Gorges du Tarn…….provides great entertainment for the strong of mind.

Well, where do I start this article about possibly my favourite place to climb so far in France. I had a lot of expectations built up in my mind about going climbing in this legendary area and there were comments from friends along the way that the grades were tough and the style was super unique. I was truly intrigued by what I was hearing and this is one of the many reasons that I really wanted to go and visit Gorge du Tarn.

Some friends from the U.S. had set me up with where to buy the guidebook, so when we arrived it was one of the first things on our list. We wandered around Le Massegros, our home for the next three weeks and located the tourist office. Look no further I said as I found the guidebook right in front of my eyes. Happy days and off to a great start.

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The Tarn Bible……..support the local guidebook writers….thy do goo work.

The first sector we climbed at was La Muse. It was a small crag just five minutes walk from the car  park and had a range of routes that would suit us all. The crag was in the sun in the morning but the shade came quickly and the climbing was fun. Only fifteen metres high but still a great introduction for us and enjoyable routes.

As the days flowed by, we checked out more sectors and became a little more accustomed to the style. Working out how to actually hold the rock was an adventure in itself. The vertical routes were technical and at times runout (don’t worry its good for your head) with sustained climbing throughout. My friends were right the grades felt solid, but the climbing was just so good.

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The author on a pumpy 6c+ at La Muse Sector.

Its very surprising that there are only approximately six hundred or so routes in the gorge. I was taken aback at first given the historic significance of the area and its impact on French climbing history. Having said that the variety in this small number of routes is remarkable. Noir Desir and Cancer sectors provide a short bouldery and steep series of routes with a series of 6b+ routes that will provide great entertainment even for the strong amongst you.

On-sighting in the gorge is a task not to be taken lightly as it is very difficult to read the rock at times. The sustained consistency of the routes creates a great pump and figuring out where to rest is one of the strategic failures that I continued to display. It did change with time but initially it was the key failure point. Baumes Basses and Baumes Chaudes sectors provided a plethora of routes to help rectify this issue…..LOL!

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Rob on a technical 6c++ at La Muse Sector

As the fitness improved I felt a calm consistency in movement and began to really enjoy the area. Holds became a little more positive, technical improvement made things flow a little better and I generally felt like I could really settle in here. There is so much climbing in such a small place. So many different things to experience and enjoy.

As I discovered here on several occasions, there are more ways than one to climb a single route……Sometimes the road most travelled is the one you may need to avoid……Depending on how you assess what has been put in front of you. From time to time it is important to look the wrong way. You might just find a better alternative.

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One of the locals working a 7b+ at Baumes Basses Sector.

After three weeks here, I can honestly say that we barely touched the surface and I am already devising and scheming on how we can get back there for a month or so next spring. It is truly a beautiful place and I would recommend it to anyone who loves this sport to put it on their list of places to visit.

 

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Love long, laugh loud and climb hard……..

I guess yesterday was a bit of a breakthrough for me in terms of my overall climbing in general. I had not experienced this very zen-like state for quite some time and it felt refreshing and invigorating to say the least. While I am sure that some of you have experienced this and experienced it regularly, for me there has been a solid amount of fear associated with this sport over the years.

I have regularly had bouts of serious fear and I confess times where irrational fear has flooded my veins and caused me to be mentally crippled in so many situations where if I had the tools to deal with it better I would had greater successes earlier on in my climbing life. That being said, it is never too late to experience bliss in the vertical world. That transient state where you are simply “in flow”.

Life has changed a little now, however my dogged determination to continue to improve and learn has not wained in any way shape or form. There is a greater sense of the realistic and my motivations for climbing have indeed changed over the past two years.

I was for many years trying to prove myself to my father. I wanted him to be proud of me and like all good dads he only ever wanted the best for me, but I had a different best in mind. I travelled a different path much to the disapproving attitude I saw on my fathers face. I know now he was very proud of me and what I had done, however it took a lot of long conversations later in his life where we agreed to disagree and we both needed to hear it.

Anyway, I continue to climb now because I love it. I also see it helping me grow and learn. It is indeed a guide on how my life is going and how my emotional state is at a given time. If I am stressed in life, it displays itself most unsubtly in the vertical, causing me to be gripped or negative in my attitude. So taking a different approach helps me destress both on and off the wall.

I now have these little mental tricks to defuse my outrageous expectations and it relaxes me a great deal throughout my days. I don’t rush to get to the crag, but my enthusiasm is still there. I have less desperation to do many routes and am happy to concentrate on a couple of harder things, even if I don’t send I have a good day because I am outside in the sun laughing loud, trying hard and fighting.

These are the things that I like to do and this is now how my lovely wife and I spend our climbing days together. We do not have rest days now, we have “us days”. Rest days are for fanatics (an opinion only, don’t take it personally). We also try not to forget how very fortunate we are to have the opportunity to live our lives the way we do. Gratitude is something that we are indeed full of and we appreciate every single moment together.

And to quote a young man named Brandon, whom I met in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky:-

– Love long, laugh loud and climb hard……..

Gorge du Tarn and need some time……….

I don’t know where to begin with how I am feeling about our current destination. I am super stoked to be here and excited that I am here with a couple of great people who I love dearly. I also have some misgivings about not getting some personal time with my lovely wife Karine, who is also here. We have been surrounded by our loved ones for about two months now and while it is truly fabulous to have them around, however I am missing the personal time with miss K too.

We are staying in a beautiful little village about 15 kms from Gorge du Tarn called Le Massegros. It is a very fertile area and the depth of colour in the soil here is incredible. Agriculture is the main cash crop and there are farms everywhere on the Causses (limestone plateau) above the gorge. The original bakery here is fourteenth or fifteenth century and still standing proudly functioning as a storage area.

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The incredibly rich soil of the Causses near Le Massegros.

Settling in a new area is always a bit of a hassle, but Karine and I seem to have it down to a fine art after two and half years together and being on the road travelling for about the same amount of time. We settle really quickly and have a bit of an unofficial routine that occurs. We don’t even really talk about it, it just happens.

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One of the ancient stone houses of the area….still inhabited.

Our first morning here was a bit slow. We decided that after a little inspection of the “Les Gorges du Tarn” climbing guidebook that we picked up at the local tourism office fortunately, that a late start was the best. Our crag of choice for the day was Sector Baumes Chaud. A nice spread of grades for our team of enthusiasts.

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This glorious view was ours alone for the day….no one else in sight.

The drive was beautiful with ploughed fields and pine forests escorting us through the ever winding road. We arrived at the top of the gorge to be totally blown away by its beauty. Gorge du Tarn is truly spectacular and beautiful. The diversity of fauna is incredible and the rock is just mind blowing. It is simply everywhere around you.

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Karine making her way up “Sans les mains” 6a+ (19) La Muse Sector. Photo:- Agathe Lévêque 2017.

It is quite surprising just how well the gorge climbing is managed and controlled. It is with great appreciation that I say this. I like that during some parts of the year sectors are closed for bird nesting periods and that rebolting is managed so effectively by all parties involved.

Over the past few days we have had some mild success after not really trying hard and just getting into the style of the area. It’s a super cool environment to be in and with the change of season the forest is now looking truly beautiful. The river forges its way down the gorge and you sometimes have to shout loudly to be heard at the top anchors.

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The author on “The Unknown Route” 6c+ (22) La Muse Sector. Photo:- Agathe Lévêque 2017.

La Muse Sector has been a lot of fun as there are some nice routes there to play on and the style is different from Cul de Figues Sector. La Muse is a little less vertical and more powerful at this stage. I am hoping I get enough time to work on something a little harder for me, but I have others to consider and I will take what I can get……..as we are all in this together.

Climbing the vertical walls of Gorge de l’Ardeche.

The Ardeche region is steeped in history and it was known in the early nineteen eighties as the testing ground for some of Frances most famous climbers. They tested themselves against this extremely technical limestone and became the premier climbing force throughout Europe.

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Karine embracing the vertical world…..could it get any more vertical really. Sector Le Viel Audon – Photo Maurice de Jonge 2017

Since these heady days, favour has moved away from the technical static movement required here  and the Ardeche has been somewhat forgotten. Coming to the region at the suggestion of my beautiful wife Karine (she’s French) was one of the truly great decisions on my climbing adventures around the world.

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Cirque de Gens Sector….this is an amazing natural amphitheatre with about three hundred bolted routes.

We have been here for two weeks now and I have to say my climbing has improved. The polished and sometimes run out sports routes here are at times spectacular in their movement and testing simply by nature. Whilst humbling it may be, the stunning verticality here is at first scary and then over the course of time, it displays a technical design that I have not experienced on limestone before.

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Rob working his way through and out of a huge hueco at Barrasses Sector

Thailand and Kalymnos offer the steep buggy tufa routes and at times technical slabs are available, but the Southern Ardeche region around Balazuc and Pont d’Arc are simply worth travelling to. The bouldery short routes are super and the long routes are definitely sustained and challenging. Like everywhere you need to pick and choose but its all vertical and super fun.

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Balazuc from Barrasses Sector…….a village of character.

The bolting is a little “old skool” in some sectors and there are also the original steel bolts from the seventies and eighties still present. We climbed on the stainless U-bolts and the newer fixed hangers. It just simply felt safer. There is no use risking your life for a sports route.

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Testing myself crack climbing and having to clip on the face…..Barrasses Sector

Some of the sectors we have experienced are Cirque de Gens (Pradons), Mazet, Le Viel Audon, Barrasses (Balazuc) and La Roche (Vogue)

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Ingrid bridging the gap to move onward and upward. Sector Le Viel Audon – Photo Maurice de Jonge 2017

After not sports climbing for a few weeks the Ardeche was a rude awakening to the vertical world again, but I have been loving the challenge and the diversity in styles. I have not climbed cracks before and I was up for the challenge. I feel I have a little fitness back now and am ready for the next part of the journey.

All sense of distance, time and direction disappear…….Aven d’Orgnac.

I have seen some remarkable landscapes and sailed across magnificent seas, but I today I walked to new heights of incredible and descended to one hundred and twenty-one metres below the surface of the earth into the heart of the Aven d’Orgnac cave system. Oh my god does not explain it enough. It was a truly awe-inspiring experience.

After the initial video display of the history of the cave: first discovered in 1935 by Robert Joly, we embarked on our descent into the centre of the earth. Seven hundred stairs through a dimly lit tunnel into the initial cavern. This cavern one hundred and twenty metres long, eighty metres wide and scarily high at its peak took my breath away.

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The only sunlight available…..

The natural entrance shone majestically thirty-five metres above us allowing in the only natural light through the four kilometres of tunnels and now redundant underground water courses. Massive stalagmites were rising twenty metres into the darkness above as stalactites cascaded from the ceiling of limestone and calcium above. What a truly alien environment to be witness to.

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75,000 years in the making…….truly patient.

All sense of distance, time and direction disappeared. Perception was only of light and dark and the cool twelve degrees celsius that surrounded me. Initially the air only felt a little humid, but within minutes you were standing in ninety-five percent humidity and you felt the cold begin to creep through your hands and into your core. As I said it wasn’t too cold, but we were going to be heading deeper and deeper and the temperature was going to remain low for the duration of our journey.

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The stalagmite on the left is 12 metres tall.

The lighting was truly spectacular and controlled by the guide as he walked us through the different sections of the first cavern. Each section telling a story of this living breathing organism. It all takes place with three simple elements: water, rock and carbon dioxide. I was amazed that it takes one hundred years for one cubic centimetre of stalagmite to grow. I was also amazed at how incredible these features become based on the distance the water droplets fall from the ceiling of the cave.

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This stalagmite is 25 metres tall.

Walking into the top of the second cavern, I stopped in my tracks as I stared across this wide expanse under me. It had to be two hundred and fifty metres in length and the roof was eighty metres above us. How insignificant did I feel right there and then. Tears began to well in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with joy to be able to stand here humbled again by natures beauty and grandeur.

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The stalagmite on the left is 12 metres tall.

Further down we tramped through the catacombs and fields of crystals and broccoli shaped displays. Stopping to just simply admire the shapes and the luminescence as light breathed through the coloured forms. A more extra-terrestrial environment you could not dream of. The CO2 levels were increasing the lower we descended.

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Its like the opening scene from Alien.

Standing on the viewing platform of the third cavern the air was thick. There was very little light and I could just make out this massive form. When the lights went on, there in the middle of the cave was a beautiful hanging monster. Some fifty metres long and hanging like a stunning velvet cinema curtain. The stalactite was immense and it was gorgeous. Words cannot explain how truly stunning it is. Pictures do not do it any justice.

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Subterranean Vertical Adventure………..

A light show set to an intricate modern classical piece illustrated the diversity of the third cave but also the beauty it held. We were standing about fifty metres above the cave floor and if we were to descend another thirty metres, we would need to have space suits as the CO2 levels were deadly. I thought about that as we descended back to the surface in a high speed elevator.

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And this is how it all starts.

Without the elevators, the CO2 immersions from all of us and every tourist who entered the cave can actually damage the caves integrity as we return to the surface via the stairs. It has died four times previously and now they have closed the majority of it to the public. It is with our respect that nature will continue to provide for us. We must protect, respect and revel in our planets beauty, because regardless of us……nature will continue patiently.

Gratitude……..it just simply felt like the next “right thing”………

I can’t help but feel incredibly privileged. Whilst writing this article I have just spent the last month with one of my best mates (yes you Michael) and his lovely missus (you too Robbie). They have been a source of continual support as I have embarked on a long journey of growth and change. They have listened, spoken and followed intently as I have wandered sometimes lost into the new world I now inhabit.

I am also blessed to have had some of my longest serving and dearest friends fly half way around the world to witness Karine and I wed one another. This is something that I will be eternally grateful for. These people are my true rocks and they are solid.

Meeting someone who you love waking up next to everyday and that you know without fail sees your deepest and darkest sides and just simply holds you tight and tells you it is all good.

An equal if you will, to share all of the delights, dramas and dilemmas life has to offer. Together we can resolve all that is presented to us.

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Our wedding day only brought us closer.        – photo Viviane Roch 2017

Marrying Karine just simply felt like the next “right thing”. There was no doubt in my mind that I was doing what I wanted. I have sometimes through my time doubted many decisions, but this was not one of them.

I am eternally grateful and very appreciative of all that Karine, my family and my friends both old and new bring to my life. Without you I would be a lesser man and life would be very different I am sure.

The contentment with which I wake up everyday now is rarely over-shadowed by doubt or disappointment, fear or frustration or worry about the future.

I am here and it is now………….and my journey continues.

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B.A.L.A.N.C.E……….It all comes down to it.

They have now gone into the magic forest………………Fontainebleau.

Two years ago pretty much to the day I first visited the beautiful and legendary forest of Fontainebleau, France. I had heard about this place only about six years previously as I was a newcomer to the sport and adventure of rock climbing and bouldering. Today with much excitement I had the great pleasure of returning to the fabled woods with some of my nearest and dearest friends.

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Gemma and Rob sharing a moment of laughter about something unknown to us………

My friends and I had talked about travelling to places of legend over a long period of time and today one of these conversation would occur no longer, replaced with an excited “How good was Font? To be able to be present when your mates experience their first boulder in the Bas Cuvier Sector is truly a wonderful thing.

I was alone on my first trip and only had three days, we now have a week and the weather is pretty good considering it’s the end of summer. Sure its not the best for projecting but so what! You’re in Font! This time it was just a time to relax after a very busy few weeks. No projects, no numbers to tick…….Just enjoy climbing lines that were appealing and that I could learn from.

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Gemma simply being in the forest…..wonderful shot of her by Robyn Sharpe 2017

I was definitely enjoying a new set of challenges here today. Bold mantle top-outs, thin vertical faces and long moves with smeared feet just to name a few, but my goal was to do things that I was not particularly good at. It was weakness improvement time for me.

The group separated yesterday just by the nature of things and Jara, Mike and I stuck around the main sandpit and tried a bunch of stuff that was definitely different, with the exception of Jara’s crack fetish. The wider the better, the more painful, the more delightful he finds them. Mike and I spent some time on a classic of the sector called “Marie Rose” F6a (first F6a (V3) in the world apparently).

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Jara getting a bit of crack action in the forest………

Whilst we worked through the problem Mike was sorting out how to do the top section and I was learning to stand on my feet a lot more than ever before. This was only one thing that came about  from the route. It was fabulous to be standing where we were, hanging out together working one of the most famous problems on the planet. A couple of other guys from Germany and Austria were there with us and the camaraderie was wonderful.

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Michael finishing up the first of many great sends on the day.

Karine, Gemma, Robyn and Rob had wandered off to another part of the sector and were having a blast on some super fun problems. We decided to try and locate them after about an hour or so and walked around the boulder field looking and singing out their names to no avail. When we retraced our steps and turned around a couple of corners…….There they were smiling at us.

Karine had just pulled on to the problem they were doing and was doing great. Robyn had just sent it and Gemma was up next. We all had a good go and it was a super fun problem with a scary top out. You really couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a day in the forest. I think we are all really appreciating being able to spend time in this magical place.

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Middle-aged Mutant Ninja Turtle……

We returned home and settled in of the evening with Gemma and Robyn preparing an amazing feast for us and Natalie prepared a sensational chocolate cake with raspberries and creme fraiche. Life is truly a wonderful thing when you have great people to laugh with , love, provide support and be inspired by…….these people are some of mine.

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(L to R) Karine, Natalie, Jara, Gemma, Me, Mike, Robyn and Rob.

In the forest there are only friends……………………………