Plenty of climbing trips have begun with one person sharing a photo of a mountain with another. Each looks at the photo and has a progression of thoughts and questions: That’s beautiful. Where is it? Do I have the skills to climb it? I cycled through those thoughts, then googled “Aiguille Dibona” (the name of Dan's find) and had one more question: Why have I never heard of this thing?
Dibona lies tucked away high in the mountains above the French village of Les Etages, in the Massif des Écrins in southeast France. Three classic long routes line its south face, promising sunny rock climbing on solid granite to a summit the size of a picnic table, none with climbing harder than 5.10d. It’s a moderate climber’s dream, a Cerro Torre for the everyman.
When Dan e-mailed me in February, I needed a big trip for the year, a new experience, something to keep me motivated. By the time I got to France in early August, I would need Dibona for something else entirely.
My year had been great on paper: I’d created enough income to make a full-time living as a writer—a difficult thing to do when your medium is rock climbing and sleeping outside. But I knew I wasn’t healthy. I could climb 5.9/5.10 routes and keep up with more athletic friends when mountain biking, but my active moments were punctuated by too-long periods of stagnation. Long days and nights in front of a computer, chugging coffee 10 hours a day to pay Wi-Fi rent in coffee shops around the West, unable to escape the gravity of glowing screens on my laptop or phone, and not making enough time to get outside were combining to make me a ragged mess.
All June and July, I stressed about getting work done ahead of my trip to Europe. The day before my flight to Zurich, I noticed some fluttering in my chest, the kind I’d had once or twice before after drinking too much caffeine. I googled “heart palpitations.” Causes: stress, a few other things. I self-diagnosed it as a stress problem.
Man, after this trip, I thought, I gotta take it easier.
There was no way out of it—I’d be leading harder climbing than I’d done all year, or last year.
I met my friends, photographers Dan and Janine, at their apartment in Interlaken, and worked frantically for a couple days to try to get as much writing and research as possible done before exiting the world of Wi-Fi and International roaming 3G that we'd encounter in the French Alps. After only three days in Europe, I received a text message from Verizon informing me that I’d burned through the data on my phone and I’d be charged an additional $25. I didn’t care about the money, but shrugged with a little shame and sadness that even while on a climbing trip to Europe, I couldn't pull myself away from my devices. The heart palpitations continued, no better, no worse.
It didn't help that I was intimidated by the 5.10b and 5.10c pitches on Aiguille Dibona, I admitted to myself. Dan would want to shoot photos all the way up, so he’d follow pitches and take photos of the second party, which would either be led by myself or Simon, the French climber we’d pick up in Grenoble on our way to the trailhead. There was no way out of it—I’d be leading harder climbing than I’d done all year, or last year. What was the hardest thing I had climbed this year? Hmm. I recalled struggling up single pitches of 5.10a in Moab and Boulder. And those weren’t 400 feet off the ground.
We hiked up the trail to the Refuge du Soreiller, a climber's hut perched a painful 1,140-meter climb from the road into Les Etages. I started counting switchbacks in the trail, but eventually lost count at 100. The front of my t-shirt was soaked through all the way to the hem by the 40th switchback. I battled, slowly falling a couple hundred feet behind Simon, Dan, and Janine.
During the approach to the Refuge du Soreiller I remember thinking that an average person could probably throw a baseball off the summit of Aiguille Dibona and hit the hut's roof 400 meters below. In reality, the hut sits several hundred feet back from the mountain, whose south face slopes gently back all the way to the summit. When you arrive at the hut your eyes are drawn up up up to the top of the Eiffel Tower-size granite spire that’s right there.
Built out of granite blocks and wood and finished in 1957, the hut is a temporary home to hundreds of climbers and hikers every year from June through September. The stout hike in means those who make it all the way to the refuge are happy, hungry, and tired upon their arrival—and those who climb have a five-minute walk out the door to the stellar granite on the south face of Dibona, and those who don’t climb can sit at the tables, sip coffee, and eat lemon tart while they watch their friends tackle the three classic routes to the summit.
I dumped out my pack on a top bunk in our room, counting the other beds: six, seven, eight, nine, ten people sleeping in here, maximum. How many of those would snore? Usually the gravity of my computer and phone kept me awake, but the refuge was mercilessly free of 3G service. Two cell phones sat in the front window of the dining room, the “magic spot” where two of the three staffers of the hut had discovered traces of a signal strong enough to eek out enough data to send and receive text messages. My hopes of any ability to work, to update social media, to keep up with the red bubbles popping up on my Facebook feed, to Instagram my life, were dashed, and I swallowed and accepted it with more than a slight twinge of anxiety. The third member of the hut staff, Martine, the longtime guardian of the Refuge du Soreiller, couldn’t care less about 3G or how many little bars on her phone lit up.
Martine Turc, 53, has lived and worked at the Refuge du Soreiller every summer for nearly her entire life: Her father was the guardian of the hut starting in 1957, and when the children in her family were two-and-a-half years old, he deemed them strong enough for the trek up to the hut, so they walked. At 26 years old, Martine took over as hut guardian after her father gave up the position.
From June to September every year she has greeted, fed, and sheltered everyone who comes to the refuge, and stood outside the door pointing out the features on Aiguille Dibona's south face to climbers, explaining which routes go where, how much gear to take, and what to expect from the rappels. Every night in the dining room she interviews each climbing party to find out which routes they plan to climb the next morning. If they don’t come back in time for dinner the next night, she calls for a helicopter rescue. She is charming in whatever language she speaks to the climbers who flock from all over Europe to climb Aiguille Dibona.
When I spoke with Martine one morning at the picnic table outside the hut, she frequently mentioned “The Montagne Life,” the experience of being there, up high, away from society, but almost always around people.
“When I am here in the summer, I don’t think about the life down there,” she said. She hiked up here with her 18-month-old daughter in her arms long ago, and has climbed here since age 16, putting up several first ascents in the area. Her son first climbed to the summit at just four years old.
Martine talked about The Life, smiling and clearly understanding it in a way most of us never will, in a way few people addicted to the digital age could handle. She doesn’t go down from the refuge between June and September, and doesn’t check her e-mail until October. Her friends visit her at the refuge or call the landline there, and she does her socializing with the visitors. Three helicopter drops the entire summer—one in June, one in July, and one in August—provide all the supplies she needs to feed the refuge’s guests for the year.
In summer 1988, Martine and her now-ex-husband, Pascal Junique, were climbing near the refuge, and Martine was worried about going down in time for her doctor’s appointment for her six-month pregnancy checkup. Pascal led her up, and she reminded him over and over about her Visite Obligatoire (“obligatory visit”), until he finally said, “You make me shit with your ‘visite obligatoire’!” She made it to her appointment on time and that September, gave birth to her son. Pascal named the now-classic 5.10c route on Aiguille Dibona’s south face “Visite Obligatoire.”
The two most popular routes on Dibona, Voie Madier and Sud Face, start at the same spot and share their first three pitches of blocky, old-school trad climbing. The third pitch, or “Tunnel Pitch,” goes upward through a tunnel of granite six feet wide and sixty feet long, cool and lit only by sunlight bouncing off the rock above. Years of traffic have cleaned most of the loose rock out of the tunnel, but some old pitons remain, and it’s not hard to imagine French climbers Andeol Madier and Maurice Fourastier climbing upward into the unknown in clunky boots in 1937, putting up the first route on Dibona’s striking south face.
After the tunnel, the Sud Face “Classique” splits onto the picturesque east ridge of Dibona and can be climbed at no harder than 5.8. The Madier route heads up an exposed 5.9 face to easier terrain until a big ledge, at which point climbers make a choice to finish the route on moderate terrain, or head up Madier and Fourastier’s original route: a difficult wide crack.
We planned to kick things off by first climbing Visite Obligatoire, the bolted 13-pitch 5.10c route named for Martine's son. The night before, I studied the topo of the route, anxious. Two pitches of 5.10c granite, with several pitches almost as difficult, varied climbing on technical seams and small handholds. I tossed and turned in my bunk with a gradually worsening headache from midnight until 2 a.m., knowing I had either altitude sickness or caffeine withdrawal. I finally crawled out of bed at 2 a.m., walked outside to the bathroom, and drank a liter and a half of water.
When I woke up, I didn’t have a headache anymore, but the heart palpitations kept up as I sat eating hard-boiled eggs in the cold shade of the mountains, my back to Dibona.
After breakfast, Dan led the first pitch, a short, steep 5.10a section to more laid-back slab climbing. I took the quickdraws and led the next pitch, 5.10b—technically the hardest pitch I’d led in at least a couple years. I dusted small flakes of granite and dirt off my shoes at every rest, hoping they’d stick better. Dan climbed up beneath me, then hung on the rope to shoot photos of Simon leading the same pitch under him. I pulled the hood of my softshell over my helmet, hanging off the belay bolts in a slight cold breeze. A the base of the fifth pitch, I asked Dan: You’re probably going to want to shoot this pitch, aren’t you? He said yes, if you don’t mind.
I took the quickdraws from him and stacked the rope, my end on top. Here’s where having done a few pullups every day from February to July would have been a big help, I thought, and not emotionally eating ice cream four nights a week in response to stress.
Well, fuck it, this is what it’s all about, I guess. I started up, traversing left on thin holds out onto the arête, looking up at the line of bolts. I feel safe alternately in dihedrals where I feel like I can cower in a corner when things get tough, and on arêtes, where there’s nowhere to hide, maximum exposure, and hopefully some decent handholds around the corner. This duality is completely irrational, but so is climbing, I guess.
I moved upward on crimps and small footholds, only stutter-stepping a little bit, exhaling whooshes of air just before I had to make a tough move. Had I been more comfortable, I might have stopped to enjoy the view, almost 360 degrees of French Alps and bluebird skies. Dan and Simon probably did, since they were both comfortable climbing 5.12/5.13. When your limit is 5.10c, like mine is, you just try to get up it without freaking out.
I followed the line of bolts up and around the arête, figuring it would get a little better after that. It didn’t: Twin left-angling seams shot up the next 40 feet to the next belay bolts. I stuck my hand around into the crack, hoping for a hand jam or a finger lock. Nothing. The crack was too shallow. I would have to layback the entire thing, pulling hard with my hands on one side, pushing outward on the other with my feet.
A few bad moves have left me with a serious aversion to laybacking, namely slipping off the first few feet of 30 Seconds Over Potash near Moab, a stout section on not-so-great sandstone. I’m a little skittish about using the technique, and most times will try to find another way. On Pitch 5 of Visite Obligatoire, I couldn’t. I stood for a second below a bolt and above 200 meters of air, breathed deep once, took a quickdraw from my harness, clipped the bolt, pulled up some rope into the carabiner, and started up. I’m sure the two Italian guys at the belay ledge above me were mystified at all the hard breathing below, but three minutes and a few dozen sweaty-palmed moves later, I joined them at the belay with one-tenth my Italian vocabulary: Bongiorno.
After the first eight pitches of Visite Obligitoire, still five pitches from the summit, we waited behind several parties at the bottleneck, where the south face is no more than 40 feet wide in most spots and all the routes converge on two or three variations. The sun dropped low, putting a golden glow on the white granite on the 11th pitch, a 10a slab with views forever in every direction. I relaxed and led calmly, clipping the bolts while trying to seal the scene into my memory. We took our time climbing the last two pitches, and I scrambled onto the blocky, knife-edge summit (last in our party), sharing the final belay ledge with two French climbers.
I don't take climbing trips to change the way I look at life. But traveling the world in search of new routes and meeting the core climbers who live what I preach has a way of forcing revelation.
The sun dipped lower as we rappelled then glissaded down the snowfield on the west side and hiked a half-hour back to the hut, just in time for dinner. I slept soundly that night, having climbed the hardest pitch on our itinerary. Over the following days we climbed other routes on the tower and shot photos, exploring the surrounding area and watching the sun set across the valley, over the 3,500-meter peaks of the Pointe du Vallon des Étages and the Tête de l'Étret, and the mile-wide icy tongue of the Glacier du Vallon des Étages that hangs between them.
I don't take climbing trips to change the way I look at life. But traveling the world in search of new routes and meeting the core climbers who live what I preach has a way of forcing revelation. It’s funny: Sometimes you know something is true, you tell yourself what you need, maybe other friends tell you the same thing: Slow down. Stop working—and worrying—so hard. Focus on the moment. Then you hear someone in a place halfway around the world, in a different culture, saying the exact same thing, before you finally comprehend it, as if it was in a secret code up until that very minute.
Our last morning at the Refuge du Soreiller, I woke up to silence in my chest. I walked down the stairs to see Martine, who asked how I had slept. I folded my hands next to my head and said Like A Baby, in English.
“It is nice sleeping here,” she replied. “You know you forget all.”
Brendan Leonard is a writer and climber who lives and works from the road all over the American West in a Chevy Astrovan. He loves long, moderate rock routes, open spaces, and measures his daily coffee consumption in liters. He is a contributing editor at Climbing and Adventure Journal, and his stories have appeared in Backpacker, Outside, The Dirtbag Diaries, High Country News, Men's Journal, and other publications, and every week on his website, Semi-Rad.com.