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Gerard Pailheiret, ice climbing interview

25.01.2008 by Elio Bonfanti

Interview by Elio Bonfanti with the French mountain guide Gerard Pailheiret who has always carried out been a tireless promoter of ice climbing.


Gerard Pailheiret is one the symbols of ice climbing in France and one of the founders of the Ice Climbing meeting in Argentière - La Bessée, one of the most famous and popular ice climbing meets in the world.

Pailheiret has played an important role in the history of ice climbing and, without aiming for the limelight and consequently always remaining slightly backstage, has played an instrumental role in the popularity of this sport. His approach to the growth of ice climbing, its development and future objectives is almost scientific.

According to Pailheiret the direction must inevitably head via a precise and determined ecological awareness which must not in any way be underestimated if we wish to conserve an acceptable terrain for future generations to play, too.


Gérard Pailheiret where do you come from?
I was born in Marseille in the South of France. I first started climbing in the Calanques and then, when I was circa 14 years old, I too my first alpine steps in Chamonix. When I was about 20, during my military service, I discovered the Ecrins mountain range and I fell in love with the Oisans peaks. It was in that moment, while preparing to become a mountain guide, that I decided to live off the mountains. I'm married with two children and in 1982 I joined the mountain rescue service, in 1983 I became aspiring mountain guide while in 1985 I became a fully qualified mountain guide.

Do you feel more like a mountain guide, an alpinist or impeccable organiser?
Since falling in love with the mountains I've always really enjoyed doing all disciplines, alpinism, climbing, ski mountaineering and... ice falls since the first ones I climbed in 1977 in the Freissinieres valley. I've never looked back. Personally I think it's important to be a mountain guide and, in parallel, continue alpinism on an amateur basis which enables you to keep your love for this activity alive. The golden age of ice climbing was at the end of the '70's and the beginning of the '80's and together with my firedn Robert Balestra I had the opportunity to participate in the exploration of the Fournel valley. Then, after having been at Gavarnie and in Italy, in 1991 we decided we wanted to organise a big meeting to share our ice falls with other climbers. The Argentiere la Bessée town council helped us immensely in organising this project, because such an event cannot be organised by one single person but thanks to the energy of a group which works 100% towards realising that objective. Another important help came from a series of climbing companies which included Petzl and which today, after 18 years, continues to be our sponsor.

Why the Meeting?
In the beginnning the aim of the meeting (as for all other meetings) was to make our valley known and develop ice climbing here. Then during the first edition the mayor of Argentiere suggested we do soemthing that could be repeated on a yearly basis. The town of Argentiere had been devastated by the “Pechiney” industry and wanted to stimulate its economics and convert itself to winter tourism, with on original image based on leisure. The meeting evolved and during the latest editions training and safety have become increasingly important to reduce the number of ice climbing accidents. This year the meeting celebrated it's 18th birthday and the aim was to make ice climbers aware of the environment so that future generations can benefit from the mountain environment as much as possible.

Every year the meeting grows in importance. What is the secret of its success?
The secret of its longevity can be put down to the passion and the motivation of the local ice climbers who work with me: they offer me advice and ideas and also support me during the darkest moments (such as the two deaths two years ago, of which one was an Italian climber). Other reasons are the huge number of ice climbs in this region which can host climbers from all over the world. Then there are the local organisations which support the event, both financially and from a human point of view. And, last but not least, we receive support from the climbing manufacturers.

Do you by chance have any numbers?
IN 2005 we had a record number of ice climbers, more than 1000 from 30 different countries. And one of the lectures this year was attended by the great Renè Desmaison to whom we gave a moving tribute to his career. The ice climbing budget is somewhere in the region of 110,000 euro and we estimate that in the Ecrins range this sport reaps circa 450,000 euro a year. The event takes 4 months to organise, 2 people working full-time, while during the meeting there are circa 40/50 people including volunteers and those working for the town council. All the document events are translated and published into 4 different languages.

A few years ago I saw Daniel Dulac and François Damilano teach a group of beginners. Did this come about by chance or was this a programmed opening from leaders of this sport to beginners?
The idea was to give normal climbers the possibility to meet their idols and share time with some of the world's great ice climbers. Furthermore, I wanted to create powerful, fun moments for alpinists so that experience could be handed down directly from the best to beginners. We still organise workshops where technical consultants of various different companies and local mountain guides teach how to move in the mountains in safety.

Your site opens with the phrase "For a certain ice climbing culture". I think this is really important, can you tell us more?
Yes, it's a sentence which lies close to my heart, because I think that you learn how to ice climb only after numerous years out there in the field. You cannot improvise and become an ice climber from one day to the next. I hope that my colleges transmit this love as best possible. I try to do this with the meetingg, through my internet site www.ice-fall.com and with my ice climbing lessons and I always attempt to give beginners as much time and attention as is necessary. In recent times I have given our activity a different and important social dimension and apart from teaching school children, with other mountain guides we also teach the disabled and believe it's an excellent therapeutical activity.

How many accidents happen every year on ice falls in the Briançonnaise?
I suggest you look at this case study carried out two years ago during the meeting. This spring I'll try and update it.

Do you believe your site can help reduce the number of accidents?
In a certain way, yes. All the information has been confirmed by a mountain guide and, in principal therefore, is trustworthy. You need to bear in mind though that websites cannot be but an instrument which helps make a choice about what to climb, in no case should they be the only element which determines the route to be climbed In any case I always publish numerous pedagogic factsheets that should be “brushed up on” at the start of each season. On the one hand sites can be useful, which on the other than can have a “inauspicious” effect of increasing the number of ice climbers at ice falls which are in condition, thereby increasing the danger which is normally inherent is this activity dur to overcrowding. This happens regularly in places such as Ceillac.

A small provocation: do you think that the equipment is more advanced than the alpinists or are alpinists always ahead of the equipment?
“A good workman always has good tools” and a good ice climber can climb with any tools. What often happens though is that near beginners, in an attempt to reassure themselves, buy the latest generation equipment, believing they're better than they actually are. This is an enormous mistake, above all in ice climbing! To answer your question I have to say that in this case the gear is more advanced than the climbers. Only ice screws have really made an important change in ice climbing, having radically changed the way ice climbers move.

Let's talk about real ice falls, about the most beautiful ice climb in the Briançonnaise region?
The most beautiful icefall must surely be very beautiful, famous, difficult, wild yet doable for a large number of mid-grade ice climbers. On the basis of this criteria, two names spring to mind. I'll begin with “Il Colosso di Rodi” in the Fournel valley, a real alpine outing, difficult and with objective dangers which require good level of ability and intimate knowledge of the mountains in winter. Furthermore the descent is complicated and difficult. The other icefall is the magnificent and highly popular “La forme du Chaos” at Ceillac. It's an contagious climb which contains the ice climbing virus! Patrick Gabarrou once recommended I climb it with a friend and described it as “The most beautiful ice fall I've ever climbed.”

Three pieces of advice for ice climbers?
First: learn slowly without missing out on fundamental stages, and learn as best possible.
Second: check the conditions of the ice fall, the snow cover and weather forecast.
Third: continue to remain up-to-date with the evolution of this sport and the new techniques. A good ice climber places plenty of screws, protects himself regularly and does not hesitate to turn back when he's not on form of believes conditions aren't good.

The question that no one has ever asked?
When will you hang your ice axes to the wall? I always answer: not tomorrow... and then we'll see!

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