Tag Archives: free climbing

The Verdon Gorge

Reposted from: http://blog.eddiebauer.com/2015/02/09/katie-lambert-free-climbs-the-verdon-gorge/

This is the kind of rock that Katie would dream of as a kid in Louisiana.  Perfection on suvellir et punir The Verdon is known for its top down access, the biggest challenge to the approach can be finding exactly where the top is. Sometime in the 1990s, I became aware of the broader world of rock climbing. Growing up in the Deep South, I wasn’t blessed with endless cliffs or high mountains, and places such as Yosemite, the Dolomites, the Hand of Fatima in Africa, and the Verdon Gorge of Southern France became dream places to visit. I lived with the idea that somehow, one day I might be able to visit those places, and if I was lucky enough, I might even be able to climb there at a level that would make me proud. While I dreamed and trained in a hot and humid garage climbing gym, a lot of classic history had already been made. Those places which had so inspired me were falling out of vogue in exchange for a steeper, more gymnastic type of free climbing. But there was something about the bold run-out, very delicate style of climbing in places like the Verdon that were alluring to me. “There was something about the bold run-out, very delicate style of climbing in places like the Verdon that were alluring to me.” —Katie Lambert Situated on a fault line in the Provence region of France, the Verdon Gorge establishes a border between the high mountains of the Hautes-Alpes and the lush rolling hills and valleys of Provence. Through the ages, the river of the Verdon has carved a canyon through the Jurassic age limestone, creating striking gold and gray walls up to 1,500 feet tall. Realizing that these cliffs were prime for climbing, routes started to become developed in the late 1960s. The first features that were climbed followed cracks, fissures and ledges up the imposing cliffs, and everything in the Verdon was established ground up. Classic and historical routes such as La DemandeUla and Luna Bong are results of this era of climbing in the Verdon. However, if men of staunch tradition could not free-climb their way through sections, then they resorted to aid techniques. This practice, which was commonplace the world over, started to take a different shape when more technically advanced free climbers like Patrick Edlinger, Jacques Perrier, Jean Marc Troussier, J.B. Tribout, Patrick Berhault, and the Le Menestrel brothers started to push the limits of possibility in the Verdon in the 1980s and 1990s. The ground-up, all-trad approach was left behind for bolted faces established from the top down. With a road running the course of the lip of the gorge and every cliff being accessible by rappelling into it, it only seemed obvious to start developing routes in what would become known as “rap-bolting.”

This approach opened the door to possibilities, because instead of having to follow the obvious weaknesses up the wall, the “rap-bolting” approach made it possible to piece together the thin and seemingly blank faces, and with that a new wave of hard free climbing was born. With the rap-bolting also came “hang-dogging,” which involves hanging on a rope to sort out the moves and sequences of the climb in order to free climb the route in its entirety without falls or hanging. Not only were new routes being established from the top down, but previously ground up aid routes were now being free climbed thanks to the hang-dogging and top down “sussing out.” At the time, both rap-bolting and hang-dogging were highly controversial for the “old guard” and brought the ethics of climbing into question, not only in France but the world over. However, these new tactics resulted in not only the development of harder routes but also helped to push the limits of what humans were capable of as far as physical prowess. The dawn of a new era had arrived and technical masterpieces were the result. “In September 2014, my long-held dream of visiting the Verdon Gorge had come to fruition when I met up with Caroline George for a weeklong foray into the miles of blue limestone walls. I wanted to share a quintessential Verdon experience with her, and my list of potential routes to do was seemingly endless.” —Katie Lambert In the Verdon Gorge, one of the most famous routes of this nature was established in the mid-1970s by Stephane Troussier and Jacques “Pschitt” Perrier. The two used fixed ropes from the top to find the line of holds and features that would became the 10 pitch traversing route known as Pichenibule. The route was not climbed all in one go until 1980, when the great Patrick Berhault climbed it at a grade of 6c+/AO (5.11c/A0), which was soon followed by the first female ascent of this rating by Marisa Montes. But it was in 1985 that Catherine Destivelle made the first free ascent of this route at a very sandbagged 7b++ (5.12c++) grade, quite an impressive feat, as this was at the top of the level in those days. Through the years, as the grades started to climb, the ratings of many of the original free climbs of the Verdon have leveled out and Pichenibule has finally started to settle around the more appropriate grade of 7c+ (5.13a). In September 2014, my long-held dream of visiting the Verdon Gorge came to fruition when I met up with Caroline George for a weeklong foray into the miles of blue limestone walls. I wanted to share a quintessential Verdon experience with her, and my list of potential routes to do was seemingly endless. Then she suggested Pichenibule. This route would offer up everything the Verdon meant to me: a test of finger strength, technique, and nerve to try the run-outs. I had been made aware that the crux pitch, if done free, was quite hard. I wanted the odds in our favor for making a team free-ascent of this historical line, so I decided to stick with the style of the area and preview the pitch from the top.

I rappelled into the route with a fixed line and two micro-traxions (self-belay devices). The river raged 1,500 feet below and the walls swept away below me. The exposure wasn’t too bad, but as I looked at the holds on my way down, glistening in the sun, I realized this pitch was indeed going to be hard. I clipped into the belay, arranged my gear, and set off on a solo mission to solve the puzzle. I was greeted with powerful moves, very technical footwork and handholds, which were more like single-finger holds that were impossible to grip in the heat of the sun. I had to hand-over-hand up the rope to easier ground and then climb out to the top. I felt a little overwhelmed by the prospect of freeing this route. A little later in the day, after the sun had dropped below the mountains, I went back down to see if it was any better in the shade. The grip was better but the moves were still hard. The Verdon was showing me that the climbing there was tough, and I wondered if I wasn’t being too audacious. A couple of days later, after better acquainting ourselves with the climbing of the Verdon on the beautiful Surveiller et Punir, we roped up to try our luck on Pichenibule. After rappelling into the wall some 900 feet down, we led out, swapping leads through the run-outs, traverses and gouttes d’eau before finally arriving at the crux 10th pitch. We had timed it all just right so that the wall was now in the shade. Relieved at this, I tightened my shoes, had a few sips of water, double-checked my knot and got reassurance from Caroline that she would give me a soft catch if I fell. Then I set off. I climbed up the bouldery intro sequences to the very reachy and thin crux. I struggled to bring my left foot up in order to reach easier ground, and then I fell. I soared through the air and came to rest a few feet above Caroline. My fingers ached with numbness from gripping too hard and I yelled out in frustration and pain. Despite having fallen, the climbing actually felt achievable, but I wondered if I could do it again. I lowered back to Caroline, tied into the anchor, pulled my rope and set off again. The climbing seemed automatic. I wasn’t really thinking about what to do as much as I was just doing it. Before I knew it, I was back where I had fallen, bringing my left foot up and reaching for the better incut crimp. My fingers latched the hold and I exhaled with relief. I rested there for a little while before climbing the last 15 feet to the anchor. I had done it.,I had managed to free climb the notorious 10th pitch of Pichenibule! I belayed Caroline up and then set off again on the last run-out pitch to the top. As I sat there, belaying her up and watching the clouds turn a beautiful pink and gold with the sunset, I felt really proud to have found the sequence that the greats like Stephane Troussier and Jacques “Pschitt” Perrier had seen as possible, and that Patrick Berhault and Catherine Destivelle had unlocked. I had finally arrived in the Verdon, with a great and supportive partner, and had climbed at a level that made me proud. Katie and Caroline organize their gear after a long day out.

Picos de Europa

The West face of Picu Urriellu (naranjo de bulnes) stands proud above the surrounding peaks, drawing climbers from throughout Europe

Words by Katie Lambert, Images by Ben Ditto


After months of planning, wondering and waiting, Ben, (our new friend) Edu, Sandra and I were finally standing below Picu Urriellu, except we couldn’t make out the formation, as everything in the cirque was enshrouded by Orbayu: a thick, misty fog with a smell not unlike the sea which it rolls off. Our only inkling that the Picu towered above us was that we stood on the porch of the refugio, which guards the approach to the base of the wall. Picu Urriellu, otherwise known as the Naranjo de Bulnes, a formation so grand that it can be seen from miles away in any direction, was still a mystery, even in such proximity.

Often referred to as the centerpiece of Spanish alpinism, the Picu has become Spain’s most famous mountain, yet it sits largely unknown to the rest of the world. It has been said that anyone wishing to call themselves a true climber needs to have this on his or her list. I was drawn to the Picu’s west face by its reputation of steep and bold limestone, by rumor of oddball trad placements, out-of-sight bolts and hard, technical free climbing. With there being around 50 free routes on the west face, my tick list would potentially be quite extensive. Climbing some of the harder free routes would be a more long-term goal; this would be an intro trip, a trip to get to know the wall, the place, and find the most inspiring lines. We would have a couple of weeks in the area before fellow Eddie Bauer athlete Caroline George would meet us. This would be our first time meeting and climbing together, and I was excited to have a good route picked out for us.

Murciana 78 (6a, A1+/ 7c+ free 550m) was one of my objectives. It was first put up as an aid line by Alfonso Cerdán, Juan Carlos Ferrer, Juan Carlos and José Luis Garcia Gallego in 1978, over a period of 9 days, and then eventually free climbed in 1990 by Nick Dixon and Andy Popp. I had come across some photos of the route in my searching in earnest for some sort of beta on getting to and climbing in the Picos. The crux pitch ascended an overhanging dihedral and then exited out onto a steep and technical-looking face. From the photo, the rock looked impeccable. But as we stood on the porch of the refugio and scanned the area for a good spot to pitch our tents and unload our burdensome packs, Murciana 78 and the west face, with all the rest of its routes, still stood as myth and rumor. And just as the anticipation of seeing the wall was about to kill me, the fog dissipated and gave us a very quick glimpse of the orange and grey towering monolith of limestone. In bed that night, tucked into my sleeping bag, I mulled over the guidebook, trying to decipher the history of the Picu. I drifted off to sleep that first night with the thrill and excitement of the days to come.

While there was a lot of action on the Picu for over half a century, most of it was accomplished by men. In 1971, another very historic ascent took place on the west face. Martine Ware—Caroline George’s mother—with her husband Larry climbed the Rabadá-Navarro. They spent two days on the wall, carrying bivy gear with them. With a newborn son (Caroline’s older brother) only 4 months old at home, she became the first woman to scale the west face, a feat that was newsworthy, as reporters and camera crews awaited them on top. Sometime in the 1980s, this route went free. As the decades rolled on, so did the talent level, frequency and magnitude at which people were capable of free climbing, and many other routes went free as well. The grades started to soar from the 5.10 and 5.11 range to 5.12, 5.13 and 5.14 range. The Pou brothers opened up numerous hard aid lines to hard free climbing, creating some of the world’s toughest walls. In 2002, Josune Bereziartu, a very talented and accomplished Basque climber, became the first woman to free climb one of the harder free lines on the west face,”El Pilar del Cantábrica,” going at 5.13. This made quite a mark in the history of the Picu, as well as female alpine rock climbing.

Katie and Caroline unwind at the Refugio after the approach, sorting gear for the climb

The next morning, we rose to clear skies and readied ourselves for the first climb of our trip, Soy Un Hombre Nuevo (7b+ 450m). Recommended to us by a Spanish friend, it would be a good introduction to the climbing there. The chill of the morning was almost unshakable, as the four of us hiked up to the base wearing jackets, windbreakers, hats and gloves. We were looking at approximately 6 more hours of cold shade until the sun hit the wall.

This would be Spanish alpine rock climbing at its finest. The climbing lived up to its reputation of thin, technical and run-out, with creative gear placements. Sandra gave over all her leads to me. In between many meters of climbing, there were sometimes spits (often mistaken for an expansion bolt), sometimes there were pods or small fissures to place cams or stoppers and sometimes there were cords threaded around rungs of limestone, where the water had worn away the rock behind. Very often, it was just better to run it out over long distances, not worrying about which funky piece of gear was better or worse. My previous season in Tuolumne Meadows had tuned me up just right for this, and I was overjoyed to lead us through the edges, sidepulls, gotas, and steep jugs. We climbed ten pitches or so of 5.11 and 5.12, with a handful of 5.10 and easier, joining Ben and Edu on the summit nine hours after setting off. The cold never gave way, and we were taxed from the climbing as well as all the shivering. Elated to be on the summit, we coiled our ropes and discussed which way to the descent. The last rays of sun cast a golden glow over the sea and across the vast valleys capped with paleozoeic limestone in alpine karst peaks. Picu Urriellu had not disappointed us. I was excited about what we had just experienced and looked forward to reaching the summit again with Caroline.

We arrived at our base camp just as the goats had come in for their daily visit. For a hefty fee, the refugio offers a three-plate dinner both to those who sleep there and those who wander in from the mountains. They serve bananas for dessert, and as disappointing as that may seem to us, the goats love the peels. It is the habit of the refugio workers to throw all food waste outside. Because of this, every day a herd of 100 or more goats comes running down the mountains into the cirque—through the tents, trekkers and climbers—straight to the food pile. After entertaining ourselves with the goat show, we set up camp and settled in. The evening was clear and gave us a great view of the wall. Going over the topo and pointing out the line of Murciana 78 to Caroline, it was agreed that we would climb it the next day. So once again I settled into my sleeping bag that night with the excitement of the day to come.

The sound of the Jetboil igniting roused me from my slumber. At 7 am the cirque of the Picu was still cast in darkness and only the promise of something hot to drink could lure me from my bag. As daylight shook it’s drowsy head we made tea, cheese and jam sandwiches and donned our climbing gear. The chill was uncomfortable but as we made our way to the base, blood coursing through our bodies it was decided that it wasn’t all that cold and we left behind our thicker down jackets in exchange for the lighter ones. The “crisp” mountain air would be perfect for trying hard on the 5.13 crux, a pitch that would be coming soon after the first two 5.10 corner pitches.

Having climbed on the wall the week prior I was used to it’s characteristics and opted to lead whatever Caroline didn’t want, but her enthusiasm was evident as she said I should take the crux pitches and we could just swap leads for all the rest. It was game on as I set off on the first pitch. The cool limestone was tacky and textured and as I stemmed and chimneyed my way to the belay placing some gear but not much I was eager to get to the business of the route. After belaying her up the first pitch she set off on the second 5.10 with more crumbly rock, gear placements and crack climbing. This brought us up to a gently sloping belay ledge and the crux of the route.

The wall arched slightly overhead and out of the rock opened up a steep, overhanging crack in a wide dihedral. After 40 feet of this the crack abruptly ended at a gentle overhang where the hard and technical face climbing started. Taking my shoes off I rubbed my cold and numb toes. I needed all the feeling I could get in order to stand on the small edges and high-step my way through the crimps. I had a quick snack, chalked up and set off.

The crack was steep and pumpy but amazingly friendly and took great cam placements. A threader marked the last move out of the crack and onto the steep face. Some tenuous and punchy moves led up to the first bolt and then a brief rest. From there it was more foot edging and more crimping up precision movements to the first crux. A cross-through to a small, sloping right hand edge, a high left foot and an aggressive move out left to a very positive incut. I matched there, shook out and continued the crimp fest to the next crux where a series of sidepulls and wafer like holds made the way to a long move up to a flat jug. I rested briefly and entered the sequence to the last crux consisting of a small gaston and a thrutchy move to another large flat hold and then I was clipping into the anchor. I had sent the crux pitch, a pitch which is mostly done as an aid climb and now there was just one 5.12 next followed by 10 or so more pitches of 5.11 and 5.10.

I belayed Caroline up and set off on the next pitch. It is here that I almost fell, as this pitch is also typically aided and there was no chalk to follow. I quested up, down, right and left. I kept a wicked forearm pump just at bay, and I barely managed to sort out the correct sequence on the correct holds to make it through to higher ground. Relieved to have made it to the anchors, I belayed Caroline up and happily handed over the next lead to her. From here, we pretty much swapped leads the whole way out, leading over similar terrain as the week prior with long runouts, some spits, and creative gear placements. With a couple hours of light left, we reached the summit! We had just made a team free ascent of the classic Murciana 78. Caroline reached a summit that both of her parents had stood on over 40 years ago. I made the first American (female) free ascent climbing–all 550m of it–with no falls. While this was not perhaps some groundbreaking ascent, it was another mark in the history of the Picu.

reposted from:

Moonlight Buttress


The 1200′ sandstone formation known the climbing world over as Moonlight Buttress stood proud in the suns radiant light. Four different parties were cast about the wall; it looked like a game of connect the dots. Which rope connected which person to what and where. Spring Break was in full effect and it seemed like the university kids were chomping at the bit for this route. Some seemed to be going at it full wall style with multiple bivys, others were in a day aid parties, and some even seemed to be trying out the free climbing. For many this wall is people’s first, for me it wouldn’t be a first but it would be a sort of milestone in my climbing career.

Every big wall free climber I know has either ticked this iconic line or it’s on their list. It had been entered into my queue some years back when Kate Rutherford and Madaleine Sorkin made the first all female free ascent. At the time my wall experience was limited. I had not long moved from the south to California and I was still cutting my teeth on the granite in Yosemite. I had previously really only been a sport climbing and bouldering aficionado. As the years progressed so too did my climbing experiences and my knowledge of how to manage these bigger stones. I made mistakes, I achieved goals and I found myself with a fortunate quiver of climbing partners. Each partnership had taught me something different and it became more and more evident to me that climbing partnerships took on a deeper meaning than someone willing to belay you. They were relationships; I relied on my partners to be on time, to be positive, to be supportive, to be patient, to be willing to let me make mistakes and figure them out, to belay just so and on and on. And I felt I was expected to do the same. A lot of talk had been had with different people about possibly teaming up for this wall but in the end my real dream was to do it with another female, all free.

As a single woman it had never been terribly hard finding a partner but the majority of them have been males and since these partnerships start to take on the characteristics of a relationship this has always come with it’s struggles. One or the other usually starts to develop emotional feelings, and these feelings are either addressed and reciprocated or it turns really ugly. Imagine your climbing partner crush belaying you on your project after you’ve just told them how you feel and they stare back blankly at you saying, “oh, I thought we were just climbing together,” – there goes the send and your self-esteem. At some point one or the other can become jealous if they go off climbing with someone else – questions about what the partnership really is come into play and it’s at this point that things either continue along or break off. Once the partnership has subsided it’s time to move on and find a new partner. Usually this is a fun and trying time – you try a little of this and you try a little of that but eventually what you decide on is a steady partner who is willing to be there for those alpine starts and late night descents.

I have been fortunate in my years in Yosemite to climb with local legends like Surfer Bob, Big Fall James, Jake from the Gate, little Sue McDevitt, and Jobee Whitford. I became partners with Ron Kauk, one of the most influential people of my life. I even met my husband, Ben Ditto, climbing Yosemite’s walls in 2009. We form a great partnership and relationship. We are compatible in our climbing and hold similar aspirations from sport climbing in Europe to free climbing big walls. In the last years some of what we’ve had the opportunity to do together was free climb several walls in a day, including: Lotus Flower Tower – VI 5.10d, Cirque of the Unclimbables; Original Route/Women at Work– VI 5.12R – Mt.Proboscis; Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome –VI 5.12b Yosemite Valley; Romantic Warrior –V 5.12b The Needles; and the West Face of Leaning Tower –V 5.13 Yosemite Valley. But, through all these times I still longed for a partnership of a different kind. I longed for my female counterpart – the other chick who could crush the cracks, climb the steeps, and dominate the boulders – someone who knows how to build anchors, haul a bag, and generally speaking, hold their own. I craved the experience of facing challenges with someone of similar build so that we could learn from each other. I had become friends with Kate Rutherford and I admired the partnership she had with Madaleine – I wondered where my equivalent may lay.

All my searching and waiting led me to Sandra early in 2012- she was strong, she was well-rounded in many aspects of climbing, she was also petit and all in all she seemed solid in character. We met at the boulders and I think it was love at first sight. Through the last year we became more acquainted with one another, we developed a repertoire, we helped push one-another and supported each other on numerous projects and ambitions and soon we established a tick list together. Moonlight Buttress was pushed to the top of this list. It seemed like all my dreams of finding a compatible and capable female partner were coming true. Very often she and I would blow off our significant others in order to climb together. Our partnership walks the line of a relationship and in the winter of this year when Ben and I were leaving for three months to climb in Europe I was nearly heartbroken to have to leave her behind. We kept in touch weekly about our climbing experiences, our latest sends, our struggles and the upcoming training we would be doing when I returned home – we kept the Moonlight vision alive.


Finally, in mid March we found ourselves racking up in Zion National Park. Our first climb of the trip together was Shunes Buttress IV 5.11c. It went great, we climbed well together. We kept it slow and steady as we dialed in our systems and belays and got the feel of how we would be moving together in the sandstone wonderland. Some days later we were crossing the icy waters of the Virgin River and making our way to the base of Moonlight. There were a few parties at the base and on the intro pitches. A few different times in the day we found ourselves waiting on the previous parties. As the time ticked on we maintained a positive outlook – we were giving our best onsight attempt, and we were doing it together. Unfortunately as the pitches kept coming so did the waiting and by the time we were standing underneath pitch 8 we realized that we would be doing a bit more waiting and not topping out in the light – I wasn’t very interested in sorting out the last hard pitches via headlamp in the dark and so we made the decision to rap the route. This decision was ok, as both of us had fallen on some of the climbing below.

As we descended down to the sandy, vegetated slope via headlamp we came up with a plan to come back in two days and try again. Early on the morning Sandra and I were due to go back she got word that her mother was really ill and she was urged to go be with her. We both knew previously that this could be a factor in our plans and we had been playing it fast and light. But, that morning as she stood in the door of my van, tears in her eyes I knew she was not only sad about her poor mother but also about our unfulfilled dream. Life is present and with that comes responsibility, she needed to leave and I understood completely.  I was so sorry to hear the news and very sorry to lose her as a partner.

mason crushes the indian creek splitter, pitch 9, MLB.  zion

Plan rewrite started for me. Mason Earl, a fellow First Ascent athlete was coming into Zion in a few days to meet up with us for some work for Eddie Bauer. He had climbed the route the previous year but I wondered if he would be interested in doing it again with me, he said he would be down. So, I waited for him to arrive and off we went. Moonlight is such an iconic route in equal parts climbing quality and scenic beauty. Ben really wanted to shoot us on the route, and Eddie Bauer had expressed to us that they really wanted portaledge shots – so we took this idea into consideration when we made a plan for our climb.  We decided we would do the wall with a bivy, which would  allow us to start late in the day and have us climbing the crux dihedral in the shade.  We started late on Sunday and blasted through to pitch 7, the infamous slot pitch. On my attempt with Sandra I had fallen here a couple of times – this time I climbed it efficiently and effectively. I belayed Mason up and the photographers met us there. We set up the ledge, cooked dinner, enjoyed the sunset and got some great shots. We slept on the wall that night with the canyon to ourselves. It was stunning. I thought about Sandra several times. I was enjoying the experience of being on the wall with Mason but at times I could tell he was a bit bored. He was there for support and I appreciated it greatly but it was the same old thing. I was once again climbing with a stronger male partner who could jam his .5 fingers snuggly into the 1 inch cracks –  we could hardly relate at times.





The next morning Ben wanted to get shots of me on pitch 8 in the first light. It was COLD but I racked up and set off anyway. I was freezing and moved slowly. Looking down at the belay I could tell Mason was freezing, too. I made it about half way up when I was totally numbed out in both hands and feet and I slipped out. I lowered down, cleaned the gear, and rested a minute. I tried to thaw out and tried again but it was a similar experience. I got too cold and it was a brutal warm-up. I thought to myself that we should have just kept climbing the day before – that it would have been easier then but so it was and here we were. I slipped out again – this time flash pumped. I continued up to the belay and asked Mason if I could try again, he didn’t mind. So, I lowered down, cleaned the gear and rested for about 10 minutes. The gauzy haze of clouds was parting and it was warming up. After some food and water I set off again. This time I made it no falls. The rest of the route went smoothly enough and we were topping out by mid-day. I had become one of the women on a short list whom have free climbed this route. I was grateful to Mason for playing along but I was saddened a little not to be high-fiving with Sandra.

katie sends pitch 8 of MLB.  zion


mason crushes the indian creek splitter, pitch 9, MLB.  zion



The route had been a challenge for me. It is not the hardest or longest thing I’ve ever climbed but it offers up three pitches in a row of one of the single hardest sized cracks for me. Being 5’0″ and with small hands the 1 inch sized cracks never truly provide me with any solid jams – it’s neither fingers nor hands and there is no real finesse to climbing that size. I was psyched to climb through those pitches and I think I even learned some slight nuances in technique thanks to Mason. It was a great accomplishment and I’m thankful to have experienced some time there with Sandra. In the end I know that it was a stepping stone on our journey together as partners and while we didn’t get the chance to complete this one together I know where to find a solid female to hold the rope for me and do her fair share of getting us up the wall.

all photos courtesy ben ditto/ http://www.bendittophoto.com