At first look, Sonia Livanos seems an unlikely climbing hero. A 99-pound weekend warrior who was born and raised at sea level and climbed only with her husband, Livanos nonetheless put up hundreds of new rock-climbing routes in the 1950s and 1960s, including some of the most formidable of that era.
At home in the Calanques of Southern France, she and her husband Georges left their indelible mark on every scalable scarp of limestone. In the Dolomites of northern Italy, where they made many of their most important climbs, they were celebrated as “la coppia piú sestogrado del mondo.” The superlative loses some poetry in translation, but none of its significance: the duo completed more multi-pitch Grade VI climbs than anyone else, at a time when only a few were climbing at that level.
That’s a heavy appellation for a woman who stood four feet 11 inches and weighed less than 100 pounds, even if she didn’t shoulder it alone. Throughout her illustrious climbing career, Sonia Livanos had only one rope-partner, Georges, known as ‘Le Grec.’ Both were born in Marseille in 1923 (he to a family of Greek immigrants, hence the nickname) and were inseparable, on and off the rock, from the day they met in 1948 until his death in 2004.
They described themselves as weekend climbers, and rarely missed a weekend in the Calanques, a region of classic multi-pitch limestone rising from the Mediterranean sea not far from Marseille. They’d hop a train after Le Grec finished his Saturday morning rounds as a salesman for a printing company, and climb all that afternoon and the following day. The next weekend they’d do the same. Such was their way of life for nearly 30 years. They were serious climbers, though they never took climbing too seriously.
In the Calanques or in Chamonix, Le Grec told an interviewer, “You went to the bar, ate, drank, smoked, and then someone asked, ‘What should we do tomorrow?’ So we’d get on the train, do the climb, then come back to the bar.” In this way Sonia and Le Grec amassed an astounding resume: 242,000 vertical meters of climbing, including 134,500 meters in the Calanques. In that massif alone they recorded some 500 firsts and 1,660 climbs.
The Dolomites, where the couple routinely spent their four weeks of annual leave, was different. They’d decamp to a mountain refugio in Civetta or the Brenta Dolomites and spend the whole month there, Le Grec said. “We’d talk a bit with one person, then with another. Then, inevitably, the time came to set off and climb some rock—that moment, as someone once said, when beauty looms.”
The couple opened some 40 new routes in the Dolomites, and at more than a score in other parts of the Alps. Their 1951 climb of the North Face of Torre di Valgrande, with Robert Gabriel, was the first female ascent, and the fourth overall. The next summer the trio tackled the vaunted Vinatzer Route on the Marmolada South Face—the third ascent of that line, and another female first for Sonia.
The coppia sestogrado went on to notch firsts on Torre da Lago in 1956, Torre Venezia in 1957, and the West Face of the Cima de Gasperi in 1963. They opened the Northwest Arête of Torre Venezia in 1964 with F.R. Raybaud, and the South Face of the Cima dell’Elefante in 1968 with Marc Vauche and Jean Max Bourgeois. In 1971, the couple repeated the Via Livanos on the Northwest Wall of Cima Su Alto, 20 years after Le Grec pioneered the route with Gabriel.
For these climbs and many others, they were awarded the Pelmo d’Oro in 2002, the only non-Italians to receive the highest honor of Dolomite climbing. The award recognized their impressive body of work, bolstered perhaps by their popularity. They were easy people to like; Le Grec with his effortless charm, and Sonia for her joyful empathy. “She amazed them, because a climber with so much talent, nerve, controlled calm and kindness, was not often found on the big walls of the Dolomites,” climber Eric Vola wrote in an online homage to the couple (in French).
They climbed in a style typical of the day, with ample protection. Le Grec is said to have driven 25,000 pitons in his career. “Better a piton more than a man less,” he famously said, “especially when this man is called Georges Livanos and he is accompanied by his wife.”
Sonia’s role—in Le Grec’s words, not mine—was to tend to the “housekeeping.” She cleaned the routes as he led them, prying those thousands of pitons from sheer faces and dizzying spires as they both climbed higher. When a journalist asked whether she had aspired to be anything other than the second on the rope, she answered simply, “It was not done.”
Her answer is a commentary on the era in which she lived and climbed, but the question also misses the mark. Sonia Livanos didn’t climb to earn accolades or to make a statement; she climbed for the joy it brought her. And the source of that joy, as much as the mountains themselves, was sharing it with Georges. Nor can there be any question—again in Le Grec’s words—that she was anything less than an equal partner.
“Some of my friends have envied me a companion who is always ready to follow me in the most overhanging adventures. The unfortunates, if they only knew!” he wrote in 1957. “If they knew what it means to climb whole days with a feeble woman of 4 feet and 11 inches ignoring the difficulty, the fatigue, the fear, the cold, the hunger, the thirst, when he is very sensitive to these inconveniences! If they knew how it feels, after a Grade VI pitch, to see her arrive, smiling, calm, detailing the tones of a little flower on the overhang, while he, at this same overhang … forget it.”
Le Grec had found himself, rather uncharacteristically, at a loss for words. Later in the essay he found them again, painting a quiet scene that captures the essence of their extraordinary partnership. “Sometimes there is a ledge large enough to sit side by side (feet in the air, of course!) and each one, leaning against the shoulder of his companion, feels, nearby, the soft confidence from which one draws strength, and the other courage.”
Top photo: Sonia Livanos atop the Calanque de Somiou. Photo by Robert Gabriel