We came to La Réunion with a fairly simple objective; to open a new multi-pitch route, ground-up, using as few bolts as possible. On first arriving at La Chapelle we knew we had a potential 7 days to attempt the wall, but all were quietly thinking we would be finished a lot sooner than that. For a while now I have been searching the world for a hard multi-pitch project that can be climbed entirely using traditional protection, including the belays, and with La Chapelle I thought I might have finally found it. The wall looked short and featured, with a clean series of cracks and corners running from bottom to top – the only problem… perhaps it would be too easy to present a worthy challenge?
However, at the end of the first pitch it was clear the route would be a lot tougher than it looked, and at the end of the first day, the question was no longer “is it too easy” but “is this thing even possible”!
The cyclone polished basalt is so smooth and so compact that free climbing on all but the best of holds proved very difficult indeed.
In addition, giant loose blocks sat stacked like dominos on every pitch and the cracks that seemed so clean from below were often full of a strange half-mud, half-stone mix.
Last but not least, the wall itself is also extremely overhanging, perhaps by as much as 25m in its 130m height.
Before I came to La Réunion I expected to be climbing big run-outs from the last bolt or good gear, sitting on hooks and pulling up the drill whilst facing a big fall into air. Whilst this style is obviously a little scary, it’s almost never life threatening and is a fear I am quite used to dealing with.
In reality things were very different… the line of the route often required us to pass over refrigerator sized loose rocks and flakes, which if motivated, would have no problem cutting your ropes clean in two on their journey to the canyon below.
Passing the sections of loose rock was a dangerous yet complex necessity as the rocks could only safely be removed once both climbers and ropes were secured above. The consequence of pulling one off whilst passing does not bear thinking about, and in all honesty, the genuine fear of losing my life was not something I was ready for.
As one party pushed forwards opening new ground, another group began work on cleaning and freeing the pitches below. When opening a route from the ground there are so many questions, so many unknowns, and so many risks. Several days of hard work can all be for nothing should you arrive at just a few meters of blank rock. We were so incredibly lucky with our chosen line; after removing the lose rock and dirt there are good cracks for the majority of the route, and where the cracks close, there are just enough face holds for it to be possible. To both the right and the left of our line, things just seem too steep, too blank, and too improbable.
As the days passed we came closer and closer to our goal of the top, but also closer to one of the major question marks of the wall, a beautiful overhanging curved dihedral. From the ground we couldn’t tell if there was a crack in the back – if yes, the route would be hard, but possible, if no, the route just would not work. From the top of the dihedral, easy cracks could clearly be seen leading to the summit. It all came down to this, make or break, and we wouldn’t know until we tried.
The route starts with a slabby 7a finger crack, which after the removal of some terrifying blocks became a great technical warm-up pitch. The 2nd pitch, 8a, follows directly with a hard, steep finger crack, good rests and then a cool, technical wall on slopey holds to reach the belay. The 3rd pitch is an excellent and strange 8a chimney! Never before have I linked so many weird bridging moves in a row. The 4th pitch was perhaps the dirtiest of the wall, but after a lot of work from Yuji, Caro and Sam, actually became an excellent powerful and varied 8a. This leads into the aforementioned dihedral of pitch 5 which happily has an excellent crack in the back, but is also very, very steep. Powerful for the hands and infuriatingly technical for the feet, the pitch becomes harder and harder until the crux climax at ¾ height with a crimpy and powerful boulder problem. From there easier (but still very hard) moves lead up to the belay, and the beautiful 6th (6b+) and 7th (7a) crack pitches to the top of the wall.
Although we managed to climb all the individual sections of the 5th pitch, with tired bodies and precious little time, linking the pitch was out of the question. Estimations of difficulty in the upper 8’s were being thrown about, and as the route is protectable by only small friends (with the exception of 1 bolt by the crux) it was clear we were looking at potentially one of the most difficult and beautiful traditional routes in the world!
We left our base camp at La Chapelle and drove back to the coast to attend this year’s Basalt Trip, which allowed for a good few days rest. We had succeeded in our original goal of opening a new route, but with the whole route so close to being freed, and the quality of the climbing on pitch being too good to ignore, we decided to walk back into La Chapelle with our sights reset on making a free ascent!
Unfortunately the weather seems to have taken a turn for the worse and the top of the pitch has been wet for the last few days. Never the less, we have started to make some good links on the pitch and success for one of us seems like it is just a matter of time. Time however is the problem… Yuji was due to leave today and has already extended his plane ticket, the whole team is due to fly out on Monday, Skin is thin, and the weather doesn’t look to be improving. The pressure is on, but you know what they say about pressure…