Soaring heart after La Grande Candelle

Morning light

Morning light on the approach to the base of the route (La Grande Candelle on the left, Morgiou on the right)

My heart was soaring after our climb on Secteur du Temple up to La Grande Candelle. Again, very cold, windy conditions made for no other climbers in sight. The views on the approach to the climb continued to make me feel both so lucky to be able to experience places like this, and also sadness that I do not live closer and/or have more time to climb here more.

Continued awe of my surroundings on the approach in

Continued awe of my surroundings on the approach in

Not being able to feel my fingers for the first few pitches made things a bit challenging.

Cold. (Photo: Yves)

Cold. (Photo: Yves)

Eager to get into some sun (Photo: Yves)

Eager to get into some sun (Photo: Yves)

We also got off-route, and put up some kind of variation that made for some spicy, harder, adventure climbing, which I realize feeds my soul in ways other kinds of climbing fail to. Even after I started climbing again after my accident, I never thought that I would be doing this sort of climbing ever again: very exposed, airy, super run-out, leader cannot afford to fall-kind of climbing. Being on lead the entire time was definitely a little taxing, mentally and physically, in retrospect. But in the moment, I found myself very comfortable in this zone, and taking on an “I have a job to do to get us out of here safely” kind of attitude. Yves’ extensive military experience lets us relate a bit on things like this.

The views, the views!

The views, the views!

The last few pitches, where we were off-route, reminded me quite a bit of the high alpine routes in the Sierra Nevadas, even if the former is limestone and the latter is granite. Both are similar in the wind, cold, heights, and exposure; and in both, you have to be careful of loose rock, be extremely focused and precise in mind and movement. It was incredible.

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(Photo: Yves)

Our original plan had been to climb the 16 pitches to the top of La Grande Candelle. However, because it had already been so cold and windy on the first 9 pitches on Le Temple, and we knew it would be even windier and colder on the ridge the rest of the way up, we elected to exit the route at this point. Nevertheless, I was not disappointed to finish our climb and find the reverse approach in the daylight; sun, soul and heart singing from some incredible pitches.

The ridge line we elected not to get on because of the cold and wind

The ridge line we elected not to get on because of the cold and wind

Scrambling back down to get onto the main trail again

Scrambling back down to get onto the main trail again

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A parting look back

En Vau – Les Américains and a nasty surprise

We headed to another and, again, very different, calanques on the 28th Feb. And again, there were no other climbers in sight, being well in the off-season (February is considered too cold and windy), and on an overcast, bordering-on-rain (we were caught in the downpour but, fortunately, near the end of the reverse approach) day.

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The calanque is quite different in character to Sugiton and Morgiou because it is narrower, and the overcast day made for a very different atmosphere and feel. The hour+ approach down/uphill was fine for me, especially since Yves was carrying both ropes, I have a tank of a right leg, and the road/trail being in good condition.

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You can see how much narrower this calanque is

(Photo: Yves)

(Photo: Yves)

I was quite excited to be climbing on the Les Américains secteur, where Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins had put up a route. Due to time-constraints, we elected to run up La Révolution (6a) (with me accidentally doing the first pitch of La Si-ray, instead).

In slimming navy blue (Photo: Yves)

I feel like I am dressed more like a cyclist than a climber here (Photo: Yves)

I like the picture below because I can recall what I was thinking in that moment: and that was how amazing, how incredible the fact I was standing in that spot overlooking the azure blue waters, even alive, let alone having gone from skiing, ice-climbing, rock-climbing in the space of less than 10 days.

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(Photo: Yves)

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Compression moves are a common thing for me, since I often have to unweight both legs to make a move (Photo: Yves)

Les Américains

Les Américains

In continued awe of my surroundings (Photo: Yves)

In continued awe of my surroundings (Photo: Yves)

After rushing back to the car to get out of the downpour, and upon arrival at a coffee shop to attend to some affairs, I was met with an unpleasant surprise. When I opened up my wallet, I discovered all my cash, credit cards, and bank cards had been neatly taken out of my wallet. My U.S. drivers license, health insurance, and other (non-financial) cards remained; how considerate. I knew Marseilles was known for its crime, but I did not expect leaving my wallet in the glove compartment, out of sight, in a remote parking lot, was in danger. These thieves were pros; they must have been making the rounds of fairly out of the way parking lots (we were the only car there when we arrived, and not many more cars were there upon our arrival back in the late afternoon).

Of course, the first step was cancelling all my cards and disputing any transactions that might have taken place. If I had been on my own, I would have figured out a way to get some kind of cash advance or credit card mailed to me. But, having Yves there was such a tremendous help, both practically for the rest of my stay in France, and also just in terms of emotional support for these kinds of small, but really really annoying, pain-in-the-bloody-arse kinds of incidents which can really be a big blow to an experience. Now, the overwhelming majority of my travels in my teens and 20’s was solo. But as I have gotten older, I have realized the value of traveling with a friend, partner etc. and makes me feel very appreciative of being on this with Yves.

Gorge du Verdon

There were/hardly any climbers in the Verdon in February, due to the cold temperatures. But since I do not live in/near this part of France, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to climb here. We had our sights set on L’Eperon Sublime (7a), but had to bail. It was still quite the experience.

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Gorge du Verdon in the setting light

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Dropping into the gorge required a fair number of rappels

Dropping into the gorge required a fair number of rappels

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Lots of caves and winding water

A familiar position... (Photo: Yves)

A familiar position… (Photo: Yves)

More familiar poses, leg brace and all (Photo: Yves)

More familiar poses, leg brace and all (Photo: Yves)

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Moustieres Sainte Marie: Another unexpected treat

A wondrous view of Notre Dame de Beauvoir at night

A wondrous view of Notre Dame de Beauvoir at night from the village

The tiny village of Moustiers Sainte-Marie was a total surprise! I only decided to stay here because of the availability of budget accommodation near Gorge du Verdon. Little did I know that we would be seeing one of the “most beautiful villages in France” (it’s official), set against limestone cliffs.

View of the village: out of a postcard

View of the village: out of a postcard

One of the most notable features of the town is a large hanging star hanging between two rock formations high above the village. The history of the star is quite interesting. Legend has it that a chevalier of Blacus was taken prisoner by the Saracens (Arabs/Muslims) during a crusade in the Holy Land. The knight vowed to suspend a chain with a star above Moustiers if he returned. Apparently no one knows how the star was originally hung in place. The current star is 1.15m (4 feet) across, hung on a 225m long chain suspended between two cliffs, and originally placed in 1957. When the chain snapped ten years ago, the star was rehung by a helicopter.

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The Notre Dame de Beauvoir was one of the great pilgrimage churches of the Middle Ages. It is always really cool to visit sites like this, and imagine all the pilgrims ascending these steps and crossing these thresholds before you.

As you ascend the staircase up, you pass by these small pillars, chemin de croix, where pilgrims would stop to pray at along the way.

A chemin de croix along the staircase up to the church

A chemin de croix along the staircase up to the church

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The entrance to the chapel

Unfortunately, the chapel was closed.

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I was also unaware that Moustiers was so famed for a particular kind of pottery, Faience. Faience comes from the northern Italian region, Faenza, from which these wares were exported. Until today, I was not aware of the distinction between tin-based enamel (Faience) and lead-based enamel, say.

Because of the time of year, many things in the village were not open. As a result, our dining options for the evening were limited. We could not find the canteen the hotel staff pointed out, but it is pretty great to eat at a Michelin star restaurant (Les Santons) without knowing it, instead! We were wondering why the food was so good…

 

Climbing in Calanque de Morgiou – Secteur du Grand Dièdre

Another day, another calanque. On Wednesday, we headed to the next calanque over, Calanque de Morgiou, which Yves described as being a more “classic” calanque in its narrow shape, compared to the wider Calanque de Sormiou. Yet again, I was taken by the setting and views, which were very different to our previous two climbing days at Sormiou.

I will never tire of starting out at/seeing these views/villages on approaches to climbs.

View of the village

View of the village

View of the calanque from the approach to the route

View of the calanque from the approach to the route

Our route (La Directe) was on the Crêt St Michel formation.

Crêt St Michel in the morning light

Crêt St Michel in the morning light

Because the cliff is not right by the sea, the climbing and rock were quite different to the climbing we had done in Sormiou. The first pitch required a little bit of thought for sure.

Kicking things off on the first pitch (Photo: Yves)

Kicking things off on the first pitch (Photo: Yves)

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(Photo: Yves)

Yves heading up

Yves heading up

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We made short work of the route and got to the top with plenty of time to enjoy the great views of Le Grande Candelle, which we hope to climb some time on this trip too.

Top of the route with Le Grande Candelle (left) and Cret de St Michel (right) in the background

Top of the route with Le Grande Candelle (left) and Cret de St Michel (right) in the background

A clearer view of the hiking trail leading to the Crêt St Michel lookout point (Photo: Yves)

A clearer view of the hiking trail leading to the Crêt St Michel lookout point (Photo: Yves)

We could not find the rappel route down, so the walk down was a bit painful in our climbing shoes, especially with the missing big toe nail for me. But this was a tiny blip in comparison to the rest of the awesome day.

Looking up at the Secteur Grand Dièdre before starting the walk back down to the car

Looking up at the Secteur Grand Dièdre before starting the walk back down to the car

 

 

Climbing in Calanque de Sormiou: Le Bec de Sormiou (Envers de la Momie)

We returned the next day to a different sector of Calanque de Sormiou. This time, our routes were at Le Bec (beak) de Sormiou at the La Momie area. Despite being in the same calanque, the climbing and setting are quite different.  The approach was similar to our first day, with the addition of quite a long traverse to reach Le Bec de Sormiou. It was super cool and unlike any other approaches I have done before.

One thing I am so grateful for to climbing, and the ability to still climb is the unique perspectives of a place it offers us.

View from the winding traverse to the route

View from the winding traverse to the route

A short rope up for the approach

A short rope up for the approach

Trying to keep the rope dry

Trying to keep the rope dry (Photo: Yves)

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That’s Yves in there, somewhere

It was a pleasant surprise to be able to climb French grade 6 off the couch. This is likely because the rock is very featured so there are a lot of hold options for my hands and feet; a great help since I need to do moves/routes less conventionally than other climbers now.

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Climbing right by the Mediterranean sea was magical beyond words

A clearer view of le bec (beak)

A clearer view of le bec (beak)

View of the opening to the calanques from the cushy belay on top of p3

View of the opening to the calanques from the cushy belay on top of our p2 (I had linked pitches 2 and 3 unintentionally)

Enjoying the relative warmth and sun at the cushy belay spot

Enjoying the relative warmth and sun at the cushy belay spot. Right climbing shoe is off to give my missing big toe  (Photo: Yves)

This route combination was a great, though unintended choice, because of the varied nature of the climbing (overhanging, stemming, corners…), and the change in atmosphere: from sunny to cold and windy. I was swearing hard as I transitioned from the sunny part of the climbing to the veritable wind tunnel.

Yves on the last pitch

Yves on the last pitch

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View from the windy side of the route

I always think I look like Gargamel from the Smurfs in my photos

I always think I look like Gargamel from the Smurfs in my photos (Photo: Yves)

Back in the sun on top

Back in the sun on top

Chillin'

Chillin’ (I love the clouds in this picture)

View from Col du Lui d'Ai

View from Col du Lui d’Ai

 

 

 

 

Climbing in Calanque de Sormiou – Antécime

This was my first experience climbing on limestone, so it made sense for Yves and I to do a “warm-up” route. Yves selected Calanque de Sormiou for its amazing views and setting. This was also my first experience climbing right on the Mediterranean, or the sea for that matter. All these firsts have been incredible; it is difficult to convey the joy that was bursting from my chest as I climbed on great rock, in a spectacular location, with a wonderful person and partner in Yves. Maybe it is apparent from my smile in these pictures. I think these experiences mean so much to me because for a long time, I thought that they were no longer options for me after my climbing accident.

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View of the small village and calanque on the approach to the route

Morning sun

Morning sun

Antécime was a great introduction to climbing in Les Calanques. The rock is very featured, and because we were right by the sea, pitted and weathered; quite different to the relatively blank slabs of granite I am used to. It might also be apparent in these pictures the feeling of home hanging off rock is for me.

Yves getting us off to the right start

Yves getting us off to the right start

My favourite place/position in the world

My favourite place/position in the world (Photo: Yves)

And the smile to prove it

And the smile to prove it (Photo: Yves)

Yves on pitch 2

Yves on pitch 2

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View from the top of the route (Col du Lui d'Ai) of Île de Riou

View from the top of the route (Col du Lui d’Ai) of Île de Riou

View of the small beach and village in Calanque Sormiou

View of the small beach and village in Calanque Sormiou

 

Climbing in the south of France: a dream come true

Who would have thought that a very depressing ski season ending injury would lead to me realizing a dream. I never ever thought I would get to climb in the south of France in my life, mainly because I did not know whom I would climb with and if that person and I would be able to take the time off at the same time. It is pretty incredible that in the space of a few days, I decided to join my friend Yves to climb in Les Calanques near Marseilles, and take the steps in order to make this trip happen. It is pretty empowering to be able to decide on an objective/goal/destination, and realise it.

It was a comfortable 3 hour train ride to Marseilles from Paris. Yves secured us a place to stay at the Chercle Militaire de Garnison de Marseilles, an Officer’s Mess. I mean, we’re staying right inside an old fort right at the Vieux Port; how cool is that??

View of the harbour from our breakfast spot

View of the harbour from our breakfast spot

Sunrise from our breakfast spot

Sunrise from our breakfast spot

View of Fort St. Nichol from the officer's mess

View of Fort St. Nichol from the officer’s mess

Sunrise view from bedroom window

Sunrise view from bedroom window

Our room overlooks this courtyard

Our room overlooks this courtyard

Future blog posts will be climbing oriented, so I am posting some pictures of the Vieux Port area here. I dig Marseilles. Dry, sunny weather aside (it is the sunniest city in France), I like the slight grit of the city, although crime is certainly a consideration. There is a significant North African influence in the city, which amongst other things, makes for really good eating. It is really quite different to Paris.

Vieux Port in the evening

Vieux Port in the evening

Aiguille du Midi and sense of history

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Aiguille du Midi on the far right

The weather on my last morning in Chamonix was clear, so we decided to take the cable car (Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi) from Chamonix up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. Since the cable car ride is expensive (around €60!), there is no point in paying this sum of money for a day with poor visibility.

We had originally floated the idea of taking the cable car up to ice-climb a route, Chèré, and then take the last cable car back down. However, the time of year was not ideal for this; the refuge where we could have stayed overnight was closed meaning we would have to carry a lot more stuff like sleeping bags, stove etc.; so it was not certain whether I would be able to climb fast enough to make the last cable car down. Hopefully we can get on this route a little later in a future season. The concept of huts is foreign to me, as I am  used to packing everything in/out and camping when skiing/hiking in the backcountry.

The Aig. du Midi is a striking feature certainly, but like a lot of the geography of Chamonix, I was most excited about just getting to be so close to the history of it and its surrounding peaks. This sense of history was a dominant feeling I felt while in these mountains. The closest thing I have felt to this is climbing classic, hard routes that Yosemite greats first put up. Except here, I was not climbing these routes, so it was not quite the same emotion. I have never seen peaks/routes as things to be conquered; but, rather, the process being a personal test; and, hopefully, a fun and rewarding time with a partner. I used to be much more of a loner in the mountains, happy to take off into the backcountry skiing/climbing/hiking by myself. That has changed given my disability, but also as I have gotten older and soon after my accident, I realized one of the most fulfilling aspects of climbing/skiing is sharing the experience with a good friend/partner.

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Base station of the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi

The cable car ascends from the base (1,035m) to the Plan de l’Aiguille (2,317m); then a second span up to the upper station (3,777m) vertical distance of over 2,700m! The second span is particularly cool, as the opposite side of the triangle you can imagine, is larger than the adjacent side of the triangle (remember your geometry lessons? 23+ years later, I still remember my SOH CAH TOA :))) Passengers wanting to get to the top need to disembark from the cable car at the mid-station and get on another cable car.

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View from the platform of the mid-station

While the Aig. du Midi is not one of the six great north faces of the Alps, the imposing north face always elicits a slight shudder in me.

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The imposing north face

Unlike the rest of my time in Chamonix, the temperatures at the top were quite low, and the wind high, meaning not much time was spent outside taking pictures. I was able to see many storied peaks, like the Grandes Jorasses, and the Grand Capucin.

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Panoramic view from the upper station. The Grandes Jorasses are in the distance; Pyramide du Tacul, and the Grand Capucin sit behind the Glacier du Géant in the foreground. We had just been on the other side of the Grandes Jorasses ice-climbing

I hope to ski down from the Aig. du Midi in the not too distant future.

Skiers making their way down the Aig. du Midi ridge

Skiers making their way down the Aig. du Midi ridge

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Grand Capucin on the far left. Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc in distance.

While we were standing comfortably warm inside the enclosed upper station walkway, we saw a helicopter rescue taking place on the Glacier du Géant.

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Helicopter rescue on the glacier

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View of Chamonix-Mont Blanc on the cable car ride down

Given this sense of history I experienced, I really enjoyed visiting the Maison de la Montagne, which also houses the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix (founded in 1821), and the small Espace Tairraz museum in Chamonix.

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Climbers/skiers can get information on the latest conditions on route through messages left by other climbers/skiers in these message books in the office.

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A to-scale 3-D model of the Mont Blanc massif inside the Maison de Montagne

While the Espace Tairraz is small, I really enjoyed our visit, specifically because of the interactive displays of the five great peaks of the Alps: Les Drus, Grandes Jorasses, Eiger, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn.

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The exhibition hall with the interactive displays

At each of these displays, you can use your fingers to rotate the displays in every direction, and reveal various routes up these peaks.

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The Directe Americaine route put up by Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins

The interactive display for the Grandes Jorasses

The interactive display for the Grandes Jorasses

I am not sure if a non-climber would have been as interested as I was in this space, but I thought it was well worth the less than €5 as a rest-day diversion.

Ice, Ice baby: Cogne, Italy (round 2)

Based on weather, and because ice-climbing aggravates my leg much less than skiing, we returned to Cogne a few days later to do a route in the adjacent valley to Valnontey, Lillaz. The short approach was very welcome. As usual, Yves carried all the heavy stuff. I always feel kind of lame about my partners shouldering most of the load, but it is for the good of everyone involved.

The familiar drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmeyer

The familiar drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmeyeur and Aosta

It was pretty cool for the initial “approach” to the climb go through the small village. I have not experienced this in North America.

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Yves’ route choice was  spectacular.

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The starting pitches of Cascade del Lillaz

The adjacent single pitch Chandelle de Lillaz

The adjacent single pitch Chandelle de Lillaz

Unfortunately, the short approach and spectacular nature of the climb meant that there were a ton of other parties (Brits, Italians, Germans…Yves and I were the only French/Asian dynamic duo :)) arriving at around the same time as us, or right after. I have never been surrounded by so many other ice-climbers on a route; we could have been in sport-climbing area. It detracted from the peace and serenity that I seek when I climb, and having so many other climbers around me makes me feel a certain pressure. When I am rock climbing, my leg brace is apparent; however, I do not wear the brace when I ice-climb (and it would be under my pants anyway), so other climbers might be wondering why I move/climb the way I do. However, this did allow me to glean a little insight into other climbing cultures.

Perhaps because climbing is more popular in Europe, and population density is higher, such crowds are not uncommon. I am used to crowds on popular Yosemite Valley and other Sierra climbs; but nothing like I experienced here. Parties seemed to hurry and hop on climbs as fast as they could. In the States, if there are multiple parties at the base, the party that arrived first usually has priority to climb first, unless there are discussions about one party being much faster over the party that started ahead of it.

Climbers here seemed to have no problems climbing under/over ropes, without communicating with the other parties. The Brits were quite respectful; the Italians and Germans were atrocious, aggressive, and not particularly skilled. Of course, these few data points do not allow me to make generalizations about all the climbers from these countries. But I was surprised that Yves and I (the supposed loud, obnoxious “American” :)) were the ones that brought civility to the party :)

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I am looking kinda pissed in this picture because Yves and I had hurried up to escape the many other parties, some of whom were quite rude and aggressive. I’m parked here by a waterfall, seeking shelter from the ice raining down from the other parties above us. (Photo: Yves Durieux)

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I included this picture to show how many other people there were, and how at one point it was a rope shit-show (Photo: Yves Durieux)

Fortunately, the crowds cleared significantly after the first pitch or so.

It is too bad the website asianposes.com is now defunct

It is too bad the website asianposes.com is now defunct (Photo: Yves Durieux)

I was pretty psyched to place my first ice-screws in Europe!

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Getting ready to lead (Photo: Yves Durieux)

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(Photo: Yves Durieux)

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My happy place (Photo: Yves Durieux)

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(Photo: Yves Durieux)

One really cool aspect of this route was that instead of just going straight up, you need to skirt around picturesque pools of water, snowy ledges etc. to move between some pitches.

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Moving around little ponds

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Yves humping the ropes around

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Looking at the final pitch

I feel very lucky to have been able to experience such a place, with a great partner. The snow and clouds made the drive back through Gran Paradiso very atmospheric.

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Clearing clouds

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Beautiful Gran Paradiso

I hope it is not too long before I see you again, Cogne!

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Heading back to France