Nine climbers die on Mont Blanc's treacherous slopes

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The Independent Online
THE BODY of a mountaineer was found on the slopes of Mont Blanc last night, bringing to nine the number of deaths on the Alpine mountain in the past two days.

The deaths have, in part, been blamed on freezing rain that has covered the snowy slopes with a sheet of ice.

Glistening in the summer sunshine, the snow-capped mountains of the Alps look deceptively benign but every year the treacherous slopes claim the lives of scores of climbers.

Rescue teams found five bodies on the traditional access slopes of Mont Blanc and three more at the foot of Mont Blanc du Tacul after a helicopter surveillance operation. The ninth was found on the south face of La Meihe in the Massif de l'Oisans.

It is almost certain that many more climbers will lose their lives before the season is over. Last year at least 30 climbers died while trying to climb the mountain, which the French call La Capitale Mondiale de l'Alpinisme.

The commander of the mountain rescue operation in Chamonix, Jean-Claude Gin, said the area was particularly popular with "average skilled climbers. They are little used to moving with spikes on this freak ice," he said.

"In such conditions the slightest error is fatal. The average climber has a strong tendency to think that a route classified as easy is easy, regardless of the weather conditions. But an easy route can quickly become very difficult when conditions are bad."

The first victim found yesterday was a Hungarian climber who fell 400m after attempting to traverse ice-hardened snow on des Bosses ridge, near the peak of Mont-Blanc.

At the same place on the same day, a father and son, from Germany, who were roped together, fell and plummeted into a deep crevice at the foot of the ridge. Their bodies have not yet been found, and rescuers believe they must have died. A party of French climbers, also roped together, fell in the same spot. A woman was killed and her companion was seriously injured.

On the other side of Mont Blanc, two French climbers plunged down the steep icy slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The fall proved fatal for one man and left his brother seriously injured.

Hours later three bodies were found on the north side following a helicopter search. They have not yet been identified.

The spate of accidents is thought to have been caused by freak weather at the weekend.

It rained at a height of more than 4,000m, a phenomenon which is extremely rare. The subsequent freezing temperatures and an overnight frost turned the slopes into sheet ice, making climbing with spikes extremely hazardous.

"The snow is now like a slippery slide," said one rescuer. But, despite the dangers, climbers still flock to the Alps every year. Chamonix's popularity is easily explained.

The surrounding mountains boast the finest array of high-quality climbs in the Alps, ranging from 100m-long rock problems through moderate mountain climbs to some of Europe's hardest and most remote technical routes.

Sheer numbers and the law of averages make accidents almost inevitable. Mont Blanc itself is Himalayan in scale and the summit dome is nearly 5,000m above sea level. Most people who try to climb that high without careful acclimatisation can expect to feel very ill. Add blizzard conditions on the huge, featureless summit dome and the environment becomes very hostile.

But many mountain rescue organisations blame the climbers rather than the conditions. They say the climbers are trying to go too far too fast. "They just want to get out from behind their office desks and sprint up and down a mountain; it doesn't work like that," said one rescuer.