Rock climbing in the Ariège
One of the most unspoilt regions in France, the Ariège offers a plethora of crags from single and multi-pitch limestone and granite rocks to granite bouldering in a compact area.
Ariège lies centrally in the French Pyrénées, between the prosperous city of Toulouse and borders with the mountains of Andorra and Spain to the south.
Famed for its prehistoric cave art and Cathar castles, there is also huge appeal for outdoor activities and wildlife watching. The highest peak 'Montcalm', at just over 3000m, offers magnificent views over the range.
At the centre of the Ariège lies the historic town of Foix, on the very edge of the Pyrenean foothills. Apart from a multitude of outdoor activities and cultural events, you can find plenty of fun activities specifically for children and families.
Ariège is easily accessible from the UK through flights to Toulouse via Easy Jet (London Gatwick and Bristol), Jet2 (Manchester), Flybe (Birmingham, Southampton, Edinburgh and Glasgow). The historic city of Carcassonne is 1hr 15 minutes away and can be reached from Dublin, East Midlands, London Stanstead and Glasgow with Ryanair. There is an overnight train from Paris too.
Variety is the spice of life – and Ariège is spicy! Here are the highlights...
Sinsat - An impressive sweep, impossible to miss
Sinsat was the first big Ariège crag to be equipped for free climbing, back in 1983. In a picturesque setting, three major areas nestle into the hillside, with 500 routes on Sinsat Falaises, le Pubis and the Haute Falaises de Quié. You can find anything here from a delicate slab to a full-day excursion to a fingery testpiece. The first long route of note was the classic Darcourt-Grenier, established in 1968; most of the other routes were opened in the 1980s.
Alliat - A charming variety of quality sectors
From Tarascon, a good road leads south past the unbelievably steep Grotte de Sabart – the site of Stevie Haston’s 9a success. This is a magical world of 3-d upside down climbing but be warned: only entertain it if your stomach and arms are feeling strong! It is around 37m overhanging and only of much interest for those climbing in the 8s, although a few easier routes exist on its flanks. Caving routes also start here, and the 10-minute walk is worthwhile for the stunning architecture alone.
For Alliat itself, turn right in Niaux village, passing the Les Grottes camping (with pleasant pool) and continue up to the parking in the quaint village of Alliat on your right. From here all sectors can be reached in 5-25 minutes. You will already have spotted the magnificent undulating Passe Murailles and the sheer open book formation of Le Livre from the main valley road. Each buttress presents an interesting character where you can pull on pockets or jugs, jam or wedge hands and limbs, or just move smoothly through an undulating sea of brown or grey rock.
Pass Murailles holds an impressive clutch of long routes, some of 45m in the low 7s. There are not usually any hard moves, but the climbing just keeps coming…and coming! Sadou (7a) is a real gem.
Le Livre is a favourite and fantastic for mid 7s routes, although the grade 6 'warm-ups' are completely unpolished and definitely worth doing in their own right. The climbing here is juggy and beefy, particularly through the high roofs on the classic Globe Trotters (7b) or Aniakchak ( 7b+). Many of the routes would be candidates for a four-star rating.
This charming high valley has a soothing atmosphere; verdant meadows speckled with white grazing cows. Opposite the crag, a herring-bone tree plantation forms intriguing stripes of emerald on the hillside. This is a favourite forcing ground, with a clutch of fantastic 7s and 8s embellished with a few 5s and 6s. The crag forms an arc, meaning you can climb on one side or the other at almost any time of the day. It is also a little higher so can be cooler in the summer.
From Alliat, continue winding up the hill and take a left turn just before Génat village, now helpfully signposted to a new cafe. While there are multi-pitch offerings, this is the place for single-pitch challenges. Palo (5c), Galilee (7a+), Crossroads (7b+), Phoebe Droite (7c), Amalthee (8a) and Super Marsupilami (8a+) are all fantastic. The flanks offer some 5s and 6s, and it’s worth noting that underneath the bulge of high 7s and 8s lies a weather-proof slab with some characterful 6s, all of which are about grade 5 until pulling over a little lip or nearing the top.
More like this?
The Dévers de Sédour, near Bédeilhac, also offers plenty in the 7s and 8s.
Auzat - a beginners haven and excellent family crag
This is a home from home for British climbers and is reminiscent of a gritstone edge. Highly characterful and some stunning 5s and 6s. It's small in stature but not in reputation! One of our most popular crags and easily accessible in five minutes from the road. Shady at its base and at a higher altitude than the other valley crags. Good in summer and can be too cold in winter.
Into the Mountains - Dent de Orlu and Rhule
Climbing a long route on the Dent is often why people come to Ariege as its huge tooth rears up and the challenge is obvious.
Climbing in the 4s - 6s?
There is lots of choice! South facing Calames is a good bet but a bit hot in the height of summer. The Auzat granite is excellent for most occasions but can be a little cold mid-winter - and it has to be the top crag for beginners.
Sinsat and Verdun have many great options with the best multi-pitch being at Sinsat and Dent de Orlu (another granite crag good in summer).
Niaux crags have steeper sides, but Sibada and a couple of the Alliat crags have a selection of good 6s. It's a great venue for sun or shade as there are options on both sides of the valley.
Baychon has some very pleasant slabby pitch 5s on the LHS of Zaza sector - well worth a look. Genat has some weatherproof 6s; Ariège has a huge variety of options from slab to overhanging - and three rock types to spice up your stay.
Can my trip be combined with climbing in Spain?
Yes! We have a few climbers who like to spend a week or two here in Ariège and a week in Spain. There are top Spanish crags such as Tres Pons and Oliana (2hrs 15 mins), and Terradets (3hrs 30 mins).
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What equipment do I need to bring with me?
A 60m and preferably 70m single rope will cover most crag needs. For the long multi-pitch, you will need twin ropes except where the pitches are very short. On the Dent d'Orlu multi-pitch, 2 ropes are a must as retreats due to changes in weather can be necessary. The odd wire can be useful depending on the crag and climb. Usually, the guidebook mentions if routes are 'semi équipé' - partially equipped.
TOP 5 EXPERIENCES
1. Location, location, location – for climbing
10 climbing areas within 10-20 minutes’ drive of Chez Arran and Spa Adventure Treks make it a superb destination for groups, whether you love a long mountain route or would prefer to tackle a sun-kissed single pitch with our without one of our climbing coaches. Take the opportunity to climb in a vibrant scene or seek a secluded out-of-the-way mountain haven or wooded glade.
2. Climbing & trekking holidays tailored to you
The Ax les Thermes, Vicdessos and Saurat valleys are all superb venues for both climbing and trekking holidays. There are also several trail races taking place over the summer including the famous Montcalm marathon. The hut to hut network is ideal for staying higher up, and the famous GR10 stage and Cathar Trail travels through the region.
3. Perfect multi-activity and family venue
Mountain walks such as the famous Chemin de la Liberté (Freedom Trail), kayaking, canyoning, rafting, fishing, parapenting, horse riding, skiing, snowshoeing and caving are all within 20 minutes’ drive. Show caves include Niaux and Lombrives. Historic Cathar castles and spouglas, chateaux, thermal baths and wildlife farms such as the Llamas of Ariège and the Wolves' House in Orlu keep most children happy.
4. Thermal baths for rest days
The ski resort of Ax les Thermes features the exquisite thermal baths “Les Bains de Coloubret”. Massages are available too in this extensive two-story indoor and outdoor spa. Jets, jacuzzi, hot tubs, steam room and sauna await.
5. Different things to try
Ariège is an excellent venue for taking advantage of the conditions with multiple activities possible in the same day. It’s all possible here. The Tour de France often finishes a stage at Plateau de Beille, a Nordic ski resort where you can try dog sledging or snowshoeing in the winter. The three main cols and more draw road cyclists to the area and the lift in Ax les Thermes is open in the summer for downhill mountain bike trails and hiking.
WHEN TO VISIT
Best times to go:
Most crags are climbable March to mid-December. And, except during winter storms, many of the valley crags are climbable year-round.
It is certainly possible to climb in the sun in winter and if cloudy why not head to Ax les Thermes for a ski?
In summer it makes sense to head high (Orlu or Bassiès) or into the shady valleys which will be in shade in the morning or afternoon. Niaux gets shade in the morning, and Alliat gets shade in the afternoon.
Génat. Calamès and Sinsat are south facing and in the sun all day so can get too hot in summer. The best months for climbing full days or long routes are probably May to July and September to October.
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