The news of Jean-Christophe Lafaille’s death came like most bad news these days - via email.
One email from a journalist asking for a quote and the other from my wife saying she was upset by the news and wanted to talk. Away in New Zealand, I typed in Jean-Christophe’s name into Google and looked for more information.
The words Makalu, winter, solo and missing told me everything I needed to know.
People don’t stagger down from 8,OOO metre peaks in winter a week overdue - not even Lafaille,
Sitting in a house by the sea - still summer on the other side of the world - I tried to put my thoughts into order. I looked at what people were saying about his life and death, about what a tragedy it was. The hard part of me thought what the fuck did he think he was doing - it was a suicide mission. I thought about how the Poles had failed on it in winter and how impossible an objective it was, to pull off a first winter ascent alone. Lafaille was kidding himself like most hard climbers do, that he could walk the line, and that technology, training and experience would see him through.
Yet if anyone could have pulled off the impossible it was Lafaille.
I’d only met Lafaille once, after trying his route on the West Face of the Dru.
When you spend 15 days following another man’s footsteps you feel that you own something of them, and in turn, they own something of you. When we got down he wanted to meet us before we left, So after packing the car we met him for coffee at the Office bar in Argentiere. We talked about things that climbers always talk about, and Jean-Christophe told us about the house he was building, and we compared the age of our kids and what future plans we had. Finally, it was time to leave, and we stood awkwardly outside in the morning winter fog while someone took our picture. I had my camera with me but never used it, feeling that the small bond we had would be broken if I took his picture.
I’d read something he wrote in Alpinist magazine only the week before and between the lines, you could see he was ready to wind down and do something else. No doubt he looked at his kids growing each day and wondered, like all mountaineering parents, if he’d ever see them fully grown. I’d finished the article and hoped that he’d make it.
I emailed the journalist first and told him what I thought about the man, but it felt strange to be giving my opinion to an endnote to the best climber on the planet.
Then I sat and thought as Lafaille had obviously done many times, how they would tell his children.
Then I rang home.