Ceuse: best sport climbing crag in the world?

February 13, 2009

Looking up at the trail of pockets, the confines of the blue streak suddenly assume a tunnel like character. My mind is relieved of its other duties now, and nothing else matters. Nervousness sets in. The pockets continue out of sight, and this aggravates the feeling of gradual solidification in my forearms. I become aware of my heartbeat, measured at first, like a metronome keeping time with the route. Pocket, crimp, big move...jug, clip...“breath”... But the tempo quickly increases until the pounding is difficult to ignore - the threat that it will seal the fate of my weakening grip weighs on my mind. Resting is impossible now, the only solution - to press on. Undercut, twist, drop-knee. Glance at the target, and desperately muster some power from the bottom of the barrel. The run out makes its presence felt, but this is no time for hesitation – it’s now or never. And then, in moments, it’s over. A hurried slap that failed to measure up and a long, arching fall. Le privililege du serpent had won, the flash gone forever, but the schooling it gave me felt totally appropriate: being there alone was a privilege. Location Map View Ceuse Crag - France in a larger map

Crag Stats

Routes: 200+ Rock type: Limestone Altitude: 1818m Faces: South

Ceuse_Cascade SectorReputation & History

There are many fine crags in the southern region of France, but one stands out as the epitome of all that is good about French sport climbing. The orange and blue-streaked crest of limestone perched on top of the Ceuse massif has been described by many as the best crag in the world. This is high praise indeed, but when do things billed as ‘the best in the world’ ever actually live up to this weighty title? The Titanic certainly didn’t, and the Sinclair C5 wasn’t much better! With this in mind I shall aim to swerve some of the hype and present a balanced view of the climbing at Ceuse, giving a flavour of the area and some of its routes. Right: Tom Newberry on Sector Cascade - Photo Mike Adams Subjective ratings aside, and whether you think the crag is up there with the worlds best or not, I doubt you will be disappointed with what it has to offer: this bolt clippers paradise is well worth a visit for those wanting to tick classics, get fit and soak up some of France’s climbing heritage. Heritage, along with beautiful rock, outstanding lines and perfectly formed pockets, is something Ceuse is well endowed with. The list of people who have helped develop the crag over the decades reads like a who’s who of French climbing – Edlinger, Petit, Lafaille, Millet to name but a few. Many of these are still found at the crag, which is testament that its allure does not wear off easily. Arnaud Petit was there during our stay last year, dancing up routes like only the French can.

Popularity

Quantity has always been a more measurable beast than quality, and one thing that is certain is that Ceuse is one of the most popular crags in the world, attracting thousands of visitors every year. Nearly all climbers visiting the area find themselves staying at the campsite at the bottom of the hill –“Les Guerins”, owned and run by a man called Gerard. Gerard has the weathered look of someone who has been up and down the hill many times, and witnessed first hand the various eras of climbing development that have made Ceuse the crag it is today. Nowadays though, he seems content doing random acts of strimming, general pottering about the campsite, and of course manning the reception/shop. A quick look around the campsite in peak season suggests that Gerard must be doing well; the site is quite literally packed full of climbers, tents and vans. This assertion was confirmed when we went up to the house to hand over our passport details. In the 4 years since our last visit the scruffy old alcove had been transformed into a plush, spacious, wood panelled reception area! While the French have always known about this gem of a crag, the growing influx of international visitors can be largely attributed to the exposure the crag has had in the climbing media in recent years. An increase in popularity was inevitable following the release of Dosage vol. 1 in which the crag, or more specifically its hardest route, was given centre stage. More recently other high profile routes, like Bah Bah Black Sheep and Three Degrees of Separation, have featured in climbing films and consolidated Ceuse’s place on the sport climbing map.

People

One of the best things about going away on a climbing trip is the people you meet. Climbers’ campsites are generally very communal places and Les Guerins is no exception. Thinking about all the new friends you’re making helps to fade those nagging “I should have trained harder, got stronger, fitter...” thoughts into the background. Who cares if you’re getting spanked by all the routes if you know you’re guaranteed good banter with friendly people from all over the world? During our short trip we made several new friends. As well as making evenings and rest days fly by, and of course adding to your credibility on Facebook (!), this will be a comfort to anyone thinking of heading out to Europe on a solo mission hoping to meet people to climb with. It also gives you some useful contacts for future trips – we now have offers of ‘guided tours’ to a diverse range of venues from Pex Hill to the Philippines!!

Routes

Regardless of anything else, the primary reason so many people trek up that hill every year is the outstanding range of routes it leads to, and of course this is what really marks Ceuse out. The style of climbing in Ceuse is a variation on the many other crags that make up the South of France. Pockets feature heavily and the pitches are long and sustained. The blue and gold streaked limestone is quite beautiful from a distance, and this demarcates many of the routes, which are contained within the coloured streaks. The various sectors offer different angles but the emphasis is on steep, sustained stamina based climbing. The crag is well bolted but many routes have half as many bolts as you would like, especially in their upper reaches. Just remember, the French don’t seem at all bothered about taking huge falls, so neither should you be! With this in mind, let me point you towards some of the best choices at each grade...

The 5’s

The 5th grade routes do not get much publicity, and as a consequence many people are left with the impression that this is not a place for the 5th grade operative. While the selection of routes at this grade may feel limited if you are on a long trip, there is certainly plenty to keep most people busy for a few days. The 5’s are also good for warm ups or may be a good destination for those who find themselves passing through on route to another area. Many of them are also really good, the best being Le Gros Duard (5c) to the left of Face de rat sector and Les yeaux de Tantaloc (5+) at Thorgal.

The 6’s

The 6th grade is very well represented and where you start to find the super classics. Routes like Zagreb (6c) on the Berlin sector which should be on the tick list of anyone capable of climbing this grade. It is worth getting on this even if only to experience the moves, all of which are superb. That is, of course, if you have the time to queue! The cascade sector is also home to another very good 6c, in the shape of Medicine Douche. Take your spare set of arms for this one though, as the angle is relentless. Further right you will find some rather more technical 6’s on a more accommodating angle, all of which are worth seeking out.

Fesses (7c)The 7’s

The 7th grade is where Ceuse really comes into its own, and the list of superb routes is so long that I can only afford to mention a few. Technicians will enjoy climbing at the Demi Lune and Un pont sur L’infini sectors. These offer a wide range of great routes, including some superb 7a’s. My recommendations would be Nitassian, Gelati Dolomiti and the classic Saint John’s Picos. The route that gives it’s name to the sector, “Un pont sur L’infini “ is also an underrated classic and definitely one to add to your list. Be warned though, this route features every type of hold imaginable, cracks, slopers, pockets, crimps and even a hand jam! Right: Dave Westlake on Blanch Fesses (7c) - Photo Dennis Diaz The quality continues if you move up a grade, and classic 7a+ pitches are in plentiful supply, the best of which going by the names of Angel Dust, Melody Nelson and Beaux movements sur fond bleau. Incidentally, the English translation of the latter is: “Beautiful movements in blue” and the route itself stays within the confines of a perfect blue streak. I could write several articles based purely on the 7’s at the cascade sector, and this is where jug jockeys will be particularly at home. They will be eager to try Super Mickey (7b), Vagabond d’occident (7c), Mirage (7c+), and Le privililege du serpent (7c+). All these follow strong natural features and are endowed with huge holds and huge run outs on relentlessly steep rock. For those with plenty of stamina, all of these are good choices for flash or on sight attempts. Elsewhere on the crag, but falling into the same category, are the steep and thuggy lines of Lapinerie (7b) and Bibendium (7b+).

The 8’s

As you probably guessed, Ceuse is also home to a great selection of routes in the magic 8th grade. One of the highlights is Carte Blanche (8a) which takes a stunning line with a very steep start followed by an exposed arête higher up. These are split by a huge pocket around the half way point. This is one of the crag classics and you are almost guaranteed an audience in the form of the in situ crowd adorning the Demi Lune sector. If this went ok, you may decide to turn your attention to one of the more popular 8c’s next door; Dures Limites saw sustained attention during our stay. Violent Illusion (8b) and Rosanna (8a) are the big ticks on the cascade sector for the 8th grade wad, and it’s easy to see why. The former of these takes a very distinct blue streak which is immediately appealing. The boulder problem crux is found near the start and this is conveniently shaped like a cellar board – no excuses then? Rosanna is another stunning line with a powerful start. Funnily enough, when I think of Rosanna, one particular memory comes back to me. It actually has nothing to do with the route itself, but a late night conversation it featured in... We were discussing what routes might have been “France’s first 8a”, and along with routes like Reve du papillon at Buoux, Rosanna came up in conversation as a possible contender. I wondered why I was suddenly met with a rather puzzled look by one of my friends (who will remain nameless for his own sake). After taking another sip of cheap French lager, still looking confused, he calmly enquired “who’s Francis?” It turns out that Rosanna was not the first 8a in France, but that’s neither here nor there! Anyway, I digress... For the 8c+ climber there is the obvious challenge and historically important pitch of Biographie. Equipped in 1989 by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and climbed in 1996 by Arnaud Petit, this ushered in a new era of hard climbing. It also hinted at where the next generation of hard routes might be found – the huge expanse of the Biographie sector. This is gradually being developed and those who like bouldering do not have to walk far along the sector to find Bah Bah Black Sheep. This is a Dave Graham route that was repeated last year by visiting British climber Ryan Pasquill, and apparently features a powerful font 8A/8A+ crux sequence.

The 9’s

The Biographie sector is also home to Realization (9a+) and Three Degrees of Separation (9a). These routes are reserved for the very few who can climb them, but their reputations extend far beyond this small elite. Being some of the hardest routes in Europe the 9th grade pitches are renowned throughout the world and guaranteed to attract a raft of media interest whenever they are repeated. It is rare to see anyone walk beneath this sector for the first time without stopping to take in the view of the impossibly steep swathe of limestone and the famous routes that breach it. Realization, the extension to Biographie, has become one of the more popular 9’s in Europe while Three Degrees... has so far fought off any successful repeat ascents. Although both these routes have been well documented on film by Big Up Productions, I can safely say that they are even more impressive in the flesh. Looking at the gaps in the Biographie sector, I have no doubt the crag has plenty more potential for the next generation of hard routes, many of which have already been bolted and stand as some of the hardest projects around.

Vagabond d'occident (7c)Does it really live up to the hype?

So now that I’ve highlighted the many attractions of Ceuse, it's time to look at the other side of the coin – surely it can’t all be wonderful? Well, unfortunately the evidence suggests that to some extent it has become victim of its own success. The masses of people making their way up the hill each year has an environmental impact, and path erosion and polish on the rock may be a deterrent to those who see their climbing holidays as a means to ‘get away from it all’. Right: Dennis Diaz flashing Vagabond d'occident (7c) - Photo Dave Westlake A visit during the more popular times of year may leave you frustrated with the sheer number of climbers and the queue’s that they inevitably create. For those wanting to get on the more popular routes, particularly at the Berlin and Demi Lune sectors, Ceuse may seem like climbing’s answer to Piccadilly Circus! The popular end of Stanage on a May bank holiday might be a fair comparison to the area around Zagreb in August. In many ways, in our over populated world, this drawback is sadly inevitable. Many of the more accessible places that are declared to be wonderful end up suffering from the increased interest this generates. Just look at the state Everest base camp is in after thousands of climbers have passed through. Greatness is therefore time limited, and with sport climbing’s participation numbers ever increasing, the magic of Ceuse may rapidly evaporate. However, one must balance this doomsday outlook with the fact that the crag in question is blessed, as I have described, with perhaps the most fun selection of routes anywhere. That there are so many quality routes in one place is inspiring and makes the cliff suitable for repeated trips. Coupled with this is the atmosphere of the place. The aura that has been created over the years makes Ceuse irresistible; an essential stop on the European circuit. So, lets just imagine for a moment that you make your journey during one of the quieter times of the season, and fluke an uninterrupted window of perfect weather. You find the crag virtually deserted, save a select bunch of international strangers who soon become great friends. Every day, as you walk up the hill to the rock, you take in the beautiful surroundings and climb superb routes from sunrise to sunset. Is Ceuse really “the best crag in the world”? Maybe.

guideLogistics

Getting there is easy as the area is well served by several low cost airlines. Grenoble, Nimes, Marseille and Turin airports are all close by. Make your way to Gap, and you will see the crag, about 10km away. Hitching from here is relatively easy but if you arrive late then a taxi is another option. Conditions are best between May and September, and the crag is one of very few southern French sport crags that are high enough to offer good conditions in mid summer. Even in August it is wise to pack some warm clothes as the evenings can be cold. A waterproof is also advisable, whatever the season, as I discovered to my cost. During our 9 day trip last August we had some rain on 6 days, and on 2 of these it was torrential. For the less unlucky visitor, storms arrive roughly every 10 days so bear this in mind. The walk is long, and steep. It takes around an hour but has the most breathtaking views. Basic supplies can be purchased from the campsite, bakery in nearby Sigoyer, or supermarkets in Gap. A mobile climbing shop comes to the campsite weekly and there is also a well stocked (but expensive) shop in Gap.

Guides

Local guidebooks to Ceuse are also available from the campsite, priced 20 euro. UPDATE (Dec 2009): Ceuse in now featured in Rockfax: Haute Provence.


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