Patrick Edlinger: The highs and lows of France’s pioneering rock god

The rock-climber, who gave the sport mass appeal but was beset by inner demons, has died at 52

Patrick Edlinger was one of the most extraordinary sportsmen of all time. He never won an Olympic medal. He never became a millionaire.

For a few years in the 1980s, he was celebrated far beyond his native France for turning rock-climbing into a compelling but terrifying version of gymnastics or yoga, performed far above the ground without safety equipment.

Mr Edlinger, whose death aged 52 was revealed this week, became a mythical figure partly because he defied the glitzy spirit of the 1980s. He had the looks of a film-star, the body of a ballet-dancer, and the long, blond hair of contemporary tennis and football idols. But he clung to an ascetic, bohemian existence, living in a white camper van and claiming that he survived on water and sandwiches.

After a serious fall which almost killed him in 1995, Mr Edlinger retired from the extreme forms of "free climbing" and ran a guesthouse in the French Alps. His death followed a long battle against depression and alcoholism which he described recently as the "greatest challenge of my life". Mr Edlinger's exploits have been re-discovered by the availability on the internet of two breathtaking films made about him by Jean-Paul Janssen in 1982 and 1986: La vie aux bouts des doigts (Life at your Fingertips) and Vertical Opera.

Wearing a shirt and shorts, Mr Edlinger is seen, without a rope, and sometimes without shoes, gracefully swarming up 1,500ft limestone cliffs in the south of France or sea-battered Mediterranean cliffs near Marseille. He frequently hangs from the cliff by two or three fingers, like a gibbon or chimpanzee. He holds on by one arm and effortlessly throws his body over a rock-overhang, as if mounting a horse. He wedges both his feet into a crack in the rock and turns upside down like a bat to "rest" and "regain concentration".

"When I climb I feel an interior peace," he once said. "You can compare it to a form of yoga."

Mr Edlinger also became the undisputed world champion of "sport climbing". Exponents use metal bolts permanently fixed in rock faces or walls to compete to find the most elegant and rapid routes to the finish. Mr Edlinger's pioneering work helped to project the sport to global popularity.

He shot to fame when he appeared at the first US sport climbing competition in Snowbird in Utah in 1988. A dozen climbers failed to conquer the 100ft route up the wall of the Cliff Lodge hotel. As Mr Edlinger danced gracefully past the roof overhang which had defeated the others, a shaft of sunlight struck his long blond hair.

"It was literally a beam, like a spotlight illuminating him and nothing else," John Harlin, a former editor of American Alpine Journal, told The New York Times. "If this were a Hollywood movie script, it would (have been) way too corny."

Catherine Destivelle, a friend and follower who became a leading climber, said this week: "No one else could match Patrick's method of climbing… He had a magnificent technique. It was like watching a lizard on a rock."

Daniel Gorgeon, another friend and fellow climber said: "When he climbed, it was like watching a ballet… It looked like a professional dancer on the rocks. The moves weren't rough. They were always purposeful and beautiful."

Patrick Edlinger was born in 1960 near Dax in south-western France. He started climbing at the age of eight. He gave up studying in his mid-teens and headed to the limestone cliffs of the Luberon in Provence. He trained by running and performing up to 1,000 press-ups a day (sometimes using only one finger).

After the terrible fall in 1995, Mr Edlinger retired to run his guesthouse at La Palud-sur-Verdon in the southern French Alps. He continued to climb a little each day. He married and had a daughter 10 years ago. But he confided to his friend and biographer Jean-Michel Asselin that he had suffered from depression and alcoholism after his fall. Mr Asselin's joint book with Mr Edlinger will be published next month. He said this week that Mr Edlinger had told him that his struggle against alcohol was "the most difficult challenge of my life. It's like attempting an impossible solo climb. But I will get there in the end."

Mr Edlinger, who had separated from his wife, was found dead at his home on 16 November. His death was made public this week. The cause of death has not yet been established.

"It's thanks to [Patrick] that there are so many thousands [of sport and free] climbers today," Mr Asselin said. "He had a style and elegance which ran counter to the spirit of the 1980s, when only making money counted."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?