When Erhard Loretan and his fellow Swiss climber Jean Triollet reached their advance base camp at 5,850m on the Rongbuk glacier, Tibet, late on 30 August 1986 they had set a new standard in extreme alpinism – to the summit of Everest (8,850m) and back in less than two days, no sherpas, no rope, no bottled oxygen; for the last 1000m they did not even take a rucksack. The pair climbed mainly at night, so as not to overheat in their down suits, and rested during the day. Meticulous in its planning and stylish in its execution, their ascent of the mountain's North Face via the Japanese and Hornbein couloirs was described by the Polish mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka as "night-naked climbing".
With his ascent of Kangchenjunga (8,586m, Nepal), in 1995, Loretan became only the third person to climb all 14 of the world's 8000m peaks, following on from Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka. To date, 25 climbers have achieved this feat, but few with the verve of Loretan.
Born in Bulle, in the canton of Fribourg, Loretan began climbing at the age of 11 and four years later climbed the east face of the Doldenhorn (3643m) in the Bernese Alps – the Swiss range where he fell to his death on his 52nd birthday – while guiding on the Gross Grünhorn (4,043m). He found his true métier as a mountain guide after working as a cabinet maker.
The precise circumstances of Loretan's death are unknown. Reportedly, he and a client had left the Finsteraarhorn hut (3,048m) at 6am, ascended to a col where they deposited their skis, and had reached about 3,800m when they fell 200m down the north-west face. Loretan was found to be dead but the client was still alive.
In 1980 Loretan made his first trip to the greater ranges, climbing new routes in the Peruvian Andes, and two years later ticked the first of his 8000ers with an ascent of Nanga Parbat (8,126m) in the Karakoram. The blueprint to his reputation-making Everest climb came in 1985 when he and Triollet made a super-lightweight ascent of Dhaulaghiri (8,167m), climbing fast, mainly at night, and carrying no ropes or bivouac gear.
The audacity of the pair's Everest ascent was matched by the literal cheek of their descent – a four-hour sitting glissade of the entire North Face, or to put it in less technical terms, perhaps the longest and highest bum slide in the world. Triollet described it thus: "It was crazy... we were sitting side by side, looking at each other, laughing, digging our ice-axes into the snow, flying along." And in their oxygen-starved hallucinations they were accompanied by marching bands. Years later, Loretan insisted the feat wasn't incredible at all: "We just set off and we were fortunate to do it in two days. We were young and in love with climbing. When you're in love, you'll do anything. It wasn't sacrifice, it was normal."
In 1987 Loretan had his first serious accident in the Alps but returned with an appetite as voracious as ever: a new route with Voytek Kurtyka on the Nameless Tower (6,239m), Trango Towers, Pakistan, in 1988; 13 north faces in the Swiss Alps and an attempt on K2 (8,611m) in 1989; then in 1990 the highest peak in North America, Denali (6,194m), Cho Oyu (8,201m) by its difficult south-west face in 27 hours, and up and down the south face of Shisha Pangma (8,046) in 22 hours – a truly remarkable year.
Climbing for Loretan meant fulfilment. "I have taken the decision to live intensely, flirting with risk," he said. But his recent years were clouded by tragedy. In 2003 Loretan received a four-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to the negligent manslaughter of his seven-month old son. Loretan admitted to the police that he had shaken the baby boy "for a couple of seconds" to stop him crying. The case led to research showing many parents were unaware that infants, because of weak neck muscles, could die from being shaken for a few seconds.
But among mountaineers, Loretan's achievements were never likely to be forgotten and last year he accepted honorary membership of the Alpine Club. He also came to London to take part in "First on Everest" at the Royal Geographical Society. With Everest today more associated with stunts, it was a chance to celebrate the boldest and best of climbing on the world's highest peak. Erhard Loretan, was back in the fold – albeit all too briefly.
Erhard Loretan, alpinist and mountain guide: born Bulle, Switzerland 28 April 1959; one son (deceased); died Bernese Alps, Switzerland 28 April 2011.