I arrived in Gap, France in the dark of night. The thick fog covering everything, waited to reveal the charming land come sunrise. But for now, the van sped blindly around bends, through small, quaint French villages, and finally stopping at my ultimate destination: Céüse. Alone, I assembled my tent, unpacked my clothes, prepared dinner for one over a campfire, all while being completely submerged in the murkiness of the nighttime fog. In the distance, I saw the faint light of headlamps flickering in between trees from climbers finishing their climb and making their way back to the Les Guérins campsite. At last, I knew in which direction the rock of Céüse was, but the anticipation grew even more as I still couldn’t see through the mist and clouds and my mind was running away with colorful ideas of what was in store for me the following morning.
When I awoke the next morning and left my tent, it was as if I was in another world. The place I had envisioned the night before was entirely different in the daylight. I had my camp at the highest point of the grounds before the path up the mountain began, which was delightfully next to a horse paddock. As in the beloved 1938 movie, where a young Elizabeth Taylor awakens and steps out of her camper into a bed of flowers yet finds herself near paddocks, inhales the scent, and crys, “Ahhhh! Horses!”, so too are my nerves soothed by the familiar smells of grass, hay, and yes, even manure. But then I turn and in the distance I see the rock so far above me and I now cry, “Oh shit!”
Céüse is a beautiful monster, a multicolored striped stone of grey, ochre and steel blue limestone standing over me at 2,016m, looking down at the tiny camp. After a few minutes to reorient myself to reality, I prepared myself physically and mentally for the one hour approach just to the climbing crags of Céüse. It was September, the weather was hot during the day and freezing at night. In order to avoid climbing in the midday sun, we began the approach after lunch, killing time beforehand by playing friendly, yet really intense ping pong in the barn or exploring the town. The mistake all climbers make here is beginning the hike at a normal pace and fatiguing early. As a group we all started out together, making small talk, joking, and anticipating our first climb in this famous place, but very soon all of us started to spread out, the talking ceased, and our excitement turned into pain. This was the beginning of the second week of my trip. In the first week I had completed two days of scuba diving in Nice, two days climbing in the Gorges du Verdon, one day canyoning, and one day horseback riding. By now, my muscles were not entirely out of shape but slightly enervated. Yet, as I made my way up the snaking path, all I could think about was the agony I was feeling in my legs and wondering when it would end. I was realizing I was built more like a lizard than a mountain goat!
Finally after an hour, we broke through the forest and stood at the base of Céüse. With another 10 minutes walking up through the tall, golden strands of grass, we were standing at the base of the limestone rock face. Céüse is not a beginners crag, with long run-outs between one bolt and the next. The minimum grade there is a 6a yet they all feel immensely harder, making the warm-up just as tiring as the approach! If one normally climbs a 6c, attempt a 6b because the 6c will climb as a 7a. The rock is divided into 13 sections called, from left to right, Golots à Gogo, Dalles du Capeps, la Cascade, Thorgal, Face de Rat, Berlin, Biographie, Demi-lune, Un Pont sur l’infini, Les Maîtres du Monde, Grande Face, Nithsapa, and Natilik. Biographie, one of the most famous sport climbing pitches in the world for being the first recognized 9a+ ascent, was climbed by Chris Sharma in July 2001.
I was terrified starting my first climb there, not just because the pitches are long, requiring technique, strength, and endurance, but because of the history. I felt like I had to earn my place and prove myself worthy to climb among the great sport climber gods of Céüse. However, once I felt the white, powdery chalk between my fingers, my hands on the smooth, cold stone, and my toes balancing my entire body weight on one small crevice, I was calm, and for this reason, I climb.
I normally try to go on climbing vacations having a belay buddy already organized. However, Céüse, being a climber’s dream, seems to attract a lot of lone climbers, who hang by the bathroom, the only area where there are outlets and phone service, looking for a climbing partner. While washing-up one evening, I overheard a man speaking Italian while he was bending over the sink nearby as his phone was attached to the outlet behind the sink. On my way out, I introduced myself to him and we spoke for awhile. I was not enjoying climbing with the people of my group and I happily accepted his invitation to join him and two other Italian climbers he had also found in the bathroom! All three were much better climbers than I, all projecting 7c+, but it was wonderful to watch their graceful strength and technique as they scampered up the rock. Yet with the encouragement and patience of those three, I ended up climbing the highest grade I had ever attempted and finished my week at Céüse, like most climbers do: happy, humbled, grateful, and satisfied but with a burning desire to return and tackle the rock once more.