Jean-Christophe Lafaille: Bound to climb

Posted: Jan 31, 2006 11:02 pm EST

( Jean-Christophe Lafaille is missing on Makalu. A chopper swept the mountain finding no trace of the climber, save for a tent above 7000 meters and 3 deserted Sherpas in BC. Katia Lafaille is enroute to Nepal to bid her husband good bye and build a memorial stupa.

It's important however to realize that although the chances of Lafaille's survival shrink considerably by each day, the odds are not yet nil. As the chopper spotted no sign of the climber, there is a possibility he is in the high altitude tent at 7600 meters, too tired to move. On Annapurna in 1992, Lafaille turned up, alone, after he had been missing for 5 days.

No Frenchman has summited the fourteen 8000ers

But who is the climber behind the headlines? A risk taker, for sure. Climbing a 8000er in winter means facing extreme conditions, much harder than the ones usually encountered during regular climbing seasons. Yet the crux of Lafailles plan lay in the fact that he was going it alone. Not only would he be solo on the mountain, but on the entire Himalayan range! His small BC crew was not skilled enough to climb any higher. When Lafaille left for his final summit push last Tuesday, he calculated the climb would take around 5-6 days, plus 48 hours hold in case of bad weather.

It has now been one week since he left BC and four days since he last called home from a tent pitched at 7600m, some hours before attempting the summit. While there is no real proof of Jean-Christophe having actually perished on the mountain his team has lost all hope. And the French climbing community is mourning the loss of one of its greatest climbers.

Only twelve men have stood on the summit of the tallest mountains in the world - the 14, 8000ers. Out of the 23 aspiring climbers currently on the 10-13 summits list, 6 have died (not including Lafaille yet) - 2 only in 2005. No Frenchman has ever summited the fourteen 8000ers. Jean-Christophe, with only Makalu, Everest and Kangchenjunga to go, was the closest to achieve the goal, after the greatly popular French Benoit Chamoux died on the upper slopes of Kangchenjunga - his 11th 8000er - in 1995, leaving a great void at the time.

A mountain life

Lafaille, 40, is a multi-talented climber who has mastered many mountaineering disciplines during his life. It was only over the last decade that he focused on the great Himalayan peaks, often climbing alone.

Born in Gap, a small town in French Alps, Jean-Christophe started climbing at a very young age. Right from the start he knew he wanted to devote his life to mountain sports. While completing his military service in the High Mountain Group of the French army, he discovered sport-climbing competitions - a revelation for what was to come.

Between 1985 and 1989, Lafaille took part in the Climbing World Cup, but even after leaving the tournaments behind, Lafailles competitive nature never diminished, even on his solo ascents.

By 1990, JC became a licensed Mountain guide, and devoted his time to alpine style climbing. Soon, he developed a certain bond with winter, solo ascents. That is how he climbed many of the classic routes in the Alps, among them the first solo ascent of Divine Providence on Mont Blancs Angle Pillar considered among the most difficult in the massif.

Competitor and survivor

A few years later, in 1992, Lafaille headed for the Himalayas with seasoned climber Pierre BĂŠghin. Their grand goal: No less than the South Face of Annapurna.

What was intended as a great first experience turned into one of the most dramatic events in Lafailles life. High up on the face, an abseil anchor failed and Pierre fell into the void. Alone at 7100m, Lafaille had no other choice but to climb down the wall. It took him five days, and he reached BC in shock, where everybody had left him for dead.

Jean-Christophe would keep climbing, but never managed to get Annapurna out of his mind. It would be another ten years before he could shake off the demons. He returned to Annapurna more determined than ever. This time he summited together with Basque ace climber Alberto IĂąurrategi. The climb resulted in Lafaille's book on the mountain: Prisonnier de lAnnapurna (Prisoner of Annapurna).

Fame of the death zone

Lafaille was now ready to expand his climbing to all styles and disciplines from vertical ice climbing to big rock walls. And of course, some climbs in Himalaya including Cho Oyu, a variation on Shisha Central, both Gasherbrums, and Lhotse.

By the year 2000, Jean-Christophe had summited Manaslu, climbing alone via a new route on the NW face. It was reportedly then he decided to summit all 14, 8000ers. It was then too, when Lafaille became a household name in the worlds climbing community.

On March 31st, 2001, on his 36th birthday, Lafaille's son Tom was born. Three months later, dad went to Pakistan to climb K2. He summited via the Cesen Route along with South Tyrolean Hans Kammerlander.

The all-star climbing teams

In 2002, Lafaille joined an all-star team led by American Ed Viesturs for the feared and desired Annapurna. The goal was to complete the South East Ridge from the South face. Bad conditions turned Viesturs and Gustafsson back, but IĂąurrategi and two Basque mates decided to go on. Lafaille joined them. Finally, Jean Christophe and Alberto reached the summit. After dealing with the 7 km-long ridge both climbers made it safely back.

The idea of a super-star team seemed to appeal both to Viesturs and Lafaille. Both teamed up with international big names such as Italian Simone Moro, Spaniard IĂąaki Ochoa, and Kazakh Denis Urubko along with the young Kazakh climbing team. The group set out for the first tandem 8000ers. They would climb Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak and K2. Lafaille, who had already summited K2, would instead continue to Dhaulagiri.

Scare on Broad Peak

Lafaille reached the top of Dhaulagiri on May 20 2003, alone and without oxygen. After that, he and Simone Moro paved a new partial route up Nanga Parbat, and Lafaille summited on June 23rd. July 15 the same year, he and Ed Viesturs made the summit of Broad Peak.

By the time Lafaille was on his last descent, however, his aggressive pace began to take its toll. On his way down from Broad Peak, he experienced serious breathing difficulties. Ed Viesturs and Kazakh climber Denis Urubko coordinated a nighttime rescue and brought Lafaille safely down the mountain.

By 2004, Lafaille was devoted to climb whatever 8000er he had left - solo. He attempted a new solo route on Makalu in the spring, reaching the summit of subsidiary Makalu 2.

Solo or bust

In autumn of the same year, and with no prior warning, he suddenly showed up on Shisha Pangmas summit. Keeping his ascent a secret, even from local outfitters, Jean-Christophe expected to achieve the first winter climb of the mountain a goal also pursued by Italian Simone Moro and a Polish team. Lafaille got there first too soon in fact. He summited on December 11th, 10 days before the official arrival of winter.

Jean-Christophe claimed his was a winter climb, the climbing community disagreed. This time around, Jean-Christophe went to Makalu sticking to the calendar winter dates. The rest is, sadly, history.

(Story corrected 06:02 pm EST Jan 31, 2006: French Benoit Chamoux died on the upper slopes of Kangchenjunga - his 11th 8000er. According to AdventureStats, Benoit climbed Broad Peak Foresummit, Cho Oyu Plateau, and Shisha Pangma Central-Peak.)

French Jean-Christophe Lafaille is reported missing on Makalu. Lafaille, who has already summited 11 8000ers, was attempting Makalu the hardest way: Solo and in winter.

Jean-Christophe left Base Camp on Tuesday, January 24th on his definitive summit bid. Katia Lafaille, his wife and supporting manager, last had contact with the climber on Thursday, over satellite telephone. Jean-Christophe was at 7600 meters, and planned to leave for the final summit in a few hours, hoping to reach the summit on Friday and be back at BC Saturday. The climber has not been heard from since.

Up until now, only 8 out of all 14 eight-thousanders have been climbed in winter. Except for Makalu, Pakistan holds the remaining five big dares, since none of the country's 8000ers has been climbed in winter.

All first winter ascents of 8000ers were made by Polish climbers - in what is known as 'Calendar winter'. The first ascent was on Everest in 1980 and the latest on Shisha Pangma in 2005. Simone Moro changed the Polish monopoly on winter climbs when he and Piotr Morawski summited Shisha Pangma last year on January 14 at 1.15 pm (local) after a fast 5 hour climb in very strong winds.

At 8485 meters high, Makalu is the fifth highest mountain on Earth. Its name means The Great Black. It is a four-faced pyramid, with a secondary peak - Kangchungtse or Makalu II (7678 m) - separated from the main summit by a narrow saddle, known as Makalu La.

Makalu was first climbed 51 years ago. Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray, two climbing celebrities from the 20th century, members of a French team led by Jean Franco, stood on Makalus sharp summit on May 15, 1955.

The first solo of Makalu was made in 1980. American John Roskelleys other team members aborted their expedition due to lack of high altitude porters. But Roskelley refused to leave. Left alone, he completed the first repetition of the West Pillar. In 1982, Polish climber Czok soloed the West face-NW ridge. In 1989, Pierre Beghin soloed the South face.

#Mountaineering #Mountaineering

French Jean-Christophe Lafaille has been missing for nearly 5 days on Makalu. He was accomplished climber with a number of remarkable climbs, many of them solo. Lafaille previously summited 11 8000ers, the closest a Frenchman has gotten to climbing all 14 peaks. Image of Lafaille courtesy of (click to enlarge).

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