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.

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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……………………………

Absolute access to the wonderful abundance of Southern France.

Its hard to contain my excitement right now, as I am sitting in the kitchen of a little Gite (B&B) we have rented for ten days, located 3kms out of a sleepy little Southern French village called Violes. The site is located in a vineyard and overlooks the Les Dentelles des Montmirail range. All I can really say is that the place is perfect for us and we have absolute access to the wonderful and abundant local wineries in the Cote du Rhone region and also to some of the most varied rock climbing in the country.

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Our uninterrupted view for the next ten days…….Les Dentelles des Montmirail.
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When Mike said “We’ll hire a car”, I didn’t expect this!

Our first day here was spent in Avignon as the weather pushed us into tourist mode. The rains came down and came down hard unexpectedly, so we packed the car with our lovely friends Mike and Robyn from Australia and trundled into the beautiful and ancient walled city. We simply indulged in this town steeped in history, ogling the architecture from a by-gone era and taking in a new cultural experience as we wandered.

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Modern art meets ancient art…I love the contrast in Avignon………..truly liberating
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14th Century Church, full of ostantatious riches.

Pouring my coffee and staring out the back door, directly into the vines full of plump product is just amazing. Sometimes you just get a great opportunity and this is one. The wine produced here is very boutique. Small numbers and only available here or in the owners restaurant in Savoie. Fortunately they have given us three bottles to sample and they have all been very good.

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They do a very nice red where we are stayin’……..just sayin’.

Its great to be able to show mike and Robyn around this amazing part of the world and also to explore ourselves, as Karine and I are checking out villages and areas with a view to settling here in the South in the next 12 months or so. Sorry but we are not rushing into it at all, to much fun to be had just yet.

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Robyn, Mike and I just hanging out in the Place des Papes.
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Karine relaxing in the Parc de Avignon.

Day two we wandered out into the mountains near Gigondas and found one of the local climbing sectors and did a few routes to clear out the cobwebs and settle into the area a little more. Walking through the forest was wonderful and it really made me realise just how much I love what  do. I am very fortunate right now to say “I am a traveller and I rock climb”. I did not really ever expect to say this out loud, but I can and do now with a proud tone in my voice.

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The view from Gigondas village over the entire Gigondas region.

When I woke yesterday morning, I was welcomed by what is known as “The Mistrel”. This is the wind from the Mediterranean and it is strong and it is cold. It stops you in your tracks, even if you are super keen to get out on rock again. So, we jumped in the car and headed out on the tourist trail on the recommendation from Karine and a friend back home.

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Village Roussillon, Parc Naturel de Luberon.

The Parc Nautrel de Luberon is a stunning area that host a few of the most wonderful historical sites in France. Arriving in Roussillon known for its ochre quarry, this stunning hill top village was a buzz with tourists enjoying the summer holidays. Everyone in France seems to go south for the summer. We walked the Ochre Trail and the landscape that  has been “manufactured” by time and change. The trail is just beautiful.

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The Ochre Quarry and trail near Roussillon.

We followed up with a visit to Gordes. This is one of the most incredible villages in southern France and should be experienced by all who come to the South. Truly incredible and steeped in Roman history. Caverns, caves, cliffside living and a fortified chateau, all make this village quite the unique place indeed. Just outside Gordes there is a village that pre-dates Roman history and we could not stay away. We were off again.

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Village des Bories……..an amazing and unique view into ancient life.

Walking into the Bories Village was one of the most amazing sights I have seen in France. The village is now a museum and hosts a range of tools and articles from the past that are just remarkable. Speculation about the age of the village runs rife as some suspect it to have been built in the 15th Century, while others have stated clearly that the architecture is more 7th Century. either way it is a very stark and stunning view into village life hundreds of years ago.

Pebble Wrestling on Ouessant and the Bull Frog Boulder

The days here seem to pass quickly and the weather has the consistency of the mountains. One minute it is beautiful, the next it is ominous and grey. Like the Peak District  in the UK, you have to brave the changes and the elements and just get out and enjoy the opportunities Ouessant presents.

Today was like this. We headed out for a ride and decided to take the shoes and chalk with us. There are a plethora of large pebbles here to wrestle with and Karine and I felt it was time to enjoy the possibility of bouldering here. There is no information available about the boulders here other than they are granite and covered in lichen. So we only clean what we want to use as holds.

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The incredible coastline of Ouessant. Boulders everywhere………

We had already discussed not having crash pads and decided not to take any adverse risks or just simply be stupid about it. We wandered around the coastline taking in the vast beauty that surrounded us and spied some possibilities for a little vertical adventure. The formations here are really cool and I am enjoying just looking at the landscape.

The contrast here is remarkable. The granite towers in the sea are almost orange in colour and the deep blue and turquoise of the sea is offset by this and the exploding and colourful blotches of the fauna. Karine had walked around here the day before with Jean-Jacques and said she had found some good boulders.

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Karine standing on Bull Frog Boulder.

We dropped our gear at the base of what I affectionately called “Bull Frog Boulder”. To me thats what it looks like side on. Starting to get in close and have a look at the possibilities, I spotted a nice starting point for what turned out to be our first problem. Given the size of this boulder I thought the problem would be quite short, but it turned out to be a long and sustained route through steep and somewhat sloper filled terrain.

It took a couple or three attempts to string it all together, but it just simply felt great to be back on rock after a month hiatus. Karine tried it and successfully pulled through the first six moves, only to be over-powered by the need to keep her feet lower. I know she can climb it. So, I have named it “Et Elle Embrassait Le Beau Prince” V3 (F6a) or “And She Kissed the Handsome Prince”.

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Karine, first day on “Et Elle Embrassait Le Beau Prince” V3 (F6a) or “And She Kissed the Handsome Prince”.

A couple of days later we went back for the afternoon. The sun was shining on us this day and we just simply loved the location. There is nothing better than being out with your loved one and enjoying doing what you’re doing together. Its one of the great things about common ground and travelling together.

We warmed up and sat chatting about what we were going to do. Karine wanted a rematch with “Et Elle Embrassait Le Beau Prince” and I wanted to send this new route on the right hand side. I started to work my route and figure out the sequence through the bottom. It was harder than the first route by a grade point at least. I fell off regularly. Karine worked through the moves and climbed the route with one fall.

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

Resting she got back on and tried again. As she rounded the nose, she started to feel a little desperate and fatigued, but I shouted “keep going……Finish it!” She pushed on through and sent her first Font 6a (V3) boulder problem. She stood up on the top of the boulder and threw her hands in the air celebrating mildly, as she does. So incredibly proud of her, she always tries super hard even when scared and pumped.

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The first ascent of Heel, Toe, Dosey Doe” V4 (F6a+).

I tried my boulder again and got it a couple of goes later. I was really excited to have pulled the moves, as it was a slopey, overhanging start with a heel hook, toe hook and core squeeze to get off the ground. I found it a little powerful until I found the solution. I named it “Heel, Toe, Dosey Doe” V4 (F6a+).

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Our view at the end of our day was spectacular.

We decided to head home before the chill of the evening kicked in. It gets a little cool here at night.