29 Apr The Force Of The Soul on the Alpinist Podcast
A few weeks ago I was asked to read aloud a story that I had written for Alpinist Magazine in 2018. The Force of The Soul is the premier edition of the new podcast series “Alpinist Out Loud”. I am really grateful to my editor Katie Ives for encouraging me to write this profile of the late French climber Hugues Beauzile. It was nominated that year for the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival award for Best Magazine Article. This compelling narrative of an incredibly driven and compassionate adventurer is like many that are too often forgotten by history. If we take moment to remember the charismatic features of the not so distant past we can find a broad array of cultural heroes and role models worth emulating.
JANUARY 1995: After eleven days on the highest peak in South America, three alpinists descended through the heart of a storm. Deep drifts of snow had slowed their progress up the South Face of Aconcagua, 3000 meters of steep ice, hanging glaciers and fragile rockbands. This imposing wall was legendary for avalanches that thundered down its ramparts and for the viento blanco that brought sudden blizzards and intense cold. Days earlier, they had consumed the last of their food and fuel. Finally, only the Corsican climber Pierre Griscelli had the strength to continue. Seeking help for his friends, he got lost in the dark, and two more days passed before he could alert search and rescue. Meanwhile, wind and snow pummeled the tent where his companions huddled. At last, they tried to descend on their own, only to collapse in the snow. One of them, Celine Rambaud, would survive, with severe frostbite. The rescuers did all they could to comfort the man who had tried to keep her alive, but he died in their arms. His name was Hugues Beauzile. He was only twenty-eight years old.
THOUGH FEW MAY REMEMBER HUGUES outside of his own country of France, he was briefly one of the most promising young alpinists in the world. In February 1995, his longtime girlfriend, Laure Loubier, traveled to Chamonix to receive, in Hugues’s name, the “Cristal” award from the Federation Francaise de la Montagne et de l’Escalade for his roped-solo ascent of the Tomas Gross route on the Aiguille du Dru, one of the hardest big-wall climbs in the Alps—which Hugues had completed not quite two years after putting on crampons for the first time.
To many journalists and established French mountaineers, Hugues was a mysterious figure who had emerged, quietly and unexpected, against the background of vast alpine faces. Caught on camera by accident as media helicopters flew after other, more famous climbing stars, he’d appeared in a remarkable flash of talent and skill only to vanish in what seemed like an instant. Nonetheless, traces of his presence remain embedded in the memories and imaginations of those who knew him best, and his legacy has continued to inspire alpinists of a new generation who might never know his name.
LIKE MOST MOUNTAINEERS IN THE US, until a year ago, I’d never heard of Hugues Beauzile. Fans of the famed American climber Lynn Hill may recall the final chapter of her memoir Climbing Free, when she describes how Hugues and her brother-in-law Chuck Bludworth died on the same mountain more than twenty years apart. Lynn and Hugues had become friends during a visit she made to Claret, his home crag, in 1993. In January 1995, she recounted, “I woke up disturbed by a strange dream. In this dream, I looked down from the sky on a huge snow-covered mountain. A cross lay flat against the snows near the summit. White lights surrounded the cross.” Soon afterward, she learned that Hugues was gone.
But where did he come from? The son of a black Haitian father and a white French mother, Hugues was born in the village of Jonzac near the southwest coast of France in 1967. He was just a year younger than I am, and we began climbing about the same time, in 1989. More than two decades after his death, I feel honored to discover such an accomplished adventurer who shares my African heritage. People of color rarely appeared in the European and North American mountaineering literature of the last century and in the books and magazines I read growing up. I hope that today’s young climbers—Kai Lightner, Ashima Shiraishi and many others—can find connections to their own history, heritage and legacy of adventure in the memory of this talented and giving man. In the largely white French mountaineering community of the 1990s, Hugues stood out, but he proudly wore his ethnic identity in a thick mane of dreadlocks. Because of his hairstyle and his love of reggae, climbers nicknamed him “Le Rasta.” Indeed, Hugues followed some aspects of Rastafarianism, maintaining a strict diet, avoiding alcohol, and seeking a lifestyle of peace, though he didn’t smoke marijuana. “He made fun of what other people thought of him,” Laure Lobier recalls, “and yet he respected everyone. His philosophy was never to harm anyone or anything.”
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