It almost feels like a different life now, but in late September last year, Emily and I set out across the English channel for 5 months of European adventuring in a camper van…
Our trip began on an unassuming suburban street somewhere near Merton. Having made a stop in London to see various friends, we woke up the next morning to head to Folkestone for the Eurotunnel. We quickly realised that the van’s leisure battery was flat, as the lights wouldn’t turn on. No worries, we thought. We’ll just hit the road and the alternator can charge it. It then became apparent that the starter battery was also flat. Luckily we managed to enlist the help of some builders for a jump-start. (We later figured out that the voltage sensing relay had been wired incorrectly, which meant that the two batteries were basically permanently connected, hence why our appliances had been able to drain the starter battery. Doh.)
We crossed the channel and immediately pulled over, because we still hadn’t decided where we were actually going. After a quick ponder of various options we picked Arco, in Northern Italy. We spent the next few days making our way there, stopping overnight on the France/Luxemburg border, and then next to a gorgeous lake in Austria.
Our arrival in Arco was a bit fraught. We’d been driving all day, were quite tired, and didn’t really know where we should park up. We tried to get to the famous Massone crag, but it became apparent that we probably weren’t going to be able to squeeze through the narrow streets that lead there. So we retreated, but our van manoeuvring skills were somewhat under-developed at this stage of the trip and it was a bit chaotic to say the least. Eventually we got turned around and drove about some more getting increasingly frustrated. A chilly plunge in Lake Geneva cleared my head and we finally found our way to a good spot near a crag called Nago.
To be honest the time in Arco was not the highlight of the trip. Although we did find some good things to climb here and there, the rock was often extremely polished to the point of being unpleasant. Fundamentally though, I think we were also still just getting into the swing of van life. We’d had several rather busy and stressful weeks trying to sort things out and tie up loose ends before we left, and we were still unwinding from that and learning how to live in the van.
As well, there seemed to be a steady stream of random little problems like the flat battery. Another was that the sliding door got stuck closed. This meant our only access in and out was to climb over the front seats. On a rest day we found a friendly mechanic who spoke precisely zero English, but we managed to communicate about the problem through mime and Google Translate. We now refer to him only as “the van whisperer” because he pushed and jiggled the door in some kind of special way and it miraculously came open. He unbolted part of the locking mechanism and told us that we needed to get a new one from a dealership. So off we went to nearby Trento and they ordered us the part, which meant we were committed to staying in Arco for another 10 days. We made the best of it but were pretty keen to move on when the time came.
When we got the part, we bolted it back into the door and tested it without closing the door. It seemed to work. So we then slid the door closed, and it was stuck shut again. Bollocks.
This time there were no van whisperer tricks to be had, but we decided to head on to less polished pastures nonetheless. We resigned ourselves to climbing over those seats for a few more days.
Our next destination was Finale Ligure, which we liked quite a bit. The grades were stiff but the rock was good quality and not too polished. We spent quite a bit of time at the amazing tufa-laden wall to the right of the Grotta della Strapatente (see here for some good photos), but also visited various other crags including the much-photographed Grotto dell’Edera – an impressive cylinder of rock that you climb inside of. (And it’s not just aesthetic – the climbs are pretty good too.)
A local garage managed to resolve our sliding door woes for €50, too, so things were coming together.
I really enjoyed the onsighting in Finale but there weren’t a whole load of options for redpoint projects for me, which was a bit of a shame. We considered checking out some of the crags in the Oltrefinale guidebook (an area a little further away), which had some harder crags, but ultimately decided against it because they were south facing and the weather was still on the warm side for climbing in full sun. We did get to have a couple of bracing swims in the sea though! (A good way to get clean as they had showers on the beach…)
After a couple of weeks in Finale, we boarded a daytime ferry to the French island of Corsica. As we came into port at sunset we were greeted by a beautiful red textured sky. We drove in the dark to Corte, in the middle of the island, intending to climb in the Restonica valley.
Next morning we went straight to the climbing shop in town to buy the sport climbing guidebook, planning to have a fairly relaxed day while we got our bearings. However the woman in the shop told us it was out of print, so we bought the multi-pitch guide instead and made a snap decision to go and do one of the shorter routes.
Restonica valley is absolutely stunning with immaculate granite walls in all directions. I have to admit that I was surging with psyche in that moment and perhaps pushed the decision to go and do a multi-pitch a little more than I should have. By the time we’d bought the guide, driven into the valley and parked the van, it was 11AM. The month was now November so we didn’t have oodles of daylight to play with. Our chosen objective, Le Vent du Silence, was only 5 pitches long but there was a bit of a walk-in, and given Emily hadn’t done lots of multi-pitching before we weren’t able to move super fast on the route. We got to the top but darkness fell during the descent. On the last abseil in the dark I landed us in the wrong place which meant we had to do a bit of sketchy down-climbing to get to our bags. Not ideal in hindsight, it put a bit of a damper on things and wasn’t very confidence-building for Emily.
In the car park we met a friendly French man who was on holiday with his family. He knew the area pretty well and gave us lots of recommendations. It was a stroke of luck that he was leaving the next morning, so offered to sell us his copy of the sport climbing guide which was a great help.
After some sport climbing we took a rest day and started to think about what to do next. Emily was a bit apprehensive about doing more multi-pitch, but in the end she decided to tackle that head on, picking not just any multi-pitch but a very long one with a big walk in! We set out in the dark the next morning, heading for Esméralda. It was an exhausting 13 hour day, with 8 hours actually on the route, but there was no major drama and we both had fun.
Needless to say the following day was a rest day! I found some sweet chestnuts which I toasted and put in a potato salad, yum.
When we first arrived in Corsica it was early November. The place was pretty deserted, with not many tourists around, and the conditions were perfect for climbing. But after our first week there, the weather started to get a lot more unsettled and we had to sit out some really wet days. It got cold too, with a bit snow falling in the mountains. It was clear that winter was starting to set in.
We began to get a bit frustrated with the weather, especially since whenever we looked at the forecast for Spain we saw a run of clear sunny days. Our plan had been to continue on from Corsica to the more southerly Italian island of Sardinia, and then catch a ferry onwards to Barcelona from there. But after checking the long range forecast and reviewing the seasonal average conditions for these islands, we thought better of it and booked a ferry to Toulon, from where we planned to drive to Spain.
Meanwhile, we still had a week or so left in Corsica. On one overcast day we went to do some roadside sport climbing. As I stepped off the ground on the warm-up, I somehow trapped a nerve in my neck and was plunged into agonising pain. It was really weird and just went away of its own accord eventually, but I couldn’t climb that day so just belayed Emily as she ticked her project. We decided to leave it there so headed back to the van early, and I thought that since I hadn’t had much exercise that day, I’d take my bike for a spin up the valley.
In my haste to get going, I didn’t really think it through properly and decided to just go ‘fast and light’. I wore only a t-shirt and a thin base layer, and took no food or water. I think I thought that I’d only be out for a short while, but once I got going I was pretty keen to make the ~13km to the car park at the top of the valley. On the way up my body was generating plenty of heat to keep warm, but I did start to get a bit hungry and thirsty and to have doubts. Eventually I stopped at a bridge about 1km shy of my target, and decided that was probably far enough. I’d reached snow patches so it was pretty cold, and I was hungry for sure. I went down to the river and slurped up some of the icy water.
I hopped back on my bike and started rolling downhill, and instantly understood that I was about to get very cold. Soon it became quite a struggle to squeeze the brakes, and I had to stay focused because there were many corners and big drops to the side of the road. I was in a deserted valley and suddenly it felt like quite a serious situation. On the way up I’d seen one or two cars driving the other way but there were none around now. Every so often I stopped to try to rewarm my hands in my armpits, and was literally yelling “come on! keep going!” at myself as I went. I’ve heard stories of people who have hypothermia just sort of sitting down and ‘going to sleep’, and was afraid of what might happen if I allowed myself to dawdle.
Eventually I turned yet another a corner and finally saw the van. My whole body was tingling and vibrating involuntarily, which I’ve never experienced before. I collapsed through the door and whimpered at Emily, put on all the clothes I could find and curled up in a ball in a sleeping bag while she made me some tea. I won’t be making that mistake again!
Next we headed south east to the Aiguilles de Bavella. There’s a lot of climbing in this region, but we weren’t sure if the weather would really let us sample any of it. Still, we thought that it would be nice to get a change of scenery and take a look around, even if we couldn’t do much climbing.
We’d been particularly drawn by one of the most famous multi-pitches on the island, a route by the Petit brothers named Jeef. After a day’s sport climbing followed by two extremely wet days, it looked like we might just have a weather window to try it. For efficiency we scoped out the walk-in the day before, since Corsican approaches can be pretty tricky to find. We stopped when we got to the river crossing. We could see where to go, but with the amount of water that had been coming down the river had swelled and was impassable (at least without getting wet). We headed back to the van and hoped that it would subside by the next morning.
The next day we rose at 5 to give ourselves maximum time. At first light we reached the river and were happy to see that it had dropped quite a bit, so we could make the crossing. Once on the route we dispatched the first couple of pitches and were at the start of the crux pitch, which features a single 7b move which I failed to do but could pull past easily.
In order to allow me to lead a 7a+ pitch later on, without us having to turn the rope over, I decided to try to run this pitch into the next one. This was a poor decision. Since the two pitches wind around a bit, I knew I’d get pretty bad rope drag but decided to do it anyway. At the belay I was out of sight of Emily. I called out that she could start climbing, and soon felt the rope go tight, meaning she’d fallen off that tricky first move. After a short while it went slack and then tight again, and I heard a piercing scream. Shit.
Not really sure what to do, I waited to see if she would start moving again. She didn’t. We attempted to shout at each other but I couldn’t really hear anything apart from nondescript hollering. After waiting quite a long time I decided that I had to do something else. I didn’t have very much rope left at my end, but decided to tie Emily off to the anchor, untie from my side of the rope, and abseil down it to try to see what was going on.
Fortunately, after going down about 10m I could see Emily and we could talk to each other. She told me that she had hit her ankle on the rock during the second fall, it was really painful and she couldn’t put any weight on it. Clearly we had to abandon the climb.
We formulated a plan. Emily had pulled up a short distance above the anchor so couldn’t clip into it, but was within reach of two separate bolts and managed to attach herself to them. She then untied and I pulled the rope up to where I was and did a couple of abseils to get to her. As I had traversed I had to do a bit of a pendulum but it was OK since the rock was slabby so I could run along it to move horizontally, and eventually I was able to throw the ends of the rope to her so she could pull me over.
From there, we could easily abseil to the ground, but still needed to do the walk-out with a sprained ankle. We put as much weight as possible into my bag and Emily hobbled down very slowly, spending a lot of time sliding over rocks on her bum. We got there eventually, and I felt grateful that we’d had the accident early on, with plenty of daylight to spare.
The belay at the start of the pitch that Emily fell off is just above an overlap in the rock face. The amount of drag meant that I couldn’t keep the rope very tight, and there was also a lot of rope out. So when she fell, it stretched quite a bit. It all happened quite quickly so we don’t know for sure, but we think that the rope probably stretched enough that Emily fell past the overlap, with the rope running over it. This would have caused her to swing in forcefully to the rock below, which is probably why she hit her ankle so badly. I definitely feel culpable for this, given it was my decision to run the pitches together! A lesson learned the hard way…
Needless to say, that was the end of our climbing in Corsica. We only had a couple of days left before the ferry anyway, so we wound our way slowly back up to the port. En route we had probably the best meal of the whole trip next to a cosy open fire at a restaurant called U Tavanincu.
We boarded the ferry to Toulon and then started the drive down to Catalonia, unsure about how soon Emily would be able to climb again.
I’ll continue the story in Part 2!