20 April 2017

South of France Climbing Trip, Part i.

I spent four days in company of Vincent, his friend Frederick and his family and friends. Vincent and I flew to Switzerland and Frederick drove us to Buis-les-Baronnies, where his family had a beautiful home under a mountain named Saint Julian. We camped in the garden because there were eleven people and two bedrooms; only three of us under the age of fifty. All biking, hiking and climbers. During the day we split up, some cycling 30 miles, some climbing, some hiking; in the evening we cooked and ate together, drinking wine, chatting. I don't speak French just yet, but I sat enjoying listening to everyone talk around me.

The first day we hiked, the second we climbed. The climb was beautiful; we walked through a forest and climbed some boulders to reach our spot; there was no one but the five of us.

I said that I would go first, I started to climb, the sun hit the rock and it felt so good being up there with the light breeze brushing my shoulders, it was just me on the mountain side, everyone else below. Giant ants crawl along near my hands and sometimes a lizard would look out of a crack and watch me. Sometimes I would turn my head and look at the view, appreciate how high up I was; I could see acres of green forest. A small amount of tension remained in my stomach ensuring I took it slowly, watching my feet, making sure when I grabbed a new part of the rock that it felt sturdy, that it wouldn't come away in my hand and I wouldn’t fall.

Three days in, we did the Via Ferrata of Saint Julian - it's hard to describe what it's like holding onto the side of an 850 metre high mountain with your bare hands, you understand that your fear can't get the best of you because you can only go in one direction, so instead you just keep going. After Vincent had admitted to me he felt nervous too but didn't want to show it because it wouldn't have helped me. Instead we talked about politics and recipes for profiteroles, it helped such an extreme experience feel normal. We climbed it for around 7 hours total and after a little while, the fear went away, working our way along wire bridges and sheer drop mountain faces - I don't remember the last time I felt that happy and that free of everyday thoughts. We reached the top and the end of the first two thirds, we sat on top of the mountain in the sunshine eating our lunch, the guys smoking - I contemplated how odd my Easter Sunday was compared to most. After we worked our way down and laid in the sunshine on a grass verge, Vincent fell asleep and I watched a lizard sit on a branch. The three of us decided to tackle the last third before sunset came and we would head back. The temperature had cooled and the wind speed increased which made it the least comfortable climb of the three but we completed in an hour and a half and walked home with sore swollen hands and dead legs.

That evening when I climbed into the shower, I watched all the dirt wash away down the plug, I saw myself in the mirror; a wind-swept, knotted hair and slightly burnt face looked back at me, I felt really contented. I had forgotten all about my life in London. Every day people left and new ones arrived, people camped and slept on sofa beds. Vincent and I were happy in our tent, falling asleep every night as soon as we laid down, keeping our shoes inside the tent so that scorpions didn't climb in.

On our last day, we decided to do a softer climb by a river because our legs ached, my knees were covered in bruises and arms in scratches. The area was more popular with other climbers and we struggled to find a spot. I saw one particular wall and knew I had to climb it - it was a 5c, so not too challenging for me but I was leading and setting the quick draws so I didn't want to get myself into a position where I felt unsure. The rock was broken off in a way that meant I would be smearing and working my way up a corner, which is my favourite type of climb and what I'm best at. That evening we took a short hike to a river that ran in between the mountains; we walked via a country path along the side of olive tree fields until we reached the river. It was at sunset and we paddled around in the cool water, soothing our sore feet that had spent the day in climbing shoes.