The Sound of Wings
Rock Climbing in Gorges du Verdon, France
On Thursday October 27, 2016, we completed our first multi-pitch climb.
After a long ride from Taradeau Village to the sleepy climber town of La Palud, we met with our guide. Fred is a professional climbing guide who lives in the area, makes wildflower honey, and builds homes.
His quiet existence at the base of a Provençal colline may have you thinking he lives in a log cabin à la Little House on the Prairie. But at the end of our day he pointed out his magnificent house, a beautiful French-estate that left us envious of his wild explorer-lifestyle.
On the drive from Taradeau we passed fields of olive trees, vast vineyards and wild mountains and hillsides at once covered in a thick smokey fog, and drenched in golden October sunlight.
It was early in the morning and the South of France was just waking up, as we whizzed through winding roads.
Arriving at the town of La Palud, you at once feel a sense of home in its thin streets lined with yellow stucco houses, red shutters, and cobblestoned walkways.
Walking up to the planned meet spot Lou Cafetié, we immediately realized it was a climbing bar, and one that was buzzing despite its remote location. As the sun reached long fingers over the mountaintops, climbers were already polishing off espressos and dressed in layers of chalk-covered clothing.
The morning was cold, and we climbed into Fred’s Citroen Kangoo for a quick ride to the top of one of the many rock faces in the Gorges of Verdon.
Looking down at the tiny multicolored broccoli trees below, Fred asked us in French, “This good?”
We had briefly told him at the bar about our climbing experience and what we hoped to achieve for the day: a multi-pitch climb below our max level, that would have us climbing 4–5 pitches. Fred took us to a spot that had up to six, but decided that the first would be too challenging a start, and had us begin at the petit jardin below, some 1200 feet down into the Gorges.
As people will tell you, the scariest part is always the beginning, and leaning back into my harness, finalizing my safety checks and feeling the first threads of wind whipping through the gorges below, I was without a doubt terrified. He smiled and told me to relax my arms and sit back, and have both feet placed flat against the wall for maximum control as I descended.
It’s in these moments that climbing becomes its most spiritual.
When you can’t cling to the wall, but have to sit back into the wide open air 1200 feet above the gorges floor. Will you panic or freeze? Or will you tie back your fear like a knot, and get on with it?
Of course — I channeled that well-known “toss your hair in a bun and handle it.”
After the first pitch, rappelling became routine. Fred descended, I followed, and Ben came last. In all it took us about 1.5 hours to arrive at the garden cliff below, that was indeed as cute as it looked from all those many feet above. We relaxed for a few minutes as Fred looked on coolly smoking a cigarette and I sat down on a rock eating a hard-boiled egg and nervously chugging water.
Other climbers were not long to follow, and soon we were one of three parties rendezvous-ing in the garden, setting up our gear, and getting ready to climb back up.
After my egg and his cigarette he asked us, “Ready?”
Fred began the route, 5 pitches rated at 6A, or 5.10A in American climber terms. Afin Que Nul Ne Meure would take us four and a half hours to complete, starting around 11 in the morning and finishing after 3pm.
The limestone route was bolted, so as we ascended Fred placed clips, I climbed, and Ben removed them. The first pitch wasn’t hard, but I was also on day three of a nasty cold, and not feeling 100% from the beginning. We hadn’t done more than a few climbs in the past two weeks of vacation, and the slight practice we gained in Fontainebleau quickly became laughable as my muscles chanted in unison, screaming from the lack of training.
On the first pitch my fingers began to understand what Fred meant when he explained that, “there were good holds, but they were hidden”.
I adjusted my fingers to the feel of limestone, a beautiful breed of rock that swirls in its varying colors like gasoline on wet pavement. Sharp and tactile, the rock is much easier to grip than the granite I was used to, but it was also littered with hidden pockets and undefined finger holds, lacking the clarity of granite routes I had done in the past.
The biggest challenge of the first pitch was controlling my fear. While rappelling down hadn’t been easy, I had also felt in complete control as I lowered myself at my own pace, with the backup safety of a belayer below.
But now as I climbed, I was keenly aware that I could fall several feet if between clips, and the ever-blowing wind throughout the gorges was a constant reminder of our height.
The sun climbed the sky, and the scenery all around us changed. We admired vultures from both above and below, their wingspans longer than my entire body — as a group of five of them soared into a cozy cave nest. They moved silently— and the rich browns and whites of their feathers was magnificent against the contrast of the October foliage. The river that winds through the gorge cut the red and orange of the canyon floor in half and glittered throughout the hours of our ascent.
On the second pitch I began to feel my rhythm, but found the height once again distracting. I had only ever climbed three pitches max, and that being in a Yosemite day-class where the climbs had been more akin to walking up a wall while attached just-in-case. This was actual multi-pitch climbing. Reading the rock routes, placing your feet strategically, and learning not to overuse your arms, despite the fear of falling and the uncertainty of the route.
Fred scolded me gently after the first pitch, seeing the pump in my forearms and saying, “too much.” I took his advice and concentrated on the placement of my feet, and when we all three arrived on the same cliff after pitch two, he felt my arms once more and said, “better”.
By the third pitch I was tired. The sun was hot, beating me down, and I was beginning to feel mentally and physically exhausted. I asked if we were halfway yet, and was told “after the next pitch.” At pitch three I took a break. Lacking for shade, we stood in the crux of a rock cliff, a spot I imagine once was a nest for the huge birds that continued to pass us by. We drank water and I ate an apple, savoring the sugar in every bite. The last two pitches would be the hardest, something I was keenly aware of.
After pitch four, I was very nearly spent. I had struggled up, taken many breaks, and was nursing a bruised knee and hip. The ropes seemed endlessly tangled in each clip, and just finding a way to ascend and unclip at each bolt was becoming a struggle. At the end of pitch four, the top was in sight. I found shade behind a scraggy tree for the first time in hours, polished off the rest of our water, and waited for Ben to join me on the cliff. I was hot, sore, and at that moment would have accepted a helicopter lift the top, if offered.
But it wasn’t offered, and our guide had already traversed the wall in an unexpected way to accommodate my fatigue and find an easier final pitch for us, one that didn’t include the infamous rock ceiling that this route is known for. Seeing my ebbing energy, Ben graciously agreed to an easier final pitch, even though as I would later learn he had completed the previous four clean, not resting, not falling, which was very unlike my go-hard fail-hard style of climbing. He had been measured, strategic, and thoughtful. The Gandhi to my circus animal. The bonsai tree to my staggering and abrupt bursts of energy that were more akin to a drunk college student.
At many points during the climb, I wanted to it to be over. But Ben was never far behind me. We would arrive at the same cliffs, marvel at the sound of birds wings in flight, their pattering efforts echoing into the near-silent void of the gorges.
I had never known what wings sounded like. But they’re something like a whisper that says, “go, go, go.”
At one point when I wanted to cry, Ben said, “I am so proud of you. And we are so close.” A new flock rushed overhead, and I wiped the sweat from my eyelids for the hundredth time.
My end was not a glorious one, but a feat nonetheless. Sitting on the top of the wall and removing my climbing shoes I sat in perfect silence, happy to be finished, relieved to have made it to the top, as the guys shared a cigarette and talked about the climb.
Maybe I’m not a multi-pitch climber I thought, as something that had crossed my mind many times in the overwhelming height of the day.
Maybe I don’t love this as much as other people, the ones that seem to crave this feeling of accomplishment, the ones who place their Odyssey on a rock-face and can only feel peace after it is all over, climbed clean, with an epic view awaiting them at the top.
On a plane now somewhere over Canada, soon to touch down in Chicago, I still don’t know if I’m a multi-pitch climber at heart.
I love the feel of my hands on a rock, and the zen effortless mindset I can drown in on certain routes, but 600 feet in the air? I don’t know.
But I can tell you this — I saw a sparkling river immersed in autumn glow, a group of vultures soaring below me, and I now know the sound of wings.
These tiny glimpses into the beautiful world of an explorer are gifts that not everyone will experience, so multi-pitch climber or not, I’m damn grateful for the experience.