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Mont Blanc deaths spark calls to end 'free-for-all'

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Mont Blanc deaths spark calls to end 'free-for-all'
A deadly start to the Mont Blanc climbing season has re-ignited a debate over limiting access to the mountain. Photo: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP
16:58 CEST+02:00
A deadly start to the climbing season on Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc, has prompted renewed calls to impose restrictions on scaling the mountain that attracts up to 30,000 climbing parties each year and has the reputation of being one of the world's deadliest summits.

It's just a month into the busy summer climbing season on Mont Blanc and authorities have already recorded the deaths of three climbers headed up to the top of the 4,810 metre (15,781 feet) mountain.

The latest accident happened on Tuesday when a 22-year-old Frenchman, just a day shy of his 23rd birthday, slipped and fell to his death while climbing on one of the many routes that leads to the peak.

His death, as well as the tale of the Polish climber who demanded to be rescued after deciding he didn’t feel like walking down the mountain, have reopened the long-running row about whether it's still a good idea to allow unrestricted access to the tallest mountain in Europe, which some consider to be the deadliest in the world.

Unlike legendary peaks in the Andes, Alaska or the Himalayas, no permit is needed to make the ascent of Mont Blanc, a fact that outrages those fed up with the fallout of the estimated 30,000 climbing parties that try to make the climb each year, many of them during the June to September peak season.

In a typical year those climbers prompt an average of 100 rescue operations, many of which are due to exhaustion, inadequate equipment or lack of proper physical preparation.

Also, some climbers just don't make it off the mountain alive.

The death toll varies greatly from year to year, but  2012 was one of the deadliest in recent memory. In just three days 11 climbers were killed in accidents, with nine dying in one avalanche.

In 2013 there was only one reported death of a climber, according to the local mayor. 

'Mont Blanc has become like Disneyland'

With figures quoting up to 100 deaths each year in the entire Mont Blanc range, some consider it one of the most dangerous mountains in the world. But it's a reality that many see as entirely avoidable.

“It’s on the same list that includes going to Mont Saint Michel and getting a tan on one of France’s beaches and the whole thing reminds one of a large amusement park that goes by the name of Disneyland,” Jean-Marc Peillex, mayor of the town of Saint-Gervais which sits at the foot of the mountain, told The Local. “Mont Blanc is sold like it’s a simple trek, but in reality it’s a high-altitude act of mountaineering.”

Climbing Mont Blanc: 10 reasons to think twice about it

Peillex has repeatedly called for some type of restrictions on the mountain, whether that be a fee, a permit or a reservation system. But he said he has been rebuffed by the segment of guides and climbers who think the mountain must remain free.

Fourth-generation mountain guide Pascal Chapelland, who is based in Saint-Gervais, said he’d never be in favour of big fees, but he adds that the sheer amount of traffic means regulation will be necessary at some point.

“We will one day need to find a solution. The big problem is that historically there have been no rules, everyone does what he wants on Mont Blanc. Most summits around the world are subject to some kind of regulation,” Chapelland told The Local. “Our (guides) primary role is safety. For me safety is somewhat weakened when there is overuse. So for this reason, I would be rather in favour of limits.”  

Among the massive crowds that flock to the peak each year, there are complete novices who attempt the rigorous climb with little or even no preparation and inadequate equipment. 

Part of the reason these people end up on the mountain is that it's so accessible. Unlike peaks in the Himalayas that can only be reached after days of trekking, Mont Blanc is a short cable car ride from the urban bustle of the Chamonix valley.

'Broken tree used for an ice axe'

British guide John Taylor told The Local he’s seen a man using a broken sapling for an ice axe and a pair of climbers who dropped their packs in the midst of an area known for rock falls, one of the most dangerous on the climb, for a cigarette break.

But the French have not cracked down on this kind of behavior, partly because they're believers in personal responsibility, Taylor says.

"The French approach to risk is very different than the Anglo-Saxon attitude. They're attitude is 'go on, do what you want to do. But don't come running to us if you get in trouble,'" he said, noting Anglos are surprised by that because they assume they'd be barred from the climb if it was dangerous. 

(AFP)

'Those who have accidents are providing a public service'

At least from a safety perspective he sees no benefit to regulating or restricting access to the mountain. He says there is so much information out there on Mont Blanc that people would have to almost willfully avoid it. And just looking up at the towering snow-capped peak from the valley below should be warning enough, he says.

“If you are going to do it, then I think you should be allowed to. I don’t think other people should have their freedom curtailed just because of this small number of people who make the headlines,” he said. “I don’t really believe in protecting people from themselves. We are all adults and the information is there, it’s everywhere, if you look for it.”

For Taylor the totally unprepared people are a small minority and he notes most of them, remarkably, make it through the climb alright. He thinks those who make the ascent without giving their bodies the time to acclimatize to the high altitude and without the proper equipment could even serve a purpose.

“I see it as self regulating. If people go up and have a horrible accident, I don’t want to sound callous, but there is a certain sort of public service element to it. When this gets reported other people look at it and go ‘maybe I better think twice about this,’” he said.

Ten reasons to think twice about climbing Mont Blanc

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