Swiss alpinist Marcel Rémy celebrated his 99th birthday last February at his local rock gym, climbing to the 50-foot rafters before descending for cake with his sons, underground legends Yves and Claude Rémy, and a handful of well-wishers. Barring the cake it was a typical day for Rémy, who began climbing at 20 continuing passionately and mostly anonymously until he was featured in a documentary about his ascent of the Miroir d’Argentine, at the age of 94.
Rémy has a long history with the 1,500-foot limestone face, having climbed it more than 200 times over a span of 71 years. As a younger man, the mirror-smooth slab in the Swiss Vaudoises was a favorite playground. As he grew older it became a testing ground, and finally a place of affirmation.
At 80, he scaled the face three times, leading every pitch of La Normale (15 pitches: 5a+), Direct (15 pitches: 5a) and Remix (13 pitches: 5c+). At 86, he chose to lead through on the Normale, avoiding the hardest pitches. And at 94, when he made the ascent that won the hearts of climbers around the world, he broke the climb into manageable pieces.
Climbing with his two sons, Remy made the steep approach the afternoon before the climb and bivvied between a pair of boulders. At dawn he started up the face, coughing and climbing slowly but gaining determination with every pitch. He topped out after five hours on the rock, and then flew down in a tandem paraglider.
The climb was an affirmation that he, and by extension all of us, can always find a way if we simply refuse to stop. Rémy trained assiduously for the climb under the tough guidance of his sons, who say they were only returning the favor.
Rémy at the height of his powers, in Chamonix circa 1950 and at the summit of the Miroir l"Argentine in 2017. CAS/Mammut
Marcel Rémy was born February 6, 1923 in Gruyère. His father was a railway worker and the family lived in the tiny Les Cases station, where climbers from Lausanne and Geneva would disembark with their bright clothes and coils of rope, bound for the Gais Alpins and other nearby crags. Young Rémy was transfixed, but his father had nothing good to say about these dilettantes. His message was clear: There was plenty 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,” Rémy told his biographer Philippe Barraud.
In 1942, while he was away clearing snow from the tracks with his father, an avalanche swept over the little station, killing his mother and sister. Rémy, homeless and motherless at 19, went to work for the Swiss railway the following year. At last he was free to take up mountaineering, and his love affair with l’Argentine quickly progressed from hikes and scrambles to the massif’s limestone faces.
When he was 22 he attempted the Lion d’Argentine, a crag south of the famous mirrored wall with several routes rated 5c+ and above. Rémy’s friend took the lead, and, after failing three times on a tricky pitch, told Rémy to go ahead. Though he felt far from ready to lead such a technical section, Rémy tried anyway and topped out with a surge of adrenaline. After that there was no stopping him.
He scaled the Miroir d’Argentine for the first time at 23. He married at 30 and practically raised his sons Claude and Yves on the rock. “He was a tough dad. With him it was do or die, whatever the conditions,” Claude told AFP last year. Now in their sixties, Claude and Yves became prolific first ascensionists, notching some 15,000 new pitches before they stopped counting. Yet even as they gained headlines and accolades, the Rémy boys continued to climb with their father on classics such as Matterhorn, Grand Combin, and Mont Blanc.
"Mad Dad' Marcel Rémy at 93 on the Mad Wall, Lionidio, Greece.
Rémy taught many others to climb as well, showing them the ropes on favorite haunts like his beloved l’Argentine and Eldorado, a trove of pastel-colored granite on Lake Grimsel. He climbed in classic style, clinging doggedly to his hemp ropes and Tricouni boots long after more modern gear came into vogue. His sons finally weaned him of the ancient accouterments in the late 1970s, after he left his heavy boots at home and was forced to make do with a borrowed pair of rock shoes. “I’ve never been so unhappy!” he recalled, though he eventually relented.
In his later years Rémy embraced new trends, especially those that helped keep him active in the mountains. Doctors gave him a cardiac pacemaker and a pair of prosthetic hips, but it was a neighbor boy who turned him on to skateboarding when he was about 80. “I hesitated, then I suddenly understood that it was we who were crazy and not these kids,” he said. Skating helped him maintain his balance and reflexes, but the real key to his climbing longevity was indoor walls like the one in Villanueve where he celebrated his 99th birthday.
The climbing gyms allowed Rémy to train year-round in a controlled way. “I do it for my health, that’s the first thing. I continue 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 said. “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 became a regular there, often visiting around his birthday. For his 85th he on-sighted a 6a pitch, and after a number of attempts managed to redpoint a 6b. Climbers began to call him Mad Dad, a nickname that 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 feat at that age.” Far from slowing down after that, Rémy simply set bigger challenges for himself. In addition to the Miroir at 94, when he was 96 Rémy attempted Les Guêpes, a two-pitch route his sons opened back in 1974. He managed to send the first pitch, a stiff 5c, but tapped out on the overhanging second pitch, rated 6a. Afterward he told Claude and Yves he wants to return for another try, after a bit more training in the gym.
This February, his birthday climb was a 4c route in the Villanueve gym. When he reached the top, five stories above the floor, he clipped off with a gesture of quiet satisfaction and came down for cake. He died peacefully in July, aged 99 years.
Words by Jeff Moag // Top photo by Claude Rémy; Rémy on Ace of Spades, Dent du Jaman, 2014