'Snow! Snow! Get Moving!' The Lethal Lure of Mont Blanc
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.
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.
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.
- Part 1: The Lethal Lure of Mont Blanc
- Part 2: The Sound of Snakes