Pierre Gaspard (mountaineer)

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Pierre Gaspard
Pierre Gaspard.jpg
Pierre Gaspard
Personal information
Born(1834-03-27)27 March 1834
Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, France
Died16 January 1915(1915-01-16) (aged 80)
Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, France
Years active1876–1913

Pierre Gaspard (27 March 1834, in Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans – 16 January 1915, in Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans)[1][2] was a French mountain climber, one of the greatest mountain guides in the silver age of alpinism. He made the first ascent of La Meije (Massif des Écrins) on 16 August 1877 with his son and Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau.[3] Their ascent followed the south buttress Arête du Promontoire, which became the "normal route".[4]


Pierre Gaspard's father, Hugues Gaspard, came from the small village of Saint-Georges d'Entraunes in the former department of Var (department) in Provence. He was a shepherd, who spent each summer with the sheep on the long trip to the Alpine pastures in the Vénéon valley in the Dauphiné. In September 1832, he married an inhabitant of the village of Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, in the Dauphiné Alps, and settled in the village permanently. His son was born in the village, in the heart of the Pelvoux Massif, in 1837.

Pierre Gaspard took over his father's farm, which consisted of several sections of the field and a flock of sheep. In his spare time he enjoyed hunting chamois. He was a rugged and fearless man who knew the mountains beautifully. He became familiar with the entire upper part of the valley surrounding Vénéon, from Olan and Les Bans on the south to Ailefroide and Barre des Écrins in the east to La Meije in the north. He had climbing ability and knowledge of the details of topography of the area, including the configuration of the glaciers.

Already by the end of the 1860s he led tourists on trips to the mountains. In 1873, he scaled the ice pass of Col de la Lauze (3,512 metres (11,522 ft)). In 1874, he climbed the Barre des Écrins. The following year, with the support of W. A. B. Coolidge,[citation needed] the Dauphiné Tourists Association (Société des Touristes du Dauphiné) turned to him for help in setting up the organization of the alpine guides.[1]

As a guide, Gaspard's two most important customers were Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau and Henry Duhamel. A turning point for Gaspard was his first meeting with Boileau de Castelnau in 1876. The Huguenot nobleman of Languedoc liked the modest mountaineer so much that he greatly extended his stay in the mountains. With Boileau de Castelnau, Gaspard formed one of the most brilliant ropes of their era, making a dozen first ascents in the 1876 and 1877 seasons. By hunting for chamois, Gaspard became aware of a number of routes to less prominent peaks and passes. On 21 July 1877, Gaspard and Boileau de Castelnau made the first ascent of the Dôme de Neige (4,015 metres (13,173 ft)) in the Massif des Écrins Barre.[1]

Less than four weeks later (16 August 1877), climbing with Gaspard's son (Pierre Gaspard fils), they conquered the last of the great, difficult, and yet unclimbed peaks of the Alps - the Grand Pic de la Meije (3,983 metres (13,068 ft)).[5][6][7] On 4 August 1877, Boileau de Castelnau and Gaspard tried a new ascent of the Meije by the south side, a route attempted the previous year by Henry Duhamel. With difficulty[6] and thanks to Gaspard's audacity, they came to the end of the wall that Duhamel thought impassable, both climbing with bare feet. Forced to abandon it due to lack of time, they left a fixed rope in place.[5][7] On August 16, Boileau de Castelnau, Gaspard and his son reached the top, not without difficulty: the Meije was defeated. The descent was even more challenging than the ascent, and they were obliged to bivouac on the night of August 16 on an uncomfortable ledge, but managed to return to La Grave the following day.[7]

Gaspard immediately became famous, and was therefore very much in demand to the extent that it was necessary to retain him in advance. In the following years he devoted himself mainly to the guiding profession, guiding more than thirty of the first parties to climb the Écrins mountains. Of the first ten parties to climb La Meije, he led six. With Duhamel, besides the ascent of Pic Gaspard in 1878, he opened in 1880 a route on the south face of the Barre des Écrins from La Bérarde and the following year a new route on the southeast side of the Aiguille du Plat de la Selle. In 1885 Gaspard opened a new route to the Meije by the edge of the Brêche. Popularly known as "père Gaspard", he remained a mountain guide until an advanced age, guiding a party to La Meije at the age of 76. He guided his last party at the age of 80.[8] He died a few months later. He was buried in the small cemetery in his native village, surrounded by mountains.[8]

In his own lifetime Pierre Gaspard was called "King of the Alps". Quiet, even phlegmatic, he was a good rope partner and camping companion: he could discuss any topic, and his wit and sophisticated sense of humor have passed into legend. He left 15 children, including six sons (Maximin, Pierre, Casimir, Joseph, Alexandre, Devouassoud), who were also mountain guides.[1]


Grand Pic of the Meije


  • Bordes, Gérard (1976). Grande Encyclopédie de la Montagne (in French). 4. Paris: Éditions Atlas.
  • Gaspard de la Meije, novel by Isabelle Scheibli



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Pierre Gaspard" (in French). bivouak.net. Retrieved 9 March 2013. This page incorrectly gives Gaspard's year of death as 1917.
  2. ^ Tissot, Janine. "Pierre GASPARD" (in French). Fédération Des Astrologues Francophones. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  3. ^ Frison-Roche, Roger; Jouty, Sylvain (1996). A History of Mountain Climbing. Trans. Deke Dusinberre. Paris, New York: Flammarion. p. 319. ISBN 978-2-08-013622-0. LCCN 96-85980. OCLC 36019037.
  4. ^ "la Meije". Encyclopédie Larousse (in French). Larousse. Retrieved 20 February 2013.
  5. ^ a b Clark, Ronald (2011). The Alps. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 261. ISBN 9781448206223.
  6. ^ a b "altitude: la reine meije (The Queen Meije)" (PDF). Element: Le Journal du Pays de la Meije (in French and English) (7): 8. Summer 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 October 2007. Retrieved 20 February 2013.
  7. ^ a b c Braham, Trevor (2011). When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age. The In Pinn. ISBN 978-1-906476-34-2.
  8. ^ a b Landru, Philippe (2 April 2008). "SAINT-CHRISTOPHE-EN-OISANS (38) : cimetière" (in French). Cimetières de France et d’ailleurs. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  9. ^ Cust, A. (November 1886). "The Story of the Pic d'Olan". The Alpine Journal. XIII (94): 57–73.

External links[edit]

  • Canac, Roger. "Gaspard de la Meije" (PDF) (in French). Presses universitaires de Grenoble. Retrieved 9 March 2013.