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The Mont Blanc basin
Photo by Vinicio Stefanello

Mont Blanc and the avalanche Mont Maudit


With regards to last Thursday's tragedy which claimed the lives of 9 climbers on Mont Maudit, we have received the thoughts of Dr. Luigi Festi, director of the International Masters Course in Mountain Medicine at the University of Insubria and Medical Commission President of the Lombardy branch of the Italian Alpine Club.

Nine climbers killed on Mont Blanc, and just as many injured. And like every summer the word on everyone's lips is "killer mountain", or rather, cursed mountain as the tragedy took place at the base of Mont Maudit, one of the minor summits in the Mont Blanc massif. And just like every summer experts - including personal friends - busy away with the press and in various TV interviews to explain what happened in an understandably human attempt to rationalise danger, to ward off fear and anxiety which gets the upper hand and to desperately seek the reasons for the accident.

In this case it is more difficult as everything, or almost everything ,was perfect: they were experienced alpinists, the guide was the most famous in Europe, they had set off early from the mountain hut, the temperature was well below zero and there were no apparent technical mistakes. While it is true that it had snowed and that the wind had accumulated snow on the north facing slopes, but this had happened a few days beforehand and the snow pack seemed stable. A falling serac, unpredictable in its predictability, is what caused the accident.

In our usual attempt to metabolise death we constantly think "had I been there what would I have done... and so this wouldn't have happened to me". But in doing so we mustn't ever forget that the mountains, that Nature, is stronger than we are. Danger is an intrinsic element of climbing mountains, at 4000m just like at 8000m and just like at far lower altitudes. A sudden storm is all it takes to endanger the lives of walkers or those searching for mushrooms.

In today's world, marked by extreme rationality, taking to the mountains remains something shrouded in mystery and unpredictability. We rely on increasingly refined technology, attempt to bear in mind all the variables and possible risks, but the bottom line is that a certain risk remains as there will always be a tiny detail which cannot be calculated, we'll omit the unthinkable. Even more so now, in times marked by rapid climate change and by an increase in the number of people, not always fully aware of the inherent risks, spending time in an alpine environment.

Taking to the mountains is satisfying, selfish, something which places us in the centre of the world, something romantic or sporty. The dangers are often underestimated, stowed deep down in our rucksacks. Beneath a rock face, a serac, if only we look upwards in search of the summit, our goal, then we cannot but be afraid, feel a shudder of anxiety and inadequacy; everyone, even the greatest mountaineers, know fear.

Can we eliminate danger? Is there such thing as zero risk? Of course not. But the awareness of how small we really are mustn't, no indeed should perhaps drive us even more to achieve maximum safety during our ascents.

As a surgeon often involved in emergencies, and keen mountain climber, I have spent the last few years trying to change the mentality of those who take to the mountains, talking about prevention and safety often beyond the habitual medical and alpine setting.

A few days ago I took part in LetterAltura, a mountain literature festival at Verbania and for the first time in such a meeting we discussed mountain safety and accident prevention as we were convinced that, this too, is part of mountain culture and that our message will contribute in a more careful, rational and respectful approach. A less selfish and egocentric approach, at first glance perhaps less spontaneous, but certainly one which is more aware of the possible consequences.

The dominant theme in recent days, namely the rationalisation of public spending, will also affect the mountain rescue service. The time has come for all of us, for all those who take to the mountains in all its forms, to understand that only careful planning (by this I mean the weather forecast, logistics in the sense of adequate physical preparation as well as a proper knowledge of one's body and personal limits) may help prevent any possible accidents or sudden health problems. And allow, should this prove necessary, for a proper and attentive rescue.

One could discuss at length the importance of the virtual reality - triggered by the web and which results in an aseptic way of taking to the mountains and possibly because of this even more dangerous - but perhaps we'll have more time in the future to explore this in depth

What is certain is that for those like us who love the mountains, hearing about a "cursed mountain" proves painful as this does nothing more than to widen the gap between mountain pros and those who simple enthusiasts. It creates a sense of danger, an idea of something horrid, characterised by superficiality and even greater incompetence, in a moment when the need for sobriety and simplicity could lead to the discovery of a clean, uncontaminated, free environment. An environment which is beautiful and engaging, in which everyone can feel equal in this exciting search of our humanity.

by Luigi Festi
Director of the International Masters Course in Mountain Medicine at the University of Insubria
President of the Lombardy branch of the Italian Alpine Club Medical Commission.
President of the Malnate branch of the Italian Alpine Club

>> this article was published in planetmountain.com in Italian on 13/07/2012 and also published on Monday 16 July 2012 in the Varese newspaper La Prealpina





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