Tuesday, 2 September 2014

El Topo

"Eeet iz errrr... how you say?... F*cked."

Said the French mechanic. We stood looking forlornly at the broken Landrover. We'd made it about 700km down France to just North of Lyon. Ian and my epic Verdon adventure plans were rapidly collapsing before our eyes.

The plan was a good one. El Topo is a 14 pitch route up the biggest bit of the Verdon Gorge that was yet to see a one push free ascent. The crux being pitch 13, a f8a slab, it was going to be a challenge. Whilst the weather in August was far too hot (and our fingers far too weak) for 'in-a-day' attempts, the wall goes into the shade at 2pm. Our plan was to make a free ascent, over several days, with a portaledge, climbing only in the shade between 2pm and nightfall.

Steve (the owner of the broken Landrover and our lift to the Verdon) looked at us like we were completely insane when we told him our new plan.

"We're gonna leave the stuff and hitch-hike 700km back to England, pick up Ian's car and drive back..."

Pro hitching tip: Look as crazy and nonthreatening as possible. I donned a tie-dye vest and some pelican sun-glasses, Ian a Hawaian shirt. We had the inflatable palm tree as a last resort if it came to it.

It worked! We managed to hitch from Lyon to Calais in an afternoon! Arriving back at the ferry port at 11pm.

The woman at the ferry desk looked unimpressed.

"No foot passengers on the ferry at night, you'll have to wait until tomorrow morning"

Ian and I were on a roll at this point. We walked out, then drove our imaginary car back up to the ferry desk. The woman started to speak but I mimed that I couldn't hear her, wound down the imaginary window and stuck my head out. Ten minutes later we were on the ferry back to England!

Back in Lyon the following afternoon we picked up our food, haulbag, gear, ropes and borrowed portaledge and continued to the Verdon. We joked that the detour made it feel like we were approaching a real remote big wall. Except we could ab off and get baguettes at any point... perfect!

I don't think people go big walling in the Verdon very often, we got lots of confused questions in the campsite.

El Topo topo
Since we'd already tried the 8a pitch 13 on a trip the month before and to make the hauling easier we decided to ab in from the top and leave a stash of food and water at the bottom of pitch 13 and then try the rest of the wall "ground up" to reach our stash.

Day 1.
We walked in to the bottom of the route with all our stuff including ~28 liters of water. Humidity seems to just sit at the bottom of the gorge and we were both totally drenched in sweat. I ran the first two pitches together, Ian got off to a bad start by taking a groundfall on rope stretch from the first bolt! What are we doing!? The hauling was hard work. Everywhere the bag could get stuck it did get stuck. Ian abbed down next to the bag and helped it past obstacles whilst I space hauled from the belay. We had a worrying five minutes where we couldn't get a knot undone and thought we might have to go down or cut the rope. Then to both of our surprise I onsighted and Ian flashed the 7b pitch to get to our bivi ledge at pitch 4. No portaledge necessary! I managed to bivi on an ants nest.

Day 2. 
Ian smoothly sent the 7a pitch 5 as a warm up to arrive at the first 7b+ pitch. "It's completely blank" was the helpful piece of beta I had from Dan Mcmanus who had tried the route earlier in summer. It looked it! A smooth slab traverse of grey Verdon limestone with no visible hand or foot holds. My heart sank, what made us think we could do this?

It's not so much the grades of the pitches which make this route really hard but the style that those pitches are in. Smooth grey slab with no chalk on any of the holds... if there are any.

I set off on the pitch without any expectations. Something clicked and my self doubting internal chatter stopped, and I was just climbing. My body seemed to know what to do! I was dimly aware that I was pulling off "impossible" moves, fingernail crimps and sideways, directional smears connected by improbable, contorted shapes. Like a slow motion dance off with the rock. I reached the belay having onsighted the pitch and my thoughts immediately turned to Ian, how had I just done that? How on earth was Ian going to do it?! The pitch was so traversy that working it on top-rope would be next to impossible. He managed it as well! Both of us agreed afterwards that we had no idea where that kind of form came from.

 Blank grey slab stretched on above us, it felt cool to be out in the middle of nowhere on such a huge featureless wall. I managed to flash the 7b+ above, Ian getting it second go before doing one more "6c" pitch before dark, nothing is a pushover on this route!

This was to be my first night in a portaledge. Setting it up in the dark at a hanging belay proved somewhat tricky.

"Is it supposed to be this wobbly?"

I asked nervously whilst semi-sitting on the ledge, still gripping the attachment point for dear life with one hand. Portaledges are not relaxing things! During the night it somehow slipped and I ended up lying very downhill with all the blood at my head.

Day 3.
We sat on our wonky portaledge sipping coffee under an umbrella whilst the wall around us baked in the morning sun. "This is the life!"

The 7a off the belay was short, powerful and a bit chossy, I did some power whimpering and onsighted it by the skin of my teeth. The 7b+/c pitch above looked steep and powerful, a nice change from the blank slabs below. Unfortunately we didn't account for the obligatory slab crux by the first bolt...

Ian did some swearing and dogged the pitch to get the clips in and the haul line fixed. This was going to be tough. Again something happened and I was watching myself climb, perfectly. I need to find a way of switching this kind of focus on and off. I flashed the pitch, no falls so far! Ian got it first try on second.

"It's really hard and thin, me and Callum Muskett thought it was harder than the 8a pitch"

was Dan's helpful information about pitch 11. I fell off the crux. I fell off the crux again. I repeatedly fell off the crux for about twenty minutes "Oh dear, what if we can't even get to the top! Who could possibly think this is 7c!?!!"

In desperation I crimped down on a two finger dimple and rocked over on a non-foothold. Extending my go-go gadget arm I was able to reach a sidepull 20 feet to my left. A bit of a riverdance cross-over foot sequence saw me clipping the next bolt.

"I'm not sure if I can redpoint this pitch Ian."

I went to the top which proved sustained even after the crux, I would say the pitch was comparable to something like Zoolook at Malham. We decided to press on with one more pitch before it got dark so we could reach our stash underneath the 8a and go back down to redpoint p11 the next day.

Dinner was two packets of Uncle Ben's rice, a luxurious cold tin of ratatouille followed by an extravagant Nuttella binge!

I went to sleep worrying about the pitch below us, I could see myself repeatedly falling off that slab crux...

Day 4.

We reasoned that whilst we may or may not be the first people to get a continuous free ascent of El Topo, we would DEFINITELY be the first people to have a Hawaiian party up there!

Once the sun was off the wall we went down to try the "7c" pitch 11 again. Both of us now convinced it was more like 8a. (We found out afterwards from local Alan Carne that someone broke a key hold at the crux of that pitch, which explains a lot.)

I found the crux slightly easier without the weight of the haul-line on my harness, and did the pitch next go! But as I was doing the final moves to clip the belay I felt a familiar pop in my ring finger. 4 days on a big wall doing very fingery climbing had taken its toll and my collateral ligament was partially torn. Ian lowered me off the pitch and I proceeded to terrify him by screaming in frustration and kicking the rock for 5 minutes.

I really really wanted the climb and all that stood between me and success was the 8a pitch 13.

Aware that it was a totally stupid thing to do I mummified my injured finger in tape so it couldn't bend and then strapped it to the fingers either side, effectively turning my left hand into a flipper.

Somehow by sheer determination and stubbornness I managed the 8a first go and then lead out on the final easier pitch to the top of the crag. Managing a complete free ascent with 12 of the 14 pitches onsight or flash.

I stood in the last rays of the sun totally exhausted, unsure whether to be ecstatic at having done the route or furious with myself for getting injured again.

Ian was yet to redpoint pitch 13 and also wanted a continuous free ascent so I descended to join him on the portaledge for another night.

Day 5. 
We woke up very early to black clouds and the sound of thunder, we quickly decided to abb off for baguettes!  Having been caught in a thunderstorm in the exact same place a month before it was not something either of us wanted to repeat.

It was odd after spending 4 days getting up there to be back on the ground again in just over an hour. The baguettes and coffee tasted amazing.

That evening I was having a nap and enjoying terra-firma when Ian stuck his head into the tent. His eyes were wide and he had a familiar insane grin on his face.

"The weathers cleared up and there's still an hour of light! I'm gonna have a redpoint and err... if I can't do it... I'm gonna spend a night on the portaledge by myself!"

Eerr ok Ian, sure, whatever :).

We abbed back in and despite a valiant attempt Ian didn't quite send. I jugged back out at sunset to leave him looking very zen, sat on the portaledge reading "The Rock Warriors Way"

Day 6. 
The next day I went back down and this time he managed a successful redpoint! Also completing a basically continuous ascent minus abbing off for a few hours to get baguettes. A phenomenal effort. Ian also gets extra style points for picking up hitch hikers during his ascent.

I'm gradually learning that the main obstacle to having really great adventures is dreaming them up in the first place. This whole trip took the same amount of time and money as a regular euro sport-climbing holiday but it's definitely something I'll remember. Bring on the next adventure!

Some more photos:

You can see the portaledge top-right.

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