Calanques – or How to Trust your Instincts about Warm Relaxed Sport Climbing at the Beach – or Oh, those Frenchies! With addition commentary from Gabe – or “But officer, I was only going one way!” 28/10/05 – 06/11/05
So I thought I wouldn’t write it. Not again. This whole TR business – especially now, sitting in front of a dark window at work, knowing that there is only sleet, rain and cold out there waiting for me. But then the details are still so vivid in my head. And I feel them zoning out on me – pretty soon my brain will decide that some of it is garbage, will let some other holds break off, make mashed patatos of other parts, and finally I will have a name, Calanques, in my mind, not representing anything in particular, just another old yellow page. It better be a nice white virtual page instead, running the risk of IT viruses rather than my brain’s bizarre workings. And then, I need to show those awesome pictures to the world one way or another, so there goes…
Gabe here. Ah yes, another TR. Lucky for me, Julia has already done most of the work! But I’ll jump in to add my own perspective, because it was a magical trip for me, and I’d like to try to capture some of the feel.
“Another friend of yours, hmmm?” said mom, after I informed her of my travel plan – going again south, but this time all the way south. “Yup, and this one even sings at the opera!” I told her with a grin. I met Gabe as planned at Gare St. Charles and our adventure started right away in our little new friend – Fiat Punto. Finding Cassis was not the easiest objective ever, but we somehow managed our first assignment as a team. The second assignment was less trivial – Traversée sans Retour was its name, and Fear its nickname.
Pardon me while I interrupt again (arrogant Americans – no manners). But there’s a lot wrapped up for me in the name of the climb: “Traversée sans Retour” – only after I started the climb did I figure out what the name meant in English. “Traverse with no return”. A “One Way Traverse”. It’s like the punchline of the old joke – “But officer, I was only going one way!”
Our routefinding difficulties started early. In fact, they started the night before! We were headed out on the main road from Marseille that led straight to Cassis, but somehow we thought it was wrong, and I turned around. Wrong way! A foreshadowing of things to come. Sure, the first outing had to be memorable. Having seen the last weather forecast, I knew we had to expect rain on Sunday. That is why I wanted to give it all out on the first day.
Our first sunlight of southern France met us already on our way to a parking lot in Port Miou. That was a curvatious way, and we finally parked at the only parking lot we were able to find, additional 30 min march away. And why did we have to walk an extra 30 minutes? Because we drove around for forty frickin’ minutes looking for the turn that would take us to the correct parking lot. Dammit, where was it?! We later discovered that the correct road to take was marked with a "wrong way" sign. And get this - the one way sign was a "suggestion" with fine print. I'd never seen a one-way sign with fine print before, and somehow in the early morning twilight we thought it was a simple “one way” road. :rolling eyes:
We started walking already an hour behind schedule for our one-hour approach. Two hours later we were happily arrived at the Calanque d’En Vau, looking for the access to the Plateau of Castelvieil. Imagine an island in the blue Mediterranean sea, formed by white rock walls 200 m high, with just a couple of trees and bushes on top, and linked to the mainland by a narrow strip of solid ground, and you will know why that name sounds so appealing. En Vau is one of the best climbing areas around. Although the guidebook will tell you a lot about the ‘éloignement’ and ‘adventure ground’, it does serve as a home to numerous hikers willing to have a beach all to themselves, coming from either sea or land. (Picture - Calanque d’En Vau from the Plateau) But all those people do not get to Castelvieil. That is climbers’ domain, and we were about to learn why. We went up what supposedly looked like a trail. Oh, it was a clear trail all right, winding up scree, then through and around thick bushes, until... it stopped. Turns out, we'd followed up a trail that led – down from a standard rappel descent! Another trouble with wrong way streets!
Vertical terrain. After some hapless research by Gabe and myself in turn, I headed for my harness. Yes, there was an option to go down and look for another trail. But who considers options like that when you call yourself a climber?! Isn’t climbing THE skill supposed to get you up there? And going as straight as your eyes can do it? After getting a rope to trail behind me, I felt reassured and confidently started upwards. The first couple of moves felt easy, the first nut went it – we were having our adventure already! Next couple of moves started being tricky. That nut looked desperately lonely and far below. I grabbed a tree. Or rather that weak green thing other people would call a bush. I followed a chimney; I placed a couple more nuts (we had many draws and a couple of nuts with us as this was supposedly a relaxed sport climbing trip to the sunny France, mother of them all, sport climbers!) and finally found a rap station that left me at ease about the direction of our travel. Uff, that was pretty exciting!
I have to interrupt again. Julia impressed the hell out me here. When it comes to climbing on choss, without the right gear – she’s got a lot of guts!
Thank god there was one experienced mountaineer in our party, or I’d still be at the bottom of that gully whimpering! I decided not to consult the time anymore. I also remembered that my other guidebook only mentioned distances in km and not the actual time it took to get to places for some obscure reason. However, our approach was not done yet. We spent another half hour walking circles on top of the Plateau to eventually, and hopelessly, remark that mere meters away from where we had initially finished our little “first pitch,” there was le Trou du Cannon. Those speaking French maybe guessed already – a big hole, through which we were to rap down to our traverse. Yes, our first route was supposed to be a 10-pitch traverse, with a 6b crux, and many 4s, 5s and 6s in between, going half way around the Castelvieil Plateau. But to get to the start of the traverse, we decided instead of stupidly rapping to it from the top (and we did not have double ropes to make all those raps anyway) to do another traverse, called Traversée Ramond.
The guidebook modestly didn’t mention anything about it, only showing what looked like 2 pitches of 4c on the topo. (Picture – the rappel down Trou du Cannon) The rappel was magnificent. It resembled more a caving exercice if looking at the rock formations around, but then the sea and trees below reassured we were far from any kind of a cave. Gabe easily led off into the traverse. Then I went off, we simulclimbed, then we rapped, then we simulclimbed again, then we finally got to the end of the ledge system we were following – after what seemed more then 4 full rope lengths…Here we were supposed to do another 3 raps to really get to the start of our route. I decided not to look at the sun so as not to be able to tell time that way either. Gabe set up the first and second raps. Next one was mine. Things suddenly did not look that glamorous any more. There was nothing green left. There was only white rock and blue sea below. Not the picture-perfect blue mass, radiating warmth and pleasure, but stressed, foamy and menacing dark depths, crushing every couple of mili-seconds into the rock with a centuries-long hatred, determined to get through, to vanquish, to destroy. There was also a roof. And the rope hung freely from it downwards. The ends were almost in the water. ‘This is scary’ thought and said I.
But I was the Ukrainian Strength, I was fearless, I was a climber. And climbers should do their thing, rap, not look down etc. And then, this wasn’t even mountains, there was no glacier, no avalanches, no crackling bergshrunds or whistling stones. I made a big smile (can you tell it’s forced? See picture) to Gabe and went off.
Let me set the record straight. I think the conversation went something like this. G: “I guess the rap goes down there somewhere.” J: “Whoa, you think so?” G: “Um, yeah, I guess, I mean, where else would it go?” J: “Okay, go ahead.” G: “No, it’s your turn. Besides, I’m scared for my mommy, and I didn’t bring a change of underwear.” Okay, I didn’t actually say the part about being scared out loud, but Julia must have seen my legs about to buckle, because she valiantly threaded her rappel device, and down she went.
Half way down, I somehow was still 3 or 4 horizontal meters away from the wall, and from a station. My rope ends were in the water. Also still 3 or 4 meters from the wall. Things were definitely not glamorous any longer. I cried out to Gabe, looked around again and got out my Tblock. Finally, that thing on my harness was getting some use. Carefully I set up my system and started slowly moving up. But then, after some time, I realized I was not exactly getting any progress. Oh, Tblock does not actually work when you try getting up a rappel with it, as it is only set up on one strand of the rope! Newbie 101 (or 201). It took me a nice half hour of hanging over the crushing waves to figure out what was wrong, setting up another system with prussiks, and finally starting to really move painfully upwards. Yup, practicing self rescue in Quincy Quarries or even jumarring in Zion has not taught me everything about this skill yet. But I made it. Gabe was patiently waiting for me, I allowed myself only one doubtful look up, we quickly reevaluated the situation and Gabe went off, downclimbing the rappel this time.
That worked, and, oh joy! we were at what appeared the belay after the first pitch of our route. ‘One of the best routes in France’ I was told. Gabe led off. Downwards. And traversing. His next piece was 50 feet away, a slung horn. The sea (the crushing, foaming, all-devouring monster, not the nice-blue-warm sea kind) was 20 feet below me. Next hour, while Gabe was finishing his pitch (not exactly an easy 5c traverse), dealing with monstrous rope drag, route finding etc. I was contemplating the moment I would have to leave the security of my anchor (those two rusty pitons that made me keep the left toe and right pinky stance upright without breathing out too much for all that time). That time came. I had to move. I did. I had to. I couldn’t see Gabe anyway, and he could not take up slack either as the rope was stuck somewhere in front of me. Things were, what the French guidebook effectively called ‘terrain d’aventure’. I somehow joined Gabe. Not sure how long that pitch took, but it felt like an eternity. I had to gather up my strength and take up the next lead. That brought us to what we decided was a perfect lunch ledge. That was the most pleasant and relaxed moment of the day.
Maybe at that time I first started thinking about water. Initially I took a little less then 1.5 liter with me. Half of it was already gone. The day was hot. And we were at what appeared to be…hmm, either second, third or fourth belay of our route…Anyway, after some consideration and deliberation we decided that our way was down as the only bolt at the lunch ledge was also equipped with an even lonelier rap ring. Gabe courageously took up the rap, found an awesome window-arch, and spent another 15 min there trying to figure what would look like the most probable anchor. Did I mention we only had a couple of nuts with us? Oh, and so far we maybe met 10 bolts on the route. That including all the rap stations…
I got down. I think that is also the first time we noticed there was a party behind us. That felt somehow reassuring. There were people on this thing even later then us? Wow, that’s awesome, they probably know the way, and we’re probably not that far from the end anyway (left side of the brain moaning and asking the right side not to mention anything about those other 8 pitches, all harder then the ones we’ve already done, remaining in front of us)! (Picture – view of the Castelviel Plateau from la Brèche de Castelviel, the first easy traverse with its 2 pitches began with all that greenery in the middle and the raps to start the Traversee Sans Retour were somewhere at the horizon, just at the end of the horizontal ledge system) Those good hopes were very quickly destroyed when the party started yelling to us from the lunch ledge if they should rap from there or continue traversing. Hmm, they seemed somehow lost too…
Thankfully the left side of my brain successfully managed to shut down whatever the right side was trying to mumble, and I just concentrated on going up. A piton, a quick step up, and another piton for an anchor. But I have a ledge, so I am good, I can belay Gabe up. He quickly finishes the next pitch and we come to what looks like another rap. The topo says that there are only 2 raps on our route, and the second rap is after the 6b crux. So maybe we somehow got through the crux? I even can glimpse the last, supposedly 4c ramp on which we have to finish the traverse. It looks surprisingly far away – but the right side of my brain is silent, and the left one does not know how to ask questions, is tired and thirsty, and can’t concentrate on too many things at a time anyway. We are again in a mini-Calanque or mini-cirque – a half circle formed by 200m walls, with sea (still the crushing one) below. After a nice stroll we get to a next window in the rock. That window gives us a very unreassuring site. It’s one more cirque. But it finishes like a cave with a huge overhanging wall above. The way from the window is unclear. This whole window thing reminds me of some thriller about ‘window into devil’s quarters’, from which all the evil will fly out at us at any moment. Ok, there is a shiny bolt on the wall to the right of the window. It is not clear how to get there or where to go from there, but the bolt is shines to us with all its splendor and persuasive strength. Gabe is the strong one, I give up easily my lead to him. He quickly gets it all figured out, clips some invisible pitons and disappears from view. The party behind us (brothers Georges and Pierre, in their 40ies, confirmed Chamonix climbers) comforts me that Gabe is doing great out there as I cannot see a thing from my window stance. I come up, pretty sure that this is the crux of the route, rapidly get the gear for the next pitch, and go again. First move takes me a while. Second move takes even longer. The gear is great on this pitch so far – I can see three pieces of cordelette strung through three pitons, each 6-10 feet apart. Whatever the difficulty, but I determinedly clip (right side of the brain flashes ‘no, no, don’t even try to look at those pitons’ – it is getting the flare from the left side on how to keep me sane for a while longer) and go.
But after I traverse right to the last visible piton – and find a rap station at my feet – my reasonable thought leaves me for good. There are two options from here. Straight up – a ledge where my piton sits, and then 10 meters higher I can see more cordelettes hanging, pointing at a high traverse. The only problem is, the rock is bare, white, holdless and dead vertical between the piton and the cordelettes. I know this piton will not hold a fall. Then there is the second option. So you see, there was this window onto devil’s quarters we did not use. Instead we traversed through the outside of the first mini-cirque to only come to that same devil’s quarters’ second cirque, just a bit higher, closer to the roof. And there are bolts showing a traverse entering that cirque. A very scary-looking traverse. The bolts are just below the roof, then there is another foot of a vertical slimy wall, and then there is nothing. Oh, I forget, there is sea. Below. The foamy crushing beast sea, 100 meters below. Sure there is a third option, there is always a third option. That is bring up Gabe and let him do the thinking, the leading, and everything else – as I am tired, épuisée, exhausted, drained and weary. Did I say thirsty? Oh, I think I also forgot to mention the sun has clearly set at that time – even my optimistic left side of the brain could not deny it any longer.
Gabe came up. He looked up, he looked right. Then we, even without consulting, offered to Pierre to take over the next lead as we were not sure what to do – or to put it clearly paralyzed by fear to the point of not being able to move forward, even if it were light out.
My perspective: It was a real dilemma. The guidebook seemed to say up, traverse, and then rap back down. But there was no way up. The frustrating thing was that I could see so clearly where we were trying to get to. The traverse clearly continued, just 30 to our right. Unfortunately, that 30 feet was made up of pure air - 300 vertical feet of it, resting on nothing but the water below.
So if we couldn’t go up, and we couldn’t walk on air, then we needed to delve into the cave, and that way looked pretty damn hard, and was almost certainly off-route. We were at an impasse. And then the sun set.
Pierre confidently came over. He looked up, then right, then with more surprising confidence (oh, those Frenchies!) went right into the dark. Oh, I think I meant crawled, as to get to the first bolt there was only a ledge, maybe 50 cm high, on which you could crawl on your stomach if you really really tried. So Pierre crawled, got the first bolt, looked into the dark again, concerted with his brother and then crawled back to us. It was a long time since things were no longer glamorous. Now they were grim. We were in the dark. 3 of us at the station (an old piton and a slung horn). Pierre decided he would be unable to reverse the moves to get to his brother, and the cordelettes with those nice pitons were not sure to hold his body weight, nothing be said of a fall.
Things were actually not that bad – we could have had a hanging belay, be injured, frozen, broken under a heap of ice or snow debris on some God forgotten pile of rock. We had instead a large (2 sq feet) ledge all for ourselves, a view on an endless sea, a moon and even a lullaby sung by those crushing foaming beastly waves just a hundred meters lower. I said that we could only die from thirst, and that would take maximum three days. We really would be stuck only if it rained, but then we would not die from thirst as we could always collect water into our helmets.
My partners thought I had a combative spirit. I rejoiced. I also decided not to be claustrophobic and get the best use possible out of that belly-crawling ledge we had all for ourselves. The preparations were quick, and so went my first unexpected bivouac on a climb. At least our lodging dilemma for the night was pretty much solved.
Haha! How to get a night of free lodging while staying in southern France, right? There was a little crevice in the rock right next to the anchor, just big enough for two small people. Julia and I had gotten there first (so we had squatters’ rights). Pierre tried to fit in too, but it was impossible, and he didn't have sufficient gear to make a safe anchor further along the traverse. So he settled himself as well as he could, sitting on a little ledge, feet dangling over the abyss. I woke every thirty minutes or so with shooting pains in whichever hip was taking my weight on the rock. I would turn over to the other side, waking Julia as I did so. Damn her – at least she had a jacket, which I stupidly did not! Often when I woke, I would hear Pierre out there, shuffling around a little. As frigid and stiff as I was, I could barely begin to imagine his misery. So I tried not to worry about him, and simply tried to sleep. I must have finally slept because I woke to a gray light that told me the sun was already up somewhere behind heavy clouds, and Pierre and his brother were up and moving around.
The morning found us cramped, cold, thirsty and hungry. And still wondering at where we were, what did that whole topo thing want to say by its meaningless horizontal and vertical lines in all directions, and pointing to each other all the pieces of pro we could see or imagine around (up to 15 or more). At last, Gabe took up his courage into his hands and started off for, as far as I was concerned, the scariest ever traverse to our right. It was still pretty dark inside the cave, but the glimmer of bolts were appearing out of the dim.
Someone had to do something, so I took the rack of draws, Julia belayed me, and I started crawling through the crack, in search of the first bolt.
Crawling on his belly, with ballerina steps afterwards, he somehow got to one bolt, then the next. Then he saw more bolts. Well I'm not ashamed to say that I used extensive aid to get through the traverse, but get through it I did. It was aid! After Touchstone in Zion, he went through the whole thing rapidly and left us agape with admiration. Mmm, I had to do it next. Another ‘scariest’ pitch of my life…At least it always looks that way before I go for it. The good thing about action is that it makes you forget all the mental fears and misgivings. Imagination gets shut off, and that’s when brain for once unites with body for an accomplishment. It took me some time to convince my brain of all this. Then I went for it, and did it (not that there was much choice anyway). Pierre and Georges followed.
We were not through yet though. Next pitch looked even less reassuring as it boasted only two bolts for the whole of its 30-meter traverse out of our demon furnace cirque (the first traverse brought us in, the second had to bring us out). This time Pierre from the other party showed what he was made of, took up the sharp end and easily went off.
I think the conversation went something like this: P: Chapeau! (Nice lead). You would like the next one? G: Oh, I don’t mind if you take it. P: You can have it if you like. G: No, really, I want my mommy, and I’ve decided I’m giving up climbing forever, so I am going to zip myself into my backpack now and I would like you to carry me the rest of the way, thanks! Except the last sentence came out sounding more like “I’m a little tired”, but he knew what I meant. Thank you thank you thank you, Pierre!
I managed to follow Pierre’s pitch cleanly. Soon we were all four past the gap, and back on route! We were going to make it. As we had two ropes, I decided to shut up my brain this time with a Tyrolean traverse, and things went much quicker, with much lower psychological price for it.
Finally we were out – on a huge ledge, in the sun, with a visible, plausible way out! The weather was still awesome (there is good grounding to calling this one of the sunniest spots of the country), we were all in one piece, even our bivy spot looked more sexy in the daylight. Then we knew we were out of it, despite it already being noon, our mouths being extra dry and our tongues hanging out, like Bedouins after a couple of weeks of a desert march. Even our cell phones started working again (oh, cell phones, that useless piece of extra weight, but what modern climber doesn’t proudly carry at least one instead of a PowerBar or an extra biner?).
The first thing my mom managed to tell me was ‘call the hotel, call the hotel, they are going to shoot your baggage!’. Yup, we left our bags at the hotel the day before, saying that we would pick them up that same evening. However we never made it to our hotel. My mom said the hotel called the police and police was coming to shoot through our baggage, as we could be terrorists wanting to set up a bomb at the hotel. Very exciting!
At that moment my phone connection stopped working and all my tries to reach the hotel failed relentlessly. Oh well, that was not any big worry for me anymore. What things can’t you deal with in this life?! Few are absolutely bad, although many are irksome.
G: Your mom said they’re doing what with our bags? Blowing them up?!!
Our traverse continued, mostly unroped now, through a system of ledges, with another short Tyrolean, an awesome chimney-cave (very like Tunnel Vision in Red Rocks, with even more fun formations, hanging stalagmites, pockets and any other type of holds that it will take another half a century for the hold manufacturers to replicate), a final 7a (for Gabe, and A0 for all other unfortunate feeble humans) to gloriously bring us to the top as the sun started to join the sea again. (Picture – one, rather interesting part of the unroped traverse) During our long hike back (sure, 1h! I would call this a guidebook syndrome – see Tom Swain’s approach timing references for various Red Rocks jewels – and try running with him!) I couldn’t resist accosting a couple of happily hiking tourists with a ‘Please, do you have some water left? We’ve spent the last two days in here without any!’ with a desperate look of a lost child on my face, which worked miraculously well and procured us almost 2 full 1,5 liter bottles.
**** Hmm, that much for the first two days makes it already a very long TR. I will have to stick with mere naming for the following days – as we did climb consecutively for 8 days during the trip, although most of it was much less exciting then the first two days. Monday, the rest day, was spent at the sport crag of Tiragna, clipping draws and admiring the rock texture. A sport crag, as there are so many out there these days, with its sport crowd of weekend warriors and a couple of project-obsessed guys. Tuesday we were ready for adventure again, and that was reserved for another ‘Best Route of France’. Judged by our now experienced eye, the guidebook promised a much more straightforward approach, with things being bolted all the way, going straight up most of the time, and no ‘adventure terrain’ or ‘bring a couple of coinçeurs just in case’ remarks. La Gutenberg on Socle de la Candelle, and then la Centrale on la Cancelle herself were a swan’s song for us. Climbing started with a 5c to end with a 6b+, with 8 outstanding 6a pitches in between. Very, very beautiful, face, crack, stemming, roofs, more traverses out of this world (reminiscent of Spigolo Gallo on Cime Piccola of the Dolomites), and a final boulder problem made it an unforgettable day, although much less charged with psychedelic impulses. (Picture – me flying on La Candelle)
We spent another rest day exploring la Calanque de Morgiou, with its most beautiful port of the world – straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. The exploring culminated on Cret St Michel, with a 5-pitch, more bolted than not 6b, where I even managed to lead the last, outstanding pitch up the grand dièdre, although Gabe did an even more outstanding job onsighting the first 6b+ pitch, where I had to swear in all my native or not so native languages to get up. We finished with a headlamp, but the walk down was cake, and the port at night made me imagine all those scenses out of Hemingway or Margarite Duras, with pastis drinking and romantic, wild sailors.
It was time for an adventure day again, and that was to happen in la Calanque de l’Oule this time, where we decided to look for another classic, les Futurs Croulants. That was a wise decision, as we did look for it – for half a day, without actually finding the route…But the access to the place was lots of fun in itself, including some more cave-crawling through le Trou du Serpent (yup, as exciting as the name suggests), scree walking over precipices etc. and despite mine and Gabe’s attempts to lead the first pitch on three different routes, we decided that things looked like much more adventure than we could bear and we opted for a bolted line instead, les Cacochymes, only 3 pitches after more than half a day of hiking and wondering around, that still surprised us by the quality of climbing and views. After this adventure without spice we spent another day waiting for rain at Rocher du Renard, where rain did find us, after completing la Diedre du Renard (awesome, awesome last 6a pitch) and a couple of other by-standing routes. Saturday, our last climbing day, had to bring a culmination.
It was to be l’Armata Callanqua, a newly opened route (2001) to the furthest right of la Candelle, counting three 6a pitches at its bottom part (le Socle), another three 6a pitches on the intermediate part, and 5 more pitches from 6b to 6c on the top part, la Candelle itself. Who could resist a dessert served on an azure-blue plate and covered with white sparkling cream-chantilly? I guess we could, as we woke up 3h after the wake-up time (4 am)…but then the temptation was too strong – we looked at each other, looked at our tent, felt our train tickets in our pockets, and went for the car. We could still do it! When we got to the last, hardest part, it was already 3 pm. We looked at each other again, and after a minute’s hesitation I led up the pitch. Knowing where the rappel was, and having nice new shiny bolts all the way to it helped, and with the last sunrays we were already finishing our roped maneuvers.
We got it right this time! And what a route! The last 6c pitch was even apparently the highest onsight for Gabe’s sport record. The only sad part was our departure planned for the next day. (Picture – me consuming a Nutella sandwich midway on la Candelle, looking forward to future adventures, on sea or land, as long as rock is somehow involved!)