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.

http://climbing.about.com/b/2008/07/26/dutch-family-killed-in-the-alps.htm 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.”

mountain running and french music

I did a 2 day run last weekend as my ‘long run’ to train for the CCC – sleeping in an auberge in Champex d’en Haut at night. There were at least 15 other runners doing about the same, all getting ready for the CCC. There were groups of Italians and French, and me the solo American chick. I ran most of the race course, but skipped out a couple sections because I started later than I wanted to on Saturday.

I started at Arnouva at the end of Val Ferret, and headed up the Grande Col Ferret right away, which is followed by a long downhill and another smaller climb to Champex for a total of about 1120m of uphill. The last 2 years I did the race, since I run that downhill so fast (it’s my favorite trail downhill evah so far … grade is perfect, trail is relatively even and the views are astounding), I’ve gotten odd inner leg cramps when I started running on the flat again (which cleared up quickly but made me slow my pace) after running it and figured I should practice the longer downhill this year to avoid that. I followed the Tour du Mont Blanc to Champex d’en Haut (about 30km), and stayed at the Auberge Bon Abri which was really nice and made very decent vegetarian food. I ran that part in 5 hours 48 mins, including a stop at La Peule to buy and consume a Rivella to celebrate my arrival in la Suisse. Even though I thought I pretty much dicked around at La Peule, I managed to run this bit of the course 1 1/2 hours faster than my past 2 years when I was racing (granted it’s preceded at that stage by 17km of running but I still think/hope that 17km of tiredness would not make me 1.5 hours slower).

I arrived a lot earlier than I expected, so I took advantage and showered (yeah, hot water & ice cold water … I always ice down my legs and hips now after a long run) did a nice yoga/stretch session on the grass near two Herens cows grazing with bells clanging and laid out in the sun lounger chair until dinner time. I was in a 6 person room, but it was not full. Another bonus (especially as it’s high summer season).

Definitely could have gone for either of my two mountain climber roommates (who’d just done the Tour du Monte Rosa and climbed about 15 4000m peaks in 9 days and were telling me the benefits of high altitude training) at Bon Abri – one of the few times I’ve been at in a shared room that I a. found the people in the room attractive and b. was not kept up by the others in the room either snoring or farting. Score for me. Continue reading

Hungry Crevasses and Deadly Avalanche

It seems the crevasses have been worse than avalanches this year in Chamonix. On March 15 and March 19 two more people were killed on the Valley Blanche by breaking through snow-bridges and falling to their deaths.

March 15 an elderly French man travelling in a large group of other retirees (unguided) broke through a snow bridge on the Col de Rognon and died from the fall. On March 19 a second snowboarder, also with a guide, died falling into a crevasse just below the Requin refuge.

Nothing more to add, and few details have come out surrounding these last two deaths.

In an avalanche March 15, a locally well-known architect, CAF member and mountaineer, Pierre Trappier (70), and his wife Marie-Jo (64) who was very well known in the environmentalist and anti-Tunnel du Mont Blanc group the ARSMB (Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc), died not far from their home in Les Houches. The group of 5 ski tourers had removed their skis to climb a 40 degree couloir on the way to their annual ritual of skiing the couloir Trappier  (beware of the music on this link to the video of the Trappier Couloir on YouTube) on the north side of the Aiguille du Goûter (yes, he discovered the access route to this now well-known couloir).

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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: http://www.roundhaytoday.co.uk/news/Roundhay-man-killed-in-freak.3839069.jp

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 http://www.roundhaytoday.co.uk/news/Family-of-Roundhay-ski-victim.3844817.jp

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.

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Vallée Blanche – Bitter Crevasses

A 25 year old Lithuanian man named Andrius Glozeckas seems to have become the first death on the Vallée Blanche this season on Friday January 11th. Le Dauphiné Libéré reported that the man, dressed only in jeans and a light leather jacket and carrying no mountaineering gear, he was last seen alive by two Swedes heading into a very crevasse-ridden section of the Vallée Blanche route near the Petite Envers du Plan. There is a discussion of this incident in English on Piste-Hors.com as well (see blogroll). Statistically men in their 20s do seem to die at a higher rate in the mountains – from avalanches to stunts like this, they seem to be oblivious to their own mortality at this age. I guess that is why in many places auto insurance rates are also higher for this age group and sex.

The Dauphi  reported in the longer print article that two people at least did in fact try to disuade the man from continuing – firstly the people who he rented his skis from told him it was dangerous to do by himself and at least convinced him to rent a harness and crampons and at the top of the lift, when he asked ‘Ou est la piste?’ (there is none, it is a pure high mountain off piste route) the incredulous lift personnel also tried to tell him to turn around and go back. However the man insisted on being told ‘the route’ and after giving him directions toward the easiest tourist route down, the lifty reportedly saw the man heading in the opposite direction towards the much steeper Petite Envers, doing beginner-style awkward turns. People from his rental lodgings gave alert that he’d not returned. The weather was too poor for the PGHM to search for him until Sunday, and he is presumed dead as he was not adequately equipped to survive even one night at that altitude.

Every year this route sees deaths – usually from similar circumstances of people attempting this route alone and/or poorly-equipped and with no clue where they are going, no avalanche beacon and certainly no mountain experience, training or mountain guide.