On my last night in Brussels we all went out for a big dinner, so I didn't get back to my hotel until just after midnight. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that in booking flights out the next morning I had chosen one with a discount airline that departed at 6:30am from the Brussels-Charleroi airport (not the main Brussels airport) which is 40 minutes south of Brussels. By the time I finished packing my stuff it was after 1am, and as I climbed into bed I reluctantly set my alarm for 3:50am the next morning in order to catch the taxi that was picking me up at 4:00am (!!!). I took a while to fall asleep since I still had work-related stuff on my mind from that day, so I must have had less than 2 hours of sleep when my alarm went off at 3:50am.
Nevertheless, I somehow dragged myself out of bed and headed downstairs to climb into the waiting taxi. I had been thinking I might sleep in the long taxi ride, but my driver was hell bent on conversation and he spent the entire 40 minutes telling me about how much he hated Belgium (he had Italian parents and had been raised in the UK and was only in Belgium due to his wife) and how he was planning to immigrate to Canada and how he was planning a trip to New York to buy 3 iPhones, iPad, and to get really drunk, yada yada yada. We finally made it to the airport, and with my wallet 120 euros lighter (I thought he might have given me the sympathetic listener discount, but I was wrong) I climbed out of the cab and headed into the terminal.
This was the first time I had flown with Ryanair, and they are an "interesting" airline. They sell cheap tickets, but then try to make money on every other thing possible. You must check in online, otherwise you pay 40 euros to check in at the airport, the overweight baggage fees are exorbitant also, and being on board feels like being at an amusement park with the flight attendants in bright garish dress and parading by non-stop selling things (scratch and win cards, etc.). It is a bit of an assault on the senses and I'm not sure it is worth the low fare, but at least it was a new experience for me. Anyway, despite all their antics they transported me to Marseille in a timely manner.
I arrived at 8:05am and Jesse hadn't been able to get a flight in until 12:30pm, so even after picking up our rental car (a nice little Opel) I had some time to kill. I decided that I should follow Jesse's instructions on how to pass the time while waiting, which was to "drink espresso with the dirty frenchies":
Eventually Jesse came strolling through the gate, and we climbed in the Opel and headed out onto the open roads of Marseille. It took us a while to get our navigation system calibrated (me reading street signs and Jesse reading the map) so we did a few random loops around Marseille before getting onto the correct road and heading north towards Gap.
Ceuse is about 180km north of Marseille, but the time went pretty fast with the 130km/hour french speed limit. As we progressed the terrain started changing as we entered the foothills of the southern alps, and we started to see more exposed rock.
We stopped in the town of Sisteron to pick up some food for the next couple of days, finding a grocery store called Super U where we picked up fruit, several delicious cheeses, and some water. There was an adjoining Boulanger that had a good selection of bread:
They had some kind of permanent sale on so we ended up with 5 loaves of bread, maybe a little more than we needed, but I guess you can never have too many baguettes. We also obtained some delicious sandwiches, so after eating these we continued on in search of a bank machine. We happened to spot one just as we were leaving Sisteron so we pulled into a spot and made use of it, but when we went to leave we realized that we didn't know how to find reverse on the Opel. Reverse was shown as being to the left of the other gears, similar to on our jetta for which you push the shifter down to access it, but that wasn't working with the Opel. Jesse and I both worked on it for a few minutes before finally giving up and going to plan B: when there was a break in traffic Jesse got out and pushed the Opel back into the roadway then jumped in and we high tailed it out of there. As we continued on our way, a thorough reading of the french instruction manual in the glove box revealed that there is a tricky little sleeve on the shifter that needs to be pulled up to access reverse. This important little bit of knowledge made the rest of the trip a lot easier from a parking and maneuvering standpoint.
It wasn't long after Sisteron before the recognizable limestone cliff band of Ceuse came into sight, and we turned off the main road and headed up to our accommodations in a little lodge called "Les Couleurs des Temps" located in the shadow of Ceuse. We climbed out of the car for our first view of the fabled limestone cliffs, exciting!
It was too late in the day to get any climbing in (partly due to the hour long uphill approach), so we contented ourselves with driving over to the trailhead to get a closer look at the cliffs and then heading into the nearby town of Gap to find some dinner. Somehow we ended up eating at a New Orleans themed restaurant (we had chosen based on the menu outside which was all french food), where I ordered the moules frites (mussels and french fries) that I had meant to eat in Belgium but hadn't gotten around to it (I figured I had just left Belgium that morning so it still counted). After eating dinner we headed back to our lodging and turned in by 8:30pm since we were both pretty tired.
The next morning we rose bright and early at 6:30pm (actually just early, since it was still dark out). On principle we would normally never get up early to go sport climbing, but there was supposed to be a storm moving in that day and we wanted to make sure we got some climbing in before we got rained out. We enjoyed our delicious victuals for breakfast, with the star performer being the Speculoos, some sort of sugary concoction that we had purchased because we thought it was peanut butter. It turned out to not have any peanuts at all, and was just brown sugary butter with a taste reminiscent of the dutch cookies called speculaas (maybe that is why the name is similar). Anyways, it turns out that peanut butter is even better without the peanuts, three cheers for Speculoos! The Speculoos is visible in the foreground of this photo of our breakfast spread with Jesse planning the days itinerary in the background:
After breakfast we packed our gear and drove to the trailhead just as the sky was starting to lighten with the coming day. It was stinkin' cold at this point, but we were hopeful that it would warm up enough to make climbing tolerable (and maybe even fun if we were really lucky). We started up the trail, and as we hiked we were treated to a nice sunrise that turned the scattered clouds pink:
The horizon didn't yet bear any signs of the forecasted storm, so as we hiked we were hopeful that we would get lucky and it would not materialize. The trail was quite steep, and the fauna was reminscent of what is seen in eastern Washington with yellow Larch trees being in their full splendor. Here is Jesse as he hikes past some limestone boulders and local flora on the way up to the cliff:
As we got higher we were able to look down on the landscape below for some nice panoramas as the sun continued to creep higher in the sky:
Eventually the cliff loomed over us, and our excited began to mount as we drew near:
The cliff is really impressive, it is a 2 mile long band of limestone with height varying from 200 to 500 feet, and angle varying from vertical to steep. There are lots of pockets, tufas, and other features, and hundreds of routes have been equipped along its length ranging in difficulty from 5.8 to 5.15a. The most famous is likely the 5.15a called "Realization" that was put up by Chris Sharma a few years ago as an extension to an existing 5.14c called "Biographie".
We decided to head to one end of the cliff and work our way back across, climbing whatever looked awesome. We started out on a 5.10a called "Sea, Sex, and Sun" that we both assumed would be a cruiser warm-up, and it likely would have been except that it was still really stinking cold and our fingers went numb making the climbng difficult. I climbed wearing all of the clothing I had brought up to the crag, including a down jacket and I was still shivering as I headed up.
We reassured ourselves that the first climb is always the worse, and moved down the cliff to a climb called "Harley Davidson" that the guidebook heralded as France's best 5.10d. It was really really good, and we both managed to climb it without our fingers going quite as numb though it was still really cold. We continued our progression down the cliff and Jesse upped the ante by selecting a 5.11d called "Le Javanaise" (finally a climb with a french name!) that the guidebook said was a must do. It was pretty technical and had some of the well-spaced bolts that Ceuse is known for, but Jesse managed to onsight it which was pretty impressive. I was not feeling very confident after hanging on the 5.10a warm up and just barely sending the 5.10d, so I decided to follow it on top rope. After finally reaching the top after a protracted battle that involved many numb fingers and several hangs I was very pleased with this decision. Sometimes I have elected to TR a route only to be angry at myself when it feels easier than expected and I come close to sending it; this was not one of those times.
We continued down the cliff and selected another 5.11d called "St. Georges de Pico" which was steeper and hopefully less technical, because as Jesse put it so emphatically, "we didn't come to Ceuse to climb slabs" (anything less than 15 degrees overhanging counts as a slab in Jesse's playbook). This was really good and Jesse again onsighted it; I led it and thought I had a chance for a send since I got through the crux and was almost into the cruiser section to the chains when my fingers went totally numb and any semblence of endurance completely deserted me and I had to hang and recover and then climb the rest of the 5.8 section to the chains feeling desperately pumped the entire time.
As we had been climbing it had remained cold, overcast, and windy, and what was worse, the forecast storm was brewing on the horizon and appeared to be moving closer. As we moved along to select our next climb the inevitable finally occured, and the precipitation started. The only surprise was that, instead of raining, it actually started snowing. We shouldn't have been surprised given how cold our fingers had been, and it was actually a blessing in disguise since the climbs wouldn't get as wet with snow as they would with rain and we could continue to climb (in down jackets with numb fingers). We continued our trek down the cliff, stopping to pay homage to Realization which had a giant cairn built under it:
The only other climbers we had seen that day were a british couple, and the guy was working Biographie so we chatted with them for a bit before heading back out into the snow. The snow picked up and turned to sleet as we continued so we were thinking we might have to call it a day, but magically the snow/sleet abated and the weather seemed to be taking a turn for the better. There was a steep 5.12b at the far section of the cliff that Jesse was really excited to try since it was advertised as having "the best collection of buckets in Europe", so we decided that we had better head there next in case the bad weather came back with a vengeance.
Upon arriving there we found that the only other climbers crazy enough to be out that day were on it. They were French climbers from Gap, and we chatted with them a bit as the guy made his way up (he is in the lower right hand corner):
They let us use their draws after finishing so I belayed Jesse up who had a good run, only falling at the crux near the top after the buckets ran up. My confidence had been utterly shattered by my weak performances earlier in the day so I elected to follow on top rope which was fun, though my endurance seems to have a cap of about 15-20 feet of climbing (which Jesse astutely pointed out is the height of the bouldering walls at Stone Gardens). By the time we were done the storm was back in earnest, and this time it was rain. We were both feeling pretty worked by this point and since the weather didn't look like it would break anytime soon and there was only another hour or two of daylight left, we decided to call it a day and head down.
We decided to stay in for dinner and work on our five loaves of bread, and after eating dinner Jesse fell asleep on the couch by 6:30pm while I stayed up a little longer before we both hit the sack at 8:30pm for another early night. We optimistically set our alarms for 6:30am again in the hopes that the next day would offer some climbable weather, but it rained hard all night and all during breakfast, and when we looked up at the cliffs at first light it was evident that a good amount of snow had fallen at the higher elevations where we would have been climbing (Ceuse is at 6500 feet).
This had been expected from the weather forecast so we were not too disappointed, and went to plan B which was to drive back to Marseille that morning in hopes of finding some dry and climbable rock at one of the areas on the coast. Unfortunately it rained hard the entire drive and after we checked into our hotel near the Marseille airport (due to our early flights out the next morning) it was still showing no signs of relenting. Nevertheless, we optimistically packed our climbing gear up and headed for a set of nearby areas called Les Calanques which offer steep limestone climbing in a seaside setting.
We drove through Marseille to get there and observed the huge amount of garbage overflowing into the streets (the sanitation workers had been on strike as part of the recent French labour disputes) as we passed along. We finally made it through Marseille and up and over a pass on a really steep and narrow road to the picturesque little village of Calanque Morgeau. At least it would have been picturesque on another day, we could barely even see it since it was raining so hard. Here is the view out the car window:
We made a 100m dash to a little bar that appeared to be open, getting thoroughly soaked in the process. We fumbled through enough French to get served some espresso, and drank that as we dried out a bit before heading back out into the tempest again. From the shelter of the patio we got the view out the harbour which would be really nice in different weather:
After getting back to the car we noticed that it had been surrounded by a giant puddle that made entry difficult, but we finally got in and continued on our way.
By this point we had abandoned any hope of finding dry rock, and decided to check out a small village called Cassis, just down the coast from Marseille which was supposed to be a nice tourist destination. Just for kicks we stopped along the way where the approach for the climbing was, and the rain actually stopped for a while so we decided to hike in just to see it. We saw lots of limestone cliffs:
Unfortunately we took a wrong turn and didn't end up finding the climbing, and at the furthest point from the car the rain came back with fury and we got our daily exercise in with rain sprint back to the car where we climbed in and continued on to Cassis. Cassis turned out to be a nice little fishing town with a harbor:
We toured around the town a bit, with the rough seas making for some spectacular wave action crashing into the sea break in front of the harbor:
There were also good views of more cliffs up the coast and a beach that likely would have been nice under different weather conditions.
After finishing our loop through the town we stopped to eat a delicious dinner at a restaurant and sampled some delicacies from a Patisserie on the way back to the car. The rain continued all through our drive back to Marseille where we packed up our bags for our early flights out the next day. So, while we only met with moderate success on the trip from a climbing standpoint, it was definitely a good time and it opened our eyes to the huge amount of limestone in the area. I will definitely plan on returning, hopefully with more time to spend and under better weather conditions.
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