Mont Blanc highest mountain in Europe

May 11, 2024
Climbing death toll sparks

However, as he was "neither injured nor in distress, we told him we couldn't come and get him, that he should recover and go back down on his means".

Exasperated, the unnamed Pole, who lives in Aberdeen, decided to charter a private helicopter to pick him up.

That only further angered Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of nearby Saint-Gervais, who promptly denied the climber permission to fly over his village. "Is the PGHM (mountain rescue squad) going to have to get a taxi licence?" asked Mr Peillex. "The demands of these 'ad hoc alpinists' reflects the urban consumer's state of mind, which demands security and service at all times. But the ascension of Mont Blanc is a matter for mountaineers in a natural setting that dictates its own laws. It is not an amusement park."

At first the Polish climber refused to budge, "squatting" in the Goûter hut – a futuristic, four-storey, egg-shaped structure, part of which juts out spectacularly from the cliff. With a capacity of 120, the refuge was hailed as a marvel of self-sustainability when it opened last year.

After 48 hours in the shelter, the Pole eventually threw in the towel, paying for a guide to help him retrace his steps down to the valley below. Just a few days ago, another two Poles, also living in Britain, ignored warnings of bad weather to attempt an ascent, only to call mountain rescue for help after losing their way between the Goûter and Vallot refuges. Again, the PGHM refused to fly up a helicopter because of the conditions, telling them to make their way to one of the huts without waiting for rescuers to arrive. "These people just didn't understand why we couldn't come and get them in heavy snow, " said Mr Ribes, whose group rescues around 1, 000 climbers from the Mont Blanc massif each year.

Climbers on the Mont Blanc (ALAMY)

There are occasions when the rescuers have no choice but to step in. Last month, one climber was within a few hundred yards of the summit but was forced to call in rescue services because someone had stolen his walking boots.

"When we find people in that situation, we extract them by helicopter. We don't leave them in their socks. It's pretty dangerous, " explained Jean-Baptiste Estachy, the mountain rescue chief.

But in other cases, climbers are wrong to think they can snap their fingers and receive assistance, said Saint-Gervais's mayor.

A couple of years ago, Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin tycoon, attempted to scale Mont Blanc with Princess Beatrice, two of his children and six friends to launch a charitable trust. When they reached the old Goûter refuge, they had not booked enough places for the whole group, according to Mr Peillex. So they demanded to be housed in the new refuge which was still under construction.

"Naturally we refused, " said the mayor. "If Mr Branson wants to fly to the moon, then so be it, but when he climbs Mont Blanc from Saint Gervais, I'm the mayor, not him."

Eventually, Mr Branson reached the summit, descended part of its Italian slope and got a helicopter to ferry him down.

The official irritation can be partly explained by the dizzying numbers of people attempting to scale the summit. Some 350 to 400 climbing parties attempt the ascent every day in summer, according to a brochure in nearby Chamonix called No, climbing Mont Blanc is not easy. Rescuers, according to the leaflet, are called in between 80 and 100 times each year, sometimes several times a day.

Locals complain that media and "hiking lobbies" are to blame for peddling the illusion that Mont Blanc is just a "long walk" to the summit.

They say such disinformation leads to tragedies such as one last year, when Peter Saunders, 48, a Briton, and his 12-year-old son Charlie plunged to their deaths after trekking along a precipitous, snow and ice-covered path wearing only flimsy summer hiking boots.

They fell 1, 000ft after slipping on the treacherous trail overlooking the vast Bossons Glacier, near Chamonix.

To forewarn climbers around the world, an organisation called the Petzl Foundation has created a guide called Reaching the Top of Mont Blanc, A Concern for Climbers, in seven languages.

It warns of the perils along the most popular Couloir du Goûter route, also known as the Couloir de la Mort (death gully), where 74 fatalities were recorded between 1991 and 2011. During the most critical hours, between 11am and 1.30pm, rock falls occur on average every 17 minutes along the 100-yard stretch.

Matterhorn meets Mont-Blanc 29.6.07
Matterhorn meets Mont-Blanc 29.6.07
Mont Blanc Expedition 2011
Mont Blanc Expedition 2011
Tour du Mont Blanc
Tour du Mont Blanc
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