Though He's Only 15 Years Old, France's Zébulon Roche Is Already Accustomed to Life in High Places
04/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
There being no Little League for rock climbing, France's Zébulon Roche had several small problems when he took up the sport at age 5. "The ice picks were too big for his hands," recalls his father, Jean-Noël. "And no one made rock-climbing shoes his size." Later, when he was 12, another problem cropped up. Young Zébulon enjoyed parapenting—wearing skis and a parachute and leaping off mountains. The trouble was, parachutes were too big for him, providing so much lift that they threatened to carry the small, wiry boy away with the wind. "Luckily, I knew people in the business," Jean-Noël says, "so we had things made."
It pays to get the right equipment. Zébulon launched his climbing career by scaling the highest peak in the Alps, France's 15,781-foot Mont Blanc, when he was only 11. At 12, he climbed the almost sheer "nose route" of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park while a crowd gaped up at him from the valley below. Two weeks later Zébulon tried his hand at "Super Crack," a slit-like crevice leading about 3,600 feet up a sheer rock wall near Mead, Utah. And last October Zébulon—now 15, 5' tall and weighing 84 lbs.—was named French Young Adventurer of the Year in recognition of a two-month, 1,250-mile cross-country ski trip he made last spring with his father, traveling from Austria to the Mediterranean over the Alps.
Happily, reaching the heights hasn't gone to Zébulon's head. "I'm an ordinary guy," he says shyly. "Some other kids used to think I was showing off. When I'm trying things and go a bit too far, they laugh at me—like when I was learning acrobatic skiing and I'd keep falling. Then when I can do it and they can't, sometimes they get jealous. I try to ignore it. I guess the difference is, my friends don't try as hard."
Good guess, but genes are on the boy's side too. His father, who with his family lives in the mountainous Savoie region of France, is a ski instructor, mountain guide and cabinetmaker who has climbed in the Himalayas. "When Zébulon was 5, he started to climb rocks, and I decided, why not try things that are supposed to be just for adults?" says Jean-Noël, who, with his older brother Claude, recently co-authored a book titled Pap's et Zébulon, chronicling the exploits of father and son. Climbing and ski trips soon became full family outings including Zébulon, mother Melanie and sister Florence, 17, who has won several regional ski races.
Having accomplished so much so soon, it is hardly surprising that Zébulon is totally unfazed by his appearances on French television. He is, after all, a movie star too: He and his father have made an award-winning film about their climbs in Colorado and another showing them climbing up ice falls in the Alps. Above all, he is a sportsman for all seasons. In winter, he skis. "I like cross-country competitions," he says, "but mainly it builds up my lungs for climbing." Summers, he goes climbing, canoeing, kayaking and parapenting, taking advantage of the warm thermal updrafts. "I like to do a lot of sports at the same time," says Zébulon, and one day he hopes to open a multisport fitness center somewhere in the mountains. To celebrate Christmas, he and Jean-Noël climbed Mont Blanc again. Then Zébulon devoted the rest of the winter to skiing in preparation for a father-son assault on 17,040-foot Mount Kenya in East Africa. But the fondest dream of Zébulon and his dad is to tackle the world's highest peak, 29,028-foot Mount Everest. That will be a cold, torturous journey, however, and they are understandably cool to the idea of turning around and climbing all the way back down the mountain. So, in the end, true to form, they hope to jump off it, parachutes in place, floating back to base camp.