Watching them climbing the highest mountains and most beautiful peaks in the world, it’s hard not to believe that these women are a little bit superhuman. An incredible strength emerges from those who defy gravity and scale the top of the world. Lise Billon belongs to this rare species. Mountaineer, climber, guide and coach of the national women’s mountaineering team, Lise sat down (for once) to tell us all about this extraordinary sport.
At first glance, mountaineering seems to be a fairly obvious passion: the desire to reach the top of the world, and gaze into the distance. But for Lise Billon, it’s much more than a walk to the peak: “Mountaineering is about pushing yourself to the limit while expressing your freedom. It’s a practice that’s close to art: it’s useless, but it’s fundamental.”
Mountaineering encompasses many different activities, all of which prepare you for longer journeys. Ice climbing with crampons and ice axes or rock climbing with bare hands and climbing shoes, snow climbing in hiking mode or crossing ridges and glaciers… everyone has their favourite part of a climb. For Lise, it’s the “vertical and the technical, on mixed terrain, with ice, but also rocks with cracks – the cracks, I love that!”
Climbing the Globe
Mountaineering was officially born in the Alps, with the first ascent of Mont Blanc meticulously planned in 1786. But today, the playground for mountaineers has grown. There are the Alps, and there is the rest of the world: the Himalayas of course, but also destinations like Patagonia or Antarctica, where the vast spaces make getting there a real adventure. “In the Alps, we only go for two or three days and we talk about the climb, not about the gauchos or the difficulties of finding the foot of the mountain!”
Asked about a memorable trip, Lise explains the difference – “in the Alps, it’s the legendary north face of the Eiger that left its mark on me. I climbed it with a friend under incredible conditions. But I will always remember my first expedition to Patagonia, where we spent 32 days with only 5 people. An important lesson in social interaction. My love for Patagonia is still strong, I can’t wait to go back!”
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
While some people work with physical trainers to gain strength, preparation for mountaineering often comes naturally, through almost daily practice of climbing and walking. For Lise, who is also a high mountain guide for two seasons a year, you have to be careful not to get too tired. What role does mindset play in all this? “I’ve never done any mental preparation, very few of us do. In mountaineering, we rely a lot on our resources in the moment.”
In some cases, however, coaching can be essential. Lise Billon coaches the FFME women’s national mountaineering team. Determined young women, of extraordinary ability, whose low self-esteem is often the only barrier to overcome. “We need to build their confidence and help them go where they didn’t think they would be able to go. I give myself the same advice, I coach myself as I coach them!”
The logistics are just as important as the physical and mental aspects. Knowing your route and packing your bag accordingly is essential. A strategy is established to be absolutely certain that you aren’t missing anything or wearing too much, and that you can meet the conditions and the efforts required.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Mountaineering is not a solitary practice. The Piolets d’Or, the “Oscars” of mountaineering as Lise calls them, are not awarded to individual climbers, but to the beauty, originality and difficulty of climbs carried out by several people working together. The Piolet d’Or Lise won in 2016 was awarded for the opening of the north-east pillar of Cerro Riso Patron in Chile (2550m)? It was, of course, a team victory.
In mountaineering, you have to be able to count on your companion. “Climbing with three people is perfect, the mental and practical loads are shared. Once you are in relay, you belay the one who is climbing and the third person can support both you and the one who is belaying. At high altitude, it’s even better with four people.”
Lise shares that it’s important to take care of yourself, too. That means above all that you must not forget to eat and drink throughout the day, even if it means forcing yourself. What seems obvious to us is not always obvious in the middle of a gruelling climb, even though it’s the best way to manage fatigue.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Fatigue is one thing, acclimatisation to altitude is another. “Last winter, unaccustomed to altitude because of the lockdown, I had AMS (acute mountain sickness) on the south face of Mont Blanc. It’s extremely important not to skip any steps, it’s a long process, and there is no shelter.
In mountaineering, other rules apply. The first few days at high altitude, it is better to be calm and on your guard. The reflex of great athletes who are used to drawing on their resources is counterproductive. “The more energetic ones burn out first, where someone lazier will, paradoxically, do better.”
And once you reach the top, it’s not over. “Obviously there are moments of joy, but I never relax completely. I know we have to climb down, and the descent can be even harder than the ascent.”
Trust Your Instincts
Mountaineering without risk-taking does not exist. There are many accidents that testify to this, and they are always difficult to accept for the community of mountaineers who never stop questioning themselves. However, the passion for mountains remains and the ascents continue. “I’m always afraid, I’m always in a state of alertness. It’s healthy! Fear is an indicator that you have to deal with: how long can I overcome it and stay focused while climbing?”
When fear takes over and risk-taking is no longer rational, a good mountaineer knows when to turn back. “You have to listen to yourself, to know if you’re in the right place at the right time. If I’m so tormented that I can’t sleep, I know I need to change my focus.” It’s a capacity for discernment that grows with experience.
Following in great footsteps…
The love of the mountain and the precious advice of those with experience are indispensable driving forces for any mountaineer. For Lise, this support came at first from her father, who was a high mountain guide; then the French mountaineering federation, which she later joined as a coach.
To all those who want to start, she advises surrounding yourself with professionals – guides, unions or federations – who can pass on the basic technical skills, but also the ability to analyze and manage the risks. The community is warm and open, and inclusive toward women. “We always feel encouraged. People are pleasantly surprised and tell us how rewarding it is.” It is her mountaineering friends, their strength and motivation, that inspire her today.
Nowhere to hide…
Mountaineering is a personality revealer and allows those who practice it to build up a certain strength of character. “Mountaineering fuels me tremendously and has made me even more tenacious, persistent and adventurous in all my life choices. It’s risky, but so much more enjoyable!”
It’s a strength of character that goes hand in hand with an ability to listen and adapt to others, regardless of their level. A very good balance, in short – on the ridge of a mountain as in life.
Discover our new campaign featuring Lise Billon wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 200 (WBP2410.BA0622)