Ascent of Les Arêtes de la Bruyère in 1982

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.

Les Arêtes de la Bruyère.
Les Arêtes de la Bruyère.
Copyright Laurent Gernez ( Reproduced by permission.

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 amateur.

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:

Les Arêtes de la Bruyère.

The Arêtes de la Bruyère ridge from another angle. The starting point is at the far right. The route follows the skyline and ends with a short descent to a grassy slope just off the picture to the left.

Copyright Hector M. Briceño at Reproduced by permission.
Les Arêtes de la Bruyère.
The route goes straight up and down the towers on the ridge.
Copyright Hector M. Briceño at Reproduced by permission.
Les Arêtes de la Bruyère.
I made "the jump" at a similar spot.
Copyright Hector M. Briceño at Reproduced by permission.

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.

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  Last edited or checked June 23, 2006.

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