An area with a longer climbing history than many of its adjacent crags, linking it to some of alpinism's greats, but with modern single and multi pitch climbs.
So where is it? Only 20km north of Ceuse to the region's southern edge, west of some of the greats of the Ecrins, such as l'Olan and east of the well known Vercors. In terms of roads, it is almost a triangular area bounded on its west by the road from Grenoble to Veynes over the Col Croix Haute; on its east the road from Grenoble to Gap, passing through Corps; and on its south the road from Veynes to Gap, via Fressinouse (the turning point towards Ceuse). The guide book is: Ventavon, Champsaur, Valgaudemar & Devoluy; in the gear shop in Gap this can be bought together with the Ceuse guide at a big combined saving.
The crags in the area vary from the kid friendly Les Etroits, single pitch with a shady stream beside it, and some of the lowest grade routes a little improved to ensure a steady grade; to the grand Les Gillardes, up to 22 pitches, starting in the valley bottom and finishing in alpine pastures, but the journey there is wonderful and as gripping as you wish.
The area has a couple of linked ski areas in winter, so generally the climbing may be out and you may find the downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, ski touring, and snow shoeing, of interest; but at other times of year the Via Ferratas, mountain biking, road biking and mountaineering, as well as the climbing keeps most folk entertained.
The gear you need is crag dependent, so checking the guide is important - on some of the mountain routes you may need a small rack of nuts to fill the gap between 'mountain' bolting, and there are some traditional aid routes, needing a full rack, which may or may not have equipped stances.
Some of the crags, beginning with the most family friendly:
Les Etroits There is a good car park as you head up towards Saint Etienne en Devoluy, which also serves as the top parking for the Via Ferrata, the approach is over the old road bridge, which looks down on the Via Ferrata. A great family spot in summer to mess in the stream whilst climbing, though with grades from 3c to 7a/b there is entertainment for all.
Les Gicons, The drive up to this crag (recorded as Devoluy on UKC Guidebook), passes one of the most stunning Chapels around, and well worth a stop to check out the view from Rene Desmaison's final resting place (some of the mountain routes around here are down to him), continue up the hairpins, through the hamlet, which has a gite, to park by the telephone mast. The crag is quite apparent, as is the profile of the Pic de Burre.
A 20 minute walk up through the woods leads to the sector Gorilles, six routes (4s & 5s), then there are introductory slabs to the right, grades 3c to 5a; and up the cable boulder there are routes to 6c.
A wander left leads to La Pierre au Lievre, a great sector, the first routes are about 25m, with interesting fingery climbing, but at the left end the routes from 6c upwards are 30 to 35m long. This is a stunning wall, but walking past here and heading uphill leads to Pierre-Besse, the obvious tall triangular area of great blue and orange streaks, with 3 or 4 warm up routes at the left side, leading to the main course of the central routes, one of the harder routes on this crag summing up this area - Un Petit Coin de Paradis, 8a, 'a little corner of paradise.'
Continuing up past Pierre-Bess leads to Le Jardin Suspendu, which is quiet, steep, technical slab climbing, and when you approach you may find a chilled-out Golden Eagle, or a chamois, the routes are clustered in the mid 6s to 7a+.
If you decide not to head uphill on leaving Pierre au Lievre, but contour across (effectively below Jardin Suspendu) you come to Le Dernier des Giconais, another area of around 20 routes, but each sector giving different climbing, from slabby and technical to powerful, layaway pinchy climbing.
A further walk traversing leads to the larger routes of Le Pieroux, these vary from 9 pitches upwards, and have varying levels of gear with the routes from no modern gear put up in 1972 to the most recent fully equipped in 2011, an abseil of 35m down the rear of the pillar allows a scramble to the crest and then a descent down the back.
Les Gillardes: what can you say about this huge valley crag; to have routes from 12 pitches upwards that top out into alpine meadows is brilliant. The routes are generally 'mountain bolted' so probably best to take a set of nuts to join the dots of some spacey bolts. A bad mistake I made thinking I would warm up on a route here, with just quickdraws and looking at the crux of a pitch, with the last bolt way below my feet was more like a meltdown; but on other routes such as 'Derniere Tentation d'un Ete Trop Court' the stance at the end of pitch 16 has to be visited to be believed – set on the lip of a roof looking down the crag – stunning.
Pic de Bure: finally for this summary of the area the Bure Pilier Sud-est or the Desmaison route, is either the jewel in the crown, or the flawed diamond. It does not really matter how you see it, a genuine 23 pitch mountain route, some suspect rock in an amazing situation. We got 12 pitches up a number of years ago, with an old topo. Seeing two climbers trying to catch us up, we did our best to see they didn't. At pitch 13 I had to go up to an arête, then traverse ledges, I got to the arête, but no ledges. Looking down to the base of the crag a healthy pink cats' paw of new rock lay over the old grey scree – there were my ledges. The two climbers joined us on our stance, and in our broken French we tried to explain – ledges not there, but down there – not surprisingly they checked for themselves. They were locals from Gap, but had the same topo, we all descended together, and relaying the rope we got down quite quickly. Apparently we had parked our van too high up the forest track (don't do this!), but they happily accepted a lift down and a beer from the cold box. I have not yet been back to use the new description.
Driving means no packing stress, and can be done in one day from Lancashire, though this tends to depend on UK traffic, no delays on the Chunnel, and a good run down in France. Slightly more relaxing is to plan a stop maybe between Reims and Troyes, giving a steady second day arriving in daylight at most times of year, this is how we do it now, having had years of tearing down, then having a poor first day's climbing, taking two days often allows a couple of routes to be grabbed in the evening to loosen up, then a good first day. Travelling back to the UK seems to work OK in one day, though to be home comfortably before midnight UK time a departure about 6am is required.
Flying to one of the southern France airports also works well, and trawling through the various destinations to see the best price may depend whether there is skiing going on. So check airports from Lyon, Grenoble, Marseille, Nimes and Nice, none more than 2 1/2 hours drive.
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Food and Supplies
There are two bars through most of the year, though it is worth remembering that they both close from about November through to March or April. The first you see on the way into the village is the longest established bar, and serves beers under the large plane tree, and does food, the most often visited seems to be the Quartz bar, which you have to walk through when returning from the crag, and once sat down inertia seems to encourage a beer and one of their great pizzas. In August you may have to book a table to get a pizza.
There is now a good small supermarket in the village (a Proxi) which also houses the boulangerie, so fresh bread and croissants are guaranteed. This is open all year apart from Christmas Day. If folk are looking for a cheaper, more complete shop then a drive out to Laragne is best which is about 10 miles, there are three decent supermarkets, several bars and a couple of restaurants, or if the priority is for bars and food, and one supermarket then a trip to Serres where the roundabout bar always has something going on is worth it, and there are a number of hotel/restaurants who do good food.
There is a good climbing shop in the village which has ropes, quickdraws, boots, clothing etc. This is owned by the local Guide, who also has a good gite (Vertige), and will guide on climbs and Via Ferrata.
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Around the area there are other crags from La Jarjatte and Gorge d'Agnielles both with Via Ferrata, and Roche Arnaud on the region's southern edge. The uplift at Super Devoluy keeps running all year, and caters for MTB in summer, which can be just downhill, or a visit to the James Bond-esque Pic de Burre plateau. There is a good website which covers most activities, there is even a climbing wall in the sports centre at Super Devoluy.
If you want a quieter campsite about three miles further up the valley is Les Catoyes, this is more laid back, has some caravans and a gite, jazz evenings during the summer, a bar and even a bouldering wall in the barn - though you have to drive to the climbing some folk prefer this.
There are lots of other options for accommodation in the village, the best place to have a look through this is on the Orpierre website - go into 'office-tourisme' then look through all the entries under 'Hebergement et restauration'. The gites actually in the medieval village have a great atmosphere, and vary from group gites best found by contacting Pierre-Yves Bochaton (who speaks good English) to a number of smaller ones, such as Gite de la Fontaine in the square with the medieval fountain, run by Claude Durban, who speaks great English, or La Pastarelle owned by Brigette Dextreit, who also speaks good English.
We have had friends stay in the village to climb and travel out to watch the Monte Carlo Rally in January and have a good time, and folk combining climbing and watching the Tour de France. There is rafting on the Durance which is fun, and in winter skiing and ice climbing are found within an hour.
- DESTINATION GUIDE: Orpierre 17 Feb, 2015