This mountaineer is the only Frenchwoman to have climbed twelve peaks over 8,000 meters.
“At the top: it’s euphoria, wonder…relief. Sophie Lavaud struggles to find the words. His feelings are indescribable. A photo, a few tears, hugs, the joy of having walked on an inaccessible corner of rock… Then you have to go back down. Beyond 8,000 meters, we do not drag on. The cold forbids it. Fatigue too. In the Himalayas, the return to base camp takes almost as much effort as the climb. You have to stay focused, the danger is everywhere: avalanches, crevasses, serac falls, human errors… Days of torture for a moment of fleeting ecstasy, with death in ambush. An assumed masochism. In a world where satisfaction is proportional to physical commitment, suffering contributes to pleasure. Because human beings have no place above 5,000 meters in altitude.
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Blonde hair, green eyes, in her fifties, Sophie Lavaud is not a hothead. She looks like the girl next door, the enthusiastic good friend. “I am a normal person who gives himself the means to achieve his dreams”, she describes herself. And what dreams! Desires for peaks that haunt experienced mountaineers and which she discovered late in life, in 2004. She was 36 years old at the time.
I’m not a performer, I go with carriers and fixed ropes, but it’s still very hard
Born in Switzerland to French-Canadian parents, Sophie Lavaud was initiated in the Mont-Blanc massif. The family owns a holiday apartment in Argentière. “My mother loved nature,” says Pierre, Sophie’s brother. My father was a former alpine hunter. They made us aware through hikes, but it was as an adult, with her friend Nicolas, that Sophie took a liking to climbing. Nicolas has one wish: to set foot on the summit of Mont Blanc. “We thought it was possible,” admits Sophie simply. Trained and supervised by a guide, the two beginner climbers take up the challenge. At 4,807 meters, “it clicks,” she says. From now on, this businesswoman, specialist in financial events, will devote all her holidays to her new passion. In stages, from 4,000 to 7,000 meters, it offers itself the volcanoes of Ecuador, then Aconcagua in Argentina, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She then goes on to summits in Bolivia, then in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. “Initially, she admits, it was a somewhat risky and very expensive hobby. An “8,000” seemed unattainable to me. »
The 2008 financial crisis put the company she set up with her brother on the sidelines. “It put the counters to zero, explains Pierre Lavaud. Me, I tried to find a certain serenity by becoming a gardener. Sophie, she needed to push her limits. “I had time, she says, no obligation and a little money. So, I wanted to give myself the gift of going to see higher. ” And hop ! In May 2012, a few days before her 44th birthday, she reached one of the peaks of Xixabangma, in Tibet, the smallest of the 8,000 and one of the most accessible. There she met François Damilano, a French mountaineer, Himalayan and filmmaker. The neophyte’s journey intrigues the high mountain guide, who supervises clients. A few days later, when she continues a little higher on a nearby summit, Cho Oyu (8,154 meters), François returns to Chamonix but keeps the link. Since then, he has shot two documentaries with his “Sosso”, which he supports against the grumpy aristocrats of the alpine microcosm.
Sophie’s style saddens high-altitude professionals, those who call themselves purists in a world where the absence of rules is the rule. It hires the services of a specialized agency, has recourse to porters, fixed ropes and oxygen, and only takes routes already marked out. “The people of the seraglio look down on it, deplores François Damilano, but it takes courage and self-sacrifice to tackle all these peaks. And she does! » Treetop tourist or snow queen? To those who despise her track record, she retorts, annoyed: “That’s what makes me original. I am neither a guide nor a performer, but I have counted twelve peaks over 8,000 meters. Even in a powerful expedition, and with oxygen, it’s still very hard. So much so that after the Cho Oyu, back in Geneva where she lives, Sophie, putting away ice axes and crampons, swears to herself that she will “never be caught there again”! It was counting without the call of the roof of the world and its 8,849 meters.
“The desire for Everest is intimate,” explains François Damilano. When we reach a peak that dominates the planet, we admire ourselves a little. You gain status in society. There are those who return home happy to have achieved an “8,000”, those who want to push to Everest and those who want to do them all. Sophie now belongs to the third category. »
After Everest in 2014, she tackled K2, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri… In total, in ten years, the enlightened amateur conquered twelve peaks among the fourteen highest in the world. From Claude Kogan, who disappeared in the foothills of Cho Oyu in 1959, to Liliane and Maurice Barrard, Chantal Mauduit, Éric Escoffier, Benoît Chamoux or Jean-Christophe Lafaille, all the French people who have attempted the legendary race for the fourteen “8,000” have lost their lives during their attempt… Only 44 human beings achieved the feat, including three women, the Spaniard Edurne Pasaban, the Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and the Italian Nives Meroi. If Sophie Lavaud succeeds in turn, she will go down in history. The first Frenchman to achieve the feat will be a Frenchwoman. “I’m not doing it for the glory or for the performance,” she says. Just for envy. »
A craving synonymous with addiction. Once bitten, you have to feed the beast. Give it its dose, its share of emotions and satisfactions. “There is, admits François Damilano, an addiction to getting involved, to filling ourselves with something that we can’t find anywhere else. And also to this lethargic state caused by hypoxia. The lack of oxygen has the effect of a drug: it’s almost an extracorporeal experience. More down to earth, Sophie talks about her pleasure in rubbing shoulders with the Sherpas, who nickname her “Didi”, big sister. For ten years, Dawa Sangay Sherpa has been his rope companion. “There is no hierarchical relationship between us,” she says. We work together. »
Sophie loves life at base camp. So much the better, because she spends a hundred nights a year in tents and deals with the lack of privacy and hygiene. “It’s rough, she argues, but it only lasts a few weeks. And I have a taste for extreme effort. A quality sharpened from childhood, when little Sophie dreamed of being a ballerina before an injury ruined her hopes. Discipline and selflessness. Defy anatomical laws, grit your teeth and silence the pain. “I believe in the memory of the body, explains the climber. Even though I started mountaineering late, my body and my mind were already trained. »
At very high altitudes, the lack of oxygen puts you in a daze, like a drug
At altitude, the individual not only confronts himself, he also braves the mountain. Victory is never certain. That’s what makes the price. Sometimes it is the colossus of stone that makes the attacker bend. The wisest give up and come back down. The most daring leave their fingers, toes, or even their lives there. “In the Himalayas, explains François Damilano, the lethal risk exists. We are confronted with our finitude. It’s transgressive, and it’s what allows us to live intensely. » Sophie accepts her own death, but forbids herself to think about it when she is hung on the wall. “Nothing in my head should pull me down,” she insists. I don’t want this plumb line that would take me back down into the valley. »
She modestly admits to abandon loves, family, friends. A form of selfishness, for some. A strength, for others. “Sophie cuts herself off from all her emotions, it’s one of her qualities as a Himalayan, underlines Damilano. His other asset is his ability to adapt. What she learns from her climbs, she applies to the following ones. If, at the beginning, Sophie joined expeditions organized by specialized agencies, today she sets up her own projects with Sangay. For several years, she systematically used oxygen above a certain altitude. She considered the commitment, the difficulty, the risk of frostbite too great to consider doing without. “Now that I have experience, she explains, I plan oxygen in my logistics but I try without. I didn’t use any for Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak, for example. »
Over time, the summit collector has become more professional: she lives off the support of her sponsors and gives conferences in companies. In a few days, she will return to Nepal to tackle Lhotse and Nanga Parbat, which are missing from her record. ” Well, not exactly ! she retorts, almost amused. “If I want to enter the official list, I will have to go back to Xixabangma…” Indeed, the ascent of her first summit was not approved: she did not set foot on the summit ridge (8 027 meters) but on the central peak, some 15 meters lower. A prospect that does not destabilize her, on the contrary. According to Christine Lamarche, her best friend: “When Sophie returns to Geneva, she only aspires to one thing: to know when she will be leaving! »
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