Over-eager guides and casual tourists crowd France's Mont Blanc, which has highest fatality rate in Europe
Mont Blanc looming over Lake Leman, in the Swiss Alps. (Reuters)
Despite the wide coverage it received, the news last week that 11 people had died in two separate incidents just days apart on the slopes of Mont Blanc, high in the French Alps, was probably not a surprise to anyone familiar with the mountain. It has the highest fatality rate of any mountain in Europe. Some estimates put the fatality rate at an average of 100 hikers a year; others that more people die each year in the Mont Blanc range than in any decade in the Alaskan mountain ranges, including the far more dangerous and challenging 20, 320-foot summit of Denali (otherwise known as Mount McKinley).
The odd thing about those numbers is that while Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in Europe (approximately 15, 780 feet), it is not, from a purely technical standpoint, the most difficult to climb. Indeed, many guiding companies describe Mont Blanc as more of a "long walk" than any kind of challenging climb, although it does require crampons and ice axes to summit. So clearly, there's a bit of a disconnect involved. If climbing Mont Blanc is more of "a long walk" than a high-stakes, technical climb, why do so many people perish on its slopes?
In the end, there are a number of reasons. But one big factor is the fact that European tour companies do portray the climb as a "long walk" that anybody who is in good physical condition can accomplish, with no previous climbing experience. The mountain also has extremely easy access - teleferiques (gondolas) can take climbers up the first 9, 000 feet or so. As a result, many of the 20, 000-plus people who attempt the summit each year are inexperienced or completely novice climbers. They rely on the expertise of paid climbing guides to get them up and down the mountain safely.