In my mind I can see it all happening. I wish I couldn’t. On my last trip to Switzerland, I stood on a col on the Italian border, photographing Mont Dolent above me. A week later a Dutch mother watched as her husband, son and two daughters, roped together, fell to their deaths off that mountain.
The father, a doctor from the Netherlands, was an experienced alpinist and his children were 23, 20 and 16. The weather was fine, the route they took is not regarded as difficult and the fact that they were roped suggests they were taking care. I don’t know what went wrong, but I’m shocked and saddened rather than surprised. Dozens of people die on the Mont Blanc Range every year.
I wrote about walking the Tour de Mont Blanc in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper. With some bravado, I noted that the route was sometimes a danger to limb, but not to life. This is true. The main track is well trodden and safe in good weather. But there are numerous side routes like the one taken by the Dutch family, leading to mountain peaks, and it’s tempting to try them. I understand the feeling – everyone does that main track; let’s do something a bit more challenging. We’ll get a great sense of achievement and the view from the top will be awesome.
The mountains are dangerous, even for those of us who are not adrenalin junkies. I deplore idiot base-jumpers and solo climbers who are a menace not only to themselves, but also to rescuers. However, most victims of the alps would not regard themselves as daredevils. Most casualties are walkers and skiers, because those are by far the most popular activities there.
The friends I walk with are experienced in the mountains. We choose routes we think are within our capabilities, take the advice of locals, carry good equipment and are prepared to turn back if faced with a dangerous situation. Even so, it is hard to judge from a map or a guidebook what we will be safe for us. Routes that are easily traversed in good weather suddenly become life threatening in the rain. In a week of what should be routine alpine walking, we regularly have at least one moment that could be somebody’s last. Others may find this exhilarating; I hate such incidents, and they crop up very quickly and unexpectedly.
Climbing the Grand Col de Ferret in June was quite demanding enough for our group, meaning that it was a slog through soft snow, but it was perfectly safe. Then two of my companions decided to take a side path along the snow-strewn track to the Petit Col, the point from which the Dutch walkers started their fatal climb. I declined to go with them, though I felt rather timid for doing so.
I didn’t like the look of a small patch of snow, maybe twenty metres wide, above a steep slope. I’m not at all confident on such terrain. Anyone who slipped there would end up in the valley half a kilometre below. I tend to think in worst-case scenarios. To their credit, my companions never pressure me to do anything I feel uncomfortable about, so I stayed behind.
Fortunately my friends made the crossing safely and returned whooping with enthusiasm. I was very relieved to see them again and regretted that I hadn’t had the nerve to go too. ‘The slope wasn’t as steep as you think, Richard,’ they said. ‘You just watch your feet and don’t look down. Great view from the other side.’ For confident walkers like them, probably there was minimal danger. I know that my fear makes a slip more likely.
But why not walk along the valley? We’d still see the mountains, and they’re nearly as impressive viewed from below. If we want a panoramic vista, there are lookouts with safety railings we could drive to in the car. Why do we take any risks at all?
First, we walk the alpine routes because we enjoy the physical activity. We love the challenge of pushing our middle-aged bodies some way towards their limits. We feel that time is running out, and that we better do some tough climbs this year because our knees may not manage them next year. If the sign says it will take three hours to reach the top, we put our heads down and try to make it in two and a half, just to prove to ourselves that we’re still clinging to better-than-average fitness.
We find remote spots more beautiful than those accessible by road or cable car. We like being alone in the world, and it is less satisfying to reach a col with a revolving restaurant and a parking area on top. Even meeting groups of other walkers takes the edge off our sense of achievement. But those less-travelled paths are less well maintained and some of the most spectacular routes have no track at all.
There are few better experiences than making a beautiful walk in the company of friends, and ending each day very tired, knowing you’ve seen sights that few others see, done something which many are not capable of doing, and that you’ve earned a drink, a good meal and a lie down.
It will be dreadfully small consolation to that poor Dutch woman that her family died ‘doing what they loved’. They were doing things that didn’t need to be done, and it has cost them their lives. But their lives were surely enriched by their love of adventures in those mountains.
Even if we could protect ourselves from all risks, life might be longer, but it would be less worth living. It’s a matter of balance.