I’ve just finished off the summer with an ascent of Mont Blanc by the Gouter route, and then a quick trip up the Gran Paradiso. Mont Blanc is often climbed by folk with woefully inadequate kit, poor acclimatisation and rope techniques that range from the slightly unconventional to the downright dangerous. Check out this outrageous piece of video footage on youtube in the Grand Couloir! In previous years the Gran Paradiso has been mercifully free of this kind of behaviour, but clearly the habit is spreading.
One tries to avoid stereotyping or generalisations, but empirical observation tells me that much of this incompetence comes from climbers from the eastern bloc, notably Poland and the Czech Republic.
In July I was descending the north face of the Mont Blanc du Tacul at about 3 in the afternoon. It had been a long day on the traverse to Mont Blanc, and I was aware of feeling that we were a bit late to be descending. On the way down, we met a couple with HUGE sack, plodding painfully slowly up. It didn’t look like fun. “We are from Czech Republic. How far to the Col Maudit?” They were planning to camp up there. The next morning the chopper came in and lifted 2 folk off. Poor acclimatisation? Sacks too heavy? Poor timing?
In mid August I was on the Gouter route, and we came across a Polish man above the Gouter with crampons but no ice axe, no harness and no rope. It was quite a windy day and I was more worried about him being blown off the summit ridge than going down a slot, though the Dome de Gouter does have a few sizeable holes. We saw him on the summit later, either oblivious of or ignoring the risks.
The final straw that prompted me to blog this was an incident on the Gran Paradiso in late August. We were followed up the dry part of the glacier by a young lad, no ice axe, no harness, no rope, and this time with just instep crampons tied on with very old canvas straps. As we arrived at the more crevassed part of the route from the Chabod hut, the snow coverage was enough to warrant putting the rope on. Once again I spoke to the lad, found out he was Polish, and that at just 18 years old he was planning to follow people to the top.
After my lecture, he hesitated for 10 minutes, then followed the next team across fragile bridges above yawning crevasses that I’d been nervous on WITH a rope.
What is it with these people? Do they think we wear harnesses and ropes just to look good? Admittedly when I was a young alpinist, I did some pretty stupid things along these lines, but that’s because no-one had told me. When someone tells you there are crevasses, and then you see them with your own eyes, then it ceases to be ignorance of the risk and becomes stubborn stupidity. Then again, is it just Darwinian selection going on?
The best thing would be if the mountaineering associations in the eastern bloc could promote safety and good practice, like the excellent safety lectures organised by the BMC in England and Wales.
Think I'll get off my soapbox now and have a beer.....