Terrain d’aventure

Trip Report: 14 Feb 2004

The university campus at Luminy is right in the middle of the Calanques, a wild region of limestone cliffs and valleys and  deeply-incised coastline stretching from Marseille to Cassis.  For five days I have been trying to take in a full-time program of intense mathematical discussion. Now, however, an extra day has managed to find its way into my schedule.  Today is climbing day.  The sun has shone all week and my English distrust of the weather makes me sure it will rain today, but I’m wrong; blue skies and no wind.   I am sitting outside the Mathematics Institute at 8.30 in the morning awaiting the arrival of Papick.

Papick Bracco (www.bonnegrimpe.com) is a guide in the Marseille area who I found from a google search.  A series of emails in my fractured French have discovered that yes, Papick can climb today, and that he recommends a visit to the calanque d’Essaidon, “one of the wilder and lonelier spots (endroits assez sauvages et peu frequentees) on the coast”. Of course I agree.  We drive for a quarter of an hour along the road towards Cassis, to a remote parking place.  Now we have an hour or so to hike to Essaidon.

The Calanques backcountry is a confusing maze of steep valleys, outcroppings, and paths heading in every direction.  Though maps are available and some of the larger paths are waymarked with faded paint splashes, I think these would serve only to give me a false sense of security.  Papick tells of retrieving a walker at nightfall who had been traveling helplessly in circles.  The path he takes  is rough and twisty, with many annoying hills to go up and down.  But by ten o’clock we’ve arrived at the cirque which overlooks the calanque
d’Essaidon.  It’s a steep bay with white cliffs falling on both sides into the blue of the Mediterranean.  We’ll climb the arete on the eastern side of the bay, which rises directly from the sea to a summit maybe 200 feet above us.  Its most notable feature though is a huge window right through the arete, about at my eye level.   It’s a dramatic sight but it’s not very reassuring about the quality of the rock.

A short rappel takes us down the headwall of the calanque and it’s followed by a steep, loose descent directly beneath our route.  Reaching the sea we dip our hands in the water – warm enough – and rope up.  I ask Papick for a review of French climbing signals.   “When I reach the top, I will shout OK”. Sounds like a simple system to me.  We set off up the arete.

The first couple of pitches are very gentle and the third is perhaps the crux.  One turns a little step in the ridge by a rising traverse out on the right wall.  The route is protected by bolts and a few elderly pitons  (Papick has brought only quickdraws and   slings).  As I arrive at the belay he informs me, “vous etes bien nerveux quand vous grimpez”!  Well, perhaps I was not quite a model of calm and cool, but surely some of the stress was brought on by my struggles for the correct vocabulary…  In revenge, I claim that this pitch is 5.5 (Papick grades it 5b/c, whatever that amounts to).

Above this crux the angle relents for a while and we can enjoy a spectacular situation on the crest with the blue of the sea on both sides.  At one point I am startled by a voice from the deep below.   It’s a tourist boat and the passengers crane their necks for a glimpse of the “grimpeurs”.  We wave to them from the belay.  They’re the first people we have seen since we set out this morning.

Another pitch starts out with 10 feet of steep laybacking. Then there is a long section through trees and vegetation; the chief difficulty being not to slip on the pine needles which cover every hold.  Soon we arrive at a broad belay terrace  – in fact all the belays on this route are very spacious –  followed by a notch in the ridge which marks the line of weakness which has given rise to the window, now a hundred feet below us.  Two more pitches up a steep wall and suddenly it is all over.  We return to our lunch – in my case consisting of bread and croissants borrowed from breakfast at the Mathematics Research Center, half a day ago and in another world.

Our next excursion will take us around the cliffs to the calanque d’En Vau, via a path known as the “traverse des ecureuils”, the Squirrels’ Traverse.  There are two or three pitches of climbing on this route, but it takes a while to get to them. The path follows a winding traverse line along fourth class ledges in the middle of the cliff.  The ground is loose and broken, the occasional pitons wobbly. A single fifth class move around a buttress leads into slippery talus which we climb until the traverse resumes.  Papick tells me that the talus is recent: a finger of rock on the cliff high above collapsed.  It seems that there is plenty more unstable rock still up there!   We hurry on and soon reach the base of the climbing.

This takes us up another interesting arete.  Papick leads off confidently to the right.  When my turn comes I follow his line to find plenty of  good-sized, blocky holds.  I give one a tentative tug; it moves.  The next one comes right off and drops into the Mediterranean.  Time to try a different line; on the left.  This pitch continues in the same vein over shattered blocks and finishes by traversing a blank section by way of a rather dead-looking tree branch. The adventure is not over yet.  Two more easy pitches lead to a belay below a steep, potholed wall.   But that is not where the route goes.  Instead, we drop down into a cave and wriggle right through the ridge, emerging above a steep slope which descends to the calanque d’en Vau.

Papick suggests one more route.  I am still jittery from my encounters with loose rock and suggest heading back. “Je ne vous comprends pas” says Papick.  I am sure he understands me perfectly well but it’s obvious that my fate is sealed.  To reassure me he adds, “Les falaises sont beaucoup plus compacts”.  I take this to mean that though one may pull off an individual hold now and again, the whole route is not in imminent danger of collapse. We head down the tricky descent to en Vau.

The contrast with the remoteness of the calanque d’Essaidon is striking.  The calanaque d’en Vau is full of people.  Though it takes a lengthy hike, this calanque is in all the guidebooks and the trail is well-marked.  We follow the main trail for maybe fifty yards before it is time to head off to the left.   We will climb the ridge which marks the head of the calanque.

This is a well-traveled route and the holds are quite polished, especially on the first pitch.  It is also a more serious proposition than anything else we’ve climbed today.  Pitch 1 begins with polished face climbing and then works its way through a little overhang at a notch.   Pitch 2 gives a stroll along a narrow ridge.  As I belay here a child’s shout rings out from below, “Ils sont fous!”.  Yes, once again we are a tourist attraction.  The third pitch is the hardest, giving more face climbing at 5.7-ish to a hanging belay.  One key hold is a thin flake which I lean on energetically, hoping that the rock is indeed “plus compact”.  A final easy pitch and it is all over, 5 pm and time to return to Marseille.  Tomorrow, the plane to Paris and homeward bound.

Terrain d’aventure? Bien sur.

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