Rock climbing

Didier Berthod, from climbing star to monk and vice versa | Sports

Didier Berthod disappeared from the climbing scene overnight. Some said he was recovering in a monastery from a severe knee injury, but the truth was that he had already given up his old life. It was 2006 and Berthod was a 25-year-old elite climber, a fearless and inspiring pioneer in the specialized world of crack climbing on steep rock faces. The charismatic Swiss mountaineer didn’t talk much, but he didn’t need to: his exploits spoke for themselves. Sponsors were feverishly vying for his endorsements. To the outside world, Berthod seemed to revel in the camaraderie and frugal lifestyle of sport, as well as the simple spirituality of the outdoors.

No one could see Berthod’s inner struggle, his pain and sadness. Maybe it was because the world saw a young rock climbing fanatic who was always striving to get stronger, train harder and be the first to do the impossible. He even mastered the one-finger pull-up. It was perhaps this motivation that led Berthod to hide his knee injury from his climbing partners and the film crew recording the first free ascent of the toughest crack on the planet – Cobra Crack ( British Columbia, Canada). He didn’t say a word to anyone in the climbing world and instead called his mother. “Today is a wonderful day. I broke my knee and I can’t climb anymore. I can finally stop.

One of the last scenes from the Sender Films documentary (The Dawn Wall; The Mountaineer) about the free ascent of the Cobra Crack shows a smiling Didier Berthod leaning on his crutches as he talks to the camera. “I came here to feed my ego and my vanity – to be the first.” There was no on-screen drama. Instead of anger and frustration, Berthod showed unusual peace and acceptance. No one suspected that he was saying goodbye to climbing that day.

Berthod, who was raised in a family of devout Catholics, met a priest in 2006 who rekindled his faith and guided him to a Franciscan monastery. Berthod walked through those doors and left behind his old life, including his family. He didn’t see them again for 10 years. His new cloistered existence ended a life of imitation, as he called it.

Didier Berthod discovered rock climbing at the age of 12 and immediately excelled in this sport. Then he read an article in a climbing magazine at 18 that changed his view of the vertical world. He saw images of endless, sleek fissures running along the rock faces until they disappeared from view. It was a different aesthetic that fascinated him. Berthod has set himself the goal of being the best crack climber on the planet, drawn to adventure and controlled danger.

Didier Berthod (left), the day of his priestly ordination.

Berthod fell in love with it. In 2003 he found a crack in a rock face in Italy’s Orco Valley with fixed ropes running along an overhang. He ripped them off and tackled the climb unassisted – a free climb. He later learned that it was the hardest crack in Europe. Now he was ready to conquer the legendary cracks of the United States and Canada. Berthod seemed happy and content to have found his place in the world, a place where he could express his own identity. For a time, this drove him to be the best no matter what he had to sacrifice. He had no coach, method or plan – pain was his thermometer. But the teenage dream with its good vibes, beer and outdoor camping wasn’t enough for Berthod. The dream was too small.

It was a hollow way of life. He kept telling himself that there should be something more to life, something bigger. But his body marched in the opposite direction, demanding more adrenaline and greater challenges. In Crack, a 2018 documentary about Berthod directed by Christophe Margot, he explained what he was going through at the time. “I felt like a junkie, someone who craved a daily dose of rock climbing. If I didn’t understand, I got angry. I hated that feeling because it kept me from being truly free. I needed to be free, and that’s what my faith gave me – that and spiritual healing.

The climbing world was baffled when Berthod stopped appearing on magazine covers. “Obviously people who didn’t know me well thought I lost my mind in 2006,” Berthod said in Crack. “But those close to me knew that I was religious and that I often reflected on the meaning of life. Especially because several friends and family members have committed suicide, which has left me with many unanswered questions. But Berthod also withdrew from the world for another reason – he got a Canadian pregnant with a girl who is now almost 17. Father and daughter recently met for the first time.

Didier Berthod, during his time as a monk.
Didier Berthod, during his time as a monk.

In 2018, Berthod was ordained a priest and started climbing again, nearly 14 years after he last put on climbing gear. And he’s back with his former sponsor – Scarpa – an Italian manufacturer of adventure sports equipment. He spent four years in a monastery between 2006 and 2010. He then spent five years in a Swiss village studying theology, and three more preparing to become a priest. “For many years I have been 100% dedicated to living a highly spiritual and radical Christian life. Once I thought I would be a monk for the rest of my life, or maybe a missionary. But I left the monastery and the dogmatic religion in 2020 – I didn’t want to be a Catholic fundamentalist, even though I’m still a priest. I still love the gospel of Christ and I continue to study theology. I found that I I could live my faith without withdrawing from society, and it freed me to tackle unfinished business in my life, like meeting my daughter and getting back into climbing. Now I can do anything – climb, live, follow God…”

Berthod now trains with a friend four or five days a week, and crack climbing is still his favourite. After years of isolation, his nervous physique has regained some of its musculature. He needs to feel strong again, but he’s no longer determined to be the best. That fire no longer burns inside, but there are still comforting embers. He has learned to value the human relationships that climbing offers, and his mission is now to transmit his joy to everyone he meets. Berthod is pastor of the parish of Collombey-Muraz (Switzerland), where he celebrates masses, baptisms and funerals, and takes care of all solitary people who come to him.

As he approaches 42, Berthod feels he has finally found the right balance. “It cost me dearly, but I found a way to be human in this world. I needed time to discover my identity and my purpose in life. I don’t proselytize when I climb, and I don’t pretend to be the cool climbing priest at church.