Swiss mountaineer Marcel Remy celebrated his 99th birthday last February at his local gym, soaring the 50ft rafters before descending for a cake with his sons, underground legends Yves and Claude Remy, and a handful of supporters. Aside from the cake, it was a typical day for Rémy, who started climbing at 20, continuing passionately and almost anonymously until he was featured in a documentary about his climb from Argentinian Mirrorat the age of 94.
Remy has a long history with the 1,500 foot limestone face, having climbed it more than 200 times over a period of 71 years. As a young man, the mirror-smooth slab in the Swiss Vaudoises was a favorite playground. As I got older, it became a testing ground, and ultimately a place of affirmation.
At 80, he has climbed the face three times, leading each pitch of La Normale (15 pitches: 5a+), Direct (15 pitches: 5a) and Remix (13 pitches: 5c+). At 86, he chose to lead to the end on the Normal, avoiding the toughest pitches. And at 94, when he made the climb that won the hearts of climbers around the world, he broke the climb into manageable chunks.
Climbing with his two sons, Remy made the steep approach the afternoon before the climb and bivouacked between a pair of rocks. At dawn he started the face, coughing and climbing slowly but gaining determination with every step. He finished after five hours on the rock, then took off in a two-seater paraglider.
The climb was an affirmation that he, and by extension all of us, can always find a way if we just refuse to stop. Rémy trained diligently for the ascent under the guidance of his sons, who say they only did the same for him.
Marcel Rémy was born on February 6, 1923 in Gruyère. His father was a railway worker and the family lived in the tiny station of Les Cases, where climbers from Lausanne and Geneva disembarked with their light-coloured clothes and their reels of rope, bound for the Gais Alpins and other nearby rocks. Young Remy was chilled, but his father had nothing good to say about these dilettantes. His message was clear: there was a lot of work to do in the mountains, but Rémy could forget about climbing. “I had this image of the mountain: a fabulous world, but which was not for me”, confides Rémy to his biographer Philippe Barraud.
In 1942, while he was away to clear the tracks with his father, an avalanche swept over the small station, killing his mother and sister. Remy, homeless and motherless at 19, left to work for the Swiss railways the following year. He is finally free to take up mountaineering and his love affair with argentinian quickly passed hikes and scrambles on the limestone faces of the massif.
At 22, he attempted the Lion of Argentina, a crag south of the famous Wall of Mirrors with several routes rated 5c+ and above. Remy’s friend took the lead and, after failing three times on tricky ground, told Remy to go ahead. Although he feels far from ready to lead such a technical section, Rémy tries his hand at it anyway and ends with an adrenaline rush. After that, nothing stopped him.
He climbed the Mirror of Argentina for the first time at the age of 23. He married at 30 and practically raised his sons Claude and Yves on the rock. “He was a tough father. With him, it was do or die, whatever the conditions,” Claude told AFP last year. Now in their 60s, Claude and Yves became prolific first climbers, landing some 15,000 new throws before running out of count. Yet despite making headlines and winning accolades, the Remy boys continued to climb with their father on classics such as the Matterhorn, Grand Combin and Mont Blanc.
Rémy also taught many others how to climb, showing them the ropes on favorite spots like his beloved Argentina and Eldorado, a pastel-colored granite treasure trove on Lake Grimsel. He climbed in classic style, stubbornly clinging to his hemp ropes and Tricouni boots long after more modern gear came into fashion. His sons finally weaned him off the old accoutrements in the late 1970s, after he left his heavy boots at home and was forced to settle for a pair of borrowed rock shoes. “I have never been so unhappy!” he recalls, although he finally gave in.
In his later years, Remy embraced new trends, especially those that helped him stay active in the mountains. Doctors gave him a pacemaker and a pair of prosthetic hips, but it was a neighbor boy who introduced him to skateboarding around the age of 80. ,” he said. Skating helped him maintain his balance and reflexes, but the real key to his climbing longevity was indoor walls like the one at Villanueve where he celebrated his 99th birthday.
The climbing halls allowed Rémy to train all year round in a controlled manner. “I do it for my health, that’s the first thing. I keep going for my muscles, because I’ve noticed quite often that if I stop for two or three weeks, it’s much harder to start again,” he says. “It’s better to keep coming often.”
In the early 2000s, Claude and Yves introduced their father to Kalymnos, a Greek island known for its sport climbing. The old man has become a regular there, often visiting around his birthday. For his 85th, he saw a 6a throw on sight and, after several attempts, managed to red-point a 6b. Climbers began calling him Mad Dad, a nickname his climbs would soon reduce to an understatement.
“For his 92nd birthday, he did a lead climb, a 5c,” Claude said. “It’s a huge achievement at this age.” Far from slowing down afterwards, Rémy simply set himself bigger challenges. As well as Le Miroir at 94, Remy at 96 attempted Les Guêpes, a two-pitch course opened by his sons in 1974. He managed to send the first pitch, a steep 5c, but hit the second pitch in overhang, rated 6a. Then he told Claude and Yves that he wanted to come back for another try, after some more training in the gym.
Last February his birthday climb was a 4c route in the Villanueve gymnasium. When he reached the top, five stories above the ground, he stopped with a gesture of quiet satisfaction and descended for the cake. He passed away peacefully in July, aged 99.
Top photo: Rémy on Ace of Spades, Dent du Jaman, 2014. Photo by Claude Rémy