The climbing life – Part I: Buis les Baronnies

After road tripping around the UK and Iceland, cycling through the Netherlands and Germany, and walking across the Pyrenees mountain range in Spain, we finally settled down for some rock climbing. We picked up our climbing gear – 15kg of rope, harnesses, shoes and quickdraws – from a friend in Sitges, Spain, who had kindly stored it all for a month, and caught a series of buses to a small town called Buis-les-Baronnies in the south of France.

Although we’d never heard of the place, Rowan had found Buis on Google and determined it was the perfect place for us because we could camp near the centre of town and easily walk from there to a variety of climbing crags. We could also eat French cheese and baguettes every day, which was the primary reason really for finding a climbing spot in France at all.

Rowan looking out over Buis from the rock

My expectations for what the climbing life would be like are based on short taster experiences of my own and those of friends who have lived the dream. In Takaka by Golden Bay, NZ the climbers campground, Hangdog, costs $5 a night; climbers stay for months, party at night and slowly evolve (devolve?) into hippies. The tagging on the bathroom there explains how climbers can earn or lose “hippie points” by wearing baggy trousers, growing dreadlocks, or practising yoga etc.

In Tonsai in Thailand the climbers arrive as fully-evolved, fire-poi swinging hippies. They live in the jungle and climb on the beach during the day and party at night. The jungle bars all have slack lines set up – basically slack tightropes which you walk along to improve your balance. In Canada and the US the serious climbers spend the summer living in vans at the base of the climbing crags, conquering ever more difficult routes.

In Buis, by contrast, we were the only rock climbers in the campground, which was otherwise inhabited by Dutch families in their campervans and gangs of French children left by their parents to run wild until 10pm at night.

Buis les Baronnies

As promised by Google the various climbing crags were no more than 2kms walk away, and they were stunning. There was a massive limestone spine like the fin of a dinosaur and two other large rock buttresses accessible right off the road. The climbing guidebook was colourful and descriptive and all the crags extremely well signposted. The town of Buis was beautifully old and French, the cheese plentiful and cheap, the bread delicious. It had everything we wanted, but we were the only climbers there.

Dinosaur spine rock in Buis. It’s pretty flat and looks more or less the same from the other side

It didn’t take long for us to realise why we were alone. Summer is not climbing season this far south in Europe. Temperatures average 30–35 degrees Celsius during the day and as soon as the sun hits the rock it becomes, in my opinion (and evidently in most people’s opinion), unclimbable. Nevertheless, we stayed in Buis for two whole weeks.

We developed a routine where I would wake up really early, drag Rowan out of bed (or lure him out with the promise of fresh croissants), then we would climb for three or four hours before the sun hit. We would spend the rest of the day reading, swimming in the campsite pool, eating cheese and baguettes, napping, and stretching before perhaps heading out to climb again after 6pm in the evenings until sunset at 10pm.

French staples: cheese, baguettes and wine

The climbing was fantastic; we started with an epic via ferrata route – these routes have fixed protection and artificial holds for your hands and feet and are all over the alps in Europe. You don’t need a rope, just a harness with a pair of short safety lines attached that you clip to the safety cable in the route as you climb.

Via ferrata

We progressed to harder and harder grades of short sport climbs. In sport climbing there are metal rings bolted into the rock. The climber clips a QuickDraw carabiner to the bolt, then clips the rope through the QuickDraw and continues climbing up to the next bolt until you reach the top of the route/pitch. Unless something goes wrong, the furthest you can fall is the length of rope between you and the last bolt you clipped into.

For the first time in months we were settled in one place. We didn’t have to pack up the tent every day, we were eating loads of fresh fruit and vegetables exercising a lot, relaxing even more, and soaking up the sun. Life was good. But no matter how relaxed and routine-like your days become, you can’t escape the emotional drama that comes with pushing past your comfort zone 20m up a rock wall.

Climbing above your rope is always terrifying, even if logically you know the consequences of a short fall aren’t serious. It’s common to lose your shit on the climbing wall and I’m sure all climbers know what I’m talking about. Usually you take your stress out on your poor belayer who is just trying their best to keep you safe. The better you know your belayer, the worse the tension can be.

Not a happy belayer

If you’re married to your belayer and have been travelling with them for months often with only each other for company and now you happen to be the only two climbers on the wall with no one else around to keep up appearances for, things can get pretty bad…. But somehow we managed to survive each other and the wall and conquer a lot of climbing routes we were proud of.

Our pièce de résistance in Buis was a multi-pitch climb to the top of the dinosaur spine. We felt strong, confident and ready for something else, so we decided to head north to Chamonix in the French Alps – one of the world’s most famous climbing destinations, and not quite so hot.

Reaching the top of the dinosaur spine