Rene Desmaison

Pioneer of extreme winter alpinism

Friday 05 October 2007 00:00

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

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