La Demand, Verdon Gorge
We woke as soon as the sun hit the roof of the van. It was a tight squeeze lying side by side in the back of my old escort on an old mattress. Newly converted it was it’s first trip abroad. So far it had done me proud. The van warmed quickly as the sun rose over the mountains around La Palud. We were parked on a small verge atop a large cliff in southern France. A huge vertical drop to the valley floor lay a few metres from our bivvy spot. The heat built up quickly forcing us out into the dazzling sunshine. The quiet spot had changed in the early morning light into a bustling gallery. The Verdon gorge is beautiful in the early hours and people knew it. Perturbed tourists looked on as two bedraggled creatures emerged from the back of the van and proceeded to change. There were a couple of other climbers nearby, already gearing up for a full day in the gorge. We watched them lazily as they racked their harnesses and coiled their ropes. They clipped Krabs to their gear loops and laced up their rubber climbing shoes before disappearing down a narrow trail along the top of the cliff. I wondered what route they were doing and how hard it might be. Maybe we’d see them in the pub later and we could find out. Either way it was too early for us to begin. We’d learnt on our first day that climbing in the gorge through the midday heat was a bad idea. Our first route was a relatively easy 8 pitches but by the time we had reached the start of the route after nearly two hours of abseiling, the smooth limestone face was warming up fast. After two hours of ascent we were still only halfway through our climb as the sun reached its zenith. We were both dripping with sweat and running out of water. Dipping my hand in my chalkbag produced a white chalky paste as I continued my lead. I reached the belay and clipped into it before slumping into my harness and bringing up Will. We were both exhausted but knew we were close to the top. As Will set off up the final pitch a large vulture skirted the cliff below us, effortlessly gliding through the valley until the next opportunity for a meal presented itself. I hoped it wouldn’t be us. We topped out just after two o’clock and each gulped down a litre of water as soon as we reached the van. We didn’t attempt to climb through the midday heat for the rest of the trip.
My fingers were frozen. My feet hadn’t fared much better. A bitter wind ripped through my sodden jacket. It carried a cold hard rain that stung as it lashed into my cheek, the only part of my body I allowed it to reach. It occasionally carried flurries of snow, reducing visibility in the already dull light. Time crept on eternal. Each minute ticked by as slowly as the last. My fingers were becoming number by the second. I had been hanging in same position for the last two hours, motionless except for the occasional movement required by the work. The weather was unusually bad for this time of year, even for Scotland. It was the last week of my three week stint up here and the weather gods were playing a cruel game with my will. As my time off grew nearer the weather grew worse. The ten hour shifts were taking their toll and my last day off seemed like a distant memory. As the days began to blur together the storm blew in. It was yet another day on the ropes and another tick for my CV but rope access work isn’t always as glamorous as some climbers claim. Whilst it does allow climbers a way to earn a good living in a profession closely related to their passion, the reality is that the work is often hard, tedious and uncomfortable. Jobs can entail long hours, and often take you away from home for weeks or months at a time putting a strain on relationships. At the moment jobs were also hard to come by which explains why I’m hanging off a railway viaduct in a blizzard. In this game you’ve got to take what you can get and put up with it. I rested my helmet on the ropes and closed my eyes, trying to think of something, anything to take me away from this place. Just for a few minutes.
La Demand was the first route climbed in the Verdon Gorge. At thirteen pitches long it is one of the longest climbs on offer and a real beauty. It’s steady E1 territory the whole way with only one or two pitches of glorious easier ground. It was first climbed by J. Conquegniot and F. Guillot back in 1978 and is so named because on completion of the route one of them knelt down on one knee and made his demand. He proposed to his girlfriend. I’m assuming the answer was yes but it takes a special kind of girl to put up with a serial climber so I hope she was aware of what she was letting herself in for. It looked worth a go and we planned to leave at midday. This meant that we would be abseiling through the hottest part of the day but crucially, during the climb, it would be getting steadily cooler. This allowed us to pack lightweight, taking less water than otherwise necessary but, left us with less time to complete the route before darkness set in, leaving us stranded. It was a gamble but we felt it was worth the risk. We spent the morning preparing our gear. We took two ropes, a thicker single line for the ascent and a skinnier half rope to help with the descent. The two ropes could be tied together meaning that we could abseil further in one go. Once down, the thinner rope could be stashed out of the way in a rucksack. This system saves weight by reducing the overall size of the ropes carried. We decided to take one rucksack between us allowing the leader to climb with less weight, and thus move quicker. We did however take a small camelback so the leader could keep hydrated whilst on the move. We took a full set of quickdraws, a set of nuts and a couple of screwgates between us. The guidebook also recommended bringing a full set of cams, but we didn’t have any so would just have to do without. On top of the camelback we packed a few litres of water to share between us and hoped we’d have enough to cope. I threw in a jumper each and hoped we wouldn’t get caught out in the darkness but added a couple of headtorches just in case. The pack felt heavy as I lifted it onto my shoulders. More than I thought. But it was mostly water and I was banking it would get lighter as we progressed. With our packs on and ropes ready we walked along the cliff until we reached a familiar set of chained bolts and set up for our first abseil. I clipped my abseil device into the ropes and checked that my back up prussik knot was tied correctly before gingerly weighting the ropes. Beneath my feet lay another 8 abseils of vertigo inducing steepness. I took a final reassuring glance at the anchors before stepping off into the void.
“OFF!”.I was snapped back into reality by the jarring of the drills teeth as it became wedged deep inside the crumbling viaduct. It began making a low rumbling sound as the pressure built up and it tried to rip itself off the wall it was bolted to. ‘Off’. My drill partner said.
‘Turn the drill off’.
‘TURN IT OFF!’ More forcefully this time.
‘Oh rite’. I pressed the red switch next to me and the drill’s violent vibrations stopped. ‘Sorry. I was miles away’.
The worsening weather was doing nothing for our moods.
After our 4th abseil we reached a patch of trees and scrub. They provided a welcome break from the sunlight streaming onto us from above. For all intents and purposes we could be at the bottom but looking at the steep walls around us it was clear we still had some way to go. This was just another ledge, a temporary oasis in this vertical world, but a large one. We scrambled through the trees and down a steep slippery slope. Halfway down we picked up an old tattered rope that led us to our next abseil. Unsure whether we were on the right track but reasoning that the bolt anchors we found must lead somewhere we took a bit of a gamble. Will lost the toss and was the first to descend. Once he was safe I quickly joined him at the belay. The face below us gently curved out of sight but we seemed to be heading in the right direction so I went down, confident I’d find a suitable anchor somewhere. Sure enough, after a short 30m drop I reached an old spinning bolt backed up to a new shiny one by a thin bit of tat. I clipped in to the new bolt and declared that I was ‘safe’. I left the more dubious anchor for Will and called him down. The wall below us disappeared sharply indicating an overhang of some sort and Will went down slowly to investigate. A few moments later he called up. ‘You’ve got to see this. Its absolutely amazing!’ I waited till he was off the ropes, apparently at the bottom and followed on. After a few vertical metres my feet left the grey wall and I found myself hanging in open space. It took me a few more metres to discover where the wall had gone to. We were abseiling over the entrance of a MASSIVE cave. Nearly a full rope length wide and deeply recessed into the wall. Swallows had made their nests high in the cave and they screeched by as we passed through their world. They seemed unfazed at our short term invasion. After around 2 hours of descent we’d made it to the bottom and followed a well made track along the bottom of the valley. The sound of the fast flowing river rumbled around us, echoing through the deep rift in the earth. We searched for our route, gazing up at the towering cliffs all around us. It didn’t take us long to find it. A long crack ran almost directly up the wall. It angled from left to right at first and then flew straight up at around half height. It offered a clear line of weakness on an otherwise smooth wall.
We practically ran to the base of the route eager to finally get climbing. Will quickly led the first pitch, more of a scramble before we became fully established on the wall. The second pitch was similar but got steeper towards the end. It wasn’t until the third pitch where things started to get tricky. I watched as Will disappeared up a vertical crack, jamming his way effortlessly upwards. A skill he’d newly acquired. I on the other hand had yet to master the dark art and scrabbled my way upwards with some difficulty. I would have to learn fast. There were ten more pitches of this to go! We continued upwards, placing gear and using the occasional bolt for protection.
I started up the first crux pitch at about half height. A steep wall followed by a rising diagonal traverse. The first part was easy enough, a deep crack allowing plenty of handholds, including a few jams that I managed to find (I was slowly getting the hang of it) but I was tiring by the time I’d reached the real crux of the pitch. The crack moved to the left and tapered as it went. I moved slowly across, my hands clutching the rounded edges of the grey rock. I looked for footholds for my feet but finding none they were left smearing the smooth wall below and I was caught feeling very exposed. I looked between my feet and could see nothing but space for the next 100m or so. I carried on. The crack became intermittent and shallow, forcing me to somehow span the gaps between good holds. I was getting tired but could see the belay a few moves ahead of me. Another shallow crack followed by another small blank section. I reached into the crack and managed to find a decent hold where it narrowed. The belay was close now, I could almost touch it. ‘Watch me!’ I screamed, my energy draining, and lunged for the belay. I just managed to latch onto the final hold before using the last of my strength to haul myself onto the belay ledge and clip in, dripping with fear. At least the crux was over with. It should be plain sailing from here on in. We continued upwards following the widening crack as we went. The gear placements became sparse as we ascended, as did the bolts. Consequently some of the runouts became worryingly big. The crack had now widened to a large chimney and I found myself inching upwards with my feet on one wall and my back pressed into the other, bridging the gap. This required total faith in the laws of friction, which were hard to believe on the smooth limestone. Being drenched in sweat only added to the difficulty. I clipped a bolt and continued upwards. 5 metres later and I was making slow progress, reluctant to run it out any further, but there was no choice. Above me I could see a sturdy looking tree which would make a fine anchor but I had some way to go yet. There was a parallel crack running up the back of the wall pressed into my back, too wide to take a nut but perfect for a decent cam. I cursed the fact we didn’t have any and ploughed on upward, buoyed by regular encouragement coming from the belay below. I eventually reached the tree and flung myself into the sanctuary of its branches. I sat, perched in the tree, hundreds of metres off the ground with nothing but air around me. I was exhilarated by the exposure. Will joined me at the belay, a short distance from the tree and our roles were suddenly reversed. This time it was me willing him upwards as he struggled up yet another awkward, run out pitch. Would this route ever end? We continued skywards racing the oncoming darkness. The sun had left the valley and a light breeze kept us cool. We knew we were getting close but had no idea how much daylight we had left. Another pitch and the sky was turning darker. The bright blue of a cloudless sky gradually deepening into dusk. Another pitch and bats began emerging from the cracks. We could see them flitting around us as we climbed chasing invisible insects. Another pitch and the stars began to appear. We were running out of time, but this had to be it. Will left the belay quickly and continued at a fast pace. I was plying the rope out faster and faster, almost struggling to keep up. He was either on easy ground or on the top. A few minutes later the whoops of joy echoing around the valley confirmed the latter. I shouted my congratulations and got ready to join him. It was now dark as I felt my way upwards. Secure on a top rope, I soon joined Will at the summit. Even in the dark the last pitch was indeed easy. It was a good job. We shook hands and carefully wandered along the top of the cliff back to the van. It had been an awesome day so we drove into town to celebrate properly. We blew our budget on two large steaks and beer. There were some other climbers in the bar, including the pair we saw heading towards the gorge early this morning. I could have asked them what route they had done but I no longer cared. La Demand was the best route I’d ever done. For once I was completely satisfied.
Posted by Philip Saunders