Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Buoux: Where even the Pockets have Pockets!

So, I'm back now from my recent climbing trip to France, and training like a madman for my next trip down to Tassie in March. As this will be my first chance to spend time on my Obsidian Obsession project (see THIS post) with training-borne strength (as opposed to the "general fitness" retained from continuous climbing for several years), I'm keen to see whether this is the edge I need to finally succeed at it. I'm actually a bit apprehensive, because if I can't tick it on this trip (my 3rd trip encompassing this route), then perhaps it's time that I admit to myself that it's beyond my abilities... After all, how many trips can you do with the sole purpose of ticking a single climb?

So, a quick catchup:

Neil Monteith's stunning picture of me on
Dawn-Drawn Wonga Pigeon (35m 26)
Prior to heading to France I'd had some small success in the Blueys (such as successfully ticking the radically overhanging crack Pit Fighter (30m Trad 28) at The Pit, and finally managing to tick a route of mine -Dawn-Drawn Wonga Pigeon (26)- at Banksy). I'd also experienced much frustration as I returned to my usual temperament of "butting heads" with the inevitable crimp-boulder cruxes that almost exclusively define "Hard climbing in the Blueys", by falling of my various projects (such as Sword of Damocles (28) and Hairline (28)) ad infanitum. So, aside from the "general fun" that is all things climbing, you could probably say that I had a mixed bag of experiences when it comes to success... A pretty standard ratio for most climbers, I think.

Consequently, I departed for southern France doubtful of my current level of performance.

Buoux: "Where even the pockets have pockets!"

About 1/3rd the entire length of the main cliff at Buoux.

Ben Moon on Agincourt (8c)

I've been to France previously, and climbed at Ceuse and Verdon (albeit briefly), but this time I was really psyched to make Buoux the focus of my trip. As a rabid fan of climbing history, I couldn't wait to experience it's legendary, sandbagged, powerful pocket-pulling firsthand. Well before Ceuse came into fruition, Buoux was the original forging ground for hard sport climbing in the world. Routes like Reve de Papillion (8a), Chouca (8b+), Le Minimum (8b+), Le Rose Et Le Vampire (8b), La Rage de Vivre (8b+), Le Spectre De Sur Mutants (8b+), and -of course- Agincourt (8c) pushed the domain of sport climbing into previously unrealised highs. Made popular by the leading climbers of the generation (Jean-Baptiste Tribout, the Le Menetral Brothers, Patrick Edlinger, Jerry Moffat and Ben Moon), the lasting legacy of these climbing idols is found in the pocketed limestone of Buoux.

Paul Thomson on Agincourt (8c)
(I look way cooler!)

Commonly regarded as "out of fashion", and having diminished in popularity due to prolonged cliff closures (caused by access issues with the locals), I'd also previously been warned off Buoux by purported glass-levels of polish, monstrous sandbaggery (to the point of ridiculousness), bone-breaking runouts, tendon-busting pocket cranking and rampart car-crime (due to its relative proximity to Marseilles). But of course, being stubborn (and arrogant), I chose to go anyway, and -being up for anything- Stephen Varney (my partner from my Yosemite escapades 2 years earlier) opted to join me, remaining -to some extent- gleefully ignorant of precisely what he'd signed up for.

"Welcome to Buoux!"

Stephen rehearsing the famous "Rose Move" on
Le Rose Et Le Vampire (8b). He even has the facial
expression about right.
Upon arriving in France, after some 35 hours in transit, the start of the trip was almost ruined when Stephen's Luggage failed to materialise, only to manifest out of thin air while in discussions with the local Baggage Handling Coordinators to track it down. Soon enough we had our car, and had made the 1.5 hour drive to Apt and organised camping at the legendary campground at Les Cedres, which features prominently in Jerry Moffat's, Johnny Dawes' and Ben Moon's Biographies (and the Alun Hughes film "Buoux 8c"). This campground would turn out to be the perfect refuge for us, as even after the campground had formally closed down for the season (everything in southern France shuts down in November) we managed to negotiate a deal to let us stay on in a permanent "on-site tent" in the near-deserted campground. This occurred at precisely the right moment, as the weather rapidly turned Alpine, and our own tents were drowned in torrential rain. Amidst pizza, frits (hot chips) and boutique beer (some paid for, others given to us for free, as the Belgiums hosts were extremely keen to see what we thought of various local beverages), this really turned out to be a home away from home, and I cannot sing their praises enough.

At any rate, I'm getting ahead of myself... 

Our luxurious campsite at Les Cedres, in Apt... before
the flood that necessitated Noah's Ark.
Well, after dumping our gear in the tents, we raced to Buoux and managed 4 hours of climbing before dark. On this first day, the climbs certainly seemed tough for the grade, but not the "shut-down sandbags" I'd been led to expect. Nevertheless, we were both thrown immediately into the deep end, with cranking on mono and two-finger pockets within the first few moves of our very first route (a 6b (19)). Consequently, hopes were high for great progression on Day 2, but a dose of harsh reality was heading my way... Apparently we'd managed to avoid the most notorious sandbags on that first day, as day 2 commenced with me having to give a 6b+ (20) a 2nd shot for the tick (and even then, only just scraping by), and spending 5 shots to tick a 6c+! 

Stephen in the front, Le Rose in
the middle, and Chouca (8b+)
in the back.

As the trip went on, I'd come to realise that as the grades got harder, they tended to more closely align with our own, and that the grading system (especially in the lower grades) was more akin to bouldering: they tended to grade a route solely by its hardest move/sequence, not by how sustained it was. Additionally, anything which comprised a "limestone grey slab" would seem stupidly sandbagged (the original ascensionists were the grey-slab masters, as anyone who has visited Verdon or Sella will attest), whereas the steeper routes felt more familiar. Sure, some of them were quite polished, and but never so polished as to be "terminally glassy", and often the slipperiness could be overcome with good footwork.

The radical overhanging line of
Courage Fuyons (7a+). Very

The highly fingery style meant a specialised sort of strength, and I've never been particularly great at cranking on pockets (Disclaimer: I've also never really trained pockets), yet that didn't stop me feeling like a boss as -on a later 7a Onsight- I found myself standing tall on smears and clipping above me, solely off a single undercling mono at my waist. Despite the tough grades and some seriously humbling experiences, by the end of the 3rd day I'd managed to tick a 7a+ (24) and by the end of the first week I'd ticked another.

One thing which hadn't been exaggerated were the runouts, which -despite this being a "sport climbing area"- would quite often earn R-ratings back home, with many "heart in throat" moments in anticipation of monster falls (and sudden stops).

In this first week my favourite routes were: 
  • La Pesanteur ou la Grace (6c+)
  • Dernier Probleme des Alpes (6b+)
  • Papa Pas Pou (6c)
  • TCF (7a)
  • Courage Fuyons (7a+)
  • Dresden (7a+)
Psyched after ticking No Mans Land (7b)

We climbed 6 out of the 7 days at Buoux in the first week, and 5 out of 7 in the second. At this stage we moved to combine a spot of projecting with our Whitman's sampler of the crag, and set our sights on a few more challenging routes. We would warm up at an "easier" area (and use the opportunity to investigate the nearby harder routes for a future attempts), then move to our personal goals for each day. I attempted and ticked (2nd shot) a classic 7b (25) called "No Mans Land", which combined Buoux pockets, Taipan-esque thin (and slippery) scoops, and Siurana-esque edges, for a stunning, beautiful adventure. Stephen threw himself at a world-class 7a called TCF (which I'd done in the previous week), and eventually sent it packing in a nighttime headlamp ascent! The conditions were great, the local and international climbers were friendly and entertaining, and our evenings were filled with drinking at the campground bar with the few remaining occupants of the campground (by this stage the campground was actually closed).

For Week 2 at Buoux, my recommended ticks were:
  • Desespoir (7a)
  • Cri de Guerre (6b+)
  • Les Diamants Sont Eternels (7a!!??)
  • La Cage aux Orchidees (7b)
  • No Mans Land (7b)
A perspective of the scale of Verdon Gorge.

Amidst all of this Buoux climbing, and after overdosing on croissants, baguettes and Nutella, we took two separate "holidays" to the Verdon Gorge, departing Apt ludicrously early in the morning and rampaging 4 hours to our destination to arrive at first light, ready for a full day of climbing. Our initial plan was to spend a week at Verdon, but advent weather meant that our actual time (and volume of climbing) at Verdon was far more haphazard.

Hopefully you've heard of the Verdon Gorge... hundreds of climbs in the 200-300m range, with grades that run the entire spectrum, and featuring routes in every discipline, from pure sporty sport multi, to sketchy hardcore aid-fests.

Stephen seconding P2 of
Ticket Danger (200m 6c)

Having been to the famous Gorge in summer previously, it was surprising to arrive at the Gorge on the edge of winter and find it freezing cold and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. In my last visit, navigating the town overlooking the Gorge -La Palud Sur Verdon- was an exercise of rally-esque precision driving, now it was almost deserted, with the majority of the shops shut tight for the season. In summer I'd been contending with climbers for routes, and with traffic through the narrow streets of the town, but neither would prove to be an issue this trip. Suffice to say,  there's something particularly ominous about rapping hundreds of metres into the Gorge to start of a fairly committing big-ish route, knowing that there's no one around for a "last ditch rescue" if it all goes properly pear-shaped.

Slopey, slippery, slinky, slabbing...
(But with an awesome view!)
This trip we tackled Ticket Danger (7-Pitch 200m 6c) which is regarded as a bit of a trade route these days. The first pitch (6c A0) was -with the exception of the thrilling finale- disgusting, shaley, chossy, hideousness, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone... Fortunately, every pitch afterwards was delectable. Pitch 2 was incredibly demanding for a 6c (21) almost immediately off the belay, and continued to be an exercise in exposed, balancy thinness up a blunt arete, which I'm not ashamed to admit that I only just managed to climb cleanly. The next 3 pitches were fairly continuous slabbing on beautiful rock, with an improbable traverse (at the grade) to cap-off the finale of Pitch 5. Next up was a bizarrly steep and juggy pitch of 6a (17???), which paved the way for the mega classic finale (which I'd climbed a few years previously) up an immaculate stemming corner.

The fixed Tyrolean across the Verdon River.

The day had proved to be a baptism by fire for Steven (who had never climbed the incredibly tricky footwork-intense climbing of The Verdon), but after sending the final pitch it certainly seemed he had it sorted. Afterwards, we treated ourselves to a 1L stein of beer and a meal, and then down came the rains to bestow upon us an unpleasant night dossing in the woods.

Le Duc in all its terrifying glory.
The line of Serie Limitèe (300m 7a)
tackles the right side of the main face.

On the 2nd trip we set our sights on Serie Limitèe (8-pitch 300m 7a) on Le Duc, a stunning monolith accessed from river-level (and via an exhilarating Tyrolean), upon which I'd previously climbed a 7-pitch 6c+ during my last visit. I'd heard excellent things about this route, but arriving at the base I was somewhat unimpressed: sure, the rock looked great and the line was imposing, but it was also just another Verdon grey-slab multipitch. Fortunately, my first impression would prove to be utterly wrong.

Stephen hangs out on the belay below P2.
The first 4 pitches were indeed long, slabby slab pitches, but the rock -water washed over eons- had more in common with glacial-polished granite than conventional limestone, and lent itself to a very unique style. The 2nd pitch in particular was intriguing, with seemingly improbable wandering around up the face to link features, including a mind-blowing finale up a weird offset corner-feature.

The technical corner finale of P2.
You know it's bloody cold when
your partner is climbing fingery
slab in fingerless gloves.

The end of the 4th pitch took a left turn away from the slab, and into overhanging, juggy terrain. After all that low-angle stuff, it was a shock to the system to be suddenly deposited below 120m of imposing steepness, with 150m of air below you. Our biggest challenge during these initial pitches was the sheer bloody cold! Outside of mountaineering, I've never -even in the depths of winter in Tasmania- been forced to bring (and subsequently wear) so much cold weather gear on a multipitch before. Gloves, Socks, Thermal Shirt, Soft Shell, Downie, Beanie... If I was belaying every layer of clothing was going on, and if I was climbing I was probably cursing the bone-aching pain in my fingers. During the first 4-pitches it actually got so bad that both of us contemplated bailing, yet our philosophy of "lets just see what things look like from next belay" kept us moving upwards and slowly getting warmer. Now, standing below the 4 improbably steep headwall pitches, we were both tolerably warm (despite the arctic chill), and properly impressed with the task at hand.

Mega exposure from the start of P3.

Pitch 5 featured an actual series of colourful Tufas (seriously! At Verdon!), which comprised the crux and was quite bouldery (and utterly nails for 6c+), and I hate to admit it but I blew the final move of the boulder-problem on the onsight. After that it got all airy up a series of ledges and a juggy, overhanging prow to an amazing eagles perch with oodles of exposure. The following pitch (6c+) had quite a few hard complex-pocket sections, but no shutdown crux, and at 40m was a pleasure to onsight, with sprawling vistas of sweeping exposure to keep you engaged. The crux pitch 6 (35m 7a) was sustained and steep, as it wandered its way up a vaguely connected series of features, before culminating in a particularly bouldery crux and an ensueing tricky slab. Once again, I was bloody stoked to score the onsight (especially as this one harboured a true shut-down style boulder problem, after so much otherwise endurancy climbing), and we soon found ourselves below the final pitch.

At this point in time, our journey became somewhat haphazard. Being on the cusp of winter, the days were short and the nights were long, and with overcast skies the dark was likely to come even sooner. Though we'd managed to locate the majority of the abseil anchors of the descent route, we were concerned about the difficulty in finding the top abseil, especially in the dark. This was because where we would top out wasn't the same place as the abseil route, and we'd need to circumnavigate the cliff edge to find the rap station tucked amongst vegetation and boulders. As such, the goal was to smash out the final pitch in lightning-fast time and summit while it was still light.

Forgoing ditching our alpine weather gear, or even trading the pack, I started up the final pitch (6c+) at breakneck speed, and managed about 5m of climbing before slipping off. Huzzah! Pulling back on, I made a few more metres before struggling with the steepness and the weight of the pack, and falling off again. Go team! After much complaining, my final effort took me to the summit, having -probably- lost more time as a result of the falls than if I'd taken 5min to shift the gear and climb the pitch rationally. Fortunately, by the time Stephen joined me on the top, it was still daylight, and -as it would turn out- all of our worrying had been for naught, as the track was well-worn and pretty cruisy. Within 10min of topping out we were doing the first of what would prove to be 5 long abseils to get back to the ground, battling rope-snagging scraggly vegetation to arrive back on terra firma right as dark arrived. With the help of our headlamps we were back at the car another hour later.

A stunning view down The Gorge
from the summit of Serie Limitèe.

Heading back to La Palud Sur Verdon, we attended the only fine dining restaurant in town, where I once again disgraced Australia's culinary reputation by flipping past all of the exquisite French and Italian cuisine in the menu, and buying a greasy burger and a latte (Stephen did his best to counter my heathen ways by ordering Duck and white wine), because after a long day in the cold that's all that I really wanted .

We climbed for one more day at Verdon, where I had a few gnarly successes, and concluded the trip by ending off-route on a 7b and -despite coming immeasurably close to onsighting it- eventually took a monstrous whip past numerous spaced bolts, before heading back to our home at Apt, for the final few days at Buoux.

Stephen coming to grips with mono-pocket dynamic moves
on Fin de Siecle (7a).

With our trip coming to a close, and so many awesome objectives already achieved (I'd already far  exceeded my goals for the trip), it was time to try and put some time into something audacious and closer to my real limit. After ticking a classic granite-esque arete (Rose des Sables 7a), I tried an awesome incredibly steep pocketed route (Os Court 7b+) which -though unfortunately chipped- featured powerful, pocket-jumping moves with negligible footers, but -ultimately- featured a single move I couldn't do consistently. Dismissing that, I moved on to another 7b+ (Stranger than Paradise) which looked closer to my preferred angle (being only slightly overhanging), and played to more of my strengths, being a cross between Siurana crimps, Buoux pockets, and Taipan-esque slippery, scoopy weirdness. The first lap was a loooong debacle as I tried to piece it together, and my next lap wasn't much better. On my 2nd day on it, on my 4th lap I accidentally debacled my way all the way through all the hard moves to literally the final move to the anchors, which is certainly no harder than gr21... only to completely fuck-it up by grabbing the wrong hold. Turns out that I hadn't expected to do anywhere near as well as I had, and hadn't really practiced any of the upper part, preferring instead to focus on the harder crux sections. I had another shot that day and got through the main crux, but fell off lower down (on a section that would prove to be the redpoint crux for me).

"Au Revoir, Aussies". A
fine farewell from France.

Devastated, I left my gear on the route with a view to coming back the next day, and retreated dejectedly down the mountain, only to find that Buoux's reputation for crime had finally caught up with us, and one of our windows was smashed, with approximately $70 worth of junk stolen from our car. Now the stolen gear was annoying, but the real problem was the broken window and the insane excess we'd have to pay to the rental car company if we couldn't fix it ourselves. Fortunately, the Belgians in charge of our campsite had the solution, and pointed us in the direction of a window repairer. They also supplied us with some duct tape for some "temporary" repairs, proving that Les Cedres really is a full-service campground . Surprisingly, the repair process turned out not to be so difficult, and we'd eventually end up with a fully repaired and indistinguishable new window, with only 180 less Euro in our pockets.

"Perfect sending conditions, dude!"

Another day, another day on the project. Once again, despite my best efforts, I failed on the project all day, never quite achieving the same high point as I had on my 4th shot. I was struggling with the sun (there's only about 2 hours per day that the route isn't in the sun, so for the rest of the day I was just Stephen's dedicated belay bitch), and with the fact that I was now feeling totally worn out. Success seemed far away, and I was running on a short fuse.


Stephen rests on the laurels of his
success by... ummm... doing some

Elsewhere, Stephen managed to succeed at his objectives for the final week, both of which took him outside of his comfort zone to achieve, thus adding more depth and value to his ultimate success. Resting on his laurels now, Stephen went into "patient, tolerant belayer-mode" for the last full-day at Buoux. And so it was in the style of cliche endings, that I finally managed to succeed at the route (not blowing the top move this time!!!) on my last possible shot of the day, of our last full day. Done and dusted, the weight was gone from my shoulders, and we could have a laugh for the remaining half-day at Buoux.

We decided to fill that half day by visiting a climb that -to me- has attained unparalleled status in the domain of hard sport climbing: Agincourt. Gaining access to the top of the cliff, we rapped in to check out this infamous line, and in the fading light rounded out a damned awesome trip to Buoux.

Me, having a play on Agincourt. Steep
and exposed. "One day... maybe".

So, a quick review of Buoux as a climbing destination:

Southern France, and the areas surrounding Buoux are summery, beautiful and friendly, with a plethora of convenient locales to investigate or to stock up supplies. Despite our break-in, crime didn't seem too prevalent (with a bit of strategic forethought), and there's a chance that I brought the break-in on myself by leaving my MP3 player visible from the outside.

The routes are awesome and all have an extremely short approach. They're somewhat on the runout side, but generally not dangerous. Though polished, the polish isn't too terrible (and probably comparable to Ceuse), and though sandbagged, I would argue that they become "less sandbagged" as the grades get higher. The style of climbing is beautifully powerful, pockety and yet technical, with a predisposition to slabby/face-y/very slightly overhanging.

In short, I absolutely loved the place, and would readily recommend it to any prospective travelers.

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