Rene Desmaison

Pioneer of extreme winter alpinism


René Desmaison, alpinist: born Bourdeilles, France 14 April 1930; married (four children); died Marseilles, France 28 September 2007.

During the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, René Desmaison became one of the most famous of a coterie of élite French climbers who redefined alpinism, both in terms of technical difficulty and by raising its public profile. Indeed, when Desmaison appeared in Marcel Ichac's award-winning 1958 mountain docudrama Les Étoiles de Midi ("Stars of Noon"), some mistakenly took the film's title to be a subtle pun, for it effectively showcased the climbing talents of the metaphorical "stars" of the "Midi" (the celebrated mountain L'Aiguille du Midi which towers above the Chamonix valley).

At the time, British climbing was still undergoing a transition from an esoteric sport practised largely by maverick elements of the middle classes, while public perception of the activity remained fixated on quasi-military team efforts on Everest and similar lofty peaks. The French media, however, with more of a tradition of embracing fiercely individualistic feats of athletic endeavour, quickly took an interest in the activities of an emerging band of talented alpinists who pushed the extremes of mountaineering.

Desmaison and luminaries such as Lionel Terray, Gaston Rébuffat and Jean Couzy would form a group of climbers renowned throughout France for their bold new routes. But it was arguably Desmaison who best exploited the potential for publicity – and also became the most notorious, as the result of two controversial incidents during his career.

Desmaison was born far from the Alps, in Aquitaine, and, following the death of his mother, was raised by his father and sister. At 16, he went to live with his godfather in Paris, where he became drawn to the activities of the Bleausards; an emerging group of "boulderers" who specialised in practising extremely athletic climbing moves on the sandstone boulders of Fontainebleau just outside the city.

It was here, following two year's National Service, that he met the brilliant young mountaineer Jean Couzy, and they teamed up to make two futuristic alpine routes: the north ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey near Mont Blanc and the north-west face of the Olan in the Ecrins. Following this breathtaking inauguration, the pair began to pioneer that most arduous and fearful form of climbing, extreme winter alpinism.

Their 1956 winter ascent of the west face of the Drus pushed the climbing techniques and equipment of the day to the absolute limits, along with their margin of survival – something Desmaison would make an alarming habit in the coming years. Temperatures sank as low as -30C, there was the constant threat of frostbite, miserable sleepless bivouacs, battles with desperately difficult rock and ice, days with little food or drink, avalanches, falls and narrow escapes from death or injury – and a race against gathering storms.

Nevertheless, Desmaison felt drawn to this unique form of mountaineering masochism. "In spite of this catalogue of horrors," he wrote, "winter climbing was to become a challenge no serious climber could resist. Two drugs, then – danger and beauty. And for me, each renders the other infinitely more potent."

After Couzy was killed by stonefall in 1958, Desmaison teamed up with others to continue his campaign, making the first ascent of the staggeringly overhanging limestone of the north face of the Cima Ovest in the Dolomites with Pierre Mazeaud, before heading back in the depths of the alpine winter to lead a team on the first winter ascent of the north-west face of the Olan in 1962.

But it was arguably Desmaison's second winter ascent of the Walker Spur, with Jacques Batkin, that really established his credentials as one of the toughest climbers in the world. The Walker Spur follows a compelling, 4,000ft soaring ridge-line of granite leading steeply to the pinnacled roof of the Grandes Jorasses in the heart of the French Alps. In its summer guise, it had repelled many strong candidates until climbed by the Italian Ricardo Cassin in 1938. In 1963, it still retained a reputation as one of the most fearsome climbs in the Alps. To climb such a serious line in winter conditions, therefore, would be audacious in the extreme. The thought filled Desmaison with a curious mixture of excitement and foreboding.

"I felt a strange sense of liberation," he wrote.

Was this a last challenge? We thought ourselves hard, very tough, and were perhaps surprised to find how soon fear filled us and displaced that boundless self-confidence; yet finally we crossed over beyond the boundaries of fear into a sort of no-man's land, when life and death seemed irrelevant, abstract terms.

The route lived up to its reputation, giving Desmaison one of the most severe tests of his career. The climbing was never less than extreme and uncertain, and storms and heavy snow engulfed the pair high on the route. Desmaison sustained a fall, miraculously escaping without injury, and some desperate manoeuvres were employed, including a dynamic "one-way" leap for a hold 70 feet above a belay. "If I misjudged the distance, that would be it for both of us – a long freefall to oblivion," he remembered. "I hesitated for a few seconds more; then, both arms outstretched, I flung myself over to the block."

Such was the commitment of this style of climbing and the unimaginable risks necessarily incurred that Ken Wilson, the editor of the English language editions of Desmaison's collected autobiographical works, rejected a simple translation of the rather prosaic original titles, instead rebranding the compendium as Total Alpinism (1982) – a reference to the "total war" doctrine espoused by the German General Erich Ludendorff which admitted only two possible outcomes, total victory or total defeat.

In 1967, Desmaison made the first winter ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney, then the most difficult route on Mont Blanc. He was also active away from the Alps, having made the first ascent of the Himalayan peak of Jannu (7,710m) in 1962. He also continued to undertake climbs that kept him in the public eye, such as a televised climb of the Eiffel Tower in 1964.

Even more striking were the lengths he went to in order to publicise his 1968 ascent of "The Shroud", a steep hanging ice-climb on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. The ascent of this extremely fierce and significant route took nine days, partly because of the truly fearsome conditions – and partly because he and Robert Flematti hauled heavy broadcasting equipment behind them, allowing them to make daily live transmissions from the wall. It was this close association with the media that would lead to so much controversy during the two incidents that formed defining moments in Desmaison's life.

In 1966, Desmaison was expelled from the world's oldest and most prestigious mountain guiding company, the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. This followed an "unsanctioned" rescue of two German climbers trapped on the west face of the Petit Dru by himself and the Briton Mick Burke and American Gary Hemming. The company, who had devolved responsibility for mountain rescue to the French National Gendarmerie in 1958, accused Desmaison of having undertaken the rescue as a publicity stunt. (His case was not helped by the fact that he had sold photographs of the rescue to Paris Match.)

But the most controversial event in Desmaison's climbing career occurred five years later during an attempt to pioneer a difficult winter route to the left of the Walker Spur. The climb, with the young aspirant guide Serge Gousseault, turned into a two-week battle for survival as stonefall cut both their ropes and Gousseault developed frostbite and could not continue.

When help finally came, Gousseault had been dead for three days, and Desmaison was informed by medical staff that "according to your medical check-up, you are dead". The incident led to bitter recriminations. Desmaison suspected Maurice Herzog (the famous Annapurna climber who was mayor of Chamonix) of obstructing a prompt rescue as "punishment" for his impetuous actions during the 1966 Dru affair. In response, Desmaison was accused of deliberately spending too much time on the wall in order to court publicity.

In a prolific 40-year climbing career Desmaison would eventually make more than 1,000 climbs (including 114 first ascents). Nevertheless he remained marked by the 1971 tragedy all his life. Reflecting on the price to be paid for success on extreme alpine routes he wrote: "It is for such moments of triumph as this that the mountains exact their pitiless toll. Logic asks why; but the question itself is meaningless. Only the passion and the agony are real."

Colin Wells

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
arts + entsJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
football

Striker's four-month ban for biting an opponent expires on Friday

News
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin married in Venice yesterday
peopleAmal and George Clooney 'planning third celebration in England'
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Geography Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Secondary Geography Teacher - Ja...

Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Secondary Science Teacher Jan 20...

English Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The Job:Te...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker