Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Ariege

I've always thought I was crap at sport climbing. And my first ever sport climbing trip has done absolutely nothing to change my mind.

A massive group of us headed out to the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees to get boozed up, eat lots of interesting cheese, and maybe do a bit of climbing as well. I was keen to get on some big multipitches seeing as I can get my arse kicked on single pitch routes at Portland if I want. My partner in crime for the trip, Rich, had similar plans, so we trawled the guidebooks for the biggest stuff we could find. We also said many foolish things, like 'we won't need a headtorch', and 'there's a couple of 6a pitches but I'm sure we'll be fine'.

Oh how wrong we were.

Day One saw us all pile into the hire cars and head for a crag called Calames. Rich and I warmed up on a jolly nice, untaxing 3 pitch 5+, which rather lulled us into a false sense of security. So we decided to get on the classic of the crag next, a big 6a+ jobby called Piler des Cathares. It all went fine until about a third of the way up pitch 2, when some bastard pushed a button and all hell broke loose. Suddenly the holds rotated on unseen mechanisms, became horrible sloping undercuts, with all the friction of one of those soaking wet spinning pole things you get on TV shows like Total Wipeout. We'd been warned about the area's sandbag reputation but nothing prepared me for this. I made a series of frenzied moves up a groove, taunted by dozens of bolts all cruelly out of reach to the right. Slip went my feet, slap went my hands, until I finally reached the respite of a belay and struggled to contain a nervous breakdown. The stance was perched beneath two massive, ominous overhangs, and it was clear things were only going to get worse. Consoled by the thought it would be Rich's problem, I brought him up into the unfolding nightmare.

The only bolt visible without NASA scale magnification was some meters up and right, in a narrow and grotty looking break between the two overhangs. Rich gamely struck out towards it on rubbish slopers. He placed a 'slow you down a bit' nut before finally reaching the bolt, and celebrating by slumping onto it. Moves of ever increasing difficulty eventually forced him to aid his way onto the slab above on trad gear. I found it desperate to follow, and it was only when we checked the guide at the belay that we realised good old Rich had strayed onto a 6b by accident. God knows where the 5 went. Probably direct through one of the huge unprotected overhangs.

Regardless, we toiled upwards, finally reached the summit in pissing rain, and slunk back down the ankle destroying path to find the others. Good start, then.

Having learnt nothing, the next day we thought it a great idea to attempt an 11 pitch 6b called L'Integrale d'Anais on a big crag called Sinsat. This was essentially a link up of several routes up three disconnected tiers; two triangular slabs and a magnificent tooth shaped buttress of golden rock to reach the top. I'll split it into the three sections...

Horror Show 1 - I led the crux 6a first pitch and to no one's surprise had to aid most of it, spending long periods of time hanging from the bolts and quietly gibbering to myself. The subsequent 5+ pitches were absolutely fine. I'm buggered if I know how Ariege grading works.

Horror Show 2 - Undergraded at 6a+, it was in fact at least 9c++++++++++. Rich backed off the lead, the bastard, leaving me to grovel up in a fashion that could be best described as 'desperation aid'. Alas, you couldn't always reach the next bolt while standing in a sling attached to the one below. And there were literally no holds. Not one. Just a merciless sweep of featureless limestone smirking at my feeble attempts to find purchase. Rich led through on what was probably the second hardest pitch in the world, after the one I'd just done, of course. A completely piss 5+ bit led us to the next section of bushwhacking, and the summit tower.

Horror Show 3 - Fantastic climbing up a Swanage-esque corner at last brought us to what we'd been dreading; the final, hardest pitch. Well, we both gave it a somewhat pathetic go, but daylight was fading fast, we'd no headtorches, and the route had to be abseiled even if we did get up the fucking thing. Not forgetting the fact we were both shit at climbing as well. So we courageously threw in the towel and began the first of 10 abseils to get back to the bottom of the crag.

By this point it was dark, and no doubt the others were getting annoying with waiting for us in the car park. We grabbed our bags and started legging it back down the track. How I wish it could've ended there. But in our haste we overshot a turn and hurtled off the path and into the most dense forest in the known universe. Jagged brambles hung from the canopy, ensnaring our limbs, threatening to drag us wriggling into the treetops to be devoured by whatever slavering creatures dwelt there. Rich battled a way through to the edge of the woods, where we made a precarious step over an electric fence, and tip-toed alongside it in the fading hope of finding civilisation.

Then the dreaded moment happened; Rich reached an impasse and said 'We have to cross back over again'.


The fence was higher at this point, and hummed menacingly in the still twilight. I balanced on a fallen log to gain the necessary extra clearance to swing my leg over. Halfway through this manoeuvre the log disintegrated. I plummeted downwards, legs wide open, straight onto the buzzing wires. An explosion of blue light, about 18 trillion volts of electricity cascaded through my knackers. I shrieked in agony, skeleton flashing beneath my skin like a cartoon character, hands fusing to the metal as I tried to lever myself off. After suffering enough electrocution to wipe out an entire death row I pitched sideways off the fence and lay entwined and sobbing in thorns and nettles; a blackened, smoking ruin, lamenting the Gainor dynasty that would now never be.

I spent the rest of the trip pissing sparks.

After such misadventures the next few days were something of an anti-climax. We did another big route on Calames in baking heat, then explored an awesome granite crag called Auzat. After mincing around on polished bloody limestone, the friction was a revelation. Sadly, our plans to finish on the 1000-odd meter Dent d'Orlu were scuppered by illness and bad weather. Rich and 3 others made a valiant attempt on the 26 pitch monster le Piler Sud, but retreated due to soaking wet conditions. Happily another team managed to reach the summit via a route on the east face. I spent the last 2 days in the foetal position with stomach cramps, but there you go. At least we have an excuse to go back again, because the Ariege is an awesome place to climb.