Managing Risk in the Alps

It was the morning before our first attempt to climb Mont Blanc in earnest. Summer in Chamonix leaves little to worry about, as avalanche danger is generally low, crevasses are almost entirely exposed, and, when the sun hits the glacier, you won’t have to worry about it being too cold out. The view from our hostel looked up onto the Mont Blanc Massif, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and Aguille de Midi. We could see the massive seracs and glacier that hung silently over the valley.

I was sitting in the sun, playing fetch with the dog that wandered over from the yard next door, when my climbing partner pointed up, just beneath the Tacul. He asked if I noticed anything different. The summer sun was so bright I had to squint to see it, even in my sunglasses, but I could see a portion of the serac had collapsed. He handed me his phone, where a news piece was pulled up from this morning. “Serac Collapse on Mont Blanc Kills Two Climbers,” or something of that ilk, it reported. The guide and two Italian climbers had been traversing beneath the serac, when it gave way and swept them into a crevasse. The two clients perished, while the guide was in critical condition.

I dropped the ball. The dog gave me a puzzled look.

I can’t speak for other climbers, but there is a certain abstract feel to risk and mortal danger. You understand it intellectually, but on a certain gut level, you say, “I’m better than that; it would never happen to me.” You plan for the risks. You choose your route carefully, monitor the weather, set turn-around times, check and double check logistics and gear, run through scenarios in your head, picture your haul system with your eyes closed, and recall your avalanche safety training – you do it all. But for many of us in our twenties and thirties, who haven’t yet witnessed an accident or loss within the climbing community, we simply do not understand on a visceral level the kind of risks that we face.

I think everyone reacts differently to a fatal accident. I could not help but wonder how the climbers perished. Were the clients skilled enough to help the guide arrest the fall of a three-person party? Were they killed instantly on impact? Was the crevasse so deep that they fell to their deaths? Did they bleed out in the darkness? Did they die of hypothermia? It was terrifying. Were they, just days before, emailing with their mothers about how beautiful the Alps are? Were they playing fetch with the dog from next door? Did they have that visceral understanding of risk, or was that limited simply to the guide?

[Credit: Charles Fischer]
[Credit: Charles Fischer]

“But for many of us in our twenties and thirties, who haven’t yet witnessed an accident or loss within the climbing community, we simply do not understand on a visceral level the kind of risks that we face.”

We discussed our plans. Already, my partner and I had encountered setbacks. On an acclimatization trip, when a guide led his clients above our stance on the mountainside, one of them nearly fell through our rope. She smacked me in the head with her ice-axe, and put a crampon through the shoulder of my jacket. It was a series of near misses, any one of which could have escalated into a problematic situation very quickly. Then, a misleading confirmation email, 20 euros, and the language barrier almost landed us without water or shelter for the night at 3,800 meters. These were all errors that were the result of poor judgment, either on our part or on the part of another climber, but they were different from being at the mercy of the capricious hand of the mountain.

In our minds, both of us silently asked the same question: Do we continue as planned? I could remember the words of Keith Moon, EMS climbing guide, during our AIARE I course: “We are agreeing to travel in the backcountry together, and in doing so, we are agreeing to respect everyone’s voice and anyone’s veto.” For a few moments, we played a mental game of chicken – who was going to veto the summit attempt first? Who would be the one to bring a year and a half of training and planning to a close? No one flinched. We agreed that the situation had not changed. Our route was on an objectively safer part of the mountain, and over the next two days, we summitted safely and successfully.

[Credit: Charles Fischer]
[Credit: Charles Fischer]
I will never forget, though, looking up from the comfort of a deck chair to see the scar cut in the glacier from the serac collapse. As climbers, outdoor enthusiasts, and humans, we encounter objective risk every day, and we learn to plan for it, and mitigate it. As kids, we are taught to look twice before crossing the street; as climbers, we are taught to check our knots twice before climbing. We take driving courses as teens, and avalanche safety courses as skiers. We practice fire drills in schools, and self-arresting as mountaineers. We do all of this at home and in the backcountry, until safety becomes second nature. Still, you cannot entirely eliminate risk, and there is a certain amount of it that you must simply accept.

There is no absolute value for acceptable risks, no percents, and you cannot put them into a computer to get a yes or no answer. That answer has to come from inside each of us, with thought and consideration for the people we take into the wilderness with us, and those we leave at home waiting for our safe return. For every one of us, that level of risk is different, but the repercussions are all, potentially, equal. So, the next time you are about to tie the rope or tie up your boots, ask yourself what the potential risks are and how you have prepared for them. If you do this every time you head out on an adventure, you will rapidly become a safer and more confident outdoors person.