The car park was empty.
I was so tired I almost fell over as I propped the bike against the signboard for the obligatory photo to prove, perhaps even to myself, that I’d cycled up here. Two grim facts preoccupied my mind: one- this road was not motorable in a campervan; two- cycling up here carrying a rope and rack before an hour and a half’s walk to a major rock climb was far beyond the limits of my fitness. I sent the photo of the bike to Colin and prepared for the six kilometre white knuckle ride back down to where our campervans were parked on the campsite at Ascou la Forge.
We all had pleasant evening meal in the campsite restaurant, and I enquired about the possibility of taking a taxi (they won’t take you up there) a hire car (you'd need to back to Ax les Thermes, and they specifically forbid you taking it up) or even a lift (we've got a vehicle but the youth group staying on the site are using it.) It appeared that we were snookered.
Next morning was cool, clear and cloudless as Colin and I strolled along the lakeside, then up into the forest. There's no point hurrying when you're waiting for a lift. With luck we’d be up high before the thirty degree heat of the last few days set in. Aye, mibbe. We were almost startled when we saw a little blue car rattling and bumping up the track towards us... what side do you stand on to hitch-hike in France? The car stopped and we jumped in, thanking the driver as much as our limited French would allow. He was going to walk up to the summit, and regretted that we’d had to walk this far. He didn’t know what a saviour he’d been to our plans!
In no time at all we’d bounced and bumped our way to the car park. This morning there was already another vehicle there, a black minibus with a Spanish registration. We thanked our driver one last time, filled water bottles and texted the ladies back at camp. A six kilometre downhill walk at the end of the day would be an inconvenience rather than an insurmountable obstacle.
We threaded our way up through attractive woodland, quite steeply in parts, but there was a spring in our step now.After about an hour we popped out onto the northeast ridge of the mountain close to the col which we would cross to descend towards the climbs on the East face.
We faffed a bit, loading my little rucksack with water and food, whilst Colin abandoned his at the col, then made our way down and round to the slabby east face of the mountain.
There were a couple of teams already climbing on the opening pitches of routes above the Vire des Isards- The Chamois Ledge- which runs out across the face. We scrambled up and along this grassy ledge seeking the bottom of our chosen route, Tapas sans Dalle. We realised that in our enthusiasm we’d gone too far and made a rather tricky and exposed rising traverse back to join the line that one of the teams of climbers was already on. “Yes, this is Tapas,” we were informed.
This pattern was repeated a couple of times, but we were a bit delayed by the team in front, who were climbing as a three. I'd assumed that they would be Spanish , given the van we'd seen, but we recognised them as some of the young Dutch guys who were staying on our campsite. Apparently the two youngest were doing their first mountain route; the third was an aspirant instructor. I was impressed. But they were slow.
We’d brought some trad gear with us and set up a couple of alternative belays, but on pitch five the Dutch team were having a bit of a do getting organised below an overlap, and the leader had climbed up then traversed across and down. The second followed but was finding it hard. I set off up and right, and, with the blessing of the Dutch guys, unclipped the gear for the third climber so he could make his way directly to the stance without the up and down shenanigans.
I bypassed the overlap on the right, where there were two bolts, then climbed placing a couple more bits of our own gear. I think I’d crossed onto an unbolted route called Dalles Blanches, but soon enough we’d regained our own line on a belay quite a long way above the overlap. Colin soon joined me and ran out another excellent pitch in the same line to below a rather more substantial overlap above.
Many of you will have climbed Spartan Slab in Glen Etive. This section was in some ways similar to the crux of that route. There was a bolt just above the lip that could be clipped from below, just as there is bomber trad gear on Spartan Slab. But, unlike Spartan Slab, there is no big slot to jam a hand in, just a small fingery sidepull. The irony was that it would be easy to use a sling to aid your way up, but as soon as you commit to doing the move properly, failure could result in you falling backwards over the overlap. I suspected that there might be enough rope out for your head to hit the slab below on rope stretch.
Best not to consider that too fully.
Time to commit and go.
There were a few desperate seconds when I realised that I was neither strong nor flexible enough to complete the rockover, then another two whilst I discovered the frictional properties of my right knee, followed eventually by that timeless sense not of elation but the simple joy of survival as I lumbered rather unsteadily to the belay above. “Colin will never get up that with a rucksack with two litres of water in it”, I thought. But I did him a disservice. He too had a little bit of right knee action, but up he came steadily enough, preclipping the bolts with the quickdraws of the slightly flustered young Dutch team as he went. The gentleman cragsman!
We chatted to two Dutch girls and their instructor who had finished a slightly easier route, Pink Floyd, over to our left. (Did the name suggest the equipment was “spaced out”? Colin mused.) We were full of admiration for the girls for taking on such a big challenge for their first mountain route; they were astounded that two guys of our age could manage it!
11 pitches: 1) 4, 2) 4+, 3) 3+, 4) 4+, 5) 4, 6) 5, 7) 5+, 8) 4, 9) 4, 10) 3+, 11 )3+
Dent d' Orlu 2222m Ariege, French Pyrenees