Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Sud-Est Directe, 540 m, 6c>6a at Pointe Jean Santé, Pic du Midi d'Ossau

Julia on the approach to Pic du Midi d'Osseau
If you for some reason end up close to the border between France and Spain in the summer and are trying to find cool rock, there are very few good options unless you head for the mountains. One option is to go to the classic “Climber's peak” Pic du Midi d'Osseau in the French Pyrenees.

All routes, even the normal route, are rather involved. This is not Chamonix. There are no fixed belays, at least none that you would happily rappel off. Even the most straightforward routes require double ropes, a big rack with lots of small gear, and a good nose for finding solid safe climbing. The mountain is of andesite, a volcanic rock that is quite slick with mostly thin cracks.

The mountain is interesting on all sides, so getting down involves scrambling, easy climbing and rappelling.

When we climbed the route we did not need crampons or axes to cross the randkluft (rimaye in french and catalan). We called the guardians of the refugio next to the mountain to enquire about the snow conditions and if we would need to bring crampons. The guardians where hesitant to give a clear answer, which was understandable as it was a marginal call.

When I looked on the topo, our chosen route, Sud-Est Directe looked like an easy day out—for a 500 m route anyway. In reality it took us a long time to get up and down the route, I don't remember the time exactly but we managed to return to the refugio just in time for the dinner so it must have been around 12 hours.

The pitch-grades on Sud-Est Directe is of the typically parsimonious Pyrenées's standard. The same holds true for other routes I've heard.

The route, some pitch notes
Bearing in mind that we climbed this in 2014 and I did not write down any notes, take everything I say with some grain of salt. I'm sure it's all true, but I might miss some crucial details.

The approach was very easy, about 20 min from the refugio/camping. The first pitch is easy and nondescript, but the second pitch is one of the hardest, with fairly complex terrain (6b+, the main problem is to find a good combination of good gear and easy climbing).

Julia following the 2nd pitch

A few easy pitches leads up to a cool ledge with a very cool hanging tree before the crux pitch.
Javi belaying from a mighty flake on top of pitch 4...
Julia found a good belay in the shade....
....while Julia is belaying in the shade before Pitch 5. Photo: Javier Aranda
The crux pitch (6c) had some really nice climbing up to a short boulder problem in an open grove. The crack in the bottom of the groove was too thin for my fingers, but I could find a sequence with mostly stemming and face holds. Very pleasurable pitch up to an obvious belay.
Joaquim above the difficulties of pitch 5.

From there the climbing started to be surprisingly sustained. The pitches followed generally a big corner system and the line is mostly quite obvious.

Joaquim climbing somewhere on the route. Probably on pitch 9. Photo: Javier Aranda
 On pitch ten the original line keeps going straight up the ever steeper dihedral at A1, while the most common way to climb it now is by finding a tricky traverse out left to a hidden dihedral (6a). I missed the true line of the traverse and climbed to high up on ground protected by inadequate fixed gear (6b+, at one point I clipped a fixed cam-hook...). One or two of the smaller ball nuts would have been lovely. The best line should be easy enough to find if you pay attention to the topo (or in my case: if I'd payed attention to what my partner told me).
Me being a bit uncomfortable on the tenth pitch. Photo Javier Aranda 
Our catalan friends, who found it hilarious that I complained about the pitons, were clearly held back by us at this point,.

The following  two pitches were surprisingly difficult and should not be treated lightly. Then easier climbing follows to the top of Pointe Jean Santé. I suppose it is possible to link this route, which finishes on the subsidiary (Pointe Jean Santé) with a route up to the prominent peak of Pic du Midi d'Ossau, but like most we were totally satistifed having done Sud-Est Directe.

The decent was a bit tricky and I recommend to find a good topo of this, and to talk with the guardians as well. The decent is a mixture of scrambling, easy fifth-class downclimbing (many pitons and fixed threads) and rappelling which leads back to the glacier on the west flank. We were able to cross the randkluft (bergschrund) and downclimb the glacier using sharp rocks as improvised ice tools. For this decent, stiff soled boots are better than trainers or approach shoes.

Refuge de Pombier

Back at camp—while you enjoy your evening meal in the Pompie Refugio (reservations needed) or by your tent on the idyllic green field by the small nearby lake—take some time to reflect on Serge Castéran's amazing solo enchainment of Sud-Est Directe with Le Plilier de l'Embarradère and Le Pilier Sud, done in a day in the late 80s. Almost unimaginable considering the insecure complex climbing some of the pitches offers. Castéran's solo got very little press at the time. Crazy.

Getting there
The mountain is just on the border between France and Spain. One and a half hours north of Huesca in Spain, and one and a half hours south of Pau in France. Park on the road a kilometer south of the border and hike up to the Pombier hut (less than an hour). I've dropped a needle on 27crags.com both for the peak and for the parking lot.

Staying there
Tent or the Pombier refugio. If you're staying in the hut, or eating there, reserve in advance. There are not many climbers around, but plenty of hikers. The guardians of the refugio are good climbers and can give detailed information about most routes. They are also willing to answer questions about the conditions etc.

Double ropes and a full rack, heavy on thin gear. Until early august, an ice tool and crampons might be needed to cross the snow beneath the route or on the decent.

May to late September. We climbed in July and had very nice conditions.

More information
As usual for this region of the world, Camp to Camp is a good source. There is some information on UK Climbing. This route is also in the bible, with a very precise topo, unfortunately without information how to get down. There is a binder of topos in the refuge.

La Vallée d'Ossau, Xavier Buxo, Luis Alfonso (2011, text in French and Spanish).

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