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Reviews - Thu 17th Jan 2013 - France: Ariege by Rockfax - Heason Events

France: Ariege by Rockfax

17th Jan 2013

 

Rockfax website. Retails at £24.95. 312 pages.

This is a guidebook I have long been awaiting. I’ve been lucky enough to have known the co-authors John and Anne Arran for many years, and it was with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I took on board the news three or four years back that they were upping sticks from Sheffield to the Ariege. Sadness as I’d miss them, but excitement as it would be a great excuse to go spend some time in the mountains. They’ve been there for a while now, and I’ve been down on three occasions totalling 7 weeks (lucky me!). As a kid I used to head over to Europe virtually every summer with my parents and brother in our campervan. By and large we’d end up in the Pyrenees. They were as beautiful as the Alps, if not quite as grand, but were significantly less busy during the holidays. I’m pleased to say that this is still the case today. We spent 2 weeks in August there two summers ago and were delighted with how quiet the area was. Spending the month of September there a couple of years prior to that the place was a ghost town! Anyway, what of the climbing and what of the guide?

It’s brill. It’s inspirational, thorough, well researched and has been a key factor in persuading us to head out there again this summer! Below are a few words I wrote after our last trip and did nothing with at the time. They shed a little light on the area, and also include some interesting stats on the climbing in the area. Now I think we are pretty lucky living here in the Peak with so many crags within spitting distance, but I actually wonder whether the Ariege is better provisioned than the Peak! It certainly is for good quality sport climbing, that’s for sure! In summary, within 20 miles of Tarasconne, the town at the gateway to the Ariege there are 76 crags with 108 sectors!

This Rockfax guide covers the following crags:

Arabaux | Roc des Abeilles | Le Carol | Roquefixade | Lavelanet | La Roche Ronde | Roc a Steph | Calemes | Roc de Sedour | Sabart | Alliat | Genat | Saut de l’Ours | Arbiech | Sibada | Baychon | Goulier | Auzat | Pic Rouge de Belcaire | Les Toulousains | Sinsat | Verdun | Appy | Ax-Le-Thermes | Dent d’Orlu

That’s a pretty varied mix, from quiet and picturesque granite bouldering circuits in the Orlu valley, to the awesome multi-sectored sport climbing mecca of Auzat, to the 20+ pitch mountain routes on the mghty and imposing Sinsat, and the iconic Dent d’Orlu. There are sections on other stuff to do there – wild swimming, mountain biking, road biking, snow shoeing, skiing etc etc.

I’d say if you are going to buy one foreign guidebook this year then this should be the one.

 

 

Here are a few blog pieces I wrote after previous trips to the area:

 

http://www.heason.net/blog/2009/09/01/Chez_Arran/

http://www.heason.net/blog/2009/06/05/ChezArran/

 

And here are the unpublished words that I wrote after my last trip:

 

3 years ago some good friends of ours moved out to the Ariege region of the French Pyrenees. We were sad to see them go, but took the opportunity to visit them shortly after they’d arrived. They bought a working farm in a quiet hamlet a few miles from the popular town of Tarascon. The farm
comprises a large and ramshackle collection of barns and outbuildings as well as the more substantial house itself. Despite now having visited three times for a total of seven weeks I still can’t mentally visualise the whole place! Our first trip was for a whole month and we lived in a building site,
managing a healthy mix of diy help and holiday fun. This latest trip was definitely a holiday trip – the only diy I did was to bang some nails into a telegraph pole to hang some towels on near the newly installed solar showers.

The owners, our friends, are John and Anne Arran. They’re both internationally acclaimed climbers, but like most elite sportspeople, they are regular people underneath their talents, and good friend because of it! When we contacted them to see about heading down this August we had a few
unusual criteria. They are slowly renovating, modifying and jollifying the various buildings into a collection of respectable and very nice accommodation units for rental to the general public. However, we wanted to camp. We were travelling with two other families so were a group of 6 adults
and 7 kids, and their units were definitely not that big and were already booked for most of August anyway. We also knew that they have the land and had toyed with the idea of developing camping as an option.

They are not officially offering camping as an option as yet, but were keen to take us up on our request to test things out. We duly arrived at Chez Arran having taken a few days over the drive south.

Some facts about the drive:

 

It’s about 10-12 hours of driving if you go the most direct route from Calais.

Norfolk Line (now DFDS) charge very little for the crossing – about £60 return, but it’s a 2 hour crossing that lands you in Dunkerque, not Calais which adds 20 minutes or so to the time.

Tolls are a killer, but they aren’t half fast!

We took a decent satnav with us this time with European maps and it made the driving a breeze. This website allows you to calculate your journey time and cost, including tolls: http://www.autoroutes.fr/en/routes.htm

French aires and service stations are plentiful and very well appointed meaning you can virtually always stop within 10 minutes or so of needing to.

Formula One hotels dot the whole country and are cheap (normally around €35 for a triple room). They all have a rack of booklets in their foyers which have all their hotels listed. You can also upload their locations to most satnavs.

John and Anne were of course out climbing when we arrived, but the place was ready for us. They’d erected a gazebo with three sides of insect netting, a table and 6 chairs, a second picnic table, two stand-up solar showers, a stand pipe, and two porta-loos to supplement the fixed pit toilet in the
grounds. To top things off, they’d even run an extension cable to us and provided a fridge and socket for charging phones and playing music. Perfect. The ground sloped which meant we had to pitch our three tents fairly close to each other at the bottom of the orchard field where they’d put us, but we
all knew each other well. Presumably if they go down this route they will invest a little time with a mini digger and landscape s few terraces into the slope. Now that they’ve been there a few years there are currently 3 rentable units of accommodation, all of which were full whilst we were
there, a swimming pool, covered veranda and sun-deck, BBQ area, badminton / volleyball area, indoor climbing wall, and covered table tennis area. Plenty for the kids to entertain themselves – in fact after a few days one of them asked us why we needed to ‘go on an outing every day when we have so much to do here?’ Good question I suppose, but then that’s the real beauty of the place! Rather than describe how good it is for an active holiday I figured the best way would be to compile a basic diary of what we did. I’ve put together a Google Map with place-markers and routes for runs, walks and bike
rides (they can also rent you bikes) to give an idea of how much scope there is (Here’s the link to the map: http://g.co/maps/5z5y6). So here goes:

Sun 7th Aug – Arrive to find John & Anne out climbing. Share a take-away pizza from town. Weather overcast, but warm.

Mon 8th Aug – Chilled out morning by the pool. Drove the canoe down to the closest get-in on the river (about half a mile, if that) and went for a paddle / float down to a new playground and put-in / take-out about a mile and a half downstream. Shopped at decent supermarkets in Tarascon. Ellie and
Mark arrived  at tea time, Andy & Hayley arrived at 2am after breaking down en route. Fast run with John along the river. Weather sunny spells and warm.


Tue 9th Aug -  Acclimatisation day for everybody. Went and explored one of the caves a short walk from the camp. A short through cave. Kids burned off some energy at the new municipal playground on the back road to Tarascon.

Wed 10th Aug – Went climbing at Auzat (pronounced awe-zat). Perfect place for kids and beginners. Big expanse of stepped granite slabs and walls with bolts literally everywhere. Spent a few hours in the late afternoon at a beautiful swim spot a few miles further up the valley. Despite the hazard
signs by many of the rivers we have spent a lot of time in them and never experienced any hydro induced level changes. Good run along the river with Hayley.

Thu 11th Aug – Big walking day. Off relatively early via Les Cabannes past Aston all the way to the end of the valley (a few miles of fairly bumpy gravel road to the end). Very picturesque. Then an amazing round-walk up to the Etangs de Fonargenta. Great walk for the kids. Plenty to see and do
along the way with stunning lakes full of fish to swim and paddle in as an incentive. Would make a world-class wild camping spot. Also the possibility of spending the night in the Refuge de Rulhe at 2185m and possibly heading up the amazing looking Pic de Ruhle at 2783m.

Fri 12th Aug – Rest day after yesterday’s exertions. Spent most of it around the campsite.

Sat 13th Aug – Run with Hayley and Ellie in the morning. 45 minute drive to a picnic spot and car park from where it’s 750m of height gain to get to the top of Mount Fourcat (2001m). Bit of a slog up, but good views once out of the trees. Took the marked downhill singletrack on the way down which was a
lot of fun to run and would be even more fun to ride. Into Ax Les Thermes to check out the cable car. Disappointed to find it shut for lunch between 12.30 and 13.45. €22 for a family of 4 for the cable car and the chair lift ride to the very top at 2,200m. Went for a short walk to a café up there.
Soph and some of the kids walked back down to the middle station. Very good looking downhill mountain biking. €90 to hire a bike and all the kit for the day (presumably lift pass too). Pizzas by the cable car station for tea.

Sun 14th Aug –Climbing with John and Anne in the morning at crag on the opposite side of the valley to Aliat. Great. Onsighted a 7a+. Afternoon back by the river above Auzat. Jumped the footbridge on the down-river side. Exhilarating.

Mon 15th Aug – Big run with John and Mark in the morning. 2.5 hours locally with a good deal of bush-whacking. Lovely forested running and great in the heat. Took the canoe out in the afternoon and ferried people back and forth so that everybody had a good go. Not the whitest of water, but good fun
nonetheless and very accessible. Rain in the evening. Cosy underneath our gazebo.

Tue 16th Aug – Day by the river in the Vicdessos valley a few miles upriver from Auzat. 38 degrees. Took ropes and harnesses and set up zip wires for the kids. Climbing in the evening with Ellie at Aliat. Amazing crag 20 minutes from camp.

Wed 17th Aug – Spent the day chilling at the camp. Went into Tarascon for the weekly market in the morning. Took the kids up to the Spoulgas for their tea, about a 15 minute walk from the camp. Dusty, but spectacular. Toasted marshmallows on an open fire.

Thu 18th Aug – Andy and Hayley left at 9am. The rest of us headed up to the Vicdessos valley, turning right just after leaving Marc, to park the car at the road-head and follow a footpath about 20 minutes up the valley to one of the nicest swimming spots we’ve ever seen at Cascade L’Artigue. Brilliant
canyoning potential with two routes mapped out at the start of the walk on a big sign. Pizzas at the more down-market of the two eateries in the centre of Vicdessos. Very good. Beer in town with John and Anne in the middle of a live Flamenco display under the clock tower, and a late-night market. Nice atmosphere.

Fri 19th Aug – Ellie and Mark headed off at midday. We went to the Orlu vally for a spot of bouldering on the awesome Font-style circuits on the granite boulders in the shady trees. Tried swimming in the river, but it was too cold! Spent a few hours in Ax Les Thermes doing the café thing. Then
back for a fire with John and Anne and the other guests. Note that on the Dent d’Orlu is an amazing sounding route called the Les Enfants de la Dalle, 1,100m of bolted granite climbing (see this article for more: http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=227) – something for the next
trip.

Sat 20th Aug – Headed off at 10.30. Stopped off at the Eiffel Tower for a picnic tea as the sun went down between 8 and 10. A lovely, lovely way to finish the trip. Drove a few more hours to a Formula 1 in Lille, just 45mins from the ferry tomorrow.

All in all a thoroughly good trip. We actually threw in a few days at Gorge du Tarn on the way down there to check out it’s potential for another summer destination. It seems that France has more than its fair share of amazing spots. At the Gorge we found what has to be the most idyllic river picnic
spot of all time complete with a shelving pebble beach, fresh water cray fish, deep water bouldering, and azure blue pools. Guess where we’ll be headed next summer!

The Climbing around Chez Arran:

Over the course of my three trips to the area John had waxed lyrical about the abundance of good climbing on the doorstep so I emailed him to ask him to actually quantify this. In true John fashion he put together a fairly comprehensive answer which I’ve reproduced below:


Hi Matt

Sorry for the delay in replying. Hope it isn't too late.

Not sure quite what you have in mind so I've drawn up a table of the easily accessible crags. Sectors will typically have between 10 and 50 routes each. Everything is calculated as from Tarascon, as it may be a little unfair to calculate it from Chez Arran!

Hope this gives you plenty to go on - let me know if it isn't clear or if you want any more direct quotes.

Cheers

John


John 

 

Miles (within) from Tarascon

Area

No. Separate Crags

Total No. Sectors

Rock

5

Ussat

1

1

Limestone

Ornolac

3

5

Limestone

Sinsat Falaises

6

6

Limestone

Sinsat I

4

9

Limestone

Alliat

10

10

Limestone

Niaux

5

5

Limestone

Baychon

4

6

Limestone

Sabart

1

2

Limestone

Sédour

4

4

Limestone

Calamès

1

12

Limestone

Roche Ronde

3

3

Limestone

Roc à Steph

2

2

Limestone

10

Sinsat II

4

4

Limestone

Urs

1

4

Limestone

Génat

5

8

Limestone

15

Appy

1

1

Gneiss

Aston

1

1

Gneiss

Auzat

5

8

Granite

20

Ruhle

5

5

Granite

Ax

3

3

Limestone

Orlu

5

5

Granite

Bassiès

4

4

Granite


So that’s a total of 76 different crags with 108 sectors!


And lastly, here’s a gallery of photos from the 3 trips:
https://picasaweb.google.com/112286189047296314441/ChezArran