Mont Blanc is dangerous. No doubt about that. Four Italian climbers killed yesterday on the Aiguille du Midi. And the two young Britons killed the previous weekend in the Gervasutti Couloir. And 58 killed last year and ten other climbers still missing and presumed dead. And the summer month in 2007 when 30 climbers died. Mont Blanc, a huge mountain massif straddling the French and Italian border, is simply the most dangerous mountain in the world. Lots of people are killed and injured on it every year, and still they come in hordes to ascend to the roof of Europe. Why? Because the climbing is that good.
As I drove west today from Colorado Springs to Grand Junction, I thought about all those dead climbers and that still the mountain remains open for climbing. If that many climbers were killed on any mountain massif in the United States, surely it would be closed to climbing to save the crazies from killing themselves. Accidents in North American Mountaineering, published by the American Alpine Club, reported only 15 climbing fatalities in the United States in 2007. The greatest number of American fatalities was in 1956 when 53 died. The average number killed climbing in the US is 25. Yet in Europe, Mont Blanc stays open for all to come and test their skills and cheat their fate.
It’s difficult to find overall statistics on climbing accidents in the Alps because stats are kept by each country and what’s included varies widely. But local guides and rescue groups say there are many reasons why so many climbers die on Mont Blanc. Many die because of subjective reasons such as unpreparedness, not bringing the right equipment and clothing, lack of experience, and bad judgment. The others die for objective reasons including avalanches, falling rocks, blizzards, and bad weather.
Some of the reasons are basically the same as those outlined in a 1902 article in the New York Times. The article cited a study of accidents from 1890 to 1901 by the Swiss Alpine Club, which found that 303 alpinists were killed in the Alps in that period. The study noted that the immediate causes of death included not employing a guide; climbing unknown routes from late fall to spring; and “ foolhardy adventurousness, vanity, the spirit of emulation, want of experience, and even absentmindedness….” Lastly, “the writer is inclined to think that many accidents have been brought about by the injudicious use of alcoholic drink, which, taken as a stimulant to counteract the exhaustion brought about by climbing, produces, owing to the rarified air, an unexpected bad effect.”
Okay, maybe the last reason is not as valid these days, but still lots of people die on Mont Blanc. Over 20,000 people reach its summit each year, mostly via the easier normal routes, which are still deadly. On peak weekends in late July and August, the local rescue services fly at least a dozen missions rescuing climbers or picking up the dead. Still they come, climbing and dying. Mont Blanc—it ain't no weenie roast.
Photograph above: Mont Blanc—most dangerous mountain in the world.
Photograph © Sylvester Adams/Getty Images