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Gaston Rébuffat, 1921-1985

GASTON RÉBUFFAT 1921-1985

Gaston Rébuffat, longtime Honorary Member of the American Alpine Club and Officer of the French Legion of Honor, died of cancer, in Paris, on May 31, 1985, at the age of 64.

His climbing career spanned half a century and during his lifetime influenced two generations of mountaineers in France and around the world. From the dawn of mountaineering to the present day, there have been few alpinists to match Rébuffat’s total contribution as a climber, guide, teacher, author, mountaineering historian, film-maker and photographer, and lecturer. Through these varied activities over four decades, he created a new world public for mountaineering. Non-climbers, as well as climbers, responded strongly to the virile simplicity of his personal precepts: the companionship of the rope; the joy and mystery of the dialogue between climber and mountain; his preference for difficulty over risk; and valuing the high mountain world as a mineral garden, a precious gift to be enjoyed and carefully preserved by all.

Gaston began climbing at 14, in the Calanques near his native Marseille, scrambling up high cliffs that fall sheer into the sea. He continued on Mont Sainte-Victoire, the huge limestone formation in Provence so often painted by Cézanne. During World War II, he graduated from the French training program Jeunesse et Montagne, and in 1946, despite being an “outsider”, was accepted in the Compagnie des Guides in Chamonix. He was a key member of the first climbing expedition to break through the 8000-meter barrier. This was the 1950 French expedition to Annapurna, the highest peak in the world climbed at that time.

By the end of his life, Rébuffat had made over 1200 climbs officially classified as “difficile” or “très difficile”, including many first ascents in the Mont Blanc massif. He was the first (and probably the only) guide to lead clients up all six of the major north faces of the Alps: The Eiger, the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, the Matterhorn, the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, the Drus and the Piz Badile. He often said his reward was the smile in his clients’ eyes when they reached the summit.

His own climbing style was elegant and precise, and his tall, angular figure —even on a distant wall or spire—was unmistakable for its distinctive grace, sureness, and the Jacquard sweater which was his hallmark. Up close, his thin face, his metallic glance, and his grin conveyed both modesty and a fierce will.

Rébuffat combined a mastery of modem climbing techniques with a romantic concept of the mountains rooted in the 19th century pioneers he so admired. His descriptions of ascents were never burdened with logistical trivia. He preferred to speak in more philosophical, even poetic, terms of what mountains do for man rather than what men do to mountains. Perhaps his basic attitude toward the mountain environment might be termed passionate prudence; “lucidity” was a word he often used in writing of climbing. He felt the mountains should be open to everyone, and that each was free to learn the rules his own way. He therefore neither espoused nor disparaged solo or speed climbing, but he openly deplored the competitiveness that led to the nationalistic planting of summit flags.

Gaston Rébuffat was an extraordinary human being. He was not only a happy family man but also completely self-made. He had no formal education beyond high school, yet he became a foremost mountaineering writer. He was for many years editor of the alpinism column in the Paris daily, Le Monde, directed a mountaineering book series for the major French publisher, Denoël, and with his son Joël, established a publishing house of his own in Geneva. He wrote twenty mountaineering works which were translated into many languages and reached millions of readers. There are probably few climbers today who have not read one of his works, seen his stunning climbing photographs, or heard him narrate his prize-winning mountain films such as Etoiles et Tempêtes, Entre Terre et Ciel, and Les Horizons Gagnés.

In some far-off time and place, outer space dwellers may one day marvel at the photograph sealed in the first American space probe, where Rébuffat’s linear figure, on an aiguille silhouetted against Mont Blanc, symbolizes the soaring human spirit as nothing else could.

Gaston Rébuffat, guide, friend, and for many the archetypal mountaineer, has gone on ahead. His life reminds us that “The struggle alone toward the summits is enough to fill man’s heart.” The words are from Albert Camus, but the concept is pure Rébuffat.

Arthur King Peters