Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Dark Basalt Columns of the Auvergne

Kevin on L'eros-gene

A canoe trip on the River Allier in the Massif Central France gave Kevin and I a great opportunity to visit this sport climbing outcrop near le Pradel.

For a full description of this bolted outcrop visit:

'Sacre blue!' I hear you say. Bolting basalt columns is like bolting Fingles Cave in the UK or selling the  Giants Causeway to the Chinese! To put this 'rock desecration' into context however one has to realise just how much basalt there is in the Massif Central. 2.6 million years ago or so the area contained hundreds of active volcanoes and consequently great lava lakes. When these lava lakes slowly froze, contraction sometimes formed a palisade of vertical basalt columns. Over millions of years erosion by the River Allier has exposed these columns to view providing tantalising climbing possibilities. These outcrops are numerous along the Allier Valley so one should not feel too outraged by the odd bolted area.

The outcrop is not visible from the road if you approach from Lavoute Chilhac. The approach path was signposted, a bit steep in places and takes about 20 minute walking through lovely woodland. Eventually we emerged from the woods at the foot of the outcrop with its basalt columns sweeping upwards like giant reddish black teeth.

We walked along the foot of the outcrop to find the easier climbs at the extreme right hand end. The outcrop is south facing so to avoid the heat of the day we arrived at around 6.00pm. This only gave us an hour or so of climbing. With printout of climbs in hand we quickly found the grade five climb pictured below:

Erogenous zone

With a name like that how could we resist and I was soon leading it in the twilight.

When it was Kevin's turn to climb twilight had turned to dusk. He completed the climb is some style but when the time came to coil the rope and pack it away I was cursing not bringing a head torch. We lost the track on the way back  in the pitch dark which was far scarier than L'eros- gene!

Basalt columns at Le pradel viewed from across the Allier Valley.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Sport climbing in the South of France

Winter in Cassis holds the promise of a visit to the world famous climbing areas of the Calanques and Cap Canaille. Actually Cassis is rather far from the more popular climbing venues of the Calanques. But there are a couple of single pitch sport climbing areas accessible from Port Miou ten minutes drive from Cassis.

Calendal sport climbing area with Port Miou in the background

Most of the climbs here are grade 5 and 6 but there are a few 4's at Calendal.

The imposing cliffs of cap Canaille from Plage L'Arene

More accessible from Cassis via the Route Des Cretes is the amazing Cap Canaille. The guide book says 'Canaille is absolutely no climbing practice area' The cliffs are geologically complex and many routes have + 10 pitches many grade 6 and above. However on top of Cap Caneille are a couple of interesting single pitch sport climbing areas catering for all levels of difficulty.

Vallon de Mallombre
 The Vallon de Mallombre is north facing and therefore great on a hot summers day. The Semaphore Area is south facing so great on a winters day and this is the area my daughter Laura and I chose to spend an afternoon on a couple of single pitch sport climbs.

The drive to the Semaphore car park is an adventure in itself as the Route des Cretes is a petrol heads dream.

Route des Cretes beloved of motor cyclists.
 I'm relieved to say Laura's rental Alfa Romeo handled the corners nicely.

On a previous reconnaissance we had discovered a number of bolted climbs a short walk from the car park. These were on a mixture of grey limestone and 'pudding stone'

 Imagine you have collected a load of pebbles from a beach and mixed them into a cement matrix: that is like pudding stone which was produced in a river delta millions of years ago perhaps? It looks crumbly but can be very sound to climb on  providing reassuring holds. In fact an excellent beginners climbing surface.

A flavour of what its like to climb here can be seen at

Because the Semaphore area is positioned on top of  a 300m cliff there are excellent Mediterranean views with a sensation of great height even though the climbs themselves are not very high.

We had an excellent afternoon on Cap Canaille. The sea cliffs themselves offer hard  sport routes which are more like mountaineering but here and there are excellent bolted practice areas. We'll be back next year!


Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Brighton and Hove Climbing Centre.

Mission statements often make me cringe but I'll make an exception for the one above dreamt up by a manager at the Withdean Sports Complex. Inside this complex can be found the Brighton and Hove climbing centre, a big step forward for indoor climbing walls in Sussex, and run by High Sports. 

This multi million pound climbing centre has a similar ambience to the K2 wall in Crawley but has a much bigger floor area. The designer Paul Cornforth (owner of King Kong Climbing Walls, Carlisle) has made clever use of space by creating two large bay areas with 6.0 m, 8.0 m and 11.0 m training walls, a 13.0 m lead wall.

In addition there is a large bouldering area and upstairs a dedicated training floor.

My pal Kevin and I  visited the climbing centre on a Tuesday afternoon. After parking for free we entered the complex through a large cafe with a picture window from which there is an appetising view of the climbing wall. On the way to the reception desk there is a gallery of inspirational pictures showing climbers clinging to local sandstone crags and other more distant outcrops.

The staff at the reception desk were friendly and helpful. As Kevin is a novice climber I had to sign in as his mentor.This meant that as I am a High Sports member who has passed the belay test I could belay him but he could not belay me. This was not a problem however because we did a lot of bouldering (no ropes required) and there was an auto belay available. With this device attached to my harness Kevin could practice his belaying techniques on me with no undesirable consequences! 

Adjacent to the auto belay were two fixed ropes and around six routes graded from 4 to 6+ so there was plenty of challenge provided. Kevin enjoyed the challenge of a grade 5 route and I was able to practice sport climbing using some new quick draws. 

 After about a hour of fun we sat back and watched as a four  year old girl adorned with full body harness and attached to the auto belay fearlessly scaled the wall: a veritable miniature Catherine Destivelle.  She was coached enthusiastically by a member of staff while her dad looked proudly on. After reaching the top she leapt backwards and sailed majestically to the ground accompanied by applause from nearby climbers. 

Such a big facility can cope with a wide range of climbers both in age and ability. from rock athletes practicing grade 8 sport routes to small children and even retired enthusiasts like Kevin and myself.The atmosphere is one of inclusiveness within an essential framework of safety and I think the centre has got the balance between the two about right.

We had an excellent session and  to relax and anaesthetise  various complaining body parts we finished with a pint of Harveys. We'll be back next week convinced that indeed 'everyone can climb'

Monday, 30 December 2013

Boulder Brighton avec ma fille.

December 27th 2013

My daughter Laura travelled from the land of climbing (Provence) to spend the Christmas week with us. So to burn off some calories we had a trip to Boulder Brighton. A number of families had the same idea  so the venue was busy with youngsters having a great time. Climbing seems to come naturally to children who often excel on climbing walls: I loved climbing as a boy and fondly remember spending hours up a tree pretending I was Tarzan. You rarely see this nowadays as a child up a tree is probably frowned upon as corrupting the natural environment or contravening some health and safety rule. So its a good job we have climbing walls to enable the young to work off their natural tendencies.

To stimulate the little grey cells we started with  coffee in the little bar next to the reception desk. We noticed a great image of Tryfan on the wall and I remembered scrambling up the north ridge with Stephen last winter in freezing temperatures.

 After a warm up on the table tennis table we got down to the business in hand with some simple routes and as usual more experienced 'regulars' were willing to offer help if we needed it.

You can see one of the yellow routes above.

Laura on a yellow and black route

After an hour our bodies could take no more so we decided to head for the centre of Brighton for refuelling at Wagamamas. The most extreme route of the day proved to be negotiating the traffic on the seafront and the labyrinthine one way system leading to the multistory car park!

Friday, 15 November 2013

A Visit to Boulder Brighton

                                                              November 2013

The decision to close the climbing wall at Lewes Leisure Centre ( its going to be yet another gym) meant that Stephen and I had to look around for an alternative local bouldering venue.Located between Brighton and Hove, Boulder Brighton seemed to fit the bill and I was impressed by their informative website.
After only ten minutes on the A27 we missed our turning and had to negotiate the bewildering Steyning interchange and double back through the urban sprawl of Southwick. We finally made it to our destination: an ordinary looking building on an industrial estate.

Once inside however it was easy to forget the cold wet evening and switch on to bouldering. To get visitors in the mood the little foyer was decorated with artistic photographs of boulder problems (Stone Farm I think)  The receptionist made us feel at home and discussed our experience and various health and safety issues. We had already downloaded and filled in our registration forms making the induction process quicker. Our guide proudly gave us a brief tour of the site and Wow! it looked very impressive when compared with the now defunct Lewes wall we had been using.

Main climbing area

 The venue was busy but spacious so it did not appear crowded: climbers sat around on comfy sofas chilling out to music (local performers?) You could warm up with a game of table tennis or hone your balancing skills on a slack line.Working at Google headquarters could be a bit like this we thought?

As the website explains 'bouldering is rock climbing stripped down to its raw essentials. Leaving behind ropes and harnesses and just using climbing shoes and a bag of chalk over safety mats' Boulder Brighton uses the Fontainebleau grading system (also used on Southern Sandstone - the nearest natural bouldering to Brighton, near Tunbridge Wells). This gives a number and a letter to indicate how hard the climb is, for instance 4+ would be one grade harder then a 4 but one grade easier than a 5. The bolt on holds were colour coded so it did not take long to sort out the easier climbs from the bewildering array of possibilities.

Warming up on a grade 4 (black and white bolt on )

The friendly atmosphere was infectious and It did not take long before we were engaged in discussions with other climbers about how to tackle various routes.  I found that yellow provided a pleasing level of challenge whilst mint was hard. Fontainebleau grades go up to 8C+ so this gives an idea of how super human the top climbers are!

 With so much climbing available we were both tired after about an hour but felt the visit was well worth the fee (£7.95) We left Boulder Brighton feeling we truly  had experienced a 'workout for body and mind'
In January High Sports will be opening a new climbing wall in Brighton with top rope and lead climbing facilities. For details go to

So next year we might be spoilt for choice!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Trad. climbing on Dartmoor

 Sunday 6th Oct 2013

A CVCC trip to the River Dart is always great  fun especially if the river is 'up'. It had been a showery week but now a ridge of high pressure offered the tantalising promise of some traditional climbing on dry granite as well as a soaking in the river.

Stephen and I arrived in Exeter at midday on Friday, offloaded our kayaks at my son's flat (cheers James) and headed for Haytor between Bovy Tracey and Widecombe in the Moor.

Haytor from the carpark
The weather was still showery so we abandoned any thoughts of climbing that day. Someone once said that 'a little time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted' so we set off from the car park in the driving rain looking for climbs. Haytor appeared imposing from the road: like a monstrous pile of elephant droppings, but it seemed to shrink as we got nearer. Guide book in hand we inspected  the wet granite,  and noted the sparsity of anchor points on the domed summit. After finding  Zig Zag  (50ft V.Diff ) on the west face we headed down to the misleadingly named 'Low Man'. Almost hidden from the road this secondary granite outcrop conceals the highest rock face on Dartmoor and the imposing  Raven Gully (100ft Severe)

 On our return to Exeter we stopped to photograph this amazing rainbow with secondary rainbow just visible and interference fringes. Yes the sky underneath the bow appeared brighter than that above: a well known phenomenon I am told.

A good omen?

The rainbow was indeed a good omen. On Saturday the sun shone while we enjoyed paddling the River Dart. This sunshine dried out the granite ready for a perfect day on Sunday. By 9.30 we were extracting my rope from Stephens newly acquired rope bag and sizing up the east face of Haytor in the morning sunshine. We decided to warm up on Super Direct (80ft severe) This climb was heavily moss encrusted and though only sparse protection was possible we seemed to climb with ease enjoying the great views and warm sunshine.

Delicate climbing on Super Direct

As the inevitable sight seers and climbers started to arrive we moved round to the west face to attempt Zig Zag. Graded Very Difficult we agreed I should have a go at leading this using a selection of gear from Stephen's rack.  Leading a climb using traditional techniques is quite different from a sport climbing lead. This is because on a traditional climb there are no bolts to clip into: the leader, faced with virgin rock has to make decisions about where to place his/ her own protection in the form of nuts and other devices before clipping into these. Traditional climbing requires a different mind set to sport climbing because one has to think more deeply about protection, manage more gear and rig anchor points at the top in order to secure yourself before bringing up your second. Some would say this is a much purer form of climbing because in the end it leaves the rock in its original unsullied state.

It had been a while since I last lead a trad. climb and did make some mistakes on Zig Zag. I placed my protection well but forgot to use extenders to keep the rope away from the rock: this caused unnecessary drag when later I pulled in the rope before bringing Stephen up. I also forgot my belay device so had to bring Stephen up on an Italian hitch which incidentally worked very well. I learnt that fumbling around in granite cracks can rip your skin to shreds! However I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of trad. leading and can't wait to have another go.

Zig Zag (50ft V.Diff)


Next we swapped crags and walked down to the west face of Low Man. Here the sun's rays were just beginning to penetrate and warm up a small herd of Dartmoor ponies. One or two climbers were already inspecting the rock face and after a little negociation we were able to take on Raven Gully. This climb is a two pitch 100ft severe.

Aerial photograph of the west face of Low Man. Note the climber on Raven Gully (100ft Severe)

Stephen led the first pitch of this classic Dartmoor climb. After a tricky damp and polished start, Stephen climbed out of the crack on drier granite. This strategy proved successful and set the tone for the remainder of this lovely pitch: straightforward climbing on big flakes led to an awkward slanting crack with plenty of holds available but requiring bold moves. This is because the crack slanted to the right but most of the good holds were on the left wall.

 After joining Stephen at the top of the first pitch, we swopped leads. I chose the route to the left out onto the sunlit face (see below) rather than the obvious dark chimney directly above us. To decrease the risk of a nasty pendulum into the right hand wall I placed protection at the base of the second pitch before moving delicately out onto the slab. This is an exposed position and I could not find any protection on my way up this slab. So I was relieved, on reaching the top to find an obvious anchor point to secure myself before belaying Stephen.

Raven Gully from below

Having completed the climb we were able to simply walk off the outcrop down a rock cut staircase: a bit of an anticlimax I thought.

On return to the car park the now almost inevitable sardines and oat cake made a tasty finale to a great day.