Text and pictures © 2004-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
> i'm going on holiday to france has anyone ever done any rock
> climbing there and can they suggest good climbs
"could you give us more information like where in france you're going and when and what kind of climbing you're looking for and and at what level whether you have done any research yourself or are just bugging us and anyway why should we take the time to help you when you can't be bothered to even use any punctuation or provide basic information much less actually do any leg work yourself so I am going to guess that you belong in a gym try murmur in paris but just boulder because i have friends there and i would rather you not belay them." — Frederick 'Fritz' Weihe answering a stupid question.
Left: Cows at Roche Robert, massif des Cerces.
Right: Crête de Queyrellin, massif des Cerces
Historically, climbing in France was first done in Chamonix by rich englishmen or parisians, leaving the south largely a century late in its first ascents. Add to this a rock with poor reputation, probably due to global warming having more effect down south. Well, now that the Drus are falling apart in Chamonix, everything that could fall off has already fallen off here. The original rock climbing guidebook "Les 100 moins pires" (the 100 least worse routes) by Cambon has been split in two and more positively renamed "Oisans Nouveau, Oisans Sauvage".
Left: Tête Colombe in the Cerces, with Encore Du Dévers (7a). A well bolted route with an explosive first pitch (6c), a 6b pitch totally devoid of gear (hand size crack), a fearsome traverse and a poorly protected crux pitch (7a/A1 with some old pitons).
The Cerces range lies south-east of the Lautaret pass between Briançon and Grenoble. It is a set of limestone tall towers where climbing is possible only on warm summer days. And even though, cold humid winds often blow from the northern Alps and chill us out. In winter it offers some possibilities of backcountry skiing.
Above: Vertical Panorama, Les Dents de Cyrielle, ED, 3ème tour de Queyrellin, Cerces.
Above: Crux traverse (7a) on Les Dents de Cyrielle (ED, 3eme tour de Queyrellin).
|This is an extremely attractive route. Good climbing, good panorama and a rating that makes you feel good. The 7a traverse is nowhere as hard as the rating seems to imply, probably a good way to keep the crowds at bay.|
Left: The infamous Tonino Palermi and Antonella (my first ever Italian climbing partner) reaching the summit of the Termier tower.
Right: Jenny on the summit of Tour Termier.
Right: Jenny looking up at the route, halfway up 'L'usure du temps' (ED+/7b)
Right: Vincent on a parallel route on the Lys cliff. Taken from below the 7b roof.
Left: Vincent on a heinous ground start at Les Ayes.
Left: Strange crowd on a Via Ferrata at Roche Robert. They look friendly and harmless enough, but the problem is that sometimes they drop rocks on you while walking carelessly above the cliffs.
Right: Jenny on Vendange Tardive, one of the many long routes to be found in the Cerces range, here on the Lauzet. Roche Robert is the little lump on top of the other side and the main valley leads up to the Lautaret pass, in the background.
Left: A view on the Via Ferrata at l'Aiguillette du Lauzet.
Right: Rappelling down with La Meije in the background, just before the rain hits.
Left: Two climbers backlit on overhanging sport route (vertical), Briançon.
Right: Fireworks above the historical center of Briançon.
Left: Falling sport climber.
Right: Sport climbing a stone's throw away from downtown Briançon.
Briançon offers potential climbers everything, and lots of it: 20 pitch routes less than an hour away from downtown (approach included), skiing from downtown in winter, major ice climbing in the Fournel and Freissiniere valleys, as well as lots of sport climbing all over including several cliffs within town. Most of it is limestone, but granite is 40 minutes away and so is a cliff of tuff. Only downside is that most cliffs are cold in winter.
Left: Vincent hanging at Les Ayes
Right: Vincent taking it easy on a sport climbing route
Left: Hubert working on a 7b route at the Vignette, the local winter cliff, south facing and well sheltered from the cold winds.
Right: Jenny climbing at Les Ayes (6c+).
Left: Jenny on a warm-up route at Les Ayes, a summer cliff above Briançon.
Above: Jenny on Soleil Levant (ED-), Tenailles de Montbrison
Above: Side view, Tenailles de Montbrison.
Left: Jenny on Soleil Levant (ED-), Tenailles de Montbrison.
Right: View of the upper part of the Tenailles de Montbrison.
Above: Side view of Tenailles de Montbrison with Briançon down the valley.
Left: Jenny on the dihedral of Soleil Levant (ED-).
Right: Ridge traverse to reach the 2nd Tenaille.
The Tenailles are two obvious towers, one on top of the other, visible south-west from Briançon. They have many moderate to hard long routes in a great setting. I did two routes there with Vincent 15 years ago, and did two more soon after our arrival in Briançon. How soon ? Well, it truth, we had barely set foot in our new apartment for 6 hours that Lord Slime of rec.climbing fame called to say he'd drop by... the next day. So he showed up in the middle of our moving boxes and was a little miffed when, instead of taking him climbing, we dragged him to the hardware store to get planks, nails and tools to build an addition to the apartment. Only upon completion did we head for the Tenaille.
Left: Jenny on Vol et Volupté, Tenailles de Montbrison
Right: Jenny in the dihedral of Vol et Volupté, Tenailles de Montbrison.
Left: Jenny and Lord Slime on the easiest pitch of Vol et Volupté, Tenailles de Montbrison.
Right: Jenny & Lord Slime on the summit of the first Tenailles de Montbrison.
Left: Rappelling off the first Tenailles de Montbrison
Right: Narrow ridge traverse between the 1st and 2nd Tenailles de Montbrison with Briançon the background.
There's a common pitch to all routes to go from one tower to the next where the routes divide again. At 4+, it's the easiest pitch of all, but also one of the most impressive, crossing a razor sharp arete.
OK, ok, not so secret, it's not like we shoot tourists here.
Right: Agostino and Jenny below the roof of Yakafaucon.
Left: A view of the main cliff of the Ponteil. Another shorter cliff with sport routes is farther to the left in the continuity, known as 'la tour des anges'.
Left: Jenny on the crux of Yakafaucon, a short 6b+ crack.
Right: One of the infamous Martinelli brothers on the Ponteil.
Right: Agostino on the traverse of the 5th pitch.
Left: Jenny belaying Agostino (and me) from the summit of the Ponteil.
Right: Small river next to the parking lot. OK, the composite image is far from perfect, but you get the idea.
Saying that the Ponteil is a local secret cliff is a bit of a stretch. With all the rock we enjoy here, there's no need to keep some of it for ourselves. I'd say it's a secret because all the locals go there to climb when everyone else think it's too cold to climb rock in the area. Indeed the Briançonnais, the area around Briançon, is too cold to climb in winter... except in a few magic places. The Vignettes is one of them, well known sport climbing crag along the road between Presles and Les Vigneaux, always sunny and sheltered from the cold winter winds (and where I just climbed my first 7b yesterday, onsight too!). The other spot is the Ponteil, with excellent multi-pitch routes.
Right: Autumn is definitely the color of the day.
Along the road leading from the highway to the Ponteil there's a major selection of spots. First avoid the temptation of taking the road leading to Freissinière (many excellent routes and also ice climbing kingdom), then a kids' cliff, then the Pouit and its notorious stiff ratings, the Ponteil, the Lys and even another one farther up.
Fifteen years ago I fell in love with that area when for a week we climbed ice every morning and rock in T-shirt every afternoon. What else can you ask for ?
Left: Another vertical panorama of climbing at the Ponteil.
Right: Jenny on a winter day at the Ponteil. Climb there is good at any time of the year, even if the base is snow covered.
Right: Autumn as seen from the approach to the Ponteil.
Right: Approach trail to the Ponteil.
The Tête d'Aval (Lower Head) is one of the biggest wall in the region with some 24 pitches bolted routes on it. And it is very famous locally for its very sustained climbing. But strangely in the rest of the country or even internationally it doesn't receive the attention it deserves. Maybe for the better since there's no more than 20 good routes on it.
Right: Bivouac above the parking lot, under the watchful stare of the Tête d'Aval... just before it started raining.
Left: The Tete d'Aval seen from the Marcellin fountain. You don't normally need to carry water up with you: there some at the fountain on the trail and some more right at the base of the cliff.
Right: First pitch of 'Une pissée d'amarante'. Since there's an hour of steep hiking followed by some scrambling up ledges followed by a hairy solo pitch on loose stuff, the first pitch is already quite some distance off the ground.
In spring 2007 I went twice in a week to do routes that go halfway up the face. A complex system of large ledges makes it so that you can come down at various places or even often change route in the middle. My first route this spring is with Agostino, never mind that the previous day we went up and skied the 2000m of the Dome des Ecrins. So we start a bit late and more than a bit tired. It won't get any better a week later on 'La mémoire de l'eau' after we spend 20 hours ice climbing on the glacier noir the previous day...
Left: The route is a little bit contrived in order to reach a bright red spot in the middle of the cliff. This means that there are several traverses, but all of it is good.
Right: Agostino trying to figure out the crux move at the very end of a traverse.
I was first introduced to this big face 20 years ago by Vincent whose uncle, Jacques Kelle, opened the very first route on the face, the 18-pitch long 'Kelle pillar'. Not too sustained and with varied pitches (easy ramps, slippery 7a dihedral or strenuous aid pitch, incredibly airy traverse at the very top...). Ever since I've been coming back regularly to add routes to the ticklist.
Left: Angled hold for Agostino. Great limestone on most of the Tête d'Aval, but there are some short sections of brittle rock. On most well protected routes, this is not a problem but I have friends who got scared off the non-classics.
Right: Big wall.
Left: Climbers at the start of the Kelle ramp, heading off for the classic route of the same name.
Left: Agostino on top of the pillar at the end of the first quarter of the face. I wish all those ledges had names !
Left: This is only the 2nd quarter of the cliff, about 6 pitches here, including the hardest pitches of Rank Xerox.
Right: Agostino on one of the hard pitches of Rank Xerox (7a).
Left: Jenny on Rank Xerox.
Right: Easy traverse on Rank Xerox, just before reaching the great ledge. That's where we stopped on that day, but there are plenty more pitches higher up. We'll be back.