Seen from the wonderful Route Nationale 75 Grenoble to Sisteron road, Mont Aiguille is spectacular. In fact, it looks formidable from every aspect. It really is the stand-out mountain of the Vercors region, or for that matter anywhere in France. It was first climbed in 1492 by Antoine de Ville on the order of King Charles VIII. This was undoubtedly a herculean effort which probably was the birth of mountaineering, yet the sport did not spontaneously take off because it took nearly 350 years for Jean Liotard to psyche himself up for its second ascent. Still, how hard could it be? Reuben and I were about to find out.
We drove down from Grenoble and did not immediately see Mont Aiguille because the the weather and the forecast were decidedly indifferent. We pulled into the village of Chichilianne which is at the foot of the mountain.
It was not difficult to find the hotel, as it was the only building not inhabited by cows. It had seen better days; probably in the 1950s. Retrieving our bags from the car was unpleasant in the heavy rain, but negotiating the hotel's demonic pet wolf was, at best, inconvenient. Dinner was surprisingly good and optimism improved, the more flagons of rouge we consumed.
During the night it continued to rain, then the bedroom shutters started banging in the wind. The scene was dramatised with flashes of forked lightning.
At breakfast, at least it had stopped raining. We set off up the hill on a path which wandered through some beautiful broad-leaf forest. There was nothing wrong with the path, apart from its gradient; the angle was so low that the switchbacks through the forest went on and on with no seemingly determinable height gain. Despite this, eventually we arrived at the Col de L'Aupet (1,672m) after an hour and half. It was now just a question of leaving the main path and hacking up the scree to the start of the route.
I had made some assumptions, based on what I had read about Mont Aiguille. I had read that the ascent is incredibly popular; some might say too popular, with lots of overcrowding. Yet apart from Reuben, and the Addams Family who ran the hotel, I'd seen no-one else in the last 12 hours. Secondly, the description in the French Alpine guidebook suggested the climbing and, critically, the route finding was simple. The guidebook gave the route the grading of PD (Peu Difficile, or of little difficulty).
So how hard could it be? Well, finding the start of the route was proving near impossible; no path, no sign, no clue. Added to which there was a gale blowing, and it was now spotting with rain. Fortunately, apparently out of nowhere, a bunch of “Chasseurs Alpins” (French alpine troops) conveniently turned up. Their commanding officer showed us where the route started. Which even with hindsight, was NOT blindingly obvious.
Once we were established on the climb, things were much better although there is no way in hell it could or should be described as a scramble; rather it is a spectacularly exposed rock climb. The climbing is varied and in places follows fixed cables, ridges, slabs; in fact the whole gamut of alpine-style rock climbing.
Finally the route follows a wet, stepped chimney which has a big thick cable running its entire length. The cable is there to aid progress. At the top of the chimney, the ground opens out into a different world: Yorkshire! It is like suddenly arriving in the Dales. The only thing missing was sheep and a bloke in a flat cap, checked shirt and riding a quad bike.
It took about 15 minutes to walk the length of the field to where the true summit lies. If you require a reality check to establish you’re not in Yorkshire, you need only look over the edge. If you dare, you are treated to a 1,000m (3,000ft) vertical drop in every direction: a BASE jumper’s paradise.
Now, the one thing that the guide book was adamant about was that the line of descent is not the line of ascent. Rather you must follow a long steep gully which ultimately ends with two 45m abseils. The start of the descent is marked by a plaque commemorating the 500th anniversary of the audacious first ascent.
We followed the long couloir, which still had a lot of snow in it, and eventually found the departure chain for the first abseil. This was straightforward, but needed care not to dislodge the many loose rocks.
The guidebook was categorical about the the final abseil, stating that it passes over a cave and therefore into space. It remains in space for the next 40 metres. What the guide book neglected to say was that the abseil deposits you in a giant chasm with no obvious exit (well, not obvious to me as I hung like a spider on a thread…)
Eventually, after some shenanigans (using my iPhone torchlight and clenching it in my teeth) I did find the exit out of the cave system and then shouted for Reuben to come down. We popped out of the labyrinth cave system into a beautiful spring afternoon, from where we joined the path and headed back down through the forest. Simple really. (Not!)