through habit for obvious climber-wagons but instead there seem to be only a couple of shiny motorhomes. Eyeing the rock I can spot no-one.

Five minutes later Cherry is several clips up our warm-up route and keen grasshoppers are pinging off my legs in the breeze. Perfick. The bolting's a mix - most of the routes have been re-equipped with new-looking glue-in eyes but the old cemented ring-pegs remain and there is a scattering of expansion bolts on some lines. For those accustomed to the Devon sport ethic where the leader can expect a fall to be generally safe but sometimes a little exciting, the bolting here generally seems to err on the friendly side.

On our third route I find out why: desperately searching for footholds around a blunt, steep arete I'm popping my feet around with the speed of a gazelle and the grace of a wildebeest but just can't get in balance to let go. Pump hits like a freight train and I'm not even at the steep bit yet. A quick slap for a hold that isn't there, the fall that follows is inevitable, and I'm slumped on the rope, only two bolts up. Hard stuff; this is no soft-touch tourist paradise, this is a place to get strong. I swear I can smell the testosterone etched into the limestone.

photo
Le Saussois
© Justin T, Jul 2010

+Two different styles! A local hardy at the Le Saussois with a British "tourist"., 108 kbTwo different styles! A local hardy at the Le Saussois with a British "tourist".
© Bruce Hooker, Sep 1975
We break for lunch back at the campsite, finishing up the chaotic remnants of random supermarché trips. Our friend rolls up in a Citroen estate, arm lolling from the window.

"Hello"
"Bonjour"
"Yes, I have to ask, because you are English, how is the grass here?" I'm stumped. This guy doesn't look like a dealer.
"It's ... fine."
"It is okay, yes?"
"Yes. Err ... nice and flat."
"Good. Thank you."

As he drives off I'm mystified. What could he have meant? Have I let my fellow Englishman down here - should I have been more demanding in my requirement for campsite grass? It wasn't perfect, for sure, but I'm certain you could have tapped in a regulation croquet hoop without too much bother.

Back at the crag the longer lines on the front face of one of the buttresses look good. I start up something that looks reasonable and it is, at least to start with, some nice moves and things almost start to flow but I'm too uncomfortable above bolts, two weeks on snow and ice have ingrained a no-falls ethic and the french couple peering up arms folded from the path are putting my nerves on edge. Four bolts up I try a balancy rock-over, can't get in balance, can't see my feet, fear pump sets in.

"Take"

The tourists huff disappointment when the rope comes tight and I don't plummet to the ground. Dogging my way up to the overhang I manage a couple of steep moves on pockets to an impasse at two flat edges where I can remove neither hand to clip, toes straining to pull in on smeary scoops. After a few half-hearted attempts to cross the bulge I lower off, exhausted.

Next we try an easy warm down route that fights back from the start. I pop for a ledge that turns out slopier than I'd hope, then my feet crush a plant, skid off a hold on the juices and I'm off before I know what happened.

Crushed, we call it a day, tired but inspired.

"Bonjour"
"Hello, yes, you are leaving and you would like to pay?"
"Yes, we're going tomorrow morning."
We hand over the cash as he writes out a receipt.
"It's very quiet here." I say.
"Yes" he sighs "too quiet."
"No climbers. Has it always been like this or just this year?"
"Ten years ago, maybe, it was good. Many climbers came. Then ... " his hand signals the decline. "My friend, he gives me the book, 'Le Suicide', you have heard of it?"
"Err... no."
There's a meaningful pause I don't know how to fill.
"Anyway, no, no climbers now. In June we have some but now they all go to south of France, Céüse, you know it?"
"Yes."
"And here it is ... not good."

Inspired for a return visit some time, we buy the guidebook and an ice-cream apiece with which to wash it down. Flicking through the topo is disheartening stuff. The route I'd struggled to pull the moves on was only 7a - a grade I'd hope to stand a chance onsight back home. The one I'd not even reached the belay 7a+. Perhaps, I muse, that explains the general lack of climbers.

A couple of other tents have popped up and the tell-tale jangle of quickdraws lets us know other grimpeurs have arrived. They seem to have sensed the contemporary retro theme and are sporting white shell-suits on their slack-line.

In the morning we're clicking tent-poles when our man spots us from where he's been strumming his guitar in the sun and wanders over.

"Can you tell me, how did you know of this place?"
"We knew there was climbing here, so we came, and then we saw your signs."
He seems vaguely disappointed.
"Oh. Thank you. Goodbye."
"Au revoir."

+The stunning pocketed walls of Le Saussois - roadside climbing at its finest?, 239 kbThe stunning pocketed walls of Le Saussois - roadside climbing at its finest?
© Justin T, Jul 2010

Retiring the traditional map and giving in to the era of one-click convenience is a blessing and a curse of course. On the one hand you know you can always get where you want to be, you never have to worry about getting lost, you could always dive off the beaten track to explore at will and your passenger can snooze sweetly propped on a pillow as you chase down the miles. On the other hand you somehow lose self-reliance, your "edge", tending to follow numbly the path dictated. And if the thing breaks down you're utterly buggered.

Which is of course what happens next.

Pawing through the pages of our out-of-date Michelin map we're lost. We take an age to locate the village we're in, clueless even as to which page to turn to. Old-skool navigation feels clumsy, awkward, and requires a lot more effort than we're used to to sketch together a route back to Calais. The glowing screen had made us weak; without it we're confronted with a world of decades past where even the journey to a new crag was hard work.

Is there a link between the modern trend for convenience and these burly, pocketed, ego-smashing power routes going out of fashion? Are we coasting down the easy route of grade creep and Kalymnos stamina ticks? Do the current generation of wall-bred climbers lack the cajones a dirtbag Moffatt showed in stepping up to flash a gnarly route like Chimpanzodrome when easy tufa ticks are only a budget flight away? What else could explain such a crag, probably the best of its ilk in throwing distance of Paris and Fontainebleau, being near deserted in July?

Manual navigation finally set, we wind down the manual air-conditioning, stop off at Auxerre to grab breakfast feuilletes; somehow the French can take a chunk of mustard-smeared ham, wrap it in flaky pastry and end up with something that feels like a healthy snack. We scoot past fields of vibrant sunflowers, somehow the simple fact that we now have to look for road-signs makes us more in tune with the world as we rush through it. It feels like it should be a Bob Marley day but instead we're listening to Dylan, and as always he has it right: "Times - they are a-changing".


Logistics

When do I go?
Parts of the crag receive shade throughout the day so summer climbing is quite possible, but probably the best time will be spring or autumn - the sort of time you'd be visiting Fontainebleau is ideal. Le Saussois is approx 1.5h from Font or 2h from the south of Paris.

How do I get there?
Easy. Just enter "Le Saussois" into your sat-nav... From Paris / Fontainebleau head down the A6 to Auxerre, then South in the direction of Mailly-le-Chateau from where the crag is approximately 2 miles further South just by Merry-sur-Yonne.

Where do I stay?
Camping / Gite "Escale" is just across the river in Merry-sur-Yonne, 5 minutes walk from the crag. There are further campsites signed nearby and on the road from Mailly-le-Chateau.

What gear do I need?
Plenty of quickdraws, a 60m rope should get you up most of the routes, a 50m is probably fine for many too but check pitch lengths in the guide before you start.

What guidebook do I need?
"Le Saussois Le Parc" covers Le Saussois, Le Renard and Rochers Du Parc which are all within a few miles of Merry-sur-Yonne. You can buy the guide from the campsite or from Bar Tabac chez Pascal at Mailly le Chateau

Where can I buy gear and food?
Merry-sur-Yonne is only a small village, for shopping you'll probably head to Mailly-le-Chateau or Auxerre.

What else is there apart from the climbing?
The river / canal is right by the crag - you can hire kayaks from the campsite and there are tennis courts available. There is also info on local attractions there such as caves, walking and cycling.

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