Like all the French mountaineers who have tried, Jean-Christophe Lafaille will not reach his goal of climbing the fourteen 8000ers. He disappeared on Thursday 26th January near the summit of Makalu (8463m), of which he was attempting the first solo winter ascent. On Saturday 4th February, his wife and manager flew around the mountain in a helicopter and confimed that there was no hope of finding him alive.
Born on the 31st March 1965 in Gap, Lafaille probably owed his extraordinary ability at high altitude to his sherpa-like build, and from his size also came the need to prove himself, almost as revenge against his school-mates who nicknamed him "the little rat". This unwanted nickname disappeared and he became "Jean-Chri" or "Jici" amongst his American friends: of a simple kindness, completely obsessed by the high mountains, and also a bit distant in the last few years in the eyes of his loved ones.
Lafaille had climbed eleven of the 8000ers in good style, always without oxygen, often solo, setting himself challenges which impressed the community of high-altitude mountaineers: solo consecutive ascents of the two Gasherbrum (1996), a huge attempt on Annapurna (2002), a winter solo of Shisha Pangma (2004). His Himalayan baptism had been a traumatic initiation, the kind of initiation which could either kill or create the next Bonatti or Messner (his heros, whose books had fuelled his adolescence).
A climber from the age of 7, Lafaille was initially a sport-climbing ace, fully involved in the competition circuit. A young guide, he had just started in the world of high-altitude mountaineering when, in October 1992, Pierre Béghin invited him on an expedition to the south face of Annapurna. With this "big brother", Lafaille discovered the incredible world of the Himalayas on this huge face, 3km high and 10 wide, which these two men were going to attempt in Alpine style, without oxygen or high-altitude camps, and with no line of retreat.
At 7100m, a belay anchor gave way and Béghin fell to his death before his eyes. Alone, without a rope, Lafaille climbed down the face over five days, one arm broken by a falling rock. Reinhold Messner said that he showed the survival instinct which defines the greatest mountaineers. Lafaille would have been 41 this coming March, the same age as Béghin when he fell.
He returned from Annapurna injured both physically and mentally: an infection in his arm and an infection of his mind. He saw in the eyes of others the blame for the death of the better mountaineer. He would need a year to go back to the Himalaya and to succeed on his first 8000er, but it would take ten years to free himself of the guilt of the survivor, ten years punctuated by returns to the mountains which haunted him, described in a book, 'Prisonnier de l'Annapurna'.
On May 16th, 2002, Lafaille reached the summit of Annapurna. "A cry of profound joy escaped from my chest", he would write later, and he cried at the memory of Pierre Béghin. The moment is full of symbolic acts, since at his side was Alberto Inurrategi carrying the ice axe of his brother, killed two years earlier by an avalanche. It is Inurrategi's fourteenth 8000er. Lafaille's wife, Katia, had already convinced him the year before to aim for this target which he didn't really care for, taking charge of his communication, his preparations, and his destiny.
From now on Lafaille would concentrate on the fourteen with his "manager sportif" who would "improve and make the most of his media appearances" and manage his timetable, freeing him from all concerns other than his mountaineering. This new approach seems at first to succeed: in the summer of 2003, Lafaille climbed three 8000ers in two months. Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak, a trilogy climbed in a "hurried" style.
A success or an alarm-bell? On Broad Peak, Lafaille is the victim of a pulmonary oedema; he gets left behind on the descent and falls into a crevasse. Only luck and his infallible technique allow him to escape.
Lafaille understood the risks he took in pushing the bar ever higher, but the call of the high mountains, his "art", his "drug", was stronger. The tightrope walker would not leave his wire. He would describe, with eyes blazing, how he felt up there, the master of the world. He explained to his editor, Michel Guérin, "You are very small, but thanks purely to your mental strength, you overcome all the difficulties on these immense mountains."
With the solos in winter, Lafaille had once again raised the stakes. In December 2004 he returned to Shisha Pangma, which he had already climbed ten years earlier. The ascent was immaculately prepared and yet he had never had such a risky success. On Makalu, a full 400m higher, the margin for error was even smaller.
Jean-Christophe Lafaille had two children. Tom, 5, in whose name he dedicated his route on Nanga Parbat, and Marie, 12, from his first marriage, for whom a summit in Nepal is named.
In this article series I Want That Job! I'm interviewing people from various professions within the climbing world. Neil Gresham... Read more