My mouth went dry as I watched Gilbert cautiously edge higher and higher
on the vertical wall, without protection. Where I was standing, there
was no good belay, and to my left there was a sheer drop of a few hundred
meters. At that very moment he turned, grinned, and said: "This
is not PBEO!"
Gilbert Weill came from the French space agency, CNES. I had been working
closely with him for several years, as the French SPOT satellite program
for earth observation took shape, with Sweden as a minority partner.
Sometimes we had found ourselves sitting on opposite sides of the negotiating
table, but more often we had been working together on the implementation
of the ground segment that would support the satellite system (or, in
our view, be supported by the satellites), and where Swedish facilities
in Kiruna would have a key role. - We were also delegates for our countries
in the European Space Agency's (ESA) Programme Board for Earth Observation
(PBEO) which held regular, formidable meetings with some 40 people from
15 countries sitting around a conference table the size of a dance floor.
I had previously met Frenchmen who were simply puzzled by an invitation
to take a stroll in the woods, so I was not at all sure how Gilbert
would react when I suggested that he should stay the weekend in Stockholm
for some nordic skiing in connection with an official trip, and I was
glad when he accepted. We set off on a prepared track not far from Stockholm.
I figured that I should go slowly, but after a kilometer or two he asked
to take the lead and took off like a rocket!
He then told me that in his previous life he had been a visiting scientist
to Norway, where he used to enjoy 10 or 20 km on skis before breakfast!
He had also served in Antarctica. When he invited me to visit him and
his wife in their summer house near Briançon in the Ecrins region
of southern France, I knew that I was in for more than a game of chess.
Gilbert was an expert climber, and he knew that I was an interested
When I arrived, I was warmly received by Gilbert and his charming wife,
but I was also informed that we would only be speaking French throughout
my visit. Gilbert spoke excellent English, while my French was far from
fluent. All the more reason to accept his proposal. Somewhere along
the way we started to address one another in the singular ("tu"
instead of "vous"), which posed a new set of grammatical challenges.
("Attends" instead of "attendez", etc.)
The next day, Gilbert and I started a long trek in the Parc des Ecrins.
The landscape was beautiful. We crossed a col and descended into a valley
where we spent the night in a small hamlet (La Bérarde?). The
following morning was foggy, and Gilbert had to navigate by map and
altimeter. We took a new route the long way back to where he had left
his car. The weather cleared, and we could enjoy the splendid scenery.
On the third day, we set out for the Arêtes de la Bruyère.
(I did not bring a camera, unfortunately.) After a walk up some pastures,
we approached the mountain from the east side. The start of the climb
was to the far right:
We roped up - in my case for the first time with a harness rather than
just a loop of the rope. I became a little worried, when already the first
rope length turned out to be quite tricky, but Gilbert assured me that
it would not get much more difficult than this, and he was right.
The Arêtes de la Bruyère was rather different from my
previous climbing experience. It is much smaller than the major alpine
peaks, of course, so the sheer effort was much less, and at lower altitude.
On the other hand, there was technical climbing all the way. Considering
my lack of experience, most of the time we could only move one at a
time, while the other provided protection. The route is graded IV or
IV+ on the six-level scale.
There were a few other parties underway, just enough to provide an
opportunity for banter, but not to create a traffic jam.
I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge, and Gilbert commended me: "You
do not show even a trace of vertigo."
After climbing and descending a series of large rock towers on the
ridge, we arrived at a deep gap with no obvious way to reach the tower
on the other side. Gilbert indicated a point where he suggested that
we should jump to the other side! I took one look and said: "I
am not jumping, that's for sure!" Gilbert then pointed down
into what seemed a bottomless pit and told me that we then must descend
to the bottom and climb back on the other side. Upon inspection, this
looked even more suicidal to me. I did not know how to rappel, so I
would really have to climb down this un-inviting rock wall. I took another
look at the proposed jump and changed my mind: "OK, I will jump."
After all, the gap cannot have been more than 2 meters wide, and
the point of arrival was lower than the point of departure. The worst
thing that could happen to me was that I would miss my landing and find
myself suspended in mid-air, to be dragged up again by Gilbert. The
alternative looked dangerous all the way.
So with Gilbert providing protection from above, I leapt across the
abyss and regained my balance on the other side. Gilbert gleefully shouted:
"Il a fait le saut!!" to a fellow climber.
Now it was Gilbert's turn. He gave me detailed and specific instructions
on how to provide a safe belay for him. I was now standing lower, so
his drop would have been longer than mine if he should have missed his
jump, but all went well.
(I have since looked it up in route descriptions: "Un
saut plus impressionnant que difficile" and "...un
rappel d'une quinzaine de mètres qui amène dans une brèche. On peut
éviter ce rappel en désescaladant un peu puis en sautant au dessus de
la brèche (pour les motivés).")
I could now breathe more easily, but not for long. We now arrived at
the spot where Gilbert pointed out that this was not the Programme Board.
He turned a corner to the left and started to ascend a very exposed
and vertical wall. After some anxious moments he reached a fixed peg,
attached a karabiner to it and the rope and pressed on. When it became
my turn to follow, I was impressed but not shaken. It was my job to
retrieve the karabiners that Gilbert had left on the pegs. When we reached
the top of the wall, Gilbert admitted that this was not the normal route
- he just thought that it would be more "interesting".
A little later, I was fortunate enough to be able to help a "lady
in distress". She had descended too far during a traverse on the
right side of the ridge, and her boyfriend could not see her from the
position where he was belaying her. I found the route and she was able
to climb back.
At the end of the long ridge, it comes as a surprise that the final
descent is not very deep - the grassy slope comes up to meet the mountain,
so to speak. I encountered a final difficulty when, out of Gilbert's
view, I missed the correct route at the end and chose to climb down
a "mailbox", i. e. an overhanging rock. Gilbert made a flattering
remark but preferred to make a short traverse to avoid the obstacle.
The visit to Gilbert Weill closed my climbing career, but fond memories
of the summer of 1982 linger on!
P.S. I got in touch with Gilbert again after all these
years to draw his attention to this account. He is still active and
climbed the Kilimanjaro in December 2005! He was planning to go skiing
in Swedish Lapland next.