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France: Land of Wine, Cheese, and Beautiful, Rarely Visited Crags

Turns out that the land of cafes and croissants has some pretty wild rock formations.

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This photo essay first appeared in Climbing No. 376, in Spring 2021.

France’s geologic wonders are as breathtaking as they are limitless, from the limestone precipices of the Verdon Gorge to the sandstone blocs of Fontainebleau­—and let’s not overlook the granite aiguilles above Chamonix or the balmy seaside cragging of Les Calanques. Wherever your eyes land, this nation of fine food and vin rouge delivers in abundance. Lesser known are its myriad smaller crags and cliffs, places of similar grandeur where you may find yourself the only climbers not speaking French—or perhaps the only climbers at all.

What follows is a sampling of France’s unique rock architecture, as seen through the lens of the renowned climbing photographer Sam Bié.

A climber climbing in l’Oreille, Saint-Auban.
François Cholet and Wawa (8a/5.13b) at a developing sector, de l’Oreille, Saint-Auban. Legend holds that a hermit lived in the mountain’s caves, such as the one seen in this photo, and was the area’s first climber. (Photo: Sam Bié)
Benoît Yerly and David Denis are drawn to l’Attraction Désastre (7a/5.11d; 7 pitches), on the Mediterranean, Cap Canaille, between Cassis and La Ciotat. The 90-million-year-old rock of Cap Canaille is a mixed bag of sandstone, limestone, and conglomerate, or “puddingstone.” Climbing on the 1,000-plus-foot cliff is as unusual as the rock, says the photographer Sam Bié: “Alone, facing the Mediterranean, on rock with extraordinary shapes, the climbing is unique.” (Photo: Sam Bié)
Two climbers on a seaside cliff in Europe.
Clément Hilger and Hélène Devofelarere soar with the gulls, La Traversée des Parpelles (4a/5.5) on the Bec de l’Aigle (Beak of the Eagle), a promontory at Cap Canaille that drops 500 feet on one side to the town of Ciotat and overlooks a luxury-yacht yard on the other. “The route is easy,” says Bié, but with the exposure “we were really happy to be roped.” (Photo: Sam Bié)
Climbgers on the Mont Sainte- Victoire in the south of France.
Antoine Lorton and Morgan Dallongeville on l’Éperon de l’Ermitage (5c/5.9) at Mont Sainte- Victoire in the south of France. The mountain’s startling geology has inspired artists like Kandinsky, Cézanne, and Picasso. (Photo: Sam Bié)
Arnaud Petit climbing at Buoux, France.
Arnaud Petit, Courage Fuyons (7a/5.11d) at Buoux, France, one of the world’s first—early 1980s— sport crags. Initially overrun by climbers, its sharp, technical limestone/sandstone routes have fallen out of fashion in favor of steeper, thuggier climbing. Upside: no crowds. (Photo: Sam Bié)