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For the winter and spring of 2023-2024, one of my major goals, as it has been for a few years now, is to climb a 9b, sport climbing. A friend of mine and a very strong French climber, Lucien Martinez, told me about Pic-St-Loup as a potential location where I could find the route of my dreams. La Baume des Escargot on the north face of Pic Saint-Loup, near Montpellier, indeed harbors numerous particularly beautiful and challenging routes! Among them: two potential 9b routes, ACL and Beyond intégral! Another essential advantage of this cliff: it faces north and is particularly exposed to the wind. Not ideal for tanning, certainly, but perfect for my soft and sweaty skin (I sweat a lot from my fingertips and am what they call "soft-skinned"). I've noticed recently that I had a lot of skin issues when choosing south-facing projects. The conditions of Pic Saint-Loup, despite being extremely cold, suit me perfectly!

Easily convinced, last November, I decided to spend two weeks there and set my sights on Beyond and its first pitch, 9a+, a perfect intermediate goal in the 9b process. Climbing on this route is magnificent, physical, complex, and demanding! I quickly fall in love with the beauty of the route and decide to fully invest in it before committing to its 9b long version! Despite its initially very physical appearance, I realize it's primarily a fantastic technical challenge. It requires perfect mastery of knee jams and dropknee techniques, and the numerous possibilities for footholds demand a lot of beta refinement.
To overcome the cruxes, a lot of finger strength in a full-crimp position is also needed, which I particularly enjoy!
What a joy to be back in this working process, searching for details, feeling motivated during the approach hike, falling asleep thinking about the movements,... After a few sessions, significant progress is felt: I can tackle long sections of the route. And on the last day of these two weeks working on the route (about 7 sessions), during a very intense attempt, I manage to get through the first crux done from the ground. Completely pumped, I end up falling in the second crux... Not enough endurance this time, I'll have to come back in better shape!

It's a month later, in the heart of winter, that I finally have the chance to take revenge on the route. I only have a few days before Christmas to celebrate and fulfill my social and family duties. I'll have to be strong and efficient to complete it in such a short time. However, my first attempt on the route is very promising: I feel much stronger than during my last visit! I breeze through the cruxes with disconcerting ease! It's so pleasant to feel progress in a route. The sensation of progress is almost as exhilarating as completing a project. It's one of the things I love about climbing; you don't know why or how, but suddenly you can execute movements with a certain ease when you could barely hold the positions at the beginning of the process. On my second session of this second stay, I reach the top, falling on the last move of the crux in an astonishing effort. Ah, it feels good! I've got this route; all I have to do is keep trying and stay focused, and one of these days, I'll catch that hold! In the next three sessions, I continue to fall, attempt after attempt in this formidable section. I feel better and better, but each time a small mistake leaves me hanging, penitent, in the harness.

Last day... Tomorrow I'll have to leave! I know I can overcome it, but the previous sessions have worn me out... My skin is in pain, the back of my thighs is irritated from the kneepads, I feel my muscles sore from the preceding days. It's going to be a battle. I give my first attempt and fail again in this tough section.
For my second try, I don't really dare to believe anymore... I think I might have to come back next January. But might as well give it a full try one last time... I breeze through the start of the route, I'm precise and climbing quickly! I get through the first crux in pain. As I reach the rest, I feel my thumb slip on this left tufa. A quick glance confirms what I feared: I have a nice cut on the skin, and blood is running down my forearm. Damn. I try to dry the blood with chalk as best as I can; it doesn't work entirely. Well, it's okay, I'll have to deal with it... I resume climbing from this precarious resting position on a kneebar with the firm intention to settle it. I don't think anymore. I'm in the moment. I let my body do the rest. Now I'm in this second crux: I eagerly crimp that little undercling, place my dropknee, and give it everything I have!

In a big struggle, I finally manage to grab that slippery tufa marking the end of the challenging part of the route. After that, it's essential to stay focused... No more room for failure now! Normally, it's much easier; there's about a 7c equivalent left, a rodeo-style climb straddling a large tufa! But with the stress and fatigue of the session, I feel the pump building up in my forearms. But now is not the time to let it go! I pull on my heels, use knees, release my arms as much as possible. Just a few more meters! There it is, I've just executed the last hard move... I can enjoy the final moves and clip the anchor, with a shout of joy, achieving my third 9a+! About 13 sessions were needed to finish this route. 
To be continued, for the exit through “ACL” and its 9b… Let’s come back in January!

Text: Sébastien Berthe
Bilder: Sam Bié


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