Imagine a wooded valley overlooking a snow-capped mountain. The morning air is cool, the sky cloudless. A thick, hard frost scrunches on the path beneath your shoes. You are walking briskly towards a line of towering blue and orange limestone cliffs. They bristle with an array of tufas, pockets, edges and huecos. Arêtes and grooves stripe the crags, enticing you to climb them. Beneath the cliffs are fields of lavender, like rows of giant squat hedgehogs, huddled against the morning chill. An eagle glides through the clear blue air high above.
Simon Richardson on the glorious leaning wall of Spit Bleu (8a), Saint Léger.
Saint Léger du Ventoux is the major climbing area in the vicinity of Mont Ventoux, and is one of the most peaceful, beautiful places you could go to for easy-access high quality European sport climbing.
The routes at St. Léger are extremely varied, from four bolt power challenges to 40+metre stamina epics. Not only is there this brilliant crag in a beautiful valley, but a mere half an hour or so drive will give you dozens of other crags to pick from. These have a full range of climbing styles, grades and seasonal suitability. The only time you might not be best-advised come here is right in the middle of summer, when heat can be oppressive.
Julian Vuillamy grapples with the tufa-encrusted groove of En Chaussons sur la tete du Kojak, (7b+), Saint Léger
There are some really impressive ‘lines’ that stand out more than many do on steep limestone. Piedra Salvaje is probably the best 6b+ you’ll ever do in your life; it takes a towering (40m) corner, for the full height of the crag. The climbing is fantastic too; lots and lots of technical stemming, and a sneaky tricky bit at the top, after a steep jug hauling start. It’s like climbing a Provençal Cenotaph Corner. Most of the rest of this sector (Face Est) delivers similar quality climbing: Le Linceul de Penelope is an amazing 7b, long, alternately crimpy and slopy, and doesn’t let up until you have your hands on top of the crag. Dis mori qui tu hais, qui je te dirai que tu suis (although a mega-mouthful) is an awesome groove line, visible from across the valley, although pretty stout at 8a/+.
Toby Dunn on a classic Baume Rousse 8a
The small towns and villages in the area have a very authentically French feel, despite the large amount of tourism they support in the summer. Rest days can be spent stocking up on produce at one of the dozens of local markets, sipping pastis in a bar, or exploring one of the many Roman ruins or medieval villages in the area. In fact this is one of the best climbing destinations around for a combined climbing / culture holiday, and a good one for pleasing a non-climbing accomplice (or accomplices). It’s not that far to the Mediterranean either.
When I first tried the immaculate line of Al Andalouse, (8a/+) it was more through a desire to get a good work out of the day, I didn’t really have any intention or conviction of being able to actually do it. It had quickdraws fixed on, so it just seemed like a fun thing to try for a bit at the end of a day. I tried it in this manner on a few occasions; getting a little further, or linking a longer section each time I went on it. I never made it the focus of my day, as though looking at it out of the corner of my eye.
Toby Dunn on the big open wall of Magne ton cul... (7c+) at St. Leger
I managed to go on the route each time to enjoy the seemingly ridiculous series of heelhooks, slaps and cross throughs I had to execute to get up it. A football-sized hole facilitated a rest position almost hanging from one foot. I valued this for the experience of being able to dangle off a steep piece of rock for a while, rather than mainly as a way to let my feeble arms recover a bit. Curiously, as soon as it occurred to me that I might actually be able to redpoint the route, I stopped making any progress on it. It somehow became less enjoyable as I began to covet it. I left the area shortly afterwards, and like to think that Al Andalouse is better for being a crazy series of movements in my head, rather than a trophy in the cupboard. Maybe one day.
En chaussons sur la tête de Kojak (literally: in slippers on the head of Kojak) is certainly something to head for if you sometimes long for some eccentricity amongst the continental diet of immaculate pocket pulling or tufa yarding. A highly entertaining exercise in zero friction slopey weirdness might allow you to ascend this bulging flowstone face. The nearby Sumos jouées épées is, if anything, even stranger. The blankly alphanumeric ‘7b’ comes nowhere close to describing the effort and skill set required to thrash your way up this hugely enjoyable shallow slot. If this isn’t the sort of game you usually like to play, reflect that at least there isn’t much chance of tweaking your poor overworked fingers on this one.
Joe Bawden warming up on the South Face sector
So if you were planning a sport trip where the view consists of the cuboid skyline of Benidorm, the crags are bustling with people, and the experience of local culture extends to a visit to Carrefour, check out the Ventoux area. Beautiful limestone, endless vineyards, stunning little towns and incredible sunsets over the improbably spiky silhouette of the Dentelles; you won’t be disappointed.
Last redpoint of the day on the East Face
USEFUL INFORMATION ON CLIMBING AROUND MT. VENTOUX
Where Is St. Leger?
About an hour’s drive north of Avignon. You can fly to Avignon during the summer, or a TGV train gets you there all year, and is less environmentally damaging. Fly to Nimes, (2hrs to the crag). Many other south of France airports are within a few hours drive as well, especially Marseille or Lyon. The closest towns of any size are Vaison la Romaine, and Buis les Barronies, both about a 15-minute drive from the crag.
The crags just in St Leger face just about every conceivable direction, so it is climbable for most of the year. The middle of summer is probably worth avoiding, however. Spring and autumn will give you the greatest choice of sectors, though unless you are here for a very extended visit, you are very unlikely to run out of climbing!
Winter is quiet, and can be awesome on the south facing sectors with perfect bright sunshine and cold air. The north-facing sector is the prime venue for when the temperatures are a bit higher, and is a little reminiscent of a Kilnsey with lots of bits of tufa stuck to it, and without men with flat caps and whippets; or the irritating traffic noise.
Who's It Good For?
St Léger itself is really best for 7b and above, although below that you could still have a decent week or so. The quality of some of the 6's can be a little hit and miss, partially because many of them are new and haven’t cleaned up that well yet. Generally, the steeper the rock is here, the better and more interesting it is; the south face has line after stunning line in the 8's.
A typically French name-plaque at the base of a St. Leger classic.
Happily, the area absolutely teems with crags that do a fantastic job of making up for this shortcoming:
- Combe Obscure and the like (near Bédouin, and covered in the St Léger guidebook) will give you many, many weeks of quality climbing on perfect grey water worn limestone at more mellow grades and angles than are typical in St. Leger.
- The Dentelles de Montmirail are half an hour away, and have technical, steely crimping with beautiful views. The Dentelles have steeper routes too, but these tend to be rather manufactured, and the wall climbing on microholds is definitely what they do best. The routes are almost a bit like British mountain trad. This comparison should be warning you that setting off up anything much more than 7a involves some very little holds indeed!
- Seynes and Russan are both about an hour away from St Leger, and are also brilliant winter venues with lots of wacky tufa climbing.
- Baume Rousse is a small crag just outside Buis, and excellent as well, with about a hundred routes, in a variety of styles, in all grades up to 8a.
- Malaucene is an excellent option when it gets hot, with some good, shady wall climbing in the 6's and 7's that catches the breeze.
- Mountain biking in the area is world class; as is the wine tasting, and the bakeries.
Where do I stay?
- Gites are probably the best option, cheap with a few of you, very comfortable etc etc – check out the gites-de-france website for details.
- DO NOT DOSS IN THE CAR PARK for St. Leger, or you may be responsible for getting climbing here banned.
- There are several campsites in the nearby towns, especially Vaison.
- A local guide to St. Léger is available: Escalade autour du Ventoux, this is available from SoeScalade in Avignon, or from their website: http://www.soescalade.com/info/topo_baleine.html. They also stock the guide that covers Seynes, Russan and other crags in the region.
- There is a free option for scroungers too: http://hotroc.free.fr/journaux/04_fevrier_2004/topo%20st%20leger.pdf. This is a bit out of date, and the grades can be a little hit and miss, but it does the job ok. Most of the routes have a plaque at the base with name, grade, and often length of pitch.
- There is a published 'Jingo Wobbly' guidebook, but it is totally useless. I wouldn’t buy it, not even to get an idea of the area, since the free online information is far better. A new Rockfax guide for the area is in the pipeline.
- You will need a car, as there is no public transport to St Leger, and hitching would be very slow.
- If the mistral (freezing wind) is blowing, Seynes or the Dentelles are a much better bet than St Léger, though the lower, south-facing sectors will provide reasonable shelter. Malaucène seems to get the wind so this is a good alternative when it’s hot.
- There are climbing walls in Avignon – a good bouldering room at the SoeScalade shop, and a bigger leading wall in the city.
- You can buy chalk, and some basics, at the Intersport in Vaison. Go to Decathlon in Avignon or Orange for anything more.
- A 70m rope is very useful for St Leger, if not an 80m for some sectors – although a mid-height belay or at least a substantial bail ‘biner is usually in place on the very long pitches.
Provence In winter: the view of Mt Ventoux from the crag
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