L'Affaire Freney

L'Affaire Freney

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Activities Activities: Mountaineering

A long-overdue acknowledgement

Mont Blanc Freney range
The route to get to the Central pillar of Freney

August 29 1961: the ‘Last Great Problem of the Alps’, The Central Pillar of Frêney, is solved by Chris Bonington, Ian Clough, Jan Djuglosz and Don Whillans. But in French eyes the honours go also to René Desmaison, Pierre Julien, Yves Pollet-Villard and Ignacio Piussi.Desmaison seemed unable to accept the facts of the respective Pillar ascents and set about denigrating the British achievement while inflating his own – a fiction in which he was supported by the all-powerful Lucien Devies, the veritable godfather of post-war French mountaineering. Only now, half a century after the landmark climb, has the record been put straight in the French mountaineering press.


The Freney pillars







I became aware of Desmaison’s claim to have at least shared the first ascent on reading a recent biography of him by Antoine Chandellier, a journalist on Le Dauphiné Libéré, a regional newspaper in the French Alps. Entitled La Montagne en direct – La vie de René Desmaison (Guerin 2010), the book gives René’s version of the celebrated climb. In it Chandellier refers to Chris and Don as ‘an employee of a tinned food manufacturer and a plumber and zinc worker’, implying that no integrity could be expected of such characters. Being a friend of Chris, I saw red and started a quest for the facts.


Chamonix at the time


Hotel de Paris
Louis Janin's hotel de Paris - In 1962 my rate for a room in its attics was 1 franc i.e. 2€ of today and I am not sure that we paid him anything!


The Bar National
The 'Nash'


The  Money-box
Denise Escande 'Money-box'

To understand the ‘Frêney controversy’, one must remember the context of the time. Most climbers did not have pennies or francs in their pocket to spare for local luxuries. The Brits camped at the Biolay and apart from Snell, a sports shop owner of American descent, and Maurice Simond, owner of the Bar National, they were regarded by locals as no better than scruffy beggars. This was also the case for many French climbing sans guide, and in our case our benefactors were Louis Janin of the Hôtel de Paris, who rented us his top floor shabby rooms at bargain rates and Denise Escande whose little chalet ‘La Tirelire’(the money-box) was crammed with scores of us. Alpinism was heavy with nationalism and attracted widespread media coverage: The first ascents of Annapurna and Everest were comparatively recent. The 100,000-copy run of Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna: The First 8000m Peak sold out in three weeks and its worldwide sales exceeded 15 million copies.

The man who validated René’s account was Lucien Devies. For 30 years Devies was the unchallenged authority of French alpinism. His voice was paramount in affairs of the National Guides’ Training Academy (ENSA) as well as the alpine associations (CAF, FFM, the Himalayan committee) and even the Vallot guide and La Montagne et Alpinisme the monthly CAF revue and sole mountain magazine for many years yet to come. Louis Lachenal called him ‘the De Gaulle of alpinism’.

At the time of the controversy he was focused on the 1962 Jannu expedition, which proved a magnificent success, all the climbers, including Desmaison, summiting, along with two Sherpas.

The 1rst ascent

Walter Bonatti was probably the first to set his sights on the granite tower at the head of the Frêney glacier on the south-east side of Mont Blanc. He made an attempt in 1959, climbing the lower part of the pillar but without enough equipment had to come down and again the following year. Jean Couzy and René Desmaison had thought of the pillar in 1957, but Jean was killed by a stone fall in 1958 in the Devoluy. In 1960, aside Bonatti’s one, there were several attempts from Michel Vaucher, Desmaison with Mazeaud, Julien, Lagesse, George Payot, Audibert and Laffont, and probably a few more. The public at large learned about this ‘last great problem of the Alps’ in June 1961 when simultaneous French and Italian attempts ended in tragedy: Pierre Mazeaud lost three of his best friends, and Bonatti, his partner, the Italian guide Andrea Oggioni (read The Frêney Drama article).


Three days later, Pierre Julien, an ENSA instructor, made an attempt with Ignacio Piussi. They failed on the first extremely difficult pitch on the Chandelle. Five weeks later Chris, Don and Jan asked Julien to join them. He declined. They then met Ian Clough and enlisted him. Meanwhile Julien had alerted Desmaison and Pollet-Villard, who were also ENSA instructors.


The race was on.


Philippe Gaussot from Le Dauphiné Libéré covered the event. His aerial photos show clearly Chris and Don on top of the Chandelle and the French party at its foot. Chris and Don were greeted with tea at midday on the summit of Mont Blanc by two journalists and were later interviewed in Chamonix. Desmaison’s party reached the summit too late and spent the night at the Goûter hut. The next day, on reading the news, Desmaison went berserk and requested a rewrite stating they had made the first ascent with the British. Gaussot refused. This triggered the ‘Frêney Controversy’.

René wrote to Le Dauphiné editor complaining about Gaussot’s bias toward 'foreigners' and ‘lies’ and managed to have another regional newspaper, based in Lyon, publish an account of ‘his’ first ascent with no mention of Chris’s party. He gave his account to Devies who published it in the October issue of La Montagne et Alpinisme without checking with the British. René criticized the British party as ‘irresponsible amateurs, slow, not waiting for them at the summit’ and invented an account that was a travesty of the facts.

The aerial photo taken by Gaussot

Gaussot aerial photo
Gaussot aerial Photo

The photo proving Desmaison false claims!

1. position of Don and Chris2. position of Ian Clough and Jan Djuglosz 3. Position of Desmaison's team. 4. Drop shadow of the helicopter from which the photo was taken

The race is on !


The race is on
In the Téléférique de l'Aiguille du Midi - the British meet the three French! Are you going to the Freney? Maybe, maybe not!

They had all met in the Aiguille du Midi cable car in the afternoon of 26 August:'We were astonished of the lightness of the British equipment… Well, each one has his own conception of alpinism. We preferred heavier equipment, but efficient in case of bad weather.'

René stated later that his competitors had a 24-hour lead. In fact, the British party spent the night at the Col de la Fourche bivouac while the French went to the Torino hut to fetch Ignacio Piussi. On the 27th, René and Pollet-Villard started from the hut at the same time that Chris and Don’s party left the Fourche bivvy – that is at 1am, with three hours to catch up. Julien with Piussi, who got the first cable car from La Palud, departed at 6am, giving the British party a lead of eight hours, not 24 hours.

René reached the ‘Bonatti-Mazeaud’ bivouac after 2pm on the 28th to see Don belaying on slings below a dièdre and chimney that formed the crux of the route. The previous pitch climbed mostly free (French 6c) by Don was quite a feat by one of the very best climbers of the time. Don realized that his pegs were not wide enough and his wooden edges too wide for the corner crack, the crux. He decided to climb it free: a pitch today of French 7a+ if climbed free. He reached the overhung bottomless chimney but could not get established in it and couldn’t let go with one hand to hammer in a rock peg in front of his nose. After a struggle, he fell off around 15 meters, losing his hammer and said to Chris: "I lost me bloody 'at' and spunning around added: "Me fags were in the 'at’ (as per Chris in AJ 1986 - 277).

It was then that the French refused to lend the British some small wooden edges.

Unfortunately for René, who thought that the British would let them go ahead, now was the time for Chris to perform his best ever lead on rock. He decided to show the ‘Frogs’ a trick used by ‘The Master’, Joe Brown: taking some pebbles, he jammed two in the crack and with a sling around them trod delicately in the etriers. Reaching the bottom of the overhanging exit chimney, he hammers in a peg, get ensconced in the chimney, wriggle up it and, with a 700m drop beneath, edge out of the chimney and on to the wall; strength fading, he pulled on to a narrow ledge.

The difficulties were over.

Don wrote that ‘it had been a fine piece of climbing by him…’ not a compliment he made often.


Chris leading on the lower part of the pillar
Chris leading - lower part of the pillar

Don climbed up to Chris and fixed a rope for Ian and Jan to prusik up.From René’s account, it was now 5pm. He saw Chris on top of the crux and proposed to Jan Djugoszwho speaks French’ to end the competition for ‘chivalric reasons’ and because: 'It would be regrettable to create such a competitive atmosphere for an ascent for which already four alpinists have died.'

He concludes:

'Have we done the first ascent of the pillar with the British? Have we only done the second or third ascent, as asserted by one journalist short of copy? Whatever, we did it. The controversies which were provoked to minimize our ascent have been made by men who are not alpinists and who have not understood the true spirit of alpinism. Yes, the men from below, and when I say from below, I don’t mean from the plains, there are people who understand better than others those who climb a bit higher.'

The controversy – The British-polish party version

Following René’s article and his attack on Gaussot, the latter asked the British to send their account to Devies. Chris’s text was translated into excellent French by Etienne Nusslé from Geneva, then a journalist in London. Devies, who did not speak English, was impressed. He asked for a similar statement from the French climbers.


Here are the two statements:

On Alpine Club letterhead, Chris to Devies:

'... Mr Desmaison’s account is so inaccurate and gives such an erroneous impression of what really occurred that Don Whillans, Ian Clough and I have judged necessary to re-establish the facts as we lived them up there…Some weeks ago, Mr Desmaison wrote to Don Whillans asking him to clarify those points. After having consulted Ian Clough and me, Whillans answered that we had not received any help or any equipment from the French party. It is therefore difficult for me to understand what made Mr Desmaison ignore this response in his article…'

Statement on the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Frêney:

'On the morning of the 28th of August, when Don Whillans and myself started to climb on the vertical wall above our bivouac…we saw the French party leaving the Peuterey pass. Later, René Desmaison and his friends went up quite fast on the snow couloirs between the Central Pillar and the Right Pillar of Frêney at around half its height.Around 2pm they got up to our comrades Clough and Jan Djuglosz who were still on the bivouac ledge. At this instant, we attempted to climb a corner to reach a chimney with no bottom splitting in two a horizontal roof clearly on the right of the Pillar. The crack in the corner was too wide for our pegs and too narrow for our wooden edges. Whillans then tried to climb it free climbing, but he fell off. I then called Jan Dluglosz and told him to ask the French party to lend us some of the narrow wooden wedges which they had. Our Polish comrade negotiated to no avail for quite some time with Desmaison and Julien. They believed that we were on the wrong route and that they needed all their equipment. Consequently they did not give Jan Djuglosz any wooden wedges or pegs (see footnote 1).

In an article relating the ‘first’ ascent, René Desmaison claims that Whillans left all the pegs in place in the corner as we had taken their equipment and therefore had more than enough. The French climbers at no time were in a position to verify this assertion. In fact, Don Whillans took out almost all the pegs we placed in as we estimated they would be necessary to cope with the difficulties to come… The following day, Piussi was the first to join us. He asked me to lend him another rope in order to lower down to his French comrades the Prusik apparatus and take up their rucksacks. I gave him our two small 30m ropes which we had left, with the promise that they would be returned in Chamonix.' 


Bivouac at the foot of the Chandelle




'To conclude, we gave to the French considerable aid in this first ascent 

of the Frêney Pillar and we are happy to have done so. 

However without the usage of the rope in the most difficult part of the climb, 

they would have arrived at least 24 hours after us. 

On the other hand, they did not lift a little finger at the time when 

their collaboration would have been most welcome.'


Note 1: This is confirmed by Jerzy Michalski who did in 1962 the 2nd ascent with Maciej Gryczynski.

The controversy – The French-Italian party’s version

On the first hard pitch
1rst hard pitch of the Chandelle

Desmaison’s team to Devies

Statement from the French alpinists:

R. Desmaison, P. Julien, Y. Pollet-Villard on the First Ascent of the Central Pillar of Frêney:

'On Monday, the 28th, leaving the Peuterey pass where they had bivouacked, the French climbers R. Desmaison, P. Julien et Y. Pollet-Villard with the Italian alpinist I. Piussi went up the snow slopes below the Central Pillar of Frêney, and reached the base of the Pillar, on its left side. Traversing to the right, they gained the right side of the Pillar which they followed for 150m. Returning to the centre of the Pillar, they caught up with the British alpinists at 2pm.At that moment, their intention was to overtake the English alpinists who were far too slow in their opinion and who since the beginning of the day had only climbed 30 to 40m, over difficult ground but partially equipped by I. Piussi and P. Julien during their first attempt.The English alpinists then asked them for some equipment, estimating that they did not have enough. The French climbers first refused as they wanted to climb a crack more direct and less difficult…It is quite likely that I. Piussi and R. Desmaison who had done the two most difficult artificial climbs in the Dolomites - Torre Trieste and Cima Ovest - would not have taken more than three hours to climb up this crack. But they did not do it, in order not to create a competition that would have been particularly unpleasant. With the agreement of his three comrades, René Desmaison told Jan Djuglosz to take the equipment he believed necessary to continue the climb. Djuglosz then took pegs of different sizes belonging to the French alpinists and attached them to their rope and Clough hoisted them up . Did Clough give them to Bonington and Whillans? This, R. Desmaison and his comrades cannot confirm; the variety of the languages spoken by the various parties made it particularly difficult to understand each other.At 5 pm, Bonington and Whillans managed to overcome the corner, then, after having traversed horizontally to the left, they came back to the centre of the Pillar and from there threw a rope to Clough and to Jan Dluglosz. Clough ascended the rope near the aforementioned crack using Prusik knots.R. Desmaison and Piussi then handed the end of their rope to Jan Dluglosz for him to fix it on the belay once up so that, the next morning, they could repeat the procedure to get up the remaining 40m. Naturally the French and Italian alpinists used the fastest mean to get up those 40m since they had agreed to stay behind the English, not in order to benefit from their help but so as not to overtake them, as mentioned above...On Tuesday the 29th, Piussi was the first to arrive at the last bivouac of the English alpinists. They were preparing to leave for the summit. It was only three pitches above and these did not present any particular difficulties.R. Desmaison came up to Piussi, then, after having hauled up their rucksacks, P. Julien and Y. Pollet-Villard came up to join them. They arrived at the summit of the Pillar one hour after the English alpinists.The French alpinists and their Italian comrade do not think it is necessary to point out the climbing record of each of them in order to understand that they needed no help from anyone to climb the Central Pillar of Frêney, having done previous ascents technically much more difficult.The presence of the English alpinists on this ascent did not help the French gain 24 hours as they [the English] seem to attest; on the contrary it caused them to lose half a day from the moment they had caught up with the English alpinists, on the 28th of August at 2 pm until the morning of the 29th when they at last left their final bivouac.

Same ascent, two stories!

Note 2:A demonstration of “how slow” Chris and Ian were is their ascent of the Walker spur in 1962: I climbed it in August with Marcel Zerf (Habib), Denise Escande and her guide “Cabri”. We were overtaken by Gérard Devouassoux - Yvon Mazinot who did it in 13h, nicknamed years after “The TGV party” after this feat from the brand new French Very Fast railway. 5 days before Chris and Ian had climbed it also in 13h, and after a bivouac continued to the Torino hut via the Rochefort ridges. “Very slow” indeed!

Note 3: Dluglosz in November 1961 replied to René, who asked him to valid his fiction, stating that he was very astonished that René was having: “futile discussions about… 2 pegs…” So René’s: “we gave them our equipment” equaled 2 pegs!

The controversy – Lucien Devies takes over

The crux
The crux

Devies replied to Bonington 15 weeks later, apologizing for replying in French:

'…as I did not have around me anyone able to translate your letter in such an English to return the courtesy of the impeccable French of your letter…” …As far as I am concerned, I see only one possibility to explain the misunderstanding. The Frêney Pillar was a Babel tower. Apart from Mr. Jan Djuglosz, the climbers spoke only their mother tongue. The distance was great – 40m – between your party and the party of your friends from the Desmaison-Piussi team.It is with a certain conception of Alpinism that Mr. Desmaison relinquished - and had his friends do the same - the attempt to ‘make a race’ on the Pillar and he believes that lending their equipment sealed an agreement of solidarity concluded with you through Mr. Jan Djuglosz.I believe without any doubt that if the French-Italian team did not have this type of spirit, they would have attacked the different route than yours as they had envisaged in the first instance.I believe that those elements will make you reconsider the light in which you see the end of the ascent of the Frêney Central Pillar and I would hope that its ascent will not end with a confirmation of this misunderstanding, but with its dissipation and the reassessment of an International friendship spirit to which we are here very much attached to.

His final sentence in effect validated René’s fiction:

'It is in this hope that I am putting off publication of your report and that of the French-Italian team in the belief that their publication would serve no purpose and should not occur'...

Bonington’s final letter to Devies was in English:

'…Like you I share a desire to see this affair ended. To me friendly relations between French and English climbers, and particularly between Desmaison, Pollet-Villard, Julien and us, are by far the most important factor'.

Repeating his claim for the last time, he concluded:

'But in the interests of truth and our own honor I must repeat to you that Ian Clough definitely did not receive any pitons or karabiners from the French party. I shall not attempt to analyze Desmaison’s motives and his statements. As I see it we have now reached a stalemate and the incident is best forgotten'.

Devies had chosen to back his ENSA instructors (the French climbers) though in the past he had shown much fair play to the British and had close links with people like John Hunt and Douglas Busk. In 1951 he had made an agreement with Busk, representing the AC/RGS Everest committee: 'During friendly conversations, it was agreed that due to their previous efforts, it was normal that the British would organize first an assault expedition on Everest. But the English agreed that if they did not succeed, it would be legitimate for the French to then take their chance. This is how the British obtained from Nepal the authorization for 1953 and us for 1954, Switzerland getting it for 1952.' Devies had also agreed to let the British go to Kangchenjunga in 1955, changing his target to Makalu.

How could a man of such integrity believe Desmaison’s fiction? Even to a layman, it seems extravagant, or at least very bizarre. After the French refusal to help when needed, after Don’s fall resulted in a very risky lead from Chris, and after having overcome all the difficulties, why would Chris and Don accept unneeded help? The details of René’s account do not fit. René stated that they were one hour behind, but photos show that this was more like five hours. Bonington, in the 1962 Alpine Journal, records that Clough and Dlugloszreached the top two hours later [than himself and Whillans], and the French were a good two hours behind them’.

Luxury = A summit sandwich

In a letter to his friend Dominique Leprince-Rinquet, Devies wrote:'…I was in Chamonix between August and September and I know well, alas, the controversies around the drama, the attempts and the success and the split of opinions on the matter. As far as I am concerned, I have not ascertained a majority one way or another but exacerbations of rivalries which seemed to me contrary to the true spirit of Alpinism.'

Pierre Mazeaud’s strong reaction

Yet he had published René’s tale and the “Four” had signed their story. Therefore, it was a matter of parole contre parole as he wrote to Pierre Mazeaud (13 January 1962) :


'….Objectivity is not going in one direction only. Compatriots have the same rights as foreigners. The word of some of them does not take precedence over the word of the others. And a misunderstanding is the most probable hypothesis…'

and to René, two days after his last letter to Chris:

'Do not worry about the past. The future of Jannu is facing you. It alone deserves your attention…'

British readers may feel less bitter knowing that not everyone in France agreed with Devies. Pierre Mazeaud wrote to him stating that he would soon be forced to admit that: 'The French-Italian first ascent was no more than an English Polish first ascent…'

And later:'… I do not speak of the contradictions between Bonington’s text published in the Observer of 17 September, to which I give full credit…'


Unnamed Image
Philippe Gaussot in his office with the photos taken by helicopter of the Chandelle at the moment he wrote his article for the Dauphiné Libéré. Photo given by his daughter Christine.
Philippe Gaussot interviewing Don and Chris
Philippe Gaussot interviews Chris and Don in Chamonix


The Controversy – its climax

Philippe Gaussot announced in the Dauphiné Libéré a ‘pending decision from Devies in the ‘Controversy over the 1st ascent of the Frêney Pillar:….But a dispute was raised on the question to know to whom the benefit of the “première” should go, the French alpinists asserting that they had lent equipment to the British without which they would not have done the ascent. …“La Montagne” magazine having published those statements, Bonington, Whillans and their friends have sent a letter to the president of the F.F.M. flatly denying those facts, asking M. Lucien Devies to be good enough to publish it. It contains, we believe, enough serious assertions and we will inform our readers when published by our colleague.A direct threat onto Devies! But he was going to have none of that! Devies was very blunt: in a letter of just three lines he wrote that La Montagne et Alpinisme would never be the place for any such controversy. At the time La Montagne was effectively the official mouthpiece of alpinism in France, with no specialist rivals – and it was fully controlled by Lucien Devies. All newspapers’ directors and owners knew of Devies’s power – his industrial and political connections - and none would have dared to challenge him. Therefore as far as Le Dauphiné Libéré was concerned the ‘Affair’ was ended and Philippe Gaussot’s articles forgotten. As for Pollet-Villard, Julien and Piussi, once they signed the statement prepared by René, they were trapped, particularly the ENSA instructors. Their career was at stake if they admitted having signed a fiction.What remained was René’s fiction published in La Montagne et Alpinisme and repeated throughout his books and importantly in the Vallot guide. For many years the only mountain guide-book in France, and copied by most non-French guide-books, the Vallot guide was also fully controlled by Devies. In it, the first ascent of the Central Pillar was attributed at par to both parties but with a ‘plus’ to René’s party as Devies endorsed René’s deliberately misleading statement of having completed the ascent in two days while the Anglo-Polish’s party took three days.But, as the proverb reminds us, ‘the truth will out’. Fifty years after the event, using the information I gave him and the Dauphiné Libéré archives, Antoine Chandellier has written an article in Alpes Loisirs (Oct-Dec 2011) giving the full credit for the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Frêney to Chris Bonington, Don Whillans, Ian Clough and Jan Dluglosz. Note 4: Philippe Gaussot was a journalist and author of noted integrity, who was sorely tested by Desmaison who repeatedly pressured him to change his initial story in Le Dauphiné Libéré. Although born in the north-east of France, in 1911, Gaussot loved the mountains and climbing. He participated in the Resistance in the Second World War and was a correspondent for national newspapers such as Le Figaro, Le Parisien Libéré and France Soir. However a few months after the war ended, he decided that he could not live in Paris any longer and chose Chamonix (also because of his pulmonary problems). He joined the regional newspaper, Le Dauphiné Libéré, in September 1945 and remained with it until his death in 1977.

Sources and links

Note: this article was first published in the 2012 ACJ issue (September) as a slighty shorter version and with less photos.Sources: Le Dauphiné Libéré archives GHM Lucien Devies archives La Montagne et Alpinisme Octobre 1961 Jean Franco Makalu p. 21 Lionel Terray Les Conquérants de l’inutile p.326Antoine Chandellier La Montagne en Direct Guerin 2010 Chris Bonington Les Horizons Lointains Nevicata 2011.Jerzy Michalski testimonial (2nd ascent in 1962).
  1. The Central Freney Pillar Bonatti-Mazeaud Drama 
  2. David Autheman (TVMOUNTAIN) films the ascent of the pillar
  3. Interviewing Chris at my Chalet on the 1st ascent of the Freney Pillar (July 2011)
  4. Interviewing Chris in my Chamonix Chalet 2011 about his book translated in French Les Horizons lointains
  5. Interview of Chris by Jean Afanassieff at my chalet (2011 in French)
  6. AJ 1962 Chris Bonington's account of the first ascent of the Central pillar of Freney 


Frenet Piola- Topo
The Chandelle
Arriving at the bottom of La Chandelle

The Aiguille du Midi cable car accident

The cable car cabins - Paris-Match cover
Shortly after Chris and Don had reached the summit a major event occurred which will make 'the first ascent of the Last problem of the Alps' suddenly much less important:At 1.07 pm, the sun is at its zenith over the Mont Blanc range and particularly over the Vallée Blanche, this huge snow spread between the Aiguille du Midi and the Helbronner point. The cable car joigning those two summits is crammed with tourists. The distance between the the two summits is 5100 m, 45' are necessary for the 36 x 4 seats cabins, grouped by 3, to cover the distance with 8 stops (8 pylons). This line itself is a technological prowess and the view it offers one of the most magnificent in the Mont Blanc range. 
The eggs over teh Vallée blanche
The rescuers on the glacier
Suddenly one French F84-F Thunderstreak, training and reconnaissance fighter comes hedgehoping between the Aiguille du Midi and the Rognon, 1600 m from the start of the cable car. Its left wing supplementary tank catches the towing cable with 3 'egg cabins' on it and cut it. The 3 cabins fall 150 m down the glacier causing 6 people to die (a German fammily from Hamburg of 4 and 2 Italians from Trieste) and blocking 81 other passengers between sky and earth. An exceptional rescue starts with some 100 guides from Chamonix and Courmayeur involved with the Téléférique employees, working all day and all night long. All will be safely rescued. 
Rescued from the  eggs
The 3 x eggs which fell down
Christian Mollier, then a 21 years old young guide with a client in one of the egg cabin dangling down towards the glacier recalls:'... a fraction of second after [his seeing the F84-F coming straight onto them] a terrible shock shook us and the noise reverberated in our cabin as if it exploded. Our maximum speed is brutally stopped. Our cabin drops down in terrible somersaults... I realize that we are falling onto the glacier, 150 m lower down. The nightmare goes on. We are swept like straw from one side to the other, turned over in all directions, throwned against the walls of our shelter. It seems to last an eternity... And suddenly the swings diminish and everything stops. We are still in the sky, so on the cable and alive!...' 
Christian Mollier
Christian Mollier
Christian, after securing with a rope his client, will first start to use the cable securing himself with karabiners to get to the pylon but to no avail it is too steep so too strenuous. He comes back to his cabin and then decides to go the other way i.e. on the cut cable going down to the glacier. 150 m i.e. too much to secure himself with his 30 m rope. With a sling and his bare hands to slow himself, it will take him a good hour of effort to reach the glacier. He will participate in the rescue. Slowly the cabins are hauled up to the Rognon after the cable car employees made a splice on the cut cable. Finally 21 tourists will spend the night in their cabins. A 8.20 am, all will be evacuated, with no one wounded nor sick.As one can imagine, all the journalists turned their prime attention to the event, the Freney pillar 1rst ascent did not make the front pages and the leading national magazine journalists such as from Paris-Match has no time to listen to the enraged Desmaison, which infuriated him further.To complete that story, one could think that the pilot (Captain Ziegler, son of Henri Ziegler himself a fighter pilot, a renowned WW2 resistant and father of the Concorde and Airbus) made a 'criminal reckless action' as some journalists wrote, but he was fully exonerated. Strangely enough, the Aiguille du Midi route had been built without any proper authorization and was at that time unmarked on the aerial maps!A journalist from Le Dauphiné Libéré will write: 'As far as the 1rst ascent of the Frêney pillar is concerned, it will remain as one of the greatest piece of bravery in the history of mountaineering, never celebrated to its value.'  
Christian Mollier coming down
Christian coming down on the cut cable
The F 84-F Thundersteak
The F 84-F Thunderstreak


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-14 of 14

markhallam - Dec 1, 2012 4:13 pm - Voted 10/10

Bravo (again) Eric!

Another fine bit of alpine history, but this time with a bit of sculdugery thrown in... And then your link to the TVMountain video of an actual ascent of the pillar is an excellent illustration of it all - including of the infamous crux pitch where Whillans (famously) fell off and lost 'is 'at - with his cigarettes stuck in the brim. Any normal person after such a fall would be traumatised and in need of deep therapy for months - but Whillans could only rage about losing his fags!
After the Freney climbing video it isn't hard to follow the link further to your video interview of Chris Bonnington - where he describes the climb.
Thanks for this excellent post - I hope many others enjoy it as much as I have.
Best wishes, Mark


ericvola - Dec 1, 2012 5:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Bravo (again)

Thanks Mark. I have added the link to Chris's interview you pointed out as well as another more general interview of Chris made by Jean Afanassieff at my place. As I told you when we saw each other in Chamonix, Chris was not keen to have that old 'story' with all its controversy come up again 50 years after, but being French and as the offence was made by compatriots, I felt adamantly that I had to put the story right once and for all and I am very glad to have done it. Best


macintosh - Dec 2, 2012 5:44 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Bravo (again)

Je serai toujours étonné par ton érudition sur le monde de la montagne. Merci, Eric !


ericvola - Dec 2, 2012 8:56 am - Hasn't voted

Re:Bravo (again)

merci, n'en jette plus, tu vas me noyer ! Tout ça c'est des histoires de vieux retraités pour essayer de faire croire (en vain) aux jeunes que nous aussi on a eu notre temps, bien que je suis sûr qu'ils n'en reviennent pas de voir à quel point nous étions nuls pour faire autant de bivouacs dans des voies pour eux aussi faciles, qu'ils parcourent en moins temps que j'écris cette réponse !

Comme le disait Mummery :
It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak - The most difficult ascent in the Alps - An easy day for a lady.

Dommage pour nous les 'vieux' schnocks, mais quel plaisir de voir tous ces jeunes qui renouvellent sans arrêt ces mondes extraordinaires que sont l'alpinisme et l'escalade.

Ceci dit, comme l'a déclaré l'américain Mark Richey en recevant son piolet d'or l'année dernière à Courmayeur : 'We may be old but we ain't done yet' (lui a 54 ans et son copain Steve Swenson 58)


dadndave - Dec 10, 2012 2:07 am - Voted 10/10


A very interesting article, Eric. I'll save the climbing video for this evening.


ericvola - Dec 11, 2012 1:49 am - Hasn't voted


Glad you liked it. The video is superb. David Autheman is a Chamonix guide, a very good one, so the other guides with him on this climb, friends of mine. David has a superb site dedicated to Mountaineering - TVMOUNTAIN - with many other films he made on great classic climbs of the Mont Blanc range. I did have to cut my article a bit to make it readable so I took out a little detail which could interest American climbers. Gary Hemming and John Harlin went up the Freney glacier just before Desmaison and put up their tent on it. But in fact they had nothing to do with the Freney 'race'. In the following days they rescued a party of climbers in the vicinity. As I write this response from an hospital bed (I just had yesterday my second hip changed) I do not have the details but you and summitpost have helped me forget the hospital for a while. Thanks

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Dec 11, 2012 12:20 pm - Voted 10/10

A very interesting article

Many thanks Eric for this article claryfing the events occurred during the II ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney...yes i truly do mean the SECOND ASCENT, because the moral winners of this route were Walter Bonatti, Pierre Mazeud and other pals stopped by the snow-storm below the Chandelle four weeks before. The facts you're reporting in the article are really nearby to reach the 100% of the true, i think, but i'm sure that only the taking part people does know the smallest particulars of what occurred in that ascent which was for someone without glory.
I wish you a quick recovery. All the best.


ericvola - Dec 12, 2012 2:08 am - Hasn't voted

a very interesting article

Dear Silvia,
I suppose that you feel that way because Walter as Pierre did react strongly against the '1rst ascensionits' stating that they had trodden on the dead bodies of their friends and didn't respect their wish to do the 1rst ascent together as soon as Pierre would have cured from his frostbites! This is a humane reaction similar to that of Walter and Pierre at the time. But you must know that Pierre's reaction was the strongest and first against Pierre Julien and Ignacio Piussi who made an attempt one week after the drama and he did so because he knew them.

Then when 4 weeks after the 1rst ascent was finally done, Pierre had very strong words against particularly Desmaison, Julien, Piussi, Pollet-Villard because they knew each others well, particularly Desmaison with whom Pierre had done 2 years before a 1rst ascent on the left of the Branler Hasse on Cima Ovest, an aided climb as difficult but which did not become a classic as the Brandler Hasse. You see, they were close climbing friends and from close friends you expect some minimum 'attention' to say the least. Imagine that René never even bothered to warn Pierre, his supposed pal, of his attempt. Never did Pierre and Walter blamed Chris Bonington-Don Whillans party but Desmaison, Pollet-Villard, Michel Julien and most particularly for Walter, Ignazio Piussi.

Chris and his pals did not know Walter and Pierre personnally though they were of course admirative of the conqueror of the 'Bonatti pillar' and they were totally unaware of Walter and Pierre' to have asked other climbers to let them do another attempt in 'memoriam' of their dead friends.

To make my article short, I have not published the full correspondence from Pierre Mazeaud to Lucien Devies accusing Desmaison in the strongest terms and giving to Chris and Don's party all the benefit of the 1rst ascent with not harsh feeling against them whatsoever. Pierre knew very well who the 'liars' were. Note that Mazeaud was so adamant against Desmaison and Lucien Devies's attitude that he resigned from the CAF (the French Alpine Club whose president was Devies).

Pierre knew well that he could not expect from climbers who he had no acquaintance with, the same from friends (and for Walter it was particularly so with Ignacio Piussi). Also you must know that never did Walter nor Pierre (even today for Pierre) did claim that they made the first ascent. But you can say that they opened the route as Raymond Lambert and Tenzing did in 1952 to Hillary and Tenzing on Everest, to select one example.

I can add that Pierre's frostbites took longer than expected to cure meaning that the season was finished for him. Why would young and talented climbers wait much loger (but if they were friends of Walter and Pierre). Mountains luckily belong to no one even after they have been climbed. It took Pierre quite a number of years but finally he forgave Desmaison to remember only the good times he had with him.

Also, note that Chris did not agree easily to let me publish this article in the ACJ, as he never liked controversies and because the greatest culprit, Desmaison, is dead and cannot respond. It is only when I realized that Desmaison's lies on this 1rst ascent were still being taken as the truth worldwide but England that being French I felt I had to repair the wrong done to the British-Pole party.

Of course Chris today will agree with you that with his friends he shared the 1rst ascent with Walter and Pierre at least 'morally' as you state. For Chris, climbing is all about pleasure, challenge of course, but foremost friendship. This was not the case with Desmaison and it was not to be the only time when he would lie about a first ascent. You see being one the 'toughest' mountaineer of the time in France did not mean that he was not a sickly ambitious and egotist man.

Another little thing I can add is that 2 years ago I spoke to a Italian friend of Ignazio Piussi and when speaking about this event he told me that Ignazio did not want to speak about the Freney affair so bad he felt about it. I guess that having been pushed by Desmaison to sign an erroneous statement was heavy on his conscience.

Finally remember also one thing, they all were young men and you couldn't expect too much wisdom from them. They were ambitious, wanted to solve to their benefit 'this last great problem in the Alps'. One thing for sure, they all loved climbing, at least a thing they all shared.


Note: For long I thought great climbers never lied because the ones who were my friends never did. Although unfrequent luckily, I am afraid that this is not always quite so. At some stage I will write an article on the true first ascent of Mont Blanc. In France for 226 years all the benefit of this 1rst ascent was given to Jacques Balmat, though one British climber, Leslie Stephen restored the truth (published in the ACJ in 1920) and I believe also one German and one Austrian at about the same time. Their historical work were fully ignored in France until the publication to come shortly about the first ascents on the Mont Blanc range summits until 1901 by the first ascencionists to which I participated for the ascent of Mont Blanc. It makes a very amazing story particularly when you know that Alexandre Dumas our great French author was instrumental in the propagation of Balmat's lies. But this is another story

Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Dec 13, 2012 11:50 am - Voted 10/10

Re: a very interesting article

Dear Eric,
you have quite interpreted my deepest feeling about those facts; I thank you heartily for these other informations about a piece of mountaineering history which had always interested me. I didn’t know what the italian press wrote about the “Affaire Freney” at time, because of in 1961 I was a little children; but i never found anything about it neither in more recent times. I only had read the report published by Walter on his book “I giorni grandi” (The great days) and a good book a bit romanticized written by Marco Ferrari and entitled “Freney 1961”. I think you know Walter spent during four decennia a lot of his endless energies trying to establish the true about the well-known national “Affaire K2”, a question which had hardly troubled him during his life, surely much more than the “Affaire Freney”. Also by writing some different books about this ticklish matter, till 1994, the 50 th anniversary of the ascent, in which year a wise men’s council finally clarifyed the question, but not in the full way Walter had expected.

About the question of climbers’ falsehood, I’m an idealist, deeply also you are so, Eric, I think, and you showed it writing this article! But during the years we had learned we can’t always expect quite so from all the other climbers. This is quite sad, but I think we have to carry on our way without worrying. I’m well informed about the first lie in the history, the first ascent to Mont Blanc, this matter made the object of an article I wrote some years ago and I wish to translate it and submit here on SP as soon as possible.
All the best.


ericvola - Dec 14, 2012 1:25 pm - Hasn't voted


I can help you eventually with your Mont Blanc 1rst ascent story but we better restore to private mail from now on as this has nothing to do with the 'Freney Affair'!

A last little anecdote for someone who liked Walter:

During their night at the Col de la Fourche bivvy, Chris and his companions saw at 23h30 a nice looking man wearing a helmet enter. Sure of himself he goes to the log book which they had filled a few hours before with the mention:' Freney pillar?' He looks at them, writes his own route and goes out. They rushed to the log book and discovered that it was Bonatti with a customer going to the Brenva spur. When 2 hours later they will start, they will see the front lights of Walter and his customer high up on the Brenva spur.


Silvia Mazzani

Silvia Mazzani - Dec 14, 2012 3:03 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Re:

A curious anecdote well lighting up about the stuff Walter had. I agree and i'll get in touch with you via PM.


yatsek - Jul 12, 2015 6:07 pm - Hasn't voted

Not Jan Djuglosz

But Jan Długosz.


ericvola - Jul 13, 2015 1:41 am - Hasn't voted


Thanks for pointing it out. I corrected the mistake in this article which was made in all French and British reports/texts, including my friend Chris Bonington.

David Thompton - Dec 11, 2020 9:17 am - Hasn't voted


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