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How does a month-long climb and cycle trip around some of the best climbing destinations in France sound? Tom Livingstone packs up his panniers and dons his lycra to explore some French rock, starting at his home near Chamonix and visiting four destinations on the way down to finish in The Verdon

November 6 2023

Rock climbing

A month-long climb and cycle trip around some of the best climbing destinations in France.

How can we climb hard routes on beautiful multi-pitch crags, whilst minimising our impact on the environment? My partner Christelle presented an idea: starting from our house near Chamonix, France, we’d visit four high-quality destinations over the course of a month, linking them by bicycle.

‘I like it!’ I said. The bikes wouldn’t be too heavy, since we’d only need equipment for sport climbing on multi-pitch routes. We’d be independent, so that meant bringing a tent, mattresses, sleeping bags, stove and gas, but we wouldn’t need to carry much food since we could often visit small shops and bakeries. A few days at each crag, a few amazing routes, then rolling to the next destination: action!

As it turns out, we were very lucky with our trip and it went about as well as we could have hoped. We had perfect, settled weather which meant we could climb whenever we wanted. Here’s what happened:

Stage 1: Cycle from home to Doussard (Annecy). Total: 70km

We loaded our bike bags and began cycling from Servoz towards Annecy. The road twisted up and down through the mountains, and we welcomed the cooler temperatures of mid-September. It was pleasant to travel through the countryside, having more time to absorb the surroundings and the simplicity of just keeping the pedals turning. Cows with bells around their necks watched us slowly pass from their alpine pastures. That evening, we happily arrived at our friend Bruno’s house.

Stage 2: Climb ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ (7c, 200m), Lanfonnet. 30km cycling. 

In the cold morning air, we cranked our pedals up the steep road of the Col de la Forclaz towards the Lanfonnet crag. Soon, we were gasping and zig-zagging over the tarmac. ‘11% gradient! Desperate!’ Six hours of biking and walking later, after being overtaken by families and children on the approach, we finally reached the crag, exhausted.

But we found more energy, so began climbing, swinging leads up the route. I tried very hard on the 7c pitch and was happy to onsight it, forgetting my previous fatigue. We encouraged each other upwards as the pitches steadily eased and the top grew closer. Paragliders flapped past, almost close enough to high-five, and at sunset we soaked in the stunning views of Annecy lake.

Stage 3: Cycle from Doussard (Annecy) to Rocher du Midi (Grenoble). 98km. Total: 198km.

After a rest day we turned our wheels south, following quiet cycle lanes through apple orchards. If you drive to Grenoble, you’ll probably have stared at the impressive grey walls above the broad glacial valley. It feels like the Canadian Rockies, with pine forests covering jagged limestone peaks. When you pass the town of Crolles (also Petzl’s HQ), you’ll clearly see the Rocher du Midi.

I had a road bike with only seven gears, so every climb was tough. At the end of the day my legs were very tired so I hitched up the final hill towards the village of Plateau des Petites Roches (cheat!). Christelle powered on, and soon we were welcomed to our friend Lilya’s house.

Stage 4: Climb ‘Les Mythes Mutent’ (7b, 250m) and ‘Bille de Clown’ (7b, 300m), Rocher du Midi.

How can you summarise 550 metres of brilliant, technical climbing high above the valley? After both these routes, we knew that the old-school grades were quite sandbagged, and that they were also very high quality climbs. They found logical lines up the face, and the grey water-washed rock was solid and technical. Both routes had overhanging sections at the top, making sure our arms were cooked by the end. ‘Nice one!’ We shouted to each other, learning to trust the subtle footholds. Using a single rope and then hauling a small bag with a tagline, we could climb light and easily.

We could still see Mont Blanc in the distance. ‘There’s home’ We said, pointing. It seemed a long way, and I was pleased we’d travelled so far under our own steam. Again, we reached the top as the sun began to set, and walked home happy.

Stage 5: Cycle from Grenoble to Archiane. 80km. Total: 278km.

I was apprehensive; the cycling was tough. It was also difficult to know exactly how far we would journey, or how much ascent we would cover. Google Maps said one figure; Komoot another; and FATMAP a third. We took a gamble. As we left Grenoble and slowly climbed up the valley, I finally stopped worrying and just enjoyed the riding. 

For several days, we rolled southwards. Pitching our tent in quiet areas outside of villages, we’d head to the nearest bakery to warm ourselves with coffee and croissant. I couldn’t believe how good the weather was, worried we’d be cycling in the rain. Instead, we wound our way over the 1400-metre Col de Menée in t-shirts and sunshine. As we crested the pass, we were decidedly leaving the alpine landscape and descending into the drier Mediterranean scenery. ‘Yeeeeeeeehoooo,’ we screamed as we zoomed down the other side, happily hitting 60km/h.

Stage 6: Climb ‘Du Baume au Coeur’ (8a, 400m, didn’t finish or free all), 'Vautour Operator’ (7b, 180m), ‘Oleos’ (7a+, 400m) and ‘Energie Vagabond’ (7c, 200m).

Arriving in Archiane, we discovered a little paradise. A wide cirque, surrounded on three sides by towering limestone cliffs, is like an open palm of the hand. Nestled in the centre are a few houses and a refuge. The energetic guardian, Jean-Luc, welcomed us in.

By day we climbed pitch after pitch on the cliffs, whilst dozens of vultures rode the thermals nearby. Thanks to a reintroduction programme, a protected species of bearded vultures have nested in the cirque. Although some routes are climbable all year round, much of the area is closed to give space to these birds. During a few autumn months, climbers are allowed to venture into these sensitive areas, and we shared the views with vultures and eagles.

The routes often took all day to climb, and as the hours passed we’d travel through bands of rock splashed orange, grey or yellow. Sculpted waves of stone hung over our heads, then added to the exposure once we’d pulled through them with burning arms. The only days’ respite were the terraces which cut the cliffs in two, allowing for a comfortable place to sip some water.

Then, as the sun set (you see the theme?) we enjoyed a delicious three-course meal cooked by Jean-Luc, accompanied by fine wine. He’s created a very special place at this refuge: it’s an isolated haven of tranquility where excellent local cuisine and a simple, caring view of the world helps it feel warm.

Stage 7: Cycle from Archiane to the Verdon Gorge. 206km. Total: 484km.

We took another three days to reach the Verdon, encountering fewer hills and finding a comfortable rhythm. 70 kilometres was a good daily average, and we camped by lazy rivers or in quiet forests. I was very grateful for my comfortable saddle and gel padded shorts; Christelle was as strong as ever and didn’t complain once!

Again, I hitched up the final 20-kilometre climb to the Verdon, saving my energy for climbing on the tiny footholds and the big run-outs, high above the Verdon river. I love this place, with its world-class climbing, easy access and tough, old-school style. The walls drop for hundreds of metres, the vultures circle, and the gorge seems timeless.

We climbed a few stunning routes, and my best advice is: go to the Verdon! With colder weather arriving, we took the hint and climbed some single pitches, and hung out with our friends Heather and Eric (who also had cosy vans to cook in - thanks!).

Stage 8: Homeward Bound

The train sped from the south of France towards Chamonix at 280 km/h, travelling in a few hours the distance that had taken us a month. We arrived home to the first winter snows on the mountaintops, and pulled on our jumpers. The circle was complete, our adventure taking us from our home to Lanfonnet, Rocher du Midi, Archiane, the Verdon, and then home again. The journey had been enjoyable, and it was satisfying to think that we’d gone all that way by bicycle. We’d found exactly what we were looking for, climbing close to home, using our own energy and following the sun south.

Rock And Roll

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