AVE CAESAR

Several years ago, when he removed the bolts in the crux pitch, most of the climbers rejoiced. “Of course, there were those, who had never tried the route and still got angry,” says Didier Berthod, a local climber/priest, who have made a challenging alpine line.

TEXT, PHOTO: STANDA „SANY“ MITÁČ
ORIGINAL VIDEO: STANDA MITÁČ (CAMERA), JAKUB FREIWALD (CUT)
SPECIAL THANKS: ŠIMON JANOŠEC TRANSLATION: TOMÁŠ ROZTOČIL
| MARCH 2022

A GIFT BY DIDIER

“The scariest part was the brittle flake at the start of the 7b+ pitch,” recalls Didier Berthod, the Swiss crack virtuoso, while chatting with us at a mountain chalet. Yet, he was lucky. Didier managed to stuff himself into the tight chimney behind the rock flake and felt secure in there, so he did not even place a bolt into the pitch. You would find no bolts even in the crux moves in thin cracks graded, with a bit of an understatement, with a modest 7c.

This story of a route follows the summer trip of Sokolíci group (young alpinist team of Czech Mountaineering Association) and its members Franta Bulička and Ondra Hašek, who set out to give Didier’s line a try. The weather on the rock needle of Petit Clocher du Portalet was far from being stable during that week and allowed the guys only two windows for solid attempts. Fanta Bulička, however, returned to the route soon thereafter and managed to finish a first Czech ascent of this amazing crack line.

The young guns were lucky to meet legendary Didier, who got back into climbing after more than 10 years in a monastery, in person. We bumped into him at Portalet, where he was practicing his new project “L’historie sans fin”, which is a unearthly arete graded 8b+ (the first climber to finish it later was Seb Berthe). Didier invited us to a chalet and we ended up chatting over a glass of wine and a dinner. And of course, we have invited him to our beloved Adršpach. We hope to see him later in the season!

How does „AVE CAESAR“ feel like?

– Climbing and talking: Franta Bulička and Ondra Hašek –

KEEP ON HITTING THE WALL

AN INTERVIEW WITH DIDIER BERTHOD

Do you recall how did you even come up with the idea of the “Ave Caesar” line in the first place? Did you notice it while abseiling?
That was not the case. We didn’t use the north face for abseiling and usually went by the south one instead. I was hoping I could find a line that would connect to the upper 7c crack, which we had already known. The first ascent of the crack was done by Phillipe Steulet – he was a super strong Swiss climber, who in the 90s removed all then pitons from the classic route “la Darbellay”, placed a few bolts into it and managed to send it RP. Imagine that! 30 years ago! He also opened an amazing corner route, which has around 50 meters and continues straight to the aforementioned 7c (“La diédre a Steulet” 8a+, 200 m). It is rumored that Steulet never freeclimbed that corner but he might climbed the 7c crack – nobody can tell today. Anyways, there were some bolts along the crack that I sawed off while finishing the entire line… by the way, I removed even the bolts from “la Darbellay” (8a, 200 m).

How did the local climbing community responded? Anybody got angry?
Well… most of the climbers rejoiced. But, of course, there were people, who had never climbed the route before, and still got triggered: “How dare you ruin the masterpiece of Phillip Steulet!”

But you didn’t feel it that way, right?
No, I think that the story goes on… Climbing evolves. Today, we have protection equipment that allows us to skip drilling more often.

„We don’t have to drill so often anymore.“ Šimon Janošec, Franta Bulička and Didier Berthod
(photo: Standa Mitáč)


Why is the route named “Ave Caesar”?
Because I was super scared in the narrow chimney behind the big flake at the beginning of the 7b+ pitch. And I was pretty much scared throughout the rest of the route as well. It’s not particularly treacherous but it’s an amazing, spectacular wall… After “Ave Caesar”, the gladiators used to say: “Mori turi te Salutant”. (The phrase translates as: “Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you!”). And that’s what I felt like as well – as if I was climbing up there to meet the death. (he laughs)

Still, I decided not to place a bolt into the chimney. (“Not the right decision at all,” cusses him his brother Cyrill, laughing “I don’t fit into the chimney! It’s not fair, when it comes to boxing, we’d be in entirely different weight categories.”)

Who did you make the route with?
We wanted to do the ascent together with Alexis Mikolajak but he started shaking already after the first pitch. What should I say… guy from Belgium, and he was only belaying me, mind you. (he laughs) So I have finished it later with Francois Mathey.

Are there any other areas in the Alps with such a good quality cracks?
You might find some nice pitches around Chamonix – but those are widely dispersed, not concentrated around one place as in the local area. There is in Italy some great aera, like Valle del’Orco or Ossola Valle. There’s something special about the exposition of the local cracks. I’ve stood at the statue of Madonna at the peak of Portalet at least fifty times already. Have you seen the first pitch of “L’histoire sans fin”? It’s a splitter crack, around 7c+ or 8a. Nothing compares to it. Or the beauty “la Darbellay”. I got back into climbing two years ago. I moved to Switzerland and spent a whole month just climbing here at Portalet… What a gift. We managed to open so many new directions… It’s great to have such a quality rock so close to your home. Granite cracks? Six stars…

Cracks at Portalet? Six-star quality (p: SM)

FULL-TIME CLIMBING PRIEST

Where are you based right now and what’s your job?
I live nearby in Monthey and I am a catholic priest. In Switzerland, the church is administered by the state, so I get some decent money for that as well. It might change one day, but so far, so good.

Does such an occupation give you enough time for climbing?
Not too much, really. I have to answer to many emails, attend meetings, plus I lead a class and even take care of the community life in our town.

You spent more than 10 years in monastery, am I right?
Yeah, 13 years in a small, hidden monastery. It is in France and it’s operated by Franciscans following the tradition of Francis of Assisi. I felt I needed to take a break from climbing… But I do admit that it was a bit too long. I set out on a spiritual journey. Read plenty of books. When I was climbing, I did not read at all. (he laughs) In the monastery, I found the intellectual side of myself and actually loved it. But that It was bit of a radical move. Now I am trying to find some balance. I feel it might be quite late do that, but whatever…

Do you see any relation between climbing and spirituality?
When I’m climbing I feel like an artist. Generally, I always strived to do beautiful things. I don’t want to waste my energy on doing nonsense. I want to do things that matter and are great, full of love, ethical… I also always make sure to spend enough time with my friends. I want to be more human through climbing. And then to use climbing experience in my daily life. Climbing to make others happy. (he laughs) I simply like to do things my way. Follow my own way through this world. I like sharing everything and showing people the beauty in this world. And the values…

Jesus Christ set us free. And many people do not get that he even set us free the reins of religion… Catholicism used just the truths that were handy and, once again, built an institutionalized religion… I think many people misinterpret the original Christian message. Of course, I am a catholic priest, but I still think that each of our lives is a mystery of its own kind.

What are you next climbing and professional challenges?
I’d like to come back to the US and Canada once again but I don’t have then funds and time to do so now. I thinking about trying “Cobra Crack” (8b+/c, which he tried in 2005, see the video). But in Canada I have a way bigger project, which is to connect with my daughter and reconnect with her mother. This is actually my most important challenge ever.

As for my job, I’d like to be a super-modern priest, to be different… Even to reform the church form the inside… That is a huge challenge because all those ancient structure are so strong and rigid, they look like a wall. And I keep on hitting it with the hope that it will fall one day. The institution has to change…

Supermodern priest Didier Berthod (p: Wiki)
– FRANTA BULIČKA IN DIDIER’S ROUTE „AVE CAESAR“ (photo: Standa Mitáč) –

Topo of „Ave Caesar“ (7c, 200 m)
(source: petitclocherduportalet.ch)




Standa Mitáč

Editor in chief

“Climbing is not about the grades and life is not about the money.” He loves to write about inspiring people. Addicted to situations when he does not care about the time – in the mountains or sandstone crags.

Jakub Freiwald

Editor

Professional video editor, cameraman and occasional photographer. He was shooting in China, Argentina, Indonesia or India. His next destination is New Zealand. Motto: „When there is a will, there’s a way.“

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