French Mountain-Fearing // RW2

French Mountain-Fearing // RW2

French Mountain-Fearing // RW2

French Mountain-Fearing // RW2

The night before, the rescue helicopter had taken two people off the route next to the one we were looking up at – they had taken more than ten hours to get to the top and couldn’t get down after night had fallen. That was a mammoth 12 pitch, 400m route to the top of La Taillante (3,185m) and one my friend Iga had just told me we’d try tomorrow. Umm, okay. I’d only ever climbed once before on rocks, a small 2 pitch climb just outside Marseille the year before.

Our route today was a 5 pitch, 200m route up a beautiful slab of polished schist rock. It looked stunning, as did the view sweeping down the valley over lakes and far away peaks. It was wild and really felt like we were deep in the mountains. It was late, having only arrived into Briançon that morning on the night train from Sheffield, via Paris – then we’d wasted time finding the correct start to the climb. It was already after 2pm and there was a risk we would become the second casualty of the rescue helicopter if we didn’t climb quickly. No pressure.

The train journey had been wonderful. Three trains to travel more than 1500km in just over 18 hours, arriving in the morning after a spectacular journey through the Alps in an overnight sleeper train. Around the same price as flying, with less connections and far fewer emissions and hours awake; it was how all travel should be. My face had been pressed up against the window the last few hours of the journey in the narrow corridor next to the sleeping berths, taking in the changing scenery, the people rushing up to grab loved ones as they got off at stations along the route; with the hypnotic background sound of the rolling wheels on the rails bringing the romantic feeling of travels past to mind.

The journey had seemingly prepared my soul for the climb ahead, setting off confidently on the first pitch after belaying my friend up first. Our 50m rope was long enough for all the pitches except one of 55m which would involve some ingenuity – we would take it in turns to belay each other, then swap around after each pitch, carefully changing equipment on the rock face. We had two friends who were climbing the route slowly ahead of us which lead to the strangely abstract phenomenon of congestion on a steep rock face. Waiting for the route ahead to clear whilst balancing awkwardly on the tip of one foot was slowly seeping my confidence, strength and willpower in not shouting ‘hurry up – it’s getting dark soon’.

Cresting the final rock was a wonderful moment when adrenalin gave way to exhaustion after more than 3 hours on the face. I’d made it! The trek back was an otherworldly journey of daydreaming as dusk came, broken only by a large herd of ibex charging by. Sleep in the tent that night came quick as brains went into comas.

Rain had come that night while in the tent, falling as snow to as low as 2500m; unusual in the middle of summer. That scrapped the chance to climb the much longer 12 pitch climb as snow now covered the mountain. I was strangely relieved whist simultaneously craving the challenge. After mental and physical rest in the coming days, the climb was remembered as a wondrous experience, pushing my boundaries and experience far in one day. A short trek in the snow followed by a spa day and learning to sail a catamaran on a large sunny lake far down the valley had been rejuvenating – being shown how to dance the boat across the lake at speed in tight zigzags was both exhilarating and mesmerising.

The night before, the rescue helicopter had taken two people off the route next to the one we were looking up at – they had taken more than ten hours to get to the top and couldn’t get down after night had fallen. That was a mammoth 12 pitch, 400m route to the top of La Taillante (3,185m) and one my friend Iga had just told me we’d try tomorrow. Umm, okay. I’d only ever climbed once before on rocks, a small 2 pitch climb just outside Marseille the year before.

Our route today was a 5 pitch, 200m route up a beautiful slab of polished schist rock. It looked stunning, as did the view sweeping down the valley over lakes and far away peaks. It was wild and really felt like we were deep in the mountains. It was late, having only arrived into Briançon that morning on the night train from Sheffield, via Paris – then we’d wasted time finding the correct start to the climb. It was already after 2pm and there was a risk we would become the second casualty of the rescue helicopter if we didn’t climb quickly. No pressure.

The train journey had been wonderful. Three trains to travel more than 1500km in just over 18 hours, arriving in the morning after a spectacular journey through the Alps in an overnight sleeper train. Around the same price as flying, with less connections and far fewer emissions and hours awake; it was how all travel should be. My face had been pressed up against the window the last few hours of the journey in the narrow corridor next to the sleeping berths, taking in the changing scenery, the people rushing up to grab loved ones as they got off at stations along the route; with the hypnotic background sound of the rolling wheels on the rails bringing the romantic feeling of travels past to mind. 

The journey had seemingly prepared my soul for the climb ahead, setting off confidently on the first pitch after belaying my friend up first. Our 50m rope was long enough for all the pitches except one of 55m which would involve some ingenuity – we would take it in turns to belay each other, then swap around after each pitch, carefully changing equipment on the rock face. We had two friends who were climbing the route slowly ahead of us which lead to the strangely abstract phenomenon of congestion on a steep rock face. Waiting for the route ahead to clear whilst balancing awkwardly on the tip of one foot was slowly seeping my confidence, strength and willpower in not shouting ‘hurry up – it’s getting dark soon’.   

Cresting the final rock was a wonderful moment when adrenalin gave way to exhaustion after more than 3 hours on the face. I’d made it! The trek back was an otherworldly journey of daydreaming as dusk came, broken only by a large herd of ibex charging by. Sleep in the tent that night came quick as brains went into comas.

Rain had come that night while in the tent, falling as snow to as low as 2500m; unusual in the middle of summer. That scrapped the chance to climb the much longer 12 pitch climb as snow now covered the mountain. I was strangely relieved whist simultaneously craving the challenge. After mental and physical rest in the coming days, the climb was remembered as a wondrous experience, pushing my boundaries and experience far in one day. A short trek in the snow followed by a spa day and learning to sail a catamaran on a large sunny lake far down the valley had been rejuvenating – being shown how to dance the boat across the lake at speed in tight zigzags was both exhilarating and mesmerising.

French Mountain Fearing 2
French Mountain Fearing 2

I was standing on a ledge, 250m up a towering granite cliff-face, with the only escape route being to rappel off into empty space or call the rescue helicopter. Iga had moments before just shown me how to safely rappel off the cliff to get down, before she had herself disappeared over the edge. How had I found myself in this situation? A few days after my second ever climb on rocks, Iga had driven me to the climbing mecca of Ailefroide, at the top of a stunning valley, choosing a multi-pitch route for us to climb from her newly purchased route guide to the area. It was 5 pitches up a sheer cliff, harder than the previous climb and intimidating – this was definitely going to be pushing the limit of my climbing skills.

‘What if I just can’t do one of the sections once I’m up there?’

The reply that we’d work it out was not quite what I was after but hey, sometimes you just have to go for it; rebelling against your inner thoughts. My composure had remained in place, keeping positive up the first 150m, until half way up the 4th pitch an overhanging rock presented my first moment of slight terror. With a sheer drop to the ground far below, I couldn’t find a handhold to pull myself up over the rock and after a long struggle, couldn’t even release the rope from the carabiner holding it in place, in case of falls – calls up to Iga to loosen the rope going unheard as she belayed me out of sight from above. Exhaustion was leading to a numbness in the mind and a mouth devoid of moisture. I understood that I was in a tricky situation and had to rest before I could reassess how I would get myself out of this. A final push, using the rope to pull myself up got me over the top and I could breathe again.

It wasn’t until I was rappelling down over the edge, into the emptiness of the valley with stunning views up the valley that I fully recovered from that moment. We had been over 5 hours on the rock face and weariness had set in. Abseiling down was three long stages, each time having to pull the rope down, sometimes having to yank it hard when it caught on small shrubs or undergrowth. What if the rope got caught? What if you’d dropped your belay device whilst swapping over between pitches? What if any of the equipment had failed? In these situations the only safe option would be to call mountain rescue. This was a new feeling for me – when helplessness could come without warning or fault – and I wasn’t sure how to process this feeling.

Heading back over the Channel on the train was full of contemplation. It had been a week of changing emotions, new experiences and frayed nerves. One of our human fallacies is to is to be rarely content with having the same experiences over again without some change – whether that is needing new problems to solve at work for contentment, changing the food you cook at home or even new ways of having sex with the same partner to keep relationships flourishing. Openness to experience is an important way of dealing with this evolutionary by-product and the last week had been crammed with new experiences. It had left me drained but at the same time feeling alive. This was to be human after all.

I was standing on a ledge, 250m up a towering granite cliff-face, with the only escape route being to rappel off into empty space or call the rescue helicopter. Iga had moments before just shown me how to safely rappel off the cliff to get down, before she had herself disappeared over the edge. How had I found myself in this situation? A few days after my second ever climb on rocks, Iga had driven me to the climbing mecca of Ailefroide, at the top of a stunning valley, choosing a multi-pitch route for us to climb from her newly purchased route guide to the area. It was 5 pitches up a sheer cliff, harder than the previous climb and intimidating – this was definitely going to be pushing the limit of my climbing skills.

‘What if I just can’t do one of the sections once I’m up there?’

The reply that we’d work it out was not quite what I was after but hey, sometimes you just have to go for it; rebelling against your inner thoughts. My composure had remained in place, keeping positive up the first 150m, until half way up the 4th pitch an overhanging rock presented my first moment of slight terror. With a sheer drop to the ground far below, I couldn’t find a handhold to pull myself up over the rock and after a long struggle, couldn’t even release the rope from the carabiner holding it in place, in case of falls – calls up to Iga to loosen the rope going unheard as she belayed me out of sight from above. Exhaustion was leading to a numbness in the mind and a mouth devoid of moisture. I understood that I was in a tricky situation and had to rest before I could reassess how I would get myself out of this. A final push, using the rope to pull myself up got me over the top and I could breathe again.

It wasn’t until I was rappelling down over the edge, into the emptiness of the valley with stunning views up the valley that I fully recovered from that moment. We had been over 5 hours on the rock face and weariness had set in. Abseiling down was three long stages, each time having to pull the rope down, sometimes having to yank it hard when it caught on small shrubs or undergrowth. What if the rope got caught? What if you’d dropped your belay device whilst swapping over between pitches? What if any of the equipment had failed? In these situations the only safe option would be to call mountain rescue. This was a new feeling for me – when helplessness could come without warning or fault – and I wasn’t sure how to process this feeling.

Heading back over the Channel on the train was full of contemplation. It had been a week of changing emotions, new experiences and frayed nerves. One of our human fallacies is to is to be rarely content with having the same experiences over again without some change – whether that is needing new problems to solve at work for contentment, changing the food you cook at home or even new ways of having sex with the same partner to keep relationships flourishing. Openness to experience is an important way of dealing with this evolutionary by-product and the last week had been crammed with new experiences. It had left me drained but at the same time feeling alive. This was to be human after all.

  • Alone On Mykines // Faroe Islands // RW1
  • French Mountain-Fearing // RW2
  • Arctic Circle Trail // Greenland // RW1
  • From Them, Came Us // Namibia // RW3
  • Alone On Mykines // Faroe Islands // RW1
  • French Mountain-Fearing // RW2
  • Arctic Circle Trail // Greenland // RW1
  • From Them, Came Us // Namibia // RW3