Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Escalade a Chateau Virant (August 2012)

August is not the best time to climb in the South of France as its generally too hot at this time of year. But having  filled my hold luggage with climbing rope, harness, quick draws, climbing shoes, and chalk bag, leaving little space for anything else, a heat wave was not going to stop me sampling a little Provenal sport climbing.

Liz and I were ensconsed in a gite just outside Salon in the Bouche du Rhone district within half an hours drive of some mouthwatering climbing venues. These include Orgon which became famous in the 70's because some of the hardest climbing in the world was happening here. Now it has become a forgotten backwater in climbing circles. Due to the summer fire risk in this part of the world, access to mountainous areas is restricted. So if you want to go climbing you have to consult a government website which told me that a local crag at Chateau Virant was open from 6.00am to 11.00 am.

The owner of our gite, Michel was keen to go climbing with me. So to avoid 'les coups de soleil' we got up at 5.00 am loaded up his Renault Espace and drove sleepily south in the direction of Lancon. Here we left behind the urban sprawl which blights the outskirts of many French towns and drove up into the hills adorned by la garrigue, a picturesque scrubland with gnarled oak trees and an understory of aromatic herbs.

We parked in the twilight and took the ten minute walk up to the crag, one of many  monoliths which protrude out of the garrigue like giant white molar teeth. The crag was not the most beautiful I had ever seen but the location was spactacular with an amazing view of Chateau Virant and surrounding vineyards, the Mediterranean sea to the south and to the west  Mont St Victoire (the one painted by an obsessive Cezanne) We had no climbing guide book to Chateau Virant so had to spend some time scouting and eventually chose an easy looking warm up route on the east side of the outcrop.
Michel dons his climbing shoes
The climb felt like class 4a as I methodically followed the upward line of staples revelling in the friction provided by the limestone which seemed very hard, almost like marble. Michel proved an excellent second spotting a 'back clipping' mistake I made when I clipped the rope into a quick draw incorrectly. On reaching the top I was confronted by two staples close together and no chain. This arrangement seems to be common in this part of France. Before lowering off I had to perform a fairly complicated sequence of tieing and untieing knots and threading the rope through both staples before being being lowered to the ground by Michel! Now it was his turn to climb with me belaying from the bottom.

Michel topping out in the morning sun .............

............  and in the shade
 After a couple more climbs on the east facing side it was becoming uncomfortably hot so we shifted ourselves and gear to the west facing shady side to try something a little harder. By 10.00 am our bodies had succumbed to the heat so we retreated to a shady cafe in Salon.

The day after we flew home from Provence a vast area of countryside around Orgon was torched by an arsonist. Several villages had to be evacuated while fire fighting planes dumped water on the flames. But I am told periodic fire followed by natural regeneration is partly responsible for the creation of the garrigue forest. The fire seemed like a catastrophe at the time but most of the climbs at Orgon escaped the flames and the land will recover in time.

Here is a link I have found on You Tube  which gives the  flavour of climbing at Chateau Virand
You can find a description of this climbing area on Climbing Away at

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