Bitter Cold – Summer Death Count up on Mont Blanc and the massif

People this summer have continued the tradition (since the lift went up) of thinking that Mt Blanc is an easy mountain.

This summer has been bad particularly because the weather in June and July has been stormy and people take off up the mountain at the first break in the weather – sometimes ‘pushing it’ in my opinion because they are on holiday here and maybe they feel it’s ‘their only chance’.  We had some friends of friends stay with us earlier at end of June to climb Mt Blanc. We advised them the weather had been very bad the week before with a lot of fresh snow, and avalanche risks were up. They went up to the Aiguille du Midi to investigate on the flat area that leads to one of the huts, and agreed with us and came back down. The prior week a Swiss guide and his client had been avalanched and killed attempting the ‘Trois Mont Blanc’ route, and the following week the more died. I think they and others who decided to not attempt the mountain made the right decision. Instead they did a lower hike and stayed overnight in a mountain hut and had a good time and are alive to come back and try the mountain another time.

The 3 young Poles either died in an avalanche or froze to death after being avalanched whilst getting lost on the glacier de Bionnassy when ascending in bad weather. Their case also made little sense as the weather had been consistently poor for a week when they set off. Two other companions who had been injured in the avalanche made it to a hut. The forecast had not even called for a break in the weather but they went up anyway and were found separated and frozen to death. 

An unlucky situation (bad weather had moved in faster than prediction) nearly caused the deaths of 2 French teens not long after that. They lost phone contact (battery died) after reporting they were lost and everyone feared the worst as they were lost for over 24 hours, but on their last contact they had built a snow cave. And in that case they had the right equipment to survive including extra food, kept the cave clear of snow during the night and lived to descend themselves to the nearest hut much to the relief of families and rescuers. 

Now this week, a group of 4 climbers died, again without proper equipment. The family in NZ papers is saying they are upset the foriegn press and French mountain police are criticizing the group for being unprepared and call it a ‘tragic accident’. To me a tragic accident is equipment failure or a cornice that has been stable for years breaking as you happen to cross it. In this case, to me when you climb a mountain that is at 4810m you need to be prepared for anything because mountain weather can and does change suddenly – it’s very hard to predict. It is certainly tragic that they died, and yes as they sounded like wonderful people who under other circumstances may have been even friends – but to me their deaths were caused by a tragic misjudgement on their parts and as the gendarmes said – they were fully responsible for those poor choices of ignoring weather warnings and not having the right gear. It’s not what I would call an accident.

They were a woman from NZ, her boyfriend from the UK and a French and a Chilean woman (all students together in Grenoble). They did not have a shovel to dig a snow cave and were said by the French police to not have warm high altitude mountaineering clothes. The NZ woman’s family said she was experienced at climbing (photos show her rock climbing, not mountaineering which is a different game) as was her boyfriend and this was unlike her or him to go out unprepared. Then they spent 3 days acclimatizing in a hut (most people spend 1 day) and then though the forecast was poor for Monday all along and weather already closing in, and they had inadequate equipment for poor weather, they set off at 3am Monday morning. By 3pm they were in grave trouble. By 4am Tuesday they were dead. However, another group of 4 people lost on the very same Monday while attempting Mt Blanc were rescued by Italian mountain police after building themselves a snow cave and surviving the night.

The mountaineering shovels are very light and easy to pack – in a group of 4 at least one person should have had one – I mean how ‘lightweight’ do you need to go for a route that starts out with good hut access anyhow? I just don’t understand why people treat this mountain so casually.

In an unfortunate accident, a father and son team died this week as well when a cornice collapsed as they walked up a ridge. To me this is a tragic accident – they were found when hunters noticed footprints that suddenly ended. Mountain police recovered their bodies.

And oddly (I do not have full details on this one) a French woman died this week while hiking from the Montenvers train station to the Plan d’Aiguille – a normally easy hike done by many families all year round. Apparently she slipped and fell to her death near a steep drop off.

The weekend forecast is for sun.

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