The Triumphs and Tragedy of Patrick Edlinger
He was the first true icon of sport climbing, famous across 1980s France for his daring exploits and bohemian lifestyle. In 2012, fighting depression and the bottle, he died in a tragic accident at just 52. What happened?
The article first appeared in Rock and Ice No. 219 and was a finalist for Best Mountaineering Article at the 2015 Banff Mountain Book Competition.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the hills around the Verdon Gorge. The country in this part of France is complex, and wild, too, deep canyons and limestone peaks that freeze hard in winter but in summer are rich with the scent of thyme, lavender and pine. It didn’t help that the road from Castellane to La Palud-sur-Verdon was closed for repairs. I followed detour signs until they petered out and then drifted along single-track roads coiling through forests and past isolated farms.Pulling over to check the Satnav, I spotted some graffiti sprayed on a concrete bus stop. “Mort au loup,” it said. “Death to the wolf.” Absent from France for much of the 20th century, wolves are back, especially in remote corners of the Alps; farmers don’t like it, but city folk seem pleased by the idea. For them, commuting into work every day, it’s exciting to think of an untamed world out there.
There was something wolfish about Patrick Edlinger, who spent his last decade here. A photograph of him by Guy Martin-Ravel, one of the few images from his zenith that the older Edlinger—puffy-eyed from cigarettes and alcohol—allowed on the walls of his house, captures the notion perfectly. His face is narrow and long, framed by a shock of blond hair, his lips slightly pursed. The whole effect teeters dangerously toward the parody of a 1980s rock star, except for the eyes. Edlinger’s gaze is fixed in the middle distance: intense, black—and hungry.
You can see instantly what the whole of France could in the early 1980s, when Edlinger was one of the most famous men in the country. Aged just 24, he appeared in the magazine Paris Match under the headline “Les Français de l’Année,” or French Persons of the Year, photographed at the Palais Garnier (the Paris opera house) alongside the actors Gérard Depardieu and Sophie Marceau; Hubert Curien, head of the European Space Agency; the songwriter Françoise Dorin; and Laurent Fabius, the youngest prime minister in France’s history.
The other men were in suits, but Edlinger wore cowboy boots, jeans and a loose, rustic leather jacket. Paris Match might as well have borrowed from Albert Camus and dubbed him The Outsider, but the caption described him as an alpiniste.
Edlinger was no mountain climber, of course. True, he had done some impressive alpine routes in his late teens: the first winter ascent of the Supercouloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul and the north face of Les Droites. But he didn’t care much for cold bivouacs or steep ice. He preferred the rough, sensuous touch of rock and the Provençal sun on his shoulders.
The French public had never before seen anything like Patrick Edlinger. Climbing to them was the heroism of Maurice Herzog on Annapurna, or the alpine brilliance of Gaston Rébuffat, swinging in étriers on a granite face above Chamonix. Edlinger seemed wholly different, a child of nature, dressed only in shorts and emerging from the Verdon canyon as though born on rock. Edlinger’s climbing wasn’t a symbol of anything, in the way Annapurna had been; it was a way of life, a state of mind.
“When I’m climbing rock,” he told Actuel magazine in 1981, “it’s like I’m talking to it. I’m courting it. There’s respect in the way I use the holds. It’s quiet; you’re alone. No one needs anything from me, I don’t ask anything of anyone. When you risk your life, your concentration has to be tenfold. You can’t afford to make a mistake. There is no feeling like it. When you’re on a big wall, you don’t eat much. You’re thirsty. It’s horrible. You’re going a long way, feeling like that. But when you’re finished, that first taste of water, it stays with you for hours. It’s important to keep life simple, because if your needs are great, you’ll never be satisfied.”
For those sitting on the Métro, flicking through Actuel on the way home from work, it must have looked like an enviable way to live, far from the daily grind—what the French call le train-train quotidien—Edlinger was the lone wolf living wild and free in the mountains. He compared climbing to yoga; he described himself as an ascetic. But those startling images of a beautiful young man high above the ground and his passionate explanation of a life lived on his own terms set him unknowingly on a course that would end 30 years later in tragedy.
Crossing the Pont de Soleils, I was back on the road to La Palud, heading east to Point Sublime, below the village of Rougon. From here you get one of the best views of the Verdon Gorge; you look along it, your eye drawn to its immense depth, a crack in the planet where rusty gray walls lean together over the spearmint river at its base.
The campsites around La Palud were still closed for the winter and so were most of the gîtes, including L’Escalès, the guesthouse on the edge of the village that Edlinger used to run with his wife, Matia. Walking in warm sunshine through the cobbled streets to the Bar de la Place, I bought a coffee, sitting outside at the table where Patrick had often stopped after a day’s climbing.
You can’t move through La Palud without being conscious of the impact climbing has had on this small village. Every other business has some angle to lure climbers in. Walking back to the car, I passed Le Perroquet Vert, a restaurant and gîte with a climbing store attached and a note outside with a phone number in case any out-of-season climbers needed gear. You know you’re in one of the world’s premier climbing destinations.
It wasn’t always like this. In the late 1960s, when climbing here got going, the village’s population was half what it is now and in sharp decline. The free-climbing revolution played a big role in breathing new life into the place. Edlinger first came here in 1975 as a 15-year-old, part of a gang of climbers from Toulon dubbed La MJC (Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture). One of its stalwarts, Christian “Kiki” Crespo, took him up La Paroi Rouge, then recently climbed as an aid route with two bivouacs. Patrick’s mother warned Kiki that her son had the habit of sleepwalking; she’d once had to rouse him from the bathtub.
Kiki’s tendency for late starts meant sleeping on the wall was inevitable, but with hundreds of feet of fresh air under his hammock, he made sure the boy was tied in securely and they topped out early the next morning. The climb was a landmark for Patrick, and the start of a lifelong passion for the gorge; it seemed the perfect habitat for him. A year after his death, I felt his presence everywhere in the Verdon. Edlinger may not have started the free-climbing revolution here, but he was its most famous ambassador. It’s where he chose to live and work; it’s where he married and where his daughter, Nastia, was born. The Verdon is where he felt most free; it would also be where his life would end.
Patrick Edlinger was born in Dax, a spa town in Aquitaine, southwest France. His father, Jean-Marie, was a pilot for the army, flying reconnaissance missions. His mother, Éliane, was from Barcelonnette, not far from the Italian border in Haute Provence. The town lies in the Ubaye valley, between three of France’s most beautiful parks, the Écrins, the Mercantour and the Queyras, the landscape of his mother’s family.
Patrick’s maternal grandfather, Louis Bottero, was also, according to the biography Patrick Edlinger by Jean-Michel Asselin, a powerful influence. An engineer and entrepreneur, Bottero invented a new kind of combined-harvester and adapted all kinds of machinery to work in the mountains; Patrick also loved machines, especially cars and motorbikes.
Bottero was, like Patrick, someone who could only live life on his own terms—and he was tough. Patrick often told the story of how Louis near-severed two fingers on a metal grinder and summoned the doctor to see if anything could be done. The doctor took one look and said the only option was a hospital—and amputation. Instead Louis picked up some scissors and cut through the remaining flesh to finish the job.The birth of their first child was not only meaningful to Jean-Marie and Éliane in the way it would be to anyone, it also prompted a shocking coincidence, one that would cause Jean-Marie to regard June 15 as his own re-birth. He had been about to board his aircraft when news arrived that Éliane had gone into labor; Jean-Marie handed the mission to a friend and drove to the hospital. Later, having held his infant son, he learned the aircraft had crashed and his friend was dead. Without Patrick, Jean-Marie would say, I wouldn’t be here.
Days after Patrick was born, Éliane took the baby to live with her family in Barcelonnette, while Jean-Marie continued his service at different bases in France and in Algeria, where the French were on the verge of losing the war of independence. His father’s regular absences were difficult; Patrick told Asselin of resenting the strange man holding his mother’s hand one day when she met him at the school gate. So Jean-Marie took the chance of leaving the army to join a new customs surveillance unit, flying helicopters over the Mediterranean on the hunt for contraband.
The family moved to Seyne-sur-Mer, a suburb of Toulon, and Patrick enrolled at a local primary school. Holidays were spent in the mountains. In winter Patrick learned to ski, and in the summer his parents took him and his sister Corinne camping, especially to Ailefroide in the Écrins. He joined the Éclaireurs Unionistes de France, a version of the Scouts. As a man he was lean and sinuous, like a dancer. As a boy he was, as the French say, costaud—beefy. But he relished the outdoor life, hiking in the hills, breathing the mountain air and learning to camp.
Inevitably there was climbing. Toulon is fringed with cliffs, the best of which is Baou de Quatre Ouro, rising to the north of the city, where it catches the full force of the Mistrale. Many of the boy’s first climbs were here, although Éliane did wonder if climbing was Patrick’s thing after he burst into tears getting stuck on a route that was a little harder than usual. But the pleasure he took from their holidays at Ailefroide, and his fluid, easy movement on the boulders there, persuaded Jean-Marie that his son had talent.
When Patrick turned 13, Jean-Marie tried to get the boy into the French Alpine Club, but in those days it had an age limit. Casting around, he discovered the MJC, a more freewheeling bunch who spent weekends roaming the cliffs of Southern France and happily took the teenager with them. Many of them had fathers working in the naval yards of Toulon; a blue-collar crowd, they were down-to-earth and self-reliant. After only two or three weekends, Patrick was climbing routes in the 6’s—5.10 and up—and carried on from there.
The contrast with his school life couldn’t have been greater. Patrick’s parents had chosen a Catholic school run by the Marist Brothers. Although the boy behaved well enough, he found schooldays tedious and spent his lessons with a climbing book open on his lap. He tore through the classics—Lionel Terray, Gaston Rébuffat—but his particular hero was Gary Hemming, the beatnik whose star had shone so brightly in the mid 1960s, the alpinist whose daring rescue of fellow climbers from the Dru had made the pages of Paris Match.
Hemming seemed to embody everything that Patrick loved about climbing: It meant freedom, not a means to an end, but a way of being. It meant to be on the edge of things, to be the honest outlaw, living by your own rules. Patrick learned by heart René Desmaison’s judgement that Hemming “ignored all boundaries and laws, loved life passionately without constraints of any kind.”
Unsurprisingly, his studies suffered. All he wanted was out. His future was in the mountains; why waste time at school? So his parents made him a deal. Graduate, and he’d get a small allowance that would allow him to climb and train full time, with a view to becoming a mountain guide or ski instructor. Patrick could smell freedom and set to work, passing his “bac” exam to graduate from high school with one of the better marks in his class.
In 1976, finished with school and aged 16, Patrick grew his hair into the blond mane that became his hallmark. “Le Blond” spent his weekends at the Verdon or Cimaï with his friends from the MJC and took his first trips abroad with them, flying to America for the first time, climbing Half Dome and the Triple Direct on El Capitan. But during the week, when his mates were at work, Patrick was forced to spend a lot of time climbing on his own. He’d make long traverses to build up stamina and cautiously worked his way through the grades at Baou.Sometimes he’d manage to pick up a partner for the day, but mostly not. Seeing his frustration, Robert Exertier, one of his French friends from the Yosemite trip, told him about a climber of about his age from Nice, who was spending his days in much the same way and was similarly committed. His name was Patrick Berhault.
“He was,” Edlinger later said of Berhault, “the kind of man who makes you feel good inside. I haven’t met too many like that.”
Across the L’Isère River from the university in Grenoble is a sleepy crescent of land called the Île d’Amour. Jean-Mi Asselin, one of France’s best-known climbing writers and a former editor of Vertical magazine, moved here a few years ago and when I arrive is hard at work remodeling his house. Asselin knew Edlinger for 30 years, often ghosted articles for him, and in the last months of Patrick’s life was working with him on his life story.
“The two Patricks, they were like brothers,” Asselin tells me. For four years Berhault and Edlinger shared the same goals, driven by the same intense ambition. Their bible was Reinhold Messner’s Seventh Grade. Their fervent prayer was to tear it up in the Alps and join the pantheon of heroes. Their ritual was a strict regime of training; when Edlinger discovered Berhault could trump his one-arm pull-up with a one-finger pull-up, he worked to go one better and do a pinky pull-up.
It’s fair to say that of the two, Patrick Berhault was the more devoted acolyte. Patrick Edlinger had had girlfriends from the time of high school, and getting up early to go for a run wasn’t easy if you were leaving someone else’s bed. Berhault avoided that complication in his life. He was more private, more focused. Perhaps it was an early indication of how their paths would eventually diverge.
Following the path of self-discipline allowed them to bend the petty rules of the material world. Climbing in the Verdon, they’d squat in empty vacation homes and sleep rough in barns. They stole what they could, especially jars of Nutella, pretty much their staple diet. Berhault drove them around in a wheezy Peugeot, admitting to Edlinger that he didn’t have a permit.
In early 1980 their dreams of being mountaineering stars began to come true. The two made a string of impressive winter ascents in the Alps, including the Supercouloir climb, and a tough route on the northwest face of the l’Ailefroide in the Massif des Écrins, the rugged and less frequented outlier of the Western Alps.
“But you know, Patrick Edlinger didn’t like the cold,” Jean-Mi Asselin says. “He said it’s not for me. Later, when they climbed together again, he told Patrick Berhault, on rock I’m OK, but the snow and ice, I don’t do. It was clear between them.”
If their early ambitions were in the mountains, the two became famous as leading members in the sport-climbing revolution unfolding in France. Attention was turning away from the high Alps to places like the Verdon and Buoux, where free climbing was galloping ahead. The Verdon in particular saw a radical change. The first routes had been done on aid, ground up, and followed crack lines between the soaring blank walls. Jacques Perrier changed all that in 1976 with Pichenibule, a masterpiece of route finding equipped from above.
Patrick Berhault freed Pichenibule, still a notorious sandbag at 7b+ (5.12c). That November he climbed France’s first 7c+ (5.13a), on his home cliff of La Turbie above Monte Carlo. The same year, Patrick Edlinger onsighted a 7b+, La Polka des Ringards at Buoux. Their appetite for rock seemed insatiable. Edlinger—with Jacques Perrier seconding in tennis shoes because his feet were sore—climbed 13 of the Verdon’s classic routes, a bit over 8,000 feet of rock, in a day. He and Berhault became notorious for the bouts of soloing they did together. After all they’d faced in the Alps—the cold, loose rock, avalanches—it didn’t seem that asinine to them.
“Soloing is such a personal thing,” Edlinger wrote in his journal when only 17 or so. “You always have that awareness that you might die, but please believe that I don’t want to lose my life looking for some kind of glory. I want to enjoy this life of mine. Soloing is simply a way to go further in the regions of fear, to understand them better. Soloing is dangerous, but it’s the best thing.”
The images this new free-climbing boom produced—of beautiful young people pasted to shining white walls in dizzying situations—were irresistible to the media. They filtered upwards, through the pages of climbing magazines and into publications like Actuel, and attracted the attention of documentary filmmakers. One of those filmmakers was Jean-Paul Janssen, who as a cameraman in Vietnam had filmed John McCain in captivity, and had worked on a number of notable adventure film projects including the Robert Redford vehicle Downhill Racer.
Janssen could sense something in this climbing revolution and worked at first with a number of its protagonists, including Perrier, Berhault and Edlinger, feeling his way to something grander. Berhault was as romantic and photogenic as Edlinger, but he was in no way a performer. Climbing for him was a precious mystery that lost something when examined and dissected for public display. Edlinger was different. He could articulate why the life he was leading was so appealing.
“My way of life is travelling from crag to crag in my van,” he told Janssen. “What I love is living in nature, the feeling of nature. I’m not pressured by life when I’m here. We’re not mystics, I’m no different from anyone else. Climbing is my passion but it’s also my job; I just happen to be better at it than most people. There are times when I’d rather be doing something else; more than training, it’s motivation that’s key.”
The first film they made together, La Vie au bout des Doigts, was a sensation. Casting around for a good location, they tried first at La Piade, a sea cliff near Toulon, but it was a bust, and almost on a whim they headed to Buoux. While Janssen and his crew took in the beauty of the cliffs, Patrick warmed up with some soloes. Janssen couldn’t believe it. Would Edlinger do this with a camera on him? Patrick shrugged. Why not?
“This film changed Patrick’s life totally,” Asselin says. “It had an incredible impact. The public didn’t know climbing. It was a secret. They might have seen people in Fontainebleau. They knew about Maurice Herzog and Annapurna. And now here was this guy, very beautiful, very elegant.”
The film’s money shot was Edlinger hanging one-handed from the overhang on the crux of the four-pitch 6a+ (5.10c) La Beda. In the era of Alex Honnold this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in 1982 it was startling. Even so, the film’s fundamental appeal lay elsewhere, according to Asselin: “The film’s impact also came from what Edlinger says. It’s the first time there is a guy like this who says what the meaning of climbing is, why he does it. How it’s his life and not just a sport. How he doesn’t need anything.”
A film that cost around $20,000 to make was sold by the French TV station Antenne 2 to 25 countries, generating revenues of $25 million. It won a hatful of prizes, including in 1984 a César, the French equivalent of an Emmy. The advertising guru Jacques Séguéla, who worked on several French presidential campaigns, called Edlinger a primitif and said his image “could sell any product to do with the body.” Janssen told Edlinger to keep a copy of La Vie close at hand: “In 30 years you’ll be able to show it and it will still earn you.” With cash from new sponsorship deals, he upgraded his RV.Edlinger found himself in Paris, a regular guy from Toulon swept up in a glittering social world. Entertainers in particular seemed to respond to him. He was at the singer Serge Gainsbourg’s house and hung out with the maverick comedian Coluche. Imagine Ron Kauk chilling with Bob Dylan and John Belushi and you’ll get the idea. There were plenty of drugs, although Edlinger steered clear, and plenty of women eager to meet him, which was a lot more congenial.
The impact La Vie had on climbing in France was profound. It was like a bomb going off; nothing was ever the same. Young boys crowded into the sport, and young women, too, eager to catch the wave. The French climber Arnaud Petit said in the mid 1990s that 80 percent of those, including himself, climbing in France did so because of La Vie.
“I was 11 when I saw La Vie, climbing in my own little world in Albertville,” he told the French newspaper Le Dauphiné after Edlinger’s death. “There was no culture of rock climbing. That film was galvanizing.”
Because soloing had been such a large part of the first film, in Janssen’s follow-up, Opéra Vertical, Edlinger was eager to show those young people that climbing really meant using ropes and being with another person, that he wasn’t simply the lone spartan doing something crazily dangerous.
How the climbing world itself felt about Edlinger’s sudden rise to international fame was more complex. Most French people thought he was the best climber in the world, but by the mid 1980s, a group of Parisian climbers, notably Antoine and Marc Le Menestrel and Jean-Baptiste Tribout, were pushing past Edlinger, climbing routes of 8a and beyond. In 1984, the British climber Jerry Moffatt arrived at the Verdon and quickly dispatched an open project Edlinger had bolted called Papy On-sight at 7c+ (5.13a). Some pointed out that Patrick Berhault was the true star from the south, but it was Edlinger who was reaping the rewards from big sponsorship deals.
“He got a lot of money,” Asselin says, “but not as much as people think. He turned down a lot of publicity deals as well. His mother did his accounts; that stuff didn’t interest him. He was not so good in business. He had an agent who created a big problem with Japanese TV that ended in the courts.”From the outside it looked different, creating resentment, even jealousy.
There was something backwards about Patrick Edlinger’s career. He was nationally famous in his early 20s, but his best climbing achievements came later. In the meantime he had to cope with managing the expectations and pitfalls of his new situation. Even before La Vie was released, he and Patrick Berhault were following different paths. Berhault spun off into a series of experimental new directions. He climbed the American Direct on the Dru with Jean-Marc Boivin and then flew by hang-glider to climb the south face of the Fou. He created a kind of vertical dance as an art project, set up climbing youth programs in the suburbs of Lyon, and even settled down for a spell as a farmer and carpenter in the Massif Central.
What Berhault didn’t do was participate in climbing competitions. Not only was he one of 19 signatories to a public manifesto opposing them, he was pretty much the only one who stuck to the principle. Patrick Edlinger did not sign and was away climbing in the United States when the first official competition was held, at Bardonecchia, Italy, in the summer of 1985. But he took part the following year and won the event.
In Edlinger’s relatively short competition career, the unquestionable highlight was his victory at Snowbird, Utah, in 1988. The event may have been a financial train wreck, but as a piece of theater it could not have been better. The back-story was Edlinger’s recent repeat of Jibé Tribout’s Verdon route Les Spécialistes. Tribout had graded it 8c (5.14b); Edlinger took it down a peg to 8b+ (5.14a). This act of arrogance from someone thought to be off the pace was insufferable. Tribout wanted to know on what basis Edlinger felt able to judge his route? The tension between Edlinger and those whom the British climber Johnny Dawes once dubbed “the poshies from Paris” was near its height.
At the event, last to climb, Edlinger flowed past the high point of each of his competitors, Tribout included. Spectators found themselves transfixed. Edlinger paused below the final overhang that so far no one had overcome, the tension building. At that moment, a narrow shaft of sunlight pierced the cloud cover to illuminate Edlinger in his moment of triumph, as though the very heavens had anointed his talent as he climbed to the top.
His win at Snowbird was glorious, and he also won the Arco Rock Master, but the grind of competitive climbing began to take its toll. Before, he had climbed without a care in the world; now he was expected to win. Competing at Nîmes in the inaugural World Cup, Edlinger was kept in isolation for 12 hours before his qualifying round, read the start of the route wrong, and slipped off the first move.
“I had never been a competitive animal and this ridiculous failure confirmed my suspicion that these artificial walls weren’t for me,” he told Asselin.
Edlinger—restless, passionate—wanted to explore the world and be in nature. He would rather be traveling or trying new routes. One prompt came from the old blacksmith at Buoux who had retired through ill health and was now living in Sigoyer on the edge of the Écrins. In the mid 1980s, Edlinger, well-disposed to men like his grandfather who worked with their hands, went to visit him before a long trip to the States. Above the blacksmith’s home was a mountain called Céüse.
“When I saw the cliffs,” Edlinger recalled in 2009 at the Trento Film Festival, “I tore up my plane ticket. I spent the next four years there.”
The late 1980s were Edlinger’s best years as a climber. There were the new routes at Céüse like the 8a+ La Femme Blanche and the 7c+ La Femme Noire. He soloed the 8a (5.13b) Orange Mécanique at Cimaï and put up Are You Ready?, an 8b+ at Châteauvert. After repeating Les Spécialistes and winning at Snowbird, he repeated Ben Moon’s fierce new routes Agincourt at Buoux and Maginot Line at Volx, both 8c’s and both contenders for being the world’s hardest. On Maginot Line Edlinger even figured out an elegant new sequence that took the grade down a notch. Yet by the early 1990s the climbing revolution he had heralded was gently ushering him off the stage.
He remained in formidable shape. The British climber Stevie Haston, no slouch himself when it came to training, climbed a lot with Edlinger in the early 1990s.“I really liked him,” Haston says. “He was a great guy. He was solid and had an immaculate technique. [To] me, he was the best of that era.”
Patrick showed Haston the routes at Cimaï and then they’d go home to his training room and work out. “We’d do 10-, 12-hour days,” Haston says. They spent months together at Hueco Tanks during Edlinger’s bouldering phase. “I remember doing problems with Patrick and Skip Guerin—two of the earliest and two of the best.”
Some climbers in Edlinger’s position might have found a graceful way to let go, but Edlinger was too much invested in his own story to close the book for good—and he needed the money. The magazine features and climbing trips continued; he remained on television and in films and advertisements. But as Haston puts it: “It got harder and everyone else got better.”
Yet while there was a creeping sense of nostalgia in these projects—such as when, in 1998, he appeared in the movie Verdon Forever—it’s difficult to see quite when and how his life fell apart so badly.
A near-fatal accident Edlinger suffered in 1995 might have prompted his decline. An inattentive belayer, a broken hold—and Patrick hit the ground from 40 feet up, curled into a ball that bounced three feet in the air. His heart stopped, but one of his companions had the skills to resuscitate him. He later told Jean-Mi Asselin that in the helicopter on the way to the hospital, unable to move, he contemplated ways to kill himself if he really was paralyzed. “If I was going to be a vegetable, how would I do it?” Life without movement would be unthinkable. But he hadn’t broken a bone; his muscles were simply all in spasm and he was soon back climbing again.
Patrick had always isolated himself to a certain extent; he never ran with the pack. He’d been around long enough to understand that he had to make space for himself away from distractions and rivalries to develop his art. Timy Fairfield, an American who lived in France for a time and climbed with Edlinger in both of their countries, observes that no matter “how much he enjoyed interacting with people, he was adamant about spending time training alone to cultivate one’s own unique mindset and movement style.”
In 2004, Edlinger suffered a far more significant injury, this time psychological. While on an epic climbing traverse of the Alps, attempting the 82 peaks over 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) in just 82 days, Patrick Berhault stepped unroped through a cornice near the summit of the Täschorn and fell 2,000 feet.
The effect on Edlinger was profound. Asselin says, “It was me who called Patrick, who was in Italy. I said I had bad news. He said, ‘Is it Patrick?’ I told him it was, that he’d been in a fall. He said, ‘Ah, le cons. The idiot.’ He cried out, and then he said that we had to go at once and find him. I said, ‘No, Patrick, it’s not possible.’ Later he called me back and said that he knew Patrick was dead and that we couldn’t do anything. It was very hard for him.
“Patrick thought about him every day.”
Before the death of Edlinger’s great friend and first real climbing partner, there had been rumors that the two had fallen out. Actuel suggested as much in an article asking what had happened to the heroes it had featured in the early 1980s. Asselin says the article enraged Edlinger.
“There were no arguments,” Asselin says. “They just had different goals. They followed what each other did and when Berhault called Patrick with an idea to climb in the Alps, he said yes without asking what it was. They were as they had always been.”
Footage of the two of them in this era, at the start of the 2000s, shows them climbing hard routes in the Dolomites, like Fisch on the Marmolada; it’s moving to see these childhood friends reunited, still climbing hard and in love with it.
Edlinger was now living in the Verdon with his new wife, Matia, who ran the gîte he bought. Upon the birth of their daughter, Nastia, in 2002, he foreswore soloing as irresponsible.
But the marriage soured. Edlinger dropped from view, drinking hard; after Berhault’s death his passion for climbing faded.“Patrick was very clear about his depression,” Asselin says. “It came on after his marriage. Alcohol was [his] solution to the problem, to feel a little more human. But of course it made things worse. Finally, when they separated, he was alone in the Verdon.”
Catherine Destivelle was his close contemporary and held a similar media profile in France. Both starred at Snowbird. She recalls meeting Edlinger with the filmmaker Gilles Chappaz.
“What makes me sad is knowing that at the end of his life perhaps not enough was done to help. But it was difficult; he isolated himself.
“Patrick was telling me he was going to do the hardest climbs in the world and do a book. He said he was back climbing but I knew he wasn’t. He couldn’t accept that he was less strong. When he died, and it was in the news, my son asked who was Patrick Edlinger?”
Asselin plays me his final interview with Edlinger, made 10 days or so before his death. It is harrowing. Edlinger articulates his desperate journey through depression and alcoholism, how he lost confidence in himself, how he made mistakes and endured terrible loneliness.
“People don’t want to see you and you don’t want to see them,” he says.
At times he is defiant and proud: “I don’t give a damn what people think.” Then he says sadly that he can count his true friends on the fingers of one hand. When he says that he has spent years in hell, you don’t need to see his ravaged face to believe him.
He had bouts of renewed optimism, when he told Asselin he was going to take on the world again. “He would say, ‘I am Patrick Edlinger. I can climb 9a, 9b.’ I said, ‘That’s true, you are Patrick Edlinger. But Edlinger today is not the same. That one has gone.’”
His parents were living nearby and over the years kept an eye on him; more recently he’d begun a new relationship with Anne-Christine Gimenez, a sailor who lived and worked on the remote island of La Réunion, where she kept her yacht. In his book with Asselin, Edlinger credits her for helping him escape the darkest period of his life. His visits with her would lift him out of his depression but he suffered each time he had to fly home.
“Sometimes I think that if he’d seen the book, or finished the film with Gilles, that it might have helped,” Asselin says. “I think also that by saying publicly he was in this terrible situation he thought he would get out of it. But I understood very well that he was not getting out.”
Four days before Patrick died in 2012, he and Asselin spoke for the last time. Patrick was due to appear in Grenoble, at a special screening of La Vie.
“He said he didn’t want to come, that he wasn’t well. I tried to convince him, said that people wanted to see him. His father tried to convince him. I asked him what he was afraid of, whether it was seeing people, or people seeing him? He’d changed a lot since those films came out. But it wasn’t really that. He was afraid of what he thought about himself. He felt embarrassed for himself.”
It was Jean-Marie who discovered his son’s body. He and Éliane were silent afterwards, prompting speculation that Patrick had committed suicide, but they were simply too heartbroken to speak. Jean-Marie had found Patrick on the floor of his bathroom with a head injury. He had fallen from a flight of stone steps, something he had done before, crawled back up them to wash the wound and died from an undisclosed head injury before he could summon help. That Edlinger, who was at one time the world’s top free soloist, would die in a common household accident rocked the climbing community.
Younger climbers who had grown up when Patrick was at his height paid tribute to the impact he’d had on their lives. Liv Sansoz, a two-time world champion, told Le Dauphiné: “He was an enormous inspiration to climbers, including me. You saw all the pictures; he was the god of his era, a myth. He motivated me. The first time I met him—that was a super day. I climbed with him, we tried the same route; we shared experiences. He was the true pioneer in spreading the word about climbing to the general public, as well as pushing the sport at the top level. He broke barriers.”
Many of the climbers and friends who had lost touch over the years were at the ceremony marking his life. The French sports minister Valérie Fourneyron spoke of her shock at his early death, and the affection the French people felt toward him.
“Patrick was an icon,” Asselin says finally. “I was surprised at the showing of La Vie in Grenoble. A lot of young people there had never seen the film and they liked it. … He represents something. He was something important.”
Frequent contributor Ed Douglas is the author of Statement: The Ben Moon Story, among other books.