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Jean-Christophe Lafaille

High-altitude mountaineer who repeatedly cheated death on his ever more audacious climbs

Thursday, 9 February 2006

Jean-Christophe Lafaille, mountaineer: born Gap, France 31 March 1965; married (one son, one daughter); died Makalu, Nepal c27 January 2006.

On 31 January, when Jean-Christophe Lafaille had been missing for a week, his base-camp support team concluded that he must have perished in his attempt to make the first solo winter climb of an 8,000-metre mountain, the 8,485m Himalayan peak Makalu. Last Saturday his wife flew over the mountain by helicopter and confirmed that there was no longer any hope that he would be found alive.

Lafaille, one of the world's leading climbers, had continually undertaken such risky mountaineering challenges, and had long appeared to possess a shield with which to cheat death on his audacious climbs.

Most famously, he made an extraordinary solo escape from the ferocious South Face of Annapurna (8,091m) in 1992. Lafaille, on his first visit to the Himalayas, had been climbing in lightweight "alpine" style with the leading French mountaineering superstar Pierre Béghin. The pair had reached an altitude of 7,400m and, although they were only 600m from the summit, deteriorating weather forced them into a desperate retreat.

Part-way down the face, disaster struck. Because of their lightweight approach, without teams of porters and the security of fixed ropes, Lafaille and Béghin carried relatively little protective equipment. As a consequence, in an attempt to minimise the loss of their essential gear as they descended, Béghin took the fateful decision to risk abseiling off a single camming device placed in an expanding crack, rather than back it up with a piton. But, after he had lowered himself a short way, the camming unit ripped out of the rock. "I saw Pierre shoot backwards, his head turned towards me, his arms powerless," Lafaille recalled. "He was bundled up in his hood, but his eyes pierced me. Pierre knew, in that second, that all was over."

Béghin fell to his death, taking the ropes and all the equipment with him. Now stranded alone in the midst of a raging storm, on one of the most fearsome mountain faces in the world, Lafaille contrived to make one of the most outstanding self-rescues in climbing history. Somehow he managed to descend to his last bivouac position where, by chance, he recovered a 20m length of thin rope, intended for cutting into abseil loops. Armed with this inadequate protection, and contriving makeshift pitons out of sections of tent pole, Lafaille descended over the next five days, downclimbing where he could and making nervous abseils when he found it impossible.

Just when the Frenchman thought things could not get any worse, a falling rock smashed into his right arm, breaking it badly in several places. Close to despair, and rapidly running out of energy, Lafaille somehow willed himself down the final thousand metres of the face.

Lafaille's original climbing ambitions, however, had lain far from the grandeur and solitude of the earth's great mountain ranges. While still an adolescent, he was an emerging star in the highly competitive world of "sport" climbing; a branch of climbing requiring the training and discipline of a modern professional athlete rather than the stamina, survival skills and exploratory instincts of the mountaineer.

Brought up close to the southern French Alps in the town of Gap, Lafaille was drawn as a teenager to the nearby steep limestone crag of Ceüse. He became one of a talented school of local climbers who helped turn this formerly obscure cliff into a world-renowned rock-climbing venue famous for its steep and powerfully dynamic climbs.

Increasingly obsessed by rock climbing, Lafaille practised by swarming over a large granite boulder near to Gap. "Over the years I learned every feature on that rock," he related. "Like a piano student, I practised again and again, as regularly as possible, my scales. I knew each hold, each move; I can still repeat them today by heart." As a result, in 1989 Lafaille became the first Frenchman to climb solo a route with the difficulty rating of "7c+", a considerable achievement, as well as becoming one of the first to push roped climbing to the difficulty of "8c" - still close to the hardest technical grade achieved.

But by the beginning of the 1990s Lafaille had already begun to shift his climbing ambitions away from the relatively safe bolt-protected test-pieces of the outcrops towards the more unpredictable and adventurous high mountains. He announced his intentions by making a daring solo climb of the extremely testing alpine route "Divine Providence" on the Grand Pilier d'Angle. There followed an audacious new route, "Un Autre Monde", on the same mountain and another, "L'Ecume des Jours" on the famed Freney Pillar.

Lafaille found himself part of a celebrated élite of extreme climbers who were French household names. Climbing has long enjoyed a public appreciation and exposure in France far in advance of the UK; mainstream magazines such as Paris Match have traditionally featured the exploits of top French climbers, portraying them as national sporting heroes. Accompanying the greater possibilities for a commercially endorsed career is an intense pressure to perform for the cameras.

As a consequence, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the exploits of the luminaries became ever more risky. Solo alpine climbing, as practised by Lafaille, almost became a vogue among the leading practitioners, with helicopter-borne television crews and up-to-the-minute reports of ascents becoming commonplace. Lafaille himself claimed to disdain this celebrity hothouse. "This is supposed to be alpinism, not a circus," he said. "My central inspiration is the Earth, the wilderness, Nature." Partly as a desire to escape the immediate media scrutiny he agreed to team up with Pierre Béghin and head for the relative quiet of the high Himalayas. Their fateful climb on Annapurna resulted.

The experience had a profound effect on Lafaille. "It was not until 10 years later that I was able to talk about Pierre's death," he said. "I'm still haunted by his fall and by the fear of falling myself." By then he had established himself as one of the world's leading high-altitude mountaineers. Although his injuries had required a lengthy recuperation, Lafaille had launched himself back into Himalayan climbing as soon as he felt fit enough - and with impressive results. Only a year after his terrible experience he stood atop the 8,201m summit of Cho Oyu. In 1994 he made a new route, solo, on the North Face of Shishapangma (8,046m) and in April 1995 he "enchained" 10 of the Alps' hardest north faces in one continuous "Grand Voyage" lasting 15 days.

In the autumn of that year he felt ready to return to deal with unfinished business on Annapurna. This time he attempted to repeat, alone, the 1970 British Route on the South Face, which Chris Bonington's team of seven climbers had taken months of effort to surmount. Lafaille was turned back by incessant snowfall at 7,600m. He returned again to try the line in 1998 but abandoned the expedition after the death of a Sherpa in an avalanche. He eventually laid his ghosts to rest in 2002 when he climbed the mountain by its East Ridge.

Elsewhere, he had been equally energetic. In 1996 Lafaille soloed two 8,000m peaks, Gasherbrum I and II, in just four days, while in 2000 he soloed the North Face of Manaslu (8,156m), followed by the South East Spur of the world's second-highest mountain K2 (8,611m) in 2001. Nor was he tardy in between expeditions to the great ranges. Back home in the Alps he completed a long-standing winter "big wall" project on the historic arena of the West Face of the Petit Dru. The "Lafaille Route" was controversial; some dubbed it the "hardest route in the Alps", while a few cynics in the highly competitive Chamonix climbing community dismissed it as "just another media climb". A partial repeat by the leading British alpinists Ian Parnell and Andy Kirkpatrick in 2002, however, certainly confirmed the extreme arduousness of the route.

Parnell was an admirer of the way Lafaille contrived to "walk the tight-rope of mainstream publicity while still very much cutting it amongst the mountaineering élite", while simultaneously maintaining a strong domestic grounding. Parnell recalled:

The first impression was how tiny he was [at 1.6m] and how could he manage such tough mountaineering. The second was what a gentleman he was, soft-spoken, gracious and a thinker. Whenever I met him, I was struck by how much he talked about his wife Katia and his children, and how important they were to him. He felt he led almost two lives - the family man and climber.

The pace quickened. In a single season, 2003, Lafaille performed a remarkable tour de force, climbing three 8,000m peaks, Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak, but narrowly escaping death after falling alone into a crevasse on the latter and then developing oedema. It was only the urgings of his devoted wife Katia that persuaded him to descend to a safe altitude and thereby probably saved his life.

By then, Lafaille had taken the decision to try to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000m+ peaks, with Katia acting as his commercial manager. It is worth remembering that still only 12 climbers have achieved this daunting feat, many of them with the aid of bottled oxygen and following well-worn routes. Lafaille not only elected to take the much harder course of dispensing with supplemental oxygen, he also decided to raise the bar further by trying each peak either by a new route, solo, or during the infinitely more challenging conditions of a Himalayan winter. His solo triumph on Shishapangma in December 2004 proved that he possessed the inner toughness required to operate in the most hostile climbing environment imaginable.

When asked, before leaving for Makalu, why he climbed in such dangerous conditions alone, Lafaille replied:

I find it fascinating that our planet still has areas where no modern technology can save you, where you are reduced to your most basic - and essential - self. This natural space creates demanding situations that can lead to suffering and death, but also generate a wild interior richness. Ultimately, there is no way of reconciling these contradictions. All I can do it try to live within their margins, in the narrow boundary between joy and horror. Everything on this earth is a balancing act.

Lafaille's climb on Makalu, the first time an 8,000m peak was to be attempted solo and in winter, marked his 12th 8,000m. Had he succeeded, only Kangchenjunga and Everest would have remained. "Not so long ago a climber embarking on a solo and winter ascent of Makalu would have been considered suicidal," remarked Andy Kirkpatrick, who had followed some of Lafaille's alpine routes:

So how surprising is it that Jean-Christophe has died? It's a measure of the man that many will be [surprised], because he was one of the very few mountaineers you would always expect to return from the impossible.

Colin Wells

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