02.07.2021

Claude Jaccoux, from Everest to North pole

Mountaineering is an activity which came about enabling man to get closer to the summits. From the greatest openings of this discipline to heroic, and sometimes tragic tales, the highlights of mountaineering history are often associated with prestigious names: Rébuffat, Bonatti, Terray, Profit… Surnames which will get the banter flowing over a drink at the bar (or mountain hut). Maybe he wasn’t one if the most prolific opening new routes, but Claude Jaccoux has definitely made a name for himself in the Chamonix valley. Actual dean of the Compagnie des Guides, the octogenarian was a pioneer in many ways. A trustworthy Millet ambassador, we’ve met with him for a second episode of HI(GH)STORY together with Christine Janin, founder of the A Chacun son Everest association, who he went on an expedition to the North Pole with. A high-level meeting with two celebrities who have plenty to tell!

STANDING NEXT TO THE GREATEST

Now 87 years old, Claude Jaccoux has known, better than anyone, how to apply the ‘A great guide is an old guide’ saying. (Editor’s note: knowing how to be cautious and control his activity as a guide). After sixty years of dedicated service at the Compagnie des Guides from Chamonix, leading clients up into the mountains, achieving new openings and organising expeditions, Claude is still as passionate as he was on his first day. Dean of the Chamonix institution and still working, Claude was born in Servoz but spent the better part of his early years far away from the mountains: he grew up and studied in Paris. He would only come back to the valley of Chamonix during summer, getting together with his cousins who would take him for ‘moderate’ walks… Climbing to the Refuge du Couvercle through the Mer de Glace as a mere 11-year-old boy, or completing his first climb to the top of Mont Blanc when only 13, and doing it again the following year! A childhood unlike any other! Finally, after studying sociology and doing his military service at the École de Haute Montagne from Chamonix, he decided to take the qualification examination to become a mountain guide. In 1961, he entered the Compagnie des Guides from Chamonix. At that time, only a few ‘outsiders’ (that is to say not from Chamonix) had been able to join the Compagnie before, such as Gaston Rebuffat or Lionel Terray…

Claude soon became famous among his peers outside of the Chamonix valley since he was quickly recognised for his expertise in organising expeditions. He was one of the first, together with an American client, to embark on expeditions in Nepal or Pakistan. During these expeditions, as well as other ascents in the Mont Blanc massif, Claude Jaccoux guided and also went along with renown athletes and explorers such as Eric Tabarly, Jean-Louis Etienne or Eric Escoffier. With the latter, in 1989 during an expedition to Everest, was when he met Christine Janin, taking part in the expedition as a doctor. This was when their great friendship began, followed by many shared adventures.

BEAUTIFUL OPENINGS AS A SECOND ON THE ROPE

Christine Janin is one of those people you can never stop. A natural optimist and a doer, the fact that she became so attached to the mountaineering life came about naturally. ‘My father preferred to plan holidays in the mountains than at the beach, and I have four brothers who would take me with them on all their adventures.’ Later, when studying medicine, friends took her climbing in Fontainebleau. And this is how Christine found herself in Pakistan, as a 24 year old, working as a doctor on a Gasherbrum II expedition. ‘I had no high mountain experience, hadn’t even climbed Mont Blanc, but I found myself at the top of this Pakistani mountain, 8035 metres high, without oxygen bottles.’ Renown for her resistance and excellent mental control among her expedition peers, she had just entered the tight circle of the ‘8000 metre club’.

Eight years on, this French-Italian lady had shown the world that she had been keeping busy by climbing Baruntse (7220 m), Makalu II (7660 m), Annapurna IV (7525 m) and Hidden Peak (8068 m) among others. She met Claude Jaccoux in 1989, as a guide and expedition leader for Eric Escoffier, during his ‘Everest Turbo’ project. Claude was already preparing a future expedition, this time heading to the North Pole. Curious about his project, Christine asked if she could take part. ‘Sometimes, you need to be irrational,’ she shares. This expedition to the North Pole allowed her to discover a new element and ’I could only have gone with Claude. I fully trust him.’ This trust for the guide or leader on the rope is an essential point for her. ’I never led while climbing. I’ve participated in lots of crazy projects only because of the trust I had in the people I had paired myself with. And Claude is a friend I fully trust.’

I’ve participated
in lots of crazy projects
only because of the trust
I had in the people
I had paired
myself with

FOOLISHNESS AS A DRIVING FORCE

This first experience at the North Pole for Christine and Claude, together with six other expedition members, was not really that much of an achievement, they say. ‘We were dropped at the 89th degree using power operated equipment and we only had one degree of latitude to cross on the pack ice to reach the pole. So more or less seven days of walking,’ says Claude in a modest way and with a smile. But this walk on ice was not exactly a walk in the park. ‘The compression crests formed by ice plates colliding against each other made a strong impression on me, as well as the very unnerving feeling of the ice pack moving under our feet,’ adds Christine. When the trip consists of polar temperatures, nights at the bivouac and an all-time fight against the cold, any supplementary factor can complicate the well-being of the group in regards to human relationships. ‘The human factor is key to the success of any expedition, and it is essential that the group fully trusts the guide or expedition leader when it comes to taking decisions,’ she admits. And further: ’when in the mountains or on the ice pack, the client must let go. If you start doubting or questioning one’s choices, the enjoyment factor soon comes to an end. And pleasure IS what you came for! ’

The first French woman to reach the top of Everest recognises that she has always been a good seconding climber, but has never felt like going first, as she’d rather rely on competent people. ‘Everything I have achieved has been thanks to those who led the climb, and I am forever grateful to them for it.’ This is a tribute to the guide’s profession, a role taken on with distinction by Claude Jaccoux during some of Christine’s projects.

Following her many expeditions, Christine Janin founded the ‘A chacun son Everest’ association, working to help children and women who suffer from cancer or leukaemia get back to enjoying life. ‘Being able to convert my experience from expeditions into something tangible and long-lasting is my greatest satisfaction.’

This proves that experiencing the mountains along with powerful moments shared roped together can help to move mountains after you’ve climbed them. Each in their own right, Christine and Claude have made history in the mountaineering world, Millet and the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. A story that will prevail, just like the ones HI(GH)STORY loves to tell.