OK so I only saw the Casinos in Monte Carlo, I didn't actual go inside (not being the gambling type). But two out of three isn’t bad and it made for a good title. Before I share with you the tale of my New Year holiday, I would like to start with the most important part. Which is to say a big thank you to Loz Kisson, Andy Railton, Tony and Jack Hextall for an awesome time, for doing all the organising, and for making me feel very welcome on the trip!
So as you’ve no doubt guessed I spent this New Year on holiday with some my Bowline buddies in the lovely South of France. An area I know fairly well from childhood holidays. I wish I’d been into climbing back then given the vast array of routes that I now know to be located very close to where I spent many summer.
The trip got off to a ‘bumpy’ start for me. Having arranged to travel down separately I was left waiting at Gatwick airport for ages after the pilot of our plane was violently ill and threw up all over the cockpit at the end of the last flight (too much Christmas cheer perhaps). Cue much time spent pacing around the gate until eventually the pilot’s chair was replaced, the cockpit cleaned, and we were en-route to Marseille. Arriving much later than scheduled I exited the airport find that my hire car company had shut-up shop early ‘sacre-bleu’. Luckily another car hire company helped me out and I arrived very late to our nice villa just outside Besse-sur-isole in the middle of Provence.
I awoke the next morning to find everyone else was up and Loz had already gone on a mission to the local Patisserie (I've sinced come to closely associate Loz with Patisserie). We were enjoyed fresh croissants and discussed the days destination, Mount Coudon near Toulon. With wall-to-wall blue sky and pleasant temperatures the fraught travel of the previous night was quickly forgotten. Replaced instead by the thrill of being up on a lead climb with panoramic views and the warm sun on my back. Andy Railton and I started gently with some easier grade climbs but we soon got into the swing of things and I was pleased to be leading up some lovely 4+ routes.
Time flew by, as it does on holiday, and our hunger told us it was way past lunchtime. Scrambling back up to the car we spotted Loz, Tony and Jack on a multi-pitch 5+ with Loz eyeballing the crux move on the 2nd pitch (see picture below). It looked a great route and we stayed to watch them finish the climb before tucking into a well-earned late lunch.
Tony and I were keen to do a bit more climbing in the hour or so daylight we had left. So I was convinced to have a go at leading the 1st pitch of the climb that Loz, Tony and Jack had just done. I was feeling a little nervous as my first day leading sport routes outdoors had already been pretty thrilling and this route would be even harder at grade 5/5+. However Loz convinced me that the hardest move of the 1st pitch was at the start so if I could get off the ground I’d be fine. And as it turned out Loz was right, and I worked the moves out without much bother. It wasn’t long before I was bringing Tony up to the first belay.
At which point Tony in his usual casual style suggested that I should lead the 2nd pitch as well. I found myself unusually receptive to this idea, possibly because I’d seen Loz and Tony do the crux already, or maybe just a moment of madness, who knows? Anyway I was soon enjoying the exposure at the top of the pitch where the route moved up out and around a small roof, nothing epic, but I found it totally thrilling to pull through onto the top of the roof, and I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty chuffed with the days climbing.
The next day was New Years Eve and we were to spend the night in Monaco. A perfect excuse to visit the scenic ‘La Turbie’, overlooking Monaco and featuring a vast array of routes. The plan was to visit ‘The Cave’ which features an epic expedition of a route called ‘Big Ben’, which moves up the back of the cave and right through the roof and out onto the cliff face. At 7b+ this multi-pitch route was beyond our skills, however the first pitch up the back of the cave was grade 4+ and was the target for Tony and Loz to get photographed climbing in this great position. So after an interesting scramble down from the car parking we were soon kitting up and admiring the scale of the cave, which was a lot bigger than I imagined from the guidebook.
Flushed with success from yesterday I had consulted the guidebook over breakfast and noted that there were some nice looking routes beside the cave. However upon getting to the cave we realised we’d left both guidebooks back in the car. I nearly thought to go back for them, when I remembered that the climb to the left of ‘Big Ben’, inside the cave, was a 5+ and sure enough it was marked helpfully on the rock at the back of the cave. Looking up at the route it looked to have pretty nice holds but I did note that the lower off was high up where the roof of the cave started to curve. Feeling bold I decided to give it a shot.
So with Andy Railton belaying me I started out and by the 2nd bolt I was already feeling nervous as the route moved out and up onto a ledge. It took a couple of attempts and some help from Loz who had already climbed up parallel to me and was able to point out some holds that were just over the lip, but eventually I was on the ledge, if only I had known what was coming next I would have turned back there and then!
After a brief rest I was eyeing up the remaining two thirds of my route. I could see where to go and the holds looked good but my confidence was knocked from the difficult start and as I set off I found the nerves kicking in. Not due to the lack of holds but mainly due to tired arms and the exposed nature of the route. Plus the atmosphere of climbing in such an epic location. But I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet so I made my way up slowly, resting on a bolt at one stage. I was really feeling it on this climb and I knew I was working harder than I needed too which was only making things worse.
Eventually I hauled myself onto a tiny platform where I found I could stand on one foot if I wedged myself up against the wall of the cave. I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling like I’d bitten off way more than I could chew. My arms were burning and I was mentally all over the place, the exposure was getting too me and I was even getting a bit of vertigo. Part of me just wanted to quit there and then but after resting a while I gingerly peered up and around and I could see that the lower off was a mere 12ft or so above me.
Deciding that I needed to clip the next bolt anyway I started to move up and outwards, clipping the next bolt, and then retreating to my little platform. Whilst clipping the bolt I’d checked the holds to move up the next section, they looked good. Although the route was dead vertical at this point, even potentially slightly overhanging, the lower off was tantalisingly close. So turning to face the rock I managed to stave off the vertigo by convincing myself I was a mere couple of feet off the ground and then I just started climbing; and typically of course it was no great problem to reach the final stance just below the lower off. But the adventure was over yet!
Oh no this climb was not going to let me off that lightly, because unfortunately the sling I had prepared to secure myself to the lower off wouldn’t reach. No problem I thought, I’m in a good position I’ll just use my longer sling. But in the process of getting the longer sling out to use, it became completely tangled in itself. How many times had I got the sling out without any problem but the one time I want to be slick and get myself safe, the bloody thing gets in a knot.
Now I can hear you all saying ‘just use a quick draw on the lower off to secure yourself before sorting out the sling’, and yes this was realised after the ordeal was all over. But in the heat of moment I decided that I needed both hands free to sort the sling out, so instead I wedged my knee in a convenient gap in the rock and hung there standing on a hold with one foot and the knee wedge stopping me falling down past the last bolt while I sorted out the sling. Definitely not the slick finish I hoped for but all was well in the end and I’ve never felt so relieved as when I got that sling clipped onto the lower off. Despite the shaking hands I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity for a ‘selfie’ to remind me forever of this epic climb. Which of course by the time I had been lowered to the ground seemed much less of an ordeal and more of a thrilling adventure. Although I was perfectly happy to not do anymore climbing on that particular day!
So the remainder of the daylight was spent watching the crazy people high-lining between the cliffs up near the car park and then belaying for Tony whilst he confidently climbed a very nice looking 6a route. Then it was time to make tracks because we had a dinner reservation in Monte Carlo, so a very quick drive down the hillside and into town had us pulling up outside our hotel which was right down on harbour with rows of mega yachts lined up out front. Our rooms overlooked the harbour and the hotel was very plush however there wasn’t much time to dwell on the finery as we need to get suited up and off to the restaurant.
Having enjoyed a very nice meal, our New Years eve progressed in true Monaco style with casino’s, fast cars, champagne, and fireworks… Unfortunately we were only looking at the casinos, fast cars and fireworks. However the champagne was very nice, especially the Bollinger we enjoyed by the harbour to welcome in the New Year (Thanks Loz). Certainly it was a different New Years eve than any I had previously had and I’m glad I decided to go to Monaco in the end but I don’t think I’d miss it if I never went again (nothing to do with the company I might add)!
Surprisingly we all awoke with very little after effects of the previous night. We were some of the first guests down to breakfast at the hotel. In no time our cars had been brought round to the front of the hotel and we were off to La Turbie again, after a quick spin around the grand prix circuit of course. Again the weather was good to us and a nice relaxed days climbing was had, with Tony setting the pace on a tough 6a+ route that I found incredibly hard to second. After the previous days excitement it was nice to enjoy some lead climbs with a bit less drama and I ended the day on another 5+, not a clean lead but it was good experience all the same. Too soon it was time to head back to the villa, the rain had now arrived and was threatening to stay and spoil the next days climbing as well.
Sure enough the damp weather was still lingering around the next morning. However a bit of weather forecast analysis revealed that we might find some dry conditions around Aix-en-provence which just happened to be where Mount Saint-Victoire is located. Boasting a host of nice looking routes at its foot. So we decided to try our luck and were rewarded with quite a bit of seepage but no actual rain.
Unfortunately Andy Railton’s back injury flared up again on the walk-in so after relocating Andy to the car we returned to the foot of Saint-Victoire and got stuck in to an easy first route. Tony then lead up a long 5+ which had a rather scary run out on the upper section with a nasty ledge below, making for a very bold lead for the grade. I finished the day with a friendly grade 4 route but as we walked out we were already discussing a return trip as it was a very atmospheric venue with the added attraction of an epic 18 pitch route going right to the top of the mountain which had ‘climb me’ written all over it!
The next day was even wetter and also the day that Tony and Jack had to return home. We had hoped to all go climbing before dropping Tony and Jack at the train station, but a visit to ChateauVert revealed
disappointingly damp rock. So whilst Loz and Andy went to Toulon to take the Hextalls to their train, I followed the Lonely Planet guide off to the town of Corbierres. Which turned out to be the home of all things Chestnut, lucky I like Chestnuts. And also lucky because the weather in this part of Provence was not so damp and after eating some lunch I was wondering around the picturesque streets and alley ways of this very quaint rural town. As the weather improved I took a walk in the hills around the town for several hours before returning to sample chestnut ice-cream and source some chestnut delicacies to bring back and share.
The next day it was time to leave our lovely villa. It was another wet day so after saying goodbye to Andy and Loz (who were driving back to England) I headed to Montpellier to meet up with friend I had not seen for several years. Spent a lovely day exploring Montpellier and catching up with my friend before then heading to Cassis, which is a very lovely little town by the coast. Whilst Cassis was very picturesque, my reason for visiting was to go walking in the Celanques.
Thankfully when I awoke the next morning I found the weather had improved and although there was a strong breeze it was blue skies and perfect weather for a spot of walking. Being winter time the walking trails were all open, they’re closed in the hot weather due to fire risk. So I spent a lovely day hiking around various Celanques, which are narrow inlets with high limestone cliffs. There is a lot of nice looking rock here to climb and I would definitely like to return one day with a view to climbing.
And so like all good things my trip came to an end, much as it had started, with another delayed plane and a late, bumpy arrival back home. But even the cold/wet british weather couldn’t detract from what had been a brilliant trip and the perfect way to start what will hopefully be a year with lots of climbing and fun times with my fellow Bowliners!!