Cracks and landslides: the heat wave makes the ascent of Mont Blanc more dangerous than ever

Throughout the Alps, guides are numerous to refuse to venture into the great ascents because of the conditions that have become too perilous.

Gaping crevices, falling rocks like fridges “. In this year marked by drought and heat waves, access to many emblematic peaks of the Alps, such as Mont Cervin and Mont Blanc, is becoming particularly difficult. ” Normally, we see this kind of closures rather in August. And there they started at the end of June, beginning of July said the general secretary of the Swiss Association of Mountain Guides, Pierre Mathey.

The guides who usually transport thousands of enthusiasts to the highest peaks in Europe each year have decided to no longer take certain routes for the ascent of Mont Blanc. A decision ” not easy to take “but necessary in the face of” particularly delicate conditions in recent weeks due to the significant rise in temperatures “explained the Italian Alpine Guides on their Facebook page this week. Officially, none of the seven routes leading to the summit, at 4,807 meters, is closed, but access conditions at the end of July are so degraded that only the most experienced climbers are still able to reach it, according to the mountain specialists.

In question, the lack of snow during the winter, which in altitude reveals in many places vast portions of greyish bare glaciers – even yellowish where sand dust from the Sahara has accumulated during the winter. – and bristling with broken bones. The heat did the rest, causing the melting of the fragile snow bridges that make it possible to cross the crevasses and leading to landslides.

“We’ll do it later”

In Chamonix, at the foot of the white giant, the season is in full swing and tourists flock to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 meters) where they arrive every day by the thousands by the magic of the cable car. But up there, in the small cave carved out of the ice that serves as a changing room and starting point for mountaineers for many mountain races – including the crossing of the Vallée Blanche or Mont Blanc via the route of the “three Monts –, they are rather few to put on / take off the crampons at the end of July.

Among them the Scotsman Evan Warden and his 14-year-old son, David, came for a ride on the glacier below the Aiguille. They found conditions there. awful “: ” everywhere we walked there was constant rockfall and crevices constantly opening up “, explains the young boy trained in the mountains in Scotland, on his first visit to the Alps. Both initially hoped to climb Mont Blanc but gave up on this project, “ too risky “. ” Maybe next year… He’ll be here tomorrow, he’ll be here next month and next year. He won’t move the father philosophizes as he neatly wraps his rope around his shoulders.

Monica and Marten Antheun, a couple in their forties from Norway also had a blast rubbing shoulders with the mythical giant after ” three years of waiting “: they had reserved for ” today or tomorrow with the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, laments Marten. ” The guide sent us an email and the Mont Blanc race was canceled due to the weather. I think the guides know the area and the conditions. It’s ok for us, we can do it later “, tempers his wife.

Cancellations are piling up

The Marmolada glacier collapsed in July, a tragedy that killed eleven people. Tiziana FABI / AFP

The Guide Companies of Chamonix and Saint-Gervais announced in mid-July the temporary suspension of ascents to Mont Blanc by the “normal” Goûter route due to rockfalls descending the Goûter corridor, also known as the name “death row”. Access remains open to independent guides.

The very high temperatures lately have destabilized the mountain, notes Noé Vérité, guardian of the Cosmiques refuge, located on another route, that of Trois Monts. He says he recently recorded 6 degrees in the middle of the night at his refuge, at 3,613 meters above sea level. The absence of a refreeze that night forced all the candidates for the ascent who had left the Cosmiques to turn back, he explains. ” We see the conditions deteriorating day by day “, he notes. For him, July is usually the peak of the season, but the cancellations are piling up.

The normal route suffers from large rockfalls “ like fridges “. Others like ” the Innominata are still practiced but remain reserved for an archi-minority because of their difficulty, he underlines. Currently, only one dozen or twenty people a day, more specialists “, reach the summit of Mont Blanc, against 100 to 120 people in normal times, estimates Olivier Grébert, president of the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix.

Canceled races are postponed, reimbursed or redirected to other routes and the Company takes the opportunity to do a bit of education for those who, for example, want to climb the summit ” for their 40th birthday “. ” This ascent must be part of a mountaineering career “, explains Mr. Grébert: “ Mont Blanc sometimes has the reputation of being an easy climb but this is not the case, especially this year “.

“We are going to break a record”

In Switzerland too, the guides have given up on the ascent of the famous Jungfrau. They also advised against following the routes located on the Italian and Swiss sides of the Matterhorn, an emblematic Swiss mountain. These measures are a blow after two difficult seasons marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the president of the association of guides in the Aosta Valley in Italy, Ezio Marlier. ” It’s not easy after two almost completely empty seasons to make the decision to stop working “, he says. But he regrets that too many people cancel their stay while certain routes remain practicable. ” We have the opportunity to do lots of other things, but people who want Mont Blanc, they want Mont Blanc “.

Accessing glaciers that have melted at an accelerated rate this year also carries risks. ” The glaciers are currently in the state they usually experience in late summer or later “, warns Andreas Linsbauer, glaciologist at the University of Zurich: “ it is certain that we will break a record “.

dangerous glaciers

The successive heat waves that have hit Europe since May have finally accelerated the melting of glaciers, making them unstable. Like in Italy, where a huge block of the Marmolada glacier collapsed in July, a tragedy that left eleven dead. The glacier had been weakened by global warming as well as by record temperatures recorded this year in Italy, 10°C at the top of the Marmolada the day before the disaster. The high temperatures accelerated its melting and water accumulated under the ice cap, making it unstable.

For Mylène Jacquemart, glacier specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the collapse of the huge block of the Marmolada glacier still has unknowns. ” But in general, the more the waters melt, the more the situation becomes complicated and dangerous. “. Pierre Mathey also underlined that ” these pockets of water, in periods of very good weather with very hot temperatures, are an additional danger, because it is not visible “. But he remains confident, believing that the guides will find alternative routes: “ Resilience is truly the mountain guide’s DNA…and adaptability. The mountain decides. Not the human. »

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