© Ben Tibbetts/Salomon
Two-time world champion sport climber and three-time world cup winner, Liv Sansoz, has bounced back from serious climbing and base-jumping accidents an incredible number of times. Last year, to mark her 40th birthday, the French alpinist embarked on a challenge to summit all 82 of the 4000+m peaks in the Alps – a journey that’s documented in the brilliant Salomon film, LIV Along the Way.
I’m very excited to have Liv on Lessons in Badassery ahead of her talk at next month’s Kendal Mountain Festival*. In this interview, Liv chats about the highs and lows of her 82 peak project, overcoming multiple injuries, and the tragedy of losing close friends on the mountains.[*You can hear Liv talk on Saturday 17 November at the Kendal Mountain Festival – the longest-running annual gathering of the outdoor community. Speakers, filmmakers and audiences travel from all around the world to share the adventure, and Liv’s session is a hot ticket – get yours here and I’ll see you there!]
You’re speaking at the Kendal Mountain Festival in November. Have you visited the Lake District before and are you hoping to head outside to explore?
I went climbing in Yorkshire and the Peak District a long time ago and loved it, but haven’t seen too much of the Lake District. I came to Kendal in 2013 but only for the Festival, so it’s most likely my exploration of the area will be limited to one or two hours of running on Saturday morning.
Let’s rewind to your childhood. You grew up in the French Alps and climbed Mont Blanc aged 14. Were you inspired by alpinists growing up?
I don’t know if I was inspired by alpinists or mostly attracted by the mountains as a little girl. Probably inspired by both. I started reading mountain stories and biographies of famous alpinists when I was 10 but what I remember most was looking at the snowy summits around me and hoping one day I could climb them.
In 2001 you were dropped by your belayer whilst climbing. Did this affect your love of climbing and your ability to trust your climbing partners?
It did, totally. For years I could not climb anymore – not that I had lost my love for climbing really, but something inside was broken; I was just not able to climb. After a year of fighting with this, I decided to let go, stop thinking of climbing and do something different. My theory was that if climbing was really my big passion, I’ll be back at it a year or two years later or more. And when I finally felt I really wanted to climb again, free in my mind, without being scared or carrying a traumatic experience, I realised I was quite scared to be belayed by people I did not know. Even today, sometimes if we are a big group at the crag and I don’t know some people, I ask to be belayed by the one good friend I know in the group.
Fast-forward to 2017 and you began your challenge to summit all 82, 4000m peaks in the Alps. Where did this epic idea come from?
I had been climbing some Swiss 4000m peaks in 2015 and found all the mountains around very beautiful. It gave me the desire to climb all of them. Shortly after that, Ueli Steck was starting his own project, 82 summits, and it strengthened my envy to also climb all those 4000m, my way.
What was the most challenging element of summiting so many 4000m peaks in succession and were there any sketchy moments?
The real challenge was to hold everything together over a period of more than a year. Weather, snow conditions, friends joining, filming, shooting photos, managing the sleep deprivation. Wanting to use the paraglider as much as possible was also very challenging. Summer 2017 had a lot of wind in altitude and I sometimes made the decision to postpone some summits in order to wait to do them with the proper wind that never happened. We had a few sketchy moments for sure. Wind slab on Jungfrau, [where] we turned around. Very bad rock falls on integrale du Brouillard – that was the most terrifying moment I ever had on the mountains.
Physically, how demanding was it?
I have to say, I was very concerned with the accumulation of days and metres of elevation. In order to be ready for this project, I started training with Steve House through his Uphill Athlete company. After 9 months I had grown a solid base of endurance for climbing all these mountains.
And to answer your question, if every day is a sunny day, it starts to be a bit demanding for sure, especially because I did not use any cable cars [to aid the ascent]. The only way to not burn yourself is probably to go slow and steady. We never went super-fast, but if you go at a slow and steady pace you can go forever without getting too tired. More than the physical aspect, what I found the hardest was the lack of sleep. When you get up at 1am every day, at the end of the week all your body wants is sleeping and eating.
Also, you have to be very careful to not get a small blister or injury on a foot. Being in ski touring boots or alpine boots more than 10 hours a day, it would hardly heal.
Did you feel under pressure to achieve all 82 peaks within a year as you’d originally hoped?
No, never. I gave myself a year to do as much as possible, hoping to be finished by then, but I had no idea if I would succeed and I was always on the conservative side regarding safety.
If I really had wanted to finish in a year, I would have let go the paragliding side of the project and also I should have been in the mountains despite bad weather. Which was out of the question.
You suffered from frostbite on your toes after falling into a crevasse. Did this delay the project?
Before [we were due] to go on Aletschhorn, I started to feel a bit tired. A lot of cold, North wind was announced and the temperatures were supposed to below -20°C. I was not too excited to go to the mountains with such cold temperatures. Anthony Bonello, the [film] editor, had just arrived from Canada to film with us for a week and I did not feel to tell him that I needed 2 days of rest while it’s so cold. It was not pressured, it was sort of out of politeness. Plus, I was with my really good friend, Giulia Monego, and I thought, what can possibly go wrong?
The day I broke the small bridge over the crevasse was indeed really cold, we were all freezing and moving our toes and fingers to keep them warm. When I fell, I hurt my leg (Liv tore her calf muscle) and all my attention went on the leg and I forgot to move my toes. The pain on the leg got worse and worse to the point I could not walk anymore and had to call the helicopter to get help transported to the hospital. There was some wait, not moving, in the cold. When I finally got to the hospital my toes were already looking bad.
After that, I had to go to Geneva Hospital to do hyperbaric pressure treatment in a special chamber. The doctor at Ensa told me I could probably go back on the [82 summits] project 5 weeks later, but with the death of [renowned climber] Ueli Steck and three other of my friends I decided to take more time, to really feel I was ready to go to the mountains again physically, and with my heart, before starting again.
In the end, I took 7 weeks off. So it was almost two months without being in the mountains from late April to mid-June, which were really good months for Alpinism.And for the rest of the summer, my feet were obviously much more sensitive to the cold; I had to be careful with them. I wore quite often electric socks too.
When your friend, climber Ueli Steck, tragically died on Everest’s West Peak did this affect your approach to your time in the mountains?
I have always been someone very cautious. Losing Ueli was a big shock because despite all the big risks he was able to take in the mountains, I had always thought he would live old. A week after his death, I lost three friends from childhood, from my hometown, washed out by a huge avalanche. When three young people of the same village die, it’s a big slap in your face. You have the face the reality that going to the mountains is dangerous. You have to face the endless suffering and sadness of six parents, of [a] wife and husband or girlfriend and boyfriend and of the kids losing one of their parents. It’s a big thing. And it makes you question yourself: Why do I do it?
What was a typical day like during your 82 peaks project?
There was the typical winter/spring days with ski touring and the typical summery days. In winter, we generally woke-up around 5am and would reach the next hut or down the valley around 5pm – sometimes earlier, sometimes later. So on average, I would say we were moving for 11 hours on skis.
In summer, you wake-up generally much sooner because of thunderstorms in the afternoon or just because of longer climbs. Most mornings we started at 4am and would go down around 5pm, so about 13 hours moving in the mountains. For some specific situations – thunderstorms forecasted at 1pm for example, or high winds getting stronger with the day going – we could wake-up at 1am, but this was only one or two times.
You’ve had many, many injuries over the last two decades, the most serious to your pelvis following your base jumping accident in 2009. Mentally, how did you get through the low points?
I guess the first step is to accept your injury and accept the fact you are going to be weak for 3 months or for a year. And then keep dreaming of what you love to do and what is ‘animating’ you; what keeps you psyched, what makes you grow and become a better person. This is the best way to heal well and keep smiling.
Is there such a thing as a typical week of training for you?
I prepared for the 82 peaks project with Uphill Athlete, training 6 days a week with 5 days of endurance training – mostly hiking up and down or ski-mountaineering for long hours to get my body used to mileage at a slow pace. Added to the endurance I was doing two core strength sessions a week.
Nowadays, I’m not training specifically, I’m just as much as possible in the mountains, or back on rock for climbing and I also try to paraglide several times a week from different places to keep improving my skills.
You were a world champion sport climber – do you ever miss competing?
I don’t miss competing, but sometimes I miss this very special state of minds you are in when you are performing extremely well. It’s a rare and intense state you cannot have other than competing situations or survival situations.
What are your favourite items of kit for training or days in the mountains?
I like what is simple, light and efficient. And what keeps me warm. I always try to have a small (25L) backpack because you move better with a lighter and more compact backpack on your back.
I worked with Salomon on a really cool shoe prototype, very light and very versatile for the mountains. We also worked together on specific apparels and backpacks. I love having pockets on my clothes and more vents on the pants and a few other features like the hydration system on the backpacks. It was really interesting to work with the team on that.
In winter, I was using the very lightweight boots and skis (the minim and the XAlps). At the end of the day, having light gear makes a big difference. You were maybe not faster, but you are way less tired.
I’m also a big fan of the new single surface canopy for flying. I used the Skin Plume paraglider for flying off the mountains and I have to say I’ve been amazed by this super-lightweight wing on calm conditions.
For the hardware, the Gully ice axes, the altitude harness, the new sirocco helmet and the Hybrid Irvis crampons were my everyday companions too.
Have you had your fill of big challenges now or will you be back for more?
There are always some cool projects that I want to do. But not one that long and that big. I’ll be psyched to go for more technical ascents over short times and also more projects combining ascents and paragliding for the links up. But I prefer to do it first and speak after.
To find out more about Liv visit her website www.livsansoz.net or keep up with her via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/livsansoz, www.twitter.com/livsansoz and www.facebook.com/livsansoz.