Over-eager guides and casual tourists crowd France's Mont Blanc, which has highest fatality rate in Europe.
Despite the wide coverage it received, the news last week that 11 people had died in two separate incidents just days apart on the slopes of Mont Blanc, high in the French Alps, was probably not a surprise to anyone familiar with the mountain. It has the highest fatality rate of any mountain in Europe. Some estimates put the fatality rate at an average of 100 hikers a year; others that more people die each year in the Mont Blanc range than in any decade in the Alaskan mountain ranges, including the far more dangerous and challenging 20,320-foot summit of Denali (otherwise known as Mount McKinley).
The odd thing about those numbers is that while Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in Europe (approximately 15,780 feet), it is not, from a purely technical standpoint, the most difficult to climb. Indeed, many guiding companies describe Mont Blanc as more of a "long walk" than any kind of challenging climb, although it does require crampons and ice axes to summit. So clearly, there's a bit of a disconnect involved. If climbing Mont Blanc is more of "a long walk" than a high-stakes, technical climb, why do so many people perish on its slopes?
In the end, there are a number of reasons. But one big factor is the fact that European tour companies do portray the climb as a "long walk" that anybody who is in good physical condition can accomplish, with no previous climbing experience. The mountain also has extremely easy access -- teleferiques (gondolas) can take climbers up the first 9,000 feet or so. As a result, many of the 20,000-plus people who attempt the summit each year are inexperienced or completely novice climbers. They rely on the expertise of paid climbing guides to get them up and down the mountain safely.
The advisability of having paid guides take climbers up challenging mountain peaks that they are unqualified to attempt themselves has been a hot topic of controversy in the climbing world ever since the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, chronicled in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air, in which 8 people died. In Europe, however, using paid guides to assist climbers is a time-honored tradition. The first ascent of the Matterhorn, in 1865, on the Swiss-Italian border, was a guided climb. Worth noting, perhaps, is that four of the five "clients" perished on the descent. But while guided climbs of peaks like Mount Everest may have become a far more popular (and highly paid) phenomenon in the past 20 years, relying on the skill of a guide to get recreational climbers safely up and down a mountain is the accepted norm in Europe.
That doesn't mean the practice is without risks. For one thing, it makes the slopes of mountains like Mont Blanc crowded in the summer months, since the number of "qualified" climbers is much higher than if only those capable of scaling the peak themselves were attempting it. Aside from the environmental cost of that many humans on a mountain (an issue even at places like Mount Everest as well as Mont Blanc), so many climbers means more people are exposed to more of the risks that a high-altitude mountain presents. There were, for example, 28 climbers caught by the avalanche on Mont Blanc on July 12.
The crowded slopes also mean competition for footing in narrow places, as teams attempt to pass each other, and long waits at some points for access to passageways -- which means that climbers are exposed to high-altitude health risks, as well as cold and bad weather, for longer periods of time.
The crowded nature of Alpine peaks like Mont Blanc means that spots in the overnight huts along the summit route are difficult to get. So if a team has a date reserved, and the weather looks iffy or someone doesn't feel good, there's still tremendous pressure to "go," because rescheduling or delaying a trip is difficult. Added to that is the pressure paid guides are under -- especially in Europe -- to get their clients up and down as quickly as possible, so they can get to the next group. One American climbing guide I spoke to referred to this approach as the "production line" approach to mountain climbing. But that pressure to get the climb over with as quickly as possible, and push as many people to the summit as possible, also adds pressure to the "go" decision, regardless of conditions or how slow some members of the group are moving.
"That 'production line' mentality tends to permeate to everyone else around those people," says Aidan Loehr, an American climbing guide who has guided clients up peaks including Denali and Aconcagua (the tallest peak in South America). "One person makes a bad decision and everyone else assumes it must be safe and follows. With Mont Blanc, there's also the fact that so many thousands of people have managed to climb it that it kind of dumbs down the challenge, in many people's minds. But the truth is, it's a really big mountain, and most of the people who climb it don't even know or understand what the dangers are."
Dangers, one is tempted to mention, that include avalanches like the one that killed nine climbers on July 12th. "An avalanche doesn't just come out of the blue," Loehr says. "They are predictable. The guides [with that group on Mont Blanc] would have known the conditions were right for an avalanche there. But again, that's part of what the production line mentality does. People ignore the avalanche danger on mountains quite a bit on big mountains, because it's a hit or miss risk. And guides often stop thinking it's dangerous because they're up there so much, it's easy to get complacent."
That complacency, and even the risks caused by a production line mentality of guided climbing expeditions, can and do happen everywhere. But American guides -- even those who certify other guides to work in Europe -- say that those risks are markedly higher in Europe than in the United States, because Europeans have a distinctly approach different to guiding, and to climbing and risk itself, than their American counterparts.
"I think it's just how the different climbing cultures grew up," says Ed Crothers, Climbing Instructor Program and Accreditation Director of the American Mountain Guides Association. "Europe takes a really different approach to risk and death in the mountains than we do here. Europeans are far less risk-averse. Chamonix (the French town at the base of Mont Blanc) is where extreme skiing was born. The fatality rate there just wouldn't be tolerated by land managers here."
But it's not just that higher risks are more tolerated in Europe. Europeans, Crothers says, have a different approach to climbing itself -- a result, he believes, of the long history of guided climbing in Alpine climbing culture.
"Here, people want to learn skills, so they can be more independent," he explains. "So your guides spend much more time teaching people skills. In Europe, climbers are much more objective-oriented, and less interested in learning the skills. They're more willing to rely on the expertise of the guide, and the focus is more on speed."