The route to becoming a high mountain guide is long and steep and when the training is over there is a new university, the school of hard knocks. This year has been a difficult one for the French with the death of nine guides and six clients, twice the long term average.
What is this life, but full of care?
A walk around the tiny cemetery in Chamonix is like a who’s who of alpinism, many mountaineers of all nationalities have found their last resting place here. It was particularly busy during March and April. Alain Géloen, taken by a small avalanche telemarking on the Mont-Frety route on Mont Blanc. Extreme snowboard pioneer Dédé Rhem killed by an avalanche near the Point Helbronner. Jean-Claude Mosca, a retired instructor with the Military mountaineering school in Chamonix while skiing with his son in the couloir des Cosmiques. Patrick Berhault in a cornice fall in the Swiss alps during poor weather and Edouard Baud, son of celebrated extreme skier Anselm, ski instructor in his own right, fallen in the Gervasutti. The Pyrénées were not spared with the death of talented guide Jérôme Thinières killed by icefall in the Cirque de Gavarnie. His colleague, Serge Castéran was seriously injured.
There was a second series of accidents in the summer. Marc Monnier fell to his death with three clients below the Castor in the Monta-Rosa massive in Italy. A couple of days later Jérôme Bévin, a Chamonix guide aged in his fifties was killed with his Dutch client after a large avalanche on the Mont Blanc du Tacul swept them into a crevasse. Finally Didier Manu, a trainee at the ENSA (Ecole nationale de ski et d’alpinisme) was killed abseiling. More recently a young apprentice guide is missing in the Fitz-Roy range in Argentina.
This tragic series of accidents was a major point of discussion for French guides attending their union’s AGM at Pralognan en Vanoise at the start of December. Chamonix guide and extreme skier, Rémy Lécluse, believes that “it is in our own interest to question our decision and risk evalution process, our relationship with money and other commercial factors, our need for recognition, without forgetting the pleasurable side of the profession”. The president of the union (SNGM), Bruno Pellicier, see the guide’s role as increasingly complex with an extended season compared to the past and wide demands from clients who also expect absolute safety – something that is never guaranteed in the mountain environment.. He also sees globalization playing a role with ideas of “productivity, competition, markets, added to the difficulty of a guide’s job and occasionally leading to a loss of control in decision making”. The time when guides were children of the mountains and worked for the local company is over. The modern guide may have come from a city and be employed by a large agency with clients choosing their expedition from a catalogue or the Internet, without understanding the difference between a 4000 meter peak and a trek in the desert. Pierre Jézéquel, who runs the UCPA mountain activities thinks that clients have “evolved from wanting to learn about mountaineering towards buying experiences”. A guide now has to justify himself if he decides to make a U-turn. Some guides feel they have been pushed into dangerous decisions by the Play-Station generation brought up on a diet of adrenalin charged extreme sports. At the same time the physical capabilities of clients are poorer than before.
François Carrel, journalist for the Liberation doesn’t think that all the blame can be laid at the client’s door. After all, how come many of the accidents of last season were when guides were in the mountains with friends? On this point the guides were much less talkative. Only Rémy Lécluse offered an explanation “it is the indescribable pleasure from skiing than maybe leads to a diminution in the faculties that evaluate risk. When you’ve done a good route you get the feeling of invulnerability, it is the syndrome of the superman… but it is something you don’t talk about in our profession.” Xavier Chappaz adds that clients and guides alike have chosen mountaineering, not macramé. The profession is a contradiction between “the demands of safety and the myth of the guide, solitary and invulnerable, a contraction accentuated by the ever present risk of death”.
Faced with regulation by the state, pressure from insurers and law suits, the SNGM wants to preserve the self-regulation of the profession and has asked all guides and agencies to limit the size of parties when taking inexperienced clients and respect the practices of local guides. One guide for two clients is the rule for the guides in Chamonix and Saint-Gervais when they climb the normal route on Mont Blanc. “These customs weren’t born with the last snowfall”, points out Xavier Chappaz “we’ve always said that when guides from outside come here they should follow our ways passed down through the generations”.
It seems like an evolution towards litigation more commonly associated with the United States is underway in France. In November the Bonneville prosecutor opened a manslaughter case against person or persons unknown. This follows the death of two climbers on the 16th of September. Their two guides had decided to remain with two other clients, older and extremely tired and had told the three others to descend but stick to the tracks. The group lost the trail and started climbing down the north face of the Dôme du Goûter where they lost their footing. The two Savoyard guides were arrested by the police and interrogated for six hours. The prosecutor has opened a file after examining the facts. According to Patrick Col, president of the Maurienne guides office, civil actions by clients and insurance companies are almost routine after an accident, even for a simple fracture.
Déprimés de cordées; François Carrel; Liberation, 10 December 2004
Grande Réflexion chez les Guides; Antoine Chandellier, Dauphiné Libéré, 3 December 2004
Expert or not, avalanches will still kill; Gemma Bowes Observer, March 14, 2004