André Roch 1906-2002
The 20th of November saw the passing of one of the great mountaineers of our time: André Roch. Engineer, avalanche and snow expert, high mountain guide, father, oil painter, and author were some of his many accomplishments. He pioneered climbing access routes of Everest, and cut the first ski run in Aspen, Colorado. His passion for the mountains affected all he encountered.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland the 21st of August 1906 he was introduced to the mountains at a young age by his father, a professor of medicine, and quickly developed a profound love. At 96, when he departed this world, it had never grown cold.
I met André by chance on a frosty morning in early December 1973. On the outskirts of Geneva I was hitchhiking up to Chamonix for my second winter of skiing and working as a “plongeur” (dishwasher), when a rather worn, black Peugeot 404 pulled to the side of the road and I was motioned to climb in. After a brief silence I was politely asked as to my destination. When I replied, in my limited French, he must have divined my accent and inquired from what country I came. Aspen, Colorado, “Etas Unis” I replied, and upon hearing the name his blue eyes lit up. “Aspen…I have been there,” he said thoughtfully. “First in 1937; I cut the first ski run on Aspen Mountain. I am André Roch.”
In 1968 at the age of 19 I came to Aspen, and of course I knew of the Roch Cup downhill race, Roch run, and of Andrés long association with the town. I must say I was not but a little taken aback by whom I was riding with. Regretting he could not take me all the way to Chamonix, for he was due to inaugurate a new lift in the ski resort of Flaine, he promised to pay a visit to the restaurant by which I was employed. Later that winter, he did come, and the girls who owned “Tartine” could not believe André Roch would come all the way from Geneva to visit a dishwasher. He was well known in the Alps.
We stayed friends ever since and frequently corresponded. Invited to Aspen in 1987 to commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Ski Club that he founded, he predicted our first child would be a boy, and be born during his stay. He was right on both counts. During each return to Chamonix, my family has always been graciously welcomed at his home in Geneva, where a fine view of Mt. Blanc can be had from his library.
André was an amazing person, not only for his vast experiences in his long life, but for his philosophy of life itself. The positive always outweighed the negative. Once while walking together in Chamonix, I commented on how the town had changed over the years and lost much of its charm. “Peut-être…mais les montagnes sont toujours aussi attirantes” (perhaps, but the mountains are as alluring as always). The changes at the valley floor could never alter his feelings for the mountains above.
Life, however, was not always kind to André. His camp in the Himalaya was hit by avalanche, carrying the party some 1,650 feet, killing two (Kumaun, 1939). His son Jean-François was buried 45 minutes in Davos by a slide in which they were both caught. André managed to free himself and dig his son out. A head-on car crash nearly took his life. Worst of all, his daughter Suzanne and her female climbing partner fell to their deaths while climbing with André in 1962, himself saved only by the parting of the rope. Madame “Mims” Roch never shared his passion and reproached him for his frequent extended absences. She never accepted the loss of their daughter. Despite these setbacks, it never diminished André.
In 1937 he was hired by railroad magnate Ted Ryan to map the ski runs and lifts for a resort to be built in Castle Creek valley, near the ghost town of Ashcroft, approximately 12 miles from Aspen. During the winter months, André would ride a horse up the valley, skis slung over the saddle. When at a spot he wished to climb, he would dismount, turn the horse around and slap the horse’s rear to send it back to the ranch. Then he would skin up to the bowls below Hayden Peak to map out the area. I recently toured in the same region, thinking of him and what amazing terrain the resort would have encompassed, had not the outbreak or WWII ended the dream.
An engineer by profession, André is most remembered for study of snow and avalanche, and to that end wrote numerous books. As a consultant he traveled world wide. He was employed for years by the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche in Davos. The work afforded him the pleasure of returning home by skis each evening.
As a climber and guide he has numerous first ascents to his credit; in the Alps there are 25, notably the NE face of the Triolet, and South Pillar of the Courtes in the Mt. Blanc Massif. In the Himalaya and Karakoram he is credited with 27 firsts.
André was still bouldering in his 70s, and skiing in his 80s. In his later years he continued to write technical articles. Always a landscape mountain painter, he continued avidly until his death.
I will remember his charm, wit, and unsurpassed love of the mountains, which continues to influence my own passion. I am blessed to have known and called him a friend.