Obituary: Roger Frison-Roche

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The Independent Culture
IN APRIL, I watched a television film of what is probably the best-known modern novel in France, Premier de cordee (1941), which is a mountaineering expression meaning "first on the rope". This excellent story of an Alpine guide's failure and redemption was written by Roger Frison-Roche.

He began his working life as a mountain guide, and always modestly claimed his prolific literary output was secondary to his life as a mountaineer and as an explorer of deserts and Arctic wastes. His passion for mountains was passed on to his children and grandchildren, so it was his grand-daughter Beatrice who doubled in the breath-taking climbing sequences for the star of the film, Silvia de Santis.

Frison-Roche had insisted that the film should be shot in Chamonix. Yet it was only a pale copy of the story, and of the first cinematic version by Louis Daquis, in 1943, partly because the pungent Chamoniard dialect that embellishes the text had been watered down to suit modern television tastes.

Roger Frison-Roche was born in Paris in 1906, of Savoyard parents. He dropped out of school at 17 and, declaring a hatred of all big cities, left for Chamonix, his parents' place of origin. He got a job there in the tourist office and began the gruelling training for a guide de haute montagne. In 1930 he passed with flying colours the very tough examination for the Compagnie des guides, an unusual privilege for one who, though of Savoyard stock, had not been born in Chamonix and was therefore long regarded as a "foreigner."

He founded his own rock-climbing and mountaineering school, and took part in races to the tops of certain peaks, winning most of them. He wrote vivid accounts of these tests of skill and endurance for the local press, and in 1932 became the first to transmit a radio programme from the peak of Mont Blanc, the ascent of which he described as "almost too easy".

His newspaper articles became so popular, he was put under contract, and in 1935 was sent as editor-in-chief to Algiers, working on La Depeche d'Alger. This unexpected posting gave him the experience to write his first book, L'Appel du Hoggar ("The Call of the Hoggar"), based on 17 expeditions he made in the Sahara. He became obsessed by desert life, but not to the point of forgetting his passion for the mountains.

He was still in Algiers when the Nazis occupied France. He was asked to write something that would appeal to, and inspire, young readers. He began to write a serial about the life of a young Alpine guide for weekly instalments in the paper. These became the book that was to make him world- famous, Premier de cordee. It became an enormous success, sold over three million copies, was widely translated and is still selling in the paperback series "J'ai lu", along with many of his other titles. The book encouraged a whole new generation to take up Alpine climbing.

In 1942, he was a war correspondent in Tunisia, where he covered the British bombardment of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. In 1943 he left to join the Resistance in the Savoyard maquis, and ended the war as a lieutenant in the Chasseurs Alpins. This exciting period was to provide him with material for his war novel, Les Montagnards de la nuit (1968, "The Mountain Soldiers of the Night"). The mountains of Savoy form a magnificent backdrop for this great book. From 1947, he made several journeys across the Sahara, on camel back.

In 1957, he discovered the people and the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Arctic, about which he wrote a fine novel, Lumiere de l'Arctique ("Lights of the Arctic") in that year. He returned to his beloved native tribes there in 1966, to make a documentary film about the Inuit.

In 1965, he had been elected president of the Union internationale des guides de montagne, and had taken up permanent residence it Chamonix, in an alpine chalet he named "Deborence" after the title of a book by the great writer on the Alps, his literary hero, the Swiss novelist Charles- Ferdinand Ramuz.

Frison-Roche kept on writing books about the mountains, the desert and the peoples of the Arctic: Les Carnets sahariens (1965, "The Sahara Notebooks"), Peuples et chasseurs de l'Arctique (1966, "People and Hunters of the Arctic"), Les Terres de l'Infini (2 vols 1971-1973, "Lands of the Infinite"), Les Seigneurs de la faune canadienne (1976, "The Lords of Canadian Wildlife"), Djebel amour (1978 "Djebel Love") and his autobiography Le Versant du Soleil (1982, "The Slope in the Sun"), of which a new, illustrated edition has just been issued by the local Chamonix publisher Michel Guerin. Frison- Roche had the pleasure of holding it in his hands before he died.

He was made a Commandeur de la Legion d'honneur, and Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. The latter distinction held a curious irony for Frison- Roche. Like many writers who hold themselves aloof from the great cultural bullrings of the literary mafia's critical back-biting, Frison-Roche found his work almost totally neglected by the self- appointed arbiters of what is worth reading and what is not. Towards the end of his life, he remarked, mildly: "The great critics have always ignored me. I've always lived apart from literary cliques and movements, I received no literary prizes and the dimensions of my sales seem to have disadvantaged my work among the literary intelligentsia."

A sad conclusion for a good man who had enjoyed a happy life, pursuing the ideals of honesty and courage both physical and moral, loving his fellow-men, abhorring prejudice of any kind, and immortalising his very human characters in an unpretentious yet carefully-crafted prose style that at times seems to breathe with the grandeur of the mountains, deserts and Arctic wastes he so passionately served as interpreter.

He had two regrets - never to have crossed an ocean solo, and never to have climbed the Himalayas, as had his great friend Maurice Herzog on the agonising ascent of Annapurna in 1950. Herzog's kindly, bearded face appeared on the television screen after the announcement of Frison-Roche's death to pay a simple, moving, brief, tribute to a fellow mountaineer.

Roger Frison-Roche belongs with several other French scholars and adventurers - the genius Theodore Monod, another legend of the desert, Jean Malaurie, Jean-Francois Deniau; and the marvellous Chilean wanderer in the demented seas of Tierra del Fuego, Francisco Coloane, all mythical companions of Frison-Roche in the deserts of the earth, and the mountains of the human spirit.

Roger Frison-Roche, writer and mountain guide: born Paris 10 February 1906; married (one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Chamonix, France 17 December 1999.