'That's It, We're Dead' Questions of Accountability After Tragedy in the Alps

Ten alpinists, including a guide with years of experience, set off to cross one of the Alps' most majestic mountaineering routes, the Haute Route. By the fourth day, a heavy snowstorm was brewing -- but the group kept going, with deadly consequences.

Hilmar Schmundt / DER SPIEGEL

By and


At 5 a.m. on April 29, 2018, Lisa Hagen awakes in a mountain lodge 2,928 meters (9,606 feet) above sea level. She slept poorly and can't stop thinking about the weather.

She creeps out of the bedroom, which she shared with the three other women and four men from her group, and walks to the lodge's common area, where an iPad is kept. She looks out the window and sees the valley below still blanketed in darkness, though the first rays of light have begun to cast a milky glow on a nearby summit. To the south, dark, slender clouds brush across a nearby ridge. Lisa checks the weather report on the iPad. A cold front from the Atlantic has moved in and pushed out the warm Mediterranean air. Snow and storm gusts of over 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) are forecast. The zero-degree line has sunk from 3,000 meters -- only slightly higher than where Lisa sits checking the weather -- to below 2,000 meters.

Gradually, the rest of Lisa's group begins to stir and enter the common room. They want to get an early start. It's Day Four of their trek, and although they don't realize it at the time, the worst is yet to come. The group's guide and his wife were the first to wake up and both immediately checked the weather report. The guide stands there, contemplating and doesn't say much. It's his decision whether the group can keep going or not. Let's have breakfast first and then decide, he says. There's bread, butter, jam, tea and coffee on the table. He eats and has another look at the iPad. Let's wait and see what the weather does, he says.

Lisa Hagen is 47, blonde, midheight and athletic. She was born in Munich, where the mountains are never more than a short drive away. Her parents were skiers, and her grandparents lived in a Bavarian ski resort town. Even as a small child, Lisa knew her way around a ski slope.

When Lisa was in her mid-30s, she met a man whose passion for the mountains rivaled her own. The two went ski touring together, climbing higher every time. They found a mountain guide they trusted, but then her partner died in a car accident. After that, Lisa explored the mountains on her own.

A Week on Skis and Crampons

Over the past few months, Lisa had intensified her training regimen. She wanted to fulfill her dream of traversing the Haute Route, or High Route, from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. A week on skis and crampons.

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The first recorded summer traverse of the Haute Route was by a group of Britons around 150 years ago. The first winter crossing was in 1911. The route begins in Chamonix in the west, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the Alps' highest peak, and ends in Zermatt in the east, where the Matterhorn reigns supreme. Four of the seven alpinists to first attempt an ascent of this towering, nearly symmetric Swiss peak in 1865 did not survive.

What Lisa Hagen and her group experienced in the days between April 25 and April 30 has been reconstructed through interviews with her and two others, as well as eyewitness reports and the results of investigations by the authorities. Lisa Hagen is not her real name. For a long time, she debated whether to come forward with her story. Once she did, a condition was that her identity be protected.

Lisa was nervous when she pulled into a parking lot outside Milan on April 25. She didn't know any of the seven people with whom she would be tackling the Haute Route. One man and three women had arrived before her. Lisa's eyes lingered on one of the women: She wore glitzy jewels on her fingers and thick makeup. She introduced herself: Francesca, from Parma, Italy, a 42-year-old homemaker and mother of three.

The others were from Bolzano in South Tyrol. Among them was a married couple, Gabriella and Marcello, 52 and 53 years old, and their friend Betti, 44. Marcello was a tax adviser, Gabriella worked in human resources and Betti was a school teacher. Betti had been so excited about the upcoming trek that she had baked a cake -- which she carried with her in a cardboard box, along with her skis and backpack.

Then a man named Luciano joined the group. He was Swiss and, despite his 72 years, in excellent physical shape. He had many skiing and climbing expeditions on various continents under his belt. There was also Andrea, a 45-year-old male nurse from Como, Italy, who explained that he was taking the place of another Italian who had to cancel at the last minute.

An Experienced Guide

The last person to join the group was Tommaso Piccioli, a large, heavyset 49-year-old. He parked his old Subaru and didn't introduce himself. He was a friend of Betti's, the woman with the cake. To Lisa, he seemed the least amiable of everyone there. Then Lisa saw a face she recognized: the guide, Mario Castiglioni, 58, an Italian with deep lines in his face. It was the same guide who Lisa and her now deceased partner had for years trusted to navigate them safely through the mountains. Lisa also knew Mario's wife, who stood next to him. Her name was Kalina Damyanova, 52, from Bulgaria. She often tagged along when her husband guided. She, too, was an experienced mountaineer.

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Mario Castiglioni was an internationally certified mountain guide. His wife was not. He was a man of few words. She spoke five languages. Together, they ran the company MLG Mountain Guide in Chiasso, Switzerland. Their shop window contained photos of alpine tours, a Tibetan prayer flag and a mountain bike.

The group piled into a small bus and a car and headed to Chamonix. They reached their hotel around 5 p.m. and gathered in an inner courtyard, where their guide went over the equipment they would need to cross the Haute Route: skis, poles, climbing skins, helmet, goggles, headlamp with extra batteries, gloves, thermos, travel-sized first-aid kit and sleeping bag. There were also beacons, shovels and probes in case anybody got caught in an avalanche. Not to mention climbing harnesses, ropes, crampons and ice picks for when things got steep. If anyone had forgotten something, the guide said, now would be the time to say so.

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For Lisa, it was clear that Mario expected everything to go smoothly. For instance, he declined to go over certain items during his briefing, such as a balaclava to prevent a person's head from cooling, a synthetic bivouac sack for sleeping outside on a frigid night or a small beacon that could send an emergency signal with GPS coordinates via satellite. Such items could prove useful if things went awry, but they also added extra weight and tended to be expensive.

Ten people is a lot for an ambitious trek. Such a large group is invariably slow, which is why Mario Castiglioni opted to travel light. In case of emergency, he always had his satellite phone.

Much like Lisa Hagen, Tommaso Piccioli, the heavyset Italian, had also spent years dreaming about the Haute Route. He grew up in Rimini, a coastal city in northern Italy, though the beaches never captured his passion as much as the Dolomites, a mountain range where his parents had a vacation home. He used to work at an architectural firm in Hamburg, Germany, and organized his life in such a way as to maximize his time in the mountains. With his wife, an Australian, he divided his time between Sydney, Milan and the family's vacation home in South Tyrol. There, in the Italian Alpine Club, he became friends with Betti and the two of them decided to traverse the Haute Route together. He knew not to underestimate the route. It would be his first time with a guide.

Tommaso found it strange that the guide hadn't mentioned GPS beacons during his briefing. But he didn't dwell on the thought -- after all, he had his own GPS device with which he could orient himself if need be.

A Storm Is Brewing

The first days were just like the catalogue had promised: Blue sky, white snow, descents into valleys and ascents to peaks as high as 2,459 meters. On Friday, Day Two, Tommaso read the weather report: The warm, dry wind that had afforded them clear and sunny skies so far would disappear by Sunday afternoon. The temperature would plummet, and a storm would settle in. But Sunday was a long way off.

On Saturday, Day Three, their journey took them 17 kilometers over a steep landscape to the next lodge. At one point, Tommaso lost his balance and fell nearly 5 meters until the rope caught him. He wasn't injured.

For dinner they ate vegetable soup and noodles with ground beef. Tommaso ate a large bowl of soup and three helpings of noodles. He didn't know it then, but his gorging would significantly increase his chances of surviving the next 36 hours. He went to bed around 9 p.m. and couldn't sleep. He eventually took a sleeping pill.

As the group waited for their guide's decision the next morning at breakfast, the lodge's common area was steadily filling up. Most of the other 60 people in staying there would opt to wait out the storm. Tommaso Piccioli talked to a Frenchman who assured him the weather would quickly become perilous.

Mario Castiglioni thought otherwise. He convened his group and informed them they would be summiting the highest peak of the trip, the 3,790-meter Pigne d'Arolla. Once there, they would decide how to proceed.

According to their itinerary, the next lodge, the Cabane des Vignettes, is only six hours away. But something had gone wrong with their reservation and the lodge is fully booked. No problem, the guide says, if the weather takes a turn for the worst, they can always ski down into the valley from Pigne d'Arolla or try their luck at Cabane des Vignettes. In the worst case, they'll have to sleep on the floor.

Simply because other guests preferred to err on the side of caution does not necessarily mean the guide's decision to keep going was wrong. Alpinism knows few rigid rules. This ambiguity is what makes the sport so exhilarating -- or terrifying, depending on the situation. Mountaineers must work with flexible risk analyses rather than certitudes.

That said, the group could have mitigated its risk fairly easily by using a GPS device to track its progress after leaving the lodge. That way, even if they could no longer see in front of them, they could trace their digital tracks back to safety. But they failed to do this. Instead, they followed their guide.

At 6:30 a.m., the group climbed a gradual, wide snowfield toward the summit.

A half-hour later, Pascal Gaspoz made himself an espresso in the valley below. Gaspoz is in his late 40s and a professional mountain rescuer. He works at the helicopter company Air-Glaciers. He checks his weather apps and prepares for the likelihood that he'll soon have work to do.

The ascent to Pigne d'Arolla is less challenging than it is long. After 20 minutes, Lisa Hagen turns around and looks back at the lodge. It was the right decision to keep going, she thinks. The clouds are dispersing, and the sun is beginning to shine through. She takes a photo and climbs on.

The group makes its ascent without much conversation. Everyone is trying to conserve energy. They have no idea how long they'll be climbing. Lisa isn't exactly sure what Mario Castiglioni has planned as he leads them up the mountain. She could ask him directly, but it would require catching up to him. She stays in line. After all the times they've been in the mountains together, she trusts him.

Tommaso Piccioli is ahead of Lisa. He's glad he was able to sleep. He had a hearty breakfast and is feeling strong. He's counting on the group skiing down to the valley or turning around to the lodge before the weather turns. The sky is already overcast again.

They've been climbing for three hours when the storm hits. It happens sooner and it's more aggressive than expected. Snow swirls around them and everything they could see only moments ago -- the lodge, the tracks they left behind, the mountains, the valley -- is suddenly gone. It's too late to descend on skis, the view is too poor. They pack away their skis and walk up to the guide. No one speaks. Mario Castiglioni casts a long, colorful rope through the snow behind him so that the others can follow his tracks. His wife takes up the rear, helping those with the least amount of energy. Gabriella is one of them. She lost a crampon somewhere along the way.

Around 10 a.m., the group runs into four other people. They are French alpinists, two women and two men, who have gotten lost. Lisa Hagen notices that one of the men has a compass and a map. How old-fashioned, she thinks -- and useless in a storm like this. The Frenchman tries to communicate with their guide, screaming against the wind. She can't hear what he says, but it appears as if the two of them are disagreeing. The guide then marches on and the French fall in line behind him.

Keep Calm, Don't Panic

Lisa Hagen still isn't sure where Mario is leading them. At some point, she sees Kalina, Mario's wife, through the fog. She calls to her: Why didn't we ski down to the valley sooner? Not now, Kalina answers, we can discuss everything tonight. Lisa thinks about sitting inside a warm lodge later that evening with a beer in hand. Mario knows what he's doing, she thinks. He's never let her down before.

After a while, she realizes the group is ascending the same area they descended earlier. I must keep calm, she tells herself. Don't panic. She puts one foot in front of the other, jamming her poles into the snow with every step. She can no longer see the guide. Tommaso Piccioli, who has a GPS device with him, catches up to the guide and asks him: Where are you going? It's OK, Mario calls back to him. They continue for a bit and then Tommaso shows the guide his GPS. At the corner of the display is the beginning of a trail.

They change direction and head to where they think the trail is. A lodge suddenly appears on Tommaso's screen. "Guys, we're going the right way!" Tommaso tells the group. They keep going until they reach the edge of a cliff. They turn around and look for another way down to the lodge. Except there is no way down.

At some point the fog clears and Luciano, the 72-year-old man from Switzerland, sees a black rubber hose hanging over a ledge. Luciano knows that in the summertime, this hose carries water from a spring directly to the Cabane des Vignettes. He says: We just have to follow the hose. But the more they do so, the steeper the ledge becomes. At some point, the hose is so far above their heads they can no longer see it due to all the snow. They have to turn around. Lisa Hagen notices that Gabriella can hardly walk. The guide's wife has taken her climbing harness and one of her skis. One of the Frenchmen is carrying the other one.

They could stop and dig a hole in the snow. It would offer them shelter for the night. But they keep going.

Dusk has fallen by the time they discover two chest-high cairns. The piles mark a passage through which skiers can glide down to the lodge below, only 400 meters away -- when the visibility is clear. But the storm is too intense. We'll stay here, the guide says, instructing everyone to pile their backpacks to shield them from the wind.

Lisa Hagen hears the guide's wife tell him she's going to look for deeper snow to dig a shelter. Then she watches as she disappears into the fog. The guide stays with the group. Tommaso overhears him say, "I can't see a thing."

By now, Lisa knows that she can't count on Mario. She lays down in the snow and watches the guide frantically push buttons on his satellite phone. It's not working. She remembers her own mobile phone in her pants pocket. She'd have to remove her gloves to get at it and that's not an option right now. Her gloves are her last line of defense. She thinks: I can't spend the night out here. We're going to die if nobody finds us.

She leans against Andrea, the nurse, who's only here because someone else canceled. He has his arm around her. She manages to pull some bread out of her pack without taking off her gloves. She gives one piece to Andrea and keeps the other for herself.

Tommaso hears Marcello calling to his wife: Gabriella! Gabriella! But Gabriella only moans. Tommaso doesn't hear anything after that. He's got his arm around Francesca, the woman with the glitzy rings, the mother of three. She has pulled a thermal blanket over her. Tommaso looks around for his friend Betti. He sees her lying down with her face in the snow. He screams her name. He thinks he can hear her calling his name softly back.

Freezing to death is a slow process. At first, the body fights back by shivering violently. As the extremities cool, they become numb and blue while the body protects the most vital organs. Once the body's temperature drops below 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit), things become much more bearable. The shuddering stops. There's hardly any pain, only a great sense of tiredness and the almost unbearable desire to close one's eyes. The end is barely noticeable.

On Monday morning at 6:50 a.m., Pascal Gaspoz's phone rings at Air-Glaciers' headquarters. Word is that someone's in trouble near the Vignettes lodge. Surely, it's nothing special, he thinks as he walks out to his helicopter. But he takes a doctor with him just in case. It takes them 30 minutes to reach the spot that a pilot will later describe as looking like a war zone. Thirteen people are lying in the snow on a steep ridge, a mere 300 meters as the crow flies from the Cabane des Vignettes lodge. Two hundred meters below them lies a man.

Extreme Hypothermia

Gaspoz calls for backup and lands the helicopter. Two mountaineers who spent the night inside the lodge come out to administer first aid. Soon there will be seven helicopters at the scene. The doctors determine the climbers are suffering from extreme hypothermia. They have no visible outer injuries, no broken bones. Seven are awake and talking, six are confused or unconscious. The one man down below appears to be dead.

They fly the people to the lodge, beginning with those who are conscious. The unconscious ones are given heart massages. Nine of the 10 members of the group are brought to hospitals, one is pronounced dead: Mario Castiglioni, the guide, the 200 meters below the rest. He apparently attempted to get help the next morning and collapsed from exhaustion.

Later, others are pronounced dead as well: the married couple Gabriella and Marcello, their friend Betti, Andrea, the nurse and Kalina, the guide's wife.

For two days, the doctors do everything they can to save Francesca, the mother of three, but eventually she dies too.

The four French people survive.

Other survivors include Lisa Hagen, Tommaso Piccioli and Luciano, the 72-year-old. Lisa and Tommaso suffered only minor hypothermia and were discharged from the hospital after a day.

They were the only ones able to keep themselves awake until dawn. In the morning, Lisa saw that Tommaso was still conscious. She crawled over to him and Tommaso managed to pull his thermos out of his backpack. Both had a drink -- the tea was still warm.

In the morning light, they saw the lodge with its illuminated windows. It looked like a postcard, the way it sat atop a precipitous cliff. They saw a group emerge from inside and began to yell and wave their arms. Fifteen minutes later, they heard Pascal Gaspoz's helicopter.

Luciano watched as the sky above began to brighten, then he fell asleep. He dreamed of pretty colors and flowers. When he woke up in the afternoon, he was lying in a hospital bed. The first thing he noticed were his fingers against the white sheets -- they were black. The doctors told him his body temperature had dropped to 26 degrees Celsius. One or 2 degrees lower and he wouldn't have woken up.

Questions of Accountability

In the past year, 154 people died in accidents in Switzerland's mountains. In 2015, 213 people died. Most of these accidents are marked by short blurbs in the newspaper. Occasional fatal accidents are nothing unusual in the mountains. But seven fatalities in a group of 10 is a catastrophe, and it raises the question of whether someone should be held responsible.

Tommaso Piccioli says the guide, Mario Castiglioni, made fatal errors. He wasn't sufficiently equipped and didn't know the route. Piccioli says he's fighting to ensure this accident is not without consequence. Strict rules could be imposed for guides, for instance. "It's hard to talk about this," he says. But he does so anyway -- not least for his friend, Betti. "She died because of someone else's mistakes."

For Lisa Hagen, the matter of who is to blame isn't quite as clear. She says she knew Mario Castiglioni to be a responsible guide. He doesn't have the opportunity now to defend the choices he made. That's why she decided to speak up.

The prosecutor's office in the Swiss canton of Valais is investigating and has opened criminal proceedings.

It's Friday, May 11, roughly two weeks after the accident. A gentle, undulating white slope is visible from the Cabane des Vignettes. At its top are two short cairns. They serve as trail markers. Only 400 meters to the lodge.

Skiers can easily cover the distance with a few turns and a final tuck, passing under the black hose before reaching the lodge. Up near the cairns, the snow is melting in the sun. No one notices what's slowly being revealed beneath: an ice axe, a burst thermos, a carabiner, a climbing harness and a bag with bread. Bites have been taken of it.

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