The Mont Maudit

When ancient generations in Alpine villages had to find names for the mountains surrounding them, they either used geomorphical characteristics (rivers, rock formations, strange forms, lakes etc.) or more romantic features (sun, moon, flowers, stars, paradise, heaven etc.). Newly created ski resorts like Les Arcs, Tignes (France) or Beaver Creek (Colorado) use more modern names to underline how young they are. But what to think of names like Diavolezza (devil’s mountain, near Pontresina, Switserland), Mont Pourri (Haute Savoie) or Mont Maudit (near the Mont Blanc, French side)? Did the local people know that, one day or the other, these mountains would bring disaster? On July 12th nine alpinists died on the slopes of Mont Maudit and another eleven were wounded. Breaking ice followed by avalanches swept them away. The worst accident in more than ten years and an accident that, for once, was not any eager mountain tourist’s fault. The weather forecast was normal and there was no reason for the watchdogs in Chamonix to warn the several teams trying to reach the top to be careful. But then, what is normal in the mountains? British alpine star Roger Payne, for one, knew this all too well. As avalanche expert, guide and environment pioneer he had survived several avalanches (Pumari Chhish, Pakistan, 1999; Nanda Devi East, Sikkim, 1994) and was the great example of a climber with respect for ‘his’ sublime mountains. He never pushed his luck, climbed in light gear, cleaned not only his own rubbish when descending, but carried that of others as well, including the bones of an American climber swept away on the legendary K2 by an avalanche in 1953. On July 12th, aged 55, Payne died himself, burried under meters of snow, together with his two clients. The Mont Maudit was not ‘another day at the office’, Payne’s favourite expression when going on a simple tour, but the end of a big alpinist, an example of soberness and professionalism. Payne brought alpnism to disabled, to children and to young Iranians, according to the obituary in The Economist. ‘He didn’t seek out celebrity peaks, or brag about conquering the unsung 6.000-7.000 metre peaks he preferred…’
May Roger Payne’s unexpected accident be a warning to all alpinists, especially the average 250 or more alpine tourists who, almost every day of the year, wander into the ice fields in order to climb the Mont Blanc: it is never a piece of cake. Even well trained and experienced climbers can be ‘maudits’. Status and a good picture to take home are not worth dying in the snow. And one other thing: it is the guide who is in the lead, not the eager client who would pay any amount to reach the peak, even in bad weather conditions.

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