There is something about snow that brings out the inner child.

As the skies drizzle upon us and temperatures start to hit sub-zero in our little village of Boursonne, France, the crackling of the fire fills the living room with warmth. The house is slowly warming now on a permanent basis with an average temperature of about 21 degrees. It sounds strange to say it but when the temps are sub-zero even 21 degrees isn’t warm enough sometimes.

A couple of days ago we had our first snowfall for the season and it was simply beautiful. There is something about snow that brings out the inner child in all of us. The fairytale environment it creates and the pure pleasure of staring out the window into the whiteness is all one truly needs. The stark contrast of the winter now shows, with the trees threadbare and the grey skies being the norm, are for me very different.

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Our backyard……….

This is my first winter in three years and my first Northern winter ever. I must say so far it is proving to be everything I have heard them to be and more. The days are cold and the nights are colder. I feel a depth of chill that I have not felt before while I sit and write. For the sixth day this week I am wearing a thermal base layer underneath my regular clothes and I still feel a little cold. Oh my god, the middle of winter is going to be desperate for me I am sure.

While the cold seems to be at the forefront of my mind, I am still motivated to do my training and to spend time on our little climbing wall in the garage. Yesterday Karine and I braved the cold and bouldered for a good couple of hours. We have a heater in the room that provides psychological comfort and that is about all. We wear our beanies and take a thermos of tea up there with us to help stay warm.

Yesterday I was out in the weather, rugged up in my warmest clothes stacking firewood into the back of a truck with my father-in-law Jean-Claude. Whilst it was not too physically demanding, it was good to be moving and doing some work. I must admit that I do like it when I get to do something like that. There is a sense of purpose and satisfaction that it brings and I feel a certain pleasure in this. It helps keep you gracious I think.

We are both very pleased with our simple life here at the moment. We manage to get a lot done each day and spend our time between studying Yoga and French language, training, climbing and cooking various heart warming delights. We even manage to sit and read a little in front of the fire. It is a good life and we often just look up and smile at each other knowingly that right here, right now….It is enough.

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The calmness of Coll de Nagro

Three and a half months after our friends first started to arrive to begin celebrating our wedding and spend time with us travelling around Southern France, I am now in a small village in Northern Spain, the Southern Pyrenees to be precise with my friend Gemma. We decided after much deliberation to head to Spain anyway after deciding initially not to go a few weeks ago.

Things changed and we thought it a good idea to continue south after spending a week in Provence with my darling wife Karine and some of our friends from Paris. The weather was turning and the further south, the closer the equator. Well, that was my thinking anyway. How wrong was I? It was cold and the wind was blowing like crazy when we arrived in this tiny village.

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The village of Coll de Nagro……..

Gemma had organised the accommodation and it was just beautiful. The house was at the top of the old village centre and had been standing there for about three hundred years. The small rooms, low ceilings and the exposed beams in the roof gave me a fair idea about not only the size of the people in years gone by, but also just how cold it can get down here in the winter.

I had been climbing here about a year ago with my friends Simon and Monique and we had a great time just hanging out and spending time in the nearby village of Organya. For Gemma and I…….Looking out of our living room window, the towering cliffs of limestone provided a spectacular backdrop to top off the entire experience.

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Our little palace in the village.

I knew we would be doing some climbing here but what was also needed was some calm, peace and relaxation as well. I realised I was a little tired and had lost some of the zest that my friends know me for. So I just settled in and took everyday as it came. Waking early, studying french, drinking coffee and reading a great book made the mornings super chilled. Some days I would walk down to the patisseria for baguettes and “pain chocolat” for Gemma. There was absolutely no rush………very Spanish indeed!

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The castle………

Climbing was a pleasure again and Gemma was just happy to follow me up any route that I decided to do, which made the whole process super fun. We really didn’t do any hard routes and most of the climbing was truly beautiful. The rock was a mix of conglomerate at the base with clean beautiful limestone on the upper walls. A little technical at times, but mostly just good straight ahead vertical/slab climbing.

The calmness of this trip was truly making a good impression on me. Days were simply enjoyable again and so was the climbing. I was missing Miss K, as she was back at school and studying hard, but it was only a short amount of time apart and we would be together again.

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Oliana at sunrise…….truly stunning.

Our host Albert was without a doubt one of the most caring and attentive people I have ever met in my travels. He was going out of his way to make our stay truly special. One night he brought dinner to the house for us. It was incredible. A traditional Catalan Frittata with beautiful bread and olive oil, along with some of the best locally brewed beer and wine from the region. We had a great night laughing and talking about travel, village life and the political situation in Spain.

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Gemma and our fabulous host Albert (and the amazing meal he made and brought to the house).

Gemma and I could not thank Albert enough for making our stay here truly “tranquillo”. Everything was fantastic and the area is incredibly picturesque and rural. Dairy farms, local cheeses, chorizo, beers and pastries make it all worth exploring.…….If you are ever thinking of spending time in Spain and going climbing in or around Oliana, be sure to find Albert at Narieda Rural and tell him the Australians sent you…….

Maybe, just maybe I’ll become a better climber because of it.

Whilst spending a couple of weeks at home last month and really getting to settle back down for a few minutes, I decided to create a new training regime for myself. I haven’t really trained that hard for a long time and to be honest I do miss really pushing myself from a training point of view. Whilst its great to be travelling a lot and climbing in amazing places with great friends etc etc……I really like spending time working on weaknesses and improving in all aspects of life.

I have been listening to different people for quite sometime now, both professional and amateur to try and obtain a good approach. Some are quite funny when giving advice and just simply say climb more or climb harder. Whilst this advice is great it’s not really helpful nor is it really guidance. Although I must say it is based on many years of experience. I would never take that away from anyone. Especially some of the people I have had coaching from.

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Visualising the movement is a great way to set it in your mind.

I only recently discovered some things that were completely lacking in my technical ability and identifying them took some serious time and contemplation. Spending the time looking at videos and watching many other people climb I found some fundamental weaknesses. It really made me stop and think about what I had been neglecting in my training in previous years. Also they were things that were never raised in any coaching I had received……ever!!

Anyway, I have found them and now its time to really start focusing in on developing these weaknesses to use them for good and to continue going out and having fun at the crags.

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Nailing the right-hand crimp in the second crux……super powerful for me.

Yesterday I decided to work a route that was completely out of style for me and I knew it! But, I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was try it and see what I needed to do to move well on it. I had no expectations about how it would go and I just wanted to have some fun and get completely physically smashed on it by the end of the day. And that is exactly what happened.

“Capita Cassolae” 7a (23) is twelve metres of powerful and unforgiving technical bouldering. It really is ON from the ground to the anchors. For me the route packs a punch and it really does have all of the movement that I have recently been working on.

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and then the even smaller left hand crimp and marginal feet……..squeeze the butt and core…….and hold on.

Body tension from the first move and a powerful shoulder position through the bottom crux. The amount of pressure I need through my feet, legs, hips and core is incredibly. So much so that I am feeling it today as I write this.

People say pick your routes and play to your strengths, but sometimes its worth spending time just working on what you’re not good at. I plan to continue to work on my weaknesses and maybe, just maybe I’ll become a better climber because of it.

 

The stunning lines tower above pines and vines.

Standing overlooking the Les Dentelles des Montmirail Range in the  is a truly awe-inspiring experience. They are so appropriately named. When you view them from the cemetery in the tiny village of Suzette the range looks like rows of sharp teeth rising up from the plateau below. The hills undulating in autumn colours below. Right now the autumn tones and the landscape looks truly stunning.

While it may not be a super world famous crag where everyone goes to climb, it is one of the most visually striking places I have had the pleasure of travelling to. This is my second trip here in about three months. As much as I would like to say I have climbed a lot here I would in fact be lying. I have climbed here very little, However the reason we came back here was to climb a lot more.

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The range from Suzette.

The weather this morning is at best, absolutely terrible. It has rained all night and the winds are strong and cold. The ground is very wet and motivation is low at best. There is still a very positive attitude to getting on rock though. I was hoping for a little rematch on “Crescendo” 7a (23), a route at Le Grozeau that I tried last time I was in the area. Today this was not going to happen. Thierry wanted to take us to the Clapis area on the Southside of the range.

When we arrived at the car park I jumped out of the car and just looked up and stared at the incredibly intimidating walls in front of me. I was feeling both inspired and inferior. It was so beautiful here. We walked in through the forest and although it is only about four hundred metres above sea-level, it felt increasingly alpine in its nature. The wind, the cold and the clouds were all part of this wonderful thirty-five minute walk in.

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The lines, pines and vines of Clapis Secteur of Les Dentelles des Montmirail.

Settling in at the base of the cliff after trekking up and traversing across, the giant slabs stared down at us while we ate, rested and planned our afternoon. It was now about one o’clock and the narrow window of opportunity was shrinking. I got up and grabbed my rope and pack and traversed down to the base of a long slab line called “Les Meilleur best Possible” 5b (15). Looking up and surveying the wall I located the anchors some thirty-five metres above me and began to tie in.

I must say with no apologies and regret what-so-ever “I hate slab climbing because I am bad at it!” However I am a firm believer in working on my weaknesses and this was my goal for the day. Stepping onto the sloping face I could feel the first climb trepidation creeping in. I moved up slowly and placed my feet with a certainty that I was now becoming more used to. Pressing down and curling my toes a little just to feel the rock a little more positively.

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The valley below glows in the autumn sun…..

As I settled in, I would occasionally look behind me as I moved up, staring out at the valley glowing golden with hints of deep green that divided us from the vines below. The rock was cold and the friction was stunning. All meaningful to an avid climber, but most of all I was calm and the wall was where I wanted to be right now. The clean white-grey limestone was for me enough.

Completing the route and lowering off I smiled at Karine. I love being in the great outdoors with my darling wife. She makes all of this truly special for me. She tied in and began up the route. The sun was shining on her as she moved slowly and diligently upward. I was in the shade and cooling fast, but Karine looked almost serene way up there. Being engulfed by the wall she continued to the top.

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Catherine and Karine sharing the vast wall of Secteur Vires Rouges……

Good fortune was favouring us, as the weather remained stable for the rest of the afternoon. We chatted with Thierry and Catherine. Karine and I decided to repeat the route once more just because we were happy where we were and whilst the temps were dropping the sun was still with us. The second ascent was an even more tranquil experience, I was just so in “the zone”. Everything went flawlessly and I smiled as I clipped the anchors.

It is when you are absolutely present that you have the greatest experiences. It’s not about being anything but content. I put on my down jacket and belayed Karine again. She just looked so at ease. This what climbing is to us now. It is an absolute pleasure to be able to do this “thing” together. We have great times and we experience fabulous places. Les Dentelles des Montmirail is one of these places. Don’t miss out on climbing here if you enjoy what you do. It is definitely worth exploring the area and spending time here on stunning lines towering above pines and vines.

Fontainebleau…….The sun on our backs, playing in the forest with friends.

It’s a fabulous feeling to be doing the things you enjoy, with the people you enjoy doing them with. Today was not really that different to any other day. We were out for a walk in the forest with some friends and enjoying the morning discussing how things had been going for each other over the last couple of months since we had last met.

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Looking around for the Elephant……

Well, maybe a little different………we were in Fontainebleau!!!!! We were wandering through L’elephant sector checking out all the classic boulder problems of the area. It was such a great thing to do. The weather was not that great but the rain had stopped early this morning and we all needed a bit of a walk and it also helped our friends to loosen up the city minds they were carrying with them.

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Thierry showing some of the classic French style require to send in the forest……..:- Photo Karine Hitchcock 2017

Saturday the weather was a little average and the intermittent showers sort of slowed us down a little, but we got out to Sector 95.5 (named for its altitude above sea-level). We climbed a few of the routes there and had a great deal of fun watching Viviane and Jean-Jacques complete their first boulders in the forest. A wonderful thing to see and have them experience.

Sunday was a little more inspiring with the weather being a little cooler but spectacular none the less. We returned to one of the first sectors we ever went called Roche aux Sabots in the Trois Pignons area. We decided to do the “Circuit Orange” from the beginning and did about ten of the problems and the we did ten of the “Circuit Bleau”.

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The entourage making a b-line for Roche aux Sabots Sector. (L to R) Catherine, Karine, Viviane and Jean-Jacques leading the way.

Thierry, Karine and I tried a few of the blue problems and a couple of them took more than one attempt to send. You quickly forget the numbers here and simply work out how the solution works for you. Fontainebleau has a habit of humbling the most experienced and committed of climbers.

I had been watching this young British guy working this problem and thought….I’ll give it a go. After a couple of attempts, I found the solution that worked for me. And just as I reached the top and began to mantle up over on to the top of the boulder, my foot slipped and I plummeted back to earth from about four and half metres up. I missed the pads completely and landed a little heavy on my feet. Scared me a little, but I checked myself out and there was no damage. I found the solution on the second attempt and finished on top of the boulder.

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Thierry taking care of me on my send after I hit the ground the first time….:- Photo Karine Hitchcock 2017.

Thinking it might be time for a rest, Thierry suggested we join the others for lunch and we setup our picnic blanket and proceeded to dine on chicken, Boudin sausage, cheese, baguettes and some fresh fruit.

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Contentment is hanging out in the forest………

The sun on our backs, playing in the forest with friends and the air a little fresh made for a great meal in a truly beautiful place. It was a great afternoon out and a wonderful weekend in the forest.

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.

 

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……..