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?


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

    Comment number 99.

    I never climbed before but i think inside us there Spirit of challenge and we tying to do it with all we can I think every one should take care before do every thing even this things is simple

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I can't see anything wrong with what those people did, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, they were highly experienced and I can't imagine for a minute they were improperly equiped. The problem is that with the advent of high tech clothing and sat navs people seem to think they can range without the necessary experienced, hence why we have rescue teams in all upland areas...

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Climbing by its very nature is a dangerous, sometimes fatal sport and i would imagine those who decide to climb such mountains are well aware of the risks involved. You cannot stop people taking such risks and all you can do is educate and inform.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    #71 Maybe the excrement would be better used to stick your typing fingers together. The Alps and Himalayas are continuing to rise because of tectonic plate movement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The only newsworthy aspect of this story is the money wasted in attempting to recover those who insist on engaging in pointless and dangerous activities.

    Some british climbers die and it's on news at ten.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Climbing as something that many humans like to do. They accept the risks inherent in that activity each time they go out. It is undoubtedly part of the attraction and part of the excitement. To pit oneself against Nature and to overcome it.

    Occasionally, some will lose and will succumb to Nature.

    That is life. It is free choice and I wouldn't have it any other way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Has anyone consider that quite a lot of these incidents also reflect our weather? Last winter saw extraordinary snowfalls in the Alps and now a very damp summer. Any local will know this is a terrible combination and the mountain should thus to treated with extrordinary respect. My heart goes out to any of those lost though. Mont Blanc is exquisitely beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Most people who go there know the risk and accept it. It`s called life. You have the paradox of USA where anything dangerous is illegal whereas you are free to carry guns. How ridiculous is that. Let`s keep Europe within levels of sanity. If you don`t accept risk, then don`t go up a mountain.

    -That's fine people can risk their own lives, the problem is others have to risk theirs to rescue them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Mountaineers have every right to climb to their hearts content, knowing the risks involved. Just don't expect us tax-payers to foot the bill for your rescue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    #88 how about a lottery? Its been suggested for Machu Pichu.

    Most posters seem to be missing the point: no-one is suggesting limiting access to the mountains because climbing is dangerous. They're suggesting limiting numbers because the mountains are so crowded that you have ques forming at certain points which exposes too many people at a time to potential avalanches.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    leavethese people alone. there know what will happen if there make a mistake or thingsgo wrong keep your nose out all goverments and let the people be free .

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Well, you either say it's based on wealth or on competence or it's free to all.

    Wealth is easy to prove but how do you prove competence? You might be a great rock climber but a useless mountaineer. There aren't any glaciers in Britain so how do you prove you are an Alpinist in your first season?

    You shouldn't ban competent people because of the idiots though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    There are more horse riders killed eventing than motor cyclists in the TT, more swimmers drowned than parachutists killed, but the former is not as news worthy. The knock on is that PC brigade feel they are obliged to exercise control in some way. I bet they try and ban gravity next!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    "Several train loads of rubbish"

    As with any true wilderness location access should be free for all. As we have been slowly destroying our wilderness, those few that remain take the strain of higher visitor numbers. The crime here is littering. Responsible explorers never leave litter and account for every milligram. Clean up costs should be funded by crippling fines. Free to use, pay to abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    They climb in part because it is dangerous. So maybe there should prove they have insurance to compensate the rescuers before setting off. After all, they must know that nature is going to catch some of them out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Mountain climbing is a dangerous sport. Theres a clue in that description as to what those partaking of the sport can expect ... i.e. danger. It is up to the participant to decide whether to accept the danger or, as I do, stay at home and watch the telly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    @Ichabod has it right You cannot "regulate" objective danger away. It is what distinguishes mountaineering from rocking, and winter mountaineering from summer alpinism. it is the point of doing the activity - you learn very different things about yourself outside the safety zone. Stonefall is just as deadly as an avalanche, and always present when the sun hits the summit in the morning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    #79 (and others) there is no evidence that these people are 'unfit' for anything. The guys killed last week were hit by a million tons of snow moving at 100mph. There is nothing you can do to avoid or escape an avalanche.

    YOU climb everest then come back & tell me its 'boring' and I'll be impressed. Until then.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    The issue here is not who is allowed on a mountain but are they prepared to go up. Too many people have no experiance but believe they are "entitled" to mountainer through selfish reasons, but do not take responsibility for them selves. How many mountainers would go out without compass/map, strong boots and a simple first aid kit on a day walk let alone up a mountain. Be prepared or dont go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Many activities incur a risk of injury/death. Stopping people from doing things they enjoy is no solution. In the end life is a fatal activity.


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