"For the winter and spring of 2023-2024, one of my major goals, as it has been for a few years now, was to climb a 9b, sport climbing. A friend of mine and a very strong French climber, Lucien Martinez, told me about Pic St-Loup as a potential location where I could find the route of my dreams. La Baume des Escargot on the north face of Pic Saint-Loup, near Montpellier, indeed harbors numerous particularly beautiful and challenging routes! Among them: two potential 9b routes, ACL and Beyond intégral! Another essential advantage of this cliff: it faces north and is particularly exposed to the wind. Not ideal for tanning, certainly, but perfect for my soft and sweaty skin (I sweat a lot from my fingertips and am what they call "soft-skinned"). I've noticed recently that I had a lot of skin issues when choosing south-facing projects. The conditions of Pic Saint-Loup, despite being extremely cold, suit me perfectly!
Easily convinced, last November, I decided to spend two weeks there and set my sights on Beyond and its first pitch, 9a+, a perfect intermediate goal in the 9b process. Climbing on this route is magnificent, physical, complex, and demanding! I quickly fell in love with the beauty of the route and decided to fully invest in it before committing to its 9b long version! Despite its initially very physical appearance, I realized it's primarily a fantastic technical challenge. It requires perfect mastery of knee jams and dropknee techniques, and the numerous possibilities for footholds demand a lot of beta refinement.
To overcome the cruxes, a lot of finger strength in a full-crimp position was also needed, which I particularly enjoyed!
What a joy to be back in this working process, searching for details, feeling motivated during the approach hike, falling asleep thinking about the movements. After a few sessions, significant progress was felt: I could tackle long sections of the route. And on the last day of these two weeks working on the route (about 7 sessions), during a very intense attempt, I managed to get through the first crux done from the ground. Completely pumped, I ended up falling in the second crux. Not enough endurance this time, I'll have to come back in better shape!
A month later, in the heart of winter, I finally had the chance to take revenge on the route. I only had a few days before Christmas to celebrate and fulfill my social and family duties. I had to be strong and efficient to complete it in such a short time. However, my first attempt on the route was very promising: I felt much stronger than during my last visit! I breezed through the cruxes with disconcerting ease! It was so pleasant to feel progress in a route. The sensation of progress was almost as exhilarating as completing a project. It's one of the things I love about climbing: you don't know why or how, but suddenly you can execute movements with a certain ease, when you could barely hold the positions at the beginning of the process. On my second session of this second stay, I reached the top, falling on the last move of the crux in an astonishing effort. Ah, it felt good! I've got this route; all I had to do is keep trying and stay focused, and one of these days, I'd catch that hold! In the next three sessions, I continued falling, attempt after attempt in this formidable section. I felt better and better, but each time a small mistake left me hanging, penitent, in the harness.
Last day. Tomorrow I'll have to leave! I knew I can overcome it, but the previous sessions have worn me out... My skin was in pain, the back of my thighs was irritated from the kneepads, I felt my muscles sore from the preceding days. It was going to be a battle. I took my first attempt and failed again in this tough section.
For my second try, I didn’t really dare to believe anymore. I thought, I might have to come back next january. But might as well give it a full try one last time... I breezed through the start of the route, I was precise and climbing quickly! I got through the first crux in pain. As I reached the rest, I felt my thumb slip on this left tufa. A quick glance confirmed what I feared: I had a nice cut on the skin, and blood was running down my forearm. Damn! I tried to dry the blood with chalk as best as I could – it didn’t work entirely. Well, it was okay, I had to deal with it. I resumed climbing from this precarious resting position on a kneebar with the firm intention to settle it. I didn’t think anymore. I was just in the moment. I let my body do the rest. Now I was in this second crux: I eagerly crimped that little undercling, placed my dropknee, and gave it everything I have!
In a big struggle, I finally managed to grab that slippery tufa marking the end of the challenging part of the route. After that, it was essential to stay focused. No more room for failure now! Normally, it's much easier; there was about a 7c equivalent left, a rodeo-style climb straddling a large tufa! But with the stress and fatigue of the session, I felt the pump building up in my forearms. But it was not the time to let go! I pulled on my heels, used knees, released my arms as much as possible. Just a few more meters! There it was, I've just executed the last hard move... I could enjoy the final moves and clipped the anchor, with a shout of joy, achieving my third 9a+! About 13 sessions were needed to finish this route.
To be continued, for the exit through ACL and its 9b… Let’s come back in January!"
Photo credits: © Sam BIÉ