Alan Carne: British Expat King of the Verdon
When and where were you born?
I was born in Manchester in the industrial north of England in 1960. Some would say on the wrong side of the Pennines, being one hour from the Gritstone Edges as opposed to Sheffield being only 20 minutes. But I have always loved my hometown, Its fine old Victorian buildings, Its industrial heritage, and though less well known for, a certain mountaineering heritage. British legends such Don Whillans, Joe Brown, Alex Macintyre, Al Rouse, and others were from Manchester or nearby. Even today I feel my identity is strongly rooted there, though this is probably a trait common to people from this part England.
Yes, but none showed any interest in climbing or the outdoors.
Did your folks climb?
When/why did you start climbing?
As a kid going out hiking and camping in Wales or the Peak District had always been the way our Church or School got us away from the grimness and pollution of where we grew up in the inner city. I was therefore used to seeing people climbing with all the old fashioned gear, hawser laid ropes, big "Joe Brown" hard hats, and heavy clunky walking boots. Then on a school trip we got to try it with one of the teachers who was an experienced climber. That was in 1975, must have been about 14 or 15 at the time. I remember the route was about 5 pitches (5.6 or 5.7) and we were tied on directly round the waist on a thick rope. I joined the school climbing club and a couple of years later was already hitching out to the Gritstone for the weekend. I'd usually have a pack heavy with bivy gear, rope, a few nuts and hexes (this was several years years before the advent of cams) and tins of beans, rice pudding and white bread. There was a whole band of us and we'd meet up at the same crags, Stanage, Froggatt, Burbage, Stoney, dossing out in caves or at Stoney Woodshed and learn from each other or by trial and error. Although we were just mates meeting up at Stoney Middleton or Grindleford Café I now see many of them as important mentors and unsung heroes in the days before commercial sponsorship. "Dirty" Derek Hersey, Chris" Plantpot" Plant, Mark "Zippy" Pretty, Jonny Woodward, Jerry Moffat, "Black" Nick Colton, and so many others who lived for the rock. None of us thought very much about the future, or the complicated real world of work and careers. By 1978 I would be spending every weekend or day that I could bunk off high school in the Peak District – I was hooked.
What experience really made you realize this was the coolest thing in the world?
Probably not one single experience but a gradual process of apprenticeship and admittance to a kind of Guild of climbing bums! Like becoming a citizen of a multi-faceted, multi-coloured sub-culture. Nevertheless hitchhiking to the Verdon Gorge in 1979 completely blew me away. I'd never seen or imagined anything so huge and flawless. The one photo I'd seen of Ron Fawcett on the cover of Mountain 61 barely reflected the reality. Endless shields of iron hard stone, sculpted with beautiful holds. and soaring crack systems. Crazy verticality and lonely freehanging abseils in cathedral silence. Then, the nagging doubts marooned on a terrace in the middle of the 400m cliff, having already pulled the abseil ropes. I was 18, and taking off alone on that first road trip was something really exciting and unpredictable.
What do you like best about the Verdon?
It's big, mega exposed, the rock is incredible, and the moves are beautiful and elegant. I remember the first routes that I did here, the people I did them with, and can still relive the emotions and sensations they gave me as an 18 year old. When I repeat them it's as though nothing has changed, and I'm transported back. It's a nice feeling. For quality limestone there's only the Suisse Wendenstock, the Ratikon, and the Marmolada in Italy that compare. I love the big air exposure with spaced out bolts, and the demanding style which is like an exploration of vertical balance. For a non alpine rock area there's also a sense of adventure and committement that I can only compare to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison – once you've rapped in you feel committed and quite isolated.
I'm just back here now in december, and went climbing alone today, self belayed. It's cold and totally silent. Even the birds have left except for the huge Griffon vultures flying really close to me. I really love the peace and silence of winter here.
What's your wife like?
My best partner, and a born intellectual. After already having had a career as a construction manager she's now fullfilling her destiny and completing her Phd.
My house is typical of a Provencal village. Really old. It was built in 1655, with oak beams, and the original tiled floor is worn by centuries of feet walking across it. There's also a wine cellar underneath that never seems to have much wine in it!
I work here in the Verdon as a Certified Rock Guide. After all the bum climber jobs I'd done over the years I think it's my dream job. Buckling down to focus on the studying and training for a couple of years wasn't easy and there were times I wanted to bail and just go climbing. I'm glad I didn't. I think I learned a lot, and not just technical stuff. Somehow, taking a step back has helped sharpen my teaching instincts and become more analytical of my own and other peoples abilities and motivations. It's a French diploma so added to the skills required as a Guide I had to get fluent in the language. The selection test for the programme was also quite tough. A sort of climbing competition where you had to onsight three 7a s back to back with 8 mins per route, then present a list of experience to the judges. All thats now finished so I'm back on the road in my off season.
Favorite style of climbing?
Some styles come more naturally than others, and I tend to gravitate towards them. I've always had good finger strength and flexibility so I like thin technical face climbs where these qualities are important. Perhaps it's my upbringing on the gritstone, but crack climbing has always come pretty naturally, and the aesthetic powerful lines are so magnetic. I've never had good power so dynamic styles of climbing are a weakness but I think bouldering will improve that. Having said that, I try to have a wide repertoire of rock type and movement to help me progress, stay motivated, and avoid injury.
Only one, but my life's most sobering wake up call; brought me pretty close to not reaching my 30th birthday. I was over here from the UK on vacation trying as usual to cram a maximum into the 2 weeks we had. This meant no rest days. I would climb with my wife and on her days off go and try to get in as many routes as possible with anybody I could line up. Fired by adrenaline and the good weather I became unconscious of how tired I was and how poor my concentration was becoming. I was on autopilot and it was all just routine.....the familier series of raps into the canyon, pull the ropes, do another route...oblivious to the dizzying exposure I was in my element but I wasn't alert and prepared for the unexpected. Then one day having planned to meet Kate for a route in the afternoon I headed off to do an 8 pitch 5.11 with Emil an Australian friend I'd only met the day before. The climb Pichenibule is a diagonal traverse that starts from the left edge of a suspended garden 150m above the Gorge floor and is accessed by 4 double rope rappels down Dalles Grises a classic 5.8. Arriving at the 3rd anchor I started to retrieve the ropes ready for the final 45m rap to the terrace and the knot joining them wedged itself in a crack after about 20m. Tugging uselessly at it, it got totally stuck. I started to get riled, and quickly ran up the 5.7 climbing belayed with the remaining rope. Clipping into a handy bolt I freed the jammed knot, untied from the rope, attached my rappel device and started to descend back to the lower anchor. In those days people rarely used a backup prussik and only tied knots in the ends of ropes if it was unknown territory, but no problem, I had done these raps hundreds of times. After a short distance I heard Emil shout up a warning but it was too late. Having forgotten to even up the rope ends, the shorter of the 2 ropes whipped through the rap device. I still remember the sensation of free fall as my weight pulled the rope down through the anchor. Emil put his arms out to catch me and succeeded in slowing me down but glancing off him from about 18m, he was unable to fully stop me. Then it was as if luck and survival instinct pushed my reactions into overdrive. Sliding down the near vertical slab in the middle of the Verdon Gorge my foot hit a large hold, cracking my ankle on impact at the same time as, flooded with adrenaline, I threw myself at the 5.7 finishing jugs a couple of metres below the anchor. Managing to pull myself up a move, I Looked up to see Emil, pale and almost physically shaking as he reached down, grabbed the belay loop on my harness, and clipped me in. Shocked and giggling hysterically we were now faced with getting back to the rim and the car; this was before the days cell phones were commonly carried on climbs. Finally, bruised and shaken, Emil lead out the 3 long 5.7/8 pitches while I dragged myself up behind doing a kind of one footed hop.
Over the next 4 months the ankle healed up well and my mind swung between euphoria and depression. So happy to be alive one day, knowing I had the chance to climb again and the next chilled by flashbacks, a battered ego, and uncertainty. I asked myself a lot of questions that I've forgotten now and never came up with many answers, other than happy to be alive, grateful to Emil - one of those inexpliquable chance meetings that seem to happen so often in climbing - and wondering if I had a charmed life. Oh, and promising myself and my wife that I would slow down, be more attentive, and appreciate the quality of the experience as opposed to the quantity.
4 months later I took the first shaky steps back on the rock. I shook my way up routes I would have considered moderates before the accident, and my comfort zone had narrowed so much I was totally freaked when on lead or on TR – that sensation of free fall was painful and took time to overcome.
In reflection, a hard slap in the face...
As relate to climbing, these might still be to come, but so far some Best Moments....
Making a one-day on sight ascent of The Nose with Scott Decapio (one of my best partners ever) in 1999. An epic day, and we only just made it but sitting on that last anchor with a full moon lighting the full sweep of the route was quite trippy. From early days in the Peak District and seeing that route featured in old Mountain magazines it had been one of my dreams. It didn't disappoint – beautiful to perfection.
Making a rare one day all free ascent of Mingus, a 12 pitch 5.13b (8a) in the Verdon Gorge with my friend Yannick Courtes in 2006. There's a lot of hard climbing on that route with multiple 7c, 7b+, and an 8a pitch. During the preparation, I remember how gobsmacked we were at Lynn Hill's majestic ground up onsight of this route in 1991.
Redpointing my first 13d (8b) Les Braves Gens in the Verdon last year. A just past vertical porcelain smooth wall, way up above the Gorge. For me It has all the uncompromising qualities of a hard slab with only just enough holds to make it possible. All the elements required for an intense redpoint.
Onsighting all 15 pitches of Marche ou Creve, 5.11d (7a) R/X at Eldorado dome, central Switzerland in 1989 with my wife. Little known in the US the granite here equals the best of Tuolumne.
My many visits to Wadi Rum in Jordan, climbing long Beduin routes on Jebel Rum with my wife, and drinking tea with the Beduin people in the vast arabian desert.
Onsighting Yesterday 5.12c at the Arapiles in Australia. A really pumpy trad pitch. I remember that wonderful feeling of trusting to intuition and instinct freeing me up to just climb. It served me well on the crux, an off balance sideways deadpoint.
Freeing Moonlight Buttress last year with Yannick Courtes, Sublime.
Finishing my Guide certification, I hate exams!
What drives you?
This always reminds me of the question I would always get asked by the HR manager when going for some bum job or another, and I never knew how to answer it convincingly. I could hardly admit, never mind clearly articulate how climbing rocks was the driving force in my life, when going for a job in an electrical goods store!
Climbing has always been and remains my driving passion, and the people I climb with drive me. However, the self centered fury of my 20s has given way to the need for a richer experience. Today it's not enough to go climbing on some polished pile of choss in some hole in the ground with whoever, just because I'm chasing some hard route there. Climbing now has to bring together beautiful moves, a line on beautiful rock, in an awe inspiring place, with a partner I like and trust. Difficulty remains important in that I enjoy having my physical skill, gymnastic ability and mental concentration challenged, but the thrill of climbing beautiful rock and of learning and discovering where and how far I can go with this overides everything.
Injury and/or ill health but I wouldn't want to dwell on that.
Describe an average day of cragging.
I hope there'll never be an average cragging day for me. Every day is special and different and is influenced by things like, motivation, fitness, partner, weather, season, crag environment, sport/trad, etc... It's part of what attracted me to climbing in the first place. When it becomes average and routine, I lose motivation. In the past I've occasionally tried to channel my energy into other sports, running, road biking, weights, etc... It's never lasted long. They've become routine and 2 dimensional. Climbing's complex and diverse,with a huge mental dimension. Even after all this time I find I continue to evolve. This year I've been building a bouldering session into my day. It's been a revelation. I'd never bouldered systematically in the past, but this time, hanging out with you and other talented young guys like Mark....? has really shown me how to TRY HARD! and the gain in power even at a modest level (V7ish) has made cruxes on 5.13s seem easy. It's the key to future progression, and something I've been missing out on for far too long!
What were some of the highlights of your recent trip to the Valley?
The Phoenix was amazing. A 5.13 crack in the crucible of world crack climbing feels pretty special. It's such an historic route and in a special place. You can't see it very well from the ground,and you have to rap in to the start of it. Then you see how beautiful it is close up, there's also a sense of commitment as it's the only route on the wall. All those old photos I'd seen as a kid in the Peak District made it feel like rapping back in time to the age of the Stonemasters, prototype rigid "Friends", EBs, white pants, headbands and all that...
Redpointing Electric Africa in Tuolumne. I was pleased to get this as the climbing is really unforgiving of poor technique, and placing the gear never feels comfortable. Kind of reminded me of how you need to climb here in the Verdon – good core tension, but relaxed at the same time, and not allowing yourself to be dominated by the insecure "barn door" moves.
Flashing Cosmic Debris (5.13b). That was another of those rare days when I climbed really intuitively. I was amazed how quickly it was over!
Bouldering in the Valley. As when I was young it was like opening up to new experiences and learning something with an open mind.
Apart from growing up and learning to climb trad in the UK, I think, my biggest influences were and are all the people I've climbed with over the years. mates I grew up climbing with, and the people I continue to meet , climb with, and learn from. It's a continuing process. I've been climbing for such a long time now that it would be difficult to maintain the passion without drawing on their energy. The people I climb with here in France or when traveling help me continue to evolve, stay motivated and learn. I don't think I ever really had a "role model" climber that I looked up to in a "starstruck" kind of way, though today climbers like Stevie Haston, and local Verdon activist/Guide Lionel Catsoyannis inspire me for different reasons. I've never climbed with him, but Haston has the drive and passion of an Olympic athlete. Now in his 50s he seems to continue improving having recently done 9a and flashed 8b+. I find that level of obsession inspiring and it strengthens my instinct to keep trying hard.
A natural Guide and with an artist's eye for a line, Lionel elevates new routing to an art form - out on the crag together I always learn something from him.
I think I'm going to metamorphose that question into best route/climbing experience as this also takes into account the occaision and the partner – even a great route can be ruined by a bad experience, with a incompatible partner, crowds, someone on your heels, that sort of thing. Irrespective of difficulty the route itself would have to have perfect rock, beautiful moves, line, spectacular natural setting, and some history. Add to that the perfect partner, no crowds and an amazing summit, and doing Snake Dyke with my wife could be hard to beat.
Old School – stories from back in the day?
Here's a tale from days of old in the Peak that I remember with a mixture of embarassement and nostalgia. It's 1982, there's 3 million on the dole in the UK, and the Stoney scene is buzzing with full time climbers, climbing hard and dossing out at the woodshed and at the crags. Ron Fawcett is still "King" but others are chasing his crown. There's Jerry Moffat, newly arrived and driven to be the best. There's Jonny Woodward, who's been putting up new routes for years, "Scruffy" Derek Hersey with his catchphrase "When in doubt Run it Out" Dougie Hall, unmediatized but brilliant, and a host of others. With all these talented and psyched climbers around, new route activity has exploded and everyone's competing for the unclimbed lines.
Jerry had put some effort into cleaning a new line in Chee Dale a popular limestone crag. It was going to be hard (5.12d) and dangerous(X) as the ethics prohibited the placing of bolts, and pre - placed pegs were also rather frowned upon. Finally he was ready to attempt this dangerous lead, and I offered to belay him. We hitched over to Chee Dale, and Jerry geared up with a few small nuts and a skyhook to place in a pocket at about 30'. Feeling a little nervous I was certainly glad it wasn't me on the sharp end. The overhanging groove was about 60' high, and looked really blank and desperate. Placing a good nut low down, Jerry was quickly at the hook placement. This would stop him decking if he fell off the next difficult moves. Cranking through the crux however, the hook lifted out of it's placement and came sliding down the rope to me. He was now pumped and certain to hit the ground from about 40' if he fell at this point. I remember the rope trailing uselessly and Jerry now shaking with effort as he managed to work a small nut into a dirt filled crack. Going for the wet and greasy finish it should have been in the bag, when his feet came sliding off the mud, and he was airborne. I prepared to take, but the nut, set in it's muddy placement ripped immediately. From about 50' Jerry literally bounced flat off his back in a grassy meadow, just missing a rock at the base of the route. He was wretching and coughing up blood, then passed out for several minutes. I was paralysed with shock thinking I had a dead body to deal with. The noise of the fall alerted Al Rouse who was there that day, and ran over to help from the other end of the crag. Unbelieveably after what seemed like several minutes Jerry regained consciousness and stood up! – there seemed to be nothing worse than a cut tongue and some bruises, though later it turned out he had a fractured sternum and had to take some weeks out.
What followed, I'm not so proud of. Jerry now temporarily off the scene, (while the Cat's away the mice will play) the project remained unclimbed, though perhaps only on a technicality. Then one morning in the café Jonny Woodward having heard the story, expressed an interest in trying the route. I was without a partner that day, so when he asked for a belay I didn't give it too much thought and said ok. As usual Jonny was climbing well, and after cleaning up the finish and replacing the hand placed skyhook with a piton, he quickly sent the route, naming it rather cheekily Ninth Life. Not surprisingly Jerry was absolutely furious, feeling the route had been stolen from him after all his hard work. I felt like the guilty "accomplice to the crime".
Today, looking back nearly 30 years there's still a pang of discomfort about my part in the affair and I feel sad that a small piece of unglamorous Peak District limestone, caused a rift between 2 such brilliant climbers and personalities. Finally I suppose we were young, had huge egos and passionately wanted to be heros and make our mark on the history of climbing.
Apart from a bit of hangboarding occaisionally, I climb a lot outside. I've tried various training regimes in the past from lifting weights to climbing indoors and they all seem to take away a lot of time, emotional energy, and transfer clumsily to the rock itself. Now that I have the Gorge on my doorstep it's more efficient to just get out on the rock and find projects that both excite me and allow me to develop.
Your best day of climbing would consist of?
Could be one of the following with a great partner!
El Topo (Verdon): A fabulous 14 pitch big wall in the Verdon Gorge with pitches of 8a and several 7c and 7b+ pitches. I've redpointed all the pitches individually but the ground up remains to be done. It'll be hard on the fingers as it's all thin vertical face, and the crux is the 13th pitch!
The Fish 5.12c R (Marmolada): This looks like a contender for the best limestone route in the world. A wall of perfect limestone the size of El Cap.
Salathé Headwall – The ultimate crack climbing project. Maybe a far fetched dream, but after doing a couple of Valley 5.13 cracks...I wonder?
For more about Alan Carne visit his website alanduverdon.com