3 Years ago, and I’m sat on the veranda of our friend’s house, topless, sweating, and flicking through a guidebook in dismay. It’s my first visit to La Reunion, the childhood home of Caroline, and I’m excited to try all the hard routes I have been hearing so much about. There’s just one little problem… The routes are all too tough!
One of many desperates at Basin Plat – Sweet Logik, 7b!
The first day of the trip I failed to move in an 8a, and after A LOT of days of work, I made what felt like my hardest redpoint ever when sending an 8b called Waki mon Cherie. I turn the page to look at another awesome cliff and start to dream. There is Necromantique, a great looking 7c; I might be able to do that with a bit of work. Crucifixion, 8b, looks steep and hard- perhaps if I decide to live here for a while. And finally, Aquaphobie, a proposed 8c+ project! A giant imposing roof full of crazy compression moves that may as well be graded 9d+ for all the chance I have!
The proudest moment of my 2011 trip – the 8b of Waki mon Cherie
I wasn’t joking when I said I was sweating reading the guidebook! It’s the middle of summer and the place feels like a sauna – even the thought of going climbing brings me to a sweat. I finish my trip by falling off boulder problems, and eating Pain Bouchon on the beach.
3 years later and I am back on Reunion, along with Caroline and a few other friends from The North Face team. We are here to attempt to open a new hard Trad multi-pitch route, from the ground-up, a style almost unknown on the island. Its winter this time and conditions are much more favourable than before. The climbing on our route has been going really well and during the last week we have opened and freed some of the best and hardest cracks I have ever tried, however, there is only so much pain and suffering I can take before I start craving something a little more basic. Big jugs through a steep roof would be so enjoyable right now.
The time of the expedition comes to an end, but instead of joining the others on a flight back to France, Caro and I make the most of a few weeks of free time, and extend our tickets in order to enjoy a little more of this magical island. The closest to big jugs and steep roofs you can find on the island is the cliff of mini-Fleur Jaunes, the home of the aforementioned Crucifixion and Aquaphobie. This amphitheatre of steep basalt was sculpted by the adjacent cascade, which unrelentingly crashes down into the dark blue pool underneath. Access to the cliff is by a sketchy scramble over polished basalt or a short swim through the chilly pool, and with the addition of the deafening roar of the waterfall, you feel completely isolated from the world despite being only 200m from the road!
Crucifixion had been on my mind for so long, I was ecstatic to finally get on the route and find is as good as expected, and more. Well that’s not strictly true; the first half of the route is simply awesome, with cool long moves on giant, comfortable slopey jugs, but the first half of the route is actually the first part of the adjacent 7c, Crucifixion doesn’t really start until the roof. As is unfortunately the case with most of the hard routes in Reunion, the route has been manufactured to alter the difficulty, and whilst the moves are undeniably fun, you can’t help feel that it’s a little… artificial.
Chipped holds and Mosquitos – two pitfalls of Reunion!
It came as a big surprise to climb the route on my first redpoint attempt, much, much quicker than expected and a good indicator that our time climbing multi-pitch Trad had not wasted too much power. Instead of lowering directly down the route, I traversed rightwards a few moves intent on descending through Aquaphobie just for the sake of curiosity, but was again pleasantly surprised to find the holds reasonable, the movements interesting, and the most important thing of all, the route completely natural!
In a world where the majority of the hardest routes are “altered” in some way, either with creative use of sika, or downright chipping, it’s strange that we still put such a high value on natural rock. Perhaps that is exactly why… because natural hard routes are rare! Whatever the reason, I am personally infinitely more motivated to work hard on something that climbs as god intended, in comparison to the equipper. Aquaphobie starts up the same amazing 7c as the other 2 routes, but steps rightwards even lower, crosses another series of good holds, before blasting up into the wild inverted territory of the roof above. The first section of this roof is the real crux, with difficult moves passing a series of small underclings, estimated by some of the locals to be Fb8a! After this section and a very physical rest, you attack the middle section of the route which climbs via an incredible sequence of compression moves on giant slopey holds, before the final fingery yet physical boulder problem takes you to the chains.
My second day on the route was spent polishing methods, trying to find a possible way through the first boulder, and the most efficient way through the rest of the route. Whilst the final boulder problem is easier than the first, it is still a tough proposition and whilst working the moves I fell more often than I liked. Climbing on the polished rock of Reunion is very different than sport climbing on limestone, or even granite. The lack of any friction seems to intensify the accumulation, and so you find yourself pumped faster and more intensely, with no chance of recovery, on terrain that should normally be a walk in the park.
A Panorama of Aquaphobie – photo Herve Benard
Despite having discovered this time and time again, it never ceased to surprise me, my first early redpoint attempt found me entering the first boulder problem, completely shocked at how much harder it felt. Even with the “best” of methods, there are certain things about a route that you can only learn when making an attempt, like the clipping position of certain quickdraws, or the rhythm of climbing/resting through a hard section. With each attempt your mind and body learns and remembers a little more, and by the end of the second day I was falling in the final (hardest) move of the first boulder problem. I was happy with the progress, and although the route felt hard, it felt possible. A rest day would do my aching muscles wonders, and then it would be time to return to fight again.
Two days later we were back, this time with a band of Carolinas Childhood friends who were motivated to attempt Crucifixion. Even though you can’t hear them for the waterfall, the presence of other people makes the place feel a little isolated. Perhaps it was that presence that drove me to pull harder, or perhaps I was simply relaxed from lack of expectations during my first attempt of the day? Whatever it was, I made it through the first crux, into the rest, and shortly after through the burly middle section to arrive at the final hard boulder. A quick shake of each hands, a dab of chalk, remember the moves and execute them with no mistakes!
The first small undercling felt ok, but during the following match I realised how tired I was. It was times like this where before I would have crumbled and fallen, but after years of training, and hundreds of other routes, perhaps I am finally starting to understand some of the secrets. Sport climbing is about staying calm when you think you are too pumped, in fact, it’s more than that, it’s about not even thinking about the pump but just letting your body do the work. You can dig so much deeper and hang on for so much longer than you realise. Never stop trying! Just one more move, one more move, because that one extra move could be the move that takes you to the next rest, that one extra move could be the move that makes the route!
I clipped the chain of Aquaphobie on my 3rd redpoint attempt, and it was a happy moment indeed. Firstly it’s a fantastic route, for all the reasons I mentioned before, but more than that, it sums up my climbing progression during the last 3 years, where dreams have become reality.
The first ascent of Aquaphobie, 8c+, La Reunion - photo Herve Benard
My final words go to thank Thierry Caillaud, who had the original vision to bolt this amazing line, good luck with the future redpoints!
Thanks to Wild Country part 1 of my route training tips has been released. This is really simple stuff that can be easily applied, for beginner and intermediate climbers, but was strangely difficult for me to learn. Take a look and see what you think. I hope you find something useful that may help push things to the next level.
Enjoy the rock (but first the plastic)!
Balma1 is a interesting little cliff with an interesting history. This compact granite wall sits just a few meters from the highway between Domodossola and Switzerland (Simplon Pass) and holds some of the hardest trad cracks in Europe! Climbing began here in the 70’s with the traditional ways of the easy faces and wide cracks, as well as more technical aid routes. “Modern” sport climbing showed its face in the early 80’s, and the obvious thinner cracks and horizontal breaks were climbed to give the cliffs first “hard free routes”, but once these obvious challenges had been exhausted, as with a lot of places around that time, the hammer and drill created routes where all else seemed impossible. The merits of this “style” have been, and will continue to be discussed long into the night, but now and here is nor the time or the place. Like it or loath it, chipping is a part of our history, and the results will be seen, and used (and enjoyed!) for many years to come.
A strong team on their way to Yosesigo! Photo – Riky Felderer the Great
In the early 90’s, Alessandro Manini climbed a series of very hard routes on the right hand side of the crag, including the recently famed Profondo Rosso, and the current hardest of the cliff, A denti Stretti. Both routes take on striking cracks that split the steep black wall, but that is where the similarities end. Where Profondo is more of a rising endurance test piece with each move slightly harder than the last, A Denti Stretti is a tough series of boulder problems, with the first hard move coming directly off the floor, and the final bastard crux right at the end.
At some point in the late 90’s, extensive road works began next to the crag, and the cliff was half covered in a giant earth mound. Thanks to the hard and diplomatic efforts of the locals, the crag was not lost forever, and after work had finished, the construction company helped clear the earth, terrace the base of the crag, and add drainage solutions to make the cliff a very practical and comfortable place indeed. Would it be great if all access issues were resolved in such a positive way.
Caroline enjoying the perfect conditions at Balma1 Photo – Riky Felderer the Glorious
In 2011 Yuji Hirayama visited the cliff whilst on a whistle stop tour of Northern Italy and made the first Trad ascent of Profondo Rosso, which was so admired by the local climbers that a commemorative plaque was installed at the base of the route! At some point somebody realised this was probably a bit much, and the plaque is now gone, but a small reminder of that moment still lives on, painted underneath the name of the route! I had heard about Yujis ascent from my Italian friends and was very motivated to give it a try, but I also heard about the even harder line to the right that “might just work” on trad.
Since Yuji’s ascent, the floodgates opened for Profondo Rosso with many, many people attempting the route on gear, or with the original bolts, it was definitely back in fashion! The same can’t be said for A Denti Streti, and when I first came to look at the route 1 week ago there were cobwebs in the cracks and it had obviously been a long time since anyone’s last visit. Perhaps its the obvious difficulty in leaving the floor that puts people off, but past that initial section, the route looked just as good, if not better than its popular neighbour. Even better still, it looked to be relatively well protected, and I decided to give it an on-sight attempt, directly on trad gear!
Honestly I thought I would fall during the initial finger cracks, but I surprised myself by passing this section and making slow and steady progress up the crack. There were a couple of really tricky/awkward sections in the middle of the route that I somehow managed to scrape my way through despite feeling like I was falling off – sometimes real magic can happen during an on-sight!
I surpassed all my wildest expectations by arriving at the final boulder, and for a few moments began to think “I might actually do this thing”! Well, that thought didn’t last long as the final boulder problem reared up to slap me in the face, I was off, ripping my top gear in the process an taking a rather large fall. Booo hooo!
My on-sight attempt!
I was really surprised by how hard that move had felt, but nowhere near as surprised as when I fell off again, after pulling up the ropes to try the moves in isolation. The long move from a poor low finger crack to a good ledge actually turned out to be a long move from a poor low finger crack to a really bad sloper! I tried the move a few more times, fell a few more times, and lowered off with big respect for Alessandro Manini all those 18 years ago! Booo hooo hooo!
Coincidence or fate… who should I meet at the base of the cliff but Alessandro himself! He complimented me on my attempt and I complimented him on his success, and once the necessary politeness was out of the way, he told me some of the stories from the cliff and explained how he would love to see someone repeat his route, because as far as he knew, no one else had ever succeeded, even using the bolts! People also seem to think the route is more like 8b+, which is not really surprising considering how harshly graded his other routes seem to be! Despite my failure and fears, he motivated me to come back and try again, and again, and again if necessary – after all, Alessandro himself fell 10 times on that final move before his success!
Getting stuck in to the middle crack… Photo – Riky Felderer the Smartypants
After a couple of days of exhausting crack climbing on the amazing 40m splitters of Yosesigo, I was not exactly feeling in tip top condition. Unfortunately the weather was due to turn sour for the next 6 days, and realistically, if I wanted to finish off A Denti Stretti, it was now or never. Conditions at the cliff were not quite perfect, and despite my hopes of working out an efficient sequence, the moves in the crack and especially the top bolder felt worse than ever.
After a few easier pitches to warm up I made my first attempt of the day. Despite my supposed new found familiarity with the route, I climbed terribly, far worse than during my on-sight attempt, and finally fell in the middle crux after completely forgetting my sequence. I tried to pull back on and climb to the top, but fell on the top boulder, and after falling a further two times on the final move I accepted defeat, and that today was just not the day.
decisions, decisions… Photo – Riky Felderer the Wise
The mist came down, the rain grew heavier, and we amused ourselves with the odd bits of remaining dry rock. Caroline continued her “traducation” with a spot of thin aid climbing up a little finger-crack, which really made the hours fly by. The day seemed almost at an end, but instead of packing up the gear I decided to make one more try, just for training. I was cold and tired and my fingers really hurt. I tried to pull on to the the start of the route but fell off two moves later! Owww owww owww, my fingers REALLY hurt! OK, one last try!
Then I climbed to the top and it all felt easy! I lowered off and went for a beer.
Topping out in the rain, a surreal moment indeed! Photo – Riky Felderer the Handsome
It’s funny how you can sometimes make your best performance when you least expect it, when you feel tired, or weak, or just don’t care any more! I think that is exactly the point, at least for me. I have never been good at coping under pressure; if I put too much time, attention, or focus into one moment then I often crumble! A lot of my best achievements have come once I let go of the goals, or more precisely, consider the goal to be so far away that it is practically unattainable. Once there is no goal, there is only climbing. There is only you, making moves, and you just have to make enough of those moves in a row, and don’t let go!
Too many things have passed whilst my website has been “down for maintenance” which actually means it broke, and I didn’t know how to fix it! So I did what I do best, I tried to fix it, and in the process made it even worse. Finally I bit the bullet and started all over again, losing all my blog posts and content in the process, but at least I now have somewhere to post the new ones!
(if anyone knows how to resurrect my old posts, from a downloaded copy of my old wordpress site, then I would love to her from you)
The new van out for its first run!
Since my last post I have been in England, then back to France. For 2 months we practically disappeared to transform our new camper, only coming out of hiding for a few hours training per day in our local climbing wall, Altisimo Grabels. We luckily (I say luckily as Caroline has passed too close to my head, one too many times with her power drill!) escaped for 10 magnificent days in Chile where I made my first ever international competition (and surprisingly, didn’t completely suck! Report here…), as well as discovering an incredible bouldering spot in the middle of the Andes, and the dangers of Pisco!
Bartho, our ever optomistic guide for Sadernes!
We finished the van (surprise surprise, its pink!) and took it for its first Test drive in Sadernes, Spain, which is a very developed spot (100’s of routes up to 9a) in a stunning location, 30minutes over the French border, that nobody seems to know about! (Caroline has wrote an article that should be in the mags soon…) We should have originally driven to Italy for a presentation in Alagna, but the weather forecast was terrible so we took a plane from Barcelona instead. Of course, we arrived in Italy and the weather was glorious… sods law! A little taste of perfect granite was all it took to convince us to come back. We flew back to Barcelona, climbed one day in Montserrat to sharpen our minds (4 bolts in 30m!) and started to drive back to Italy. It was a long way, but we arrived none the less, parked in the dark at the foot of the cliff, and woke up the next day to find everything completely wet!
The tranquility of Sadernes!
It seemed winter had come back to Italy, and the snow on the hills was a little too close for my liking. However, even snow would be better than heavy rain pounding on the van roof, soaking everything in sight. Boooooo hoooooo hoooooo! This is not quite what we had planned, but in situations like this you must search for the silver lining, however thin it may be – at least the van was watertight!
A distress call to our long suffering friend, Riky Felderer (link) brought hope in the form of Cipo, a supposedly perma-dry crag a stones through across the Swiss border. The crag was as promised, dry, and actually turned out to be pretty nice. We spent the day practicing our on-sighting on a selection of varied routes up to a rather tricky and crimpy 8a, entertained by a friendly group of Italians and Swiss who were also escaping the rain.
By the following morning the rain had stopped but the saturated cracks on our desired projects would need some time to dry completely. We made the short drive to Cadaresse, a cliff I know quite well and where one can usually find a dry route or two. I had never seen the place so wet, and on arriving we bumped into fellow Brit, Tom Randal, who looked like he had just about had enough of crappy Italian weather and was giving up and going home! Caro tried her project, the brilliant 8a+ of Grazie Riky, that she was hoping to climb on natural gear, but after a completely unexpected fall from a very wet sloper, she came down and we were also tempted to quit!
Still, I had carried my drill and bolts up to the cliff for a reason, and i’d be damned if I wasn’t going to make atleast one hole, or two. There was a beautiful corner I had been checking out for as many times as I had visited the cliff. Its the kind of feature that just begs to be climbed, the only problem was how to access it! Three possibilities existed, left, right and direct. They all looked hard, they all looked really hard, and I wouldn’t know which was best until I got up there.
The learning process begins…
You see, we will soon be heading off to exciting places on the other side of the world, with the dream of opening new multi-pitch routes, equipped from the ground. Equipping from the ground is a style I was introduced to in Sardinia last year, and is something that really spoke to me. Combining the adventure (and often) danger of trad, with the “comfort and confidence” of climbing on bolts. Ground up bolting (in the style of the Italians – no top stepping here!) is simply free climbing new routes, placing a bolt whenever you rest on any aid. In this way, the climber will have the same experience as the equipper, making the same run-outs, dealing with the same exposure (with the obvious exception that the equipper will have the joy of sitting on hooks whilst he hauls up the drill and bolting gear, and places the bolt!).
In my experience, in the case of multi-pitch (where the routes may go for years without a repeat) ground-up bolting produces much better routes than those bolted on rappel. The simplest way to explain this is if a route has been climbed ground up, the terrain is possible in any condition, not only when it has recently been cleaned and chalked. Someone has been there first, on that exact same line and made the exact same moves, when the rock is in its worst possible condition. When a route has been opened from the ground, provided you have the necessary level(mental and physical) you can always climb between the bolts (something that is not true for routes equipped from the top – one very slopey, slabby, 8a+ tufa pitch comes to mind. Probably very easy when cleaned and chalked, but the living end with the 5 years tufa crozzle!)
And speaking about bolts, the position of bolts on routes climbed from the ground are often more logical, usually being reachable from good holds, as thes are where you will have placed your hooks. I don’t mind running it out through a hard section for 5 or 6 meters if I know I will be able to clip from good holds. The same cannot be said for the previously mentioned tufa of doom!
But enough of the logic… the realy “fun” of ground up bolting comes when you put the theory into practice, which brings me back to my story.
I could see three potential lines, the left, the right and the direct. All had the potential to work, but depended solely on the quality oif the holds, ie how juggy they are, something I couldn’t see from below. I decided to go for for the direct option first, as if it did turn out to be possible, direct is always better than not. Progress was slow and scary, but completely engaging – 4 hours passed without me realising it (sorry, and thank you Caroline). I found hooking on granite to be terrifying, as even though the rock was bullet hard, it lacked all the positive in-cut features I was used to from Limestone.
I was happy to realise that (in theory) the line I had bolted worked. In practice however, it became apparent that it would be very, very hard. In my short session I was able to hold the individual positions, but moving between them was more than I could manage. The line is there, waiting for someone with the necessary power and technique, and as an extra bonus it stays completely dry in the rain!!!
The result of all the hard work…
However, drilling wasn’t quite finished, as when I lowered off the route I realised not only that the line to the left would work, but that it would climb through one of the most perfectly sculpted granite features I had seen – a perfect crescent of rounded, smoothed, in-cut edges. Im not a fan of “grid-bolting and link-ups; I much prefer my lines to be independent, but this feature, and the moves around it were hard to resist.
The deciding factor was when I tried the moves and discovered them to be far easier than the previous line. A route passing here would be much more continuous than the direct version, which in my experience makes for a much nicer overall experience. I put in two more bolts to link in from the crack on the left, and climbed the route on my next try, to make a really great little 7C/+. Its hard to put a number on it as I think the first dyno to the crescent is quite reach dependant, but the number is not the important thing. The crux sequence is just awesome, and requires a series of strangely dynamic momentum moves on surprisingly big holds.
The one good thing about taking so long to bolt, was that the sun had come out and dried off Caroline’s project! She was scared and intimidated after having fallen and failed so many times whilst even clipping the bolts, but did a great job of surprising all those feelings, racking up, and getting the job done. Whilst the fact there are bolts to clip should you wish for them makes it difficult to give an authentic “E” grade, Caro felt it was her hardest trad route to day, and having already climbed 3 E8’s (Point Blank, The Jackals, My Piano) that should make it pretty tough indeed!
Caroline in the crux of Grazie Riky, 8a+ Trad. Check out the final run-out!
Belaying her was certainly exciting, as after you leave your final protection, you enter the crux sequence on small edges and run it out, 5 or 6 meters to the top! During this section, you can’t reach any of the remaining bolts, so its a real trad finale! She was obviously very tired during the final moves; you could hear her breathing hard, and see her shaking each arm between the individual moves as the ropes billowed out below her feet! I was nervous right up until she clipped into the belay, but then a shout of excitement/relief let me know everything was ok.
Caroline contemplating the next route…
A fine effort indeed, and I hope the sign of more hard trad to come in the next week should the weather improve.