A little bit about rock climbing in the South of France

Some say that the South of France has the best sport climbing in the world, and that there’s no some say about it.

While new sport climbing areas regularly take the limelight as the latest ‘must visit’ destinations, seldom is the quality of routes found on the limestone crags of southern France matched. In the same way that newly publicised bouldering areas are inevitably compared to Fontainebleau, so areas in the South of France such as Céüse and Buoux are the quality benchmarks of sport climbing. It’s not uncommon to hear of newly developed crags being described lavishly – “it’s as good as Céüse”, or more modestly assessed – “brilliant, but no Buoux”.

Céüse is north of Sisteron and south of Gap in the Haute Provence. It has beautifully pocketed limestone rock, outstanding lines and is situated in a beautiful location. The majority of the 350 routes are single pitch and the rock climbing varies enormously from overhanging jug feasts to steep technical walls.  The routes have a reputation for requiring lots of stamina and the need to have  the ability to climb between good but well spaced bolts and range from F5a to F9a+, although the majority are in the range of F6b to F7c.

[CeuseCliffMorningPano.jpg] Morning/evening on the cliff of Ceuse, Hautes Alpes. Yes, I perfectly  aligned both images so they overlap. Don't forget to move your window to  the right ---> (Javascript animation)

An added advantage to climbing at Céüse is that it is at an altitude of over 1,600m. This means that the ideal time to climb here is from late spring through to the autumn as it never gets as hot as it does further south.

[20070428-144922-NatilikRamping.jpg] That's me on the last few strenuous moves after the end of the  'ramping'. Full air action. Parachute optional. If you compare with the  previous image, you can tell there's a lot of distance to cover.

Be warned though, the walk-in is arduous – about one hour on a long steep trail and August can be very busy.

Buoux is the other classic. Some call it the most beautiful climbing area in France. Located near Apt in the Luberon, Provence, its cliffs are famous worldwide and it is the mecca for hard sport climbing. The magnificent straight rock walls (from 30 to 120 metres high) still welcome the top names in national and international rock-climbing.

Adding to its charms is the fact that it is a vast climbing region with 31 parts to it, all well bolted. You can find routes with 5 pitches with about 30m to a pitch.

The climbing is excellent and the compact limestone offers distant pockets and technical challenges. Most of the routes include overhangs and vertical walls. There are more than 200 routes that are ideal for intermediate climbers graded 6a to 6c, but, of the more than 1,000 routes, popular opinion is that the best routes start at 7a and up. These are extremely technical though and you need to be super fit to challenge them. Some of the classics of the region inlude: La Rose de Sable 7a, No Man’s Land 7a+, Reve du Papillon 8a.  There are only a few routes under the level of 5c.

You can climb all year at Buoux but bearing in mind that this is Provence and renowned for its hot hot hot summers, the best times to climb are April – May and September – November.

It is 52 kms from Aix-en-Provence and 188kms from St. Tropez – if that helps at all! Or 81 kms from Marseille airport… that bit of advice might be a bit more practical…

It is difficult to say which are the best cliffs in Provence as there are so many in a relatively small area – a region that spans between Aix-En-Provence, Marseille, Nice, and the Verdon… an area that can be crossed in about 2 and a half hours.

However, Mont St. Victoire, near Aix-en-Provence and famously painted a thousand times by the Impressionists, has some great crags. There is sport climbing at the bottom of the cliff, but there are also many numerous and beautiful slabs. This mountain is the home of at least a thousand routes. The top part of this high cliff has some long routes with old equipment, which are not too popular, apart from “Le grand parcours”. Climbing Mont St. Victoire requires  tight shoes and steel fingers. It is the ultimate challenge and if you climb here enough your confidence will increase.

St  Victoire - spot the bolts

If you enjoy climbing this type of climbing you will love the more exposed routes at the Gorge du Verdon.

The Calanques between Marseille and Cassis are also a great place to go.

Les  Calanques - climbing...

Spread out across the 20 km of coastline there  are more than 1,500 separate pitches, some known to many and some gems known only to a few. People come down to climb the perfect limestone above the crashing waves of the Mediterrarean. The Calanques have an extremely fragile eco-system though, so please please treat it thoughtfully and considerately.

The Dentelles de Montmirail near Avignon is a sport climbing region with one to three pitches. The Dentelles are parallel chains of limestone peaks and pinnacles. It’s a paradise for rock climbing with a lot of well bolted routes and some adventure areas too. They offer a north and a south side to the same steep walls, but in summer the south side is too hot and in winter the north side is too cold for climbing!

Divided into several separate ridges, the routes range from short tough climbs to moderate multi-pitch routes.The different sectors are all within close proximity of each other. Les Dentailles are situated slap bang in the middle of the Cote du Rhone wine area making your stay there a combination of energetic climbing and laid back wine tasting. What more could you possibly want?

The Verdon gorge (in Europe a ‘gorge’ is a canyon) has some of the best limestone rock climbing anywhere in the world combined with a unique, grandiose atmosphere. The spectacular gorges are  Provençe’s equivalent to America’s Grand Canyon.There are many here who say it is more beautiful with its blue-grey limestone sweeping down to the startling coloured turquoise river below. It is certainly Europe’s most beautiful canyon at about 25 kilometers long and up to 700 meters deep.

Flawless  limestone rock  faces in the verdon gorge

The limestone walls, which are several hundreds of meters high, attract many rock climbers with its variety of small sport crags to big walls that are both bolted and with traditional protection that requires plenty of commitment. It is considered an outstanding destination for multi-pitch climbing. There are routes encompassing cracks, pillars and seemingly endless walls. The climbing is generally of a technical nature, and there are over 1,500 routes, ranging from 20m to over 400m. There is not much to climb under 5.9.

As one climber in the Verdon recounts: “The walls are steep (rarely less than 90 degrees and sometimes overhanging) and the climbing is very sustained.   A typical 5.10 pitch involves long sequences of moves at that grade, making the climbing physically demanding with a serious, exposed feel.  It’s as if the wall is trying to push you off…  All that being said, I loved it.”

That’s enough info for one day I think… perhaps you’d better plan a trip to the south of France and test out these areas for yourself!


2 Responses to “A little bit about rock climbing in the South of France”

  1. Pascal Bedard
    2012 | 25 June at 00:46 #

    Just want to mention that I am curently in Tautavel-Vingrau (35 km from Perpignan), and there are at least 1500 bolted routes within 15 minutes driving and very short walks (all less than 15 minutes)!! This area is more “intermediate friendly”, with many routes in the 5c to 6b range… but there are plenty of 7s as well, of course! … and the setting is just fantastic :)

    • lolajones
      2012 | 25 June at 07:03 #

      Many thanks for letting me know about Tautavel-Vingrau, Pascal. I’ll check it out and do an article on it.
      Just looking into it now: do you know if some routes are still banned or has the ban been lifted?

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