Eline Le Menestrel: 'I could have died but I also could have enjoyed a beautiful day climbing "the Fish"'.
A conversation exploring the space between optimism and fear
Posted on Mon 29 Nov 2021 · Athlete interviews
July 21, 2021
A conversation exploring the space between optimism and fear.
You may have heard of Eline Le Menestrel from when she climbed ‘The Nose’ with Nina Caprez back in 2018. Or maybe you heard about her following her repeat of ‘Chouca’ at Boux last year—or for being part of the team making the first ascent of ‘La Voie du Coeur’ in Jordan. Maybe you just read her story in the Climbing Travel Guide!
Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to chat with Eline about her climbing career thus far, her views on sustainability, and experiences of dealing with fear following her accident. If you’re not already seriously impressed by her achievements, you will be by her ability to reflect so openly and honestly on these complex topics...
Eline Le Menestrel climbing Comici-Dimai 550m (6b+) on Cima Grande © Matteo Moncellin
Hi Eline! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us. Let’s start by talking about your journey with rock climbing. When did you start climbing, and what motivated you to become a professional climber?
I actually can’t remember when I started climbing! I was born in Fontainebleau, and as soon as I could walk I started playing on the boulders... Growing up, rock climbing was something we’d do as a family: most of my school holidays were spent going on climbing trips in different parts of the world.
I remember starting to want to improve my climbing around the time I was 12 or 13. At this point, it became something I really wanted to train to become good at. At the same time, my love for the sport was growing a lot.
By the time I was 16, I was very much integrated into the climbing world. I would go climbing with my friends and had my first boyfriend who was also a climber. It was at this point in my life that I met Melissa Le Nevé, Nina Caprez and Alizée Dufraisse, and saw all these examples of women who were living just to climb and earning money with the sole purpose of supporting this lifestyle. This became a goal for me too. At this time I also wanted to become a professional musician, though!
It sounds like climbing has always been a central part of your life then. What has been your most memorable moment so far?
When I was 20 I quit music school because I realized that being a professional musician didn’t leave enough time for climbing. I ended up going on a three-month-long trip to the US. Our first stop was at The Fins in Idaho, where I climbed my first 8b+. After that, we headed to the Red River Gorge, which everyone had told me I’d love. I actually ended up feeling really bad there: I felt a lot of pressure to perform, and was falling off 7a+ after 2 months of wild camping and the dirtbag lifestyle. So I decided to go to Yosemite instead.
I ended up crossing the whole country on my own—it was a real mission that lasted 4 or 5 days and involved a lot of boldness. Once in Yosemite, I started with some bouldering as I didn’t have any gear, but met my very good friend Nina who was trying ‘The Nose’. We ended up climbing it together totally out of the blue. It was my first experience bigwall climbing, and just blew me away—definitely one of my favourite moments so far.
Eline playing her guitar at the back of her van © Matteo Moncellin
That sounds like a real adventure! Let’s talk a bit about your latest trip to the Dolomites with Salewa. Why did you choose to climb in the Dolomites?
There were two things that motivated this decision. The first was that the Dolomites was a place I didn’t know and was excited to explore. The second was learning that my grandfather had climbed ‘Hasse-Brandler’ and ‘Comici-Simai’ on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo 60 years ago. The objective of the trip became to climb these routes with my dad, as a way of telling the story of my family and thinking about my grandfather who died 12 years ago.
Unfortunately, I had to change plans at the last minute. My dad couldn’t travel from Singapore due to COVID lockdowns, so instead I went with my friend, Ann. I decided to save ‘Hasse-Brandler’ for a time when I could climb with my dad and had to search for another project—which is when I came across ‘Il Pesce’ on Marmolada. One night when I was feeling very excited and confident I decided to go for it and ... I almost died. (Eline sustained severe injuries after an accident on this climb, including a bad concussion, shattered foot and broken wrist).
"In reality, the line between achieving your goal and having an accident can be very thin, especially somewhere like the Dolomites. Just one tiny thing can make the difference between a beautiful day in paradise or having a severe accident."
From what you said, it seems like the Dolomites held a lot of significance to you and your family. If you don’t mind me asking, did your accident change how you view this place? Are the associations more negative now?
I wouldn’t say my memories of the trip are negative, more frightening. When I look back, I’m quite afraid of how I acted because I wasn’t really conscious of the risk until I had my accident.
I think the way we perceive risk in climbing is very complex. If you’re doing something that involves a lot of risk and things go well, everyone celebrates your achievement. But as soon as things go badly, people start viewing you as fearless or reckless because you took too many risks. In reality, the line between achieving your goal and having an accident can be very thin, especially somewhere like the Dolomites. Just one tiny thing can make the difference between a beautiful day in paradise or having a severe accident.
Thanks for being so open about that.
Eline playing the flute on a belay ledge on Comici-Dimai 550m (6b+), Cima Grande © Matteo Moncellin
You recently made a few posts on instagram talking about your fears surrounding your injury and return to climbing. I was really impressed by your ability to talk so honestly about these difficult topics. What motivated you to be so open about your fears?
After I got injured the first desire I had was to come back stronger. Really, it came super early and I remember people were shocked—especially my father. He couldn’t fathom how I could think about becoming a better climber when we weren’t even sure if I’d be able to walk again. I also had a broken wrist and a brain concussion, which meant I had to stay in bed for a month without reading, watching screens or talking on the phone for more than 5 minutes. It was both empty and at the same time very intense.
Since I couldn’t train, I decided to work on my mindset with a sports psychologist. At first I just wanted to train my mind for climbing, but the focus soon shifted to dealing with my injury. My psychologist taught me this exercise where you plan a meeting with your mind: you schedule some time to sit with your thoughts, be super afraid and acknowledge all the difficult questions that arise. It’s a way of compartmentalising and controlling your fears, so that you don’t have these thoughts all the time. I started doing this and it helped me a lot. It’s something I hope to use in my climbing in the future to help with my dream of coming back stronger.
Eline climbing Comici-Dimai 550m (6b+), Cima Grande © Matteo Moncellin
Have you found the way you deal with these fears similar to how you dealt with fears related to climbing in the past—such as fear of failure? Or is it a totally different experience?
It’s super different because for me now the stakes are huge. If you’re afraid that your bone is going to die, it really makes you wonder how you could have been so unhappy about not sending a project in the past. But then you decide to be kinder to yourself and remember that, at the time, sending or succeeding was really important to you. Knowing me, I think that if I’m able to climb hard again, I’ll have to deal with the fear of failure again. It would be naïve to say I will never have these fears again because “I will be so wise thanks to this injury”. But I do hope that learning to overcome these more significant fears will help me to deal better with the ‘softer’ fears of failing or not sending.
That’s really interesting. I’ve been going through something quite similar myself, and have a lot of doubts over whether I’ll ever be able to climb at a similar level (or even without pain) again. When I first started having these doubts, I found I really couldn’t tolerate hearing people complain about not being able to send their project. It just seemed so insignificant! It’s not a great mindset to be in when you work as a climbing coach... I had to do a lot of work on accepting my current limitations and now I can empathise with these fears again. But yeah, in short, I completely understand where you’re coming from.
Eline eating breakfast in the van while looking out over the mountains © Matteo Moncellin
I’ve been told that you’re very passionate about sustainability and wanted to discuss this with you because it’s a core part of Mapo Tapo’s mission. Is there anything in particular that motivated you to reduce your environmental impact?
My motivation comes from my admiration of nature and what it gives us, and my intuition that there is a way through this ecological crisis we’re facing. Maybe I’m naïve, but I grew up believing that everything is possible and I still do most of the time. Being close to nature has always played an important role in my life, and I want to do my part to thank it and preserve it. I do, however, also feel a lot of anxiety around the climate crisis and ecological collapse, but I wouldn’t say my passion for sustainability comes from this. When I’m anxious, I feel small and powerless so by necessity my motivation comes from the bright side.
What sort of things do you do to minimise your environmental impact?
The first thing to note is that I think about sustainability all the time—every time that I have to make a decision in my life. This doesn’t mean that I don’t use my car, or never buy a pair of fashionable sneakers. However, I do try to be very honest with myself in terms of putting everything on the table and asking a lot of questions: Do I really need this? Does society have to function this way? Does money really have to have this importance? Can we live without growth? What does prosperity mean? Can we have prosperity without growth? How could and should a company play its part?
I also try to talk about sustainability a lot and share my thoughts with people. Think about what happened at the start of the COVID pandemic: everyone was talking about COVID all the time on the news, on social media, and it became this huge issue that consumed all our attention. As a result, people realised it was legitimate to take drastic measures to contain the pandemic. Imagine if we talked this much about the climate crisis! If the media and governments were as worried about climate change as they were about COVID, then we would do a lot more.
In terms of concrete actions I take to reduce my environmental impact, I follow the commitments of ACTS (Action Solidaire de Transition pour nos Sommets). I changed to a sustainable bank and encourage my sponsors towards sustainable solutions. I’m not going on climbing trips at the moment because of my injury, but I can’t imagine planning a trip without thinking about my carbon footprint anymore. For example, now Corsica is way more appealing for me because it’s close to Marseille and you can go by boat. This is new for me. I can’t believe I’ve been to South Africa four times, but never to Corsica…
Eline and Ann approaching the Tre Cime di Lavaredo © Matteo Moncellin
Do you think the pandemic has changed the way professional climbers think about travelling?
I can’t speak for others, but it has changed my view for sure! Because of the pandemic, at one point I had to stay in the same place for 6 weeks before leaving for another area just a 4 hour drive away. During that drive, I noticed that I had become much more aware and appreciative of every small change in the landscape. I learnt that I actually enjoy being in the same place for a long time: I love to see the trees and the mountains change with the season, having the time to meet the locals and actually spend time with the community, rather than always rushing around.
That’s really great to hear. My last question is a big one: how do you imagine the future of sustainable travel?
I think more people will start to see the approach to a climb as part of the adventure and the performance. Some athletes are already doing this, such as Lena Marie Muller who sent an 8b+ trad route near Innsbruck reaching the crag by train and bike only. If I one day want to go back to South Africa, my dream would be to get a sailboat, build a training facility on the boat and train for a month as we sail there. After the trip, I would return by sailboat, but use this opportunity to take a month of much needed rest. (Send me an email if you have a sailboat and are psyched!)
Essentially, we just need to think about our trips a bit differently. We should imagine that the performance and adventure starts as soon as you close the door to your home—not only once you reach the cliff.
Eline playing her guitar outside the tent at sunset © Matteo Moncellin
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A huge thanks to Eline for her time and fascinating insights on some of the most pressing issues facing the climbing community industry today.
This article was kindly sponsored by Salewa, who collaborated with us on the Climbing Travel Guide. Buy your copy now from the Climbing Travel Shop
Cover photo caption: Eline Le Menestrel climbing Comici-Dimai 550m (6b+) on Cima Grande © Matteo Moncellin