‘Snow! Snow! Get Moving!’ The Lethal Lure of Mont Blanc

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By Lukas Eberle and Victoria Weidemann

Every year, some 30,000 people attempt to climb Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, and a shocking number die on the mountain. The reason, say locals, is overcrowding, foolhardiness and a lack of respect for the White Lady.

In Chamonix and Saint-Gervais, the municipalities at the foot of Mont Blanc, everyone knows the name Patrick Sweeney. The American’s story is the outrage of the year. It’s even getting more attention than the stories of those who died.

Tanned and broad-shouldered, the 45-year-old Sweeney is a businessman from Keene, New Hampshire. He used to be one of the best rowers in the US and is now a mountain biker and takes part in airplane races. For the last 28 years, he has also been a passionate mountaineer — and he recently cooked up a particularly audacious adventure. This summer, he and his family traveled to the French Alps to climb Mont Blanc with his children. His daughter, Shannon, is 11 years old; his son JP is nine.

The father filmed his family with a GoPro camera as they slogged their way up the mountainside and he later gave the video to US broadcaster ABC to be aired on “Good Morning America.” Immediately, the images found their way into the Internet and spread around the world. Since then, Patrick Sweeney has been an outcast.

Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of Saint-Gervais, considers Sweeney to be “sick,” and the American has become subject number one of bar table discussions among mountain guides. Where, many wonder, does healthy enthusiasm cross the line into excessive ambition? Examining that question, though, has become an annual necessity at Mont Blanc.

The mountain is the highest in the Alps, rising 4,810 meters (15,781 feet) above sea level on the border between France and Italy. Locals also call it La Dame Blanche, the White Lady, because of the permanent blanket of snow covering its pyramid-shaped peak.

Mont Blanc is one of the most-climbed mountains in the world. Between June and September, 400 climbers a day attempt to reach the mountain’s summit, using seven different routes. In a normal year, some 30,000 people attempt to climb Mont Blanc, with 17,000 of them using the favored Goûter Route, which heads up the peak’s northwestern flank.

Traffic Jams

Professional climber Russell Brice of New Zealand has summited 90 times and has led expeditions on Mount Everest since the 1990s. “Everyone is always shocked by how full Everest is, but it is a joke compared to Mont Blanc,” he says. On Everest, traffic jams of climbers form on two or three days a year. But on Mont Blanc, it’s almost a daily occurrence.

Business with the White Lady is booming. In both Italy and nearby Switzerland, there are some 50 companies offering guided tours up the mountain; in France, there are 70, with 20 of those based in Chamonix. Including training, preparation and acclimatizing to the altitude, the trip to the top takes about a week with customers paying an average of €1,500 ($1,940), including the guide.

“Demand is huge, we have reached our capacity,” says Bernard Prud’homme, head of the Chamonix tourism bureau. The municipality, he says, “is no longer advertising” for Mont Blanc. “No ads, no campaigns. Otherwise, the routes would be even fuller.”

Mont Blanc has become symbolic of modern-day mountaineering. No longer reserved for experts, the highest peaks are now also frequented by adventure-seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. Mountains like Mont Blanc have come to be seen as tourist destinations.

The routes are prepared with anchors and fixed ropes, with climbers simply clipping in. Last year, the Refuge du Goûter opened at an altitude of 3,835 meters, a futuristically designed mountain hut build by the Club Alpin Français, to provide shelter for those heading to the top. It is designed to withstand wind-speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (185 miles per hour). Indeed, the mountain is becoming domesticated, made available for consumption. But that hasn’t made it any less dangerous. On the contrary, it is one of the deadliest mountains in the world.

So far this year, 20 Alpinists have lost their lives on the Mont Blanc massif. A 45-year-old from Germany, for example, slipped while ascending through a rocky couloir, falling 200 meters (650 feet) to his death. In August, three French climbers fell 800 meters, apparently after an overhanging snow cornice broke away beneath their feet. After each tragedy, Jean-Marc Peillex has to issue a press release and stand for interviews. He says that every new accident hits him hard.

On a sunny day in August, Monsieur Peillex is sitting at his glass desk in the Saint-Gervais city hall wearing a blue blazer. The mayor gazes at the Mont Blanc massif outside his office window. He himself is a passionate mountaineer, he says. But when he talks about the mountain rising above, realism takes over.

‘Heap of Garbage’

“Mont Blanc is a heap of garbage,” Peillex says, “a mountain covered with the crap, urine and detritus of the last 50 years. The problems are covered up by a nice, white blanket of snow. But I want to confront people with the reality and to reach those people who abuse the mountain.”

Recently, an article appeared in the local newspaper Le Messager in which nine people from Britain announced their intention to climb Mont Blanc. They were members of an occult group who wanted to “release spiritual energy” on the mountain to attract UFOs and aliens.

Peillex intervened, prohibiting the crackpots from conducting their pilgrimage. But, he says, he usually doesn’t hear about such undertakings until it is too late. Two years ago, for example, a sporting goods company staged a concert of French singer Zaz on the mountain, for which a standup bass was hauled to the summit. A group of 20 Swiss assembled a mobile jacuzzi at the top and climbed in.

Peillex pours himself a cup of coffee, which he then leaves untouched for an hour, becoming so passionate that he forgots everything else. “People are drawn by the spirit of freedom that can be felt on Mont Blanc,” he says. “But the problem is that some confuse that freedom with the freedom to do whatever they want.”

But the “biggest lapse” was committed by Patrick Sweeney, Peillex says. The father, he goes on, advanced into “a new dimension of stupidity.”

It was on March 18 that Sweeney sat with his children in front of the computer. They were doing a bit of Internet research and discovered that the youngest girl to climb Mont Blanc was 11 years old and the youngest boy was just 10. The Sweeneys had found their objective, that of breaking both records.

The father established contact with television producers who had previously worked for National Geographic and the Travel Channel and arranged for them to accompany the family to Mont Blanc with a camera team. Later, Sweeney started a blog in which he posted regular updates about the family’s preparations to break the record.

Dress Rehearsal

Shannon and PJ began a training program designed by their father. They learned how to use ice axes and crampons and spent 10 hours a week hiking or in the climbing gym. In June, they and their father climbed Gran Paradiso, at 4,061 meters (13,323 feet), Italy’s highest mountain. It was a dress rehearsal for Mont Blanc, and it was successful.

For the trek up Mont Blanc, Patrick Sweeney hired a British guide who had climbed Mt. Everest 11 times. He wanted to leave nothing to chance. At the end of June, the family arrived in Chamonix and they began their climb on July 4. They elected to follow the well-travelled Goûter Route, considered the easiest way up despite the 2,450 vertical meters that must be conquered.

Tsering Phintso Sherpa is standing in front of a small wooden shack at an altitude of 3,000 meters. The Nepali mountain climber is wearing sunglasses and holding a two-way radio in his hand. Everyone who wants to summit via the Goûter Route must pass Tsering. He is something of a gatekeeper for Mont Blanc, providing pointers to inexperienced mountain climbers, and speaks nine languages fluently.

It was Mayor Peillex’s idea to install Tsering on the mountain. His workplace is at the snowline where climbers must put on their crampons to prevent them from slipping on the ice and snow further up. “Most can deal with them properly,” the Sherpa says, “but there are some who stumble up the mountain in their crampons as though they were drunk.”

Not even half of Mont Blanc climbers book a guide and many also skip making reservations in the mountain huts, preferring to bivouac along the way. Tsering approaches climbers carrying heavy packs with tents and sleeping bags, telling them it is not allowed to camp above 3,200 meters and explains the dangers to them.

 

The Sound of Snakes

Mont Blanc is not a technically challenging mountain, but it nevertheless has its perils, including weather patterns that can change extremely rapidly. Furthermore, strong winds can conceal tracks in the snow, which can cause inexperienced climbers to veer off course. Above 4,000 meters, every step, every move, can mean the difference between life and death, particularly if the weather isn’t perfect. Many have frozen to death.

“Some listen to me and others ignore me and run away,” Tsering says. On some days, he is supported by two gendarmes who take down the tents that have been set up despite the ban.

Often, they come across people in running shoes and shorts. It has become popular among a certain segment to run up the mountain in the cross country style, primarily because of Kilian Jornet, a Spanish extreme athlete who set a speed record last year. In just four hours and 57 minutes, Jornet ran from Chamonix to the peak of the mountain and back.

“That sends the wrong message,” Tsering says. “Mont Blanc is not a race course. If you don’t have the right equipment, you can quickly be doomed up there.” He tries to convince particularly clueless climbers to turn back, but he can’t force them to.

When the Sweeney family passed by his post, the Sherpa wasn’t there. He had the day off. “Unfortunately,” he says.

Not far above Tsering’s wooden hut, the Refuge de Tête Rousse can be found, a shelter with 72 beds. In the middle of a field of scree in front of the building, five Ukrainian students — a woman and four men, all in their 20s — have pitched their tent. They have planted their country’s blue and gold flag in the ground and are eating bread and smoked bacon.

‘Bowling Alley’

They drove to France via Poland, one of them explains. In previous summers, they had always gone diving, but this year they decided to take on Mont Blanc. It marks the first time that four of the five have been in the high mountains. They were unable to afford a guide or even a bed in the shelter.

A rescue helicopter roars in the sky above the group. It is peak season on Mont Blanc, with mountain rescue teams heading out 20 to 30 times a day. A dozen plaques made of shale or metal are affixed to a rock next to the Refuge de Tête Rousse — in memory of those climbers who lost their lives a few hundred meters up in the Couloir du Goûter.

The couloir is considered to be the most dangerous segment of the climb, with 74 people having died there between 1990 and 2011 and a further 180 injured. Most of the accidents happen on the traverse, which carries the moniker “Corridor of Death.” At an altitude of 3,340 meters, climbers must pass through a 100 meter long ice chute across a 48 degree slope.

In the middle of the day, when the temperature climbs and melting snow begins to release chunks of stone, a rock slams into the corridor on average of once every 17 minutes. Among climbers, the traverse is known as the “bowling alley.” The mountaineers are the pins.

It is here where Shannon and PJ Sweeney almost met their doom. On the morning of July 5, the family left the Refuge de Tête Rousse together with their guide and two camera operators, reaching the perilous couloir an hour later. A cameraman went first so that he could film the Sweeneys’ crossing from the other side. He had to stop several times along the way, with snow and rocks repeatedly sliding down the slope in front of him.

Patrick roped himself up with his children and then, using a piece of rope between himself and Shannon, clipped in to the fixed line. The line is made of steel and stretches across the entire couloir. It can prevent deadly falls for those who lose their balance.

The trio then headed out, with Patrick in the lead. Everything went well until they got to the middle of the traverse, but then they heard a peculiar swooshing noise above them. “It sounds like snakes,” Shannon said to her father. At that exact moment, their guide cried out to them: “Snow! Snow! Get moving!”

‘Not Our Day’

But it was too late. A mass of snow, damp and heavy as cement, had come loose on the slope above the Sweeneys. The avalanche first knocked PJ off his feet, who was behind his father and sister. The boy cried out before the snow mass swept his sister away as well. In the front, Patrick jammed his ice axe into the snow as an anchor to prevent them from plummeting down the mountain.

The children tumbled some 20 meters down the slope before the rope connecting them to their father grew taught. Tangled together, they stopped.

“Everything’s okay, you’re safe,” Patrick called down to them. “Turn around and climb up to me!” The avalanche had only half covered the two and they were able to quickly free themselves from the snow. They then tramped back up to their father with rocks, loosened by the snow slide, plummeting down the mountain around them.

Once they had all reassembled, the guide stopped the ascent. “It’s not our day,” he told Patrick. The group turned around and returned to the Refuge de Tête Rousse.

Seven weeks after the near catastrophe, Patrick Sweeney joined SPIEGEL for a skype interview from an Internet cafe in Boston. He had thought long and hard about whether to consent to the chat, saying that the vast amount of criticism had come as a shock. Nobody was interested in the truth, he added.

And what is the truth?

“There are many mountain climbers on Mont Blanc who are worse prepared than Shannon and PJ were,” Sweeney says. “Training and ability are more important than age and gender. After the avalanche, the two of them did exactly what good mountain climbers do in such situations. They freed themselves and they learned valuable lessons.”

Sweeney says he has nothing to regret. Those who say that young boys and girls shouldn’t be on Mont Blanc are “living in the wrong century,” he says. “Too many children are overprotected. We parents shouldn’t eliminate all of those great experiences that are a part of growing up.”

Dying of Stupidity

The film that the Sweeneys made on Mont Blanc has since been finished. “We have received interesting offers from a number of television broadcasters,” Sweeney says.

In Saint-Gervais city hall, Mayor Jean-Marc Peillex sighs deeply. He has had enough of people like Sweeney who play “adventurers and GIs” on Mont Blanc, he says. And he has had enough of the deadly accidents.

The Goûter Route is “privately owned,” he says, with that part of the mountain belonging to his municipality like a yard belongs to a house. “Nobody wants people to die of stupidity in one’s own yard,” Peillex says.

He now wants to do something about it. He says he has already taken up contact with the French Environment Ministry and is in the process of putting his ideas down on paper in the hopes that Paris will ultimately pass a law.

Peillex proposes that climbers be required to hire a guide. His plan also calls for a kind of admission control on Mont Blanc and for officials in front of the Refuge de Tête Rousse to check if climbers have reservations for shelters further up. Those that don’t would be forced to turn back.

Thus far, there has been no legal foundation for turning climbers away from Mont Blanc — and it will likely be difficult for Peillex to push such a law through. Alpinism lives from the principle that everyone is welcome on the mountain. Climbers want autonomy so that they can test their boundaries. Rules just get in the way.

Jean-Baptiste Estachy, the commandant of Chamonix mountain rescue, doesn’t think it is possible to solve the problems on Mont Blanc. “It’s a paradox,” he says. “People are flowing into the mountains, but they don’t want to think any more about the risks and dangers. They tell themselves: I’ll try. If it doesn’t work, the helicopter will pick me up.”

Helicopter operations on Mont Blanc cost €8,600 on average and in France, the state pays, not those who are rescued. Which is why, Estachy says, he and his colleagues are sometimes called by climbers who aren’t even in life-threatening situations. “There are climbers who call us because they are tired or they have blisters,” he says. “Once, a group called saying that we should pick up four people who were sitting in their tents and were afraid of bears.”

Intense Competition

Sometimes he and his companions jokingly wonder what would happen if they just closed down for a week. Slowing down for a bit, Estachy believes, would help. But the trend on Mont Blanc is going in exactly the opposite direction.

An ascent and descent of Mont Blanc takes three days as a rule. But a company not far from Chamonix has recently begun offering quicker trips. The “Mont Blanc Express” is a hike to the top and back in less than 24 hours.

Estachy thinks the offer is “idiotic” and “foolhardy.” For those who book such a trip without having sufficient Alpine experience, he says, it could be their last expedition.

Patrick Sweeney says that his daughter has had enough of the mountains for now and has moved on to triathlons. But his son PJ wants to keep climbing. Sweeney recently took him on trips to Colorado and Washington, climbing six different summits that were at least 4,000 meters high including Mount Rainier, one of the most difficult mountains in the continental US.

Sweeney now wants to return to Mont Blanc with his son. “PJ has until June 2015 to break the age record,” he says.

But the competition is intense. In August, the gendarmerie stopped an Austrian and his son from continuing their ascent of Mont Blanc. The boy was just five years old.

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