Change. It can happen gradually, like a tree growing in a forest, a glacier melting or a mountain eroding. But sometimes it’s sudden. There’s a seismic shift and what once was isn’t anymore. Our world turns upside down. Our perspective shifts. We’re forced to reset.
Some would argue that the events of this year, 2020, are just the culmination of a gradual change. Others would contest the outcome couldn’t have been foreseen. But both sides can agree that we’ve reached a tipping point. From climate change to Covid, racial inequality to political instability we cannot continue as is. Going ‘back to normal’ is not a way forward, because ‘normal’ simply isn’t working. It’s time to take stock. Listen. Learn. Grow. Reset.
2020 has forced us all into taking a good hard look at our lives and asking what we can do better. Can we be better? Out of the pain and struggle has come growth. Restrictions have made us see things we’ve never noticed before. Act differently. Appreciate simplicity. Although we’ve experienced 2020 disparately, it’s challenged us all.
For climbers Caroline Ciavaldini and James Peason the main challenge was confinement. Based in the south of France, they were subject to lockdown. Their travel plans were scuppered. In fact, all plans were scuppered. And for a while they lost hope.
Reframing What’s Possible
But then they started to train. And plan. To focus on the things they could do, rather than those they couldn’t. In France, restrictions prevented international travel, but people could still journey up to 100km from their homes. Rather than seeing this as a barrier, Caroline and James saw this as an opportunity to explore the territory right on their doorstep, and as Caroline points out: ‘we remembered why we chose to live where we do in the first place – that our house is surrounded by cool cliffs to climb’. That was when the idea of a bike and climb trip was cemented.
There was also a bigger picture framing it all. Caroline and James have been conscious about the high CO2 emissions their far-flung climbing trips emit and have wanted to do something about it for a while. For example, travelling to Rocklands in South Africa emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as it takes to heat Caroline and James’s house for a whole year. So if they could swap even just one of these annual long-haul trips for a close-to-home adventure, they’d be saving a whole load of nasty emissions from being pumped into the atmosphere.
On Your Bike
It was with this in mind that Caroline and James decided to swap their van for e-bikes and cycle from crag to crag, with Arthur – and all climbing gear – in tow in two trailers. And for added bit of ‘spice’, they were going to avoid roads and stick to MTB tracks and forest fire trails.
And day one was like an initiation of fire. En route to their first crag, their team had a half-metre-wide trail to negotiate with rocks, loose stones, and a whole lot of spiky shrubbery. ‘In good conditions, with a good MTB rider it wouldn’t have been much of a problem, with perhaps just one or two short sections of hike-a-bike,’ explains Caroline. ‘Add 10kg for an E-bike and a 40kg trailer and we’re sadly not talking about the same story! With no option to turn around, we forced our way forwards. Let's say that lifting/dragging/wrestling our trailers was a good warm up.’ Or the perfect excuse for being too exhausted to actually climb anything when they arrived at the crag.
But they persevered. And were rewarded. Not just with spectacular climbs, but a whole new appreciation for what they have right there, in front of them, close to their home.
Discovering Newness in the Familiar
‘The climbing highlight of the trip was definitely Buoux, where we divided our time between the ancient West Face and a newly bolted secret cave. The two areas couldn't be more different, and both of them are world class in their own special ways,’ says Caroline. ‘The West Face is all about delicate technical climbing up amazing features, including some fantastically hard limestone friction slabs. Here you can climb hard routes with strong fingers and technical feet. The new cave, on the other hand, is full of steep and pumpy climbing on good holds in a spectacular position above the Aigue Brun River. Strong fingers always help, but it's your forearms that will take you to the chains here. Or, see you dangling on the end of your rope.’
It was for the climbing that Caroline and James set themselves up in the South of France. But their adventurous spirits always drew them to destinations that were foreign, strange, new and unexpected. What they weren’t expecting was to find foreign, strange, new and unexpected things so close to home.
‘We discovered windmills built in the early 1800s and a troglodytic village lived in until the mid 1500s. We got to climb at awesome cliffs like Buoux that we don't normally go to because they’re too far for a day trip, but not far enough for a holiday. And we meet up with friends along the way that we’ve not seen in far too long. Life slowed down and simplified. Problems were limited to fixing punctures, remembering to charge batteries and stocking up on diapers before riding into a valley without any shops.’
The cycle ‘approaches’ brought an additional unknown aspect, the most obvious being that they’d never cycled those routes before, so who knew what kind of condition they’d be in. But also, how would Arthur get on sitting in the trailer for several hours each day? Would they be too exhausted to climb once they got to the crag? What would they do in bad weather or if something went wrong? Because of all these unknowns they took a completely different approach to the entire trip. They relaxed. There were no fixed timelines. No set-in-stone goals. In fact, the only objective was to have fun.
‘The difference on this trip was that biking actually made it easier to laugh about it all, because basically this trip was a compromise,’ says Caroline. ‘Cycling to a cliff is tiring and you may have to revise your objectives downwards – even better, forget about the grades all together. Of course, the “ticking” conditions would be better with a good bed, an approach of one minute and a baby with his grandparents… but like that you’d miss half the magic: picking handfuls of fresh cherries, the U-turns on disappearing paths and baby discovering what a wonderful world we live in! At 35, the importance of these little letters and numbers fade. All we wanted was to climb, try hard and follow the ideals that are important to us.’
And speaking of ‘baby’, deciding to do a bike and climb holiday with a newly-walking toddler is a monumental challenge in itself. But Caroline and James like a good challenge and they want to expose their son, Arthur, to as many adventures as possible.
‘We chose a selection of cliffs we thought had a relatively safe base for Arthur to play. But sport climbing with a baby is a sport within the sport.’
However, it’s something they’ve been practicing since Arthur was just a few weeks old. Though his recently acquired skill and passion for walking would test just how adaptable their practice really was.
‘Suddenly the world is there for him to explore and it's quite amazing at how quickly those little legs can carry him away out of your sight. Despite not having a square metre of flat ground to play on, Arthur’s behaviour was exemplary. He walked and scrambled and climbed and fell, but never too far away for us to worry too much.’
Over the course of a month, the trio fell into a rhythm. Despite the odds, they developed a simple routine. They improved their bike-trailer packing skills and they adapted to the weather and mood of the day. After climbing dozens of routes, discovering new and rediscovering old crags and slowing their pace to as fast as you can travel with a baby, an e-bike and fully-loaded trailer, Caroline and James realised that it’s not about physical distance. It’s about connection. They have a new-found connection to the immediate world around them. A new appreciation for smaller, simpler pleasures. And a new list of routes they will be revisiting.
‘We’re used to going to the other side of the world to find the unknown and we love it, but never did we think we’d be able to find similar experiences less than 100km from our house. The mountain bike-climbing trip was an adventure mode that was a revelation to us, and one I’m definitely sure we’ll be enjoying again in the not too distant future.’