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Sport Climbing in Canada Part 1

By Mark Anderson

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting long-time climber and developer of the Sloper Climbing App Jeff Moore. The Sloper Climbing App is the next big thing in smart phone climbing tech. It’s definitely worth checking out, but that’s not what this post is about.

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The incomparable Canadian Rockies.

Jeff lives in Canmore, Alberta, the epicenter of Canadian climbing. He visited Denver recently and I mentioned to him how much Kate & I love the Canadian Rockies and longed to visit. As kids, Mike and I traveled there several times on family road trips, and between 2001-2004 I made three climbing trips to the area, but sadly I haven’t been back since then. It seems like every year Kate & I would make vague plans to return to Canada, and every year some other trip would take its place.

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Amelie and me, with my new friend Jeff Moore on the right.

Jeff mentioned cheap airfare from Denver to Calgary, which I relayed to Kate off-hand. She took it seriously and started making plans for Labor Day weekend. I had to re-work my training schedule a bit, but within 24 hours she had the trip booked, commencing only 4 days later! That’s some seriously alpine-style trip-planning by Kate. After a two-and-a-half hour direct flight and an hour of driving we were in Canmore.

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Above Lake Louise, with Mt. Aberdeen, Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Victoria.

Kate offered to hang with the kids the first day so I could climb something with Jeff. I knew immediately what I wanted to climb. My previous forays to the Canadian Rockies all revolved around alpine climbing—ascending the big peaks, by various routes. During those trips I climbed Mt. Temple twice, by the classic East Ridge, and the neo-classic Greenwood-Locke route on the imposing North Face. Both routes descend the southwest ridge of the mountain, returning to Sentinel Pass and then down through the Valley of Ten Peaks to Moraine Lake.

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Mike following high on the North Face of Mt. Temple in 2003.

Just on the other side of Sentinel Pass stands an incredible spire of teetering quartzite dubbed the Grand Sentinel. This is surely one of the great rock towers of the world, and I would know.  There are others that are skinnier (height relative to width at the base), but considering its position, the environment in which it stands, and the quality of rock in these mountains, its truly incredible this finger of stacked choss is still standing. The fact I had climbed and descended Mt Temple twice meant that I had passed this remarkable feature twice, gazed upon it in awe twice, and longed desperately to climb it ever since!

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Grand Sentinel!

The tower is about 100m tall, involving 4 pitches of climbing, with two route options that I know of—the classic 5.9 crack route of the South Face, and the fully modern, fully bolted Cardiac Arete (5.10d). The “problem” with the route—the reason I never got around to climbing it—was that in my alpine days, it was “too small” to justify a proper climbing day, and “too big” (with ~3000’ of hiking to approach and descend) to pull off on a rest day. But it was just right for this trip, and Jeff graciously agreed to do it again (for the 5th or 6th time?)

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Light shining through the upper 15 meters of the Grand Sentinel illustrates just how precarious this spire is.

We rolled out of Canmore just before 5am, anxious to beat the holiday-weekend crowds to this uber-classic route. The parking lot was already swarming with cars when we arrived just after 6, well-before dawn. Anxiously we raced up the brutal approach trail by headlamp, up and into Larch Valley. The area was experiencing unseasonably cool and wet weather, which must have dissuaded other suitors because we arrived at the icy pass totally alone.

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On the approach, looking back toward Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks from just below Sentinel Pass.  Note all the white stuff…in August!

The tower was every bit as staggering as I remembered. We picked our way down the snow-covered talus on the north side of the pass and made our way to the base of Grand Sentinel. The weather was absolutely not what either of us had expected—Sub-freezing with persistent wind and the ever-present threat of more precipitation—in August!

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The ominous view to the north from Sentinel Pass, just after sunrise.

Jeff and I had only recently met and never climbed together, so neither was sure what the other was thinking. We kept asking every 5 minutes or so, “Are you still psyched?” The answer was always yes. Both routes can be easily rapped, and we brought gear for either option, we had raincoats, so we figured we would keep going until we reached an impasse. Personally, I was brimming with stoke. I wanted to climb this thing desperately, and if the experience itself was miserable, I figured that would only make it that much more memorable. Plus I felt like I had to represent for Colorado—show our friendly neighbors to the north that we can handle a little bit of bad weather.

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Grand Sentinel from the little pass just south of the base of the tower. The classic “South Face” route follows the obvious dihedral system at center.

Fortunately the wind was relatively calm huddled in the col below the south face. We chose to go for the Cardiac Arete. Ascending the SE prow of the tower, the arete is certainly more exposed to the elements, but also a much better-looking line (and much better quality, according to Jeff). We racked up and donned every bit of clothes in our packs. Jeff cruised up the first pitch, only stopping to shake blood back into his fingers periodically.

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Cardiac Arete pretty much follows the right skyline, with a few excursions onto the (hidden) east face.

The first pitch is pretty much an endless series of horizontal breaks, offering big jugs, with the occasional long reach between them. A small roof at mid-height is the crux. Jeff commented often about the cold rock, but it didn’t seem to slow him down much. I brazenly reasoned all my years of climbing in Clear Creek through the winter had me well-prepared, and grew eager to show my Canadian friend how it’s done.

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Jeff cranking over the crux roof on the first pitch.

I followed the 1st pitch in full-on sprint mode, figuring I could stave off numbing by minimizing my time on the rock. At the belay I re-racked the draws and then went right into leading the 2nd pitch. This pitch was much different, starting up the south face with some fingery face climbing on incredible rock, then turning the arête to the east face for some more intricate face climbing.

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Jeff cruising the second pitch.

By the time I turned the arête I was completely numb, more so than I can ever remember. It’s pretty typical for my fingers to numb out on the first cold day of each winter season, but often it’s only my finger tips and rarely an entire finger. On this pitch my entire HANDS were numb, from the wrist up! It was like climbing with clubs. I thumped my hands against the rock and felt absolutely nothing. It was like my hands were gone. I could see them, but that was the only feedback I had that they were still there.

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Jeff on the second pitch. This last stretch to the belay was desperate for my frozen hands!

To make matters worse, I was short on draws and had to skip a couple bolts at the end. I wanted to shout “Take” sooo badly, but again, I had to represent for Colorado, so I sucked it up and tried to pull through. I would grab a hold, have no idea how big the hold was, if I had it well, or if I had the strength to pull on it, and just crank up towards the next one and repeat. It was the strangest feeling—like watching someone else climb. At each move I half-expected to pitch off into the void, but fortunately the holds were big enough to scrape through. It was easily my most desperate 5.10 lead of the last decade!

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The view from the top of the second pitch into Paradise Valley.  The big broad peak is Mt. Aberdeen.

Finally I reached the luxurious ledge atop the 2nd pitch. I mumbled to Jeff that I needed a minute, curled into the fetal position, and experienced the worst case of the screaming barfies I can remember. After a minute or so of agony I could feel the blood coursing back into my hands. Within a couple minutes they were back to normal and I was good to go for the rest of the climb. Jeff came up quickly and offered to let me lead the rest of the route since he had previously led all the pitches. I happily agreed and set off for #3.

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Starting up the third pitch. Note the puffy! Photo Jeff Moore.

The third pitch is relatively straightforward except for a big roof in the middle. This obstacle is awkward and scrunchy, but ends in killer jugs, once you can reach them. I hesitated a bit, unsure how to tackle it, but eventually unlocked the sequence. The fourth pitch was hands-down the best. It climbs right on the arête the entire way, often using the arête as a hold. The exposure and setting are spectacular, and it offers a tricky crux just below the summit. It’s one of those sequences that is at first perplexing, and so that much more rewarding once you figure it out.

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Starting up the premier fourth pitch. Photo Jeff Moore.

I cruised up the slightly chossy last few feet (despite appearances, the only bit of poor rock on the climb) and balanced my way up onto the summit block. The views were spectacular, despite the sub-par weather. The route was truly fantastic, with excellent rock throughout and engaging climbing, surpassed only by the incredible setting. The stone is really varied and so is the movement, with each pitch offering something unique. It’s truly a world class route at the grade.

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Jeff on the summit (that lump of rock to the left is another formation west of Grand Sentinel.

One of the most common questions I get is whether or not I am still able to enjoy “easy” climbs. Absolutely! I just plain love climbing, and I love it at any grade. Certainly, more difficult things can be more engaging and offer a bit more to sink my teeth into, but I will always love being in the wild, moving over stone, in whatever capacity the day has to offer. This was an incredible day in the mountains, up a stellar route, on a spectacular feature, with a great new friend. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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Rigging the first rappel from the top of the fourth pitch, just a few feet below the summit of Grand Sentinel.

We made the descent without any issues and worked slowly back up to the pass. For one brief moment the sun peeked through the clouds to shed a glimmer of warming light onto the Grand Sentinel. It would have been nice to see the sun while we were climbing, but we were happy to have the tower the way we did—with the entire valley to ourselves and an unforgettable experience to go along with the tick.

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Also, we saw a Gorilla (the North Face of Mt. Fay).

Just below the south side of the pass I was stunned to meet Kate, Logan and Amelie hiking up. This was easily the hardest hike Logan or Amelie had every attempted, and considering the weather I was certain they would have bailed. Kate and Logan continued to Sentinel Pass while Jeff and I continued down with Amelie. A couple hours later we all rendezvoused at the Moraine Lake Lodge for a well-earned cup of hot chocolate.

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Isn’t it fun when you run into someone you know? Kate and Logan just below Sentinel Pass.

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My little geologist Amelie collecting rocks at Moraine Lake.

Exploring the Tre Cime

By Mark Anderson

As we wandered over the many passes and marveled at the gob smacking peaks of the Dolomites, I definitely got “the itch” to climb something big. I’ve become a true sport climber over the last decade, especially since my kids arrived, but it hasn’t always been that way. I was first drawn to climbing by a love of the mountains and a desire to stand on top of the snow-capped volcanos I could see from my childhood home. That led to many adventures on the big walls of Yosemite, the alpine peaks of the Canadian Rockies, North Cascades and more remote areas of Alaska and Canada.

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The Tre Cime di Lavaredo from the VF De Luca/Innerkofler tunnels.  From left to right: Cima Piccola, Cima Grande, and Cima Ovest.  Also known as the “Drei Zinnen” (in German).

I wasn’t prepared to do any proper multi-pitch climbing, nor was I interested in ditching the family for an entire day, but the Via Ferrate offered the opportunity to do something that would normally require a partner and a long day in just a couple of hours. Hands-down my favorite day in the Dolomites was the day we explored the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. These “three summits” are notorious among adventure climbers, and have figured notably in the history of alpinism across many decades.

Cima Grande, the central and tallest of the trio, was the first to acquire notoriety with Emilio Comici’s 1933 ascent of its North Face, which is now regarded as one of the six “Great North Faces” of the Alps (along with the north faces of the Eiger, Matterhon, Dru, Grandes Jorasses & Piz Badile). The incomparable Walter Bonatti left his mark in February 1953 with back-to-back winter ascents of the Cima Ovest and Cima Grande. In 2001, gymnastic free-climbing took center stage on Cima Ovest when Alex Huber established his gob-smacking roof climb Bellavista (5.14a) , followed by Pan Aroma (5.14b) in 2007. More recently, the peaks featured briefly in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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Early on the trail to Rifugio Lavaredo.

We had a big day planned with lots of hiking, exploring, and some Via Ferrata. We arrived at Rifugio Auronzo at sunrise and struck out for the Rifugio Lavaredo and the Forcella Lavaredo pass just above. The trail winds around the unremarkable southern sides of the Tre Cime, and is more like a graded road with a few patches of snow here and there. Some liability-minded authority had barricaded the road with a small hand-written sign that warned: “Danger Street.” Fortunately I thought to bring an ice axe and helmets for all, so we were pretty much prepared for anything (ironically, on the return hike a washing machine-sized boulder spontaneously cut loose from the steep scree slope above and tore through the “danger street” only a few hundred yards in front of us—fortunately Kate thought to yell “ROCK!” and nobody was hurt).

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The “Danger Street” warning sign.

We made quick progress to the pass where we got our first clear view of the north faces, and they were incredible! We hung out for a while snapping pictures and assessing the snowpack. Our ambitious “Plan A” was to complete the VF De Luca/Innerkofler. This uber-classic route cuts along, over, and through the Tre Cime-adjacent Monte Paterno (thanks to a series of war-time tunnels and lots of wire).

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Monte Paterno, just left of center, from Forcella Lavaredo.  The Rifugio Locatelli is barely visible on the left.

The standard approach is to traverse the west slope of the mountain to the Rifugio Tre Cime-Locatelli, then clip into the wire for the return trip over and through the mountain. This slope, and pretty much the entire basin below the Tre Cime, was packed with snow, so we ditched Plan A. The usual exit route from Monte Paterno was only a few hundred yards from where we sat, so we roped up, strapped on our helmets, and set off to do the route in reverse, out-and-back.

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The Tre Cime in profile, from the start of the VF DL/I tunnel system.

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In one of the tunnels on VF DL/I.

The route is immediately interesting with a 50-foot stretch of dark tunnel (and in this case, somewhat snow-packed, with an icy floor and wet, dripping roof). The tunnel ends with long stretches of exposed ledges that were carved in the rock. We snaked around several ridges until we were stopped cold by a couloir filled with snow. We decided this was a good spot for the kids to turn around, but Kate generously encouraged me to continue.

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On the wire after the first tunnel section.

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Kate and the kids at the exit of a short tunnel (in the lower left).  The snowfield to the left is actually part of a snow-filled couloir that forced them to turn around.

Beyond the couloir the terrain eased again, then turned the ridge to the east side which was spectacularly bathed in morning sun. I made quick progress until I came across a big steep snowfield several-hundred feet high. It was pretty hard to follow the path at this point (and impossible to clip in since the cable was buried), so I just front-pointed straight up the slope using my icetool and surprisingly-effective hiking shoes with “ice cleats”.

Eventually I topped out the snowfield and got a nice view down the northern slope to Rifugio Tre Cime-Locatelli, which, predictably, was even more snowy! There was no way we could have completed the loop-route as planned in these conditions. However, if not for the snow, I think the kids would’ve had a good shot of making the summit, at least as an Out-and-Back the way I did it. The climbing is loose in places but never very difficult and the vertical-ish sections are only a few feet long.

From the col, it was only a couple hundred feet of snow-free climbing to the glorious summit. The views of the Tre Cime were phenomenal—it’s the perfect vantage point to admire these legendary north walls. I snapped a couple pics then hustled back down the route, even enjoying some glissading on the way down.

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The Tre Cime from the summit of Monte Paterno.

When I returned to Forcella Lavaredo the family was gone, but I could make them out at the Lavaredo Hut a few hundred feet below. By then the place was teeming with tourists, a stark contrast to the solitude we enjoyed at 6am. I wasn’t ready to return there quite yet—I still wanted to get a climber’s view of the big north faces, especially the massive roofs of Cima Ovest.

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The Tre Cime from Forcella Lavaredo.

Half-running, I traversed rapidly across the snow-covered slope.   Like most big walls, they weren’t quite as intimidating from directly below, but I was stunned by the poor quality of rock. Cima Grande in particular was a spider web of fractures, towering like a brick skyscraper without any mortar. I could see how face climbing on this wall could be both unlimited and terrifying at the same time. There’s a neo-classic 8a free climb on the left side of this wall that I can only imagine would be mentally ravaging.

On the right side, the classic lines of the Comici route and its variations weaved between ledges, linking weakness to reach a massive and drenched chimney. Physically, it was easy to see how a route here was possible, but it was hard to imagine venturing up on such a face with 1930’s-era equipment and techniques. Even with modern equipment, I cannot honestly say the route looked appealing. Still, I’d love to do it someday, with a Gore-tex jacket!

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Looking up at the North Face of Cima Grande, from the couloir between Cima Grande and Cima Ovest. The classic Comici route roughly follows the series of gray/black ledges, up into the long, wet black streaks.

The toe of Cima Ovest’s north face is a couple hundred feet lower than that of Cima Grande, and figuring the kids must have been getting restless, I stopped short of traversing all the way to its base. From the couloir between the two peaks I had a nice profile view of the big roof of Bellavista, and it looked spectacular. This wall is also known for poor rock quality, but from this vantage point it looked significantly better than the stone on Cima Grande. I could only imagine what it would feel like to pull into the roof, some 50m out from the toe of the wall, and a couple hundred meters off the deck. Nothing else compares to it in the world, and someday I have to figure out a way to try one of these routes.

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Cima Ovest in profile.

If there is a key take-away from my time in the Dolomites, it’s that I have to go back! This is not the sort of place that can be absorbed in just two weeks. For the time being there are other places to explore, but I will definitely return here, in the fall, with a rack on my back and adventure in mind.

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More Sport Climbing in the Dolomites

By Mark Anderson

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Fantisilandia, 7a+, Becco d’Ajal

Now that I had figured out which characteristics to look for in Dolomite sport crags I was much more psyched for the upcoming crag days.  One crag that piqued my interest is called “Rio Gere” and was merely 4 Km from our Condo in Cortina. Though the book raved about it, a quick recon of the area left me skeptical.

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Rio Gere–a massive boulder in the forest just east of Cortina.

The cliff is a mixture of yellow, fractured stone and (at that time) heavily seeping pocketed flowstone. Since I was unsure of its quality, I left it for the afternoon of a big hiking day when I was already tired. I began the session with the old strategy of climbing the dry yellow stone, which went as expected—I sent everything, but felt dirty afterwards. I decided I would have more fun slipping out of muddy water-sculpted pockets than teetering up dusty choss, so I climbed a set of flowstone lines that all turned out to be incredible, despite the mud.

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Climbing rad (but muddy) flowstone pockets on Che Pizza, 7b+, Rio Gere.

I also learned that by taking my grade down a few notches I could pretty much climb through a shower head without falling, and when I clipped the chains I felt a real sense of accomplishment. There was no question—I was having more fun climbing the best rock, even if it was wet. That made the choice of the next crag obvious.

IMG_1774aEasily my favorite crag of the trip was Beco d’Ajal—a group of massive boulders just outside of Cortina. Of the crags I visited, this is the other contender for “best sport crag in the dolomites,” and really, the distinction would depend heavily on taste. While Laste is more of a vertical technician’s dream, Beco d’Ajal is all about the steep overhanging pockets. The best comparison I can think of is Sector Cascade at Ceuse. Though not as tall as Ceuse, the cliffs are completely covered in sculpted flowstone jugs.

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No Worries, 7a+, at Beco d’Ajal

The crag is guarded by a burly 45-minute uphill trudge, but it was well worth it. As expected, pretty much everything was wet, but by now I was quite used to climbing through it. The scenery from the cliff was spectacular, looking onto the Tofana Group and Cortina, and the climbing was incredible. If I had one day to be teleported to any cliff in the world, I would go there (when its dry!), Becco

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Fantastic, 7b+ Becco d’Ajal.

For our last day we were all pretty tuckered out, so I selected a cliff with a short drive and even shorter Approach. Crepe de Oucera (Alti) was not quite up to the level of the previous three crags, but it was really good. It’s a favorite of the Cortina locals thanks to its short approach and southern aspect. The climbing here is generally near-vertical with lots of pockets, reminding me of the more pocketed rock at Sinks or the less-featured walls at Ten Sleep. This felt like a more traditional European crag with easy access, well-worn stone and lots of options. Though only one route really blew me away (a 12b called Cuba Libre), it was refreshing to climb some high quality dry rock for a change.

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White Line, 6c+, Crepe de Oucera.

There were a number of other intriguing crags we didn’t visit due to seepage. If I return in drier conditions I would definitely make return trips to Beco d’Ajal and Laste, but based on what I saw, I’d also like to climb on these crags:

– Sass Dlacia: steeply overhanging walls of pockets

– Malga Ciapela: less-steep, techy flowstone

– Tridentina/Eiszeit: Overhanging pockets

– Cinque Torri: Well-traveled/historic collection of large boulders tilted in wild directions

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Cinque Torri

All told, I really enjoyed the sport climbing. Given the amount of rock and variety I think it’s a very worthy destination for sport climbers, certainly worth considering for those looking for a holistic vacation with options for other adventure-oriented activities. That said, try to visit in the Fall when the rock is presumably less wet!

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Fantisilandia, 7a+, Becco d’Ajal.

Coming Soon: more non-sport-climbing adventures in the Dolomites!

Sport Climbing in the Dolomites

 

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People Mover, 7c+, Laste.

By Mark Anderson

Despite its staggering collection of world-class, bolted multi-pitch lines, the Dolomites aren’t known for sport climbing. In fact I’d argue the sport climbing in the Dolomites is pretty much completely unknown, evidenced by the heck of a time I had finding information about it when I first set out. But I knew a range of thousands of (essentially) limestone peaks had to have a few killer sport crags sprinkled about. It was just a matter of uncovering them. As I suspected, they were there in abundance. Once I found them, the challenge was wading through the endless possibilities to identify the most-worthy crags.

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Rope-swing at Salares, with Passo Valparola on the right.

After scouring the internet, I collected a couple guidebooks. The Rockfax guide claims to be a combined Trad, VF and Sport guide. This book is absolutely stunning, and I recommend it to any climber visiting the Dolomites, for general orientation if nothing else. However, it is NOT a sport climbing guide. It only includes a handful of over-used crags, none of which seemed particularly appealing. I ended up using “Sportclimbing in the Dolomites” by Vertical Life. This book is short on details but provides the bare minimum needed to visit more than 50 distinct crags of all varieties, with text provided in three languages including English.

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Prepping the photoshoot at Salares. The cliffs of Val Badia are off to the left.

In the end we visited six different crags. I’d like to say we saw the best in the area, but it’s hard to know for sure when there are so many options. We arrived the last week of May, which is definitely early-season, and the biggest downside of this was that many of the best crags were seeping. In fact, all of the best crags were seeping. I dare say all of the best routes at all of the best crags were seeping! If you want to visit the Dolomites primarily for sport climbing, I’d guess early Fall is the best time to go, but we had to make the best of our window.

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La Chica Bonita, 7a+, Salares.

I started by looking for crags that promised to be dry. These were fairly easy to find (the yellow stone tends to be dry), but I quickly regretted this strategy. We visited two dry-ish crags in a row, Franchi (aka Scheweg) and Salares, and both were disappointing. Granted we arrived at Franchi in a rain storm, and were lucky to climb at all. Only a couple lines were dry, neither were remarkable, nor were we impressed by the appearance of the wet lines. The defining memory of that day was an interminable game of keep away we played with a local crag pup (I absolutely could not leave without my left Oasi—it was only the first day and those shoes are king on overhanging polished limestone!)

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Achtung Baby, 7a+, Salares.

Salares was a distinct improvement, but I quickly noticed a pattern—the dry yellow stone tended to be heavily fractured. I mean egregiously fractured! In fairness, I never broke any key holds, but it was unnerving to be constantly teetering on what appeared to be vertically stacked rubble. It certainly made me think twice about the alpine rock routes. The saving grace of Salares was the incredible view of Val Badia off to the left and an exciting rope swing. So after two days of disappointing rock, I decided we would go for what looked like the best stone, and just deal with whatever wetness we encountered. This turned out to be a great compromise.

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Laste.

We turned our attention to an incredible table-top of limestone below the Marmolada called Laste. Laste is in the discussion for “best sport crag in the dolomites.” The setting is idyllic, with stunning views of the north face of the Civetta, among rolling hills of lush green grass. The rock is excellent but…weird. It’s very reminiscent of the lower left cliff at Rifle’s Anti Phil Wall. The holds are generally angular pinch fins, with lots of underclinging and sidepulls, a few pockets and only rare horizontal edges.

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Trippa per Gatti, 7a+, Laste.

The rock quality was flawless, though spider-webby in spots due to lack of traffic (I even found a mini-scorpion in one pocket). The stone is very light grey making chalk virtually invisible and onsighting incredibly challenging. The west wall of the formation was pretty-much completely dry and the climbing here was phenomenal. All the routes were long, sustained, cerebral and rewarding. I really felt like I accomplished something every time I clipped the chains at Laste. This was also one of the only crags where we encountered other climbers, on a weekday no less, surely a sign of its quality.

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Cilum, 7a, Laste.

It took three days, but I felt like I finally figured out how to pick the crags. We still had most of the trip in front of us and now that I knew what to look for, I was really excited to check out some more incredible-looking dolomite crags….

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Picnicing at the Laste parking lot, with the north face of the Civetta in the distance.

Exploring the Dolomites

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Hiking the alpine meadows below the Odle Group.

By Mark Anderson

The Dolomites are a jagged range of mountains in North-Eastern Italy, immediately south of the Austrian border. The range is composed of a form of limestone called dolomite (also found throughout Wyoming, at crags like Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris). The rock is heavily featured, and at times heavily fractured, providing unusual challenges for climbers and incredibly dramatic landscapes for sightseers.

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The Tre Cime (R) and Monte Paterno (L).

To climbers, the Dolomites are renowned for their long, dramatic alpine rock routes. The range is home to countless long classics, including one of the six “Great North Faces of the Alps” (the Comici Route on the north face of the Cima Grande). Reinhold Messner maintains they are the most beautiful mountains in the world—“each mountain in the range is like a piece of art.” After spending a couple weeks there with my family last month, it’s hard to disagree.

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On the trail to the Tre Cime, with the Cadini di Misurina group behind.

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Lago Sorapiss and the Dito di Dio spire.

There are so many ways to enjoy these mountains, its hard to know where to start. We wanted to do some sport climbing, some via ferrate (more on these subjects in the coming weeks), but mostly we wanted to explore the incredible and complex landscape.

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Routefinding….

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Climbing art in Ortesi.

For basecamp we chose the vibrant village of Cortina D’Ampezzo. This is a quintessential ski town complete with designer fashions and exorbitant prices (though to be fair, it’s not as bad as Aspen!) It even hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956. It’s got all the essentials (except a pool) and is ideally centered between several legendary climbing attractions.

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Exploring the Cinque Torri, a historic climbing crag. The Col dei Bos can be seen in the distance.

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Kate near the summit of Lagazuoi Piccolo, with Tofana di Rozes behind.

The weather in the Dolomites is incredibly consistent—it rains every day! However, in our experience the mornings were dependably awesome, usually bluebird, with clouds beginning to form around mid-day, culminating in relatively brief-but-violent thunderstorms. We never lost a day to weather, though we did postpone an activity when we awoke to threatening clouds. A typical day for us began with a dawn start, 5-7 hours of some climbing, via ferrata or hiking adventure, followed by a few hours siesta while the rain passed, then another short hike, etc and a visit to town for well-deserved gelato.

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Logan on the exposed trail to the Sorapiss Group.

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Amelie in the Odle Group, with Sassolungo obscured by clouds.

A well-maintained network of roads and cable cars makes it easy to explore, even with small kids (though the cable cars can be pricey). We were there in early season, so many lifts were not operating, and many via ferrate were impassable, but we found plenty to do for two weeks and grew to appreciate the relative solitude once the first wave of summer crowds arrived on the last weekend of our trip.

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Misurina, with the Sorapiss Group behind.

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The Haunold “Funbob.” No relation to Alex?

The kids did a great job of putting up with our insatiable desire to hike and climb. It was the most fun we’ve ever had on a vacation, but also the most exhausted we’ve been at the end. There always seemed to be one more hike, one more mountain pass, one more lake worth visiting. The only thing we failed to find was a good time to rest. Despite that, it feels like we barely scratched the surface of this marvelous place. I’m eager to go back once the kids are big enough to share a rope with me up one of the many towering alpine walls.

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Admiring the Sella Towers from Sella Pass.

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Climbing in Italy – Finale Ligure Part 2

By Mark Anderson

Pyro, 7b, at Grotta della Strapatente.

Messalina, 7a+, Domus Aurea.

For our last climbing day of the trip, we chose the region around the village of Boragni. This area has a wide selection of crags within a small area, and also seemed to offer some of the best tufa climbing in Finale. It also offered another spelunking adventure for the kids, with two crags connected by a 100m-long cave (fortunately this cave didn’t require any fixed lines or scrambling).

Commuting between Domus Aurea and Grotta della Strapatente.

The first crag we visited is called Domus Aurea. This was a small crag with only a few routes, but it has a nice curtain of steep tufas. After warming up, we headed to the phenomenal Grotta della Strapatente. This cliff is famous for an 8b+ (5.14a) called En Attendant Berhault that climbs through a horizontal roof on big stalactites, but we were here for the amazing wall of flowstone to the right. I climbed some truly fantastic tufas on this trip, but these were the most fun.

Climbing Pyro, 7b, on the amazing wall of tufas at Grotta della Strapatente.

My favorite route on the wall was a snaking 7b called Pyro. The route flowed seamlessly—just when one tufa ends, an incut pocket appears to link the movement into the next tufa. The route was never super hard, but continuous and sequential. The tufas on this route were incredible—it seemed like each drip was sculpted with a climber’s hand in mind. It was easily the best route I did in Finale.

Memobox, 7b, another great tufa line at Strapatente.

Kate enjoying the heavily-pocketed start of Memobox.

After a few more of the wall’s stellar tufas, we packed up one more time and headed back down the hill to a stacked cliff of moderates called “Bastinata sinistra Boragni.” The cliff is enormous, with pitches reaching 40m, a few multi-pitch lines, and over 70 routes from 5.8 to 5.12. It was a great hang for kids, with a nice open base, and they both fell fast asleep as soon as we arrived.

Where’s Waldo…?

…there he is. Copping a rest in one of the many pockets of Panorama, 7a+

The climbing varied from steep slabs to very-slightly-overhanging walls covered in pockets. Some of these pockets were huge incut jugs, some just looked like that from below. Silt from runoff was problematic on some of the routes, but most of the lines were long and clean. The best route we did was a popular 40m 5.10 called Change the World. I had to scrounge up every draw and sling, back-clean a few bolts, and skip some others, but it was a fun and airy journey.

Kate at the bulging crux of Change the World, 6b, at Bastionata sinistra Boragni.

Of all the places we visited, I find myself most inclined to return to Finale. Not because the climbing was the best—it wasn’t, but because the lifestyle was so relaxing. Minimal driving, a wide variety of routes, and very few crowds. Even when the climbing is bad (it never was), you can look forward to capping off the day with a casual stroll along the beach and enjoying a delicious meal. It would be a great place to live as a retired climber—lifetimes worth of routes to climb, with none of the hassle of other venues.

Higher on Change the World’s endless sea of pockets.  The anchor is still out of the frame!

All told, it was an awesome climbing vacation.  We visited a ton of new crags, saw some amazing sights, and had a great time.  Generally we fizzle out at the end of these trips–ending up exhausted and longing for home.  That never happened on this trip.  The kids were really well-behaved the entire time, and relatively self-sufficient.  At 6 and almost-4, it feels like we’re through the tunnel from a “climbing with kids” perspective, and our horizons are broadening once again.  They managed many long days (and long approaches) with few complaints.  Another important improvement over previous trips was that we rented houses in both destinations.  I wasn’t sure how that would pan out, but it worked really well and was surprisingly affordable.  It made everything less stressful and eliminated the problem of finding food outside of normal business hours (the crux of our earliest trips).  The downside of this approach is that it restricts your travel range, but fortunately we found two base camps with a wide variety of incredible sights and crags.  It seemed like we could have stayed forever, and I’d be happy to return to either.

Castle of the Day: Vernazza, along the infamous Cinque Terra trail. We hiked from Monterosso (visible along the shore at center) to Corniglia (8Km total), which Logan managed with no assistance, minimal whining, and just a wee bit of bribery (a Police Boat Lego set).

 

Climbing in Italy – Finale Ligure Part 1

By Mark Anderson

Climbing Camera Con Vista (Room with a view), 7a, Finale Ligure.

Climbing in Italy has long been a mystery to me. I knew there was climbing—a lot of climbing—I just didn’t know anything specific about it. For whatever reason I knew much more about the sport crags of Germany, France and Spain. Some quick internet research revealed Finale Ligure, in the Liguria region of the Italian Riviera, was a highly recommended spot.

Playing on the Beach in Finalmarina.

The Finale region is spectacular, nestled in a set of tight valleys right on the Mediterranean Sea (some of the crags climb directly over the water). Finale is also renowned as a mountain biking destination, and the village of Finalborgo (where we stayed) was always bustling with adventure-seekers like ourselves. In the small piazza where we went for pizza, beer and gelato (not necessarily in that order) there were six different climbing shops and just as many MTB shops.

The cliff-covered valleys above Finalborgo.

Within a 15 minute drive of Finalborgo are hundreds of crags with thousands of routes. The rock is white, gray and sometimes orange limestone, covered in small pockets and the occasional tufa. The routes are entirely bolted, but there are many expansive cliffs covered in multi-pitch lines. The cliffs tend toward steep slabs with many vertical to slightly-overhanging walls, and the most appealing routes are in the French 6-7 range (5.10-5.12). According to our guidebook, polished rock is a bit of a problem at certain crags, but we never found it to be an issue.

El Diablo in Grotta dell’edera. This is fairly typical of the rock in Finale—generally white to light grey, near vertical, with many small pockets. Photo Logan Anderson.

I had pretty low expectations for the climbing, based on the few pictures I’d seen. The routes looked thin, tweaky and old-school. The two days we spent climbing there completely changed my view.   Every route I climbed was excellent and many of them were outstanding. While there were some thin and tweaky routes and some runouts, we also found amazing tufa curtains and walls covered in jugs. Even the less featured lines were fantastic technical challenges on amazing rock.

However, the best thing going for Finale is the atmosphere. It reminded me of Tonsai Beach in Thailand, where you can drop your pack on the beach, climb world-class limestone, then walk 15 steps to the bar and eat a great meal with a beer for pennies on the dollar. Finale wasn’t quite that convenient, but on the other hand, you don’t need Malaria pills. The climbing in Finale is equally relaxed, with the sea never far away and a great evening on the boardwalk or piazza to cap off every day.

The best part of Finale climbing was the ambiance. Eating phenomenal pizza in our garden in Finalborgo.

Grotta dell’edera (Ivy Cave) was the one “must-visit” crag on our list. It’s a collapsed cave, resulting in a near-perfect cylinder of limestone open to the sky. There’s a “window” on the southwest side of the cylinder that forms an archway across the cylinder. If that wasn’t peculiar enough, the Grotta is accessed by climbing 50 meters through a proper cave (with some steep scrambling thrown in along the way).

Amelie and I spelunking on the approach to Grotta dell’edera.

Looking up at the roof of Grotta dell’edera.

The perfectly-named Camera Con Vista (Room with a view), 7a. The “window” is to my left, and there is another mini-cylinder (with three routes inside and a skylight) to my right. Photo Amelie Anderson.

Kate cruising Bombolo, 6b, in the mini-cylinder inside Grotta dell-edera. Photo Logan Anderson.

Higher on Bombolo, a classic jughaul with wild stemming and some tufa action. Photo Logan Anderson.

The climbing in the Grotta was fantastic in its own right, but the setting made every route extra special. I climbed several great tufa lines and set up a thrilling rope swing for the kids that the other climbers seemed to get a kick out of (the place was packed relative to the rest of our trip—there were 8 other climbers, with us making 12 people to share 14 routes). The best route I did was a dead-vertical, slightly concave 7b with small incut pockets and tricky stemming called Lubna.

El Diablo, 7b. The Climber in the orange helmet is on the mega-classic technical masterpiece Lubna. Photo Logan Anderson.

Amelie’s rope swing.

Logan getting in on the climbing.

Logan preparing to take a big swing.  The higher you climb, the better the swing.

The (hiking) approach to the Grotta was long, hot and miserable. Frankly we were all in a terrible mood when we got there. If there’s one downside to Finale, it’s that the approaches can be long, steep and complicated. Other than that, it’s the perfect family climbing destination, with routes for climbers of all abilities and lots of fun rest day activities for kids. Fortunately the rough approach was a distant memory by the end of the day. We all had such a great time between the cave, the swings and the climbing that we would love to return. Back in Finalborgo we capped off the day with literally the best pizza I’ve ever had. Logan and Amelie picked lemons from the garden and Kate made lemonade. It was the perfect climbing day.

Castle of the Day: Dolceaqua, easily the best medieval village of the trip, with a maze of narrow winding passageways. The Ponte Vecchio bridge shown here was memorialized in this painting by Monet.

 

Climbing in France – Venasque

By Mark Anderson

Nearing the top of Vole, 7b, at the French Limestone crag of Venasque. Photo Logan Anderson.

Venasque is a little known crag outside the village of the same name, about an hour south of Buis. We first went there on one of my rest days, to give Kate a chance to climb some of the highly recommended 5.10s and 11s. Kate really enjoyed the climbing, and it looked so fun that we both agreed we should return for our last day in France.

Kate cruising Beaucoup de Bruit Pour Rien (“A Lot of Noise for Nothing”), 6a+, on our first day at Venasque.

The cliffs of Venasque don’t look remarkable (relative to other crags of the area). There are no tufas, the colors are bland relative to the orange and blue streaks of St Leger and Baume Rousse, and the scenery isn’t particularly special. But man, the climbing sure is fun! The rock is limestone, but it seems to have quite a bit of sandstone mixed in, and it’s weathered in a manner very similar to the best routes at Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. We spent most of our time at “Place de l’Ascle,” the main feature of which is a 30m wall, overhanging up to about 20 degrees, and covered in huge jugs. All the routes on this wall were spectacular 5.12 pumpfests. The routes aren’t particularly striking or cerebral, but it was definitely the most fun I had climbing on our trip.

Kate starting up Petite Marie, a gobsmacking 5.11c that charges up the right side of a towering swell of overhanging jugs.  5.11 sport climbs don’t get any better than this.

Higher on Petite Marie. Note the leaning wave of rock to Kate’s left—home to Misanthropies Therapeutiques, Aller Plus Haute, and Vole.

I started by warming up on a brilliant 7b on this wall called Misanthropies Therapeutiques, which was completely stellar, getting gently steeper, with equally growing holds, as you ascend (all the routes on this wall were like that).  It was one of the most fun sport climbs I’ve ever done. Next we moved to another sector along the same cliffband which the Rockfax guide described as a “must see wall that is the epitome of a sport crag and a must climb venue.” This cliff overhangs about 20 degrees, with a number of pockety, sequential lines from 7c-8b. I tried a route called Objectif Puree, or “Pure Objective.” This name was apparently ironic, as I soon discovered about half the handholds on the route were chipped. It was a drag, and really turned me off on the wall. I felt like I was climbing in a gym with poor route-setting. It was also rather disappointing that some people think chipped garbage is “the epitome of a sport crag.” Whether that’s a reflection on the author’s taste, or the reputation of sport climbing (or both), I don’t know. Nor am I sure which would be worse. To me it seemed like a real waste of a cliff, not to mention a waste of a climbing day in Europe.

Objectif Puree. Photo Amelie Anderson.

The upside of this revelation was that I was free to return to the first cliff and climb as many of the rad jughauls as my family could tolerate (fortunately it was also another great place to rig a rope swing, which got me at least one extra route beyond the usual quota).

Midway up Vole, 7b. Misanthropies Therapeutiques is the next route left (following the flake system), and Aller Plus Haute is the second route left. Photo Logan Anderson.

The most memorable moment of the day came as I was cleaning the 7b+ Aller Plus Haute (“Go High”). The crag is right over the road, at the intersection of a very popular hiking trail.  A crowd of about 30 hikers came through, pausing briefly to watch my acrobatics as I neared the bottom quickdraw. When I cleaned this last draw on the steeply overhanging wall, I predictably swung way out over the road, greeted by a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” from the gathered spectators.

Logan getting in on the fun.

All told it was easily my favorite day of climbing on the trip. The crag doesn’t look spectacular, it’s not photogenic or historic, but it’s hard not to have fun on these amazing cliffs. It was a great hang for the kids, with no approach, and nestled in one of the most scenic rural regions of Provence.  It’s the perfect family vacation crag.

Castle of the Day – Entrevaux. This one was so spectacular it gets two pics….

Logan had a great time playing with the two cannons at lower right. Note also the Citadel high above, and the zig-zagging path that climbs up to it.

 

Climbing in France – Baume Rousse

by Mark Anderson

World class tufa climbing at Baume Rousse, France. Photo Logan Anderson.

As mentioned in the last post, it rained heavily during the first part of our trip, so for our second climbing day we picked a crag called Baume Rousse, somewhat sheltered in a natural cirque, and close to our home base of Buis-les Baronnies. Before getting into the climbing, Buis deserves a short description. This village of about 2500 people is nestled in an incredible valley, surrounded by impressive peaks and limestone cliffbands. There are three extensive limestone sport crags within walking distance of town (Baume Rousse, Ubrieux, and St. Julien), and another five or so within a 30 minute drive. There’s literally a lifetime of climbing opportunities with an hour’s drive.

Buis-les-Baronnies from Baume Rousse, with the limestone fin of St. Julien just above town, and the snow-capped Mount Ventoux in the background. St Leger is nestled in between Ventoux and the next ridge behind St. Julien, about a 25-minute drive from Buis.

The piercing limestone fin of St. Julien dominates the skyline above Buis-les-Baronnies. The crag features ~100 routes, including many multi-pitch lines and a network of via Ferrata.

A pair of climbers low on St. Julien (in yellow and blue, near the bottom of the cliff, in the center of the frame, at the same height as the tallest tree).

Baume Rousse is a smaller crag with only about 100 routes, but the hardest of those routes climb some of the most amazing tufas I’ve ever seen! Besides its amazing orange & black streaked limestone, Baume Rousse is unusual because it was developed in order to host a climbing comp in the 1990’s (fortunately the rock was not chipped to engineer the comp routes like at some other outdoor comps of the era).

The view towards Buis from the base of St Julien. The V-shaped diagonal limestone ridge behind the village is the crag Ubrieux (which we did not visit). The limestone cirque of Baume Rousse is visible just beyond the ridge, directly above the center of the “V.”

The left half of the Baume Rousse cirque.

Looking straight up at the tufa curtains on the back wall of Baume Rousse.

By far the best route I did on the trip was an 8a called Rigpa ou la Nature de l’esprit (Google doesn’t seem to know what “Rigpa” means, but the rest of it has something to do with “the nature of the mind”). The route follows a phenomenal tufa fin which juts out from the wall as much as 16” but is never more than 2” thick. It’s a classic pumpfest, maybe 15 degrees overhanging, with strategic exotic rests. The tufas fade near the top, requiring some big reaches between features.

Rigpa ou la Nature de l’esprit. Photo Logan Anderson.

Nearing the crux on Rigpa. Photo Logan Anderson

Another pic of Rigpa. Photo Logan Anderson

Just to the right of Rigpa is another tufa-laden 8a. I tried that line next, but just as I finished it started raining heavily. Thanks to strong swirling winds we found the little cirque was not quite as sheltered as we hoped, so we decided to pack it in for the day. The entire back wall of the cirque is covered in awesome tufas curtains, and if I had one more (dry) day in Buis, I would head straight to Baume Rousse to try more of these amazing climbs.

Amelie enjoying the best rope swing of the trip

One of the highlights of the trip for me (and I think Logan as well) was a short, entry-level via Ferrata I did with him at the base of St. Julien. Like most things at this age, it took a bit of prodding to get him interested, but once we got started he was instantly stoked. I think the pictures illustrate best how much fun we had. Before we were finished he started campaigning to do another, harder, higher via ferrata, and he kept bringing it up throughout the rest of the trip. Unfortunately these are engineered with a certain minimum height in mind, and there wasn’t another one around that was suitable for 6-year-olds.

Starting up the first few iron rungs of the via ferrata. The look of half fear/half excitement in Logan’s eyes says it all.

 

Still not clear if he’s happy or terrified. I think just really excited. I learned later that I was supposed to hook the rope through the metal hook-thing above Logan’s head as a directional. (St. Julien in the background.)

This particular route was designed specifically with kids in mind, more like a vertical park than a mountaineering objective, with closely spaced steps and a number of fun “obstacles” to look forward to (including a suspension bridge, “monkey bridge,” cargo net, and balance beam). It even climbs through a natural stone arch. It was super fun, even for jaded me. It really made me wish we had more via ferrata in the US; it’s a great way to introduce beginners to the mountains and creates no more impact than the typical hiking trail.  It’s pretty awesome the way the local European communities embrace climbing, marketing it as an attraction and encouraging participation.  There was a huge kiosk in the center of Buis describing in detail all the via ferrata, how to reach them, what equipment was needed and so on.

The suspension bridge.

So-called Monkey Bridge.

Climbing through the arch.

The cargo net, with Buis, etc in the background.

Castle of the day – Logan playing with a Trebuchet at Chateaux des Baux.

Climbing in France – St Leger

by Mark Anderson

My family and I just returned from a two-week trip to France and Italy. In addition to sightseeing and eating (my favorite pastime), we visited four distinct climbing areas in Southern France and the Italian Riviera. All of these crags are relatively unknown to Americans, but would be renowned destinations if they were in North America.

The first crag we visited, and the one I expected to be the best, is called St. Leger. It’s a fairly long limestone gorge at the very base of the north slope of Mt. Ventoux. Mt. Ventoux, aka “the Giant of Provence”, is a legendary peak for cycling nerds like me. Fans of the Tour de France will recall many famous ascents of Ventoux, especially Chris Froome’s whacky bicycle-free ascent in last year’s Tour.

Pinching my way up the St Leger tufa classic, La Farce Tranquille. Photo: Logan Anderson

We picked St. Leger because I’d heard it was a relatively new crag, relatively untraveled (compared to other crags in the vicinity like Ceuse and Buoux), and so might be less polished. The crag is basically one long cliffband that seems to go forever, sorta like Sinks in Wyoming, but with about 400 routes. The first thing we noticed was bulging caves covered in amazing tufas. The routes at Leger tend to be long pumpfests. Most of the walls are vertical to slightly overhanging, with a few caves thrown in (most of the cave routes seem to be in the 8c/+ range). The climbing seems to get better the harder the routes get, with most of the tufas following steep cave lines in the mid-to-high 8’s. We definitely struggled to find worthwhile routes in the 5.10/11 range, but I did quite a few excellent 5.12s, and the 5.13s were stellar.

Piedra Salvage, Le Ceil du Loup, Le Voleur de Pesanteur, and La Farce Tranquille sectors of St Leger. This pic was taken on our 2nd day at St Leger—note all the black streaks!

The first day we started at a crag called Le Voleur de Pesanteur, which has a number of great warmups, and is also adjacent to one of the best looking steep sectors, “La Farce Tranquille.” Once I was warm I jumped on a pair of adjacent 8a’s that climb up a smooth, steep pillar that splits the cave ( the broad tan pillar just right of center in the above pic). Both of these lines (Barbule and La Farce Tranquille) featured some amazing, pumpy tufa climbing with weird kneebars, exotic stems, and lots of pinching.

Starting up the sweeping wave of limestone on Barbule.  Photo Logan Anderson.

Tufa wrangling on Barbule, 8a, St. Leger. Photo Logan Anderson.

Later in the day I scrapped my way up Le Voleur de Pesanteur (“The Thief of Gravity” according to Google Translate) a devious 7c on the sector of the same name. It was one of my favorite routes of the trip. This line featured a series of subtle tufas, with nice pockets and edges just where you needed them.

Kate climbing the classic “Piedra Salvage, 6b+” on our wet day. Note the (relatively for Europe) fractured rock.

Overall the tufa climbing at St Leger was awesome. I would highly recommend any of the tufa routes I climbed. However, I was not really impressed by the tufa-less routes. It rained heavily on the second and third days of our trip, and when we returned to St Leger a few days later we found all the tufas were still soaking wet black streaks. There were plenty of dry routes to choose from, but the rock on these routes is heavily fractured. The climbing was still good, but not worth traveling across oceans for. In dry conditions the crag was stellar, and had it not rained we likely would have spent more time here. As advertised, the rock was not polished and we never saw more than 8 other climbers at the crag. It’s definitely a hidden gem, but best in dry conditions and probably better suited to climbing in the higher grades.

Castle of the day – Souze la Rousse, about an hour west of St Leger. This pic is our impression of every Black Sabbath album cover ever.

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