Sunday, 10 June 2007

Friction climbing on granite at Barberine

Chris and I decided to continue our theme of doing something constructive with our Sundays so we went chipped off to the huge lump of granite at Barberine (Google Maps) a tiny village right next to the border of Switzerland. In the Google Maps link you can actually see the rock to the north-east. Funnily enough you walk from Barberine over a gushing mountain stream that is in fact the border, then climb the rock in Switzerland! Very cool and no customs officials in sight! Barberine is only a 20-30 minute drive from Chamonix through the Col des Montets, a mountain pass at the upper end of the valley.

The first sight of the rock was impressive. Under the blue skies and fluffy white clouds this immense monolith forged its way dominating the view. Small shrubs grew on every available ledge (probably down to the fact it faces south-west) and with the recent evening rain and daytime sun the rock was teeming with tufts of greenery. Our book of knowledge told us where to park the car and we duly did and set off on the short hike to the base where we would climb from.

Looking up at the granite towering up above ready to be climbed.

We stopped by the river marking the border after leaving picturesque Barberine and noticed that some people further down were using it for white-water rafting! With the heavy scent of meadow and woodland in the air, coupled with the warm sun we really felt like we were out on an adventure.

Chris looking over the river marking the French/Swiss border.

We made our way through a meadow and into the forest that the rock is surrounded by. There were endless Swiss kids on the lower slabs so Chris and I ventured further to our right and found a quieter area to have a snack and get ourselves sorted. We actually stopped at the start of the first pitch and had a sandwich.

Grabbing a bite at the bottom of the incredibly smooth first pitch.

Both Chris and I were amazed at the rock. It was our first time climbing on granite and there's virtually no cracks in it. Climbing granite is all about friction - as much surface area you can get on the rock to work your way up. There's the odd crack wide enough to maybe get a 1/2 inch of a couple of fingers, but mostly you try to read the slight curves of the rock to place your weight.

We zipped up the first pitch (6a) practicing hauling a rucksack after the lead climber. We're building up towards a big multi-pitch route on Brevent (a mountain overlooking Chamonix) so we decided to climb today with rucksacks and practice moving them around the rock. So far so good with no dropped bags! Initially both Chris and I took a few minutes of sliding and scrabbling to "get acquainted" with the granite with it being a lot more delicate type of climbing than we're used to! Up we went though and when we were all sorted moved up the second pitch (an easy 3b-ish) to the start of the crux pitch, the third.

By now we were well away from the schoolkids and in fact didn't see any other people at all until we returned down to the bottom. We truly felt like adventurers as we looked up the smooth dark rock and slowly climbed out of the forest and into the sun. The third pitch looked tricky (6a+) with it being vertical and with only a bare minimum of holds visible. I tied in to lead and worked my way up feeling surprisingly comfortable for most of the way. I placed around 5 quick draws and then started to feel my arms ache getting over one section. I didn't want to lose too much strength as we still had farther to go so I shimmeyed down and swapped with Chris, belaying him up. We were really using every available tiny hand and foot hold, as well as all the equipment to work our way up this pitch. Chris scrambled and slipped up to where I had gotten and then after a few minutes managed to work his way over the ledge! Great stuff! He carried on up to the anchor point another 10m or so further up and clipped himself in with a sling. I managed to get a shot of the pitch before seconding up.

I followed next retrieving the equipment and barring a small slip on the water dripping down the rock quickly made my way up over the crux of the pitch and up to Chris. Every ounce of effort was worth the view! Just incredible down the valley seeing the eastern end of the Aiguilles Rouge overlooking the Col and down towards Vallorcine. Truly awe-inspiring. We could even make out the small blue dot that was our van parked by the street in Barberine!

Looking towards the Aiguille Rouges in the distance with Barberine the tiny hamlet far below us.

Chris and I were really taken aback by the landscape. We stayed up there for more time than any other pitch so far and had a drink and a smoke. We were so pleased with each other and ourselves!

The boys up high!

Looking down the third pitch. The shelf you can see the rope resting ononly had a few thin cracks! The drop-off is the crux of the pitch.

So we stayed up there a while before abseiling back down to have a quick go at a very short but difficult single pitch on one of the very smooth slabs lower down. No dramas with the descent but on the next climb I led and had happily clipped in about 3 or 4 quick draws into bolts when things went a touch sketchy.

I clipped the next quick draw in and reached to clip in the rope and my foot just completely slipped on the smooth rock. I knew I was in for a "special moment" because the rope was slack - Chris was very rightly giving me enough rope to pull above my head and clip into the quick draw but my foot hold had given way at the worst possible moment. I started to fall backwards and the whole thing went slow motion. I looked over and saw the last quick draw I had placed disappearing upwards at a rather increased rate of knots and realised that I was going to continue to fall for the same amount again - the total fall distance being twice the distance from the last quick draw to the one I slipped trying to clip in. Of course there's a bit of stretch in the rope too and what with me not weighing exactly the same as Kate Moss I was going to give Chris at the bottom a bit of a pull too. Luckily I managed to back pedal faster than I can run on the flat forward and kept my body horizontal with my feet on the rock. Chris stopped the rope exactly as he should and got lifted a bit into the air, with the rope stretch and everything we nearly ended up on the same level!!

All was good though apart from a very minor bit of rope burn on one or two fingers. I was pleased to not panic too much too and organise myself as I was going down to be in the optimum position. Even more pleased that Chris was doing his job well and the all the equipment did as it should. My first major tumble and came out of it with only a bit of friction burn. Wicked.

We both climbed it again a couple of times (with no further incidents!) and then walked home through the forest and the meadow before bumping into one of the Chamonix bar owners who had been out hiking. We dropped him off at one of the local train stations with the very generous offer of a free pitcher or two of beer next time we go to his bar.

Chris in the meadow on the way home.

As I type now there are thunderstorms rolling around the Aiguilles Rouges and the Mont Blanc massif and the valley is trembling with the booming cannonade in the malevolent skies up above. I'm pleased to be inside after an epic day's adventuring watching the rain fall with a cup of tea.