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Le Tour des Alpilles

A Homegrown Bikepacking & Climbing Adventure
Caroline Ciavaldini // Photography by Raphael Fourau

It seemed strange, back then, to use the word ‘adventure’ when talking about your home crags. In the days before lockdown, we had been climbing sandstone towers in the Ethiopian desert, living the life of adventure that we carved out together over many years as professional climbers – the life that had become ordinary to us, and that we assumed we would continue to pursue. We’ve both built long-term careers out of travelling to unknown corners of the world, seeking new rock to scale, always on the move. Neither of us could have imagined finding similar experiences, unlocking the same emotion that our faraway travels have brought us, within a 100km radius from our front door.

At the end of May, James and I set out with our baby Arthur to pursue the adapted adventure we had planned, fitting within France’s new regulations. With e-bikes and trailers – one towing climbing gear, the other our son – we pedalled slowly towards the little-known crag of Estézargues. Tackling an overgrown, technical trail with heavy bikes and even heavier trailers set the tone for what we had signed ourselves up for, and after hours of pushing, hauling, and pulling bikes, we didn’t even manage to climb on our first day.

Sport climbing with a baby is a whole new discipline within the sport. We took Arthur to the crag for the first time when he was only a few weeks old, and in the 18 months since we have all been practising: teaching him to nap at the crag, creating a safe play area, and even, when necessary, belaying with him in the carrier (harness position is crucial). It is a coordinated family act to finish a warm-up and be baby-free when we’re ready for our actual attempts. And as Arthur grows and becomes more mobile and independent, the act evolves – and we all learn new tricks.

While Arthur explored his world, figuring out his limbs by scrambling and falling in the small area we created for him beneath our chosen routes, we managed to achieve our first climbs on this trip. Despite living only 15 minutes from Estézargues, we had never actually been climbing there, always opting to drive a little further for slightly better cliffs. The Alpilles region tends to attract only local climbers – the climbing isn’t necessarily bad, there just happens to be more further afield. We are finally discovering our own back yard. The crags of Estézargues can’t be described as beautiful, with holds that are sharp, chipped, or full of sika, but we ate them up nonetheless, ravenous after two months of lockdown with no climbing. We managed up to 8b, and Arthur managed to learn to walk out of sight.

We found our rhythm in Orgon, making nice ticks at La Bergerie, where James sent a 8c and 8b. I sent an 8a onsight, and we both appreciated the fitness benefits of having just been through two months of unlimited – and exclusive – climbing in our home gym. La Bergerie was paradise for Arthur, too, thanks to a small wall that naturally prevented his escape and allowed him to explore his own stronghold of the day.

I hit a low point of the adventure on Godasse Clean, an 8a at Fetid Beach that I eventually gave up on. My frustration dissipated with uncharacteristic ease, however, because we knew that the whole trip was a compromise – for professional climbers, ‘ticking’ conditions would be better with a good night’s rest in a bed, transport by car, and the baby with his grandparents. By cycling each day and juggling the physical tasks of adventure as a family, I submit to revising my usual objectives. In no time, I found myself laughing it off, and walked away from the route.

It’s amazing how something new and unknown just a few days before can quickly become routine. Every day began with a big breakfast of pain aux chocolate, coffee, and croissants, followed by packing the cargo trailer in the precise way we’ve found that keeps wobbles to a minimum, then we strapped Arthur into his seat and set off. Life slowed down and simplified. Problems were limited to fixing punctures, remembering to charge our batteries, and stocking up on diapers before riding into a valley without any shops. By keeping the stress and pressure low, we were so much more open to appreciate life itself. Without fixed time constraints or large climbing objectives, we followed the flow of our own family adventure as we made it – a new pace for us, but one we’ve been learning ever since having Arthur.

Accessing climbing crags by bike turned the approach into an adventure in itself. Instead of spending hours sitting still in a van, we explored the unexpected and beautiful places along the way. Each individual bit of trail was a new discovery. We felt transformed, arriving at even the scrappiest bit of rock delighted to be there, and began climbing, encouraged by the achievement of arriving entirely under our own steam.

Every day in this adventure my passion for this 100km radius grew stronger. The final segment of our journey was Buoux, a climber’s paradise that I didn’t begin to appreciate until my early thirties. From the bottom of the valley, the colours are magnificent, and in the climbing movements the gestures are unique. Just as the old streets of Paris inspire respect, Buoux, with more than 50 years of climbing history, is a fit old lady, pampered by those who lovingly care for her. From Edlinger to Le Menestrel and Moon, behind each route an anecdote is hidden, and even the 7as do not give themselves easily. This playground was the climbing highlight of the trip. We split our time between the ancient west face and a newly bolted secret cave – two areas both with world-class climbing, yet they couldn’t be more different. On the west face, strong fingers and technical feet deliver incredibly hard routes on limestone friction slabs. In the cave, steep and pumpy climbing on good holds depends on good forearms.

After a month of life on the road, adventuring as a family and climbing on our own terms, our loop took us back home. The last two hours of cycling were a last pleasure that the three of us enjoyed with the clear feeling of having had a perfect month. It’s been one to remember. The adventure mode of mountain bike-climbing trip has been a revelation for us, and one I’m sure we’ll be enjoying again in the not-too-distant future.

Follow James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini’s adventures on Instagram

Photography by Raphael Fourau //@raphaelfourau