Thursday, 25 July 2013

Mount Ventoux

When I'm not fannying around on bits of rock I also like to do a bit of cycling. In fact, I bought my first proper road bike back in February and have since pedalled a few thousand kms and become pretty much obsessed with it. And naturally, what appealed most to me was the idea of doing some of those epic hairpin roads up alpine passes that define pro races like the Tour de France every year. So Dad and I ventured out to the Alps on what was the first non-climbing trip I'd done in god knows how long. Our aim was to tackle as many of the famous mountain routes as possible.

We arrived in the Ecrin massif late in the afternoon and set up camp in Bourg D'Osions; a small town nestling at the base of Alpe D'Huez, one of the most iconic climbs of the region. The road followed a series of tight corners for 13km, the gradient averaging around 8%. Rather than warm up or recover from the long overnight journey we got straight on the bastard. I have to say it was easier than I expected. We maintained a super steady rhythm, making sure we spun the pedals smoothly rather than grinding our way up, sucking down the odd gel every now and again to keep energised. After the first couple of turns I knew we'd get up alright. Some time later we rolled into the ski-town that marks the end of the climb, and shot back down again super fast, overtaking cars all the way.

The Col du Galibier, the highest point of our trip

Over the next couple of days we cruised up some more classic ascents; the Col de Sarenne, and a combined assault of the Col du Lautaret and the epic 2645m Col du Galibier. I felt so good on the Galibier I pushed up from the granny gear and went flat out over the 8 or so km to the summit, despite the steep last section and a cheeky 12% ramp before the very top. All this in stunning alpine scenery, jagged peaks, deep blue skies. It was fucking awesome.

We then transitioned south, slotting in a quick blast through a wild-west style gorge, before heading down to the main objective of the trip; Mount Ventoux, the Giant of Provence.

Standing above many nearby lesser peaks, but completely isolated, Ventoux was the most daunting of the lot. A huge humpbacked crest, steep forested slopes, a summit plateau bare like a lunar crater, with an eerie weather station projecting from the very top; grey clouds clung to the spire despite the otherwise clear skies. It loomed over everything. The numbers were ominous too. 22km of ascent, averaging nearly 8%. However, this was skewed by the easy first section. The final 16km would average nearer 10%.

We rolled out of Bedoin and began climbing. I struggled to find a rhythm on the first bit, spinning too fast, capable of going much harder but not wanting to waste any energy. It was almost a relief when we turned a corner into the woods and the road kicked up sharply to 9%. From that moment it was a relentless 10km of suffering, nowhere to hide, nowhere to rest. My only aim was to get up the thing in one push without stopping. The route climbed interminably through the forest, round corners and along depressing straights that disappeared into the distance. I stayed in the saddle as much as possible, only standing up when my legs really needed a break. It took bloody ages.

Dad on the hard-won summit of Mount Ventoux

Eventually we emerged from the woods and onto the upper plateau. Here the gradient kicked back a notch, enabling me to switch to a higher gear and build up some speed. As I'd noticed on the previous rides, I got stronger and stronger as I went on, overtaking serious looking guys in replica kits who passed us ages ago. However, there was still several kms to go and it was hard going. The landscape became stark and lifeless. Twats in cars crawled past the cyclists, needlessly cluttering up the road. Idiotic pedestrians nearly caused an accident by crossing without looking just as some guys were descending.

In my opinion if you cannot cycle up Ventoux you do not deserve to be up there at all, particularly not in the middle of the day. There's nothing there anyway. The weather station, a few bits of shitty tourist tat. Go up early or late if you just want to see the view. Even worse, some pricks were adding to the congestion by driving up with mountain bikes on their cars so they could just blast down. Lazy fuckers.

Elitist rant over. Almost. The final bit got steeper again but I was too close to ease off. I rounded the final corner, elated to finally reach the summit, only to be stopped dead by a cluster of cars and morons on bikes who'd decided to stop and take in the view on this last ramp.

The weather station of Ventoux

As you may have guessed, I wasn't particularly happy on top, and when Dad joined me just a couple of minutes later we didn't hang around. A quick drink, a rushed photo at the summit sign, and we were speeding back down again; 22km of fantastic downhill racing, easily overtaking all the cars. We were back in Bedoin unbelievably soon. To celebrate we hit a local bar and drank a few beers while watching the day's Tour de France stage.

We did two more rides in the area, both extremely hilly, but by now we were both super fit and cruising up high passes like they were nothing. At one point we crossed the 1400 odd meter col of Ventoux from the other side, and got caught out in an epic hail and thunderstorm. The descent was horrific. You barely move when you go downhill, there's no way to generate heat, no respite; in minutes we were both borderline hypothermic in our t-shirts, tearing through the hairpins with numb fingers clutching at the brakes. Our narrow wheels barely gripped as we skidded round corners. Fortunately the weather cleared lower down and people on their way up stared at us as we shot by, all soaked and grimacing. Perhaps they wondered what the hell they were getting themselves into.

We vanished into the horizon, gunning it straight for the nearest bar, where we drank yet more beer and watched the Tour. Fucking good times.

Friday, 12 July 2013


Summer is usually the time when I start thinking more about mountaineering, and subsequently get shit at harder trad climbing. This year, alas, has been no different. After an awesome week in Wales, Pat and I returned to Swanage and got spanked by mental waves at Boulder Ruckle. Undeterred, I went back in a few days later with Luke, where the pair of us got utterly shafted by some godforsaken E1 roof monstrosity. Seconding, I overcame the crux by dynoing for Luke's aid sling and hauling myself up hand over hand like some blubbering army reserve reject, only too aware of the '15 pieces but they're all terrible' belay I was hanging from. Nice bit of El Cap training then.

The next week I headed back up to Wales with a mate from work, this time with the intention of sticking to big easy mountain routes, hillwalking, and doing manly things like drinking whisky and quoting Hemingway. The weather was awful but this didn't really change anything. We did a link-up of stuff in Cwm Idwal, hiked over the Carnedd hills, climbed a horrendous slug-filled chimney on Milestone Buttress. Then things cleared up and we got two perfect days, managing routes on Craig yYsfa and the east face of Tryfan. Despite Jake's relative inexperience we moved super quick, which was encouraging for bigger stuff later this year.

After cruising such easy routes I was slightly concerned that getting back onto hard stuff would be a bit of a shock. Nonetheless, Luke and I decided to head over to North Devon for a couple of days and hit the Culm coast; anything to get away from Swanage bloody Swanage was fine by me. First up we abbed down one of the awesome Sharpnose fins and tackled a classic steep crack climb called Lunakhod. Sustained and almost 50m long, it took us a lot longer to get up than expected. By the time we were both on top the tide was coming in fast, and of course you couldn't just top out from where we were, there was a vertical ridge of grass in the way. So we lowered off some tat and paddled back to the ab rope to decide what to do. Another route was out of the question; the lower walls were getting damp, and in any case the belayer would probably end up drowned.

"Let's just swim for it," said Luke.

I looked at the sea, saw waves breaking against the fins, hidden boulders lurking, unpredictable currents...

"Or," I replied, "we could not.

In the end we perched on a high rock, water running over our feet, and jugged up the static. This was sodding knackering.

It was late evening by now but we still wanted to get something else done. In the end we went with a twilight ascent of Wrecker's Slab, a 150m sheet of nightmare choss and vegetation. The descent was down a steep ridge of nettles and scree, fucking horrible. Luke seemed to regret his choice to stay in shorts. At some point he also realised he'd forgotten his headtorch, the one bit of kit we really couldn't do without. So we agreed the leader would wear mine and the second grovel in darkness.

Luke shimmied up the first pitch just before it got properly dark, racing through massive runouts, trying not to pull on all the dodgy holds. I took pitch 2 and climbed in a tiny circle of light, surrounded by blackness and the sound of crashing waves. Gear was rusty pegs and a couple of wires lower down. I shuffled up, not wanting to weight the cliff lest the whole heap of shite came tumbling down with me in the middle of it. By the time I reached the belay ledge the last peg was miles below. Luke followed, basically cranking on whatever he could feel and smearing his feet. I then seconded him up the final pitch, guessing where holds might be, rattling the rope to hear where the next runner was. It was one of the most atmospheric climbs I've ever done.

The next day we hiked over to Baggy Point in the boiling heat and did some easy stuff. I have to say I was pretty disappointed by the crag, all friable slabs and tufts of grass everywhere. God knows why people rave about the place. After ticking some scrappy Severes we downclimbed some Diff to reach the start of a route called Kinkyboots.

It was absolutely fucking horrific.

Yeah, the first bit was a good laugh. You basically had to stand on the edge of a zawn and fall across the gap, hoping you were tall enough to reach the beckoning jugs. If you weren't you'd plummet into space, it's not the most reversible of moves. Luke led it quickly enough, then pulled across an overlap on the main slab and disappeared from sight. I could hear snatches of what he was saying; things like "fuck me this is nails", "fuck me the gear's shit", "fuck me it's sweaty" and "fuck me we're going to die".

He eventually reached the belay after a somewhat harrowing traverse. The anchors made unnerving noises when tugged. I climbed the steep first section OK, pulled onto the slab with a bit of a struggle, and immediately wished I hadn't.

Luke was miles off to the right, perched on a sloping ledge, looking unhappy. The slab was the chossiest pile of wank I'd ever seen. It made Wrecker's Slab look like a granite tor. I tried to find the line of the second pitch but couldn't see anything obvious. The guidebook said you had to climb up to and around a huge detached flake and improvise from there. Well isn't that fucking great, I thought. There were about 700 flakes that fitted the description, the entire top half of the slab was made out of the buggers, detached flakes as far as the eye could see.

Rather than follow the traverse to the belay only to reverse it again (something else the guide suggested; I was beginning to wonder if some kind of cruel prank was going on), Luke clipped the gear to one of the ropes and zipped it across to me. I started crawling upwards. Fuck knows where to go next. I yelled to a climber standing on top and he said something like "Just climb the really dodgy block the size of a table with no visible attachment". Brilliant.

I fumbled higher, placing crap gear, dehydrated, wishing the route would just get it over with and kill me already. The block loomed above. I teetered on an edge beneath it, gave it a tap, was appalled by the flex, by the noise it made. The guy shouted something about other climbers putting cams behind it. Crazed laughter burst from my ragged lips, as hollow as the rock I clung to. With some ghastly contortion I wormed past the flake, somehow not weighting it, slithering through a gap, prepared to sell my black soul without hesitation for one solid jug, just one. Finally, with a huge runout, I hauled myself up the final sods of grass to the top and lay there gasping and sobbing, bowing before the belay stakes like they were long lost idols. Luke was relieved to get moving again after a long wait in the unmerciful sun.

We shook hands at the top and vowed never to speak of it again.