Watching the headlamps light up at the cliff at dusk fills me with a bubbling sensation. They line the main section of the wall, from Berlin to Un pont sur l’infini, and begin the descent. Over the next two hours, twinkling lights peek out through the trees. I was one of those lights yesterday.
I arrived here 20 days ago and I’m finally feeling adapted. While the crag has a reputation of being stout, it appears to me – so far – to just be that technical style that people find challenging when they arrive gym-strong and full of entitlement. Then again, there are some sandbagged routes on the wall.
I didn’t plan to come to Céüse. Rather, I came to France with the intention of working on a writing project with an older climber and mentor. We stopped by the crag on our way elsewhere, and I jumped ship. Though I had been excited about co-writing a memoir, I decided (for a slew of reasons) that I no longer wanted to be a part of the project. Overcome by a need for self-preservation and self-centeredness, we discussed our work so far and concluded that we didn’t need to continue to write together.
Dirtbag’s Paradise, a clandestine campsite above the dirt parking lot home to those who sleep in vehicles, became my new basecamp. Between Trimm, the small green tent that I bought in Bulgaria in 2013; a few select logs for sitting; a fountain with potable water; a waist-deep pool in a creek for bathing; a parking lot full of potential climbing partners; a goat farm with wifi, coffee, and a power outlet by a table outside; and a full view of the crag from my pillow, I have pretty much everything I need. My first week here was as much of a mental battle as a physical.
The excuse is that I didn’t climb for nearly a month before arriving. And the second excuse is that my spring in Squamish was quite irrelevant to this crimpy power endurance limestone glorious business. The first two routes I climbed with Matt, an Englishman I climbed with in Geyikbayiri, Turkey in 2018, and Chris, his current climbing partner. A few bolts up… I was pumped and grinning. So many pockets and crimps. My forearms stayed solid for days. I tried a number of ‘warm-ups’, attempting to flash or onsight them with a lot of enjoyment… but also a lot of falling, taking, and quickdraw-grabbing. While normally I don’t mind if I don’t send, I started to feel some twisting in my stomach. I want to feel in shape, to climb to the best of my ability on this chunk of limestone that seems to be in one of the styles I absolutely love. Surrounded by strangers (Matt and Chris left for higher altitudes two days after I arrived), I also felt like people would find me more interesting if I was stronger… if I was climbing better. My self-esteem took a small nosedive. Laying in my bed of excuses, I wrapped myself in blankets of patience and motivation.
The hike to the crag takes me anywhere from 35 to 55 minutes. I was told it’s 650m of elevation gain. Everyone leaves their gear (or at least their rope) at the cliff and hikes up with just water and food. At first, I brought my harness and shoes down to my tent and back up. Within two days, I was leaving as much as I could in the rope bag. Ten minutes into the hike, it steepens as it follows an eroding fin of limestone. The first two days, my legs burned on the uphill and my lungs couldn’t get enough air. The second two days, my face rained sweat on the rest of my body, and my lungs still struggled.
The second week, my legs and lungs felt strong but the word ‘oppressive’ kept coming to mind whenever I stepped into the sun. My second week, some 15 polish climbers moved into the camp. I lasted two nights with the increased population before I scouted out a new spot and relocated. Now, my tent is perched on a flat spot among small pine trees, a bit further from the rest of the world and a bit closer to myself. The isolation has been incredible, I find it so easy to take care of myself. In the mornings, I’ve taken to putting on my big blue headphones and dancing. My stiff back and neck loosen quickly to the rhythm of the music.
For five days, I climbed one-on, one-off to overcome the full-body exhaustion that started to seep through me. It was 30 degrees every day and the path is mostly unshaded. Amy, a strong blonde boulderer with a relentlessly positive attitude, says “we made it up here, that’s already a success.” She also has Courage, an adorable dog who incites smiles in nearly everyone who walks past; “you can’t be afraid of a dog with a hamburger.” Between the three of us, we seem to be finding a balance between pushing and relaxing.
I reached my quota of hot days and crowded walls already this Spring at Smith Rocks, so as the August crowds started to pour in, I prepared to leave. But then I was told that it was supposed to drop to 23 on Tuesday and the psyche poured back over me. I left my draws on Le Poinçonneur des Lilas and have a dual project. I want to be able to both climb the route and pronounce its name. Laying in my tent this morning I went through the moves in my head, I haven’t tried that hard on anything since February… or maybe April. I have until 1pm to work, then I’ll head back to my tent to eat some lunch and prepare some snacks to bring up the hill. My hands are tingling with excitement.
Tonight, I’ll be one of those headlamps popping in and out of the trees.