Current embarkment: forty kilometers west of Dijon, northeast of le Parc naturel régional du Morvan.
Four wheels roll down broiling asphalt. Sunrays slip through a ceiling of leaves not so high above, while century-old crowns of oaks stick out golden in the sun. The heart of Burgundy must be close.
A vehicle flickers in beams of light. It rolls down away into a sun-overladen lowland. At the verge of forest and lowland a village pops up.. Saffres. There is movement. Car doors slam.
Two peculiar figures pierce through the bush under a wild walnut. Their shades submerge under the forest canopy. The shady track winds on. It stops in the full dark. The odd duo arrives at the foot of something high above. It looks like a giant mythological beast turned to crumbling stone.
The forest floor is bumpy, the air dark. Their eyes adapt. Dark green looms. In this dark the team is suddenly surrounded by fluffy chuncks of mossy limestone. The green mass wriggles up and takes the shape of coarse oak trees, overgrowing the shallow canopy.
The curious delegation finds a way to an open spot. The Tour Carrée (westface) lits up towering out from the trees. Glistening bolts give away long shiny sport climbs. The cubical 10-storey high block stands separated from steep cliffs as they wind further through the lit jungle of hornbeams.
Expect any moment Celtic druids turning round a bend, scaring 10 storeys up in the air when they behold the team of this saga. One goes under the codename Bram, the other one is me.
A bolted line ± starts each next meter, mostly going straight up. At the bottom painted numbers show from 0 to ±400. Maybe us Belgians are spoiled with ✧*:・ﾟ✧ master route open artist's lines ✧ﾟ・:*✧ like Marc Bott's and Pico's (Pierre Masschelein). Or maybe we ARE right to believe limestone cliffs here fell prey to an undeserving local club making Saffres their witches’ brew. (More on this)
Yet no evil bolter can mess up the quality rock that we find here and there. Me and Bram recommend a locally-known numberless 6b following a natural line, jammed between two numbered straight-up routes.
Vieux-Château - The crag
Moving on, later we end up in Vieux-Château. We descend from a hay meadow, towards old tree tops sticking out. Something’s different about this place. We reach a creek meandering through a lush forest. Stones help us hop over the water. Meters from the water we dissappear under the thick tree canopy.
From the darkness the creek gives the brightest light. Roots form stairs and natural benches. They welcome us at the bottom of one of the only 3 granite crags in 100 kms of distance (more places with granite are closeby nonetheless, with each of them containing their own rare minerals, according to several reports). The six routes we climb all follow a natural line. I remember 6a Quinou.
We could drive on to the west now, to Le Saussois, where sport climbing in France has developed from.. Buoux of the north.. But the mission calls.
We are at the ancient Alesia* and head to Beaune. ±20 generations ago catholic Burgundy got hold of shires in today’s Belgium. Now we walk into the lion’s den. We are in the belly of the beast.
We travel southwards along the Saône and her wine regions, set for Grenoble. From there I'll return deep into the Ecrins. It's two months since sweat streamed harder than the Véneon and I was initiating a few climbers into the craft of multipitching on a safe distance from then overcrowded 12-pitch monsters.
Dibona - Approach
After passing steep bigwalls and waterfalls, I drive tens of kilometers onwards on the Vénéon valley's mountain flanks. The road barely fits one car. On some places a pit marks recent massive rockfall. Several times the side of the asphalt is nibbled off by the abyss. The end of the smallest of roads nears, the beginning of La Bérarde's valleys.
I shug the car against the side of the road. Bram and me engineer bulky backpacks. Then we veer off. We will infiltrate deep into the mountains. First we turn around corners, past steep walls, to go up a stream. Later, a luxuriant green jungle is sometimes interrupted by little waterfalls. Six times a descending duo passes, each looking fit. But all red.
Only four people respond, at most mumbling bonjour, arduously aiming their exhausted look up. Which battlefield, which monster are we heading to?! Our peak appears for the first time. A girl passes and smiles.
Will we make friends with Dibona?
Dibona - Last preparations
After 2h20' me and Bram narrowly beat the topo time and enter the hut. The dusk is setting in as we throw the weight off our shoulders. The guardien had been expecting us. She gives us food and hears out our plans so they won't coincide with any plans of the other guests. We're last and look over the table of food. French guys and a girl report each other. A bit further a team of Norse girls and guys listens to one loud one of them who makes them laugh again and again. They're hikers we learn.
At 7h15am we grab the multipitchbags. We leave the hut behind. Balancing we scramble up and arrive at the start of the famous Visite Obligatoire route to the top of l'Aiguille Dibona. Off we go, I hack a path. The weather.. I can write a book about the weather. The temperature, the wind, the sun..
Late that evening, back in the valley, we try to make sense of what happened... "The flake you could just not reach and start dülfering?.. L8!.. That vertical foot prise.. Or later where you couldn't clip and the last bolt was far down... almost slip.. delicate balance..
Oh.. The length where I made tiny steps.. then standing wide.. I was playing chess against the rock.. That time I had to venture into the boldless unknown.. Wooow, the final overhangs.. Which length.. the traverse.. where to top out?.. And the heavy backpack with the picnic.. All worth it.."
The pieces fall together over a drink in the only café which is open for a few moments. Looking back I freeclimbed the route, Bram nearly too. Two cordées (not from the hut) had showed up in the morning after us, but they returned. Strong-climbing Mathilda (Briançon) and Sophia (Barcelona) had hopped from another route into ours, following us to the top.
Expedition beyond Ecrins, catching glimpses of Provence mountains
finding a way back to Burgundy
We wake up down by the thundering river. After several hours the sun shows up above the razor-edge mountains. It doesn't take long 'till her rays blaze through the valley. Bram and me end up at the granite of sport climbing crags of Maye (out in the open) and Le Torrent (sheltered by birches sticking out from the high river bank rocks).
Dusk sets in. We follow the winding road out of the Ecrins already seeing the thunderclouds taking over the valleys. Right the Taillefer massif passes.. then the Devoluy massif with the Obiou. Left Ecrin's Valjouffrey and Valgaudemar valleys go by. Later Les Gillardes and eventually the vertical drop of the Pic de Bure emerge, nearing Gap-city at the beginning of the Bochaine massif and Provence.
Morning comes. A horse emerges from the thicket. Camping Les Guérins lies underneath me. The sun is barely up yet. I descry silhouettes of the southern massives leading to the Provence and eventually Côte d'Azur. This legendary camping is the climber hotspot for going up to the crag in the sky, Céüse.
It's 1h20' of hiking up with the gear (incl. the one-day-fresh-from-the-press topo). After a serious climb by foot we arrive at the Demi Lune sector. We find ourselves far from the world, where planet earth looks blue, just right of Chris Sharma's Biographie project of three seasons. It almost feels as if not a crumble of rock lies at the infinite wall's feet. At Demi-Lune we get a taste of ten sixth grade routes.
Demi-Lune - The crag
The first routes we bump into are already highly recommendable like Un panda sur la banquise and Canabis ou Nutella. The routes we climb are never polished at all, except maybe a bit when it comes to Harley Davidson, a classic bolted by Patrick Edlinger himself. On UKClimbing.com the site users have a hard time not giving three stars to every route here. We climb 'till all our water is gone and descend to the world again.
Vergisson - The crag
Next we drive north, back through Burgundy, and stop to climb at Vergisson (Mâcon) which looks loose, and is, but we'll remember mostly routes La Vérité, l'Arête de l'Autobus and Biceps Frit (the first and the last in a narrow straight up gulley from where you look at the vineyards surrounding the Vergisson village). Looseness we'll forget quickly by the stone-puking crags of Bouilland (Beaune)...
Bouilland - The crags
Through the wet forest we walk past several crags. The rocks resemble the limestone I know at Freyr. A bunch of 8c+ routes is very robust and clean, but in the sixth and mid seventh grades we undergo several stonings. Me and Bram, increasingly suspicious, pick out a route. 100% Coton and Baba au Rhum have us hooked. The next day my total drive counter jumps on 2364km when after a smooth six hour drive we arrive home.