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Good bye to a great alpinist

Erhard Loretan passed away, on a day similar to many of his others. He was ascending, with a client, the summit ridge of Grünhorn (4043m) in the Bernese Alps, in his Switzerland, when it happened. A gust of wind, or snow collapsing underfoot, or something which perhaps we'll never know, proved fatal: Erhard has left us forever, while his client is currently in critical condition in hospital. In or what might be one of life's ironies, yesterday happened to be Loretan's 52nd birthday. A special day which he celebrated as normal: in the mountains, doing a job which coincided with his greatest love. Yes, because Loretan was certainly a great alpinist (one of the greatest of the modern era) but also an impassioned Mountain Guide.

Loretan's love for the mountains and alpinism seemed to written in his DNA. Born in 1959 in Bulle, he started climbing aged 11. Four years later he reached the summit of Doldenhorn (3645m) via the east face. In 1981 he qualified as a Mountain Guide and this became his profession. After an intense activity in the Alps and the Andes - where amongst others he established three new routes on three different mountains - Loretan proceeded to climb all fourteen 8000m peaks. He achieved this in 13 years, starting with Nanga Parbat (8125m) in 1982 and finishing with Kangchenjunga (8586m) in 1995. In doing so he became the third person in the world to conclude the Grand Slam, after Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka, and the second without supplementary oxygen. But it would be fair to say that without analysing how he reached this goal, one knows nothing about Loretan's alpinism and what sort of alpinist he was. His alpinism, in fact, distinguished itself for its purity, for its speed, for its lightweight style. A style which has become the hallmark of today's strongest, and for this reason Loretan can be considered a leader and forerunner. All one needs to do is remember his incredible 43 ascent and descent of the North Face of Everest: Loretan climbed the Hornbein couloir together with French ace Jean Troillet and the year, its worth underlining, was way back in 1986.

Three years prior to this record-breaking Everest ascent, Loretan had achieved an absolutely stellar hat trick - even by today's standards - with the ascent of three 8000ers: Gasherbrum II (8035m), Gasherbrum I (8068m) and Broad Peak (8091m) in just 17 days! A year later, in 1984, he climbed Manaslu (8163m) in spring, then Annapurna together with Norbert Joost. This first ascent of the East Ridge was an immense achievement, an absolute performance! Then, as if this didn't suffice, in December 1985 he carried out the first winter ascent of the East Face of Dhaulagiri (8167m). This alone was so intense that, even today, it would have made headline news. But there was more to come, such as the first ascent of the SW Face of Cho Oyu (8201m) in 1990 and, a few days later, another first ascent up the South Face of Shisha Pangma (8046m), the "smallest" 8000er. These Himalayan climbs were carried out while Loretan continued actively in the Alps, such as his 13 North Faces in 13 days in the Bernese Oberland in 1989 and, in winter 1986, the "imperial crown" in the Vallese Alps (38 peaks in 19 days).

Loretan's life as an alpinist and man was surrounded not only by great successes, and hiding this fact would be pointless. He was profoundly marked by the tragic death of his young child, for which he assumed responsibility. And he was also marked by mountain dramas such as the loss of climbing partner Pierre-Alain Steiner on Cho Oyu in 1985. Loretan's life therefore was certainly marked by great love and also great pain, a real life, in the deepest of meanings. When we met him last year at the Trento Filmfestival we were struck by his smile and willingness to help. He told us that, yes, his way of taking to the mountains was indeed beautiful (and also slightly crazy) but that now he felt the need to share his alpinism with someone, with others, with clients when working as a Mountain Guide. On that day he gave us a bit of himself with joy. And we attempted to capture a bit of that happiness in our video below. In memory of his love for alpinism, the mountains and Erhard's smile.

Posted on: 10/10/2011

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