Marcel Rémy turned 99 on February 6, and he celebrated by heading to his local climbing gym and scaling a 16-meter vertical wall graded 4c on the difficulty scale, which means that it would be too hard for an inexperienced but athletic teenager to complete (grades range from 4 to 9).
If it’s not raining and if the weather isn’t intensely cold, this native of Switzerland also continues to practice outdoor rock climbing in the company of his sons Yves and Claude, two legends of the sport who imbibed their father’s passion for alpinism.
Marcel’s own parents never had much appreciation for all those colorful characters who kept getting off the train next to their house, carrying heavy packs on their backs on their way to climb the local mountains. But by age seven, Marcel had already been bitten by the bug: he dreamed of running after them, of being on one of their rope teams. In the meantime, he and a friend would practice by tying together eight to nine meters’ worth of leftover rope, of the kind used to tie up the cows, and using it to imitate their role models.
The story is well known and has been often echoed by the Swiss media. But his love affair with the mountains nearly ended when an avalanche swept away his house, killing his mother and sister. His father, brother and himself were saved by the fact that they’d been clearing snow from the Oberland railroad tracks that day. For a long time, his climbing aspirations were largely buried in the avalanche.
Then, one day in 1945, the mountain gave him a second opportunity: a friend of his got blocked on a wall and asked Marcel, who was behind him, to lead them both out of their predicament. Marcel panicked: he wasn’t ready to lead climbs. But he did, and together they reached the summit.
For as long as the body holds up and I am in good health, I plan to keep climbing at least twice a weekMarcel Rémy
It’s hard to explain what climbers feel when they overcome their fears and perform better than they thought possible. Everything hinges on one particular moment, and at the beginning it is often a toss-up. The day that Marcel truly became an alpinist was also the day that might have spelled the end of climbing for him. It’s all in the head much more than in the forearms.
A few days ago, the climbing wall of the town of Villeneuve filled up with people who had turned up to celebrate with Marcel as he turned 99. There was birthday cake and a lot of questions about where this man finds his remarkable motivation and dedication. There are love stories that last a lifetime, and this old man’s idyll with the mountains is an example of that – and the only way to understand how it’s possible that he is still doing it at his age. “For as long as the body holds up and I am in good health, I plan to keep climbing at least twice a week at the climbing gym, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank this indoor space for letting me stay in shape,” he said, shortly after blowing out the candles. “In order to keep going like this, I need to be regular about the effort and to keep feeding the body and mind.”
As recently as five years ago, Marcel Rémy was still climbing 450-meter walls graded 5c. With support from his children, he was able to overcome all the difficulties without grabbing anything other than rock surface to help himself along the northwest face of the Miroir de l’Argentine in western Switzerland. But his sons did not make it easy for him: he was forced to follow a strict training regimen for weeks before attempting the climb. And after reaching the summit, he was flown back down on a paraglider.
Climbing has become a popular sport – an Olympic one, even – and its evolution has been as slow as it has been remarkable: when Marcel Rémy was born, courage by the bravest was often rewarded with death. These days, it’s become such a leisure activity that all kinds of people can do it. But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed – and this could well be the thread that weaves Marcel’s story from his birth in between two world wars to the Ukraine invasion – it is the capacity for abstraction that climbing offers. From the moment one starts going up a wall, life becomes simple and there is only one overarching thought: avoiding a fall. And one is constantly drawn back to that universe of simplicity.