And so the decision has been made. It’s been quite a few years now, a sentiment that always makes you feel old but I think this year is the time to return. It was back in 2006 when three friends and I made a three-and-a-half thousand mile trip round Europe in three weeks, stopping off at Fontainebleau, Ailefroide and almost with a slight fanfare as the highlight of the trip, four days enjoying the much fabled granite of Cresciano.
The now famous crags of Cresciano, Chironico and Magic Wood have brought a slight cringe to me since that doomed trip, as at the height of the summer, with no guidebook, where we didn’t actually get to climb anything. In fact, we didn’t even see any boulders or touch any rock. I have always put this down to our lack of information to find anything (which I think anyone who has visited will understand, judging from the high, tree-covered valleys) but I think a lot of it may have been youthful naivety and a lack of drive. Now, older, wiser and more desperate to make the most of my youth while I cling to it like the smallest of holds on a slate E5, I am finally going to make the long drive back.
The decision to return ultimately came down to money, which may seem odd judging from the fact I’ve said I’m driving there and the choice of destination, but we’ll come to that later. At the start of December last year, I began trying to decide where on earth (literally) I was going to go for my annual bouldering trip this year. After having recently bought a house in Llanberis, this was never going to be an easy decision, as financial burdens have begun to play their part, but I was determined to choose somewhere that I would not forget for a while.
My early plans were far too extravagant, including a flight to Bangalore and a trip to Hampi from which some friends are due to return shortly, a visit to another friend in Vancouver to experience the growing venue of Squamish, and a two-week trip to Rocklands in South Africa (although this years world cup had kind of dissuaded me from the latter already). All sounds plans, but given my current situation, completely unfeasible.
Just before I bought the house last year, I flew out to Albarracin in the heart of Spain’s beautiful Iberian mountains and everyone assured me this would be my last holiday for a while. I’m still not convinced, judging from the fact that a week in Font last year cost two of us £135 each round trip from London, so I know I can travel cheaply with the right planning and preparation. Nevertheless, I knew this year would need to be cheaper than most
My next thought was to take lots of smaller trips and explore England a little more, although this was quickly dismissed. I’ve lived in Birmingham and Lancaster and travelled extensively through the Peak District, Lake District, Yorkshire and Lancashire and while there are still so many places I still haven’t been, I felt to really get away, it would have to be somewhere I really haven’t explored. The first proviso was at least one trip this year had to be abroad.
With three trips to Font tucked safely under my belt, I felt that also wouldn’t cut the mustard. I love Font, and France in general, but I have now been and done quite a few of the things all new comers there have done: spent days wandering aimlessly at Bas Curvier, seen the Elephant boulder, stayed at La Musadiere and walked straight from the site to the nearest climbs you can find. While another trip this year is not off the cards (I still can’t believe how cheap it can be there), similarly to my short lived plans for England’s greatest Gritstone, I did not want this to be my main focus of the year.
As I have explained to oh so many people in the past, I always prefer to drive to my chosen destination. The reasons are simple: they do not put campsites, airports and supermarkets near world class crags. They are never within walking distance from each other, and public transport in a foreign language still continues to confuse me. As such, being as I have only ever been to Western Europe, I have always driven. Considering when we went to Spain and we did fly and rent a car, it involved two of us driving from Wales to Birmingham, only to miss a bus and catch three trains to Gatwick and then miss our flight, with a similarly ludicrous journey home, I stand by my reasons, and if you can fill the car, it can often work out cheaper too. With that in mind, and the ferry port in Holyhead only 45 minutes from my house, I toyed with the idea of finally going to Ireland.
This fills the criteria, I thought: it’s abroad, it’s somewhere I haven’t been before and I hear the bouldering is phenomenal. I told my dad of the idea.
“Well,” he said, “It rains as much in Ireland as it does in Wales, so chances are, you’ll probably get rained on for a week.”
Bollocks, he’s got a point. It’s the one thing I have realised in the last year – Snowdonia has a rather wet reputation for a reason, and it really isn’t that far across the water to Ireland. Suddenly I tuned back into the phone conversation I was still in the middle of, only to be very surprised.
“Yeah, if you compare the ferry cost, and living costs, you might as well drive to Switzerland, or Italy or something. You’re much more likely to get good conditions down there.”
Wow, I thought, you’ve said the magic word. Suddenly my mind raced with the idea of finally getting to go back and actually climb something! Even better now, too, as my grade is much higher now, giving me a much greater berth of problems to try! I started racing around the room with excitement, suddenly looking for the guide I bought as soon as I got back the last time. But hang on a minute; did he say something else then? Italy was it?
Val di Mello is another spot that has come onto the radar in the last couple of years, especially after the Mellobloco festival began back in 2004, and I have heard rumours of the beauty of the area from several people now. However, whilst in Spain, we met a great couple known only to us as “Super” Paulo and Stef. They had told us they lived in Trento in Northern Italy and had begun to visit another area called Val Daone. The first guidebook for the area came out in 2009, and it is still very new, although they assured us it was certainly a great place to go.
A couple of days later I managed to find a few maps to glance at. It all seemed so simple! Drive to Dover, get a quick ferry, go down through Germany (their motorways are free) to Val Daone, then across to Val di Mello, and finally across the border to Switzerland to exercise the demons that have bothered me for 4 long years. Perfect! But am I missing somewhere?
Many years ago, while at University, I was discussing the idea of travelling around Europe to explore a little more and I heard an interesting view,
“There’s still so much in Britain, why not check out what’s here first before going abroad?”
My response then is as true today as it was then, and hopefully you will empathise with my point: there is always somewhere else to visit. I live in one of the greatest areas of the UK for all manner of climbing, a place of wonderful heritage, great history, where nearly all of the greatest of British climbers have had to prove themselves to make their name, and yet there is still a strong draw to find somewhere else. It’s not that I don’t love to be here, but as selfish as this will sound, it’s never enough. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be honest; it’s what has inspired histories greatest climbers and explorers and is what still drives so many of us to go out and climb even today (albeit at an entirely different end of the spectrum).
I’m really looking forward to my trip this year, a shopping list of guides, maps and accessories is already starting in my head and I can’t wait to go. Every film, talk and article about Swiss granite has had a little sting in its tail for me since 2006 and I can’t wait to get out there and realise what I missed the first time around. A Scottish trip and maybe another holiday are also on the cards but this is where I really want to be. It’s quite strange really, to have found such drive and excitement again, so much so, I was reading the Blocheart guide today in my lunch break and I have missed having this feeling.
The North Face have summed things up quite nicely for me with their slogan, once found on the fly of a pair of ladies TNF trousers: Never Stop Exploring. It seems a nice sentiment on which to end, summing up my thoughts of the last six weeks. There will always be somewhere else I wish to go, some other far flung place that I wish to go in order to follow my passion. I just hope I never run out of destinations.
The great irony, as you may have noticed, is that Switzerland has once again gone out of the window in favour of Val Daone, but I suppose this is really the point of the article! One day I will return, but there’s always somewhere else to go first it seems…