There’s a huge amount of climbing in the Ariege, featuring limestone and granite; single pitch valley cragging and bigger mountain adventures and to suit all tastes and abilities. The Niaux Valley offers the highest concentration of quality limestone sports climbing, and Camping Les Grottes makes for a pretty handy base to explore it from. You can gaze up at the crags from your van, as well as the eponymous Grottes, famous for their prehistoric cave paintings.
The valley runs north – south so most of the crags involve a decision between morning or afternoon sun/shade. With the recent rain we were looking for all-day sun, so opted for Génat which is in a higher side valley and faces due south. It turned out to be a popular choice with almost a dozen teams there by the end of the day.
It’s an easy stroll and the crag soon comes into view, with its central orange cave (home to some ever-dry routes apparently) bounded by friendlier grey slabs.
Helen started off with Premiére Américaine, 5a …
… and I got my day off to a great start with a 6a+ warm-up failure on the poorly named Si, si! c’est fin, c’est pas dur – I was only a bit less annoyed to find UKCers proposing 6b+/6c!
Heading into the cave area, we did the excellent and varied La Nébuleuse du Crabe, 6b+ (with half an eye on direct start, but that looked unpleasant). Meanwhile, a couple of locals were climbing the adjacent Altaïr, 7a+, which looked stupendous.
The front-on shot doesn’t really capture the steepness…
Great climbing, but I got shutdown in the crux groove and bailed. With the crag a bit busy and starting to head into the shade we decided to turn it into a two-crag day and visit Sibada – now basking in the late afternoon sun. It’s just a couple of minutes up the main Niaux Valley.
Magma 1, 7a, played to my strengths (or at least avoided the worst of my weaknesses) with a leaning overhanging corner crack succumbing to laybacks, bridging and other cunning. Superb!
The crag doesn’t offer much under 6c, but La Primitive, which takes the very traddy crack and wall right of the long central corner cave is a really worthwhile 6a, though no giveaway!
For our last day in the Ariege we settled on Alliat, arguably the premier limestone crag in the area, and less than a kilometer from the campsite – it’d be rude not to.
We’d been before on our previous visit to the area in 2014, and I’d been really impressed “it’s by far the best limestone crag we’ve found around here, and amongst the best I’ve climbed on anywhere!” A couple of weeks into our new “van-life” lifestyle and shortly after clocking up the big Five-Oh, an ascent of Sadou inspired my project to climb 50 7as in the year after my 50th Birthday.
I’ve tried to keep up the tradition every year since, though the first Lockdown curtailed my 55th year efforts at 42 and my 56th year attempt never really got out of the starting blocks. Happily I’d just reached my @57 quota, and it seemed like a nice bit of circularity to go back and repeat…
I wasn’t disappointed – it really is a stupendous route, with three or four tricky sections interleaved with good rests, and a tonne of rope drag at the top of a full 40m rope-stretch. Pleased to scrape my way up it – mustn’t leave it another 7 years before a return visit.