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IN MEMORY: RENE DESMAISON
Posted on: October 2, 2007
Rene Desmaison during the 1970s. After a 1971 winter attempt on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in which his young partner was killed—and he himself almost died—Desmaison fought a vocal battle with Maurice Herzog over the way the rescue attempt was handled. [Photo] Courtesy of pelic.free.fr
Rene Desmaison, 77, passed away last week after a long battle with illness. He is remembered as a prolific mountaineer with over 1000 peak ascents including 114 first ascents of routes in the Alps, Andes and Himalaya to his credit.
Desmaison began climbing in Fontainbleau as part of the third generation of young Parisian mountaineers and climbers known as the "Group of Bleau." There, in 1954, he met Jean Couzy, a young aerospace engineer and test pilot, with whom he climbed extensively in the Alps, particularly on the west face of the Petit Dru. He made the fourth ascent of the Dru's original route, as well as both the first winter ascent and the first solo ascent of the same route. With Couzy, who died tragically in 1958, he added also a new line—the all time third—on the Marguerite Spur of the Grandes Jorasses' north face.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Desmaison was active in the Himalaya. Perhaps the most well known of these expeditions was the Lionel Terray-led expedition that successfully ticked the first ascent of Jannu (7710m).
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.
From 342 Hours on the Grandes Jorasses: "It's so difficult to accept nothingness... You would like to know how things really are beyond life, be sure it's not all a big joke, but, as big as it may be, how can a joke survive for millenia? Look how beautiful are the stars in the coal black sky, those little twinkling gems, those little fantastic worlds. You've got Creation before your eyes, here, on this same mountain that's taking your life and you can't hate, not even now. And what if truth is really here, amongst these pyramids of granite?"