In the Alps, melting ice threatens thousands of people


Mr. Peillex’s second puzzle is ensuring the safety of the 20,000 people who attempt to reach the summit of Mont Blanc each year. Perceived as an easy hike, the ascent has become a goal for many inexperienced hikers. This massif also holds the record for mountain mortality on the continent, with around a hundred deaths per year.

This summer, when even nighttime temperatures were above freezing at the summit, the frequency of rockfalls, which was already the leading cause of death, increased further. The mountain has therefore become too unpredictable. Local guide associations have canceled tours to the summit, and authorities have issued warnings. Mr Peillex proposed that anyone still trying to reach the summit should deposit the sum of 15,000 euros, an amount sufficient to cover rescue and funeral costs in the event of an accident. Although this measure was never implemented, before the end of July, high mountain refuges such as that of Goûter, located at 3,814 meters above sea level, closed. Without a guide or shelter, the two-day trip thus became practically impossible.

However, according to Tsering Sherpa of the “Brigade Blanche” deployed by the municipality of Saint-Gervais to patrol the roads leading to the summit, around ten people a day still attempted the trip. Hikers who did not have crampons, ice axes, warm jackets or reservations for the busy refuges were regularly called upon to turn back.

During my visit, at the beginning of September, the weather had cooled down and the shelters had just reopened their doors. In the office of the mountain guide company of Saint-Gervaisone of the oldest in the world, a group of young doctors from Montpellier University Hospital were finalizing preparations for their ascent, delighted to have a chance to reach the summit.

The latter had been careful, following a four-day preparation course, where they had acclimatized to the high altitude and had practiced using ice picks and walking with crampons. These courses are becoming more and more popular and, according to the guides, their customers are now more aware of the risks.

However, the conditions were so unstable that even seasoned mountaineers found it difficult to climb this summer. Alpine rescue organizations have been busier than ever. Hundreds of missions consisted only of recovering the bodies of mountaineers, many of whom had been killed by falling rocks in terrain that others had declared stable days before. The small province of Salzburg, Austria, alone has had twenty-four deaths since the start of the year. “That’s more deaths than we’ve ever had. Even for the most professional mountaineers, the situation has become very difficult,” laments Maria Riedler, mountain rescuer and dog handler.

The unspoken rules that had kept mountaineers safe for generations no longer apply. Until recently, crossings of the Couloir du Goûter, a 30-second passage prone to rockfall, were considered safest in the early morning. Last July, boulders were falling throughout the day.

“There is no doubt that the mountains will become more and more dangerous,” says Pietro Picco, a guide who grew up at the foot of the Mont Blanc massif. Some routes are no longer passable. On others, the skill level required has increased and so guides are taking smaller and smaller groups.

“If you want to climb a certain peak, you have to be able to be 100% flexible” when it comes to timing, says Picco. Along with other guides, he predicts that the season for climbing to peaks such as Mont Blanc will now end in July, and perhaps resume for a few weeks in September. Furthermore, when a summit is unsafe, hikers will increasingly have to choose alternative ascents, or opt for cycling, rock climbing or canyoning.

The mayor of Courmayeur, Mr. Rota, is working on a new series of pictograms that would warn visitors. He envies the mayors of the Italian seaside, where a single red flag prevents tourists from swimming.

Mr. Peillex, too, would like the risks to be taken more seriously. The glacier’s alarm system cost more than 7 million euros. Yet when a storm accidentally triggered it, only a fifth of residents evacuated.

“It’s a shame because after all this effort to protect them, they don’t take the last step to protect themselves,” he laments as dozens of new homes are built in an area that had been hit. by the ice and snow avalanche of 1892, which was even higher than the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Today it would kill not 200, but 2,000 people. “We must understand that nature is stronger than us, and it is we who must change our habits. »

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In the Alps, melting ice threatens thousands of people

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