Climbing Petit Verdon

It was time to do some more climbing, so I packed up and made my way to Switzerland where Tobias suggested climbing their “Petit Verdon;” a home game for him. I had heard about routes there for the past few weeks and was also pretty curious to finally get a crack at it myself. We started the weekend off with some relaxed camping at Walensee where we set a mini slackline up. We brunched and slacked pretty much the whole morning before we realized how late it was getting and quickly packed everything up, dropped the tent and jumped into the car to meet up with his buddy, Fritz. We parked at the gorge entrance and packed cooking and climbing  gear into backpacks. The approach was short but packed a punch, conquering a few hundred meters of altitude over a short distance. The gorge earned the nickname petit Verdon because the climbing routes began at the top of the face with an abseil down and climb back up as in the real Verdon gorge. We met up with Fritz at the top of the 30-40 minute hike and headed over to the edge of the cliff. An old dead tree jetting out of the rock wall marked the entrance of the first route, something easy to warm up before trying a more challenging route. It was a grade 5 route (UIAA or French 5?? I cant remember!) Either way, I figured I shouldn’t have any problems with a 5 in either system and I happily accepted the honor of the first route. We set up the belay anchor which Fritz checked, double checked and triple checked; I should mention that he is deathly afraid of heights and uses climbing to try to overcome that. He was surprised that I had no qualms about the 200 meters of air between my butt and the ground as I tied into the belay and positioned myself to get belayed down. Tobias lowered me along the route, I tried to keep an eye out for the bolts on the way down as well as an hourglass shape in the rock marking the “start” of the route. I was supposed to give a shout when I reached the start so they knew to stop lowering me. The cliff was slightly overhanging, making it impossible to see each other. He lowered me further and further and further. I never saw an hourglass nor a stand marking the start; after a short time I didn’t see any bolts either anymore. There was a small ledge about 3 or 4 meters further down with a little bit of plants/greens growing out of it. I figured that had to be it and called out but didn’t stop right away. I was now past the little ledge, the rope was hung over a little belly of rock and I was hanging in mid air with no contact to the concave rock below the belly. I hung there for a few, not sure if they would lower me further or what. I couldn’t see any kind of indication of previous rock climbers there: no bolts, no chalk markings or marbleized holds. The rock looked quite virgin there actually. I realized that I would have to just make do with where I was and tried to swing myself over to the rock. The first few attempts were not successful; the yellow and grainy limestone just crumbled away from my fingertips each time I swung over. I watched the morsels of choss fall away silently below me. I knew I would have to try to be very static in my movements once I got a grip that would hold. Swinging again to the wall I managed to find a hold that allowed me to pull my body over to the rock and position my feet onto some precarious bumps in the wall. It was clear to me that I was not longer on the route and had to figure my own solution out. I first tried to find some better rock to the left, traversing delicately across the wall, but the conditions worsened. I traversed back to the right and found a little channel with precariously placed blocks of rock. I hoped that the rocks would be more or less securely lodged into position but in truth they were not very stable. Nevertheless, I knew I would be able to climb this section somehow. I started up the channel with gentle stemming and pressing. The rocks wobbled sometimes giving me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach but I moved along the slightly overhanging corner nicely. A little bit of a tree root was sticking out of the channel and seemed to be the only solid hold thus far. I used it as a foot hold and thrust my right arm into a crack, hooking 2 fingers behind one of the clamped rocks. It was a relatively secure hold and stand and gave me a chance to assess the situation and collect myself again. Straight up were more, bigger loose blocks wedged into an overhanging corner. The right looked like a mess and on the left was the rounded, belly-like rock I was just below. I quickly realized that my rope was actually stuck under the belly which must have happened after the traverse, when I began to ascend the corner. I had been concentrating so intently on the loose, dangerous rocks that I didn’t realize my rope got hooked up. I estimated to be about 5 meters to the right of the perpendicular where I had started out. The rope now led down, around the potbelly to the left and was pulled taut. I tried to hold tightly and move my hips from the wall to loosen the rope, hoping to swing it around the belly and back into plumb above me. No chance. I could feel Tobias pulling the rope in as soon as I tried to free it up: the tighter rope was pulling me downwards which I had to compensate by using more strength to maintain my hold and stand. After about 10 minutes of not moving and trying to find a solution, it became painfully clear that I didn’t actually have any options. Downclimbing was impossible, climbing further up was not an option either as my safety rope was pulling me down. I knew that if couldn’t hold on any more or Toby started trying to “haul” me up, it would tear me from the rock and I would fall down and swing a good 15 meters to the left and slam against the wall. That was, of course, the best case scenario. More likely would be that the jagged rock would cap the rope during the pendulum swing with my weight on it: that would be the last thing I would live to see. I actually considered untying the safety rope to swing it around the rock but knew there would be no way of tying back in with one hand whilst holding the rock. I was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. I felt some tugging on the rope which was pulling my hips away from the wall. I was praying that the guys were not preparing to try to hoist me up, something we had joked about doing if we get into a section we weren’t able to climb. I just continued to hold tight and think, think, think. There was no chance of communicating with the guys and I realized that this might very well be it for me. I was fucked. After around half an hour standing on the root and holding with only the right arm, I started thinking about how much reserve strength I actually had in me: it was impressive to know you can hold on for dear life if needs be. My mind wandered a little, thinking about my family and how disappointed they would be with me if I managed to kill myself up here; I felt guilty that my mistake might cause them pain. The only real solace so far was the fact that the guys had not begun trying to pull me up. I took my surroundings in; it was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful here. The sun was getting lower and cast magnificent lighting on the valley below. It was nearing 50 minutes to an hour that I had been clinging to the wall as I became aware of something happening above me. I called out, hopeful, to Tobias but heard nothing back. I focused my attention on what was above me and called out again. I can not even begin to describe the feeling of hearing him answer back. I actually got goosebumps from it… a wave of relief flushed over me and I snapped back to reality. He lowered himself a little further and I called out that I needed a lot of slack in the rope. I couldn’t see him but could explain what the problem was. He called Fritz on his phone to loosen the tension on the lead rope, enabling me to swing it loose from the belly with his help and over to, more or less, plumb from my current position. I could now continue climbing upwards; after about 10 more meters I reached the stand marking the beginning of the actual route where Tobias was waiting for me. He called Fritz again giving him the green light to begin belaying again and saying everything was fine. I easily climbed up the actual route, reaching the top in no time flat. I was pretty well fried mentally after that experience. Now that’s what I call a gnarly 5er route! I opted to be the photographer the rest of the evening. After the guys each climbed 2 routes, we set up a little pick-nick and cooked up some well earned dinner before hiking back to the cars in the moonlight.

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