We arrived back in Zermatt today, Friday – a place that feels like our second home. It’s 50 years since I first came here as a young teenager for a week, and also spent a second week in the neighbouring Saas valley. My wife’s first visit here was 43 years ago and between us we have been here eighteen times we think, but it might be nineteen: we’re losing count!
Today, however, is bittersweet. Yesterday (12 July 2012) nine mountaineers lost their lives (and others were injured) in a massive avalanche on the slopes of Mont Maudit while on their way to the summit of Mont Blanc via a route that is commonly called ‘Les Trois Mont Blancs’. This is the worst single loss of life in the Alps for many years and my heart goes out to all those and their families involved in this tragedy. Exactly why that massive avalanche chose that moment soon after 5am to unleash its deadly force we may never know. Climbers climb through the night because that is the time when temperatures are at their lowest and when ice and snow are expected to be stable.
Back in 1995 when my son was just seventeen years old I guided him to the summit of Mont Blanc by Les Grands Mulets route – a route not often used now due to deterioration in the glaciers. It was a fantastic climb and I was privileged and proud to have safely guided him to the summit of the European Alps and back down again. Before guiding that route, I meticulously checked the guidebooks, the weather, reviewed images of the route and studied it – and climbers on it – through binoculars. I conducted a full evaluation and judged it safe, and our abilities sufficient.
Since then I have often looked at ‘Les Trois Mont Blancs’ route and placed it on my list of unrealized ambitions. Should it stay on that list or be removed? On statistical grounds the chance of something similar happening are slim. We climb to stay safe, we evaluate the risks. No doubt all those who were overwhelmed yesterday had also evaluated the risks involved. But can you really quantify the unquantifiable?
Probably in the next 10 days I will set off to climb a 4000M peak and before setting off I will have evaluated the risks as I always do.