Bitter Seracs

Eight climbers died on Mont Blanc du Tacul between Saturday night and Sunday morning. 7 others were injured. A large serac fell, which set off a gigantic avalanche. The avalanche was 50m in depth at the break point, and 200m long. I was woken up from sleep by rescue helicopters flying in and out of the area. I live just below the mountain in Les Bossons (a village/neighborhood which is part of Chamonix). The trail along the glacier runoff stream that comes down from Tacul and Mt Blanc is where I walk my dogs each morning. I assumed that they were searching for maybe someone who had gotten lost on a descent the day before and fallen into a crevasse at la Jonction, which has become a very dangerous area on the glacier and part of some people’s descent if they miss the last telecabine down and have to walk all the way back to town. Unfortunately it was much worse than that.

Witnesses said there was no sound, no screaming. But one mountain guide shouted for people to run, and this saved some lives, as they were able to escape to the edge of the slide and have ‘only’ broken legs, vertebrae etc.. Some said they ‘swam’ in the snow to stay on top of the avalanche and survive. However, anyone who was directly under the ice itself when it fell would have died nearly instantly as this was a chunk more than the size of a 4 story building.

This happened at around 3:20am, which is the time that many parties were crossing the face of Tacul to get up the ‘Les Trois Mont Blancs’ route, which is a climbing route to Mont Blanc via Mont Blanc du Tacul, the Mont Maudit and then Mont Blanc, taking in 3 of the highest summits in Europe. The route is popular but dangerous mainly on the Tacul face, since a large part of the ascent is under a serac. It’s become worse in recent years, especially since the heat wave of 2003 and the cravasses have become larger, and serac fall more frequent. It’s considered the more technical route up the mountain compared to the Gouter route. The face of Tacul also avalanches frequently in bad weather, but the weather was good on this day. Parties always wake up at 1 or 2am to start the routes. The snow is normally frozen and firm – easier to walk on at this time of night – and normally there is less chance of avalanche or serac fall due to the warming up of the snow which happens in the afternoon – however the risk is not entirely absent as this accident so unfortunately proves.

An alternate climbing route via the Gouter hut also has significant danger, mainly from what is known as the Gouter couloir, where rockfall is sudden and has killed several climbers by knocking them off the steep face in similar random ‘unlucky’ fashion. Many people think Mont Blanc is a simple walk up, a slog, an ‘easy climb’. It is physically easy as long as you are not unlucky. However, with the thousands of people who summit each year, there are always at least a handful, often more, who die on the route. It is a mountain. It has inherent dangers.

The weather was fine and clear on the day of the accident, but the preceding week had been full of wind and snow up high, with August 15th also having a blizzard. Days had been warm, nights cold, alternating. The fact is that that the depth of the avalanche at the breakpoint was 50m, which is absolutely enormous – the avalanche was not climber triggered, but in fact was triggered by the large serac fall. This means it would have been basically next to impossible to predict this particular occurence. The serac which broke off was simply enormous, causing a 50m deep break in the snow pack — it is not yet possible to predict when a serac will fall. Seracs are parts of glaciers, and glaciers move, grow and recede constantly in change with the seasons. However they are most instable in summer when the freeze/thaw cycle is at it’s most extreme.

This is unfortunately an example of one of the inherent dangers of mountain climbing, which all climbers need to be aware of when they start out. Similar to each time you get into a car to drive somewhere – you never know what else is out there on the road heading your way and sometimes some people are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This one can be chalked up to ‘bad luck’.

Disappeared and presumed dead are a guide from Tyrol in Austria and 4 German clients and a team of 3 Swiss climbers. The names have not been released as far as I have seen. Rescue workers and avalanche dogs were only able to recover some items of clothing and rucksacks.

I had just been discussing climbing Mont Blanc in September with 3 friends on the night of this accident and we were debating between the 2 main routes up. I made the stupid comment that ‘seracs rarely would go at night’ about the Trois Mont Blancs route, and mentioned that often conditions can stabilize later in the Fall if you get a bout of high pressure weather for a couple of weeks (which does in fact often happen). Very ironic that this ‘rare’ occurence happened a few hours later after I went to bed. It’s a route I’d prefer to do of the 2 main routes. Another idea we’ve had is to go up from Chamonix without the lift, and climb it the ‘old fashioned way’ in 2 days without using the lifts. I guess I’ll have to see how stable the weather stays in September and October.

All day long, helicopters continued to head up the hill. Search for the victims had been suspended due to fear of further instability and avalanche and the fact that after a certain moment in time, it is simply a body search. Apparently they know the location of several bodies because some climbers were wearing avalanche beacons but they are deeply buried in a crevasse and a recovery will not be attempted. However, as it turned out many climbers who summited that day were unaware of what had happened, and tried to descend by the same route. At Tacul they came to a sudden giant 50m drop where previously had been a slope. The helicopters were being sent up to take parties off the summit of Tacul safely.

The PGHM in Chamonix is awesome and world reknowned as one of the best mountain rescue services anywhere – but what a stressful and difficult job in situations like this where really they can do nothing to help the victims, as they truly had no chance.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for your detailed and insightful entry about this accident.
    About the 2 main routes: isn’t there a third, via Les Grands Mulets? This route avoids the Gouter couloir.
    I did this route in 1987, and continued over Maudit and the shoulder of Tacul to l’Aiguille du Midi. So we crossed the north face of Tacul in the afternoon… I shudder to think what might have happened… Perhaps the ice conditions have changed in the last 20 years, because at the time this was not considered a very risky route.
    I am curious to know why you did not consider the route up from Les Grands Mulets. Has this route also altered by changing conditions at La Jonction? Has it become more dangerous than the Gouter couloir?
    We would like to climb Mont Blanc next year (with the next generation) via this route. Up and down this time… I would very much appreciate it if you could advise me on this matter.

    Peter Jan Plooy, Breda (NL)

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  2. Hi Peter – the Grands Mulets route is not as done much anymore because la Jonction is really dangerous now – the glacier has moved back considerably and serac fall is quite common – with the traverse you remain exposed for some time. But it can still be done and in fact this Grands Mulets route is the ‘old fashioned way’ I alluded to in my post that you would do the route if you climb it from town center on the ground, not using lifts as it is the one first used to climb the mountain. These three routes I found well-outlined on this site: http://www.maison-jaune.com/climb-mont-blanc.php and discussion of the increased dangers on the route known from the mid-90s is found here: http://www.terragalleria.com/mountain/info/chamonix/mb-easy.html . Don’t forget there are also routes from the Italian side (harder grades!).

    I suggest discussing your route choice with a qualified mountain guide who works in the area all summer or with the people at the Maison de la Montagne (near the church in town center) when you arrive in Chamonix – the weather, current conditions of all routes and recent past conditions of the time you arrive can make a big difference in which route you decide to take up to the day of your actual climb, and I am not a mountain guide, just a local! They are up there every day or at least every week, whereas I am not able to get out to do high climbs more than 10-20 times a year 😉 You can communicate with them by e-mail also I think – check the OHM link on my site for example.

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