The Vallee Blanche is not a ski piste

Thursday 13th of March, 2008. We’ve just done our 14th crevasse rescue and our second fatality this year after a fall of 30 meters. We don’t repeat this often enough but skiing on a glacier requires certain precautions and a knowledge of the terrain.

You are probably thinking “Just 14 crevasse rescues this year.” But that is just the tip of the ice-berg because a good number of people who are not injured are rescued by their mates, properly equipped witnesses and above all high mountain guides who work regularly in the Mont Blanc range. With the exception of four incidents all of our rescues were on the Vallée Blanche.

Reality is somewhat different, our first 12 people rescued were all, without exception, extremely lucky. With falls from a dozen to 25 meters where daylight is visible as a little “ray of hope” when you raise your head (if you have the space...).

Lucky doesn’t mean without injury but rather alive because a large number are victims of diverse injuries (facial, skull, back etc.).

So, without any pretension and without being complete, let us give some common sense advice for anyone who wants to descend this wonderful route, during good weather conditions only!

Firstly, don’t go alone. The fact that you are at least two will double your chances of survival if there is an accident, even if it is just to raise the alarm. Who will know you’ve fallen in a crevasse if you are alone?

Being on a glacier implies that you have a minimum of gear. Screw gate karibiners, prussik loops, pulleys, ascender and the knowledge of how to use them. Yes, all the gear but no idea? You need to know how to rig a hoist. A number of books and courses can teach you the basics. Inform yourself.

Take at least an ice screw and wear a climbing harness. You can at least secure yourself to the wall of the crevasse. Normally when a snow bridge gives way it forms a secondary bridge lower down where the crevasse is narrower. There is the rub, you are now on another snow bridge which can give way at any moment, especially if you remove your skis or board.

Your harness should have a length of cord, around 60cm free, attached with a screw gate karabiner on the other end. The karabiner should be clipped somewhere high on your person, the collar of your jacket for example. Like that we can easily pull you out in case of external rescue.

Never take both skis off (or your board) when on a glacier. Recently a snow boarder who lacked enough speed to get over a small uphill died after taking off his board to walk while he was unroped. We highlight this because you can walk on foot on glaciated terrain, you need the security of a rope with a couple of other people..

The sirene voices of untracked powder call skiers to their doom. The person who died today was just 15 meters from the main track, sometimes just a few meters is sufficient.

Finally, if you are able, form a group and hire a guide who, thanks to his knowledge, will help you pass your day in safety.

The mountains are a fantastic playground but put as many chances on your side as possible to enjoy it for as long as possible.

Posted by pghm-chamonix on Wednesday, 02 April, 2008 at 11:24 PM

Interesting information. I’ve just updated our accident statistics and we now have 3 deaths on the Vallee Blanche for this season

Posted by davidof on  Friday, 04 April, 2008  at 02:34 PM

I thought there were 4 actually on the VB this season due to crevasse falls. Early season Lithuanian, UK snowboarder taking off his board (with guide), French older man in his 60s in large group w/o guide at the col de Rognon I think March 15 (not reported in the English Chamonix websites but read it in the Dauphine) and Russian snowboarder with guide just below the Requin refuge March 19 (last two in nearly the same week?). The PGHM post is dated March 13 (which makes sense for the numbers) and looks like a translation of something I saw on a French off piste site written just prior to the last 2 deaths ?

Posted by  on  Saturday, 05 April, 2008  at 11:32 PM

Andrius, the Lithanian victim, died falling on the slopes below the Requin but didn’t fall into a crevasse. Still the PGHM’s point is the same, he was not properly equipped for the route.

However maybe the Compagnie de Mont Blanc have a role to play in all this? I also note that two of the fatalities were with guides - I’m not criticizing guides here, they are not supermen. I make this point because the two unfortunate victims had take the precaution of hiring an experienced professional.


Posted by davidof on  Sunday, 06 April, 2008  at 10:31 PM

Still that is 4 deaths on the Vallee Blanche this season ... not 3 total deaths?

As for the Compagnie du Mont Blanc - they do have giant warning signs up where you leave the secured area at the top of the lift station warning of the dangers of leaving the lift station and that you are on your own responsibility, stating that it is a high mountain area unpatrolled and unsecured, and the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi lift station does not advertise itself as a ski piste and there are no maps of pistes like at the other ski areas. It is included on the Unlimited ski pass - but then it has been included on the comprehensive valley lift pass since I’ve lived here ...

In the case of Andrius several people who were employees of the lift company tried to convince him to turn back, and two of the others were with guides so how could the CdMB be blamed for that?

Some in town suggest maybe the arrete should not be roped ever to make it more difficult to descend (some people after skiing it think the arrete was the most dangerous part and do not realize the crevasse danger) because it gives a false impression that something is done to secure the route, and once you are past that other dangers might also be indicated or that the ‘hard part’ is done with.

However guides are often the ones who do want it roped, so that they can take more groups down the route faster and safely. Maybe if it was not roped, there would simply be more people dying sooner, who knows.

As far as dying when you have hired a guide, I think that some people hire them to do the route because they heard you should do so, but they still don’t pay attention to the guide’s direction the same way you would if they were leading you up an ice climb, for example, because they are skiers at heart and not mountaineers. From what I am told by someone knowing the UK snowboarder’s guide, he was supposedly told not to remove his board. I have no details on the guided Russian national.

I suppose one could post the yearly death statistics for Mont Blanc and the VB at the bottom of the cable car or something ... maybe that would help ? Mont Blanc has the same issues but in summer. People heading up to climb it in t-shirts etc. is not unheard of and many die there each year.

Hiring a guide is never a guarantee of safe passage, it is simply a better chance at it - there are also mountain climbs where guides have been killed or guided clients have been killed in avalanche, rock fall or other types of accidents. Perhaps the average skier does not realize this level of risk exists as it is more of a mountaineer’s realm - hard to say. But hiring a guide and following all their advice can be two stories ...

BTW - I found the Dauphine story for the accident with the 68 year old French man which is .

Is the internet partly to blame for the ever growing popularity of this route, causing people with no mountaineering skills to decide to take it on? Articles that are ridiculous, incorrect etc. can stay online forever whereas a printed travel magazine was good for only the month it was published and a bit.

I’ve also seen off piste forums like the one at Teton Gravity calling the VB route ‘boring’ and basically pooh poohing it (trying to look uber-cool no doubt and clearly not realizing how many variations exist); I’ve seen articles online telling you how to pack the correct wine and cheese to eat at the Salle a Manger as the main concerns for the route.

In fact, one day this season we were nearly bowled over on the route by a group of drunken idiots going through some of the flat crevasse sections below the Requin hut skiing erratically and who did knock into one member of our party - people who’d apparently stopped for lunch and an alcoholic drink at the Salle a Manager and could barely control themselves during the ski out.

I have seen countless British press ski articles talking about the route in a way that makes you wonder where the hell they were skiing (no one ever mentions how often there is sun or wind crust up there and how slow you must ski between crevasses in certain sections - it’s always ‘powder’ and always blue sky sunny etc.).

I would say the number of websites out there who extoll the powder skiing and great views, who make the route sound like a stroll in the park with some slight silly little ‘danger’ involved that might require this appendage called a ‘mountain guide’ are more to blame for the large numbers of ill-prepared people taking on the route.

The route has a mystique to it, which makes people want to do it—they hear it’s a ‘must do’ and then they read the glorification articles. Many people have no clue there are even yearly deaths on this route before they start up it. I speak to people with false impressions of the route on a weekly basis in winter . . .

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 08 April, 2008  at 11:03 PM

Fortunately if you type “vallee blanche” into Google the Pistehors page is the first result:-

it gets around 200 visits per day. Not as much as the VB I admit.

The problem is a lot of websites have jumped onto the “freeride” bandwagon to flog stuff like DVDs, chalet holidays etc without really understanding or caring about the environment. Caveat Emptor.

Posted by davidof on  Wednesday, 09 April, 2008  at 10:55 AM
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