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Robert Paragot (1927-2019): An Old Man’s Lesson

[The following story by Robert Paragot first appeared in Alpinist 12 (2005) as part of a larger feature about Fontainebleau’s bouldering history and its influence on the advancement of alpine climbing standards. Paragot died at his home near Paris on October 24, 2019, at age 92.

Chris Schulte, an American climber who has bouldered extensively in Fontainebleau, referring to it as a “second home,” and French climbing guide and journalist Claude Gardien recently shared the following words with Alpinist about this influential man.

Schulte: An exemplary working-class climber, Robert discovered climbing while working as a typewriter repairman in Paris. As a novice, he made a number of first ascents on the boulders of Fontainebleau, which still stand as classic testpieces and fundamental benchmarks of the era. Exceptionally well rounded, Paragot achieved many difficult and historic ascents in the Great Ranges of the earth, from the north faces of the Drus and the Grand Capucin in the Alps, to first ascents on Aconcagua and Huarascan in South America, as well as Muztagh Tower in the Karakoram and Jannu (Kumbhakarna) and Makalu in the Himalaya. His exploits and experience earned him the presidencies of the Groupe de Haute Montagne (High Mountain Group) from 1965 to 75, and the (Federation Fracaise de la Montagne et de l’Escalade (French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing) from 1997 to 99, and the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. His vision has inspired generations of climbers of all disciplines, and will continue to do so for all who touch the lines that he left behind, both great and small, along with the words “the best is never good enough!”

Gardien: At 92 he was still aware of new climbs done by young guys…. He was a great climber and a very nice man.

Robert Paragot was one of these young working-class climbers who discovered climbing on the Fontainebleau boulders, just after the end of World War II. He and his friends went to Chamonix in 1950 for short holidays. On their first trip there, they could climb the famous north face of the Petit Drus. Two years later, they made a successful ascent of the Walker Spur. Only one year before, the route counted only eight ascents…

In 1954 they journeyed by boat to Argentina to climb the huge South Face of Aconcagua, a kind of Eiger North Face but twice as high…. They started to climb, fixing ropes and establishing camps. At 5000 meters they realized that they would never reach the top like that, so from there they pushed the route in alpine style. They took several days to succeed, in the storms and the cold air. [Several team members suffered serious frostbite.]

Robert would do another big ascent on Muztagh Tower (7276m). A strong British team had just reached the top five days before the French. They went on to forge their way, and did the second ascent, by a new route.

In 1962 he was the first of his team to touch the unclimbed summit of Jannu (Kumbhakarna, 7710m). [More information about that expedition can be found in the Jannu Mountain Profile published in Alpinist 57 (2017).] After Jannu, he became an expedition leader: on Huascaran north face (1966), and on Makalu’s West Pillar. During both ascents he did not stay in base camp, but took part in the ascent. He was an appreciated leader….

He was a kind of godfather for the young French climbers….

Robert was a dashing man, on the rocks and during his whole life. He fell sick last year but remained connected to the climbing scene, asking his friends for news from the young alpinists, his heirs.

In the essay below, translated from French by Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives, Paragot recalls the very beginning of his climbing career in the forest of Fontainebleau during the 1950s.–Ed.]

Paragot receiving the Piolets d'Or Lifetime Achievement (aka Walter Bonatti) Award in 2012. Rossana Podesta, Bonatti's partner of 30 years, is on the right. [Photo] Courtesy of Pascal Tournaire

Robert Paragot receiving the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement (aka Walter Bonatti) Award in 2012. Rossana Podesta, Bonatti’s partner of 30 years, is on the right. [Photo] Courtesy of Pascal Tournaire

HERE WE ARE NOW in the postwar years. We’ve regained our freedom in all its forms, especially that of unconstrained movement. We’d forgotten that freedom, without even realizing it, during our adolescence. Life, real life, is reclaiming its rights.

I want everything, but everything is not necessarily accessible. With several good friends from youth hostels, we leave at the end of each week to backpack in the forests surrounding Paris. The train, and sometimes the bicycle, is our obligatory means of transportation. One day, someone proposes spending a weekend in the forest of Fontainebleau, where it appears that people practice la varappe (rock climbing). The word pleases me although I don’t know what it means.

I discover sandstone boulders of various sizes, with aretes and more or less off-putting faces. I watch; above all, I observe. Several characters, most of whom wear black berets, attempt to reach the summit of a small rock. Someone whispers, “That’s a guy from the Club Alpin Francais.” I take an interest in an older man, about forty, who installs himself at the foot of an impossible-looking slab. He has a little carpet, which he uses to wipe the soles of his shoes. These are a sort of sneakers that, judging by the way he walks, must hurt his feet. He taps his fingers on a little cloth sack. He executes several stretches, and to my great surprise, after a few movements, there he is on top. I hear a grunt of satisfaction at his last move.

I am surprised, curious and floored, all at once. How did he do it?

I wait until he leaves, then approach the wall. My fingers search for the rough spots. They seem small, small indeed. “He’s just an old man,” I tell myself. “I should be able to do this!”

I raise myself up a little; I fall. I start again and fall again. I get impatient. I’m almost ashamed to be so worthless. My friends try, naturally with the same result.

The competition occupies us for an entire afternoon; the summit is never attained. So begins my alpine adventure.

One beautiful day, I will again find myself in front of the old man’s slab. And after several attempts, I will arrive at the top of my first, four-meter-high, mountain. This achievement will bring me great happiness, as well as a strange feeling, undoubtedly that of a conqueror’s pride. Several years later, there will be the first ascents of Aconcagua’s south face, Jannu, Muztagh Tower, Makalu…. But I will never forget that everything began at the foot of the “old man’s slab.”

Robert Paragot in 1952 in the Merveille area of Fontainebleau. [Photo] Robert Paragot collection

Paragot in 1952 in the Merveille area of Fontainebleau. [Photo] Robert Paragot collection