Journalist and climber Natalie Berry interviews French mountaineer Élisabeth Revol following the publication of To Live
- Monday 11 January 2021
When French mountaineer Élisabeth Revol became the first woman to summit Nanga Parbat (8,126m) – nicknamed the ‘Killer Mountain’ – in winter on January 25, 2018 on her fourth attempt, the euphoria was short-lived.
Tomasz “Tomek” Mackiewicz, her Polish climbing partner, had made the long final slog to the summit and proclaimed “Éli, what’s happening with my eyes? I can’t see your head torch any more; you’re a blur!’ He was snowblind, suffering from frostbite and displaying symptoms of early stage high altitude oedema. It’s a moment that ‘lasts an eternity’, Élisabeth recalls, marking the start of a harrowing ordeal which lasts three nights in sub-zero temperatures at high altitude.
The summit is only the halfway point on a climb, and now the pair need to descend quickly through the night in order to reach an appropriate altitude and location for a helicopter rescue. An S.O.S. is sent; paperwork and poor weather determine their fate.
Unable to walk or talk and bleeding from the mouth and nose, Tomasz is reliant on Élisabeth – who is around half his weight – to guide him down the mountain. She shelters him from the bitter wind overnight in a crevasse at 7, 283m while she attempts to retrieve emergency medicine and supplies from an earlier camp. Tomasz’ condition worsens as the pair await rescue. Against her will, Élisabeth is forced to leave Tomasz behind and descend to ensure her own safety, all the while holding on to the false hope of a helicopter rescue for her climbing partner and close friend, Tomek. She spends a freezing night alone in a crevasse, hallucinating and removing her boot in a moment of fatigue-induced madness. Delays to the rescue mission test her patience, and in a decisive moment Élisabeth opts to descend alone and in the dark, with the moon and some fortuitous fixed ropes illuminating and facilitating her path. After almost 800 metres of descent, she is met by Polish climber Adam Bielecki and Polish-Russian mountaineer Denis Urubko – a rescue team flown in from K2 Base Camp – who guide her to safety. Tomasz – who had finally succeeded on his seventh attempt at the peak in winter – was unable to be reached by helicopter and became another victim of the Killer Mountain.
‘Today, what hurts the most is that Tomek wasn’t able to see this summit that he wanted so much,’ Élisabeth writes in To Live, a recently-released English translation of her book Vivre about the tragedy and her life in the mountains. In addition to her personal trauma experienced on Nanga Parbat, the Internet and mainstream media would fabricate another uphill battle for Élisabeth on her return to France. Élisabeth was thrust into a media frenzy as reporters stormed into her hospital ward in France, pointing cameras and microphones at her bandaged hands and weather-worn face; sensationalist headlines spoke of her ‘abandonment’ of Tomasz, of selfish decisions and poor judgement, while insults and judgements spread on social media. The interest in the rescue attempt was a double-edged sword, however; donations to a crowdfunding campaign raised 157,000 Euros to fund the rescue and support Tomasz’s three children.
In To Live, Élisabeth attempts to set the record straight on the tragedy and shares her philosophy on climbing, life and loss. It’s clear that the writing of her compelling account was also a form of therapy for Élisabeth, while also being heartfelt tribute to Tomasz Mackiewicz, her close bond with him and their final climb together. Now approaching mountains and mountaineering from a different perspective, Élisabeth has succeeded in ‘closing the loop’, as she puts it, on her mountaineering addiction and the trauma that she lived through. Three years on, she answered some questions about her life and climbs. To buy a copy of To Live, click the book cover to the right.
You had a poster of Everest in your childhood bedroom. What was it about Everest and mountains that captivated you as a child?
It's a long story and I don't think there is a single answer. It's an alchemy between a certain unknown – perhaps "forbidden" – element which intrigues me, and fantasies that emerged from childhood dreams.
I was inspired over time by people following their own path, giving free rein to their own expression and climbing beautiful peaks. The era of Loretan, Profit, Lafaille, Béghin ... people who have touched my inner self, fascinated me, made me dream. Smiling people living on huge rock faces over several days. My imagination ran wild from these photos, these stories. To me they were beautiful, expressive adventures with a beautiful philosophy and strong symbolism, taking place in an environment that intrigued me between the sometimes frightening stories and these sublime photos. These mountains were so high, so hard to climb, and all these elements aroused a feeling of curiosity in me.
And then the walks in the Écrins with my parents, my steep walks between two gymnastics competitions, brought me a lot of joy, wonder, contemplation, curiosity and the desire to always see what was behind, above, on the other side; to observe the valley of these peaks, these little points of life so low in the valley.
As a student, I discovered the mythical peaks of the Alps. I caught the bug. There wasn't just one summit, but multiple routes to reach them by. One rock face, but several levels of difficulty to be enjoyed. A mixture of effort, elevation, excitement, stress, challenge and then fulfilment enthralled me each time a little more. I was a student and my bedside table was piled high with topos, mountaineering magazines, ascent reports and maps to prepare my next outing. I found some stories enigmatic or even mysterious. I devoured everything in the mountains. I was intrigued by the vision of my peers, and admired the audacious, courageous, visionary, committed people ... I wanted to experience this environment for myself, encouraged by these role models.
These challenges first captivated me in the Alps, then in the Andes and finally in the Himalayas, with the same approach, the same desire for discovery. The desire to go and see ... finding yourself at the foot of these mountains means a lot.
In short, I connected my imagination to the stories of ascents by climbing certain mountains with a lot of respect and emotions for the first ascensionists. Names of routes, legends, the history of mountaineering, the boldness of a generation, fascinating accounts, images that resonate; you place your hands, your feet, your gaze on the same places that they did. All these routes that I had imagined all these years were in reality quite different on the ground at times, but what a joy it was to climb these routes, to be there too! When I returned from these adventures, I cherished the memory of an extraordinary journey where the word mountain took on all its nobility. A beautiful climb, a piece of mountaineering history where the historical aspect was as important to me as the aesthetics of the route, but above all a beautiful journey through my childhood imagination each time.
Tom at the col linking the Diamir Valley to the Diama glacier. After this point, we no longer had visual contact with Base Camp. The route is committing and far away from everything. © Élisabeth Revol
You spent a lot of time outdoors and working in the fields in summer as a child. How did your childhood and upbringing shape your approach to physical exercise and challenges?
First of all, I can never thank my parents enough for this education, awareness, discovery, openness to the environment, with respect for the most beautiful thing we live in: the wilderness, the great outdoors and the mountains!
Indeed, my brother and I were educated to make an effort, to work. We went on long walks in nature because of my mother's first bout with cancer and her desire to be treated naturally, in addition to her heavy medical treatments.
The philosophy of the household was to learn, to progress, to train in a demanding way, to discover, to discover yourself, quite simply, without artifice, nor embellishment, to your own liking, with curiosity and never give up. It's a philosophy that shaped my childhood and then my adult life.
I have lived my own individual experience, which is unique to me because we are all different from one climber to another. Our past is different, as are our desires, our route, our dreams, our goals, our commitment, our perception, our sensitivity and our senses. But what climbers have in common is the attraction to these mountains (whether the Alps or Himalayas) and (the adventure of) life!
This was Tomasz's seventh trip to attempt Nanga Parbat in winter, and your fourth. You wrote that for you, the mountain had lost its appeal, especially as the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat had been made in February 2016, while Tomasz had become embittered following a confrontation with the successful team the previous winter and remained obsessed with the peak. You didn't like the competitive element, but now it wasn't really present for you. What drew you back in 2018?
Yes, Nanga had lost its appeal and curiosity in my eyes. Less motivation for this mountain ... too many well-known climbers, too much routine, fewer questions, less management ... We knew almost the whole route, so there was less discovery. I knew how my body reacts to this altitude in winter, so it was less of an unknown compared to all the questions of cold management, adaptation of the equipment, etc ... so my only answer was: finish this project and finish this new ascent route in alpine style and in winter.
Several questions were running through my head: what are we both still doing here this year? Are we climbing in search of a past now lost in oblivion, hidden deep inside? And what is surfacing? Why do we still cling to it? Are we returning here because there is still something we have to do, on this mountain, in winter? Tom also had his doubts, but he sought revenge for his wounds in 2016 from some hurtful words. He wanted to climb Nanga in pure alpine style!
What was I looking for? What is certain is that I was not looking to make the first ascent. It had been done [ed. by three men] and it was so much the better for it. I could go back to Nanga in peace, without pressure and that pleased me.
So what did I really want? To finish my project, to answer all my questions? Yes for sure. But also to listen to the little deep voice inside me that was afraid to regret not finishing this project. When I closed my eyes I escaped to the winter conditions, to those moments spent up there! I felt in my gut a joy to return to that mountain, to relive those hard but magical moments up there, far from everything! I felt an inner calm amid a flood of questions and the usual apprehension, but with the feeling that going back there would put me in the right place and that for January 2018, I only wished to be on an 8000 metre peak in winter and nowhere else!
24 January 2018. Sunrise at 7,300 metres. But we’re not leaving straight away: Tomek’s feet are too cold to continue. We return to the tent to light the stove and heat up Tomek’s boots, insoles and feet before leaving for the summit. © Élisabeth Revol
Although you had a perfect partnership, you and Tomasz were very different in character and how you approached preparation and climbing, and you seemed to complement each other well. Why do you think you worked so well together?
On every winter ascent, there are individual and personal limits, an incredible challenge to achieve (Tom's, mine and a balance to be found between the two!) ... This year I knew and had the conviction that this mountain was possible, but we had to put things right: Tom and I discussed this. We knew our differences perfectly well.
We had no pressure from anyone, nor any obligation to achieve results, except from the objectives we had set ourselves. We had to define our objectives, trust ourselves and not have too much confidence in our experience. We had to be careful not to set the wrong objectives, not to get into a race to the bottom with ourselves, and instead set personal limits. I remained vigilant and focused on this objective. In short, finishing our winter project in the Himalayas via this route was our motivation. Both the questions and the answers were deep inside us that year ...
Climbing Nanga in winter in alpine style via a new route was our common thread and philosophy. It was the essence of our lives and spirit at the moment we set off.
We remained solitary in our ideas, then united in the ascent throughout the expedition. Our bond as a roped party, restructured in this project, bridged the gap between each other's weaknesses and strengths ... with the pledge of climbing together to reach the summit and come back down together despite our differences. We chose to do so freely.
You were the first woman to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat in winter, but you could only spend minutes at the summit before Tomasz's condition became apparent and you had to descend. You wrote that the worst thing was that 'Tomasz wasn't able to see this summit he wanted so much.' Today, are you able to feel any sense of pride or joy at the fact that you both reached the summit?
Today my thoughts have calmed down about all the terrifying things I experienced on this mountain and all the suffering, but there will never be a feeling of celebration or a feeling of joy. Thinking about Nanga is still suffering.
You were instructed by the rescue team to leave Tomasz behind and descend, but you were reluctant to do so. You didn't know whether Tomasz could be rescued or not. When you were alone and suffering and help didn't seem to be arriving, where did your resolve come from to continue without him?
The faith I have always had in life and in both Tom and in myself. I would go down to look for help, lighten the helicopter load or reascend with a ground team. It was the only connection that kept me moving. I always thought that Tom would be saved; it was this deep feeling of conviction in Tom that always carried me on this mountain.
In my head at that time it was clear: I descend, the helicopters arrive, and pick us up, both of us, we will be evacuated, or a ground team would join me at 6500m and we would go up several times to be able to bring Tomek down. At the thought of being able to save him, I was confident in the future and I overcame my anxieties. The only solution for Tomek would come from the air. There was no other way. I had to listen to the rescuers and swallow my questions, my uncertainties and my anxieties ...
We were in "survival" mode from the summit, and from the moment this mode is activated, it is survival at its best according to all the automatic actions fostered over the course of many mountain experiences for both of us. You have to decide in a hurry all the time. Far from my usual rationality, I had to struggle with the irrationality of our drama, of our descent and the little control we have over life when an accident happens.
From the moment there is an accident there are no more good decisions. A succession of parameters comes into play, besides the fact that there is an emergency, in a time and space that must be reduced as much as possible. In hindsight, we can of course redo things, rewrite the story. With ifs and buts, the accident doesn’t happen.
28 January 2018. With Adam on the Kinshofer wall (photo taken by Denis). A happy mess of nylon on a normal route, yet one which has rarely been equipped since 2013. These infamous ropes … © Élisabeth Revol
When the rescue team (Adam Bielecki and Denis Urubko) appeared, what were your emotions? And when you were told about the Crowdfunding campaign – how did you feel?
I will repeat what I wrote: ‘Suddenly a beam of light from the slope below pierces the darkness. A second follows twenty metres behind. Two beams that illuminate a long way, moving quickly like agitated puppet heads. A mist blurs the radiant yellow head torch. They climbed up? I can't believe it. My God, they've climbed up, they've climbed up!
A veil of comfort slides over me. Sitting on the rock, I watch the ballet of light beams ascending towards me. The most fabulous spectacle of my life. I remain petrified, perched on my rock 100 metres above them. Unable to move, to comprehend what is happening.’
When I became aware of all this human generosity I had an immense feeling of gratitude for this beautiful humanity that is deep within all of us; this incredible solidarity that manifested itself in a magical way. I realised how good, generous and ready to help other humans can be. The human heart, when it is compelled into action, is one of the most beautiful things on this earth.
When you arrived home from Pakistan, you were mobbed by press in the hospital and you had been criticised online for the decisions you made. What impact did this have on your emotional recovery from the ordeal? The book was an attempt to set the record straight, as you 'owed it to Tomasz' after the speculation and false information online.
At the hospital in Sallanches, I was faced with a new 8000 metre peak to climb; one you would never want to climb alone! I found myself at the foot of the scariest mountain of my life ... the hardest I've ever climbed. A mutual incomprehension of two worlds. I had to reacclimatise myself to life, despite the abyss opened by Tomek's death. The shock of my life up there and then the one waiting for me in the hospital were terrible ...
I was in post-traumatic shock after this tragedy and survival. Microphones, photographers and film cameras came up close to my despair, listening to the sometimes meaningless words of a person in great suffering, and seizing our story. All I did was suffer; words paralysed my thoughts, polarised and poisoned my present. I couldn't walk, couldn't sleep, cried all the time. I was depressed and I couldn't mourn Tomek. I was not living but merely surviving.
This book allowed me to put things straight, put them in my own words and tell our own story. Yes, I owed it to Tomasz because writing our story of Nanga was a constant talking point in base camps and – above all – it was our last topic of conversation before our separation on the mountain.
You wrote about survivor's guilt and your trauma upon your return home. You were planning to return to Nanga Parbat to 'calm [your] memories', but the loss of Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard in March 2019 hit you hard. You were 'on the other side' waiting and helping. How did their disappearance help you to understand what you went through from another experience?
During this long return journey, all I did was think over and over again. I didn’t accept the situation, the injustice of death and about Tom, keeping within me the essence of all that suffering I experienced up there, all those "ifs", those doubts with Tomek, that anguish, that guilt. Yes, I had to go back up there to relieve these memories ...
But the drama of Daniele and Tom in 2019 brought this momentum to a halt. I was on the other side that year, spending my days and nights in the WhatsApp group organised for this rescue, in the hope, the expectation and the helplessness that one has far from the stage, despite our mutual strength (family, rescuers, embassies, etc...) I was in Daniele's place one year after he had participated in an incredible way in our rescue, behind the screen ... and he had been on the mountain in my place one year before that. I was with him, with them. I relived everything. I knew what was going on, I knew the route. In 2019, I unfortunately also understood through the drama of Daniele and Tom what happened to us on Nanga last year, but also the media discrepancies, the immediacy of the information, the rumours, the judgements. Second-hand sources circulating. The interpretations, etc. The interest aroused by the drama in the mountains among journalists and the public audience behind them, which plunges the family of the climber into a double chaos, etc. It was terrible.
At 6,900 metres on 23 January 2018. Happy to have been able to advance this afternoon, after the period of violent winds in January and more than forty hours spent in the tent at 6,600 metres being tormented by savage gusts. © Élisabeth Revol
Your book begins with your return to the mountains, notably Everest and Lhotse. How did your trauma on Nanga Parbat change your objectives and ambitions in the mountains?
It was an absolute need to be reborn and live again after Nanga’s very personal wound. In death, we realise the fragility of the living, our fleeting passage on earth. Mourning is an accelerator of this awareness. We refocus on the origin of our passion, on the genesis of our life, on our existential quest. Understanding that risk is part of life and being born is already the beginning of risk. Going to your limit helps to build yourself, to reconstruct yourself. I reconnected with myself and my origins.
In my Everest project, I took this child (which I was), by the hand, this child full of doubts, of the unknown, a little scared by this world of high altitude, but at the same time amazed and fascinated. It was this dream that held me upright and carried me every time I capsized.
I climbed alone, as I was not yet able to climb in a roped team and take responsibility for someone else. Ultimately, my mentality on this Everest ascent was not centred around performance; it was an intimate quest.
In short, I returned to this land of thin air, but without any pressure from anyone or anything, giving free rein to what was deep inside me, to the genesis of my life as a Himalayan climber and the reason for my beginnings. The mountains have always offered me this possibility to invent a world where life regains its colour and where the difficulties of the past are seen differently and distanced. For me, these upper atmospheres have the capacity to regenerate and sublimate reality.
In 2018, when everything inside me was in ruin, some people were able to untie my knotted heart. Talking about our childhood dreams and the origin of this spark for the mountains: Everest and this poster hanging in front of my bed, where every evening I would drift off in an overflowing imagination of things unknown, a feeling of forbidden intrigue, fear, fantasy, respect for these climbers; beauty, desire, falling in love over many nights with these majestic lines, seeing myself walking up and down this mountain. The path of my life at that time was woven by my dreams as a little girl: to be reborn after Nanga, to reconnect with myself. To bring this little girl to this ridge, then to the Hillary Step! In her dreams, this little girl walked these passages hundreds of times, following the bold steps of Tenzing and Hillary.
Writing the book, you explain, is part of your coming to terms with events, along with talking to experienced mountaineers such as Catherine Destivelle. How difficult did you find reliving the experience for the book, and how has it helped you?
Reliving those moments was very hard and I often said “Stop!” to this project. Sometimes it was one step forward and two steps back. But my collaborator Éliane Patriarca was incredibly gentle during this period, adapting to my rhythm. Today I realise how much this writing and these words have been a real therapy.
The title of your book Vivre/To Live could have multiple meanings in the context of your story. What does ‘To Live’ mean to you?
It echoes the hope of life that always accompanied me during those three days of survival on Nanga Parbat. If I had thought about death, I might not be here today. Some mountain stories of my childhood seemed warlike to me, so despite the tragedy, the title would never have had words like conquerors, combat, death, etc.
To Live because after Nanga Parbat, life came back thanks to Everest and today I am no longer in survival, but living.
To Live because I have always wanted to write something optimistic about mountains and mountaineering and this was one of the conditions for me to write this book, so that's why – despite the drama – it begins and ends with Everest and it talks about emotions.
To Live because life is not a long, calm river and I accept the various emotional stages it has taken me through: sometimes love, pain, questions, doubts, fears, challenges. In short, the whole range of human feelings, of life.
To Live because for me the mountains have always been the most beautiful school of life.
To Live, because as Victor Hugo said: "You are no longer where you were, but you are everywhere where I am" and Tom continues to live with me. Etc., etc ...