Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Marc Batard | Racing to the top

He is often called the “The Sprinter of Everest", and it is easy to see why he has earned that moniker. Considered one of the first and foremost among speed climbers of the Himalayan peaks, Marc Batard says “speed is what happens to him in the mountains".

In 1988, Batard climbed from the camp (4,950m) to the summit of Makalu (8,463m) on the Nepal-China border, reaching the top on 27 April in 19 hours, 45 minutes, unaccompanied and in one day. In September that year, Batard climbed the summit of Cho Oyu (8,201m), on the Tibet-Nepal border, in 21 hours, setting out from the base camp at 5,700m and returning to it 29 hours later. Batard followed this up by climbing from the base camp of Everest at 5,350m to its summit at 8,848m on 26 September via the South Col route, without supplemental oxygen, in 22 hours, 29 minutes, a record which stood unbroken for 10 years.

At 43, he turned to his childhood passion of painting. Since then he has made close to 100 paintings and has written an autobiographical novel La Fièvre des Sommets. “But I don’t paint mountains. I paint the nature, how human beings react to it, the birds, the animals, and the forests," says the 63-year-old Batard.

Having climbed the Aconcagua peak in Argentina in January, the French climber is now in New Delhi to deliver a lecture, “Speed Climbing the 8000m Peaks". Batard plans to talk about his biggest climb in the Alps, why he decided to climb the Everest in less than 24 hours without oxygen, and the techniques of speed climbing. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You are considered among the foremost speed climbers of the Himalayan peaks. How has the experience been? What does the world look like from the top?

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You started at the age of 18, when you climbed the Pyrénées in Luchon, France. Then came Makalu, Cho Oyu and others. How different and similar were these peaks?

To me all the mountains are beautiful. But as a speed climber, Everest is dangerous; however, Makalu peak is more technical in terms of climbing routes, the terrain, the situations of ice and snow, and the weather conditions. Everest has a difficult route too, but 95% of the climbers take the easy route with snow.

What are the qualities you need to be a speed climber?

You will do well as a speed climber if you are lightweight and are generally fit both mentally and physically. The second thing is that you must be well-equipped with your climbing gear, be aware of the weather situations, and of the mountain. However, one can improve at speed climbing only by experience, and the patience to accept failures and mistakes.

Is speed climbing always about time and techniques, or does it include other elements like stamina and will-power?

Speed climbing requires endurance and power but more than that it requires motivation and also, presence of mind. One should not be too blinded by the idea of breaking records, ignore safety or put one’s life in danger. For instance, in 1990, I decided to bivouac on Everest and then go to Lhotse within 24 hours. But when I reached the top of Everest, my fingers started freezing, so I decided to come back. That decision saved my life, and my fingers of course.

In speed climbing, does the thrill dominate the summiting?

Climbing speed is dominated by the envy of the record more than the desire to be at the top. Climbing a mountain again and again is no fun unless I do it in lesser time than before. That’s the thing that keeps a speed climber motivated and moving.

You were involved in some scuffles with fellow climbers. Is that the reason you climb solo? Do you think one should have a companion when going for such dangerous adventures?

I like to be alone in the mountains as then I can move fast and don’t have to wait or look after anyone else. It is just me and my time record that is there on my mind. But when you are new to the mountain and climbing for the first time, it is always better to go with someone who knows the mountains, as the more you go up the mountain, the more unpredictable it becomes.

How have the Himalayas changed over the years?

There is no doubt that pollution has increased. But the biggest pollutant is tourism as it is the only driving factor of the economy there. However, people who are not guides, and are into professions like farming, are becoming poorer. Tourism has also affected the mountains. Tourists throw garbage. Sometimes, they don’t really care about mountains.

How did painting happen?

I started painting when I was 14 years old, but I never learnt the art. It comes naturally to me. I have painted more than a hundred paintings, but have had only three exhibitions until now. I also sell my work to people who understand and are interested in my paintings, and are not buying because of my Everest tag.

Climber, painter, and writer—do you have other interests as well?

I love films and I love to invent. I also make climbing gear and suits. I am, generally, very curious about everything in the world.

What is the state of speed climbing in India?

I think the sport of speed climbing is yet to take off in India. But the enthusiasm for climbing has increased in the younger generation, which is a good thing.

Batard’s lecture, Speed Climbing the 8000m Peaks, will be held on 7 March, 7-8pm, at Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre, Lodi Road, New Delhi. Entry is free.

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