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In memoriam, Paul Arene

By Q.-Tuan Luong

I met Paul through Philippe, a common friend. At that time I was living in Vallauris, in the Maritime Alps. I was totally obsessed with climbing and montaineering, and I would go into the mountains almost every week-end, in order to push my own limits. Because of that, Philippe told me that Paul and I would certainly like each other, since Paul was the only other person whom he knew who was as much into climbing as me.

I was having a hard time to find people with enough motivation for the extreme. My climbing circle consisted mostly of the local chapter of the Alpine club, and I found most of the members to be too mellow. Paul was definitively different. Besides his career as a software engineer, he pursued climbing with a considerable intensity at a level that very few could reach. In fact, his sport-climbing level was just out of my world. He was climbing 8a/b (US 5.13+). He told me, without any condescendance, that the stuff I was struggling in (6, US 5.10) was just like hiking. I remember that one day when I didn't manage to get up a 6b climb (US 5.10c) at a local crag, he led it to set up a top-rope for me, wearing running shoes. He didn't want to impress me, but just to show me how easy it actually was. He was so warm, friendly, and generous that you would never feel bad about not being as good as him. He would always convince me to give a try to his "warm-up routes", usually in the 6c-7b (US 5.11/5.12-) range, and he would always be surprised that I couldn't hang on the overhanging terrain. Paul enjoyed the competitiveness and the humor of being in a group on short hard routes, and wanted me to join the party. He had a real passion for climbing very steep routes and wanted to share the joy of moving in a truly 3D terrain, the exhilaration of the void and the fall, the joy of the relaxation after the tension (and also when the rope gets again in tension). But that was just too hard for me. So Paul took me to his favorite training grouds. In the hills above Nice there was a overhanging boulder which looked like swiss cheese to which Paul would go twice a week (this was before the development of climbing gyms). He showed me how to do the traverse. It took me several sessions to be able to complete it. When he demonstrated the moves, he made them look so easy that it was comical. He had so much humor and such a willingness to share that although I am no sport climber, I was begining to have fun at this stuff. Then there was also this cave, near Coco beach, which was right above the water, where he tried to coach me into doing knee jams. If you missed the move, you'd fall head first and be refreshed. Knee jams. were his trademark move. He could rest both of his hands, and get over other climbers an advantage that he thought was almost unfair.

Although climbing was the area in which he shined the most, Paul had other interests, and a real eagerness to explore new domains. He was also an extremely gifted skiier, and in one of the emails that we exchanged this spring, he told me of some very steep ski-mountaineering descents that he had completed. We took on paragliding at about the same time and went on trips together with Philippe. Paul's first canopy was comparable to mine, a pretty low performance one. At one point he was out of the workforce for a while, and during that time began to hike frequently to the top of Mt Cheiron, our backyard mountain. With that canopy, he eventually managed to soar for several hours there, a remarkable feat considering that this particular canopy had a glide ratio of about 3. Then he bought a high-performance canopy, but after I left France would not fly too frequently because he refocussed on this climbing. When I came back for a brief visit to the south of France in the summer of 1995, we went flying two times. At the Col de Tende, conditions were changing fast. Paul assisted me in taking off, but after watching me soar in turbulent conditions, decided not to try himself with his more unstable wing. On the way back, he expressed frustration, but not anger. However, the next day, near Valberg, he was again confident in his abilities to control his demanding canopy and stayed in the air long after I had landed. During the two weeks I was there, I stayed at his place, and began to understand why he was such a strong climber. He had methodically organized his life around it. For example, he had creatively transformed his entire living room into a climbing gym, and showed me enthusiastly the set-up, and his training routine. He had designed and built everything himself, and as I was expressing my admiration of the craft, he told me that he thought that all the climbers were mechanically capable people (for sure, he knew how to fix his car). He invited over a few of our friends from the old days when I was living there, and we had an unconventional and fun party.

Unlike many of the French sport climbers, Paul was also at home in the mountains. In fact, since there was such a world of difference between the two of us on the crags, that was the realm in which we could team up. Our most memorable big climb together was the Bonatti Pillar on Les Drus. We were initialy swapping leads, but since he found i was too slow, he took things in charge. We were benighted nevertheless. Paul stayed warm by using a garbage bag as a bivy sack. Paul was also my most frequent ice-climbing companion. It was always easy to talk him into trips that he enlived with his humor. He belayed me with a boundless patience on my long leads, and always followed in a fraction of the time. He actually began to ice-climb with me. The first time, despite his tremendous strength, he got quite pumped, but then learned quickly the technique, and a few years later was able to lead grade 6. I believe it was only his conservative side which prevented him to do so even earlier. As much as I was sometimes relying on boldness to attain my objectives, he was relying only on prudence and sheer competence. He somewhat admired me for that, although he thought that I was crazy for soloing so much. I remember that he sometimes rearranged the anchors at the belay to make everything bombproof. Back then, even though he was never offensive, I was slightly irritated (and amused at the same time, especially when he added frantically ice-screws), but afterwards, I realized he was doing the right things to become an old climber. One of our last ice-climbs together was an attempt on a new route on the awesome Tete de Gramusat, in the Fressinieres Valley, one of the greatest challenges anywhere, with its continous 300 meters of mainly free-standing vertical ice. We were running a bit late, and the temperature was getting unexpectedly warm, so Paul insisted on backing down. A few minutes after we reached the ground, a missile-sized stalactite felt from the wall and missed us by only a small margin. That would become the subject of innumerable jokes.

The last time I would see Paul was in June 1996. By coming to California, he was the only climber other than Frank to visit me. I was sort of short on vacation time, and I was afraid he would be bored climbing with me, due to the difference of our levels, so I let him do most of the climbing with other partners, not without giving him a hit list consisting of the nastiest offwidths that I knew. However, I couldn't lend him enough "big dudes". Wanting to challenge him, we tried together a route on Middle Cathedral, which, difficulty-wise, was very largely within Paul's ability. Not used to the run-outs, he prefered to back down because of the poor protection, rather than taking risks. He gave me the guidebooks he bought for me to keep, as he already planned to return, maybe to climb some big walls, and I was looking forward to seeing him again. In consequence, I would often tease him about the event, to which he would always reply with modesty and humor, making fun of himself. Some of the emails that he sent me had me laughing out loud. Unfortunately, in January 1999, one week after I had sent my greetings, the email that I received was not from him. A friend from the alpine club wrote me about the sad news. Paul, who was so competent and conservative, died due to unlucky circumstances following rockfall while hiking on the Cheiron near Greolieres, a small and tame mountain of the Maritime Alps. I can only deplore this twist of destiny and regret an excellent friend of which I never thought that he would make me feel sad.
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