by Mark Anderson
My family and I just returned from a two-week trip to France and Italy. In addition to sightseeing and eating (my favorite pastime), we visited four distinct climbing areas in Southern France and the Italian Riviera. All of these crags are relatively unknown to Americans, but would be renowned destinations if they were in North America.
The first crag we visited, and the one I expected to be the best, is called St. Leger. It’s a fairly long limestone gorge at the very base of the north slope of Mt. Ventoux. Mt. Ventoux, aka “the Giant of Provence”, is a legendary peak for cycling nerds like me. Fans of the Tour de France will recall many famous ascents of Ventoux, especially Chris Froome’s whacky bicycle-free ascent in last year’s Tour.
We picked St. Leger because I’d heard it was a relatively new crag, relatively untraveled (compared to other crags in the vicinity like Ceuse and Buoux), and so might be less polished. The crag is basically one long cliffband that seems to go forever, sorta like Sinks in Wyoming, but with about 400 routes. The first thing we noticed was bulging caves covered in amazing tufas. The routes at Leger tend to be long pumpfests. Most of the walls are vertical to slightly overhanging, with a few caves thrown in (most of the cave routes seem to be in the 8c/+ range). The climbing seems to get better the harder the routes get, with most of the tufas following steep cave lines in the mid-to-high 8’s. We definitely struggled to find worthwhile routes in the 5.10/11 range, but I did quite a few excellent 5.12s, and the 5.13s were stellar.
The first day we started at a crag called Le Voleur de Pesanteur, which has a number of great warmups, and is also adjacent to one of the best looking steep sectors, “La Farce Tranquille.” Once I was warm I jumped on a pair of adjacent 8a’s that climb up a smooth, steep pillar that splits the cave ( the broad tan pillar just right of center in the above pic). Both of these lines (Barbule and La Farce Tranquille) featured some amazing, pumpy tufa climbing with weird kneebars, exotic stems, and lots of pinching.
Later in the day I scrapped my way up Le Voleur de Pesanteur (“The Thief of Gravity” according to Google Translate) a devious 7c on the sector of the same name. It was one of my favorite routes of the trip. This line featured a series of subtle tufas, with nice pockets and edges just where you needed them.
Overall the tufa climbing at St Leger was awesome. I would highly recommend any of the tufa routes I climbed. However, I was not really impressed by the tufa-less routes. It rained heavily on the second and third days of our trip, and when we returned to St Leger a few days later we found all the tufas were still soaking wet black streaks. There were plenty of dry routes to choose from, but the rock on these routes is heavily fractured. The climbing was still good, but not worth traveling across oceans for. In dry conditions the crag was stellar, and had it not rained we likely would have spent more time here. As advertised, the rock was not polished and we never saw more than 8 other climbers at the crag. It’s definitely a hidden gem, but best in dry conditions and probably better suited to climbing in the higher grades.