RIP Rene Desmaison


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Chris Jones

Social climber
Glen Ellen, CA
Apr 5, 2014 - 02:57pm PT
Hiking hut-to-hut in the Ecrins a few years ago, we arrived in the small town of L'Argentière-La-Bessée. Sitting in an attractive square, likely filling up on pastries after a few days in the hills, it was quite moving to see the name of the square. The Ecrins were the setting for some of Desmaison's fabulous climbs, and it seemed so appropriate. When, I could not help wondering, would we ever see such public recognition of an American climber?


Sport climber
Jun 14, 2015 - 09:51am PT

René Demaison - Portrait d'un grand alpiniste
[Click to View YouTube Video]

Sport climber
Jun 14, 2015 - 09:57am PT

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


Social climber
Jun 14, 2015 - 06:13pm PT
hey there say, quido... wow, as to this quote of yours:

Jun 5, 2012 - 10:54am PT
Desmaison gave a fabulous slide show in Santa Cruz in the mid 70s. One of the all time greats in alpine climbing and interesting to see the problems he had with the guiding establishment, similar to Bonatti's problems in Ital

THANK you for sharing... would have loved to seen that... in the 70's, i was soon in south texas, i think... missed a lot of greatoutdoor stuff... (though we had our version, down there--and the beach)...

and say, marlow! wow, great share... thank you so very kindly!
would like to learn more about all the 'alpine climbers and climbs' etc, but, it would take so much time, i know, :)

interesting comment, by chris, too... as to wondering, if american climbers, think he said, would have such a 'sign of importance' like the one that he showed in his photo share... :)

(say, i did read what marlow's share, mentioned about the french embracing the alpine climbling pushes)

Sport climber
Mar 6, 2017 - 12:44pm PT

Rene Desmaison from

In 1966, Desmaison was expelled from the Company of the Guides of Chamonix, after he, Mick Burke and Gary Hemming saved the lives of two German climbers on the west face of the Petit Dru in an unsanctioned rescue. The world's oldest mountain guiding company, which had turned over responsibility for mountain rescue to the mountain rescue division of the French National Gendarmerie—PGHM—in 1958, after two rescue attempts that ended in tragedy, accused Desmaison of having mounted the rescue merely as a publicity stunt. The polemics that followed created a rift between the Chamonix climbing establishment and Desmaison that was destined to deepen in the following years.

In the 60s Desmaison became specialized in winter mountaineering—a rarely attempted activity at the time—climbing, in 1963, the Cassin route on the Grandes Jorasses' Walker Spur. This was the second winter ascent, just days after Bonatti's historic first winter ascent. In 1967, Desmaison climbed the Central Pillar of Freney, then the hardest route leading to the summit of Mont Blanc. This last ascent was completed in particuarly appalling conditions together with Pyrenees-born climber Robert Flematti, who would become Desmaison's regular partner in the next few years.

While many other European mountaineers of his generation had used media to make their exploit known to the public, Desmaison took "mediatic alpinisim" to an entirely different new level with his next climb, the first ascent of the Linceuil, a steep hanging snowfield on the extreme left of the north face of the Jorasses. One of the last major climbs completed before the introduction of the modern ice tools, the Linceuil took a staggering nine days of step-cutting by Desmaison and Flematti. The length of the ascent was certainly influenced by the bad weather, but a major contribution came from the fact that the climbers hauled a complete set of broacasting equipment up the Linceul and made daily live transmissions from the wall.

The most notorious event in Desmaison's climbing career happened in February, 1971, as he and young aspiring guide Serge Gousseault's attempt on a new route on the left side of the Grandes Jorasses' Walker Spur ended in tragedy. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, the climb—still considered one of the most difficult mixed lines of the Alps; seldom repeated afterwards, despite its quality—turned into a two-week nightmare, as Desmaison and an ailing Gousseault battled their way up the mountain. Gousseault collapsed 80 meters below the summit, leaving both climbers stranded on the wall. For reasons still debated, rescue from Chamonix was called late and mounted in piecemeal fashion. When eventually a rescue team reached the two climbers, Gousseault had been dead for three days and Desmaison was barely alive.

A bitter controversy followed, pitting Desmaison against Maurice Herzog, the Annapurna climber turned mayor of Chamonix. Desmaison accused Herzog of deliberately slowing down the rescue to "punish" him for the 1966 Dru affair. Conversely, Desmaison was himself accused of causing the disaster, spending too much time on the wall to maximize the media appeal of the climb. The controversy lasted for years, and while Desmaison was honorarily reinsated into the Chamonix Guide Company in 2005, in many ways the consequences of the 1971 tragedy continued to haunt him.

In the 70s Desmaison returned to the Jorasses to complete the 1971 route, soloed the immense Peuterey ridge of Mont Blanc, and later became active in the Andes; where he completed several technical routes, some with his son.

Desmaison recorded his mountaineering experiences in many books, most notably 342 Hours on the Grandes Jorasses—a compelling record of the 1971 tragedy—and Total Alpinism, both considered classics of mountaineering literature.

Desmaison will be remembered for his contributions to world alpinism, through both his climbing and writings.

Rene Desmaison responding to Maurice Herzog: Ce que j'appelle l'honneur



Ajaccio, Corsica, France
Mar 6, 2017 - 11:48pm PT
Thank you Marlow for such a post.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Mar 7, 2017 - 05:10am PT
Yes, thanks Marlow. Eight days of step cutting. A continuing mystery for me is how long it took to develop the concept of front pointing......there must have been a worldwide cerebral cortex miswire in the climbing community.
People had seen for years how crampon points could be effective on ice. Why so long to put them on the front of crampons and dispense with step cutting?
I think that it had to do with the chilling effects of tradition.

Trad climber
Cascade Mountains and Monterey Bay
Apr 6, 2018 - 03:31pm PT
I think delays in front pointing had to do with leather boots, and thus crampons, being too flexible. Rebuffat's book may have commented on this while I was still a teenager trying to learn.

While attempting to make front-pointing work I twice shortened my wood handled Charlet Mozer ice axe and paired it with a wood handled Stubai ice hammer that was the closest thing to a modern ice axe. Chouinard and I were chatting about all this as we learned. I still prefer Yvon's paired short axes with swappable components and his ice screw wrench for the now relatively mild stuff I still like to do.

Trying to front point with those flexible leather boots in the cold led to damaging my Achilles tendons to an extent that doctors told me I'd be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life if they snapped completely. I avoided their advice to have my feet in casts and stay off my feet for a year. Instead I treated the actions of daily life as difficult climbing moves to avoid further catastrophic damage. The simplest mistakes in daily life would result in agonizing pain and setting the healing process back by weeks or months. It took years for the tendons to heal back to something approaching normal and I still have to do careful maintenance stretching exercises.

The first rigid-soled boots I had were designed by Walter Bonatti with a stiff fiberglass insert above the vibram soles, as a precursor to modern boots. Then I went to Dynafit Randonee ski boots with Foot Fangs and ice climbing opened up a whole new dimension for me.

Plastic boots changed the ice game dramatically, making front pointing and short axes practical.

Trad climber
Cascade Mountains and Monterey Bay
Apr 6, 2018 - 03:50pm PT
Rene Desmaison designed the only pack that I really like for alpine routes.

Mine was a gift from three Swiss guides who spent a year as house guests in Connecticut with regular weekend trips to the Gunks. This pack is pretty raggedy after 35 years of use, but nothing else has tempted me to replace it, exploring the racks of mountain shops and even making suggestions to designers. Nobody seems to get it.

(My favorite pack for day climbs is the original very simple Chouinard bullet pack. Again nothing else tempts me to replace it.)

Ajaccio, Corsica, France
May 19, 2018 - 12:18am PT

Ajaccio, Corsica, France
May 23, 2018 - 06:08am PT

Sport climber
May 23, 2018 - 10:51am PT


Here's two more:

I had expected to see a red Rene Desmaison screw carabiner (similar to the upper one), but have never seen one. Do you or Dahu know why? Were no screw carabiners made?

Ajaccio, Corsica, France
May 24, 2018 - 12:20am PT
Marlow, at the moment, dahu and I are still looking for who was the manufacturer of the red RENE DESMAISON karabiner... Your sample is splendid! To my knowledge, no screwgate version has ever been made.

Ice climber
May 24, 2018 - 06:56am PT
Lost my Superguides along the way

I hate it when I lose beloved shoes too. I miss my La Sportiva Gandalfs.

Rene seems like a helluva guy. Probably quite bullish if yer party was in his way up a line in the mountains. But he would nonetheless let you cut in front of his loaded trolley if you were only grabbing a cucumber and some gaffa tape at the Super U.
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