Patrick Gabarrou, an interview with the great alpinist and Mont Blanc connaisseur
Patrick Gabarrou was born in 1951 close to Paris in France and the routes first climbed by this alpinist, philosopher and mountain guide are integral parts of the history of Mont Blanc. The following interview was carried out by don Daniele D'Elia and Ronald Gumiel during the recent series of evening talks entitled "Passione Verticale" at the Jardin de l'Ange in Courmayeur, Italy.
We met Patrick Gabarrou at Courmayeur as he was here to talk about his numerous climbs in the Mont Blanc massif. Many had gathered for the event and Gabarrou swept them all away, even those less into mountaineering, with his stunning photos that depict an extremely complex inner world. Gabarrou's way of interpreting the mountains certainly goes well beyond competitive sports performance.
We ask him whether the Mont Blanc, where he forged most of his climbs, is a privileged place.
"I find it's beautiful. It's a cathedral of natural light and you never get tired of looking at it, even if you don't climb it, just like a cathedral. There are certain moments at dawn or dusk when the views take on a supernatural beauty, if you will. I love all mountains, in particular the Alps and Pyrenees because they're history is tied to man who has loved and explored these mountains. I also love, for example, the Matterhorn or the Valais region; together with my friends I made the first ascent of three routes on the Matterhorn."
Are you emotionally bound to any of your routes? And if so, why?
"Routes represent natural lines and reliefs, but their history is tied to my climbing partners. Take the Direttissima up the Pilier Rouge du Brouillard as an example. The pillar was climbed by Bonatti using his modern approach, while my climb was forged with Alexis Long, my "mountain twin".
What place do the mountains hold? Are they a means to something else or an end in itself?
"Right from the outset I've really loved this this world that holds the key to my dreams, quenches my thirst for discovery, mystery, my desire to play and my curiosity. But I've never considered the mountains as something final or definitive, like the Holy Grail of life. For me they're a strong presence, out of this world, given to us for our earthly pilgrimage. It was given to me, but it has never been an absolute. When I began mountaineering I was already a devout Christian and that for me is the essence of life.
Are there sensations that prevail during a climb? Is there anything in particular that might stimulate your thoughts during an ascent or fuel an inner journey?
"Some 'mountain images' have this effect on me. Fresh snow which, after a few days, begins to shine like platinum. These are 'images' that can be found on all mountains worldwide. It's as if in moments such as this, these rocks have a precise behavior which is something archetypal. In that moment or on that given day the entire world could see the same image in a remote place in Patagonia, the Andes or the Alps. It's as if you stumble across something that corresponds to you, like it were an integral part of yourself."
Why is one of your routes called Divine Providence? Lucky chance or connected to something in particular? Or is your faith a constant in your life?
"It's connected to what François Marsigny and I experienced up on that face. We should have fallen off, six hundred metres down to the ground, but instead a single peg and Friend kept us alive. François lags behind on his personal journey to faith and we both talked about what had just happened. During such exciting moments you know you should be dead really, and if you're alive then there must be a reason. So the name didn't come about by coincidence, God protected us because we have something to do in life."
During the last few days there have been numerous accidents in the mountains, including friends such as Giorgio on Mont Blanc du Tacul. What lessons can be learned?
"I don't think we're ever completely ready, but every day one can prepare and ask for strength, clarity of thought about one's personal relationship with death. I do so every day, every morning I give God everything, my entire life, my will and desire. When death comes you simply don't know things will be. But if you give everything to God every day, you'll certainly be helped during the moment of death. Many friends of mine interpret death as terrible, dramatic. But if you believe, you know deep down inside that there is a reason, perhaps unknown at that particular moment. Faith gives me a great inner strength to help others in those moments. I might be weak in life in general, but this belief in eternal life, which constantly lies within me, gives me hope even in times as incomprehensible as these, terrible for all and above all for a wife, for children, friends, for the loved ones. And so, with the utmost respect for everything, I continue to render the mountains a way of hailing the world's beauty. And I continue to remain faithful to a love which we shared through our friendship that no longer exists. Alexis is always with me and I often pray for him and ask for his support during my climbs."
Interview by Daniele D'Elia and Ronald Gumiel