Climbing in Ariège, midi Pyrenees – France

Cheval de Mérens

The Cheval de Mérens runs freely. It seems, that the world here was still a fine place to stay in.

 

Ariège lays about 100 km away from Toulouse in the middle of the Midi-Pyrénées. There are about 2000++ sports-climbing routes in the area to keep you busy. I’ve never heard about this place – not in print, and not digitally. We happened to be just passing by as we took the exit on the motorway just before Toulouse and headed towards Foix. After 4 hours driving in non stop rain, we were finally out from Asturias and the Basque country and were quite astounded how blue a sky could look like. 

I had been flicking the pages of the Grimper edition 1993?? It has a long list of existing climbing areas in France. A great enhancement to the guidebooks, to know what else is stored up in the area, while we were still on discovery modus. We had a few options. Gorge du Tarn, Marseilles or La Balene before turning up north. One more time sun and sea, before facing the winter. But the chauffeur was tired, and it had stopped raining. Toulouse caught my eye. So many areas clustered in just one region. It couldn’t be so wrong.

We then made a plan: Stop here for the night, check out one crag the same evening and then continue driving the next day. (Signs you’re a climbing junkie)

Two weeks later, we thought it was high time to leave before it snows heavy. I didn’t think either that this place was worthy of an article, until we left. Funny how things turn. Funny.

We found ourselves in one the only camp ground that was opened all year through in central Surba. Everyone else had their doors tightly shut. WTF? It was just October! (But this is the Pyrenees)  I was a bit hesitant to put up the big tent as the nights were already frosty (in the mountains), there was this terrible wind (and storm) and I didn’t want to clear a tent in any rain after fleeing from changeable Asturias. But without the tent, we would’ve had no shelter from the wind. Without the camp ground, no shower. So we built it up. (my thoughts lingered again back to the question – when were we ever going to get a van? )

The first night was freezing cold. 4°c, windy, showers too cold for my taste. A wooden chalet costed 600 € the week. How comforting to know, we would be paying just 10€/2P per night. I wanted to leave straight the next morning and head for warmer regions. I crawled early into my sleeping bag. Shivering.

Camping

Wash day when it rains

 

With free wi-fi access, and great hints and links from the host that same evening, I found myself blinded by a map of climbing areas, all clustered and filled with topos under my sleeping bag. It seemed like this place had been existing forever, and nobody (back home) has ever spoken about it. I downloaded the Rockfax App and started combining the information I found there with the one from the local alpine club. After reassuring ourselves that it was the crag we wanted to see the next day, I paid for full access and topos. Armed with a good french dictionary, we headed out.

Calames

We made our first stop in Calames . It reminded me somewhat of the climbing style in Jungelbuch in Austria. Crimpy, compact limestone, some lightly overhanging and bouldery. And SUN!! We made our tries on the variant next to Saucisse grillée a 6b+ that has a hard start off and gets better the higher you get and Zélopithèque 7a with wonderful moves. A crimpy start and a run out at the top awaits you. Calame is a sunny venue, but breezy winds makes it bearable to climb. Popular in the weekends and for some sectors, helmets would be good when the crowd comes in.

Calames

Sector les Grottes – Calames

Alliat

The weather promised to be good, and there seemed to be great potential in the areas. Some people we met the day before said…oh you will have to see this, this and that before you go. So, another night had to come in.

Most of the sectors in Alliat lies on the eastern face of the valley which makes it a good venue to escape from the sun in the early afternoon.  If you have been wondering why you bought an 80m rope and never made full use of it, then despair no more. Many sectors have an exact 40m route to offer, some of them proves to be the best climbs in the Tarascon-sur-Ariège region.

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For us, it became one of our favourite places to hit. There were many types of climbing in each sector. Our first visit on a somewhat dodgy day was to the sector Passe Muralles. Long, vertical climbing with everything can be found in Sabou, 7a, a 40m route – 5 stars! No less. The routes left and right were no shorter. Good friction and conditions here in the afternoon. Shorter but not less beautiful, is the sector to the immediate right.

 

La Livre

Le Livre, left sector

Le Livre, with the furthest access looks just like an open book, bolted and carved in stone. Some of it’s really tough 6b+ s can put you on a test piece. Volute, an overhanging 7c, has long run-outs in between and the crux lays just after the little roof, just when you think its over. The easy and comfortable base of the crag makes this surely a popular place to visit, suitable also if you are planning a family day out.

La Sablier

La Sablier – not very comfortable to belay but grand views into the valley.

I did wonder why La Sablier wasn’t mentioned in the App. It looked so good. If you are feeling adventurous and the overhanging Tufa wall appeals to you, you’ll probably do what we did. We had to take a look. The access up is long, steep, scratchy, tiring and the base is quite uncomfortable. It was more like, why was I doing this on my vacation? The routes starts from 7a and turns quickly into a 7c+ or 8a. And no, even if it does look like it is sheltered from rain, it isn’t. The climbing is unforgivingly tedious, on endless underholds, some tufas and comes mostly with a second pitch.

Genot

Genot lies high above the crags of Alliat and overlooks a peaceful valley just after a small farm house. Its idyll invites a day of climbing with ambience, even though you know at the back of your mind that some of the limestone routes there are chipped. Theres an intimidating cave to climb on and plenty of routes left and right  of the cave with easier grades. Its south sided and gets plenty of sun. We made two attempts to climb there but it was so hot we had to turn back.

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Genot – has the prettiest ambiance in town.

Sinsat

We had a day when it rained cats and dogs.Temperatures dropped to zero in the valleys, and the peaks were lightly snow powdered. It was a great opportunity for us to finally get to climb in Samba Pati in Sinsat the next day. If the rocks weren’t so lose I would have given this sector a few stars. The last 2 routes in the sector  Le combat ordinaire 6c+ and C’est comment qu’on freine 7a had some really fine moves. We pulled out a few loose rock in Espéranza 6a+, so do take heed while climbing it. Great moves, poor rock. A shame. It must’ve also been a favourite hangout of the local donkey from the valley. He left traces everywhere.

Sinsat

The great walls of Sinsat – bolted from the top to bottom. Take note of the bird bans they have at certain periods

 

Sinsat

Samba Pati

Samba Pati – Actually, the routes are better and longer than it looks.

We took a look at other sectors like Baychon, central areas of Sinsat, Auzat, But found it too hot to climb. Winter would have been a better period to get there. La grotte de Sabart receives plenty of shade and is great for those who seek cool, overhanging, roofs. However, its pretty loud in the weekdays when the scrape yard below starts working.

Le Sabbart

The caves of Le Sabart. Short access and rain sheltered (as long as it doesn’t seep, you’re fine)

We spent a hot afternoon in Les Toulousains in Ornulac. It gets shade after 2.30 pm. But being sun trapped, the crag took a considerable time to cool down. 10 minutes makes this a super quick access from the car up above some ropes (VF) to the crag base. And then this …

Les Toulousains

A soft bed of goat droppings below the wall. It reminded me instantly of Isili in Sardenia. Yeah, but we climbers share the nature with the others in peace. Don’t we?

There was time for only one route that seemed to be so popular it shone. Clem foutée a 7b+ that is so bitter and polished. No chances for me to even try the single moves. I didn’t feel comfortable warming up in this and I was doing a bad clean up job, my foot slipping off each time I placed it. Duuh. The slab on the other side is newly bolted and offers routes on easier grades. (5- 6a)

Les Toulousains

Clem foutée

 

Summary

So you see, never trust a plan. There were so many crags to climb on in the area, we were just scratching on the surface. If you’re sensitive about noise pollution, you might find the busy RN20 road disturbing. Otherwise, the sectors are quickly and easily accessed from the parking lots. Ariège seemed to be well established for the british climbers.

Lodges, apartments and rooms to let are quickly found in the internet. The crags have been existing for a while, with new routes appearing here and there. The region is not so “trendy” like the ones over the border to Spain, but there are really some great climbs in all sectors we visited. Not only will you find routes on compact limestone, but overhangs, roof climbing, granite climbs, and long, steep vertical climbs too. Novice climbers will find a good array of routes in the area, hard movers won’t be disappointed in the caves and overhanging sectors. Since a majority of the sectors are sun trapped, you will have to be sun resistant to come here.

Gneis and Granite areas can be found in Aston, Aix les Thermes (en Castel), Auzat.

There are pretty and wild little valleys to discover, prehistorical caves, spoulga and castles to visit on rest days. Alex from Luftschubser wrote a nice article in german about visiting the castle in Montsegur. A new ToDo next time round. Small unimportant mountain reservoirs or lakes and the high Port de Lers  are some nice places to make a drive to. Its pretty in Autumn when the leaves makes the mountains glow in yellow and red, well combined with granite. Some corners offers some of the most outstanding motives for the landscape photographer. I wished I had spent more time on the photos.

 

The Tarascon Valley

Coming here at the right time in autumn will put you in awe. A paradise for landscape photographers

 

Ètang de Lers

Ètang de Lers

 

Valle de Aston

Ètang de Aston

Best time to go:

Late autumn can be a great time when the caves don’t suffer from too much seepage, and when you find it bearable to climb in the sun.

Good planning is required on sunny days. You will have to get up early to enjoy climbing in the morning shade before it gets too hot, or look out for Sabart, Alliat, Aston, Lordat or En Castel for cooler options in the afternoons.

Guidebook

  • The Rockfax App (gives a compilation of main areas. Smaller or less frequented areas are not included) worked great for spontaneous stopovers without having to buy the whole book. The printed Rockfax Guidebook from 2012 is also available in e.g. Calames. (There’s a small sign on the access to the crag that points to the house where you can get some editions) or the book shops.
  • see below “useful Links”
  • Local Authors with ancient literature:
    • “Escalade en Ariège – autour de Bédeilhac”  from 2008
    • “Escalade en Ariège – Le Quié de Sinsat” from 2008
    • “Escalade en Ariège -La Dent d’Orlu” 2002
    • “Le granit d’Auzat” 1999

Rope

70m is a minimum, 80 m to climb in some of the longer routes in Alliat. 15-16, better 18 (for long routes) quickdraws.

Season

Autumn, winter, Spring

Accommodation

Campsites are found all over to suit your taste. (By the city, by the lake, by the river, in the mountains, by the road, etc) – they all close after end of September. There’s only a few year round campsites (e.g. in Foix, Surba and Auzat). The roads to the crags are straight forward, and Foix is about a 15 min drive away from e.g. le Sabart.

Rooms and rental apartments in Calames or Ornaluc, or more choices in Ax les Therms. B&B everywhere. Prices, pretty impressive.

Useful links:

Restdays and other activities

  • There’s an amazing amount of caves to discover, if you’re very much into prehistoric drawings and findings. Grotte NiauxGrotte Beidelhac are two of the most popular ones.
  • I didn’t expect to find myself on any castles in this visit, but it was a great shelter when the rain came. Much better than the tent. Don’t miss: Chateaux de FoixChateaux de Montsegur (hike), Chateaux Miglos (ruine)
  • Skin scrub those dead skins off  in Thermal baths in Ax-les-Thermes (of course, climbers are allowed to wear rubber hand gloves too, not just the bath cap)
  • go Bouldering (there are 3 areas in the region)
  • Wild horses? Oh yes, these Cheval de Mérens run about freely in the nearby mountainous regions. They are usually shy and avoid tourists, but we had some problems when 30 horses came after our bag of goods at the picnic bench. Beautiful creatures. Almost brought one home instead, after  Sanchez broke my heart.

Picture Gallery

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