January 11, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

François Legrand

(info about François Legrand)

Freedom on a cliff

Thomas Kieller

Photos – Copyright François Legrand's website

François Legrand: The choreography of a climber.

Alone on a cliff, François climbs freely in a choreography which pushes him always a little bit higher. With his unique body motion, he executes, with suppleness and strength, skilful movements in order to find his route among the obstacles that the rock presents to him naturally. The French man represents well the attitude of the climber while pushing back his limits and enjoying each moment on the rock. He accumulated many titles in competition. Three times winner at the world championship, five times world cup champion in the overall ranking of the climbers, first at the European and French championships to name only just a series of his accomplishments. The results are appreciable, but for this man native of the mountain it is the challenge and the path taken which come first before the titles. He has seen the evolution of rock climbing and for him the comprehension of the right movement on a wall or on a rock is his passion. In fact, when he practices his sport, time flies. The hours passed in training sessions in order to shape his body and spirit were never a worry... None the less, cliffs have always been his principal motivation since his childhood. In front of the route and facing the challenge, he searches the solutions and the appropriated moves which will lead to the summit. The immensity of the cliff brings at the same time respect, a challenge and the spirit of surpassing oneself. Honest with himself, it is there that François lives fully his passion as a climber.

The phone-interview took place on July 16, 2009 at 14:00 when François was in Venelles in the province of Aix-en-Provence, France.

Passion of rock climbing

Thomas Kieller: You were born in Grenoble in the midst of a mountain family people. You were surrounded, among others, by high mountain guides and alpine skiers. Mountains and cliffs were part of your childhood scenery. Can we say that rock climbing is in your blood?

François Legrand: Oh yes! I started rock climbing when I was two years old; so I don't even remember it, but I have pictures of me on the rock of Col du Montet in Chamonix. All my family come from this region. My grand-father was a high mountain guide there and my father was also a guide. It was the family activity. I always climbed when I was a child and even my parents told me that when I was baby I wanted to climb everywhere before walking. When I was younger, I was always up in a tree. It was natural; it was a game. Still, when I have some free time which is not often, I go rock climbing.

Thomas: When you were younger, did rock climbing make you dream?

François: A lot and until thirteen years old. I did not have a lot of choice, we were doing a lot of rock climbing and trekking. I discovered my passion when free rock climbing was developing with Patrick Edlinger and Patrick Berhault. This new practice of rock climbing was starting to be known. It made me dream a lot by looking at the magazines and reading them. My parents kept my room the way it was. I left quite quickly the family house, at 18 years old. I waited to be of age. Well, I covered all the walls with pictures that I cut out from rock climbing magazines and the wallpaper was not visible anymore. All the walls and even the ceiling were covered. The magazines were Alpirondo, Montagnes Magazine and the magazine called La montagne which is the journal of the French alpine club and federation. Finally, I cut out everything I found.

Thomas: Did you have favourite climbers at that time?

François: Yes, Patrick Edlinger. He had his own particular style and, in rock-climbing words, he had a particular gesture on a cliff or a wall. Now, athletes are more focusing on efficiency, results and quotation. Before, the way you climbed was truly important. There were a lot of climbers who were doing vertical dance like Antoine Le Ménestrel. On this subject, women climb very well with a fluidity that guys did not have frequently. I think about Isabelle Patissier with whom I climbed a lot after. These climbers made me dream before I met them. When I started in the 80s, these athletes were the icons. Afterwards, I met almost all of them and they became my friends or opponents... I should say both at the same time.

Accident and spirit of surpassing oneself

Thomas: At 16 years old, you had a 20 meter fall. Can you tell me where this accident happened?

François: When I was a teenager, I started to climb a lot on my own or with my school friends. I was 16 and we were rock climbing the moment we had time, meaning during the school holidays. I think it was Thanksgiving in 1986. We went to Buoux (France), one of the most known cliffs, at that time and I knew it quite well already. We camped at the base of the cliff.

On a morning where I was not completely awake, I went on the warm up route of a 7a quotation. From the base, we did not see the top of the route! It turned out to be longer then what we expected and I had a too short rope. I didn’t even think about that and we did not do a knot at the end. Unfortunately when I was going down the stopper did not see the end and I fell. It was an abrupt stop. I had severe injuries and I had to be hospitalized for a long time. I had been told that I would never rock climb again or be able to do any sports. It was a tough period, but it had a significant impact on me as a climber and for my career.

We have the impression that the path of a champion is easy because of his good results. However, there are periods of doubts and counter-performances which are sometimes quite difficult to live. You have to be strong to come back each time.

Thomas: What were the consequences of this fall?

François: I had three vertebras broken. Fortunately, I was young and I did not need an operation. But, there has been calcification and I was still growing up. That was the most important fracture... the backbone; it could have been very serious. Also, I broke my wrists.

Thomas (exclaims): Both!

François: Yes, on the right side, the consequences were long because it was pretty bad. Hmm! I was quite bothered for six months because I was in a complete standstill. After, I did another six months of rehabilitation before I could correctly climb again.

Thomas: Despite this fall, you came back to rock climbing. What pushed you?

François: I think about a lot of things. I have been told that I could not do anymore what I liked or any kind of sports. You can understand that those words can hurt a lot. So, I lived a day at a time without knowing what I will do after. From the moment I started rehabilitation and that my situation was improving, I wanted to see how far I could recuperate. I did not have an objective, but the desire to climb again was there.

When you suffer a 20 meter fall, there is a certain apprehension. I felt scared when I started to climb again and it was not easy. My first short try was in Grenoble. The only way I saw to go beyond my fear was to return to the place where I injured myself. I went back to Buoux and I climbed for two weeks while taking extra precautions and at the end of my stay I realized the path where I fell. I made a great step against this apprehension and afterwards things were easier.

Thomas: Indeed, one year later in 1988, you arrived at your first French championship where you faced the great actors of that time: Jacky Godoffe, Alex Duboc, Jean-Baptiste (Jibé) Tribout, Didier Raboutou and Patrick Edlinger. It was an impressive progression. To compete against the best ones, did it motivate you?

François (tells with pleasure): No, it was not really the case. Things happened so quickly when I came back. After a few months, I regained the level I had before because on the technical aspect, I did not lose that much. It was more a question of physical training.

Before, I was rock climbing without doing physical conditioning. After the accident, I started to do some because I lost a lot of muscle which disappeared under a plaster corset. I did a lot of exercises with weights and also for my abdominal muscles. I gained back muscles and at the same time strength. At that time, nobody was training regularly besides doing push-ups and pull-ups. So, I started to combine rock climbing and training. Really quickly, I made some impressive progress.

In 1988, it was the first year of French youth rock climbing championship. It was my first competition; I went there and I won. From that moment, I wanted to participate in other competitions but there were few of them. I used my title of France champion to ask the organization of the senior French championship if they could invite me. They accepted and I went there without having an objective besides the fact that it was an additional competition for me and I could meet the athletes that I admired. Moreover, I took most of my time to watch them in seclusion or when they were climbing.

One thing led to another, I reached the finals and I was really happy. I climbed naturally... in fact, there is something interesting concerning this. Competitions were on sight like they still usually are which means that each climber reads the route before climbing. We had two minutes to observe and ten minutes to climb. In the end, we had twelve minutes to look and to climb. Concerning my strategy, I was the first to analyze the route for five to six minutes and consequently I had only six minutes left to climb. The persons who were there did not understand my approach. However, I was reading well the route, I was understanding it and then hop I climbed up! This way, I was going really quickly. It allowed me at the French championship to climb to my full capacities. The strongest guys at that time who were Edlinger, Tribout, Raboutou, Cortijo, Godoffe did not understood the route because they only stayed two minutes at the base and they climbed while searching their way. This allowed me to almost win the competition even if I was at a much inferior level than the others. I finished second behind Jacky Godoffe.

Thomas (smiles while listening to the last response of François): I want to come back on the training aspect. I know that you live your passion by living many months in a cave at the beach of Buoux. Why this initiative?

François: Yes, it was just after the French championship. Normally, I was going back to school for the new academic year in September to complete my last year of secondary school. I truly wanted to do this last school year in order to pass my final secondary school examination. After two months, I was only thinking about climbing. I did not go to class too often because I was climbing so often. I decided to stop completely because I knew that I will not pass my final examination.

At the end of November 88, I left with a school friend, Olivier Cotte. It's funny, in a week, we organized our things. By taking provisions at our parents, we left once more for Buoux with two huge bags each and we did some hitch-hiking. On our way, we camped at Sisteron because it took two days to cover the 250 km.

I left everything behind and I never went back. What we were carrying was everything we had. You can understand that we did not want to be robbed. We put our stuff in the cave of the beach which is in the middle of the cliff at 40 meters from the ground and 50 meters from the summit. There we felt in security. It was hard to imagine that some people would take our things from there!

We lived in this cave. Unfortunately, that year it was a very tough winter in Buoux with some snow. It was really cold, mostly at night. After one month, Olivier went back home.

I stayed there and I met climbers from the south of France. I got along with the best French climbers and foreigners who lived in Provence. I remember meeting the English climbers Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat, the German Stefan Glowacz, the American girls Lynn Hill and Robyn Erbesfield were there also as well as Jibé Tribout and Laurent Jacob from Paris. All of them were in the south of France, so I climbed with them. They became my friends because they knew that if they were climbing here, they will find me.

After a moment, they told me that I could not stay in the cave all year. It's too cold, it's too tough. They were friendly with me and they lodged me one after the other. We trained also on other cliffs. It was good for me because I was training with high level partners and I progressed a lot in 1989. The good results in competition followed after. It is probably the year where I progress the most.

Thomas: It is a beautiful experience.

François: Oh yes!

The cliff

Thomas: I will always remember a captivating documentary in the beginning of the 80s where a climber was on a cliff1. This man, in solo, was pushing himself while making pure and skilful movements... Something which can impress the imagination! For you, what does rock climbing on a cliff bring?

François: For me rock climbing on a scarp is the essential of my motivation. I have always climbed on scarps. Walls came only afterwards.

I'm old enough now to have lived all of the evolution of rock climbing. I started to climb with material from another time. We climbed on rock outcrops of category 4 or 5 and that was difficult enough. Afterwards, material and difficulty evolved. However, the goal is still the same which is to reach the summit of a route or a mountain. It was not to give everything you have and to fall. If I climbed on a wall or a cliff, the objective is to go to the top of the route. I see young athletes who start now and their objective is above all to win. It is not to reach the summit of the route. It is quite different.

My passion is to fix myself a challenge and to work at it consequently. I like to climb a route at the first try and on-sight. The passion of cliffs and movements in rock climbing is what motivates me.

François Legrand: Alone on a cliff.

I did a lot of competition and indeed people talk a lot of my results. Maybe they categorized me as a climber who performs on artificial walls. On my own, I have always trained a part of my time on a wall and the other part on a cliff. Well, during many periods, I only climbed on a cliff.

Thomas: The philosophy is quite different... Alone in front of the cliff, do you have to be honest with yourself?

François: Yes, there is already a total respect of the medium, from the rock itself because it makes the rules. We must adapt to the problems. It is not like this on a wall where we can turn or bring closer the grip or adding another one. On a rock, you must find the solutions and grips that will allow you to go higher. This is the basis; it is the ethic that everyone gives to himself in relation to the rock. It is true that the people who started on a wall will not have a strong ethic. They don't really have limits and it is tough to go on a rock and fall on movements because they don't feel them. The grip is not at the right spot. Well, on a rock it's often like this. This is the interest to rock climb in nature.

Thomas: Even with a safety rope, is there a sensation of liberty?

François: Yes, we can feel this liberty. It is easy to see the difference between when you climb in top-roping or when you are leading. We feel a sensation of liberty when you lead. Many times, I have been told that because I give rock climbing lessons to people who are in a stage of progression. They are passing from top-roping to leading and they say to me it's crazy how free they feel. They don't want to climb like they used to do. On a rock, you feel what you are doing.

Also, the more we go towards liberty, the more we eliminate things that we usually add on on the rock-face like pitons... If we go to the extreme, we can remove the rope and the harness. Afterwards, one must find the balance between risk and security. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not a big adept of solo climbing, but of course when you climb this way on small routes, the sensation of liberty is crazy. However, in solo, we cannot go towards our limit because the risk is too great. I'm not ready to take it; I want to live a long life.

When you practice rock climbing over water, we can also achieve incredible sensations because we do not have the constraints related to the material. This activity has its drawbacks such as when you fall, you start from the water and you must change the materiel. It is not a simple practice but the sensations are cool.

Thomas: Rock climbing also allowed you to travel and to see different landscapes. What are your most beautiful experiences of rock climbing on a cliff?

François: Indeed, there is something which made an impression on me and it is my trip to Madagascar in 2007. I discovered an incredible country. Fabulous! There are places with a lot of space. Life is really particular there and there lifestyle touched me deeply.

Then, there are those cliffs which allow us to discover a route. Even if we were not the first to have discovered it because it was partially equipped, we cleaned the grips and we founded the solutions to the route. I lacked a little bit of time in order to invest myself to the very end. It was an unbelievable experience.

On a second aspect concerning this project, I was a little bit disappointed. When I came back, I talked about it and it was cool. My eyes were shining with joy and I was telling that I had only the desire to return there to try the route. However, a lot of climbers threw themselves on the project in order to do the first climb. It felt a little bit savage. There was not too much respect considering what we could do there.

In spite of this, this adventure in Madagascar was the most beautiful project I have done.

Success in competition

Thomas: In the beginning of the 90s, the success is there and they will last a decade. Among others, you have won three times the world championship and five times the world cup in the overall ranking of the climbers. What did competition bring to you besides victories and prize money?

François: In the beginning, I needed recognition. I did not have the objective to be world champion. Besides, when I started in 1988, there was no world championship. So, it was not a challenge. Like I said earlier, it was the first French competition for the youth. So, I wanted to go there to participate in a competition and to enjoy myself.

After 1989, I progressed a lot and of course I needed to live from my passion. It was really tough because I did not have any sponsors. So, I needed recognition.

I participated in competitions and I was really focusing on results so I could sign contracts with some sponsors. It did not work well. I was still able to get my first contracts and it allowed me to start my life as a professional climber.

Afterwards, I truly wanted to understand how competition worked in order to prepare myself the best way and I liked it a lot. It was a challenge to try to be ready for a specific day and to put in action everything I prepared. In fact, I transferred the challenge that I was giving myself on the rock to competition. By preparing well, I left nothing to chance in order to be at the top.

Every time I decided to start a year of competition, it was not to grab another title but it was rather to renew a challenge. I did not arrive to the events as the five times world champion but as a climber who wanted to confront himself to his goal.

Thomas: What are the characteristics which allow you to have that much success in competition?

François: First, I must say that the activity itself was quite young. At the time, I think that people did not train in a systematic manner. The route openers of that time, who are the climbers I mentioned earlier, underline the importance of the body language, of movement and of the technical aspect of climbing.

Nowadays, it has evolved a little bit. The routes are more physical and they are more and more inclined which means in a way that they are less technical. There is also less time to recuperate. If you do not have the physical conditioning, you will have a tough moment on the route and eventually you are done!

In my case, I was able to read well the routes, to place myself correctly; I had good body movement and I was versatile. I had what it needed concerning strength but I didn't have brute strength. I had good endurance which allowed me to be regular. Moreover, I had a good approach. That's it!

Thomas: I read that you were the first to apply the theory of the right movement. What means this theory?

François: I did a research, not too analytic, on movement in rock climbing considering different situations in order to have methods to resolve problems concerning body movements. That allowed me to find adapted positions to almost each situation in relation with my physical qualities. Every person has his qualities and we do not place ourselves the same way to make a movement. In any case, we don't feel the difficulties the same way. In knowing more about this subject allowed me to anticipate difficult movements and to place myself in the right manner, to accelerate at the right time and to have the good rhythm of climbing.


Thomas: To reach your objectives and your dreams, you had to train a lot. What is the training of a climber?

François: I have the passion for rock climbing, so quantity did not put a weight on me. I could climb for hours and I was enjoying myself all the time. Indeed, there were times I had to kick myself in the butt in order to do a little bit more, but it was not a burden.

I see the difference now because I train the youth of the French team. The athletes of that age have a lot of difficulty to train. They do quality work and they are strong. However, they often don't warm up properly and the moment they are a little bit fatigued, they stop.

We used to do long sessions by climbing all day on a cliff. In a warm up, we could do 20 lengths of a route beyond 8a. It was a lot! Now, the young athletes are doing a maximum of three lengths and this is it. Maybe it's true that we did too much. It is important to find the right balance between quantity and quality.

Thomas: It has evolved a lot…

François: The training methods have evolved quite a lot. I lived many years with a Japanese climber, Yuji Hirayama. We rented an apartment in Aix-en-Provence and we built a rock climbing wall in our accommodation. During the day, we climbed on a cliff and in the evening we trained on the wall. We developed the principle of the double session in one day. It allowed us to do a good training because we had enough resting time from the cliff session to the one on the wall. In the same day, we trained well and I can say that we were fatigued.

International opener and teaching

Thomas: In 2003, you left the competition. But you are always involved in it as an international opener. What do you do in this matter?

François: I'm the one who creates the routes in the competition for the top level climbers during the world cup and the world championship. I had the opportunity to open many of them like the 2007 World Championship in Spain. It is great because you can let your creativity and originality develop as far as movement is concerned.

There is also the aspect of the event where I have an important responsibility on the course of the competition and on its success. If I make mistakes on the routes and all climbers fall before finishing, the show will not be good.

Contrary to the competitor who gives everything when he climbs, I work intensely during approximately one week before the competition. I try the routes to be sure that everything works. Afterwards, I watch the climbers and I enjoy myself. This way, I'm still in contact with the top climbers and it is always something that I have appreciated. It pushes me a little bit to stay at a good level because I must try the routes, otherwise I will be useless.

Thomas: You have turned yourself also to teaching. Where do you teach your rock climbing knowledge and what is the satisfaction you get from it?

François: It's in Aix-en-Provence where I founded a rock climbing school named Urban Roc. We have a club with approximately 200 members. I participate in the groups who compete and I do outside activities.

I have also another responsibility which does not concern my rock climbing school. Since 2009, I trained the French youth team. They are coming from different parts of France, so I regroup them on one of the poles of the country often in Aix-en-Provence because the national centre of the federation is there. I train them during courses. Afterwards, I do the selection to bring them to the European cups and to the world championship for the youth.

Thomas: Do you find satisfaction from teaching and to see the young climbers' progress?

François: It is incredible! Moreover, I feel cohesion and a good atmosphere in the group. I see them progress from the beginning and the results will follow. Nevertheless, we know that progression and the results are not necessarily linked but I hope it will be worthwhile.

Last words

Thomas: François, does the cliff or the rock still call you?

François (with enthusiasm): Yes, when I have an occasion. Daily, it is not easy with all the courses that I give and the competition with the French youth team. I do regularly training sessions on the wall of my house, but when I have an opportunity, I go climb a cliff near my place.

Lately, I went to Kalymnos in Greece for a two-week vacation. It is a Greek island and a famous rock climbing place. There are exceptional routes mostly in caves with a lot of stalactites. It is original. I did a lot of routes at my level and it gives me a lot of pleasure. I did a few routes in the category 8b and 8b+. I was quite happy.

Thomas: It is always pleasant like it used to be?

François: Oh yes! I think that we cherish more the things when we do not have a lot of time. I do not pass an occasion. Now, I go and I enjoy it fully. When I was climbing each day, I did not realize that. You know, there are some days where everything goes well. Than comes a day, we feel just ordinary and we enjoy the moment a little bit less. It is important to cease the moment right away.

Thomas: Thank you François for this discussion.

1. Thomas refers to the 1982 documentary movie “La vie au bout des doigts” realized by Jean-Paul Janssen and featuring the famous French rock climber Patrick Edlinger.