"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.)
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.
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.