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Total Alpinism

Total Alpinism. René Desmaison. Granada, London, 1982. 202 pages, black and white photographs. £12.50.

Total Alpinism is certainly a book to read. It is like sitting down with one’s best pal and listening to him tell about his latest wild climb. This book is a combined translation of La Montagne à Mains Nues and 342 Heures dans les Grandes Jorasses which René wrote at the peak of his climbing career in the early seventies, when he was around forty. This account of dramatic alpine climbing over twenty years, the unglossed version of a climber who realized early on in life that he was not a literary genius or a profound philosopher but an exceptional climber of the highest degree, mercifully spares us self-indulgent, weird ideas about why he and the rest of us climb.

The first section of the book describes his early new routes and exploits: the Direct on Olan, the first winter ascent of the Dru’s West Face, the direct of the Cima Ovest, the first ascent of Jannu, the Walker in winter, the first ascent and first winter ascent of the Frêney Pillar and the first ascent of the Shroud. Of special interest to me is his account of the 1966 rescue on the West Face of the Dru where René gives his version of a most controversial affair that starred his friend Gary Hemming.

The last section of the book deals with his tragic first attempt on the Walker Direct in winter and his eventual success. For those unfamiliar with the story, here are the highlights: René and Serge Gousseault, a younger (23) but accomplished climber, went up on a new route on the Walker Spur in the winter. After seven days of climbing, Serge froze his fingers and started to slow down, unable to retrieve a lot of the gear as well as dropping some. Then they had to spend the next two days battling for a few feet in a blizzard. Two hundred feet from the top, and hanging from slings after the ninth bivouac, Serge was unable to move. With no more food, in miserable weather, and still hanging from the slings, Serge managed to endure two more bivouacs but finally died. As a rescue was being organized by Simone, his wife, René waited through four more bivouacs (losing his sleeping bag in the second to last) before finally being rescued and hospitalized. He concluded with his description of his successful ascent the following winter, eloquently letting go his feelings at the top. “We had won. I had won, but what had I won? Glory? Material success? If glory, it would not last; if material success, it was too dearly bought. I could have had both so much more easily, so much less hazardously elsewhere. And yet it is for such moments of triumph and success that the mountains exact their toll. Logic asks why, but the question is meaningless. Only the passion and agony are real. …”

After reading Total Alpinism, one is left with the feeling that Desmaison made climbing his life simply because he liked to climb—not as obvious a statement as it seems. I put it down thinking “Wow! I would have loved to have climbed with this guy.” And that’s unusual.

John Bouchard