Two Lithuanian climbers were killed in an avalanche on Mont Blanc in the French Alps on Sunday after heavy snowfall. The two deaths occurred in Grands Montets, a ski area above the Argentiere sector of the mountain range. It was the first fatal avalanche incident in the French Alps this winter. The exact details of the tragedy are unclear at this time.
The Chamonix area rescue service stated that the two people killed were a man and a woman, though a third Lithuanian climber was caught in the avalanche but survived unharmed.
French authorities warned of continued risk of avalanches according to U.S. News. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned people in the region of the danger in a statement, urging people to exercise “the greatest caution because of heightened risks of avalanches.”
The BBC also reported that the deadly avalanche began at 3,200m (10,560ft) up at around 1200 GMT, and that the risk of avalanches has increased due to the fall of fresh snow.
The village of Argentiere, where the incident took place, is close to the resort area of Chamonix, a hub of France’s lucrative skiing, climbing and mountaineering industry. Mont Blanc, or “White Mountain” is the highest peak in the Alps and Western Europe as a whole, rising to the skies at 4,810 meters. The mountain is particularly challenging and breathtaking, and as such is popular with climbers from around the world; however, it is also one’s of the world’s most dangerous climbs.
France’s paramilitary police and the Chamonix rescue service investigated the deaths. Police said the victims were experienced climbers, but with Mont Blanc possessing one of the highest death rates in Europe, victims of its treacherous slopes are all too common.
According to The Atlantic, 11 people died in two separate incidents that occurred days apart on the mountain in 2012. In another incident in 2014 reported by Inquisitr, five Mont Blanc climbers and their guide, who were also reported as having a good level of experience, were also found dead after they encountered severe weather conditions.
“Some estimates put the fatality rate at an average of 100 hikers a year; others that more people die each year in the Mont Blanc range than in any decade in the Alaskan mountain ranges, including the far more dangerous and challenging 20,320-foot summit of Denali (otherwise known as Mount McKinley).”
Many other climbers of the mountain are caught in avalanches. The danger is increased because of the popularity of the mountain and the relatively crowded slopes during the summer months. In the previously mentioned incident of July 12, 2012 for example, no less than 28 climbers were caught by the avalanche, though most survived.
The Atlantic theorizes that a “production line” mentality to climbing the mountain greatly increases the risks posed by the climb.
“The crowded slopes also mean competition for footing in narrow places, as teams attempt to pass each other, and long waits at some points for access to passageways — which means that climbers are exposed to high-altitude health risks, as well as cold and bad weather, for longer periods of time. The crowded nature of Alpine peaks like Mont Blanc means that spots in the overnight huts along the summit route are difficult to get. So if a team has a date reserved, and the weather looks iffy or someone doesn’t feel good, there’s still tremendous pressure to ‘go,’ because rescheduling or delaying a trip is difficult.”
Aidan Loehr, an American climbing guide who has climbed some of the tallest peaks in the world, was quoted by The Atlantic speaking about the nature of avalanches in regards to the one in 2012, eerily similar to the one that claimed the lives of the Lithuanian climbers.
“An avalanche doesn’t just come out of the blue,” he said. “They are predictable. The guides [with that group on Mont Blanc] would have known the conditions were right for an avalanche there. But again, that’s part of what the production line mentality does.”
Loehr said that this mentality often leads to further risks and higher death rates, particularly in Europe, where people generally have more tolerance of personal risk in pursuit of sport than their Americans counterparts do.
“People ignore the avalanche danger on mountains quite a bit on big mountains, because it’s a hit or miss risk,” Leohr continued. “And guides often stop thinking it’s dangerous because they’re up there so much, it’s easy to get complacent.”
Police and local officials have warned locals and tourists of further risk and urged caution in both public statements and social media.
— Ministère Intérieur (@Place_Beauvau) January 3, 2016
(Photo by L’Osservatore Romano-Pool/Getty Images)