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 sunlight rolling down into a golden lowland. At the verge of forest and lowland a few farms and houses show. It's Saffres.
Sudden movement. Car doors slam.
Two peculiar figures pierce through bushes, via a hole pushed open by a wild walnut tree. Their fast moving shadows submerge underneath the low canopy. The shady track winds on to stop in the full dark. The odd duo arrived at the foot of something high above. Looking up, a giant mythological beast seems to have turned into crumbling stone.
The forest floor is bumpy, the air dark. Their eyes adapt. Soon dark green looms. Suddenly the team is surrounded by fluffy chuncks of mossy limestone. The green mass wriggles up and takes the shape of coarse oak trees overgrowing all.
The curious delegation has found 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 that wind further through the sunlit 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.
Part I: Burgundy climbing
A bolted line ± starts each next meter, mostly going straight up. At the bottom painted numbers show up, ranging from 0 to ±400. Maybe us knights of the order of Freÿr are spoiled with ✧*:・ﾟ✧ master route open artist's lines ✧ﾟ・:*✧ like Marc Bott's and Pico's (Pierre Masschelein). Or maybe we really are right to claim that these limestone cliffs have fallen 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. 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. The two of us 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 slender conifers.
From the darkness the creek gives the brightest light. Underneath us 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 (hometown of - among others - the important thinker Bruno Latour). ±20 generations ago catholic Burgundy accomplished political authority over shires in today’s Belgium. Now we walk into the lion’s den, deep into 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 mountain ranges. It's two months since I was here, with my sweat flowing like the wild Véneon thundering down the valley. I was initiating a few climbers into the craft of multipitching (yet on a safe distance from 12-pitch monsters that were moreover overcrowded).
Part II: Dibona
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 massive recent 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 and veer off, set to make it to the hut within topo time. We start to infiltrate deep into the mountains. First we turn around corners, past steep walls, and go up a stream. Later, a luxuriant steep green jungle surrounds us, sometimes interrupted by little waterfalls. Six times a descending duo passes, each looking fit, but also red and dog-tired.
Only four of them respond and only by mumbling bonjour, aiming their exhausted look up. Which battlefield, which monster are we headed to?! ... Our peak appears for the first time. A girl passes and smiles. The first. Did she make friends with Dibona?
Dibona - Last preparations
After 2h20' me and Bram push open the creaping hut door. The dusk has just started really setting in when we throw the weight off our shoulders. The guardien comes and had been expecting us. She gives us food and hears out our plans so they won't coincide with other guests'. We're the last ones to arrive and look over the table with potato stew and lentils. French-speaking guys and a girl report to each other stuff. One table further Norse girls and guys (hikers) listen to one loud one of them, who makes them laugh over and over again.
Visite Obligatoire indicated in white.
Not so often a bolt.
Around 7am we smack the multipitchbags on our back and leave the hut behind. Balancing we scramble up to find the start of the famous Visite Obligatoire to the top of l'Aiguille Dibona. Our sketched notes say: TD+, of continuous difficulty, mixed with lots of air and exposure, opened in 1988. Off we go with quite the weather: mild breeze and sun on our down jackets.
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?.. L9!.. 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 behind us, but retreated after the first two lengths, something that happens more often as the indicated difficulty grade doesn't really tell the challenge that the rock poses. Strong-climbing Mathilda (Briançon) and Sophia (Barcelona) had hopped from another route into ours at L10, following us to the top.
Part III: Expedition beyond Ecrins, catching glimpses of Provence mountains, finding our way back to Burgundy and home
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 within a circular rock shaft from where we look at the warm bright 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 near home to tell lots of stories.