My knee is telling me it's really time to leave this kneebar now; my arms are telling me to stay put; my head is telling me that I'm a fool for not strapping the perfectly good kneepad on before I started. Fat lot of good it's doing me sat in my bag 150 feet beneath my sagging form. At least I haven't got shorts on, I try to reassure myself.
All I can hear is my own breathing, which isn't slowing down as quickly as I'd like it to, and a gentle breeze dislodging clouds of leaves from the woodland below. I resign myself to finding out how much my by now wilting body has got left and am instantly absorbed by the succession of pinch grips leading up the next series of calcareous organ pipes above me. Eyes constantly scan for a slightly rougher patch of rock to jack my foot up onto, or a subtly narrower portion of tufa to squeeze, and gaze optimistically upwards for a sight of the chain that would reward me with the opportunity to sag onto the rope without feeling disappointed.
This is tufa climbing as good as anything I've experienced in the world so far - an hour from an airport served by a plethora of budget airlines (Toulouse). A variety of crags which face various directions, featuring different styles, plenty of routes to do whether you're climbing F6a, or F8c. Tufa crags always seep to some extent if it rains a lot, but plenty of the crags don't seep.
Somewhere this good would have queues on every route, right? I saw only a handful of other climbers in the course of a two-week trip, and some of those were friends I'd arranged to meet there. I'll add a few provisos to reassure you I'm not totally making this place up. The best crag, La Croix is only really in condition in the Autumn, and you really need to be climbing at least 7a to get the most out of it. (there are plenty of easier lines on the classic sector, and at the other crags). If you like massive walk-ins you'll be a bit disappointed as in general the crags are a maximum of 10 minutes from a road.
The climbing in Gorges de l'Aveyron consists of a series of crags on both sides of a very pretty river valley in the Occitanie region of France.
If you arrive in the valley at the principal (small) town of Saint Antonin Noble Val, the white sheet of Roc d'Anglars is obvious above you. Impressive from a distance, it doesn't quite live up to this up close but nonetheless is home to some very good routes from F5-F8a. It is a compact limestone in a slightly 'British' style; by which I mean technical, often fingery, and quite tough to onsight! There is some tufa dotted around but in general it is not the predominant style. It faces north, and is exposed to the wind, so would be a great choice on warm days.
Further down the valley, the obvious bulk of streaky tufa-laced limestone is Manjo Carn. This is the place to head to for many of the area's harder lines; the Super-Manjoc sector includes the hardest route in the area, Flesh For Fantasy 9a. Having said this, there are a number of good easier routes there at the other sectors as well. Manjo Carn faces mostly north, though gets some sun late in the day.
Almost south-facing, and above one of several road tunnels along the road that runs along the valley is Capucin. It looks extremely impressive from the road, and has a number of multipitch routes as well as single pitch ones at the base.
Further still, for most visitors (I'd imagine, we didn't see many!) the main event is La Croix. A towering sheet of overhanging tufa wonderland brooding over the road, it is immediately inspiring. Some routes start from the ground, and some sectors are accessed by traversing and climbing steel cables and rungs to ledges above the ground. I'd recommend wearing a harness and clipping into one of the cables or fixed ropes on first acquaintance, especially if the ground is at all wet. Once you have the measure of it, it's friendlier and less hassle than it sounds. The cables and different levels can make the crag a little confusing when you first get there but it doesn't take long to work it out. Many of the classics are long pitches (40-50m) but have intermediate belays at escalating grades so it is a viable venue for mixed ability groups.
Almost opposite La Croix is the escarpment of Couryrac / Cazals, this is totally different in style to La Croix. Couyrac is mostly steep, with tufa, edges and jugs and around 25m. It is described in the UKC logbook as looking like the Water-cum-Jolly cornice. I think I'd add, 'like a much better, taller version of the WCJ cornice, with tufa, much more solid rock, less vegetation and some very good low F6 and below routes on the right-hand side'. Couyrac also features some absolutely amazing moss; not on the routes, you'll be pleased to hear, but festooning the trees which line the pretty woodland walk-in.
Cazals is a slightly different style again, mostly vertical to slightly overhanging routes largely on edges and a few pockets between 25-35m high. Cazals has quite a lot of sika for a French crag (if you sport climb in the peak district, probably about what you're used to!) but in my opinion it had been done well in general and I thoroughly enjoyed all the routes I did here.
Further still down the valley are La Madeleine and Amiel, both are South-facing, and in a particularly pretty section of the valley. There is plenty to do at these crags at mid F6 and below.
This is a tiny selection based on what I have done, or have a first hand report of, and was recommended to try:
Roc d'Anglars: Clin d'Oeil a la Lune 7a, Combat des Chefs 7a+ Fluide Glacial 7c+
La Croix: Mistral Gagnant 6c/7b+, Guerre de Gang 6c+/7c, Alcatraz/Levade 7a/7c/7c+, Le Premices de la Chicoree 7a/7c/7c+, Titanic 7c, Marathon 8a, Adrenalina 8a+
[crag(10804,"Cazals - Diedre Allende - Couyrac")]: Zennnn 6b/7b, Balade 6b+/7a, Little Monster 7a+, Audace 7b, Manhattan Baghdad 7c
Couyrac: Les memes restent en bas 6b+, Cayenne 6c, Operation Jupon 7a, Mimi Peau de Bete 7b+, L'esprit des Lieux 7c+
In the unlikely event that you tire of the Aveyron, the Lot is an hour's drive to the north. The guidebook for this area is available in the bar/restaurant in St Gery (also the name of the area's best known, and particularly excellent crag). The Lot guide lists 1300 routes up to 8c+/9a, and some bouldering.
Several airlines fly to Toulouse, which is the nearest airport. You'll need a hire car to get around, Gorges de l'Aveyron is just over an hour's drive north of the airport.
I would advise taking an 80 or 100m rope if you are planning on climbing at La Croix, or Manjo Carn. There would be plenty to do if you only have a 70m but you will be limited in route choice. A couple of screwgate carabiners and slings are useful on some of the sectors on elevated ledges to anchor the belayer to the bolts/cables. If you need any gear while you are there, there is a Decathlon in Montauban.
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There are a couple of campsites just outside Saint Antonin, or a variety of gites etc. The area is exceptionally beautiful and popular with hikers and less active tourists, so there is plenty to choose from.
Guidebook / topos
A basic, but very useful local guidebook is available for €12 in the tourist office in Saint Antonin. Many of the routes have a name, grade and length on a plaque at the base of them, which makes orientation at most of the crags fairly straightforward.
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Other things to do
Saint Antonin has a good produce market on Sundays, and a couple of small supermarkets as well as local small shops (including an English bookshop) and the oldest civic building in France, which happens to be opposite a very nice bar. As with any French small town there are also plenty of restaurants, pizzerias and so on.
Montauban is the nearest town of any great size, and a pleasant place to spend a rest day.
Hiking and mountain biking are popular in the region, information of the well-marked trails are available at the tourist office.