Monday, August 19, 2013

Orpierre Alone

I’m a loner by nature.  I’ve gone through a life mostly keeping things to myself.  It brought a comfort somehow.  I was never wrong and every direction I go seemed right.  The future remained vague but I didn’t care much back then.  I was younger and the future seemed too far away.  The only time I felt lost was when I had to be somewhere at the right time.  Time does limit how much freedom we have.  Mistakes seemed amplified when we’re in short of time.  Travelling alone seemed sad and I must confess, it did at times.  When I sat in the bus alone or the train or the plane, it did get lonely when I found no one beside me to smile at or chat with or share music with.  It’s a dream maybe to be able to travel with someone who’s as excited as me.  Of course it has to be for climbing, always for climbing.  I can remember two people who immensely touched my life while travelling for climbing.  I lost them both.  I’m not entirely sure why they got lost.  Maybe it’s time for me to get lost again too. I’ll be travelling alone for a while, through life probably, through climbing, but I’m used to it now.  It’s not really a bad thing, ist it? 

I visited Europe for climbing on my own once.  It was a big step in my climbing related life.  It was scary; the planning, the travelling and the getting lost in translation, they all seemed daunting the moment I laid down maps and started taking notes of all the things I needed to bring and do.  I did have help from friends from time to time so I wasn’t entirely alone.  I had a network, a grid map of friends who I can meet-up from place to place.  All I had to do was hop on the right ride and once there I had an anchor.  It was fun.  Travelling like that felt like jumping off a cliff to land on an air cushion that kept me from totally wrecking myself.   

My first stop then was Orpierre!

It’s good to recount the past when the future is at a stand still.  I think I’ll do that now.  Maybe this will catapult me somewhere I wish to go, or just plainly somewhere.  Somewhere where there is a place to just go climb and stay in the moment of climbing.  A place to blur the lines between dreams and reality, a place where there is only the present, nothing ahead except the project and the next.

Orpierre was a quaint old town in the southern French countryside.  A small chapel, cobbled alleys, an old water fountain, red tile clay roofs, and towering granite cliffs met my eyes when I entered the small village.  It was a climbing destination but not as famous and grand as Ceuse, Verdon or Gorges du Tarn, all found south of the same country.  It was for the most part, unheralded and remains quiet from climbing media. 

To get to Orpierre you needed a car.  It was that or you take a chance with your hitch hiking skills.  Trains stopped at Gap and from there public transport became scarce.  There aren’t too many people going to Orpierre.  It was not on the ordinary tourist track.  There weren’t too many things to see except perhaps hundreds of sport climbing routes, and multi-pitch and trad routes.  Still, it was far from being regarded as a hardcore climbing mecca.  This made the trip there feel falling perfectly between non-so-touristy and non-so-hard-climbing.  Travelling to the area felt awkward and a bit difficult.  There wasn’t a steady flow of backpackers with cars to hitch hike with and lack of steady tourism made it slightly inaccessible.  Luckily, having a good climbing network worked wonders.  My friend Stash lived in the village and invited me over to come.  He picked me up from Gap and just like that I found myself riding a car through the highway, passing by hectares of farmlands on a hassle free ticket to my first climbing destination in Europe.

A tall slender watchtower shadowed my approach on each climbing day.  I always made way for the narrow road that led up the cemetery behind the small chapel.  On the way up the slopes, I pass by cold graves sitting at the base of the cliffs.  They gave me goose bumps as I always hurried pass to make for the trail.  A gravel path led to the “Chateau”, the climbing area I frequent.  The overhanging granite cliff in the area drew my attention and was easily a favorite.   The vantage point from the “Chateau” presented the village below and the entire landscape surrounding it.  A single road led in and out of town, and the huge cliff bordered the whole commune.  There were no modern buildings and no fancy restaurants. Climbing goes on until sunsets and we put on headlamps before walking down the trail.  It was a quiet sleepy town.  There was just climbing, sleeping, waking up and climbing again.

Rest days were walk days around town.  Little by little, through short walks, Orpierre revealed its history.  Aside from the quaint post office, the tourist office, and less than a handful of bars and restaurants, the only other businesses that ran in town were the boulangerie or bakery, the small grocery store, and one outdoor shop across the chapel. 

I helped out with the construction of Stash’s house on rest days.  On these days I dug and shoveled, and dug and shoveled more dirt for at least half the day, maybe more on some days.  I got time to relish in the afternoons cool weather with walks around the small town.  I came there for the climbing but the well-kept medieval heritage of the place really did inspire a lot of exploration into its history.

From time to time, I stopped by the tourist office, the only place in town with internet access, to deliver some e-mail.  Only one terminal was available at all times and queuing with fellow climbers was a hassle.  I took time looking at brochures and books while I waited.  An old drawing pinned on the message board drew a very vivid picture of how the old town looked centuries ago.  Orpierre was exactly as I imagined.  It was a town by a mountain-pass, and once surrounded by a long stonewall.  A castle stood on-top one of the hills and overlooked the citizenry.  Only remnants of the wall now existed and judging from the drawing, only a relatively small portion of the castle was now left.

Knights, lances, horses…they all took shape in my imagination as I continued on a walk down the cobbled paths in the narrow alleys between old, old houses.  Wooden shutters, thick walled houses, heavy wooden lintels, low arches and small windows lined the stretch of the tightly spaced walkway. More climbing days and more ensuing rest days gave me time to get to know Orpierre better.  The climbing, the climbers, the climbing town, the old chapel, more cobbled walks, the beer at nights, the pretty girl in the post office, the old man in the tourist center, the kids in their Petzl helmets, the Wednesday farmer’s market at the town center, wine, bread and cheese, and the medieval feel of the entire place…it all meshed well together.  The place was a vivid depiction of something out of imagination.  It was a page out of my childhood high fantasy obsession only this time with climbing in tow.  It was a place not found in the usual tourist guidebook.  It was a place only few visit.  It was in the outskirts of Southern France where mostly climbers and outdoors people roam free.  Orpierre, it was a small climbing town, a temporary home to a lone wanderer.  


  1. This is so beautiful, Dennis! The photos, the text, reveal an extraordinary person, so alive, so connected with the earth and the universe! You're 'alone' in a sense, and that side of you is endearing. But there's a side that trusts people with the generosity and innocence of a child! A lovely combination, a perfect formula for a full happy existence.

  2. by the way, my favorite photos are those of doorways, archways, doors, and windows, especially those 2 windows with flower boxes!