The Mont Blanc massif (not Mont Blanc itself as some reports erroneously stated) has taken another life on May 2 2008. A British climber, Lydia Press, 24 of Kent was apparently climbing roped up with her boyfriend Arnaud Viel when they both fell. By all accounts Lydia was an accomplished and friendly climber, having been a past president of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, well-travelled and had climbed mountain routes in many regions, including Chamonix, in the past. She had apparently been climbing for around 10 years.
They had reportedly travelled to Chamonix on this trip to train for a planned expedition to Bolivia later in the summer, and were climbing the North Face of the Tour Ronde with 4 other friends. This route is considered a relatively straightforward and classic mixed route and has claimed lives in the past. They are reported to have had skis strapped to their backpacks, evidently intending to ski at least part of the way back out after completing the route. The Tour Ronde is a beautiful peak near the Italian border and the Pointe Helbronner, and one could have descended via either the Italian Vallee Blanche or the Toule Glacier on ski at this time of year. The Helbronner ‘bubble’ lift which traverses the top of the Mt Blanc massif between the Aiguille du Midi in France and Point Helbronner in Italy goes directly past this summit.
The weather was good, though parts of the route would have been covered with a thick layer of recently fallen heavy spring snow. Near the summit, one of them (one account says it was Arnaud, who was also leading this pitch of the climb ) stepped onto some thick snow which turned out to be covering black ice. The snow slid off the ice, causing a loss of footing. Because they were roped together (and either were climbing without placing protection or the protection came out as they fell – this has not been made clear), they both fell, with Lydia pulled by Arnaud’s rope. Lydia was killed immediately when her head hit a rock during the fall. Arnaud suffered a broken leg and was taken to Chamonix hospital and released several days later. I cannot imagine the sense of guilt one would feel having pulled one’s partner off a climb to their death. Though it was clearly an accident, I believe it would seriously screw with your head for years after.
One thing I do find annoying here in Chamonix / France is that unlike the grim tome ‘Accidents in North American Mountaineering’ which is published each year in the USA by the American Alpine Club, there does not seem to be much organized published analysis done on fatal mountaineering accidents in France. It would seem to me that publishing an analsysis of these types of incidents would be a useful to all climbers who come here. One can never become casual or too relaxed in the mountains, even on ‘classic’ or ‘easy’ routes as they can still claim your life if you lose focus and footing for even a moment as this tragically shows. It does not seem that these climbers were pushing their limits, but rather doing normal preparatory training, when the beautiful day became a horror.
A description of the route they were climbing is found here – it is rated AD/AD+ on the French mountaineering scale of F, PD, AD, D, TD, ED, ABO
Update – May 10 – the Guardian UK has an article on the incident here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/may/10/france which does not mention them as intending to ski down at all, and says they used snow shoes to access the peak.