Text and pictures © 2006-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"If you feel like working, lay down for a while to let it pass away." — Corsican saying.
Left: Typical of the corsican roads: a roadsign riddled with bullet holes. The other local custom regarding signs is to scratch the names of the cities when spelled in french instead of corsican, so expect some discrepancies with your road map...
Barely off the boat we drive to our first destination: Bavella pass in the south of the island. Along the road from Ajaccio we just have time for a quick stop at the scenic beach boulders of Roccapina. They are carved by the wind into insightful shapes made famous by numerous magazine pictures, but the rock is brittle and you don't even want to consider the landings. After a few boulders we just watch the sun wash into the sea behind the ruins of some watchtowers erected by the so-called Torrean people something like 3 millennia ago.
As we are resting after our first climb, parked off the side of the road, a car stops 50 meters away, fires a shotgun a few meters above our heads and drives off while the shot tree leaves settle gently on our heads. Somehow Jenny won't buy my explanation that this constitutes a pretty standard corsican greeting, nothing much to it. But we won't let this first contact keep us away from good ham and climb.
Right: We reached the boulders a little late to have enough light for photography, and the rock is actually not that enjoyable, but the landscape is fantastic.
Right: Panoramic view of the bay of Roccapina, pointing towards Sardinia.
Right: Searching for the proper way up the Pilastru d'Alba, just a few minutes walk from the parking lot at the Bavella pass.
Left: Summit of the first tower after 2 pitches. A rappel then takes you back to the ground where you can start over for the rest of the route. A few cams are useful on that route although the guidebooks says not.
Left: First contact with Taffoni on the Pilastru di Alba. It's steep and intimidating, particularly the hollow sound when you knock the rock.
Right: Summit of the Pilastru d'Alba. The walk down is easy and quick.
Left: Plenty of groves up the via Masino, an old classic route on the Punta di Acellu above Bavella. I had a hard time on the crux pitch, groveling my way up several meters of nasty offwidth protected by rusty bolts, while Jenny just turned the other way and ran up. Fantastic view from up there.
Right: A common sight in Corsica: wild pigs by the road. And when I say 'on the road' I mean it, you'd better be careful when going around that curve too fast on mountain roads... Plenty of acorns and chestnuts for this wild sow and piglets. Those pigs end up in the excellent corsican dry sausages, hams and co.
Right: Piglets and sows by the side of the road.
Right: Pure face climbing on the round granite summit of Punta U Diamante reminiscent of North Dome, but you can actually find a few holds on this one. Still, the 6c crux of Democratia is not to be attempted on a hot or windy day as it is very thin and precarious ! This summit is just a few km west of Bavella itself.
Left: Last easy but runout pitch on the Punta Diamante.
Left: Punta u Corbu (center, somewhat indisctinctive) and Teghie Lisce (right) as seen from the Bavella pass.
Right: The Punta U Corbu where it's easy to tell where the most famous route got its name of 'elephant's back'.
Arbutus berries are usually fairly rare in France and Italy but in early november we found tons of them on the approach trails to the various climbs. Later, as we were in a restaurant chatting with the chef, we asked him if he was doing desserts with them, he answered that in Corsica, they leave them to the birds, as they give diarrhea to some people... We spent a nervous night without ill consequences and kept on eating for the rest of the trip.
Left: Steep section of 6c while offroute, fortunately well bolted.
Right: Easy but smooth chimney while offroute on the Punta u Corbu. This route is called 'something potes'.
Left: Offroute on the Punta di U Corbu.
Right: Up on the back of the elephant. Smooth slab, with good protection, just far enough to keep you on your toes.
Our plan was to climb 'Le dos de l'Elephant' but we started off on the wrong foot, following a bolted line too low at a dead pine tree, and leading us up 4 or 5 pitches of another route, finishing on the other side of the mountain after the chimney pitch visible on the left.
From there either we keep following the route to another summit entirely, or an old rusty bolt above a scrawny tree looks like it can send us back into the right direction, but as I'm balanced precariously on the very highest part of the tree no thicker than my ear-cleaning finger and trying to go into a smeary layback, I figure out that this can be best described as a death pitch: a fall anywhere on that traverse, before or after the bolt, would crush me inside the chimney. It's another dicey move to go from the layback to the only hold above, and although the bolt is right under my nose, it's so rusty that there's no way I'm touching it. I keep this in mind later as I'm 3 or 4 times higher than the bolt on a blank lichenish slab, trying to figure out if there's any chance it might have been a good idea at some point. Finally a short committing move to reach an inverted hold and I see a line of bolts coming from the right. We are on track again.
Left: The slabs on the upper part of the Elephant's back are somewhat runout as you can see. But don't let that pic put you off, the bolts are good, well, at least those that have been replaced, and you won't risk running out of quickdraws on the route.
Right: Some taffoni are so big that you can just climb through them (beware of the rope drag).
The upper part of the Elephant's back has several moderate pitches of pure slab climbing. Protection adequate if somewhat scarce, although that's a piece of cake after the way I got onto the back itself.
Left: Second pitch of Jeff (or Jeef ?), a seam more than a crack, but steep and topped by an overhanging taffoni.
Right: One of the peculiarities of the corsican rock is the presence of those so called 'taffoni', pieces of hanging rock, hollowed out by the elements. They are so thin and hollow as to resonate when you touch them, leading to some nervous climbing, until you get used to them.
Three days after our first ascent of the Punta u Corbu, we are back for a route whose photos have done the cover of all the climbing mags. Opened by the Petit brothers a decade ago, it's a masterpiece of variety and sustained climbing. The crux is a size-dependent 7a+ move, easily bypassed by pulling on the bolt. But then higher up, as we reach an impressive overhanging pitch not even rated in the guidebook, it's very easy to tell we are in trouble looking at the many missing bolt heads and the long hanging sling on the first bolt. It goes, if just barely, at a stiff 6c after the first pull on the sling. I guess the other bolts were removed to make sure climbers would at least try it free before resorting to more desperate measures.
Left: Fifth pitch, a ramp of 6b, with smearing feet and layback bulges, last pitch before the crux of Jeff.
Right: Negotiating the taffoni on Jeff/Jeef, 6th pitch.
Left: Up on the taffoni section of Jeff.
Right: Jenny seen from above on the same taffoni near the end of the crux pitch of Jeff, a masterpiece route up the Punta u Corbu. It's a stiff overhang but the holds are like fridge handles.
The taffoni of the upper part of the pitch are impressive, you can grab them with your entire arm, but some are so thin that it feels like grabbing a knife blade. After that a short traverse on a ledge and an optional belay for the pitch with the famous profile picture of a climber on a round slab above an impressive roof. Unfortunately it takes a photographer on the next summit to take the shot... and there's a group of 3 local climbers who have just summited Le Teghie Lisce, but we won't meet again as we reach the car.
Left: The cliff of Gozzi dominating the vineyards in the backcountry of Ajaccio.
Right: Under the roof of Peche Veniel, 6c+, Gozzi.
After 5 days well spent in Bavella, we head back to warmer climates, the town of Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon. There the red mass of Gozzi looms over the vineyards and catches the eye. We chose a route more or less at random and end up on Peche Veniel whose first 4 pitches up a dirt covered slab full of growing cacti is not that good. But the upper 3 pitches make it worth it: overhanging bulges and taffoni on excellent rock.
Left: The first pitch of Peche Veniel after the ledge, big arms required.
Right: Jenny nearing the end of the large roof of the route.
Left: Last pitch of Gozzi.
Right: Zoom down the upper part of Peche Veniel, with a view of the maquis shrubland and the bay of Ajaccio. (HDR panoramic image)
The taffoni are very characteristic of the corsican rock and even small boulder by the beaches or in the middle of the maquis exhibit those weird shapes. I've seen taffoni in other wildly different places but Corsica is the only place where I've climbed on them. They form in places that have high thermal and humidity contrasts, for instance very hot and dry summers with very cold and wet winters. Add to this the action of the salt-carrying sea winds for long periods and the gap left by a small missing crystal gets enlarged into a bunch of giant cheese holes.
Left: Church in the narrow streets of Corte, in the mountains of central Corsica. Corte was the capital of Corsica during its very brief period of independence lasting only 15 years, 2 centuries ago.
Right: One of the last pitches of Ombre et Lumière up the Rossolino, in the Tavignano valley.
Among the stack of guidebooks and information we gathered for this trip, two routes stand out: 'Jeff' (also spelled Jeef in some guidebooks) opened by the Petit brothers up the Punta Corbu in Bavella, and 'Ombre et Lumière' up the Rossolino in the Tavignano valley above Corte. Entirely right for the first route, it's beautiful, sustained, varied, with some moves never seen anywhere else, in other words it's a major route. But I can't really say the same of 'Ombre et Lumière'.
Left: One of the main pitches on the route, an long offwidth crack that actually gets climbed using mostly the thin crack on the right.
Sure, it's a great climb up excellent rock. But what a waste: one of the only routes I've ever seen in France that can completely go trad, and there's a bolt every meter or so. The route either follows crack systems or strange bulges reminiscent of Arapiles with its stopper placements in between them. Chop off the bolts and I'll be the first one to call it the best trad route in France ! As it is, I kept cringing while climbing it.
Left: The harbor of Bastia in the evening, after an excellent dinner in a nationalist restaurant in the narrow backstreet.
Right: The harbor of Bastia, the morning of our departure while the fishermen are bringing their catch back.
We were in Corsica for 10 days in november, a season quite good for climbing, if a little cold. The main problem was the total lack of open campground or other forms of accommodations, everything closing after the end of the tourist season. The only one we found open left a nasty souvenir in the form of a visit to the doctor a week later with 'interesting' zits all over... To say nothing of the jars of marmalade we bought which proved full of candied wasps...