Far too many people who want to climb Mont Blanc are still under the impression that climbing it is just a long walk up a “big hill.“
To quote the classic line from Gaston Rébuffat book “100 finest climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif. “
“requires the ability to walk in crampons.”
This must go down as one of the all time understatements in mountaineering literature.
The majority of people who sign up to a guided ascent of Mt Blanc do not understand that in less than optimum conditions it is incredibly dangerous. Or they use the defence mechanism “cognitive dissonance.” This where someone knows full well its dangerous but persuades them selves [and others] that accidents only happen to other people.
Rébuffat’s book was published in 1973. Since then only Donald Trump has not seen the effect of global warming. In the height of the summer attempting to climb Mt Blanc is often just too dangerous to contemplate because perma frost which glues everything together has melted which causes huge stone fall and serac collapses.
Below is a personal anecdote which demonstrates how serious the Chamonix Mountain Rescue take the issue.
In September 2016 I was travelling up the Italian cable car the “Sky Way.” It leads up into the Vallee Blanche. The cable car was packed with members of the mountain rescue teams from Italy Switzerland and France. It was a training day where the rescue teams from three countries could share ideas , develop new rescue techniques and make sure they had a better understanding of how they might work better together. The teams loaded boxes of equipment , stretchers , ropes winches , ice screws , pulleys ,giant stakes , and loads of other stuff that I found fascinating.
Everyone squashed into the cable car , rather like you get squashed into the London Tube at rush hour. I found my self next to Captain Patrice Ribbs, the chief of the Chamonix Mountain Rescue the Peloton Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne. [The PGHM] He is a fellow Mountain Guide [and I know him because we both had children at the same school in Chamonix.]
Captain Ribbs started to explain a little more about what they were doing. I was particularly intrigued by the big pile of plastic boxes piled up in front of us . I asked him what was in the boxes?
“Chain saws“ was his dead pan answer clearly enjoying the look of confusion on my face.
He went on to explain that they were testing the relative efficiency of 2 stroke chain-saws and electric chain-saws. Apparently petrol chain saws don't work very well above 3000 meters and in confined areas they give off noxious fumes. They were going to be testing new Husqvarna lithium battery powered versions .
Still I wasn't any wiser , I have had considerable experience of using chain saws , but there had always been a tree involved. As far as I was still aware there were no trees growing on glaciers.
No, these chain saws were not for cutting down trees but were for slicing through avalanche debris. Specifically the avalanche debris which frequently devastates the path up Mt Blanc.
The traverse of Mt Blanc from the col du Midi is very prone to avalanche and serac collapse [falling ice cliffs] Last summer alone two Mountain Guides who were colleagues of mine were killed , one by an avalanche and one by a serac collapse.
On 12th July 2012 9 climbers were killed in one massive avalanche on the slopes of Mt Maudit as they attempted to climb Mt Blanc. The PGHM were tasked with trying to dig out the victims , they found that normal shovels were useless and they were forced to cut the snow and ice into blocks using chain saws in order to move it.
It was while sectioning the ice debris into blocks that Captain Ribbs spotted a leg sticking out of the avalanche . He then saw that the leg was moving and called to his team mates to help him move the blocks frantically by hand. They found a woman , still alive and although she had considerable injuries these were not thought to be life threatening. Instead she was in a total state of shock. As she had laid trapped in the ice unable to move she saw the chain saw pass in front of her face over her chest over her arms over her neck not once but several times.
It is now the advice of PGHM that everyone attempting Mt Blanc via the traverse of the 3 Mt Blancs should wear an avalanche transceiver. The primary use of the transceiver is to detect the victims body in as short a possible time , and here’s the point , so that the rescuers are in the danger zone for the shortest possible time. It is not to be used in the conventional manner which is to find someone quickly before they suffocate under the snow.
Its sort of a deal: If you get hit by a serac and killed and your wearing an avalanche transceiver then the PGHM are more likely to return an entire corpse rather than one quartered by a Husqvarna.
According to Captain Ribbs the woman he found made the very reasonable observation that making the choice between being buried alive or being cut to bits by a chain saw was not the experience she thought she had signed up to.