The sad death of French alpinist Jean Couzy in a rock fall in the Dévoluy Mountains
jean couzy

Jean Couzy was a French climber who lived from 1923 to 1958. At École Polytechnique, he pursued his education in the field of aeronautical engineering. Maurice Herzog’s expedition to Annapurna in 1950 included him as a participant when he was 27 years old. Prior to this, Marcel Schatz, who was also a participant of the trip, was his typical climbing companion. Both Chomo Lonzo (7796 meters) and Makalu (8481 meters, and the fifth highest peak in the world) were climbed for the first time by Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray in 1954. Chomo Lonzo was the first mountain to be climbed, while Makalu was the fifth-highest mountain in the world.
Makālu, a mountain that stands at a height of 27,766 feet (equivalent to 8,463 meters), is located in the Himalayas, specifically on the boundary between Nepal and Tibet (Chinese). Mount Everest is 15 kilometres (23 miles) to the east-southeast of this location. Makālu had been sighted by climbers of Mount Everest; nevertheless, it was not until 1954 that attempts were made to scale its steep flanks that were covered in glaciers. The first two members of a French group to arrive at the summit were Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray on May 15, 1955. Within two days, seven further people came shortly after.

One of Couzy’s most notable achievements was his ascent of Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world, in 1950. Alongside Maurice Herzog, Louis Lachenal, and Gaston Rébuffat, Couzy was part of the French expedition led by Herzog that successfully reached the summit of Annapurna on June 3, 1950. This historic feat marked the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak and remains one of the most significant accomplishments in the history of mountaineering.

Following his success on Annapurna, Couzy continued to pursue his passion for climbing, undertaking numerous expeditions to challenging peaks around the world. He was known for his bold and determined approach to climbing, as well as his exceptional skill and endurance in high-altitude environments.

In addition to his mountaineering achievements, Couzy was also a respected author, writing several books about his climbing experiences and adventures. His writings provided valuable insights into the world of mountaineering and inspired countless climbers around the globe.

A starry night, cold and clear, populated by granite ridges like so many cathedrals, whose rocky procession closes the upper Lys valley. At the bottom of this amphitheater, a steep wall where the eye stops: the eastern peak of Crabioules.

It is June 27, 1948. The mountain is not yet this opposing force which will shorten, ten years later, an extraordinary destiny; she is the secret witness of our search for the absolute. That day, Jean Couzy will enrich Pyreneanism with a major contribution; he will sign the second on June 15, 1958, on the north face of Petit Vignemale.

In the meantime, this discipline will experience a new lease of life, very technical: the sixth degree invades the topos and artificial climbing allows all daring. As for Jean Couzy, more famous climbs will crown his life, “one of the most magnificent mountaineering careers of all time”.

A spiritual journey

A member of the Annapurna expedition in 1950, Couzy distinguished himself by his communicative influence, from the first reconnaissance to the rescue of the rope parties who descended from the 8078 meters of the summit. “Thank you Couzy”, simply wrote Louis Lachenal, very experienced, in his Carnets du Vertige. And Maurice Herzog added2: “Terray or Couzy would certainly have been capable of leading such an expedition. » However, on his return to France, Couzy is left in the shadow of the superlatives which celebrate the symbolic victory, on the world stage, of a convalescent country. Moreover, his conception of mountaineering as an expression of a spiritual journey did not accord with the mediocrities of easy glory.

In 1954, the Himalayan Committee renewed its confidence in him for an attempt at Makalu (8463 m). He developed oxygen inhalers, decisive elements of the British success on Everest a year earlier. The expedition did not reach the summit of Makalu, but on October 22, Couzy and Terray removed by forced march Chomo Lönzo (7,796 m), in Tibetan territory.

The second national expedition to Makalu, in 1955, was an unmitigated success: noted geological studies crowned the sporting adventure, and the entire team, galvanized by Couzy, set foot on the summit of the fifth highest mountain in the world. Our comrade André Vialatte (36) is among the winners 3 .

Jean Couzy’s climbs stand out as challenges to intelligence on perfect mountains

The most difficult challenges

Between two training sessions in Fontainebleau, Couzy also tackles the most difficult walls in the Alps, often with René Desmaison: the direct north face of the Cima Grande, the northwest face of the Olan, the first winter face of the Drus , the north ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Puiserey, and a triple route in the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. Pieces of bravery at the forefront of mountaineering or challenges of a geopolitical competition, Jean Couzy’s climbs all stand out as challenges to intelligence on perfect, archetypal mountains.

Fifty years later, its aesthetic criteria, speed of execution and technical purity of the gesture, are still a reference.

Straight as a sword

We who have not had the good fortune to know it, here we are, in search of memory, in the north-east face of the Crabioules, open like a score that can be replayed indefinitely. There are hardly more than one climb per year on this route that is too wild to become classic. Only the overhanging shales of the base break the perspective, with the disturbing consistency of a pile of plates; but soon the wall rises again “straight as a sword”, on a solid and compact granite.

The key passage is crossed by artificial climbing, two pitches above the small snowfield suspended halfway up, when you stumble under a prominent roof, cracked with large cracks. On the left, where Patrice de Bellefon’s description sends us, the peaks do not hold. With all due respect to this distinguished Pyrenees, whose Hundred Most Beautiful Races praises “la Couzy”, we finally exit to the right, in an extraordinary aerial atmosphere. Once you have crossed the roof, you literally fly up to the border summit in one go.

The most beautiful routes in the world

Along the way we pass old peaks, not without emotion. Jean Puiseux, the companion of his last race, would perhaps have recognized these “pitons which are signed Couzy: very solid, but planted in positions where they are relatively easy to recover” .

The distant serenity of those who have exchanged a part of themselves

When the valley collects us after thirteen hours of effort and wonder, we taste the distant serenity of those who have exchanged a part of themselves, in the words of Saint-Exupéry. The score closes, Couzy the composer is no more.

Our eminent comrade died from a rock fall on November 2, 1958 during the ascent of Roc des Bergers, in the Hautes-Alpes. He rests in the cemetery of the village of Montmaur, where we can read this epitaph: » Jean Couzy, 1923–1958. Exceptional mountaineer who opened or repeated, from Olan to Makalu, the most beautiful routes in the world. »

Father of four children, he was a military air engineer and knight of the Legion of Honor.

1. L. Terray, The conquerors of the useless, 1961.
2. 2000 Annals of the High Mountain Group – Interview with Maurice Herzog.
3. Vialatte, general armaments engineer, died on May 15, 2007. Of the Makalu team, only Serge Coupé and Guido Magnone survive.
4. J. Puiseux, The Mountain and Mountaineering, December 1958


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