Im down in the flatlands, having bade farewell to the Pyrenees. The long hot drive over to the Ecrins, and again avoiding the peage tolls wherever possible.
I had met up with Emily in Seu d’Urgell and driven through Andora, which is a weird place. More petrol stations than I had seen in such a small place anywhere in the world. Cheap fuel though! We passed over the Pas de la Casa and dropped down into the french Ariege, Ax-les-Thermes and Orlu, home of the iconic Dent D’Orlu – the Tooth of the Wolf
Our goal was the classic Les Enfants de la Dalle (TDinf, 6a+ max, 25pitches, 940m) on the south-east face of the Dent d’Orlu. A long climb by anyones standards, and especially for Em. It has a reputation for being sun-baked, dangerous in rain (the first pitches forming the drainage for the face) and having a tricky decent, so we had to time it right and be ready.
We chose to spend a few days warming up on the rock, learning to move quickly and get slick on changeovers and rappels. We started on the lower reaches of the SE face, climbing the first five Pitches of ‘Rose‘ (6a, A0/6b, 470m, 12 pitches) before the weather closed in above us and rain threatened. It seemed like the Dent developed cloud before most of the surrounding mountains, which was odd as its not as tall as many of its neighbours (2222m). Rose has sections of very nice movement, although the route itself weaves an uninspiring-looking line through vegetation and ledges.
The next day we tried to find Pujol, a subsiduary buttress on the mountain, but mis-interpreted the approach instructions, started at the wrong parking and ended up bushwhacking into loose, overgrown terrain. There always seemed to be a big rock face just peeking through the trees, and a path just visible, although unmarked. Once we found a shotgun shell, so i think the faint trails were more likely rarely-used hunting routes. We retreated, sweaty and scratched, to the domestic pleasures of shopping and cold beer. In Ax-les-Thermes we discovered to our surprise that there was a street-performance festival that weekend, and caught Collectif Bim in one of the squares, exploring ideas for their site-specific performance later in the festival – laughing shrubberies, directions shouted down drains, games in the fountain and other vignettes were improvised while we lounged in the shade of a tree. Checking as many weather forcast sources as we could, it seemed like there was a high likelyhood of rain or thunderstorms the following night, and that the day after would be more stable and dry, albeit overcast (which might be a blessing)
The next day we worked out where we had gone wrong with Pujol and found a good, marked trail up to the crag. It offers clean, enjoyabe routes of around five pitches so we climbed Les Palharils (6c 110m, 4 pitches) in the morning, and resisted the temptation to start another, deciding to save our energy for the following day on the big route. We lay and read our books to Radiohead at the road-end parking, while supplies were loaded up for a heli-lift up to the refuge further up the valley. Again the Dent gathered thick cloud in mid-afternoon while the surrounding peaks seemed to remain clear. There was a pair of French lads planning to climb Les Enfants that day – I hope they found their way through the cloud alright as it seemed like visibility would be minimal! We were glad not to be up there that day.
The next morning we rose at 6am, ate well, racked up at the van to minimise baggage, and hiked up the steep slog to the base of the route for 8.30am. The sun had not yet risen onto the face, so we enjoyed the first two (V+) pitches in shade. Another pair arrived below us, and opted to climb the parallel route ‘Durendalle’ instead, racing up with a good amount of simulclimbing.
After the second pitch, it transpired that we had picked the only cloud-free day in the week to do the route. This was certainly a mixed blessing. While we didnt have to worry about rain, the sun was fierce. My feet dont like the heat and soon swole up to make my otherwise comfortable shoes tight – I soon needed to tape over a hot-spot on one heel, which plagued me for the remainder of the route. The heat made the climbing harder than it appeared on paper, but the rock is beautifully clean, the bolts just frequent enough to show the way without too much thought. We simulclimbed pitches 3-4 and 10-12 which kept us to a round 30mins per pitch. Whilst not by any means a speed record, it was steady and should allow us to reach the summit with time to descend in daylight. The climbing is sustainedly slabby, with only small ovelaps, invariably with good holds to pass. The crux 6a+ pitch 15 felt thin and balancy, and Em (with less reach than I) did very well to find another solution, using almost non-existent crimps to move past the long rock-over.
A couple of pitches later and we found some very welcome shade on the arete, the slab section (18 pitches) over, but still 7 pitches of knife-edge arete to climb, including short sections of 5c/+. Bolts here are less frequent so its useful to carry a few small/medium cams and be ready to sling spikes where they appear, so as to protect the second from pendulum falls. The exposure on the arete is surprising, with the main bowl of the SE face on your left, and the steep slabs of the east face on your right. Pitch 21, the last of any technicality, was one of the most enjoyable, up a short but steep arete, well endowed with cracks and positive small holds, but with a lot of air around you
After the pitches ended with a pair of easier sections, we kept simulclimbing up the scrambly but still very exposed ridge up to the summit. We hadnt accounted for this section to take so long, with many false summits and ‘bad steps’ to negotiate. The sunset developed through its golden and red phases, as a cloud inversion rolled in below and the impressive shard of the Dent itself glowed. Truly a cinematic moment, it was hard not to stop frequently to soak it in, but we were aware by then that we were against the clock for the summit and descent. The arete and ridge had eaten into our time more than we realised, and we were climbing slowly with the heat fatigue of the day. We reached the true summit just on sunset, providing a magical watercolour cloudscape behind pixie cairns. It would have been lovely to linger but we wanted to use the last of the daylight to get as far down the descent as we could.
The walkers path drops steeply down the north ridge to the col (signpost), from where a small track traverses under the east face to another col. By this time we needed headtorches. The night was calm, and still cloud-free, but we resigned ourselves to a slow descent as the route back to the southeast parking is notoriously hard to read. Many people walk off north to the walkers car-park, but that requires another vehicle to be in support. The start of the decent follows a rocky ridge eastwards (with occasional red dots for moral support) before dropping down thick meadowland on increasingly vague trails that appear and disappear at will. We missed the start of the meadows path the first time, following the ‘Josephine’ ridge trail too far. You have to cut down rightward at the vague col immediately after the high-point of the rocky ridge. There is no marking to show the way. Aware of the warnings to not drop down into the trees to early (and so get sucked into steep water-gullies, we continued until the visible signs fitted our memory of the landscape in daylight. In retrospect we still should have continued on another 200m or so before dropping into the trees, but at first we made good progress through open woods, and a dried up stream-bed. By this point however, Em’s slightly too-small trainers were killing her toes and she was making most progress on her bum and hands. We had become another of the parties to have an epic on this notorious descent. The vegetation grew thicker, and the ground steeper. We had to avoid rocky drops by cutting through adjacent woodland, we came across a fast-flowing stream and the going got even more challenging through high vegetation and more drops. But just as both our limits were being eroded, we stumbled out onto a path. The bushwhacking had taken hours, and it was already far into the night as we walked (or limped) endlessly down the welcome path. There is a lot of descent to make, even on the path, and it would have been a true nightmare if one missed it entirely by coming down the hill even earlier. Em negotiated large sections of the path backwards to ease the pressure on her toes, and eventually we made it to the road and welcome van. It was almost 4am! Food, rum, water, sleep!
12 hours climbing, 2.5l electrolyte water between us (which whilst much less than recommended, was just sufficient), and about 6 hours to find our way back to the van. Epic. Well done Em! (who didnt take a fall, and suffered the most on the way down). Lovely route, horrible descent.
The next day involved sleeping late, soaking our feet in the cold river, and rolling into town for creature comforts. The festival was still on, and we saw some of the finished work by Collectif Bim, and a great show by Claudio Stellato themed around games with stacks of chopped wood. Hard to describe but well worth finding. The show ended exactly as the heavens opened and thunderstorms finally broke in the Orlu valley. We were so glad not to be on the mountain that day, and I think we managed to time our big climb perfectly.
So now Em is back in Edinburgh, about to start her Fringe run of Tipping Point (with great preview recommendations) and Im driving past more thunderstorms towards the Ecrin, Allefroide and hopefully meeting some climbers I have corresponded with there.
I still have no partner for Monte Qualido, which is worrying. Im going to have to do some more shouting on the interweb.
Until next time…