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.
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.
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.
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.
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 photo proving Desmaison false claims!
1. position of Don and Chris
2. 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
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, losing his hammer, his cap and ‘me fags in it’.
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.
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 Djugosz ‘who 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.'
'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.'
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.'
Note 1: This is confirmed by Jerzy Michalski who did in 1962 the 2nd ascent with Maciej Gryczynski.
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.
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!
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 Dluglosz ‘reached the top two hours later [than himself and Whillans], and the French were a good two hours behind them’.
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.'
'….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…'
'… I do not speak of the contradictions between Bonington’s text published in the Observer of 17 September, to which I give full credit…'