Hervé Gourdel knew every danger of the mountains except the one that reared from nowhere and killed him. Against this, even his decades-long experience guiding climbers in countries including Morocco, France, Vietnam, Jordan, and Nepal was of no avail.
The trim, handsome 55-year-old, who had been familiar with high peaks since his first ascents in France’s Alpes Maritimes at the age of 10, succumbed not to any vertical face or thousand-foot drop, but to the pitiless grasp of Jund al-Khalifa – “Soldiers of the Caliphate” – which did him to death in Algeria.
The group’s fanatical adherents, thought to be linked to the self-styled Islamic State that has sprung up in Syria and Iraq, snatched the Frenchman as he set out to explore an alpinist’s paradise of gorges, grottoes, forests and fissures in Algeria’s northern Kabylie region, the Jurjura range. He hoped, he told his family, to open up a new route across it.
This, Gourdel’s first trip to these particular peaks, was no mad adventure but an extension of his acquaintance with the Atlas Mountains, at the western end of which, in Morocco, he had 20 years under his belt of teaching already-experienced climbers hoping to qualify, as he had done, as professional mountain guides.
Gourdel was a graduate of the prestigious ENSA (Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme), France’s national climbing and ski school at Chamonix, and spent his national military service based at Annecy with France’s elite Mountain Corps, the Chasseurs Alpins. He became expert at caving, skiing, rock-climbing and surviving in wild country, and would take to the mountains to indulge his other passion, skilled amateur photography. As well as landscape pictures he also made photographic portraits, and recently managed to combine his two passions by running a teaching course in Morocco on techniques for making pictures of the mountains.
The guiding centre he and several other mountaineers set up in 1987, Escapade, stands on a street corner in the village of Saint Martin Vésubie, its wooden frontage adorned with a painted flower, its wide picture window displaying a mountain view. The pretty village, of which the population of 1,000 more than doubles in the tourist seasons, lies above 3,000 feet on the edge of the Mercantour national park, not far from the ski resort of La Colmiane.
In the 1990s Gourdel was a mountain guides’ union representative and sat on a guiding examining board as well as being president of the local Mercantour guides’ association. With a friend he also set up a local training body for guides working on mountains in France, and used to help run a local business planning sporting events.
“My guide’s diploma allowed me to earn my living far away from any office, climbing, skiing, crossing rivers and streams, talking about the mountains, acquainting people with places, and passing enthusiasm on,” he wrote. “I have always wanted to keep my eyes fixed on these extraordinary landscapes.”
Having explored France’s mountains and travelled to climb peaks across the world, he conceived an especial love for the Maghreb and its inhabitants, saying: “The Moroccan Atlas was where I first found ways to take my interests further. I wanted to bring back pictures about the people who live there.” His desire to travel to the Algerian Jurjura, which is favoured by rock-climbers, sprang from a conversation last June, friends said.
Fellow mountain guides valued his professionalism, his calm temperament and his flair for teaching. Many in Saint Martin Vésubie knew him well: in an Alpine village a mountain guide is a person of note. Gourdel was an uncomplicated sort, gregarious and easy to get on with. Both off the mountain and up on the slopes, he was always happy, friends said, to make acquaintances and talk to people. He had become “one of us” a villager said, even though he was from elsewhere.
Gourdel was born 50 miles away in Nice, the son of a chemical engineer from Brittany who moved there in the 1950s to pursue a love of mountaineering. Gourdel’s father Jean became a mountain guide and took him up to the high summits from childhood. His parents, now in their eighties, still live in Nice.
Gourdel and his partner Françoise Grandclaude, a schoolteacher working down on the coast, shared part of a large old villa 50 miles away in central Nice. His daughter Anouk is 21 while his son, Erwann, aged 16, already a mountaineer, attends the Lycée de la Montagne at Valdeblore, about 10 miles from St Martin Vésubie.
Only days before he travelled to Algeria, Gourdel was at Saint Martin Vésubie attending a memorial service for a guide who had been lost while climbing. He celebrated his 55th birthday on 12 September, less than a week before setting off. He arrived on 20 September, and wrote of his pleasure at finding ”these far-away places so close at hand!” He was looking forward with relish to a 10-day trek in the company of Algerian mountaineers, taking in camping and exploring caves.
Always keen to find new routes off the beaten track, he was regarded nevertheless as a prudent and careful explorer. The war in Algeria against Islamist insurgents in the area in the 1990s was long past; no trekkers in recent years had faced kidnap. Yet the name “Triangle of Death” still hangs about the magnificent scenery between Tizi Ouzou and Bouira, a little over 100 miles east of the capital, Algiers, close to the Mediterranean coast.
Gourdel’s murderers seized him the day after he arrived, before he had the chance even to pitch his first tent peg. They posted a video saying he would be killed if France did not cease air strikes against “Islamic State”. Less than three days later they carried out their threat.
Hervé Pierre Gourdel, mountain guide and photographer: born Nice 12 September 1959; partner to Françoise Grandclaude (one daughter, one son); died Algeria 24 September 2014.
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