Patrick Berhault

Rock climber of exceptional speed and stamina
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The Independent Online

Patrick Berhault, rock climber and mountaineer: born Grenoble, France 19 July 1957; married (two daughters); died Täschhorn, Switzerland 28 April 2004.

Patrick Berhault, who fell to his death in the Swiss Alps last week, helped shape the phenomenon of the modern French climbing star.

In the mid-1970s rock climbing underwent something of a revolution. Its leading practitioners swapped a predominantly amateur ethos, which had distinguished the sport since its inception nearly a century before, for the systematic training regimes of top-flight athletes. Two of the leading pioneers of this new approach were the Britons Peter Livesey and Ron Fawcett whose dominance of the domestic rock-climbing scene was virtually complete during the latter part of the decade. Their "revolution" was soon exported overseas to, among other places, the impressively steep French limestone cliffs of the Verdon Gorge.

Livesey and Fawcett's display of powerful free climbing there in the spring of 1978 opened the eyes of local climbers to the possibilities of scaling "extreme" routes on the intimidating 300-metre-high gorge walls without recourse to artificial aids. Among those inspired by the Anglo-Saxons' approach was a talented young climber called Patrick Berhault. Very soon he was in the vanguard of a French renaissance of hard technical climbing which would shortly eclipse the efforts of the British and most other climbing nations.

Berhault had already shown signs of becoming an exceptional climber; aged just 20 he had displayed remarkable levels of fitness and proficiency by climbing some of the hardest routes in the Verdon in heavy mountaineering boots. Following his adoption of rigorous training (and a pair of lightweight rubber rock-climbing boots) in 1978 he was transformed from an exceptional climber into a great one.

By 1979 he was leading rock climbs of a technical difficulty never achieved before on long, multi-pitch climbs in France. Their grades ("7a" and "7b") are still regarded as highly difficult, even by top climbers armed with modern high-performance footwear. More remarkable still was his ability to climb solo, unprotected from the consequences of a slip, up routes only just below his roped leading ability. He not only achieved this with control and style, but also at great speed - a characteristic that would become something of a trademark throughout his climbing career.

Berhault began linking hard rock-climbs, soloing up one and then, to the horror and amazement of onlookers, descending another, before carrying on up an adjacent one. He soon took this skill into the Alps, climbing long, serious mountain routes in unprecedentedly fast times, such as the North Face of Les Droites in five and a half hours, a route which normally took days, not hours, and required bivouacs. Berhault's seemingly out-of-this world speed and stamina would subsequently earn him the moniker "ET".

And, like his cinematic alter ego, Berhault soon took to the air. He began employing hang gliders to link hard alpine climbs on different mountains in so-called enchaînements. In 1981, together with Jean-Marc Boivin, he climbed the South Face of Le Fou, and then flew to the base of Les Drus and climbed it by the difficult American Direct route, thereby linking two test-piece climbs in a single day. The practice would later grow into something of a competitive fashion among the leading players of the day but, as ever, Berhault had been a trend-setter.

By the mid-Eighties Berhault found himself to be just one star in a rapidly expanding galaxy of extreme climbers who became French household names. The exploits of such luminaries as Patrick Edlinger, Jean Marc-Boivin, Christophe Profit, Patrick Gabarrou, Pierre Beghin and Catherine Destivelle became ever more outrageous and daring and were boosted by exposure on television, newspapers and magazines, as the non-specialist media took an increasing interest in the activities of these apparent supermen and women.

Paradoxically, Berhault remained unimpressed by the cult of celebrity, and was happy to let others, such as his great friend Patrick Edlinger, take the brunt of the limelight. Most notably Berhault was unconvinced of the validity of "competition climbing" - the professional circuit of stage-managed artificial climbing courses which developed into a lucrative spectator sport in many parts of mainland Europe. Just before the official organisation of competition climbing began Berhault was among a group of 19 prominent climbers who were concerned about the effects of commercialisation on their sport and signed a "manifesto" deploring the initiative. But, when competition climbing became a successful business, he remained the only signatory not to succumb to the lure of prize money. "I'm not prepared to sell myself for financial gain," he said:

The most important thing is friendship, freedom, your immediate environment and the love you have for what you're doing. If money is not put in its proper place, it takes on a very bitter taste.

Luckily Berhault managed to earn a living through climbing without the need to enter the gladiatorial arena of competitions. As well as becoming a technical consultant to several equipment manufacturers and writing numerous climbing books, he acted in over 10 films and theatrical choreography productions including Roman Polanski's Pirates (1985), Bruno Soldini's Métamorphoses (1987), Laurent Chevalier's Grimpeur Etoile (1989) and Edouard Niermans' Premier de Cordée and La Grande Crevasse (both 1999).

In the new millennium Berhault captured the attention of the French public once again when, with Patrick Edlinger, Tomaz Humar and other friends, he undertook a continuous winter alpine journey encompassing 22 difficult face climbs of historic fame. And then in the winter of 2003 he and Philippe Magnin climbed the 16 most difficult routes to the summit on the Italian side of Mont Blanc in just 20 days, before heading off to make an attempt on Everest.

At the time of his death, Berhault had embarked on another mammoth mountaineering quest: an attempt to climb all 82 Alpine 4,000m peaks in one continuous winter journey. "Climbing and mountaineering is all about adventure and adapting where there is often an element of risk and surprise, which you have to try and face - that's part of the game," he had once explained.

The risk he had successfully managed for so long finally caught up with him in Switzerland when a cornice of snow collapsed under him on the 67th peak in the journey, the 4,491m Täschhorn, resulting in a fatal 600m fall. Berhault had not been roped to his companion Philippe Magnin, in order to move more quickly on terrain that was technically straightforward for such experienced alpinists.

Patrick Berhault was respected by his peers for being one of a rare breed who excelled on both pure technical rock climbing and extreme alpinism. But, perhaps more importantly, he was popular because of his humility and kindness for, despite all his fame and talent, he remained modest and grounded, retaining a broad perspective on life. "For me, climbing comes second to my home life," he maintained.

Colin Wells

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