PGHM Chamonix commander Jean-Baptiste Estachy reacts to the death of two Lithuanian climbers in the Couloir Lagarde last week on the Droites North Face.
The drama became clearer over time but it was a group of 7 climbers who didn’t know each other well but were together. They all left together at 3am on Wednesday 30th January from the Argentiere refuge. There was one rope of 3 and 2 ropes of 2. The rope of 3 and one of the ropes of 2 went to climb the Swiss route on the Courtes and the final rope climbed the Couloir Lagarde on the Droites. They walked all day and part of the night.
On Wedneday night the group of 3 called us because the leader had been hit in the face by lump of granite. The group of two who were with them on the route reached the summit and descended to the glacier at dawn. The Droites group were still climbing. On Thursday, the second day, we rescued the group in the Courtes but they didn’t tell us about the other groups. The group of two that finished went their own ways on the glacier for reasons we don’t know. One of returned to Chamonix to wait for his friends.
At midnight of the second day (Thursday) the group of 3 we rescued told them that had not heard from any of their friends, we then realized there were 7 climbers on different routes. It was only on Friday morning that the Droites group called us to tell us they were blocked on the final length of mixed climbing. It is then we heard from the friend waiting in Chamonix who was worried about his partner and his friends on the Droites.
On Friday midday British skiers told the piste patrollers there was a lost man on the Argentiere glacier, rescuers went and recovered that man who was the second Lithuanian on the Courtes route. That left the rope on the Droites who we, unfortunately, were not able to rescue. They were blocked 200 meters from the summit in very complicated weather conditions. Friday, Saturday nothing was possible. We had some contact with one climber by SMS but he had lost sight of his partner while they were digging a snow cave; we suspect he fell. Saturday night was probably fatal for the remaining climber as it was a clear night with wind over 100km/h. We did a helicopter reconnaissance, the wind had dropped a bit, but we realized that he was dead so the risks were too great to recover his body.
You need to take basic precautions depending on your level. Listen to the weather forecast and leave yourself a margin for manoeuvre. All mountaineers should know this. They were strong, fairly well equipped. People who were ready for difficult conditions but underestimated the combination of a technically difficult route combined with the weather at that altitude.