More Bitter Crevasses

A second life has been claimed on Chamonix’s Valley Blanche this year, and I have also heard many many reports of people breaking through snow bridges and falling into crevasses, requiring rescue. The recent death has been named as Phil Tate, a 32 year old investment director at Leeds-based private equity house Endless LLP, resident of Roundhay Leeds, UK. He was with 2 friends and his partner Kristine Grimshaw, as well as a hired mountain guide when the accident occurred.

Some news reports stated he’d become separated from the group, however others who were in the expedition party said he’d not become separated at all, and was frustrated in not moving on a flat section of the glacier. A UK news report also backs up this version of events:

What has been clearly established is that he took off his snowboard for some reason  (according to my sources this was done against advice of their mountain guide who had asked him several times not to take off his board) , and as he was walking over the glacier, he punched through a thin snow bridge and plunged 30m to his death. His body was covered in ice and rocks, and took the PGHM of Chamonix some hours to recover.

His death is a tragedy and I would extend my condolences to his friends and fiancee who witnessed the accident as well as to his family members. However I also would warn at least one ‘unnamed’ family member against the knee jerk reaction of trying to find ‘someone to blame’ for this accident. It is I suppose unfortunately becoming more and more common for the UK to take up the attitude I detest and came from in the US, where nothing bad which happens is the fault of the person to whom it happened, but must lie in someone or something else. A follow up article on Phil’s death published in the UK press contains more signs of the ‘lack of responsiblity’ times we live in. Some ‘unnamed’ member of his family is saying that a sign should have been up in that area to state that the area had hidden dangers underfoot

Well, I have news for you, anonymous family member – it actually does. Firstly there is a very large sign as you exit the Aiguille du Midi lift and head down the knife-edged ridge (which everyone must traverse to do the Vallee Blanche) warning that the area is an unpatrolled, unsecured, open high mountain area and is dangerous. In fact there is a photo of the sign on the PisteHors website. It states this in both French and English, and mentions that once you pass the sign you are under YOUR OWN RESPONSABILITY. There is no way (given how many hundreds of meters the glacier moves every year) that one could (nor SHOULD as it would trash out the mountain) signpost every crevasse on the mountain – they form and close up on a daily basis depending on glacier movement and snowfall. The idea is ridiculous. Possibly you simply did not understand your relative’s passion for adventure which led him to do this mountain ski route and to accept that it included a risk, and I hope that ‘anonymous family member’ reconsiders these facts and retracts this statement as an emotional overreaction to the tragic news of his death.

Secondly, as further proof of having already understood the risks of the route – the party had hired a mountain guide to do the route. One doesn’t hire a mountain guide if one expects no issues or if one is skiing a simple black run on piste – one hires a mountain guide to take them into dangerous areas of the high mountains to help get them through safely. It is clear that the group understood this was a serious undertaking on some level, or they would not have hired a guide.

Normally this fact increases the chances of surviving a run down the Valley Blanche greatly – the numbers of people who die on this route are disproportionately the ones who ski alone or in a small group without a guide. It is quite rare that a guided party has trouble, but as it is the mountains and there are things called ‘unforseeable accidents’ such as seracs suddenly giving way etc., there are times when a guided party does ended up being injured or killed. This is part of the risks one takes when one does a mountain sport – there are no guarantees in the high mountains. Last winter a guide died, and his client survived in a similar incident during the warm spring weather when a snow bridge collapsed as he skied over it, ahead of the client. Even experienced mountain professionals cannot see every hidden danger 100% of the time.

However, it appears (if witnesses I spoke to were correct) that this was not simply an unforseeable accident – I was told that unfortunately he didn’t listen to the advice of the guide to not take off his snowboard. People with mountain experience know that the weight distribution in any one section of a snow bridge is much more evenly distributed if one is on skis or a snowboard when traversing the section. If the story I heard was true (they said he was told this more than once), I would definitely say that ignoring the advice of the guide cost him his life.

The section at the bottom of the serac fall, commonly known as the Salle à Manger (dining room in French) where the tragedy occurred, due to its lower altitude, has been subject to the warmer temperatures in the region at the end of February, weakening the snow bridges. The guide would have known about this and tried to move the group quickly through the area, hence the warning to NOT remove the board to increase the chances of breaking through a bridge. Many snowboarders opt to be towed by skiers (I also heard hearsay that he refused the option of being towed by a ski pole from one of the skiing members of the party just prior to the incident) or they carry their own collapsible ski pole to negotiate such sections without removing the board.

If anything is to blame for some people continuing to have a cavalier attitude about the route (and I do not think or assert that Phil Tate had a cavalier attitude, as he did retain a mountain guide – I am thinking about the more often seen cases of people getting into trouble or being killed on the route such as the first death on the route this season ), I would blame the tourist information that gets reported in papers and websites such as this one or this one which might briefly state the route is dangerous (but in a tittilating way, rather than a sober one) but go on to wax fantastic about the scenery and give unrealistic impressions about the skiing (in some sections you must go very slowly to avoid the crevasses, and there are only a few pitches where it is more relatively safe to carve freely). Worse yet, they go on to suggest idiotic options such as stopping for lunch in the Salle à Manger area (where Phil Tate died) — which is BENEATH A SERAC FALL of the Glacier du Géant. So, besides having numerous crevasses, the area is also subject to random falling blocks of ice the size of small homes.

The article on even goes so far off the deep end of reality as to warn people off of eating at the much safer option of the Requin Hut and recommends heartily the dangerous serac fall as a  ‘much better’ option. It then casually says to be careful about where you sit at the Salle à Manger – because ‘snow is cold’ and goes on to talk about how to choose a good wine  and keep it at a proper temperature until you get there, and which ‘smelly’ cheeses (some of which are not smelly at all, if you have ever tried them) they recommend you get for your lunch . Incredible — how about the fact that there are potentially crevasses under your ass, dumbshit?!? I tried to contact the websites to have these idiotic notions corrected, but they had disabled comments or had no way to contact them. In fact, each year new articles are published with this ridiculous misinformation.

If you can read French, a hell of a lot more realistic view of the route is found on sites such as the one here — even if you don’t know French the photos show that it is a more serious route, and the tone of the writing is definitely more serious. It warns of serac fall in the Salle à Manger, and it tells snow boarders to bring a telescopic pole so they do not get stuck on flat bits and mentions areas where you must ski slowly and has photos pointing out what kinds of snow depressions represent hidden crevasses.

When I first moved to Chamonix, I remember one of my first winters (not long after first doing the route in fact as an intermediate skier, but one with mountain climbing experience) hearing of a whole party crushed under these same seracs when they’d stopped there for lunch. I could not understand why anyone would look at the ice fall above them and think it was a jolly place to break out the lunch, but maybe they’d read one of the aforementioned articles. The region is named ‘dining room’ this way because it’s flat and enclosed like a room, and possibly in the ‘old days’ it could have been a brief resting area before continuing on (still hard to imagine), but certainly now in the age of global warming it definitely is NOT a smart place to hang about for any length of time. It’s shocking how these blithely stupid and irresponsible articles sit on the internet year after year suggesting people stop in this area, and how new ones get created (researching the article they probably read these sites and take them at their word).

I see dozens of similar articles each year written by numbskull reporters or writers who have maybe done the route once, and still don’t ‘get it’ or simply want to help sell holidays, and wax on about the beautiful scenery (it is beautiful, don’t get me wrong) but neglect to mention that if you do it right, you should be carrying a lot of gear for self rescue, have some mountaineer training and some clue about the mountains.

A much more realistic description of the route in English is found on websites dedicated to off piste ski mountaineering enthusiasts such as Piste Hors (and not ones dedicated to tourism or selling rooms in chalets). Unfortunately they are in the minority of articles published about the route.

When I do this route, I go with a group of very mountain-experienced friends who I’ve done other hard skiing with and trust in the mountains, a medium sized backpack containing extra layers of clothes (to survive a night in the mountains if necessary), carabiners, short touring rope, ice axe, first aid kit, shovel, avalanche probe, pulleys, ascender, belay device, and crampons for my ski boots as well as a camera, lunch and plenty of water.  These articles can be used to find avalanche victims or to create an anchor and pulley system to get someone out of a crevasse. I also wear an avalanche beacon, climbing harness with two ice screws and a few carabiners with an anchor ‘cow’s tail’ attached during the descent so that I could quickly clip into an anchor or rope if need arose. If it’s very sunny I am still wearing goggles to ski, perhaps with sunglasses in my pack for the return across the flat section towards the train station. My friends and anyone intelligent doing the route does the same – we usually have at least 1 rope for every 2 people in the group. I do not go with people who do not know how to use these items, or who I consider to have poor mountain sense, or with people who are selfish nutty skiers and do things like ski off into the distance and care nothing of the group because they ‘know how to ski so well’, as a question of personal safety. Most of the magazine articles mention having warm clothes a camera and lunch — and nothing else.

It is not easy to ski with all this kit, true — but it’s a question of safety and risk management. I feel better having it and knowing I could help rescue myself or others if necessary, giving me or them a better chance to survive if we were not instantly killed in a fall or avalanche to start with. And, I know when I go up there that I am taking a risk. I climb mountains and cliffs, I ski off piste and ski tour in unpatrolled areas, and even my running is often across mountain trails with some steep drop offs and wild animals. I know there are risks in this and I accept those risks. I educate myself, and take courses in mountain safety, avalanche safety, first aid, self-rescue and rescue techniques to give myself a better chance. If I am unsure of the region or route difficulty and have no experienced local friends, I hire a guide. Just as people who spend hours freeway driving to work each day have a greater chance of dying in a car wreck, I have a greater chance of dying in the mountains – I am simply there more often. But I’d rather die there than at my desk at work in a big city. That is my choice.

A mountain guide cannot individually hand hold every person in the group, and hiring one does not absolve you from your own responsibility or give you a 100% guarantee of anything – but it does improve your chances, especially if you are not a mountaineer and you want to try skiing the Vallee Blanche. But, if you for some reason do not listen to the guide; you do not ski exactly where he says when he says and at the speed he recommends, or you do something against the advice; then unless you have years more mountain experience than he/she and a damned good reason for doing so, you are likely to be in deep doo doo by going against that advice.



  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Peter Quinn


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