Michel Darbellay 1934-2014

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 25/06/2014
The North Face of the Eiger. Jacques Belge

The Swiss guide Michel Darbellay, best known for making the coveted first solo ascent of the north face of the Eiger, has passed away aged 79

Darbellay grew up as one of eight children, started climbing with his father, and quickly realized that his calling in life was to become a guide.

He guided clients on the three great north faces of the Alps, and for over 40 years ran the idyllic Camping des Glaciers in La Fouly, Swiss Val Ferret, with his wife Agathe.

He was also an innovator and technical consultant for equipment manufacturers, one example of his work being the classic heavy leather Eiger Darbelley boots, popular in their time.

Purposely, he always tried to keep away from the limelight, and very rarely if ever actively publicised his exploits.

In 1960 he climbed the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru in around 12 hours, the following year the west face of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey in six and a half hours, and in 1962 the north face of the Matterhorn in six hours - times that on the day were some of the fastest recorded for these celebrated routes.

Based in La Fouly in the Val Ferret, he made many first ascents in or from the valley, such as the famous Amone Slab. Perhaps the most notable are his routes on the spectacular granite monolith of the Petit Clocher du Portalet.

In 1962, with one of his brothers, he completed the first route on the vertical north face, a climb that became a relatively popular A2, not least due to a film of a repeat ascent by Darbellay and Vaucher.

The Darbellay Route would gain great fame in 1989 when it was freed by Philippe Steulet (after retro-bolting) to create the first 8a in the Mont Blanc Massif.

In 1967, with Louis Froté, he took up the challange of the left-hand crack system on the east face, climbing five pitches (about three-quarters height) before traversing left to finish up the final section of the Southeast Pillar. Originally known as the Voie Darbellay, it was later renamed Esprit de Clocher.

In the early 1980s Steve Jones and Pat Littlejohn would make the first free ascent at 7a, but since then the route has been retro-bolted.

But it was for one ascent in the summer of 1963 that he will always be remembered

A client, who had hired Darbellay that season, was ill for a few days, given the Swiss guide a small window of opportunity to made a quick dash to Grindelwald, telling his mother he was simply going away to "collect apricots".

Quietly setting off alone at 3 am on the 2nd August and moving remarkably fast, Darbellay climbed the 1938 Route on the north face of the Eiger as far as the Exit Cracks, where he decided to bivouac. After two hours climbing the following morning, he was standing on the summit.

On the great faces of the Alps his other most notable success was making the first winter ascent of the northeast face of the Piz Badile.

From the 21st December 1967 - 2 January 1968 Italians Paolo Armando, Gianni Calcagno and Alessandro Gogna, joined forces with Swiss Camille Bournissen, Darbellay and Daniel Troillet to make a sieged ascent of the Cassin Route.

The wall was completely plastered, and the climbers spent considerable periods of time clearing away the snow/ice.

His reputation made by the Eiger, he became much in demand as a guide and this also led to several trips outside the Alps.

In 1964, with Englishman Lord Shaftesbury and two other Swiss guides, Darbellay visited the Langtang in Nepal, making the first attempt on Dorje Lhapka (6,966m) via the west ridge, where he reached 6,300m.

On the same expedition he also came within 200m of the summit of virgin Ganchempo (6,378m) via the south ridge.

In 1967, again with Lord Shaftesbury, several other Swiss guides, and members of the Italian Alpine Club, he made five first ascents in the region around Upernavik Island, West Greenland.

In 1969 he successfully climbed the West Buttress of Denali.



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