Indoor climbing has recently enjoyed huge growth in the UK but the outdoor climbing scene is harder to find, requires new skills and rain always threatens to stop play. I headed to France to find a new climate and a new approach to outdoor climbing…
‘C’est super,’ calls Alé, our tanned, beaming instructor from what seems like a league beneath me. Looking down at him, a grinning bronze dot far below, I wonder what on earth I'm doing here. I manage to make my forearms stop complaining when I find some better holds and look around – a little reminder of why I left the comfort of the local wall and made the trip to the Ardèche, France.
Hooking my arm into a convenient crack I let the other arm hang loose and gaze along the crag – a meandering cliff above the cool river, winding its way through the forest into the Massif Centrale. The limestone is warm beneath my skin, baked by the morning sun and forcing us into an extended lunchtime swim while we waited for the crag to come into the shade. In the other direction is the Rhone Valley and I imagine that I can see the vineyards that we passed through on the way here from landing in Nimes. I can’t – miles of forests, gorges, cliffs and caves separate me from the hubbub that now lies out there in the early summer haze.
We’re at Mazet Plage – a firm favourite among the growing number of European climbers that are coming to the Ardèche. They are here to take their first steps in outdoor climbing or to hone their skills on the sport routes that have been carefully created by local climbers and the Fédération Française de la Montagne et de l'Escalade. Through their work, thousands of sport climbing routes are now established at hundreds of sites, some by the river, some hidden in the forest and each with its own unique charm.
Making sport routes entails placing bolts that lead climbers can have total confidence in as they clip the rope to them and ascend. I’m on a top rope today (a rope already placed on the route for me) but Alé assures me that he’ll have me leading by the end of the week. I wasn’t so sure to start with but his confidence, patience and pervasive smile make me think that it might just be possible after all. Alé has been here many times before…
‘Ça va?’ enquires the bronze dot below. I have completely phased out of where I am, perched on the warm rock gazing around and feeling that in spite of being way up in the air, I’ve never felt so at home. ‘Oui Alé, ça va’ I think to myself as I reach upwards once more.
Climbing holidays, courses and accommodation in the Ardèch (that has over 300 days of sunshine a year) is available with Evasion Travel, which offers weekends, short breaks and week-long packages with local transportation included. English is spoken. Visit http://evasiontravel.co.uk/ardeche/activity-holidays/climbing-holidays.