Home > 2010.02

Traditional Sport Climbing in France

Europe has been the source of climbing innovation, rather than traditionalism.Yet, you can still visit the old school crags and experience routes on which modern climbing was founded.

Europe, despite being the “old world” has usually been the source of climbing innovation, rather than traditionalism. Yet there are still bastions of tradition in Europe, where you can visit the old-school crags and experience the routes on which modern climbing was founded, in much the same state as they were first climbed.

In the 1970s, two areas were the stages for a new generation of rock routes: The Verdon and Mont Sainte-Victoire. There, climbers broke with the ideals which valued long aid routes in high mountains above pure free climbing. These two limestone areas revolutionized the way climbs were judged, as special rules for free climbing infringed upon or even reversed the predominant values. The use of points of aid was rejected and a new ethic came into existence. The first modern climbing shoes were developed for these routes, and pitons were used as little as possible because of their association with aid climbing. But don’t be surprised if you come face to face with an old rusty piton or two, bearing witness to the time before the free climbing revolution.

Young climbers prefer overhanging terrain, similar to the gyms they train in, but the sheer, off-vertical walls of these areas offer a whole different experience. Facing those hard and beautiful walls with their stiff grades will benefit even the most gym-oriented climber. Such routes demand commitment, good footwork and reading sequences properly. Mont Sainte-Victoire and Verdon offer adventure, and some of the nicest routes of the South of France.

La Montagne Sainte-Victoire:
Above Aix en Provence, not far from the Mediterranean Sea, this mountain is the home of at least a thousand routes. These are run-out, committing and sequencey climbs that require good footwork. Try the legendary, seldom repeated big routes, OVNI or Hyper Médius, both 6c (5.11b) and you will understand. These climbs require a strong constitution and perfect foot work. It is here that Christian Guyomar and Christian Hautcoeur wrote a page in the history of climbing.

Four decades ago, they climbed these routes using hooks and bad pitons. Since then, bolts have replaced these, but the runouts are still there, so you will be stepping into a bygone era of boldness. The strenouous athletics of the average sport route are replaced by precarious footwork. Tight shoes and steel fingers are essential.
Finally, let us emphasize that judgement and mental fortitude play big parts. Sainte-Victoire is the ultimate test for mental weakness. If you climb here enough, your confidence will increase. And if this type of climbing you like, you will love the even more exposed routes of the Verdon.

The Verdon: Back to the Source
The Verdon is a magical word, alive with legend. Who hasn’t dreamed of this place, where yawning space is beneath you at every belay. Halfway between the Mediterranean and the Alps of Haute-Provence, the Verdon River – now just a turquoise trickle of water- has carved out this canyon of high, smooth limestone walls. The first routes date back to the years 1966-67 and in the following decades, new routes of many different styles were developed, making the Verdon one of the great venues of modern climbing.

It takes some nerve to get used to climbing here. It’s not unusual for a climber to feel a little uneasy the first time they lean out over the Escales sector and an updraft from 600 m of nothingness beneath tousles their hair.

Imagine what it is like to hold the thin crimp at the crux of a pitch, feet smeared, everything in a precarious balance above the void. Yes, the ambience is airy, but then again, we are in the land of the big routes. The choice is so wide as to be almost limitless, since there are more than 1,000 routes on the right wall and 400 on the left wall, many of which are 10 to 15 pitches long. With such a large number, you have to let your choice be guided by the status of the route, your ability and your preferred style, whether that includes tufas, slabs, overhanging walls, roofs, sport climbing or aid climbing. – Stephane is a climber, writer and photographer living in the south of France. He loves old school limestone, but has never heard about Yamnuska.