Climbing death toll sparks debate on Alps tourism

 
Lagginhorn, Switzerland, 3 July 2012 The Lagginhorn claimed the lives of five German climbers in early July

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It's been a tragic start to the climbing season in the Alps.

At the start of July, five German climbers were killed as they were beginning their descent of the Lagginhorn in southern Switzerland.

The sixth member of their group, who had paused just below the summit, had to watch as the other five, among them his 20-year-old son and his 14-year-old daughter, fell to their deaths.

Last week in Chamonix, nine climbers died in a sudden avalanche which injured 12 more. A total of 28 people were caught up in the snow slide.

No-one is suggesting that those climbers, who were highly experienced, and many of whom had climbed Mont Blanc before, were not well-equipped, or that they had ignored weather conditions.

But some mountaineers are asking whether the Alps are becoming simply too crowded. The route the climbers in Chamonix took last Thursday is often called "the highway to Mont Blanc", where queues sometimes form.

So although everyone who knows the Alps accepts that, even in summer, avalanches are a fact of life, many are asking whether an avalanche need to have caused so many casualties - should such a large group of climbers all have been in that spot at the same time?

Competition

What's more, the competition for places in mountain huts, where climbers spend the night before making their final ascent, is fierce. Reservations often have to be made well in advance.

Mont Maudit, near Chamonix, file pic An avalanche on Mont Maudit, near Chamonix, killed nine climbers this month

Someone who has planned his or her summer holiday around an ascent of Mont Blanc may not want to call the whole thing off because the weather looks a little bit less than perfect, especially when they know they won't get a place in a mountain hut for another year.

Just two days after the Chamonix tragedy, a further two climbers froze to death on Mont Blanc after being caught in a storm.

Slovenian mountain guide Klemen Gricar, who was in the group just following the one hit by Thursday's avalanche, told the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag: "We all know Mont Blanc is overcrowded."

In some places, he said, "a maximum of three people can traverse at one time. The rest have to wait. So queues build up. The waiting time can be half an hour, even 45 minutes, during which groups are waiting on an exposed mountainside".

Environmental damage

A few years ago, the mayor of St Gervais, the village from which the easiest and most popular route up Mont Blanc begins, called for a limit on the number of climbers on the mountain.

"It's just too free, everyone's coming to climb Mont Blanc," said Jean-Marc Peillex.

"It's supposed to be a protected area, but the mountain refuges are full, people are camping on the ice, it just can't go on like this."

His primary motivation was environmental. The thousands of climbers were leaving some very unpleasant rubbish behind them: empty bottles, discarded food containers, even, for those who had camped rather than stay in a mountain hut, their own excrement.

Each year the villagers organised a clean up, and several mountain train loads of rubbish were transported back down to the valley. It was time, many said, to introduce permits for climbing Mont Blanc, to charge an eco tax, and to limit numbers, along the lines of what already happens for Mount Everest.

But the idea wasn't popular. The entire Mont Blanc region lives off the mountains, the population relies on the income brought in by the 20,000 climbers a year who come to conquer Europe's highest mountain and spend a lot of money while they are doing it.

But now, in the wake of the avalanche, questions about numbers have arisen again.

'Not Disneyland'

The problem is no-one can come up with a workable solution.

Rescue helicopter in Chamonix, French Alps, 12 July Alpine rescue services regularly complain they have to deal with poorly prepared climbers

Short of reducing the beds available in mountain huts and banning camping, Bruno Hasler of the Swiss Alpine Club is not sure what can be done.

"I don't think charging fees would be legal, certainly not in Switzerland," he said. "And anyway all the climbers would be against it. But it's true, the more people you have, the more accidents there are."

Most climbers and guides hold firmly to the belief that the Alps, as part of Europe's natural environment, should be open to all.

"The Alps are not a ride in Disneyland," said one mountain guide. "They are here for all of us."

But acknowledging that the high mountains should remain freely accessible to all requires that those who go to the Alps don't treat them like Disneyland either. Respect for the environment and awareness of danger are essential.

Cable cars, mountain railways, and well-groomed trails have made some of the highest peaks reachable even for inexperienced hikers.

The alpine rescue services regularly complain bitterly that they have had to pluck people off the mountains who really had no business being up there.

On Switzerland's Matterhorn, in recent years, tourists have been rescued whose footwear turned out to be only gym shoes or flip-flops.

"There is a danger in what we call the herd mentality," said Mr Hasler. "One or two people alone might look around, and turn back, but when people see lots of other people up there, they think they are safe."

So although everyone accepts that last week's avalanche was well-nigh impossible to predict, and that the climbers involved had taken all necessary precautions, the debate is now raging again about how access to Europe's high mountains should be organised.

 

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  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 79.

    What you have is essentially people who are unfit for this sort of thing, blokes with money and time on their hands and heads of straw testing their testosterone so they can be the wiseguy hero at the office in extreme activities. Boring just like all the sons of millionairs who trudge up Everest. I'm suprized Berlusconi hasn't yet held a bonga-bonga party on some summit.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 78.

    #76 That wasn't quite what I was suggesting (especially not the fines) but the situation described in the article (climbers queing for hours at certain parts of the mountain etc) is ridiculous. Regardless of how well equipped & trained you are the longer you stay on the side of the mountain the greater the chance that the weather turns. Actually limiting numbers fairly is tricky though.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 77.

    @73. BluesBerry

    I agree that informing climbers is the right way to go. But saying that, I believe most climbers are already well informed and trained.
    In fact my guess is that it is mostly this kind of people who get killed because they try things and routes they know will be more challenging.
    Routes unimaginable to the rookies.
    Mind you, same happens in urban environments with parkour.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 76.

    Peter Sym (65) has a good point. So many people climb now that it has become a public safety issue. As an EMT, I take people to hospital after car wrecks. This puts me in no great danger. Not so for alpine search & rescue or air crew personnel. Time for some sensible regulation. Severely limit group size, require a "driving test," and bill for rescues at lawyer-ly hourly rates.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 75.

    Let's get one thing clear. The people who died on Mont Blanc were following the absolutely bog standard normal ascent route up from the Cosmiques mountain hut, which was built for the purpose. They were with mountain guides (one died) and were not reckless or stupid. They were just very very unlucky. But better that then live in state-controlled cotton wool.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 74.

    They should look in Chamonix graveyard before they start climbing - it is a grim warning.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 73.

    I know this might sound insane to some less venturesome people, but mountain climbing is challenging to some people - almost what they live for. What I would do is develop a comprehensive pamphlet setting out most dangerous regions, how to be safe, etc. hand to thrill-seekers; then let the adventurous take responsibility for their own lives.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 72.

    Do what you like but but safety precautions should be taken,that is also in your hand together with organizers.This is same thing like gamblers.They have to know the risk involved.It is human nature to do more than you can..

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 71.

    It's tragic that our mountains have eroded so much over the ages, so perhaps climbing should be permitted only if the climbers each take one decent-sized rockfall rock back up with them, to leave at the summit, or at least as high up as they can get. It could be cemented back in place with their own excrement, if necessary. Thus, the Alps might one day even be able to compete with the Himalayas!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 70.

    Mountain climbing is a challenge people give themselves. Yes, sometimes they fail and kill themselves, but I don't see why states should interfere with this.Surely, adrenaline seekers would find another way to push their limits and possibly find new ways to kill themselves.Underlying is a human need for challenge and distinction. If this was unexplored area,these people would be considered heroes

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 69.

    When I began climbing, in the 1960s, I hid my gear from my parents, and told them I was going backpacking. Thus did I backpack up various and insundry rock and ice routes in the Sierra Nevada. Rebuffat's "Starlight and Storm" crystallized our reverent and idealistically selfless alpine ethic.We never took a camera with us, nor expected help if we got in trouble. Those were great days.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 68.

    If you have ever climbed a mountain you know why people do. There are more people seeking a challenge nowadays and more media coverage.

    I think it would be more of a problem if, in the future, people said "I didn't climb it because I couldn't be bothered" instead of "I climbed it because it's there".

    The reason people climb? - human nature and a drive to find out - quite right I think!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 67.

    We have an 'adrenaline-junkie, no-limits' culture now, so maybe 'hill walking' should have a risk-reducing qualification similar to kayaking (BCU- which has been around for years).. rescue skills and commonsense..... But please no hand-rails up Snowdon.....

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 66.

    As a climber and a Skier myself, I understand the dangers of the mountains. Clouds can sneek up behind the mountain you are climbing, then as it topples down your side, suddenly you can't see a thing, ice freezes to your face and you know you've stayed up too long. I don't think money is a solution to peoples lack of preparation. what's needed is prep checks & weather warning systems at base camp.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 65.

    #64 Flawed argument. 100 people dying a day on Europe's roads out of how many million drivers? A far greater percentage of climbers on Mont Blanc die than drivers on Europe's roads. In addition there's a risk-benefit analysis. People need to drive to get to work, move food about etc. Climbing is a leisure activity. Making it a little bit safer is perfectly sensible.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 64.

    This debate is irrelevent, about 100 people die every day on Europes roads.
    I don't see anyone calling for driving to be banned.
    Mountaineers accept the risk in climbing the Alps, perhaps a less nanny state culture is required.I certainly enjoyed mountaineering in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia as a young man, these pastimes are probably not allowed by youth groups anymore, safety gone mad!!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 63.

    Has any correspondent used the word 'nanny' yet?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 62.

    #61 access may have been gained that way but it doesn't stop it being incredibly stupid to trespass on firing ranges. About 10% of whats fired doesn't go "bang" straight away. Unless you know exactly which bits of land are clear (and only the MOD can tell you) you'd be safer smoking in a fireworks factory. More fool anyone who risks it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 61.

    @Peter_Sym - ironically you are making my point for me - that access was the result of repeated "mass trespass" after years of furtive activity - one of the main protagonists was the now "begonged" Pat Littlejohn! Who says a little illegality cannot pay? 8-)

    Similar would be the result if regulation or attempts to control access were introduced as a barrier to those who wanted access in the alps.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 60.

    Ok, but French property owners were probably happy to sell their chalets on at a handsome profit, French builders probably built some more, also at a handsome profit, French mountain guides have year round employment from Skiers & Climbers, French bar owners sell lots of beer to thirsty tourists etc etc. There are plenty of other places, small and large that do very well out of alpine tourism...

 

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