Filed under:Features Spotlight, Ice & Mixed Climbing, Interviews, Mountaineering
Chris Kempster talks to the Chamonix guide and revered ice and mixed climber Jeff Mercier about competitions, new-routing and the future of the sport…
Jeff Mercier may not be a household name, but in the world of hard ice, mixed and dry tooling he is considered to be one of the sports leading figures, and one of the most accomplished mountain athletes around today. A full-time member of the PGHM (the Chamonix mountain police), a trained Guide and dedicated family man, Mercier has competed at the highest levels in competitive ice climbing, winning the Ouray Ice Festival in 2008 and 20014, and scoring podiums at many other competitions. We caught up with Jeff as he was returning to Chamonix from an ice climbing trip to Quebec…
How has the ice/mixed season been for you so far – has it been a productive winter?
At this time, the 22nd February, I have just come back from a two-week trip to Quebec. It was my fifth ice trip to Canada but my second in this part of the country. It’s totally different from Alberta; less climbers means not so much information, means no trail to reach the bottom of the lines, means a big effort every day, means more tiredness. The temperature is really cold, around -15 or -20 °C every day. With these temperatures you can’t imagine climbing free-standing or fragile ice, so we did some really nice classics like ‘Pilier Simon Proulx’ above the Sainte Marguerite lake, Sept Iles. Climbing and chatting with local climbers gave us the idea to move to an amazing place called ‘Le Mur du 51’, close to the Nipississ River. To reach it, we had to take the train to Schefferville, and after 51 miles we asked the guys working for the train company if they knew it… and they did! We stayed for two days in this place; the routes are not so long but it gives you pleasure to climb in the middle of nowhere! Probably, the next destination to add on your ‘to do’ list on a Quebec trip – I highly recommend it!
You recently put up a new route ‘Flames of Hell’ on Aiguille du Pélerins – a variation on ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ – tell us how that route came about and how long you’d had your eye on that line?
The main reason is really simple – I love this place. The north faces of Les Pélerins and Le Peigne are steep and high with a short approach from the cable car. I have climbed all the routes on these faces, and some of them like ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ and the ‘Carrington/Rouse’ many times. When I did the first winter ascent of the ‘Dard-Reppellin’, I was looking at this unclimbed wall on my left side. The idea stayed at the back of my mind for a few years, and in autumn 2015 we tried it, but we were too heavy and the first pitch took us too much time. Last December the weather was beautiful with clear blue skies, and dry climbing conditions meant that there was not much else to do. But as it was the Christmas holidays, I didn’t want to leave my family for several days. My plan was not alpinisticly logical but more influenced by my attitude as a father; climbing during the day, then spending the late afternoon and night with my wife and three boys. So it took me five days, but was the perfect balance. It’s really important for me; my life as an alpinist is nonsense if I don’t include my family!
You’re a member of the PGHM and fly daily over the Mont Blanc massif – this must give you an unique advantage when spotting new routes and when lines come into condition?
For sure, it helps… sometimes. The dark side is that you’re always thinking about sad stories (accidents and rescues with the PGHM – Ed) which have happened in the areas you climb in.
What do you look for in a new route – is it mainly the aesthetics, or developing interesting combinations of moves, or something else?
Most of the time, the line must be logical. Except for ‘E_Logik’ on the Triangle du Tacul (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWUGXM64GS0) which is a training route, and ‘Les Flammes de L’Enfer’ (www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Gmbdb67Xg0) where we didn’t manage to reach the top due to a section of poor rock. It’s always a privilege when you find an unclimbed route somewhere like the Rognon du Plan, it’s so close to the cable car and everybody can see the line from the valley! ‘Universal Studio’, 650m, M8 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RmJRQctBEI) follows the line of three corners and was obvious… if you look at it with some dry tool eyes, looking for thin cracks on steep rock. My eyes are always looking for new possibilities.
Going back to the beginning… you were born in Sallanches (further down the Arve valley from Chamonix), but didn’t become fanatical about climbing till a bit later on?
At first I was a rock climber; it’s so cool, you’re always in the sun, you climb in reasonable temperatures, and you are never scared by bad protection. When I was 18, I met Richard Ouairy, a fanatic and strong ice climber, in 1988 not so many people were able to climb WI6. His stories scared me but gave me the motivation to try. At 22, I started alpine climbing.
Initially which disciplines of mountaineering were you most interested in?
Classic alpinism doesn’t interest me so much; what I love is finding inspiration for a climb in my mind, looking at a map, a photo or directly at the mountains. In summer, I love to walk/climb on long ridges.
Finding new lines in summer is harder than in winter, but is always possible (www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-_hYwk8Btg).
When and why did you become fascinated with ice and dry tooling?
My dry tooling began in 1998, when I realised that it was the only solution to reach steep ice. After that I dry tooled for dry tooling’s sake, and competed in the ice world cup for three or four years, but I lost too much time waiting in isolation during competitions. Following this experience, two friends and I invented the Dry Tooling Style competition – three routes on natural features where people can climb for as long as they want. Now, dry tooling is the best training for endurance on long routes. If you’re not strong enough, you can’t climb safely in the mountains, especially when you place your own protection.
What attracted you to competition climbing, and how does your technique for this differ from climbing in the mountains?
Competing teaches you how to be ready for ‘the D-day’, gives you another motivation for boring training, teaches you how to climb on really small holds… but finally when I discovered that I could replace the word ‘competition’ with the word ‘pleasure‘ my motivation increased significantly! I have stopped competing now because I do so many things in the mountains. The only exception is the annual competition at Ouray (Colorado), because there you have only one route to climb, so you save a lot of time for ice climbing.
How much has the development of equipment helped push the standards of hard ice, mixed and dry tooling over the last few years?
Alpinism is more in your mind that in your tools; when you realise what people were able to in the mid-20th century, it’s crazy. I don’t think we are stronger now. In 2017, a lot of people in Chamonix (on the normal routes of Mont Blanc, Aiguille Verte and so on) think they are faster than before, but their equipment is lighter and because of the 150 guys before them who put in a perfect trail like at an athletics stadium! When it comes to ‘extreme’ routes, the lightness of the equipment available today is incredible. I really appreciate that because I always carry two sets of cams or 20 screws – I love climbing with the maximum of safety!
Do you do much training in the gym, and if so, what sort of things do you do?
I climb for fun without focusing on training, but I try to rock climb or dry tool two or three times per week, April to December. I walk a lot too.
For those who don’t know, can you explain how dry tooling has changed winter climbing from the old way of using hands on rock, and what the benefits are?
The main thing is that your hands are never cold, because they are always holding on to your axes! When you know how to climb on axes you discover a lot of new holds (thin cracks, foot holds), and with more holds you have more possibilities and it’s less hard than climbing only with hands. It’s the same with crampons, when you’re confident on them. Except when you have to smear on slabby holds, you go faster than with your climbing shoes.
What does your work for your sponsors (Rab, Petzl, La Sportiva etc) involve – do you help develop new gear or generate exciting photos/videos for them, or both?
I’m involved in the development of new material with Petzl. It’s the same with my mobile partner (http://crosscall.com/), I give my ideas about what is the future mobile phone for an alpinist and what we need in the high mountains in cold conditions. Rab, Petzl and Crosscall give me financial help for my trips.
Where are the best places you have visited around the world for climbing, and where would you most like to go to?
The Stanley Headwall in the Canadian Rockies! I have climbed the classics there, now it’s time to try Raphael Slawinski’s routes – next November, I hope. This will be the goal that helps me train harder this year. My dream is to find the Gudvangen icefall climbable.
In the last few years you’ve developed an area on the Rive Gauche d’Argentiere you named ‘Blade Stadium’ – tell us a bit about this, and if you think there are other areas like this are yet to be ‘discovered’ in the Mont Blanc massif?
Blade Stadium is unique because it offers a lot of really technically difficult routes. It’s less than 90m high but offers a full day of pleasure. There is a little bit of commitment because you rappel to the base of the routes, and if you can’t climb back out you have to walk out at the bottom under massive seracs! There are no fixed belays, no bolts and no more than six pitons on the whole wall. In Chamonix it’s really unusual to find a “school place” like this.
What is the most common problem/s that you are called out with the PGHM?
Tiredness and/or minor injuries.
If there’s one piece of safety advice you could give to mountaineers going to the Mont Blanc massif, what would it be?
Lots of people doesn’t mean lots of safety.
What projects do you dream of doing in the next few years?
Being a good father. Always having pleasure in the mountain whatever the grade.
Finally, your given name is Jean-Francois – how did you get the nickname Jeff?
Too long, only my mother call me Jean-Francois… or my wife when she is angry!