(by Przemek Martyniak, December 2012)
Winter-time climbing in the sunny south of France.
A couple of days ago we got back from a great few days of sports-climbing on bolted crags near Nice in southern France.
Before setting off on the journey we met at Awesome Walls to familiarise ourselves with the lower-off techniques applicable when sports climbing. We had some ‘casualties’ – thankfully we practiced at just 1 metre above the floor.
The group was 18 people strong – Ian Christie, Chris Croly, Kevin Coakley, Peter Wood, Claire McDaniel, Lilian Dale, Carol Ryan, Clodagh Brennan, Maeve McKeever, Brita Terpe, Diarmuid Hanifin, Gerard O’Sullivan, Barbara Pryszcz, Dave Madden, Dave Trunk, Roy Wilson, Karolina and Przemek Martyniak.
Some of us stayed in Kevin’s apartment in Nice city centre, most of the group stayed in Meyerbeer hostel nearby, the rest opted for a quiet hotel 15 minutes away from there.
Getting to and from crags was very easy thanks to excellent public transport and advice from Kevin and people who climbed in Nice last year.
First day we got a tram and a bus to Cap d’Ail, about 10km from Nice. The approach from the bus stop was one of the best warm-ups I had before climbing – almost an hour of a trek up a very steep hill. Some grumpy comments about the morning shower having been a total waste were passed.
This is how we got to La Turbie – there are a group of about six crags nearby, with 450 fully bolted climbs on them from grades 4+ to 8+. They are mostly south-facing and were perfect for us in November.
The routes were well bolted – bolts were 2-3 metres apart, with the first two on a route closer together (as the risk of hitting the ground is higher there). We could find each route’s names and grades on a plaque at the bottom, which I found fantastic! The rock was fantastic – warm limestone with surprising variety of features and grip ranging from a cheese-grater type grip to polished tile-type slippery holds.
The biggest surprise to those who never sports-climbed in France before were the grades – many of us climb comfortably at 6a indoors, but could find a 4+ in Nice that posed a challenge. As we progressed to 5s, 5+s, the challenge grew. Hardly anyone in the group actually attempted a 6a and we did get some nice falls during the course of the trip – it is great to step out of your comfort zone though, that is the only way to progress as a climber.
The first climbing day was interrupted by rain at 3 p.m. and we got back to Nice for a meal and rest.
On the second day we got a bus to Saint Jeannet, a big crag offering a vast selection of routes ranging from modest 12-metre-long climbs to over 200m long monster routes on the main face; grades ranging between 2 and 8a+. Most of us stuck to the sun-catching south face where most of the routes were 20-25 metres long and graded between 4+ and 6a.
The surprising thing was that the bolt spacing was very different to that in La Turbie – in Saint Jeannet the space between certain bolts was long (read scary) and quite often we found ourselves frantically looking for a bolt which we felt should have been there, but it wasn’t.
On the third day we took a train and a bus to a small hilltop village called Gorbio. The climbing was on the limestone cliffs overlooking the terraced valley offering about 150 climbs. Some beautiful climbs, one in particular I enjoyed was called Signe Ascendant (5+) – a massive 34m-long pitch up a slabby ramp following the very edge of the ramp which created a great sense of exposure. Virtual lack of holds was compensated by great friction on the rock which allowed to continue the climb. I had an unexpected encounter with a climbing bunny on this route – a group of French climbers organised a birthday climbing for their friend – he had to climb wearing pink bunny ears and retrieve presents they left for him at the bolts – a great way of celebrating a climber’s birthday.
Another favourite appreciated by many was De Bouche à Oreille – a slabby wormhole-shaped climb.
Fourth day (Sunday), Ian and Kevin decided to research more crags around Nice while most of us still hungry for more went back to La Turbie, but by a different route. We took a bus to La Turbie village located above the crag and walked down (what a difference!) to the climbing area. Catching the bus proved to be quite tricky, as even though the usual one going to La Turbie (116) has a Sunday departure schedule, it is actually re-named as T66 and departs from a different stop on Sundays. Thanks to Lily for holding the bus for us and saving the day!
As we approached the crag the sun was blasting (imagine the best summer day in Ireland). Many routes were climbed. When I asked people to name the best climb of the day many names were mentioned, amongst them the Red Chimney (5+) – a phenomenal chimney route which gave some of us a chance to take our hearts to the highest rate and Pillen la Vue (6a). The views from the tops of the routes were absolutely breathtaking! We only began the descent to the bus stop when it started getting dark.
We got lost very near to the road we were aiming for and two of us performed a free-solo down-climb directly on to the road. The more sensible part of the group stuck to the path and soon enough, the group was reunited. The bus arrived just in time; we got back to Nice and met for our last supper together at Le Milo’s in the centre of Nice. We had a great time, we watched some photos from the climbs and discussed many topics like what is the best HVS route in Ireland, or how bushy women’s eyebrows should be (you would be shocked by the range and strength of some opinions).
Thanks to Kevin for organising this trip and for the advice and the research in organising the transport, crag locations, etc. Thanks to the other members of the group for having been such great company.
Weather: We were caught by one shower on the first day. During the following two days it was mostly cloudy with a bit of sun. The last day was simply perfect – plenty of sun for most of the day; all we were missing was shorts and more suncream. We were very lucky though, as when we met for a meal on the last evening of the trip it started raining … and when Kevin (who decided to stay for a couple of days more) e-mailed us two days after we came back to Ireland, we found out that 70 mm of rain fell since we had left.
Cost: Flights about €120 all-in return, €4 per day transport. Food and wine was the biggest cost – we ate and drank well but we could have eaten a lot cheaper if we had wanted to.
Gear needed: If you intend to only climb on bolted routes you need about 16 quickdraws per pair, your belay device, harness, a sling or three for tying on at the top of the route, a couple of locking krabs. Most of us brought helmets; wearing these is not practiced by the local climbers though. Rope? As you get lowered from the climbs a longer rope (60m or ideally 70m) is better. A 50m rope restricts you to 25m-long climbs max, but would do you if that’s all you’ve got.