Why Is Mont Blanc One of the World's Deadliest Mountains?

Over-eager guides and casual tourists crowd France's Mont Blanc, which has highest fatality rate in Europe.

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Mont Blanc looming over Lake Leman, in the Swiss Alps. (Reuters)

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."

Loehr agrees. "Americans hire us to keep them safe, not just to get them to the summit," he says. "So it's just a different dynamic. In Europe, the guides are more likely to teach just enough for you to follow them, not enough for you to really develop a skill or understanding of the risks and how to manage them." And that difference, both Loehr and Crothers argue, affects the risk level for the whole group.

"People who view the guide as a god, not an instructor, are, I think, less inclined to speak up and ask questions, even if they feel something isn't right, in their gut," Crothers says. "If you increase the competency level of the clients, overall, the team is much more prepared to handle the risks better.

"The fatality rate on Mont Blanc doesn't reflect the inherent, fundamental risks of that mountain," Loehr says. "Guiding isn't the problem. It's the approach to guiding there that's the problem. It's a combination of the sheer numbers of people on the mountain, the low level of experience of the people climbing the mountain, and the approach of the guides, that's causing the fatality rates on that mountain."

Loehr is quick to note that his view reflects only his own opinion and experiences. But the critique offered by both Loehr and Crothers correlates with my own experience on Mont Blanc, four years ago.

In 2008, I was recruited to be part of a guided climbing team attempting to summit Mont Blanc. Only about five of our 22 team members had any climbing experience, and I was not one of them. But I, too, was assured by the guiding company that no previous climbing experience was required. It was really just a long walk, they said, and as long as I was in good physical condition, it would be no problem.

For four months before the climb, I ran four to five mile a day, worked out at the gym three or four times a week, and hiked seven to 20 miles each weekend, so I was in pretty good physical condition. I also had hiked up an 18,000-foot mountain in the Himalayan mountains 10 years earlier, so I had some familiarity with high-altitude hiking and knew I could handle the altitude. But I also knew that the three days the guides had allocated to climb a 16,000 foot mountain wouldn't give us enough time to acclimate to the altitude. When two climbing friends and I climbed up that peak in the Himalayas, we took nine days to go up and down -- and that was starting at 7,000 feet. But when I voiced my concern to the Mont Blanc guides ahead of time, however, I was told not to worry about it.

I was also concerned, because I'd never used crampons or an ice axe before. Again, I was told not to worry. As a result, I learned to use crampons on the incline pictured below. It's a narrow spine that leads down from Aiguille du Midi, with a drop of almost 9,000 feet on one side. (We took the teleferique up to the peak and then put on crampons for the first time to climb down, and then back up,this spine -- which was crowded with climbers going both ways at the same time, despite its narrow width.)

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(Barbara Cockburn)

The next day, we started our summit attempt. We took the teleferique back down to Chamonix, then took another up the back side of the mountain and hiked up to the Tete Rousse hut. The next leg of the climb, which we would attempt at one in the morning, was a breathtakingly steep ascent of a rock face that stretched a couple of thousand feet above the refuge. When I looked at the rock face, and then through a friend's telephoto lens and saw how precarious some of the trail along its face was (see below), I decided that someone who had just put her first pair of crampons on 24 hours earlier, and had never even practiced using the ice axe in her pack, did not belong on that rock face -- and certainly not with impatient French guides who tended to yell at anyone who did not keep up with their pace. I made the decision to stop my climb there, at 10,000 feet. 

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(Barbara Cockburn)

That evening, after the summiters had gone to bed to be ready for their one a.m. departure, I found myself talking with a climber from Chamonix's PGHM -- the gendarmes of the high mountain, who are the local search and rescue workers. (The PGHM rescue climbers are known for their skill. They're also very busy -- on most summer weekends, their teams do at least a dozen rescue missions.) I told him I'd decided not to summit. He asked me how many alpine peaks I'd done before this one. I told him none. His eyes got wide only momentarily. Then, wearily, he shook his head.

"You have no business on this mountain unless you have at least six alpine peaks under your belt," he said. That's why we have so many people killed here." He gestured to the rock face I'd decided not to climb. "We lost three people off that face a couple of weeks ago," he said. "Two novices and a guide. One novice lost his footing and fell, pulling the second guy off, and the guide couldn't hold both of them. So all three fell to their deaths."

Of the 16 team members who decided to attempt the summit that next morning, five were reportedly nauseous and vomiting for the last two thousand feet (but encouraged to continue by the guides), and another one had to be rescued by helicopter and brought off the mountain. A freak thunderstorm also hit the mountain in the afternoon, obscuring the upper reaches and pounding the upper slopes with snow and hail. Our fellow climbers had reached the safety of a hut not 15 minutes before the storm hit.

Nobody from our team died or was seriously injured. Most successfully summited. We were lucky. Many people who've successfully climbed Mont Blanc have been equally lucky. But that's not the same thing as being safe, or smart, or even managing risk well. Particularly because many of the risks we escaped were not purely of the mountain's making, and should have been avoidable. Yes, Mont Blanc is a high-altitude mountain with risks of ice, falls, avalanches, and medical complications. But that's not why the mountain is such a killer. There is a dangerous combination of elements -- only some of them natural -- that come together to exacerbate the inherent risks of Mont Blanc. That's why so many people die there.

Perhaps the Europeans do have a more accepting view of risk and death in pursuit of sports than Americans do. And the throngs of people wanting to summit Mont Blanc are certainly as big a driving force in the equation as the guides who herd them up its slopes. But there's still something wrong with the math, there. And that makes all those deaths harder to accept as a "normal" or "unfortunately but unavoidable" outcome of a risky sport.