Alpinists can be of two sorts: The first sort climb mountains, cliffs and whatever steep slopes using routes from the easiest to the most extreme. They are not to be mistaken with potatoes bags which can be hauled up onto the highest summits of our world by means of guides, Sherpas or other human winches paid for the purpose.
Eric belong to those who have climbed a significant number of extremely difficult routes. Of course, he has no physical or moral likeness with a potatoes bag… although with age, a bit of potbelly could be misleading.
The second sort are that of knots. Not the true “knots” (albeit…), that of networks remarkably linked which interconnect alpinists from all the world.
As such, Eric is one from which multiple links go to and fro. He owes it notably to a translating bulimia of Anglo-Saxons mountain books. Once retired, after having sold plenty of computers in the heroic time of punched cards produced in Britain, he could indulge himself fully to this bulimia. Consequently, he did contribute to make known remarkable books written by Anglo-Saxons alpinists, while at the same time developing an interest in worldwide alpine history.
Alpine history as many others is an on-going affair. To follow it in real time, without noticing it, Eric put himself in an episcopal position. He looks after everything which moves on the cliffs and mountains of our wide world. Some see him as some kind of pope. A Tvmountain interview comforts this view. On sees the Pontiff in his private quarters in Chamonix and a journalist received in a particular audience respectfully recording his august words.
Better: going above his episcopal and papal functions, he instituted himself as an apostle. The concerned god is Georges Livanos, “The Greek”, a well-known climbing legend. For those who do not know it (is it possible?), it can be resumed in one number: 25 000, a title: “Au-delà de la verticale”and a stream of first ascents everywhere, mostly in the Calanques and the Dolomites. 25 000 is the number of pegs that Le Grec would have put in during his climber’s life. “Au-delà de la verticale”is the title of the bestseller he wrote. It is the wittiest book in alpine literature. If the reader of those lines has not read it, then he must cease immediately this reading to go and buy the book! For the stream of first ascents, its printing would wear out a massive number of printing cartridges (exaggeration in tribute to Le Grec; still an authentic stream).
Le Grec bowed out in 2004. Eric erected a computing basilica to his memory which he maintains with the greatest care. The following is a summary written by Eric about Le Grec climbing career:
“From the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1970’s, Georges Livanos, “Le Grec” (The Greek) was “The king of the Calanques” and an “Emperor” of the Dolomites with more than 500 first ascents in the Calanques and 40 in the Dolomites and the Alps. Born in 1922 from a Greek father he was 100% from Marseille and loved to act his own role, that of colourfulness and humour at its best. Many of the great names of French Alpinism shared a rope with him: Lucien Devies, Jean Franco, Maurice Herzog, Lionel Terray, Gaston Rébuffat, Jean Couzy, Michel Vaucher, Claudio Barbier, Robert Paragot, and Lucien Bérardini. And then there were his Italian friends such as Gino Soldà, Armando da Roit, Beppi de Franchesch, Marcello Bonafede, Menegus, Stenico and many more particularly when they came climbing in the Calanques.
“The Greek” wanted to become a tough guy in the climbing world; for him the Calanques were a springboard to go farther, in the mountains, on big walls. Until 1956, Robert Gabriel was his rope mate in a great number of first ascents on the breath-taking walls in the Dolomites, then, besides Marc Vaucher and Roger Lepage who climbed with him until he stopped. His wife, Sonia, became his ideal partner, always ready to follow him on the 1200 meters of the North face of the Civetta or on the Grand dihedral of the Cima Su Alto.
Unlike « professionals » and today’s young stars of the climbing scene, he climbed solely during weekends, which in those years started on Saturday afternoons––there were no 35 hours weeks then - and during his summer holidays which were a maximum of 4 weeks. “The Greek” used public transport. To climb the Bertagne peak with Sonia and his friends, he took the tramway to Aubagne, then the bus to Gémenos and finally walked to the foot of the wall. To go to Chamonix he took the railways, and he drove a Vespa to go to the Vercors. This was the vehicle he used for his work as a sales rep for printing materials, and with which he travelled up and down the Bouches du Rhône, the Var and Vaucluse for 10 years. When his pal Robert Gabriel stopped climbing in 1956 (compelling order from his newly wedded wife), he found a new rope mate, Marc Vaucher, who had a Citroen DS. At last he could enjoy the comfort and time-saving that a car offered. “The Greek” never learned how to drive just as he also never learned how to swim. For a guy from Marseille, that really takes the biscuit! He boasted that he was « a Sunday climber » and not a true « sportsman » like the young stars of today working their way through the 8th and 9th grades! Despite this, his list of ascents is amazing even today, and above all, what high quality: Oh man! The Livanos routes! Repeating them was enough to convince yourself that you were among the top climbers! They were a must: “The one who did without bivouac the Livanos pillar at Archiane could consider the big North walls…” (Bruno Fara, “Climbing years 1970”), that is in the Vercors as in Dolomites, then, in the 1950s and 1960s, there were very few French climbers there.
This is how he concluded his scoring at the end of 1978, when, aged 55, he stopped climbing after 40 years of activity:
Calanques routes 134,500 m Various attempts 10,750 mChamonix 8,900 mOisans 6,600 mBregaglia 1,500 mTraining Crags & Verdon 15,860 mDolomites 64,000 mTotal of 242,100 mHours 8,900Pegs 25,000Abseils 1,450Calanques 630 different routes (500 first ascents and 1660 climbs)New routes Calanques & Mountains: 56,160 m60 "1st" (32 of 6th grade - 38 abroad)91 bivouacs“I climbed with around 300 guys, e basta”“For me the ideal is to start from the bottom, reach the top and come back down. And not too fast...”
“The Greek” is remembered as the most humorous and best liked French climber. He wrote the ultimate humorous French mountain bestseller, which was unfortunately never translated into English. He is also the only non-Italian to have received with his wife, Sonia, the Pelmo d’Oro and with Sonia, he is considered officially as one of the greatest Dolomite climbers by the Italian Dolomite climbers.”
This basilica shelters the GGM archives (Groupe des Grimpeurs Marseillais). This climbing group was created in 1953 by Le Grec and some climbers from varied origins (They were “the best climbers of the day”. After some glorious years, the group was withering away. It came back to life in 1960 with the fresh blood of rising stars. Eric was one of those blood donors (and one of its stars).
Going to the GGM meetings, the newcomers did not only come to discuss their next outings, they came to attend the one man show of the ultra vertical humourist who was Le Grec.
Each alpinist has his own personality. Some appear as bold conquerors of the useless (Lionel Terray), others as poets of the rope party (Gaston Rébuffat). There are also the masochists who find pleasure in endless walks or icy bivvies; the hung-ups who want to prove to themselves that they are worth more that they think ; the morons who rack their brains over in wondering why they practise a risky and tiring sport ; the adrenaline drug addicts; the competitors which sole aim is to climb harder and faster that every one else (all those being to many to be quoted).
Eric’ personality does not belong to any of those types if not then to a bit of each. It must be classified amongst the unclassifiable. Eric has a talent to appear as the contrary of what he is. In climbing he always was cautious but being watchful to appear perfectly reckless. As for eating, he is a fin gourmet. When enjoying a delicate meal or when uncorking a good wine, who would imagine that he was able to eat and digest glass? Who would imagine that he could gobble jackdaws swarming with vermin? Those who could follow him in his personal or professional affairs may have been with a Gaston Lagaffe. Obviously Eric is a great purveyor of atypism. This is very much part of his appeal.
Caricature of Eric by Zevar (O1 informatique) marketing in Europe a new search system called CAFS for his British company ICL.
The first time I met Eric was in 1959. I had joined the CAF – the Provence section – three years before. Then I was considered the “youngsters’ dean”. This peculiar repute was due to the circumstances of my joining the CAF. It was at the beginning of the summer 1956. The “beginners joints” were closed and the summer program done. The time was not to the welcoming of newcomers. I soon noted. Then, the CAF’s meetings occurred every Thursday evening at the club’s headquarters, close to the Canebière in Marseille. When I entered for the first time, there was quite a crowd discussing their plans in small groups. I thought I was the invisible man. I wandered among them, trying to grab the attention of someone. No one seemed to notice me Therefore, I left, a bit put out, but I had paid my dues and I wanted to recoup them. So, I went to the following meetings. Same welcome! I therefore spent the summer with my member card as the only new acquaintance made at the CAF. I started back my attempts after the holidays. The summer did not make me more visible, but at the first meeting, I saw another myself as far as invisibility was concerned. At the end of the year, we had skimmed through most of the Calanques easy routes; but, above all, we had federated a small group of youngsters who came to the CAF and themselves also welcomed by the “old ones “as invisible persons.
In defence of the “old ones” one must say that the year before my joining had been marked by a mountain fateful accident. It had cost the life of a young member, André Pontet. This had considerably cooled down his comrades to the point that they had deserted the CAF. The section was then populated mostly by “ancestors”, mainly hikers above 40: venerable elders as seen from my 18 years old! Some, however, had not reach this old age and were excellent climbers. Alas, they had other pressing issues on their mind than to spent time with newcomers. Their concern was the reorganization of their respective couples by spouses or girlfriends’ exchanges. This caused a problem to the newcomers. They felt ill-at-ease to approach them without knowing who was the cuckold of who.
By means of increments, the new invisible ones welcomed by the invisible already in place had constituted a quite visible group. A joyful group of youngsters which had in its ranks future climbing virtuosi such as François Guillot, Serge Machard, the inventor of the eponymous knot, and many others. I was their dean in my quality of the first invisible.
Towards the newcomers, the group worked as a suction pup. And this how Eric was sucked up.
I was responsible for his breaking in. My preferred ploy for that was the north face of the “Grande Lame” at les Goudes. Two aided pitches with a free crux which could not be done, with the then boots, without cutting one’s knees.
Eric arrives at the belay, his knees cut as planned, but without any peg with him. Without pegs impossible to continue.
- What did you do with the pegs?
- I throw them away!
- But, miserable wretch, pegs are not Kleenex! Why did you throw them away?
- Because I thought we would not need them anymore.
- You had it all wrong! We needed more. And even if we did not need anymore, it would have been handier to take them with you than to have to retrieve them from the bushes!
This is how our first outing ended with an early abseil and a search for pegs, similar to a search for an Easter eggs hunt. Except that Easter eggs are usually hidden in places less stinging that the Calanques’s scrubland.
Soon after our first outing I went to see Eric. Why? I do not remember, there must have been some necessity. He lived with his parents in a new building in the select district of Saint Giniez in Marseille. I rang the bell, enter the hall, white, immaculate, with huge mirrors on the walls. The staircase was also white and immaculate. One detail though: Vibram traces could be seen high on the walls. If I had thought that I had the wrong address, those traces would have comforted me. This was Eric’s place. Very visibly he had opened a variant to the normal staircase route, that which used the stairs. Quite obviously this variant is climbed by laybacking. Though a well marked trace puzzled me. It is in the middle of the ceiling. I never uncovered its mystery. Eric himself never explained how he could press so strongly one of his feet on the ceiling.
Eric and I had been climbing together for some time. One of our favourite sectors was La Candelle. We went there the weekend spending the night at the Felix Roche shelter, destroyed since for site protection, which in the Calanques consist essentially in destroying shelters and forbidding access to many places where you can climb or get beautiful views. That night, we were evoking our memories as pupils of our secondary school. I told him a story which greatly amused be.
One Tuesday, at the end of the 10 o’clock playtime, a banger exploded in the toilet’s facilities. Alert with the supervisors. Search of the culprit in the pupils ranks waiting to get back to their classrooms. In vain.
Tuesday next, same hour, same scenario. A banger, slightly bigger than the first explodes in the same toilet facility. New alert, new search for the culprit. Again, without success. This time the chief supervisor (nicknamed Scarface) goes through all classrooms asking the culprit to denounce himself. No-one does. Omerta is complete. He promises the most severe punishments to the culprit.
The following Tuesday at the 10 O’clock break, all supervisors are guarding the toilets where the explosions occurred. Then a more important one occurs… in the toilets on the other side! Shame on the supervising! New culprit search, in vain. The promised punishments are tougher than the toughest already promised. Awaiting to find the culprit and as advance punishment, hours of detention are distributed to the most suspicious to be.
The school supervisors, like the Saint-Tropez gendarmes, are savvy. You don’t do it twice to them. The following Tuesday they are in front of the various toilet’s facilities. To make a banger explode seems impossible! What a mistake! An explosion – nay a blast shakes the school’s windows. It occurred … in the supervisors’ room deserted by them as they all where on the front line! It is not hours of retention which are given but the summoning of parents, suspension days, reprimands permanently written on the notebooks. Then presumption of innocence did not hamper the minds (a fashion to apply the precautionary principle)! Punishments fell on already identified hotheads.
I end the story telling Eric that the culprit was never found.
- I know, it was me!
He had a good laugh.
One day Eric introduced me to his new conquest. A bird? No, a motorbike! A nice all red 125 cc. Who could have offered him this machine? Obviously not him as per his persistent impoverishment. His parents? I doubt it! Probably some rich uncle from America or rather England where he had a quite rich one there. Offering a moto to Eric? Just as much give a gun to a suicidal! I immediately understood that he had learned how to drive the machine in Les Carnets du vertige, this bestseller from Louis Lachenal, first on top of Annapurna with Maurice Herzog. You learned in it that with the money he won thanks to this feat, he had bought a 2CV. As for the accelerator he knew only two positions: stop and full speed. Following that example, Eric was using only two positions with his machine throttle control: rest and full speed. So, his bike reacted a bit like a helicopter. For one hour airborne, a helicopter requires 3 hours of maintenance. For one hour of usage (by Eric) his motorbike required a week of repairs. One day the repairs extended themselves to Eric. He came a cropper and broke his wrist.
Bad tongues pretended that his fracture resulted from a shock on a pedestrian’s balls walking nearby. Truly he smashed himself alone like a big boy. This corresponded fully to his solo liking.
Eric came out of hospital with the left arm and the largest apart of his left hand in plaster. A big, solid plaster as his father, highly placed in the medic hierarchy, had given instructions to have the thing big and tight enough to prevent him to climb for some time. This would be that much taken for his survival.
This was not enough to stop Eric climbing. No one wanting to take the risk to climb with him in his state, he went solo without awaiting for the first signs of his bones’ consolidation. He christened his new plastered climber state in the “Victor Martin”, a nice ridge at the limit of the Rocher Saint Michel at Les Goudes. In the middle of the route, the plaster jams in a crack. Impossible to get it out! Caught off guard, he pulls on his arm and gets it out of the plaster. He gets back the plaster (from our first climb at Les Lames, he knew that he had to retrieve the stuff), finishes the route and goes back home. There he filed down his plaster to enable him to retrieve it and put it back conveniently. He made a hole in it to suspend it on his harness with the pegs and karabiners for future climbs. So improved, it was no more a plaster, but a new climbing gear. I have witnessed its use in the Super Calanque at En-Vau. Leading, Eric had taken off the contraption to get up the V+ before the end of the route, then had put it back for the descent. The thingamajig was studded with signatures, both from boys and girls, those last ones proving that he had admirers amongst them.
At the time, Eric did like to climb right above the water. The poor plaster had quite many forced bathes. It may be that in the end, it dissolved itself.
Fortunes of life seem to have taken Eric under their protection. They undoubtedly did so with his national service as he was assigned to Nato Northern Army Group (British command) in Germany. Life conditions there were far from being rough. While Armies usually give their squaddies cartridges to be shot, the NAO ones were meant to be smoked. Eric received every month a quota of 12 cartridges from the various Armies. As he did not smoke, he sold them. He also had access to Pastis supplies, as alcohol was the best ingredient to maintain the troops morale. Considering that they were over-abundant for that purpose, he lightened them by a clever reselling system. He so did accumulate savings to buy a 2CV. Fortune’s protection did not stop there.
We have reminded that Louis Lachenal, the famous conqueror of Annapurna, did also have a 2CV which he drove pedal to the metal (or by putting a brick on the accelerator, which came to the same thing) which transformed the “deuch” into a bolide. Eric so had to drive his in the same way as the great man. Alas, a malicious turn and furthermore icy came on the bolide’s path. This time, it was not the wrist, but Eric’s skull which broke. A near and massive break which resulted in a three days coma
One could regret that he avoided a trepan to unwind the subdural hematomas. If it had been the case, Eric would certainly have used the trepan hole to clip his skull to his harness in climbing cruxes where action should be preferred to think. The show would have been second to none.
Eric is persuaded that the accident did not leave him any after-effect. But many believe that the isomorphism of his memory to a gruyere full of holes came from it.
In 1959, my parents and grandparents had a chalet built in Taconnaz, a hamlet in the Chamonix valley. During the 1960 Christmas holidays, it welcomed my parents, a friend of them (my future mother-in-law) and her daughter (my future spouse). I was there also with Eric whom I invited.
We had a preposterous idea: spend New Year’s Eve in the Albert Premier refuge. In winter, the path to follow is quite rightly called the “winter path”. It starts from the Tour at 1 480m. In summer, the path to follow is quite rightly called the “summer path”. It starts from the Col de Balme at 2 180m. Knowing that the Albert Premier is situated at 2 700m, the winter path had a difference in height of 1 200m, the summer one of 500m. So, it is clear: the summer path helps you to get away with a 700m climb. As the Col de Balme is reached by a ski lift, both the winter and summer paths can be followed, but the summer one corresponded better to the supporters of energy savings. The catch is that it is terribly prone to avalanches. Dilemma: do we tempt the devil, or do we play it safe? Bold as we are, we opted for the devil.
At the start of the sky lifts there was an impressive queue. When we put our skis on at the Col de Balme, time was past 15h30. We hoped to be at the refuge at the same time as in the summer, around 17h, just before nightfall. How optimists were we! Our progression was slower than anticipated and above all, we discovered that the avalanche prone reputation of the path was not spoofed. Our skis did cut dangerously the snow, breaking loose some patches in the slope as so many warnings. It was now out of the question to progress further! Too bad, we decide to go up and see! This change course’s advantage was to cut through the slope in “the right direction”. We took off our skis, put them on our rucksacks, rope on and go to discover the crest above us. The wind started to blow. When we got to the crest the wind was howling and night was falling. We were on top of a summit unrecognized by great alpinists due to its modesty but known however by cartographers: the “Bec du Picheu”. We had planned to spend New Year’s Eve night at the Albert Premier refuge, but, after all, this “Bec” would be quite convenient to spend that night. The bivi preparation was not an easy affair. We had to secure solidly our skis to avoid them to be blown away as wisps of straw. We had to get our sleeping bags out of their cases taking into consideration the wind direction and awaiting for lull periods as their form make them like wind-cones quick to escape from our hands. We had to unfold our windbreakers trying to avoid that the wind would tear them. Our stove lacking flame holders as with jet engines we had to give up to idea to cook anything. But finally, all that were just trifles. We had our New Year’s Eve in the mountains! We did enjoy it well as at this time of the year nights are long. Furthermore, shaken by the wind like coconut trees, we did not loose our time sleeping. And as far as the wind was concerned, we saw it as a bonus which we would have missed if we had slept in the refuge.
On the morning, our first activity was to come down from our perch. It was not that obvious. Wind was down, but, in the mountains – it is well known – troubles always go roped. The wind had been first, a fog thick as potato soup was next. This stumped us. Go down, yes, but where to? We knew the slope ended on rock walls which we had better avoid. When we did estimate that we had gone down enough we put on our skis. Skiing roped was not Eric’s cup of tea nor mine. We unroped. I went first, Eric in my wake. I had not done three metres that the ground shied away under my feet. I just had the time to think that I would go arse over tit in the rock wall below before my fall slowed then stopped, like a dive in an eiderdown. I emerged from the snow as a stack of feathers. I raised my eyes. The fog was still as dense. What I saw was as pure and simple as a Samivel’s drawing. A snow corniche with a V notch, two skis and Eric’s head trying to see where I disappeared. That explained it. We had put up our skis on an invisible corniche in the fog. I had done what I shouldn’t have, the corniche collapsed, and I was now in a steep slope, separated from Eric by a 6 to 7 metres step. What should we do? Time to ask myself the question and Eric had jumped to join me. It required quite some boldness! Extreme skiing had not yet been invented. With this jump Eric was an undisputable precursor.
This was just an incident. We still had our skis on, and we continued our progression in the same direction, but at the lower floor. The slope relented. We crossed some tracks. Civilisation must not have been too far. The slope relented further. We slid side by side, without bumps. Strange impression to slide so without the smallest jolt. A look at our feet: our slide stopped unnoticed of us. We pushed on our ski sticks, the fog cleared, skiers appeared, we were on the easy run of La Vormaine. Only the alpinists’ god could had guided us there.
Two days after, Eric went early for a walk nearby the chalet, while everyone else slept. For her breakfast, Eric still gone, my future stepmother found her jam jar empty, clean as it had been licked. It was her “jar” as it was a laxative jam for the benefit of an efficient transit.
When Eric came back she asked him if he was the one who had eaten it. Eric admitted it humbly with all signs of contrition: blushing, wiggling, head tilting…
Everyone had a good laugh, and no one said a word. The jar was half empty before Eric finished it, so it had a good twelve dozen of soup spoons.
What would happen? Everyone watched Eric along the day, to no avail, nothing happened!
With his jump while returning from the Bec du Picheu, Eric had demonstrated that he could instantly adapt his skiing level to the situation. He showed it with an even more striking manner during a winter descent of the Vallée Blanche with a group from the CAF Marseille. Classic scenario: the cable-car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, descent of the ridge, putting the skis on and here we go! Eric dashes forward two to three metres and fall. The group is astonished. Eric gets up, dashes again for some 10 metres and fall. The group is puzzled. What is going on? Eric gets up, dashes for about 30 metres and falls. The group questions him:
- Oh! Eric, have you skied much before?
- No, never, I am discovering it!
Dismay and a matter of conscience high up in the mountains.
The Vallée Blanche is not a beginner’s ski run. Wisdom would be for him to go back up to the Aiguille, go down with the cable-car and learn how to ski. This implies accompanying him up and no one volunteers. On the other hand, Eric seems to have made significant progress. The length of his successive slips progressed geometrically: 3m, 10m, 30m. So, a few more of them, some falls and the length between two successive falls would exceed the descent to Chamonix, which is enough. The group decides to trust the maths. With reason. Under the “Gervasutti,” Eric skied properly, at the start of the Géant’ seracs, he skied quite well, at the Requin refuge, he skied excellently. At the arrival in Chamonix, he skied as a champion.
Before his ingestion of my future stepmother laxative jam, Eric had proven how stolid is digestive system was. It occurred at the Caron refuge (now called the refuge des Ecrins), facing the magnificent Barre des Écrins, highest summit of the Oisans. The guardian then was Benjamin Raymond. On the day of the event, Alain, his son, was at the refuge. Over the years, Benjamin and Alain had become friends.
We were loaded as mules – food and equipment for several days in order to do all the “classics” around. “We” consisted in a small group of pals of which Eric. The weather was miserable. Then we did not have the equivalent of today’s weather forecasts. The right strategy consisted in going up to the refuge whatever the weather and await until it improved. This is what we had been doing for several days.
To kill time, we played very long belote card play. Benjamin and Alain were formidable players. One was quite certain to win when partnering with one or the other and loose when not. For the game which was to cause the event Eric and his partner played against Benjamin and one of us. Near the end of the game, the issue was uncertain. For the last call, Eric had an exceptionally good hand. So, he trumpeted:
- If I lose this one, I will be happy to eat a jackdaw!
Eric plays his hand and loses. Then, Benjamin called his son and told him:
- Alain go and fetch the jackdaw!
Alain goes out and comes back with a jackdaw, dead and quite gamey! Probably a jackdaw dead for some time, as one could see from the maggots fussing into its entrails. These vermin do not impress Eric. He must see in it some excess of protein. He starts to pluck the beast with vigour: feathers fly everywhere in the refuge. The plucking of the jackdaw looks like the stripping of an artichoke. It seems that they are more feathers in the refuge than were on the jackdaw. Once the jackdaw undressed, Eric takes it to the kitchen and starts cooking it. Everyone is gathered around to look at the preparation. He is helped by Benjamin who knows the whereabouts better than anyone, taking care of controlling Eric’s activity. He gives him a big can, like the ones used by corporate food shops. It was used as a dustbin; it will be used as a cooking-pot. The peelings left in it will serve as side-dish. To complete it, Alain goes outside to fetch some more scrapings. Despite having never cooked a jackdaw, Eric gives the impression to have done it all his life. It fills in the can with water half-way and starts heating it. When the water starts simmering, he plunges in the jackdaw with the peelings and the scrapings, seasons the lot with salt. He awaits once again the boiling point and adds the essential ingredient: four of five rusty pegs. Their purpose is to give to the dish a nice flavour of iron oxide and zinc also due to the significant electro-plating. Time goes by, but Eric is starving (or pretends to be). As far as Benjamin is concerned, he wants to preserve the butane refuge reserves. So, to both it is time to plunge a fork in the jackdaw or what is left of it and make sure that a good enough number of maggots float on the surface, which constitute a kind of sanitary control.
The jackdaw is cooked. Eric sits down to eat. He offers us to share his sweetmeat, which is quite unusual. Obviously he must have known that no one would rush for it. So, he eats alone, as a satrap in front of his court. Everyone wonders where the lot will be evacuated. From above? From below? As far as we could judge it was done in due time by the usual way.
After the jackdaw à la dauphinoise, Eric showed his cooking talent with a Mongolian cod. During an outing at the Sainte-Victoire with his friend Jacques Brès. The Sainte-Victoire is the mountain immortalised by Cézanne who painted it from every angle. One day, being at the summit as a simple tourist, I asked a hiker who visibly was putting himself forward as a fine connoisseur of the area. I asked him:
- I was told that Cézanne painted much the Sainte-Victoire, but I have seen no trace of his painting. Where are they?
- Oh! Monsieur, not here! You climbed for nothing. To see some of them you must go to his workshop in Aix. (Wrong! Cézanne’s workshop only contains copies).
Let’s come back to our cod.
For the two youngsters Eric and Jacques, full of enthusiasm, but with much less money, dried cod was an interesting piece of food for its price. But, it had the fault of being firmly rigid.
Eric and Jacques were using the famous red motorbike to go from Marseille to the Sainte-Victoire, probably freshly out of a repair session (one must admire Jacques’s courage). Remembering how the Mongols tenderized yak’s meat, the two buddies put the cod which they had just bought on the motorbike’s saddle and sat on it. From Eric, we know that the idea was excellent. At their arrival, the cod was tenderized as to become teary eyed.
Their pants, as far as they were concerned, must have been deliciously perfumed…
When we climbed together and had reached a good climbing level, the “Concave” was still unclimbed. As per its name, the Concave is concave, 100 m high overhanging by 30 m at the top. It was “the latest great problem in the Calanques”. One must specify that in climbing there is always one after the last one (which is the difference with the racing cyclists). Virginity exercising a considerable appeal, all the local climbers came roaming around at the foot of the cliff, most commonly on the sly, looking for a route and loaded like mules, in case… This is what Eric and I were doing on a 1rst of August.
Going prospecting to the Concave on a 1rst of August, is like going to the hearth of a solar furnace. We arrived on the spot, dried up as dried fruits. A state not conducive to the discovery of an embryo of a start and incompatible with whatever climbing in case we would have found it. We had to admit the vanity of our enterprise.
So, back to the Felix Roche refuge from where we started, stuck with the gear, heavy as lead, which we had brought, in case… We had to go back up 250 m, in the middle of the day, at the time when the solar furnace is at its best. When the sun strikes, undressing is out of the question. We keep our climbing pants and our light sweaters with long sleeves. Those are dark, making the situation worse. Very soon they whitened with the salt of our perspiration. Soon also our flasks are empty. We reach the refuge in a comatose state.
During our climb we were thinking at the tank in the refuge and its fresh water.
This tank is like a covered well. A pulley, a rope and a bucket allow one to get the water. Rather than using this mechanism, Eric goes down the well using the rope and plunges in the water. He probably wanted to drink more than the 10 litres of the bucket. The result is instantaneous. He is stricken. A caving fishing trip is imperative. Big-game fishing that is. One must go fast as annoying rumbling noises come from the depths. I take out from our rucksacks all the junk we had taken for the Concave. At least it will be used. I establish quickly a chain of etriers, throw him the rope and his harness, put the rope in the pulley and pull. The guy is heavier than the bucket but more cooperative, which helps. He emerges. I thought he would come out as a full goatskin, but no! His diameter is reasonable. All is well that ends well. Finally, he is glad of his ablution. Unlike mine, his sweater is rinsed out. The tank’s water must be a bit saltier than before his dip. It would be perfect for cooking a jackdaw.
Coming from a season in the mountains, Eric found the door of his flat closed. Strangely the name on the door and on the letterbox is not his anymore. Inquiry made: his parents have moved. He did not know about it. So, he came to my place for the time it took to find their new address.
Autumn 1961, the adventures path which we had followed together came to a fork due to the studies we each had to follow. I took the Paris’s direction, Eric, that of London. Why London and not Grenoble, Chambéry, Geneva, Zurich, Torino, Milano? Why this city so far away from the Alps? There must have been imperious reasons. The most obvious were:
- The quality of business studies there,
- The prospect to master Shakespeare’s language which had become more useful to international trade that to the pleasure to see the great man’s plays in VO,
- The presence of persons of his family,
- Less obvious, but which must have been important for his parents, Great-Britain insularity putting the Chunnel between their son and the mountains.
Eric’s parents, aware of his vertical activities, doubted that he was managing the risks involved. To ensure his survival, they did what was necessary for him to prowl in the Alps when summer comes: they tightened his purse strings. Eric did the necessary to compensate the drought. He had all sorts of jobs, small and big. One of the most remarkable was as a “hospital morgue hand”. The job was perfect for Eric. Who can season a jackdaw can titivate a dead British.
At the start of 1962, Eric had enough funds to cross the Chunnel and go to Chamonix.
This Latin locution can be translated by “marvel year” or “miracles year”. As per the Oxford dictionary a book which has not yet had the honour to have been translated by Eric, it appeared for the first time as the title of a John Dryden’s poem. It pointed out the year 1666. That year had been miraculous for having been marked by one only disaster, the great London fire, a trifle compared to the Great plague which occurred the previous year. 1666 had also been mirabilis for human knowledge. Newton published his major maths and physics works (Analysis, universal gravitation, optics).
The new annus mirabilis was 1759 as it saw the end of the Seven-years war. This bickering having concerned both Europe, Northern America and Indies, historians see it as the draft of the future World wars. It left high and dry some 800 000 victims sketching the genocides to come.
Humanity had to await 146 years and the year 1905 for another annus mirabilis. Thanks to Einstein. In four articles, he turned upside down the vision that one had of the world.
The most famous, to the eyes of the general public concerns the Relativity and its famous formula e=mc2. The two others concern the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. They founded the Quantum mechanisms. The simple evocation of this term put Eric in an extreme state of sideration and horror. He is not the only one. However, this branch of physics all too often concern all human beings, except for some disappearing ethnic groups. One ignores all too often that it governs today, undercover, all what is going on in the Internet, mobile phones, computers, television, GPS and even in the photoelectric cells that automatically flush the toilets. My friend, if you have your feet wet after taking a dump in a highway toilet, no need to look who is guilty! Einstein is the culprit!
1905 is thought to be the last mirabilis year. What a mistake! It was the one before last, as the true last was 1962. Admittedly it has not been for the whole of humanity, but for Eric and by extension to all those who have an interest in him.
Indeed, and as far as I am concerned it was the year when I saw Eric sleeping naked in my bed after having taken too much sun on the Walker spur. But it was above all, the year when Eric and his climbing partners had their climbing notebook overflowing with an impressive accumulation of great climbing routes. Here are some of them:
- Aiguilles de Chamonix – Crocodile – Arête ouest – Éric, E. Nusslé.
- Aiguilles de Chamonix – Grépon – Voie Livanos – Éric, J.P. Corbay.
- Aiguilles de Chamonix – Pointe Lépiney – Éric, E. Nusslé.
- Petit Dru – face nord – Éric, Robert Varèse.
- Grandes Jorasses – Éperon Walker - Éric, Marcel Zerf, Jean Thérond, Denise Escande.
- Petit Dru – face Ouest – Éric, Jean Thérond, Denise Escande, Marcel Zerf.
- Grand Capucin – voie Bonatti-Ghigo – Éric, Yves Besson.
- Mont Blanc du Tacul – Éric, Christiane Leclerc.
- Aiguilles du Diable – Traversée – Éric, Mike Gravina, Muriel Baldwin.
When Eric joined the GGM, Le Grec suggested to me to take his measurements for a coffin to his size. That is the little chance to survive that he granted him! After this 1962 campaign, survival seemed to him that it could be extended a bit further. He put Eric in his notebook of alpinists who counted, and god knows that he spared its lines! This fact is another reason which made 1962 a mirabilis year. The dedication reproduced below gives evidence of his change of opinion:
To Eric Vola:
Friend (since a long time and faithful which is rare)
Roister ( “ )
Muncher (not bad, hid your glasses and ties!
Bullshiter (Quite honourable)
And also, as the things in “er” are many, but… no; I do not want to get into trouble with his charming Esther, so I had better stop. In memory of some nice climbs on which we didn’t break our necks but cracked our faces from one ear to the other! With all my friendship.
Later Eric will participate in Le Grec Dolomites’ campaigns. On the photo below one can see him at the Vazzoler refuge with Le Grec, Sonia and some other “large calibres”.
At the beginning of August, I went in a rush to say hello to my grandparents at our chalet and learned that Eric had been sleeping in my room for now 24 hours, after his climb of the Walker spur. Contrarily to those who have done this prestigious climb, he seemed to have accumulated a large quantity of calories: he slept naked and like a log. I left him to his dreams and resumed my travel to Marseille. I did not know that I would not see him again for very long.
A year before, in 1961, le Grec had detected Eric’s potential, as a climbing partner when he was free and not his usual partners. His « view » of Eric is the one he gave away in the following article published in a 1961 GGM bulletin, titled “New Wave”.
(A story of the old times by Georges Livanos (“Le Grec”) Bulletin G.G.M. 1961)
If “the Greek” has not yet reached the shore, I was going to say « the last shore », it is obvious that he is nearing it little by little (as are we all!) and it seemed that a dead calm would land him on sandy beaches, under the vertical, (preferably near Tahiti and with the accessory contribution of some lovely Tahitian girls for local colour…) but a buoyant New wave appeared on the horizon.
That the Greek has a nerve is indisputable. For the beginning of a story in such a seascape atmosphere from a guy who does not even know how to swim (in the literal sense), is like soloing up the Eiger, blindfolded and wearing boxing gloves.
But let’s come back to this New wave of which Eric Vola (with such a name, personally, I would be careful…) is one of its brilliant representatives. I know there are others, but hazard and affinity pushed me one day to propose to climb “something” together. This “something » was the Ecaille (The Flake) route at La Mounine.
I had climbed it twice some ten years back, and I was eager to see it again.
We arranged a rendezvous at the Grotte Rolland’s bistro for one Thursday morning. (Yes indeed, the representatives of the New wave and the plain representatives themselves have such opportunities). During our approach march, I realized that Eric is a swell chap. Indeed, he seemed to know thoroughly one of the masterpieces of mountain literature… unless he learned a few bits rapidly that same morning which he used wisely afterwards in our conversation.
To get to the foot of the wall, we went first to its top, a sluggards’ way to cut short our return. Our climbing harnesses loaded with pegs, and Eric’s stomach and pockets full of various provisions, we skimmed to the start.
After a minor dubbing ceremonial, the new wave dashes up. He goes up with great ease but, would he be pushing the respect due to old glories to the point of fearing to impose on them the humble task of the unpegger? The leader is already 20m above the ground and I advise him sharply not to fuss and so he condescended to put a peg in. Another a bit higher and he reaches the first belay. Obviously two pegs for those 30m in which HVS is plentiful, is no luxury! My turn! The first peg is of the tough kind: it cost me half a litre of sweat! If they are all of the same calibre… It won’t take long for my opinion to change! Oh Yes, man!
I joined Eric at the belay. The chocolate bar which he had put in one of his back pockets is quietly melting, and as quietly he swallows it in one gulp and starts off again for the next pitch which he gets up in the same casual manner. Everything is hunky dory, I get up to him, bypass him and soon we reach the platforms below the upper part of the wall. Normally we would expect to take a chimney a bit further on, a “small HVD », but I had often looked at a long crack which would be much neater. Why not treat us to a variant? Of course, Eric agrees, but who was to take the lead? We played heads or tails with a karabiner and the draw designated my companion. The heat was such that I was not unhappy. Eric was delighted, but: “If you still want to take the lead…? (Once again respect for old glories) « If you go on saying “vous”, I will definitely take the lead and screw in a series of pegs that will make you sweat! » This time, no need to say it again!
A few meters of free climbing and then pegs come into action. Obviously Eric does not have the same ease using pegs with aid climbing. It is the sort of manual work which can only be learned little by little, even if it is easier than free climbing.
One hour of effort and I start to play again. For me, it is a piece of cake, it’s un-pegging “with the cap”, no need for a hammer, and if you miss the peg, the puff of the cap stroke is enough! The pegs are slowing me up so little that I go up at the speed of free climbing! What a guy! He does an A3 on an A1 pitch! (But poor chap, what you are supposed to do is the exact opposite!)
I take over the lead and soon we reach the stance at the foot of the crux. It is a long, varied and tricky pitch ending at an exposed belay, so I reserved it for myself; for my seventy little Greek kilos would made a nice cap stroke on belay pegs labelled Eric!
The white rock emits a staggering heat, to the point that you would think you were in an oven! The first few metres are laborious, but I regain self-control and, stimulated by the presence of the New wave, I execute a recital of free climbing of which I am not dissatisfied (the old guard is not yet completely shrivelled…)
Nasty surprise: the pine tree at the belay has disappeared and we have to make it on aiders. Consequently, I take great care with the pegging, it is an installation … quite Greek, and that says it all!
Eric comes up, without much problem with the unpegging. It is true that several were in place and I do not insist that he takes them out… He does not insist either. The lack of comfort of this belay forces him to stay suspended in his aiders below me. Last pitch without any problem, though it starts with quite a tricky move to the side of a flake. It would be a pity to let that fall onto a second with such a brilliant future. The future of the said second darkens strongly when he attempts to take out the first peg of the Greek’s installation.
Twenty minutes to extract this peg (and in what a state…), ten to break the second, no hesitation to leave the third, and soon after we reached the top.
To the Rucksack and « to drink »! For Eric it is more “to eat”! He swallows a camembert as others would swallow an aspirin!
Eric - Les Cabanons (J. Brès)
Our first outing went well. There will be others; for if Eric still ignores many things, I am starting to forget many. In contact with him, I learn again that one must dare; Eric for his part, learns that it is sometimes good to hesitate. In other words, if we climbed together, I would improve, and he would worsen? Climbing is a question of balance… Motorbikes also, isn’t that right Eric?
Rosbif = British of course!
After our brief encounter already mentioned, I lost sight of Eric for quite some time. When we met again, he told me of his adventures in Rosbifland which he had published under the title “New Wave in Rosbifland” as a GGM bulletin on his “Le Grec” Internet site. This text provides interesting insights of the British climbing practises in the sixties, an unusual view of the prestigious Oxbridge colleges with their greatly prized climbing walls. One learns has Eric has been a wreck stripper (but not a wrecker) and of his involvement with NATO particularly on a 14th of July celebration on top of the general commander in chief (a 4 stars general) rolls royce, champagne cup in his hand.
When at last I met Eric again, I learned that he had sold and marketed large computers for the British manufacturer ICL. I learned also the special method he used to convince financial or technical managers to buy his computers, rather than IBM’s. This is what he told me:
“Fairly often, to let off steam, at the bistrot with friends, I would eat the glass of one of them. One day the marketing guys from ICL headquarters, having selected me with a salesman from South Africa as the best salesman of the year, can to interview me at the SICOB computer show at La Défense. At a smart bistrot, they filmed me simulating the conclusion of a sale I had just done. I told them first that I needed a pick-me-up. I started by ordering a Havana cigar which I lit and ate and to help digest it a glass of wine which I drank before eating it nearly all of it (the foot was too hard to break) and then I told them the sale I just did (all of it is true but it did occur several months earlier). I was attempting to replace an IBM computer at Glaxo France (the then first British pharmaceutical company). I had nearly convinced the financial manager (who was to become a good friend whom I took climbing to Fontainebleau), but he told me that I had to convince his IT manager whom he had just recruited and who was a fan of IBM. After several sessions, seeing that he strongly resisted, I invited him for diner in a top restaurant at the company’s expense. In the middle of the meal, after having drunk a very good bottle of Bordeaux, I told him that if he turned down my offer I would eat his glass. When he refused I ate it! Then I told him next would be his plate. When he refused again, I ate it. As he was still saying no, I asked him to lend me his watch and I ate its strap. Then I threatened to it his tie and then he capitulated. A nice sale and another IBM on my cap!”
Eric told me how he did it without grazing his digestive tract and scratching his exhaust pipe. He was crushing thinly the glass into a fine powder. Eating those things, is something else that eating a jackdaw. Doing it to sell computers, only Eric would do it. One can bet that no company will ever find another salesman able to sell its products with such methods!
At the end of those stories a conclusion is imperative. If each generation of climbers has “real pieces of work”, the phenomenon is not new. The younger generation would be wrong to think that they are forerunners.
With his translations Eric has allowed many French readers to discover remarkable Anglo-Saxon climbers. It was just that he would benefit also of a similar light.
André Tête – Pourrières June 2019
 Notable authors’ climbing books translated by Eric: Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Bernadette MacDonald, Andy Cave, Alf B. Bryn, Mike Ward, Harriet Tuckey, Joe Simpson, Andy Kirkpatrick, Martin Boysen, Ruth Hanson, Mick Fowler, Victor Saunders, John Porter, Damien Gildea, Jim Bridwell, Steph Davis.
 GGM : Groupe des Grimpeurs Marseillais, plus couramment Les Grandes Gueules Marseillaises !
 Vola in French climbing slang can mean « has taken a fall ».
 A nice route in Les Calanques.
 At that time « Le Grec » was a rep for office equipment.
 Meaning his book « Au-delà de la verticale » (Beyond Vertical).
 2 months before, I had broken my wrist in a motorbike accident.