"Quatuor à cordes" The interview

Back from Khumbu in Nepal after a nice first ascent in alpine style, Aurélien Vaissière et Symon Welfringer give us their feeling.
Quator à cordes : ED 1100m 6a A2 M4+ 80° ( Oct 2018 – S. Welfringer / A. Vaissière / L. Thevenot / A. Cecchini)

Did you think it would be so smooth?

AV : With Symon in the team, yeah, pretty much. But we expected something surprising, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t actually our initial project – that was the north face of Cholatse.

SW : Autumn conditions in the Himalaya really depend on what the weather was like in July and August, i.e. the monsoon season – and this year, it was practically non-existent, so the mountains we faced in October were just how they are in summer: very dry, and not much ice. In these conditions, our initial objective – ice/mixed climbing right up a north face – turned out to be a non-starter.
We’d headed to this valley for its overall potential – we’d have the option of switching to a different objective, with a different exposure. So we had a look at the south side of the valley for a rock-climbing target. That’s when we found this pillar, and the possibility of opening a route up it.

AV : : In terms of altitude, Symon and Antonin already had high-altitude experience, just short of 6,000 – unlike Laurent and me. So we decided to opt for a massif where there were summits of 6,000-6,500 nearby, so we could test ourselves at that altitude.

«“Ah, they’re not in a fit state to climb” but nobody dared say so.»
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How did you feel when you saw the face?

AV : In fact, before we got to the base camp, there was the trekking. We walked for four days, and it was the first time we’d been to this valley. When we set off, I clearly remember seeing mountains that looked like there was loads of snow. We said to each other: “Look, there’s snow everywhere, the conditions are going to be mental!”. We kept walking, and the closer we got to Dzongla, the more we could see the north faces, which turned out to very dry. Things changed quite a bit in the space of 5-10km.
When we entered this valley, we saw the north faces and we all began to look a bit sulkier.

SW : We took a while to understand. To begin with, there was a phase when we saw the faces and thought: “Ah, they’re not in a fit state to climb” but nobody dared say so.

AV : Exactly (laughs).

SW : Everyone was saying: “Well, it doesn’t look brilliant, but we’re bound to find a route somehow, up that way.”

AV : Symon really took it well. We’d already seen the photos plenty of times, and it was meant to be mostly white – snow and ice sheets – but when we got to the face it was just stony everywhere. It really looked like the kind of north face you see sometimes in the Alps. It looked like a dry north face in the Jorasses.
Deep down, we knew it was going to be complicated, but Symon stayed optimistic.

SW : In fact, I was thinking to myself: “For sure, conditions aren’t ideal, it’ll be a bit different and it’ll take longer, but it’s also going to be mindblowing”.
The thing I found it harder to deal with was changing our objectives, because our first one looked really tasty, even in poor conditions. But as we were in such an incredible place, with so many mountains, some of which were in good nick, we thought it was better going where conditions were good.

AV : In any case, that’s what we settled on. We said to each other: “We’re abandoning our main objective and looking at other options”. I don’t think I’d always take that decision, because sometimes with a project, it’s still worth giving it a try.

SW : True, but as it was one of our first expeditions, we preferred to find something interesting to do rather than being blocked. We really wanted to go climbing, and that weighed in the balance! This line was beckoning to us, and it was sunny as well – in the space of a week, the temperature had dropped more than 10 degrees celsius. Overall, we had good weather for the whole month, with barely any rain or snow.
So we decided to tackle Lobuche East, just facing Cholatse. We spent a day and a half studying the face to identify a possible route, mostly on rock. The issues that arose after that were finding bivy spots where we could make water by melting snow. That was our main problem on this very dry face.

Why do it Alpine style?

SW : Generally speaking, you use a style primarily because that’s how you were taught. It wasn’t really a choice, in fact. We learned mountaineering with other people, of course, and in France that’s how most people climb. We don’t really see any other way of doing things.

AV : I think our aim was also to go out there and see how things would go on these big mountains –transposing what we’d learned back home.

SW : Alpine style means climbing without fixed ropes or moving up and down between the camps – which you see on Everest, for example. It’s extremely common over there. Well over 50% of people who go mountaineering in the Himalaya don’t do it Alpine style, they set up fixed lines.
They don’t necessarily go over there to go mountaineering, but they get offered the chance to scale a peak, they’re told it’s “easy” to do. During our stay, we met no one who was climbing Alpine style.

AV : Generally, Alpine style is defined as having all your gear with you, in your backpack – stuff for sleeping on the mountain, food, etc.

Did this no-frills style apply at base camp too, or do you allow yourselves a bit of music, good food, etc.?

AV : We weren’t in remote areas where it’s hard having a base camp. It was fairly easy in terms of management and organization, because there are lodge-cum-refuges right along the valley.

SW : It means you don’t have big tents or food to carry, just mountaineering gear. By way of comparison, when we went to Alaska, we were totally self-sufficient for a month.

AV : That way, you recover better when you come down off the mountain, and it’s also more straightforward logistics and organization wise.

How long was the ascent?

AV : One short day to get to the base, then two full climbing days – 12 and 16 hours – on the face.

SW : We began by studying the face through binoculars, then took the gear we needed to the base. We spent the night there, then left everything that was excess to requirements. We took three days’ fairly minimalist food, no tent, just a sleeping bag and mattress each. We set off for two or three days’ climbing. At the end of the first big day, we reached our planned bivouac spot. It was a bit tricky making water, but we managed. Then we did a second, really heavy day to reach the summit, after dark. We could have set up a second bivy, but we felt it would have been too hard energy-wise. So we preferred to do a heavier day, then go straight back down to base camp.
As it turned out, the descent wasn’t technically complex at all, so we were able to climb down the normal route during the night, even though we were very tired.

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Did you ever have any doubts?

AV : I don’t have many points of reference, but I feel as if everything ran smoothly. We almost exactly followed the route we’d worked out at base camp.

SW : And a good job too, because we came up against some pitches that we had to aid-climb, and at that point we didn’t have much margin of error. We were ready to do it, but we got a slightly clearer sense of how committing it was, especially as it’s something you rarely do in the Alps.

AV : Overall, we had few moments of doubt.

SW : I had a few doubts when we had to change our objective. It actually turned out really well, but when you decide to abandon your main objective, you think to yourself that you’ll just get blocked, that you won’t actually do anything… But we bounced back really well.

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«As for the pitches we each climbed on-lead, we were all able to find our own place in the team.»
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Being a group of four, how did you organize your decision-making?

SW : It was odd because the four of us had never operated together before. We all know each other a bit, and we’d already climbed in twos, but the group of four was new territory. We definitely got lucky, but I don’t recall us having any arguments. And that’s also because have the same mindset, and the same vision of the mountains.

AV : I also feel that we weren’t a bunch of ego-trippers. Before setting off, we already knew each person’s respective speciality, strengths and weaknesses, and nobody tried to hide it. As for the pitches we each climbed on-lead, we were all able to find our own place in the team.

SW : There were four of us, and during the climb there were four intense sections when we each really took the others with him.

What was your worst moment?

SW : I know what Aurélien’s worst moment was (laughs). In the bivy, when he thought his feet had gone.

AV : Ah, nice one – I’d forgotten about that!

SW : When we woke up in the bivy, it was really cold. We slept with our liners on – the inner part of our boots – to keep them warm, but took off the shells. They freeze during the night, and in the morning you have to warm them up with your feet. So there’s a moment when you can’t feel your feet, and it’s the same for everyone – except that some people’s feet are more sensitive than others. And on that occasion, you got a bit panicky…

AV : I didn’t spread much stress to the team, but it’s true that there they were, in the middle of making breakfast and there I was, slapping my feet, trying to revive them! But it’s a close call between that and the singing-bowl seller.

SW : That was on the journey back. We were looking for gifts for our loved ones, and we wanted to buy singing bowls. Some of us absolutely wanted to haggle, while others really didn’t give a toss. And the seller was a tough cookie, but we managed!

What was the best?

AV : Our project being a success.

SW : Being the four of you up there, each with your own personality – I reckon that makes you four times happier.

Which mountaineers currently inspire you to go and do this type of project?

AV : I’m inspired by Stéphane Benoist, and I also find the determination of the Gang des Moustaches on Nuptse very inspiring. I’m also inspired by people who mix their activities a bit more, like Antoine Girard.

SW : Some of the great Himalayan achievements in recent years have been by Slovenians. They don’t always get much media coverage in France, but they have a very strong vision of Alpine style and repeat some pretty awesome routes. But in terms of massive achievements, I don’t feel like there’s been huge progress in the past ten years, so my inspirations tend to date back a bit further. What inspires me slightly less is all these people who climb solo in the Himalaya. I greatly admire what they do, but it’s not a source of inspiration.

You all come from two different teams (FFME and FFCAM).
Which is the better school in your opinion?

AV : Yes, we were with different teams and different coaches, and we asked them for info throughout the expedition.

SW : It was mainly Damien Tomasi for the CAF team and Mathieu Maynadier for the FFME. We all tried to use our mentors’ messages as support, because they’ve been there. It felt a bit like the divine word. And it was quite funny because they’re big buddies too, and for them it must have definitely felt a bit like their kids were going on an expedition.
In any case, it’s thanks to those teams that we now go on expeditions.

AV : That’s where you get the smarts to do something. Once you’ve graduated, you kind of keep that teacher-pupil relationship.

SW : And not everyone kicks on after leaving those teams. Not everyone necessarily has the motivation to keep going on expeditions, and I think it’s gratifying for them when they see we’re really up for it.

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Do you already have new projects in mind?

AV : For me, a trip is also a chance to talk about fresh projects. The four of us had lots of discussions, and naturally it’s a topic that comes up. You might build a project with the same team. Personally, I loved the trip with these guys, it went really well, and now I have a much clearer idea of what each person can contribute to a trip. And that experience also makes me want to go on trips with other people, and get to know them better, etc. But the four of us in this team will do other projects together, definitely.

SW : Overall I agree with what Aurélien said. I’d like to head off again this spring if possible. I really loved the altitude, even though we didn’t go that high. I loved the idea of having to acclimatize and feeling the changes in our bodies as we progressed, so I’m interested to rise up a little higher to see how it is, without necessarily doing any technical climbing. Just to see how I react.

Did you feel comfortable?

SW : As it turned out, we both felt pretty good. The four of us didn’t have exactly the same experience, but everyone reacts differently to altitude.

AV : We had info to help us succeed, especially from our teams’ coaches, and the way we applied it worked well.

SW : We had to do some very technical sections at practically 6,000 meters, and we felt good. We were tired of course, but we’d acclimatized sensibly. For sure, it’s a period when you feel like you’re not doing anything, and you reckon you can go faster and free up more time for your actual objectives, but we were right to do it the way we did.

AV : If the coaches hadn’t briefed us, we’d definitely have made mistakes – wanting to start on the project right away. The acclimatization days were dragged on, but we relied on our coaches’ experience and that reassured us.

What was your acclimatization program?

AV : We only did one summit, Lobuche by the normal route: 300 to 400m meters’ elevation a day max, then lie-ins, reading, preparing food, making water, etc.
It’s a time when you don’t do anything much, for sure. You’re in a contemplative kind of mood. There’s nothing much to do because that’s the objective – do nothing so your body acclimatizes. We spent days looking at the superb panoramic views of Everest, Lhotse and the Nuptse peaks.

SW : We’re talking about the world’s highest summits, so it’s quite something.

What’s Aurélien’s best quality? And worst defect?

SW : I’ll start with the quality. I think Aurél is a slightly repressed “skimo racer”. I say “repressed” because he tends to train in secret! From a sporting standpoint, that’s his quality. As a human being, it’s hard to find a defect!
Ah, I’ve found one! Whenever I slept in a tent, it was with Aurélien. He’s really tall, and he took up all the space in our bivy tent. I think that’s an issue that doesn’t get enough consideration on expeditions! (laughs) I think Aurélien’s too tall to be a mountaineer – he should find another sport.

What about Symon?

AV : The big positive with Symon is his energy. He has very high technical proficiency, and he channels all his energy into using it.
And his big defect is the amount of extra food you have to carry in the packs for him! I think he’s made massive progress, but he also needs to channel his mass of energy!

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Interview : J. Bouthet et N. Guérard

Photos : S. Welfringer & A. Vaissière

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Interview : J. Bouthet et N. Guérard

Photos : S. Welfringer & A. Vaissière