Bitter Tragedy on Dolent

A father and three of his children in a Dutch family died on Mont Dolent  (July 24 2008), which is not on Mont Blanc, as mis-reported by many websites. It is a peak which is part of the Alps, but is several  mountains away from Mont Blanc itself. The summit of Mont Dolent is the point at which Italy, Switzerland and France meet and in this case was being climbed from campsites in the Val Ferret, on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif, which is a large grouping of mountains about 100km long.

The tragedy is I think well-reported on the below websites, as they give an analysis and discussion of the accident, rather than just concentrating on the horror factor that the mother, Ada de Jong, watched as they all died. All four family members were from Almere, in Northern Holland and include the father, Pieter Hendrik Germs (55), his son, Mark Pieter Germs (20), and two daughters-Else Germs (23) and Karin Germs (16).

One cited factor in the accident is something I noticed while hiking, running trails and shooting photos the massif recently – a strange pink glow has appeared in snow patches on both sides of the massif, on top of the glaciers and on many of the peaks. It’s highlighted when the weather is cloudy and when it has not snowed for some time, and makes the snow look very strange. I was not sure what the pink color was from – pollution, or some odd atmospheric effect. But reportedly it is North African sand, which has blown in on the foehn winds … This happens sometimes in ski season (but it generally snows more often so doesn’t have enough time to collect heavily enough to turn the massif pink) and when it does happen, every skier hates it as the snow heats up faster, melting faster turning powder days into slush days instead.

In climbing season it turns out this combination causes the snow to become wetter and in fact to become perfect snow-ball temperature. (The sand takes up heat, distributing it into the snow pack ) and often this causes snow to ball up under crampons, rendering them useless unless you have the habit of knocking it off your feet every few steps with your ice axe … potentially snow balled up under one of the climbers feet causing them to slip, or perhaps it was even in the act of doing this snow removal that one of the team fell – it is only speculation.

The group was on the normal route, which the week before had seen another serious but non-deadly accident when a French rope team also slipped on the descent in the same place. In this case, all four of the party were on the same rope, which has generally been seen as the only thing one could criticise in this case (the family was experienced in the mountains and was part of a larger group of 30 or so Dutch mountaineers, and had been camping and climbing for a couple of weeks). Unfortunately when one slipped it led to a domino effect, pulling all down. In general the suggestions have been to have rope teams of two (this has been my experience in climbing) or to go unroped … though quite a few people cited cases where in a rope team of two, someone else they climbed with had been saved by that fact and for this reason I still think that roping up in general in a two person team is safer (at least statistically).

Only one member of the party (the father it seems) had been able to try to stop the fall using an ice axe, but unsuccessfully because the snow was too weak to hold the weight of the whole team. The mother who had retreated from the climb, watched on absolutely powerless and this of course is something no one wants to even imagine – seeing your whole family die before your eyes, knowing that if you had not turned back, you too could be dead or of course you would always wonder if things would have turned out differently. I can’t imagine the torment. Climbing mountains is dangerous and is sometimes tragic … but rarely is it so completely tragic as in this case. has a good report, as does this NL newspaper, which has been translated below. Source of following story is in Dutch here.

The snow was already too weak to stop the fall

COURMAYEUR – Leader Delfino Viglione of the Italian recovery team and his men have carefully reconstructed the accident of the Germs family.  “We could not see exactly in what order the victims have walked, because at the foot of the mountain their bodies and the ropes were completely intertwined with each other. In order to quickly recover their bodies, we were forced to cut loose the ropes. But we assume that while descending the boy walked up front, followed by his two sisters and the father as leader of the group behind (above) them.”

“Probably the boy slipped and the girl behind him did not respond quickly enough. When she too went down on the ground, the other sister followed and the father as well could no longer hold. He did try though: we found traces of his ice axe in the spot where the fall began. But by that time, by noon, the snow had already become too weak to provide for some grip.”

After sliding down hundreds of meters along the icy slope, the four people fell into a several dozen meters deep abyss with a rocky ground (base). It’s there where they had fatal skull fractures.

“Also because all four of them had left their helmets in their rucksacks. I do not want to say that it would have made a difference, but it’s not impossible that one or more would have survived the fall with a helmet on,” notes Viglione.

The sight at the foot of the slope was terrible, he says, but he and his men had little time to think about that.  “The operation was particularly difficult because it took place in very dangerous terrain, at the foot of an ice slope from where new pieces of ice and rock could fall down any moment. We therefore needed ropes to lift two of the victims into the helicopter. After that the weather slightly improved and we were able to float (fly) one meter above the ground, and recover the bodies directly. Then we had to look after the mother and complete all sorts of bureaucratic formalities.”

Suggestions to limit access to mountains such as Mount Dolent, the Italian military leader thinks are nonsensical.  “It’s for a fact that the mountain will claim victims. On our side of Mont Blanc, in the Valle d’Aosta, about 15 to 20 per year, and on the French side, at Chamonix, even 50 to a 100. But you have to consider that millions of people climb up the mountain, and greatly enjoy it, also because of the tension (adventure). We cannot put an end to that. We can point out the dangers to people, we can make sure they are well-informed and direct them to mountainguides, but ultimately it remains everyone’s individual responsibility.”

Ten kilometres away, on the Grandes Jorasses campsite at the foot of the Mont Blanc massif, where the Dutch Germs family camped for two weeks, there is an atmosphere of defeat. The family was part of a group of more than thirty Dutch mountaineers, who are now sitting at their campsite and gazing in front of them.

Also owner Nadir Ducret is badly shaken.  “Our camping exists for 42 years already, but we have never experienced anything like this. Four members of one family: the mountain has never before been so greedy.”

Ducret and his mother and sister have come to know the Germs family well.  “Especially the father, because he spoke French. He was a nice, cheerful man, always in for a chat in the morning. I myself have three children too, but much younger, and the relationship of these parents with their son and daughters served as an example to me. And now this disaster. Yesterday afternoon everyone here was still cheerful and happy, and now everything has suddenly turned sad and ugly.”


One comment

  1. Nicely reported – when I first heard about this, I felt sick to my stomach and this wasn’t helped by the slightly sensationlaist way this was covered by the major news providers


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