ESPRIT LIBRE

By Alessandro Grillo

09 August 2010       The story of the Genoan climber, pioneer of free climbing at Finale Ligure, of his friendship with Patrick Berhault and of the first ascent of Esprit Libre, a splendid line on the Corno Stella in the Maritime Alps, dedicated to the extraordinary French climber.   ESPRIT LIBRE   One day in September 1998, I happened to be with Patrick on the Corno Stella for a rather special photo shoot. We were wearing old-fashioned clothes and nailed boots. From above the “mauvais pas”, I started to shoot photos of Patrick as he climbed, unroped and in Eighteenth-century gear, the famous key section, the solution to which in 1903 allowed Jean Plent, and Andrea Ghigo to guide Victor de Cessole to the up-to-then unclimbed summit of the Corno Stella, which had previously been called “inaccessible”.   Calm and smiling as always, my Friend observed how nailed boots, as well as guaranteeing a very good grip on the rock, made a horrible screeching noise, like your nails squeaking on a school’s blackboard. The September day was clear, sunny and fresh; we smiled, happy. “If Plent had done the climb like we’re doing now,” said Patrick, “His fame was absolutely deserved, he was really brave!”   De Cessole was to say: ”I don’t ever remember finding in the Alps such a hard piece of climbing, the name « mauvais pas » is dead right! Jean Plent was very talented and brave, I’d say audacious.“ Then with the fantastic light that day, we went down to shoot other photographs. I climbed onto the buttress on the left of the channel that comes down from the upper ledge of the Corno and started to photograph Patrick who was enjoying himself on the slabs, now a golden colour, of the routes opposite, then Patrick joined me on the spur. We had spied out a good line and wanted to study it to be able to remember it.   Some ten metres to the left of the corners of “Avenida”, there was a line of very featured dark rock. Above there was a good slab, that finished under an overhang on the left of a small corner(which we knew was the line of the route “Deciso preciso”). Above, smooth rocks led to the foot of a big grey slab, an obvious triangle which formed a heart shape on the face. In two rope-lengths you’d reach the famous distinctive vein of quartz that crosses the face, rising from right to left, across all the south and south-west face of the Corno. The day was drawing to a close, the rocks glowed a warm reddish brown and the quartz vein shone brightly. Patrick was dreaming: “It would be great to make a route which follows the vein for its whole length.”   Above there are big dark roofs and my Friend, who loved this sort of climbing, pronounced, “We go straight through there,” and joked, seeing my perplexed expression, referring to the approach that had characterised many of the routes we’d opened together, added, ”What’s the problem, you place the pegs then I climb it!” and laughed heartily. I just couldn’t see myself clinging to those roofs, made of huge flakes, maybe not very solid, trying to place a peg. After the roof, 40-odd metres of solid rock led to the summit plateau.   It was a good project, a good dream. The line crossed another route, “Alitalia 80”,  first climbed by Savio and Barbero, and dedicated to the very strong climber from Cuneo, Gianni Comino,  who fell in February 1980 from the Pear seracs on the  Brenva face. Our line, though, was independent. The Corno Stella, and above all its splendid south face, is crossed by lots of lines, but many routes exist only on paper, with little and poor old fixed gear in place, and very sketchy descriptions.   For those who love adventure, this is the ideal place. In a certain sense, it feels wrong to be here, even though the setting, the quality of the rock, and the isolated position make this a very special mountain, well worth climbing. Once again the first ascensionist, Victor de Cessole, in the description of his first ascent in August 1903 commented:   The Corno Stella (3053 m Maritime Alps): First ascent “From when I started climbing the mountains around the Terme di Valdieri, I had never stopped gazing, with absolute admiration, at the Corno Stella. I felt a mix of giddiness mixed with total respect for this proud mountain, which to me seemed unclimbable, since from afar its wall seemed they’d repel all attempts”.   In his article on the Corno, Patrick would write, “Au cœur du massif sauvage de l’Argentera, se dresse un sommet semblable à une immense lame de couteau et affublé d’un nom poétique: le Corno Stella, le Corne de l’Etoile.”   “Our“ route was to be opened bottom-up, with good bolts and belays, so that it wasn’t prohibitive for the majority of climbers. The winter passed, in June Patrick called me to tell me that he’d realised the first of his dreams. During a training for aspirant guides of the ENSA (Ecole National de Ski e d’Alpinisme), where he was a teacher, in June 1999 he’d made the first ascent of the “ Via Lattea”. Now it was the turn of our project, right through the “heart” of the Corno. The years went by, Patrick was busy with his work as a guide, the ENSA, conferences, his projects.... I was ever busier and stressed by my professional commitments…   We met up again at Finale, at my house, and naturally we spoke of the Corno, its “secret garden”, and of “our” route. We exchanged greetings at Christmas 2003 by phone, he had yet another project to realise. I knew all about these projects of his, and hated them. I remember saying to him: “Patrick, enough now with these other things, let’s go and climb on the best limestone in the world, in Sardinia, where it’s warm, and then ….there’s our route to do on the Corno.”   He replied:”…Yes…Yes… I have to finish my current project, I’m really motivated by it, then…Sardinia and the Corno…Happy Christmas ….. Happy New Year".   One April evening the phone rang, a voice I knew, breaking with the emotion, uttered quickly the three words I’d never wanted to hear: “Patrick has fallen.” I was petrified, incredulous, empty. It couldn’t be possible that my Friend, my Brother, was dead. We would no longer have enjoyed his smile, his tenderness, his modesty, his passion. I had never been that bothered by his brilliance as a climber and his many firsts. The profound sadness and pain that suddenly enveloped Cristiane, Coralie (my god daughter), Flore, his parents, all his friends and all those who’d known him, were immense and unsupportable. True pain, that you feel in your stomach, that empties your head of thoughts, that makes you hate walls, routes, climbers... But time passes, it doesn’t erase but calms the pain, and gradually the “damned obsession” comes back.   Summer 2006, I am almost “old”, full of aches and pains, but all the same I train, make long walks, devise a training programme for Over 60’s! The decision in July: We have to climb the route on the Corno. I talked to some friends of mine and Patrick; they are busy. So I called Nando Dotti, known as the “Grande Mago”, “Great Magician”, because when he manages to climb well a certain move, he looks down and, imitating the character of the Zelig (a TV show), says to me: “grande magooo.” He’s tenacious and strong, even if the mountains hadn’t left him unscathed. He left part of his foot on Mont Blanc during a storm. His tendons, like mine, were showing signs of wear, but his head was still OK for climbing. In Sardinia we enjoyed ourselves, but on the Corno it would be different.   Very heavy sacks, endless scree slopes…very tiring, this sort of things is for younger guys! I explained my dream to Nando, who hadn’t known Patrick personally but only through what I’d said about him. Without beating about the bush he said: “When shall we do it?!” At the end of July, with our friend Giovanni as a climber-sherpa, we started the route. The first pitches confirmed the quality of our project’s climbing. We returned another time with Giovanni, Natale, Sergio and Papik, who helped us to ferry up the mountain all the gear we’d need and to Sika a key flake. Then we tackled the “heart”, as much as possible free-climbing, and with the odd skyhook biting on the quartzy rock and then finally a good bolt.   A cold September morning, the 22, we descended the last pitch, to dislodge two huge loose flakes. At the foot there wasn’t anyone, only Natale, safely-positioned on the scree to warn any climbers, so…autumn cleaning. We didn’t climb the roof direct, but to the left, because the direct line was for our Friend only. It was finished! We only had left to choose the name: “Esprit Libre”, like Patrick.   I have always carried a krab that Patrick had given me many years ago. I used it in the most difficult sections, it had brought me luck, because I was sure that Patrick was there with us, smiling and amused by the funny acrobatics of two aging friends.   We also equipped a secure descent. Four abs down the wall, one in the couloir and a last one at the end of the ledge onto the scree. Natale was waiting for us there, with grapes, cheese, cold water, but, above all, a huge rucksack into which we threw our “tools” - ropes, drills, batteries, hammers, krabs. Purists, don’t worry: I guarantee that the route is very good as well as safe, doable for many and with a great descent.   Tired, very tired, we descended to the Bozano refuge, then to the valley. It wasn’t a great achievement, only a tribute to Patrick who’d given so much in his life. His secret garden remained up there, but with a new addition, the realization of a petrified dream.   Hi “Spirito Libero”, maybe I’ll return, but the years are passing and the Corno is up there, it seems higher now, inaccessible. Thanks Grande Mago, for your patience in helping me realise my dream. Thanks Giovanni, Natale , Sergio and Papik, thanks Massimiliano, the courteous guardian of the Bozano. Now my life is both richer and calmer. I hope to have done my friend justice and to have guaranteed, to those who repeat this climb, moments of true happiness.                                                                                                                           Alessandro Grillo     22 September 2006 Patrick Berhault (1957 – 2004) was one of the most active and brilliant French alpinists of the 80’s and 90’s. A champion both of sports climbing and Alpine climbing, Patrick was responsible for a major contribution to the evolution of all types of climbing. He died in April 2004, falling from a crest of the Tashhorn, during an attempt to climb all the Alps’ 82 4000 m peaks in winter. Corno Stella West Face Esprit Libre Approach: Cuneo, Borgo San Dalmazzo, valle Gesso, Terme di Valdieri. First on tarmaced then unmade road reach the Gias delle Mosche. Small parking spot, signs for the path to the Rif. Bozano (2:15-2:30 not easy walking). From the rifugio in 20 minutes you reach, up the screes, the start of the route. The Corno, as can be seen from the photo, is right opposite the Bozano. Especially at the start of the season, a great setting.   Description: The Corno Stella is divided at half-height by two ledges, a lower ledge and an upper ledge. The first pitches of the route lead to the lower of these two ledges.   Lower section:   The route starts 30 m to the right of the couloir which comes down from the lower mid-height ledge and just left of a big block which you can see in the photo, on a good featured grey slab:   1st pitch climb vertically up the slab.  40 m, bolt, 5b and 5c to finish. Comfortable  bolt belay.   2nd pitch  Move slightly left. Bolt visible and then direct up a small corner until under a red slab. Comfortable bolt belay. 25 m 5b.   3rd pitch Climb the red slab to exit on a grassy ledge. Bolt belay.  25 m 5b.   4th pitch Climb rock and grass, with care, until reaching the half-height ledge, where you belay next to a block, bolt belay. 50 m 3.   Move left for 20 m on the ledge, to the start of a couloir. Climb up it on the right for 10 m to the base of very featured blackish rocks. Bolt belay with chain. Here the upper, best, part of the route starts.   5th pitch Climb the blackish rocks for 40 m until reaching a wide ledge. Bolt belay with chain. 5c. Slings can be used on this pitch on rock spikes.   6th pitch Overcome a white slab to reach an uncomfortable stance under a slight overhang, bolts stance with chain. 25 m, a 6a move.   7th pitch Overcome the small overhang (6b+) then more easily climb a corner and a smooth slab (6a) to bolt belay on left. 30 m.   8th pitch You are right under the heart-shaped slab. Climb delicately to the foot of it and then vertically for thirty-off metres on good grey rock. Comfortable bolt belay. 6b.   9th pitch Slab a slab with overlaps, 20 m 6b, then more easily reach the big quartz vein and follow it leftwards to a comfortable stance. Bolt belay and chain 40 m.   You are now below a vertical wall broken by two small roof which slope leftwards. Originally a single 45 m pitch, has now been divided to reduce rope drag.   10th pitch Climb straight up to the base of a roof which you avoid on the left to then come back right to a stance under another sloping roof. 23 m 6b/6b+. Uncomfortable bolt belay.   11th pitch Overcome the roof on the left and then straight up to a comfortable stance under the final plateau. 23 m, a 6b move then 6a/5c.   From the stance, 5 m of fixed rope helps you to easily reach the summit.   Descent: descend the fixed rope to the last stance. From here, 4 vertical abseils of 45/50 m bring you to a grassy ledge on the true left bank of the couloir. Another 50 m abseil from a bolt belay with chain, and you are almost at the foot of the couloir, a few metres under the start of the upper part of the route. Descend broken rocks to the little path of the intermediate ledge. Follow the ledge for its entire length. With a 50 m abseil from a bolt belay with chain you reach the screes on the right side of the Corno. 30 minutes to the rifugio Bozano.   This is a great route, well-bolted with very solid stances. Rapid descent but you need to remain concentrated all the way. Some small nuts may be useful. Bring 2 50 m ropes, 12 quickdraws, helmet, other normal climbing gear. Remember that the Corno is a 3000 m mountain and that bad weather can quickly arrive from the west. Average time for the route: 5/6 hours. No mobile phone coverage.  
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