Mont Blanc: The Inconvenient Truth…

Mont Blanc du Tacul

To climb Mont Blanc remains one of the great accessible challenges in the Chamonix Mont Blanc Massif for climbers and alpinists. Standing on the highest summit (4810m) around and looking across the Italian plains, along the alpine arc and below to the smaller chains of Les Aravis and Chablais is a seminal experience.

But we are faced with a mountain under pressure from visitors and continually degrading conditions due to climate change. Year after year Mont Blanc is becoming a riskier proposition.

In recent years, I have climbed (and guided) Mont Blanc on a handful of occasions choosing to make attempts early and late in the season to avoid the heat waves, and crowds of the high season. More recently, at the high of the season I have decided to avoid it altogether.

We all have to decide the level of risk we are prepared to tolerate, and this approach has always seemed logical for some guides in an attempt to reduce the cumulative risk of making multiple ascents.

The reality is that limits in hut space and availability due to crowding puts significant pressure on guides and independent climbers to attempt the mountain on schedules that wouldn’t be their first choice. The result is an incremental mission creep towards narrower margins of safety, and judgements on the ground taken on smaller and smaller criteria.

The Inconvenient Truth

A new project initiated and led by the Petzl Foundation, arguably places my own previous strategy in doubt. These independently led projects have centred around the Goûter Couloir some times simply referred to as “The Death Couloir”. No sensationalism is required here though, with this intimidating location and its immediate surroundings being responsible for an average of 3.7 fatalities per year and countless injuries.

Regardless of your experience to climb Mont Blanc by the normal route (voie normal), you will need to pass the couloir, either in ascent, descent or both.

The Petzl Foundation asked the simple but logic question: How can we reduce accidents in the Goûter Couloir?

Presenting such a significant objective danger due to rock fall, the Petzl Foundation postulate that the Goûter Couloir tarnishes the image of mountaineering. That assertion is certainly an inconvenient truth, but one that would be worthwhile stepping back and scrutinising away from the commercial pressures of the tourism industry and individuals livelihoods.

The full links to the reports, are available below and worth reading in full.

Petzl Foundation Reports – Mont Blanc

Petzl Foundation – Mont Blanc: how can we reduce accidents in the Goûter couloir?

https://www.petzl.com/fondation/Couloir-Gouter_Rapport_EN_web.pdf?v=1

Petzl Foundation – Goûter Couloir on the normal route, Mont Blanc

The latest reports make some stark observations:

“Despite its limitations (see Conclusion), this study provides valuable information for those planning to ascend Mont Blanc:

– The number of rock destabilisation events recorded over the course of the study is an indicator of extreme gravitational activity.

– In 2019, a rock destabilisation event was recorded every 37 minutes on average and every 24 minutes on average during a peak of activity between 7 pm and 8 pm.

The highest frequency of rock destabilisation events was recorded between 6pm and 8 pm. It increased an average of three hours after temperatures became positive at the top of the couloir.

– Rock destabilisation events grew more frequent and larger in size when the couloir became exposed to the sun.

– The time of day when rock destabilisation was least frequent was between 9 am and 10 am.

– The couloir was as dangerous at 3 pm as it was at 10 pm.

– Rock destabilisation was more frequent at the beginning of the season, partly as a result of snowmelt. However, these events were relatively small in size, but still hazardous for mountaineers.

– The frequency of rock destabilisation events was lower in the second half of the summer season, but the longest events (“boulder showers”) and those involving the highest volumes of material also occurred during this period.

– The liquid water present in rock fractures seems to be the primary factor governing the risk of rock destabilisation. The more liquid water is present in the cracks in the rock (melt water/precipitation), the greater the frequency of rock destabilisation events. Mountaineers need to be particularly cautious during periods of snowmelt or after rain/storms.

– The presence of snow in the couloir is not necessarily a guarantee of safety, since snowmelt promotes rock destabilisation.

– A cold period marked by frequent freeze-thaw cycles is conducive to the occurrence of rock destabilisation. Only a cold period without thawing (which is rare in the summer) can reduce the frequency of destabilisation events.”

Climbing Mont Blanc

The conclusions from this report adds evidence to the widely held view that crossing early in the day before the couloir is fully in the sun, is in relative terms “safer”.

This includes ascent and descent, so hut reservations that facilitate these timings are essential. Starting early from the Tete Rousse Hut, and staying at the Goûter Hut in descent is one option. There are inevitably financial barriers to this, and the issues of securing bookings of huts that are in significant demand.

Finally if starting from the Tete Rousse Hut, some guides choose to start at first light. So at least they can see the conditions in the couloir and will get visual confirmation of any rock fall activity. Choosing to cross in the dark, although common, degrades you ability to make observations.

There are alternatives, and with fifty major 4000 metre peaks in the alps there is a whole collection of challenging objectives on these classic peaks alone. Although any alpine route will be subject to objective dangers and can never be risk free, there are plenty of summits that can be climbed without the same exposure to rock fall on Mont Blanc.

Statutory Regulation of “Mountain Guides” in Scotland…?

In December 2014 there was much discussion within the UK instructional and guiding community following the Fatal Accident Inquiry Determination into the tragic death of Graham Paterson on the Isle of Skye.

Sheriff Principal Derek CW Pyle made the following recommendations under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976:

1. Consideration should be given by Scottish Government and relevant stakeholders to discovering a means, whether statutory or otherwise, to ensure that mountain guides in Scotland are properly qualified and equipped to provide a commercial guiding service for adults.


2. The relevant authorities should inform the public of the importance for amateur climbers and hill walkers of at least two members of any party being fully equipped to deal with the possibility of an accident occurring to the leading member of the party.

The full determination can be viewed here at: https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/search-judgments/judgment?id=ba0fbba6-8980-69d2-b500-ff0000d74aa7 (note the terms “mountain guide” is used generically in the document, rather than representing the qualification).

Personally I have no desire to dwell on the events of this tragic case particularly within a small mountaineering community. As ever it is important that we apply the lessons learnt from these incident’s to ensure our own safety as well as that of our clients.

Secondary Communication?

Immediately after the determination (which in itself is less that specific), there was much discussion about the second recommendation and whether parties should be equipped with a multitude of technical devices to summon help. As usual views were polarised, mine included, as the recommendations for satellite phones, EPIRB’s, Spot Locator devices etc were championed on social media networks and in personal communication.

As usual ‘technology’ and tangible advances in equipment were pushed to the front of the discussion rather than considering the ethos of what Mountaineering Instructors and Mountain Guides are trying to achieve.

Firstly, we should and in many cases do, foster self reliance within groups regardless of whether we operate at 1:1 or on a much larger ratio. This simply means ensuring that members of the party are adequately equipped for the venture, have some situational awareness as to their location and the plan for the day, combined with a brief to summon help if required. All of these issues are well engrained in the Mountain Training UK Awards at all levels, for those who have chosen to undertake them.

Secondly, the choice of communication to summon help should be carefully considered on a needs based assessment. To do so those working in the mountains and amateur mountaineers should understand how to summon help and the timescales with which that resource can be sought. Finally, it’s worth considering whether one way communication e.g. Flares, EPIRB, Spot Locator or two way communication is more useful e.g. VHF Radio, mobile phone or satellite phone.

In discussing the panacea of “tech” many have failed to acknowledge the the first recommendation of statutory regulation.

Statutory Regulation

The recommendation of statutory (or other) regulation of mountain guiding activities in Scotland is a radical departure from the current status quo in the UK as a whole. Currently, activity leadership in the hills and mountains of the UK is unregulated with the exception of those under 18.

Within the European Union the UK is one of the few countries which chooses not to regulate these activities. However, arguably we are in a way very good at self regulation within the industry, with a proven pathway to demonstrating competence as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The HSE acknowledge four ways to demonstrate competence: to hold a qualification, to hold an equivalent qualification (e.g from within the EU), to have received training by a suitable advisor (i.e. in house/organisation) or have significant experience. As such many people do the obvious thing and use the Mountain Training UK Awards as an obvious way to demonstrate competence by proxy.

The challenges with this complicated system is that it sadly isn’t very transparent for a client hiring somebody to take them into the mountains. While it should be encouraged that people ask questions when entering into a service agreement, the whole point of the instructional and guiding community is that individuals shouldn’t necessarily need to take the full responsibility of the enterprise?

Sadly, Mr Paterson didn’t hold a substantive Mountain Training UK qualification but had started the process registering for the Summer Mountain Leader Award. It should be noted however, that there was no legal requirement for him to do so.

As for statutory regulation, Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle made the stark observation that mountain guides should be properly qualified and equipped to provide services to adults. Critically, Mountain Training UK also issued a Briefing Note for its Providers and Association members regarding this Fatal Accident Inquiry – Skye.

This makes interesting reading and makes particular reference to the terms ‘Guide’, ‘Instructor’ and ‘Leader’ all of which relate to very specific qualifications. These titles are not legally protected and are frequently abused or simply ignored due to lack or understanding or apathy.

As instructors and guides perhaps we can be more transparent about how we use those terms, and those associated with them. e.g. Aspirant MIA, Aspirant MIC. Particularly, when they do not represent a position within the MTUK framework. Note: The names MIA and MIC have now been replaced by the MCI and WMCI respectively.

That’s one small thing that we can do as individuals to make our industry more transparent. If we can’t regulate ourselves effectively then somebody will probably do it for us.