Calames – Ariege
Les Instantfataux – 5+ – Lead
Blues pour un chat noir – 5+ – Lead
Les Herbes Amieres – 5+ – Second
La Nauc – 6a – Lead (dogged)
We lucked into a quiet campsite in a little village called Aston,; in fact we were the first ‘campers’ of the season which entitled us to a free night and choice of any pitch on the site. Tucked away in a narrow valley it sits next to a fast flowing (very at this time due to snow melt) river, the roar of which keeps you constant company but doesnt detract from a good nights sleep.
We woke up on our first morning raring to go, so it was into the hired ‘Cashcow’ and off for a morning coffee in Tarascon. This leisurely approach meant we managed to arrive at the crag as the sun started beating down, a lesson quickly learned which we proceeded to ignore for most of our ventures to the crags. We were just not early risers.
The sunny weather by all accounts was unusual for 2013. Up to this point the weather in Ariege had been poor so it seemed a good omen. One of the most notable crags in Ariege is Calames. You can see it clearly from Tarascon and the number of different sectors makes it an obvious choice for an opening venue. Tom, Chris and I are used to some arduous walk ins. Cornwall has plenty of them, but with the heat the walk up through Bedeilhac and across the ridge felt tough.
As is often the case, finding your bearings is difficult, but we rocked up to Sector Le Papy without too many wrong turns. What I like about French Sport crags is that they write the name of the crag on the rock! How cool is that. It didnt seem to help us though as I picked out a three star 5 called Theiere de jardin and proceeded to immediately go off route and climb its neighbour Les Instantfataux which was a 5+.
This is something to bear in mind. The routes are tightly packed. Unlike the routes we are used to in Cornwall where an obvious line is picked (which could meander around a bit) the limestone routes sometimes just go straight up. Looking for a line is likely to take you off route on many pitches. Just follow the bolts. It makes for some different climbing as it pushes you through territory you might not naturally take on. At the same time it tends to make the climbs more difficult and sometimes a bit weird. By the time I left Ariege I was loving it, but to start with it feels a bit ‘false’.
So to the climbing. My first route, Les Instantfataux turned out to be a cracker. Both Chris and I led this one. I soon discovered that many limestone routes are about small crimpy holds and delicate footwork. I needed to trust my feet and work through some of the tricky technical sections. To be honest, on this first day I was struggling to be confident in my footwork, but this soon evapourated as I got a few routes under my belt.
‘Blues’ turned out to be significantly harder, making me realise that there are 5+’s and 5+’s. Similar for the most part to LI, the headwall provides some hard technical climbing. It was around this point that I started to realise that my earlier view that 5+ equated to around VS 4c back home was seriously flawed. It seems that a 5+ tends to equate to 5b back home putting it nearer E1 at times, but obviously with bolts.
This of course is where the idea of comparing grades falls down. You can only really compare the technical grade for the most part. While I climb hard on trad routes, I definitely on the whole dont climb as hard as I had to on the sports stuff. This was a refreshing change, although it took me until almost the last day to switch off my trad head (with the little voice saying “dont fall, dont fall”).
Chris made a good job of the first pitch of Les Herbes Ameres, a tough 5+, before we decided to look at a 6a called Le Nauc. This is all about one sequence through a bulgy section and my head let me down big time. Daft thing is its well protected as the bolt is in exactly the right place (unlike some routes we did later on). Still a valuable lesson learned. Go for it…
The trudge back was made sweater when we stopped off in Tarascon for a Beer at Le Hotel Confort, a residence clearly aimed at the touring biker, but which served up ice cold Leffe beer overlooking the river.
Back at the campsite, we commandeered the barbeque hut for our private kitchen/diner, a luxury we retained for the duration of out stay in Tarascon and had our first helping of Tuna Something. A very tasty dish which hit the spot, but the recepe for which is a closely guarded secret only known to Chris.