South of France: Calanques

Les Calanques, France - Exploring a climber's limestone oasis.

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With a slightly bruised ego (see Epic Failure post) and hungry for some warmer weather, we left Chamonix for the Verdon Gorge. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Verdon Gorge, I will explain it in one effective sentence: A canyon (or rather gorge) with massive limestone walls (upwards to 1300′) boasting “stiff” ratings and sustained climbing. Most routes are accessed by rappelling into the gorge, making this area quite committing. Often times, people refer to the Verdon Gorge as the French limestone version of Yosemite. Sold?

Calanque de Morgiou Crag

Calanque de Morgiou Crag

Nearing the Verdon Gorge, we came to the brutal realization that the weather was not cooperating with our quest for more temperate conditions. Being a Southern California native I am spoiled by fairly predictable weather, but my climbing partner was all the wiser and had many alternate plans for our next stop in lieu of the Verdon.

Enter the limestone playground, Les Calanques – about an hour or so due south, spanning more than ten miles along the Mediterranean located between Marseille and Cassis. Optimistic that Les Calanques fit our weather requirements, we pressed on. Upon arriving in Cassis, we tried to set up dirtbag headquarters at Camping les Cigales; however, it was closed and inaccessible. As it turns out, and as our guidebook neglected to mention, most campgrounds in Europe are closed during the winter and it is illegal to bivy or even sleep in your car (we learned the hard way – read on) within the parks. With only a few hours of sunlight remaining and the urge to climb after sitting in a car all day we headed over to , a crag with a sub ten minute approach – sleeping situation to be dealt with thereafter.

Darkness soon approached and we made the executive decision to bivy just outside of Marseille. Well, this is when you learn from someone else’s mistakes: It is illegal to bivy within the parks of Europe. We were prematurely woken up by two very kind French police officers. They were less concerned with the fact that we were illegally sleeping in the park and more concerned about our safety. Now informed that Marseille is an area where both car break-ins and general theft activity are frequent occurrences, they very adamantly suggested we high tail out of Marseille and sleep in our car somewhere else. We listened.

The following days involved less criminal activity on our part (we busted out our wallets and checked into a hotel), and more climbing. Our second day, we took a nice one hour walk to Calanque d’En Vau where we enjoyed a four pitch climb, Super Sirène (6b), a beautiful line with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. The trade winds, more formerly known as the Mistral, became a nuisance so we called it a day and headed back to our warm and very legal hotel room to clean up. We treated ourselves to a wonderful French seafood dinner before counting our zzzzs.

Super Sirène (6b) at Calanque d'En Vau

Super Sirène (6b) at Calanque d’En Vau

The pesky mistral winds did not let up by the next morning so we had to forego our original plans to climb the Nid d’aigle and sought out some wind protected single pitch climbing. This brought us to an overhung cave-like crag near Calanque de Sormiou. The climbs in this area were sustained, pumpy and tufalicious. We played around at this crag until our hands couldn’t hold any more and hiked back to the car. The winds were still howling and presented us with a decision to make – stay or go? We waited until morning to pull the trigger and headed home to Germany.

Calanque de Sormiou

Calanque de Sormiou

Les Calanques was a fun place to play on some pumpy limestone crags; however, I will definitely combine this with a trip to the Verdon in the future and probably in the warmer spring months.

Things to Know

Location

Cassis, France

Getting There

Fly or drive to Marseille, from Marseille take D559 east and follow signs for Cassis. There is a walking trail from Cassis, marked “Les Calanques” that takes you to the majority of the climbing areas.

Accommodations

It is illegal to sleep in your car and to bivy near the park, Camping les Cigales is located in Cassis and is only open March 15 – November 15. Visiting outside of these dates necessitates some advanced planning.  We highly recommend renting an apartment or villa which we learned is the way to go, or you can stay at the French equivalent of a hostel, a Gites d’etapes.

Recommended Guidebooks

  • Rock Climbing Europe, by Stewart M. Green – A good book covering the favorites of this area, but does not cover a large portion of crags.
  • Escalade, Les Calanques, by Gilles Bernard, Daniel Gorgeon, Christophe Kern, Bernard Privat – a comprehensive guidebook with 50% of proceeds going to retrofitting and establishing routes. This can be purchased in a variety of climbing stores and bookstores alike in Marseille or ordered here.

Theft

The area surrounding Les Calanques is flooded with thieves. A quick look down in parking areas for the crags will reveal a variety of window remnants from prior car break-ins. Make sure your car is empty of any visible objects and don’t leave anything in your car that you care about. Some people go as far as leaving their glove box open and windows down showing thieves that you have nothing they want. This makes having a hotel or villa more appealing – your stuff and excess gear is safe.

Best Time to Climb

Spring and Autumn. Summer is generally too hot and is exploding with tourists, while Winter can get a bit cold with the winds often making it incredibly uncomfortable and many accommodations are closed for the season.

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Ilana is a native of Southern California. She is an accomplished rock and ice climber and is the brains behind Thrillseekers Anonymous. Currently residing in Colorado, she is a Registered Surgical/Trauma Nurse, who can be found leading her own adventures on days off. Ilana is a sponsored athlete with GoMacro, WoolX, and an Arcteryx Denver ambassador. She has been featured in various media outlets including the February 2015 issue of ‘Climbing’ magazine, December 2013 issue of ‘Rock and Ice’ magazine, December/January 2013 issue of ‘Gripped Climbing’ magazine, Canyoneering: A Guide to Techniques for Wet and Dry Canyons (How To Climb Series) by Dave Black and Pasadena Magazine as well as a Climbing Expert on MTV’s Parental Control (Season 7 – “Heather”).

Ilana has written 110 articles for Thrillseekers Anonymous.

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