Climbing News: Mont Maudit (Blanc) Tragedy, Difficult Denali, Karakorum Drama

Just back from my own climb of Peru’s Alpamayo, no I wanted to post a  quick recap of recent news for the climbing world with success, dramas and death. Let’s start with some good news.

Denali Slovak Direct, Courtesy of Andy Houseman
Denali Slovak Direct, Courtesy of Andy Houseman

Denali Success

British climbers Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman showed Denali is not a simple walk up by making a rare repeat of the Slovak Direct route in an incredible 84 hours,  First climbed in 1984 by Slovakians Blajez Adam, Tono Krizo and Franticek Korl; they took 11 days and the route has only been repeated five other times. The record of 60 hours set by Mark Twight, Scott Backes and Steve House was in 2000 using a single push.

The Slovak Direct takes a circuitous route on Denali’s South Face. It uses part of the West Buttress approach, Cassin Ridge and having 10,000 foot gain, requires 58 pitches, some at 5.10 rock of world-class climbing.

Congratulations to these climbers on a great feat.

Denali Re

For mere mortals, climbing the West Buttress has been difficult this season. Once again the end of the season proved to be too tough for many teams. Heavy late season snows (up to 3 feet at the 14,000′ camp) stalled efforts to go higher. With time, food and fuel running low many teams were forced to give up. I know this feeling because it was exactly this scenario that stopped my attempt one year ago to the date. Only a small Danish team and a Dave Hahn led RMI team remain. Even the Rangers have gone.

While statics show a equal amount of success for late seasons (June 15 starts onward), perhaps the changes in the climate have made it more difficult. If I ever go back to McKinley I will not start in June! The National Park Service website shows an usually low number of summits this year at 492 or a 44% summit percentage, the lowest in 13 years. Here’s a look at the summit stats for the popular West Buttress route since 2000 with the most popular summit day:

Denali West Buttress Route

source: National Park Service
Year Total Summits % Top Summit Date #
2012 492 44%
2011 623 55% June 6 66
2010 630 56 June 21 54
2009 649 60 June 7 77
2008 652 58 May 30 91
2007 513 47 June 12 77
2006 545 52 May 29 50
2005 716 59 June 15 101
2004 628 54 June 4 71
2003 556 58 June 12 115
2002 575 53 June 13 56
2001 670 60 June 4 69
2000 556 53 June 3 71

Nanga Parbat Drama

An ambitious effort on the worlds 9th highest mountain, Nanga Parbat (8125m) left some feeling a bit empty. A team of six, Cathy O’Dowd, Sandy Allen, Rick Allan, Lahkpa Nuru Sherpa, Lhakpa Rangdu Sherpa and Lhakpa Zarok Sherpa, attempted the very difficult and treacherous Mazeno Ridge only to be stopped short at the base of the summit pyramid by heavy snows and dwindling supplies after 11 days on the summit push.

The ridge is more than 10 km (6 miles) long requiring crossing eight 7000 meter (23000 ft) peaks along the route and has never been completed as one climb. It is the longest ridge on any 8000m mountain. Their expedition website is an excellent resource and very well done. Their last message said the team split with climbers Rick and Sandy pushing on and O’Dowd turning back.

Gasherbrum II/Broad Peak/K2

Several teams are making good progress on Broad Peak and we can expect summit attempts this upcoming week. Al Hancock is doing a nice job of documenting his effort. I reached Camp 2 on my 2006 Broad Peak expedition so can appreciate this progress. Reaching the true summit of Broad requires a dangerous traverse of the summit ridge so conditions will dictate what happens next.

On Gasherbrum II, look for as many as 20 climbers to go for the summit around July 16.

Over on K2, teams are making progress with Camp 1 established.

Mont Maudit Tragedy

On one of the most popular routes, 3 Mont Blancs, to the highest peak in Western Europe, Mont Blanc; an avalanche off Mount Maudit took 9 climbers early on July 13. The 16 inch slab avalanche hit without warning or even noise as reported by survivors. The dead included three climbers from the U.K., three from Germany, two from Spain and one from Switzerland. Fourteen other climbers were injured. And on Saturday, June 14, two more climbers died after being trapped on the Dôme du Goûter and hit by a storm.

I have personally climbed this route three times and know this section well. It is common to go as fast as humanly possible through this section given the impending uncertainty. What initiated the slide is still unknown. The alps had experienced warm temperatures and rain recently. Each year, over 50 climbers are killed on Mont Blanc with 8 in one accident in 2008 and 9 in 1994. It is one of the most popular mountains in all of Europe with over 20,000 reaching the summit annually.

One of the climbers lost was 55 year-old British climb Roger Payne. He made first ascents of routes in the Alps and climbed there every year from 1977. He took part in more than 20 expeditions to high and difficult peaks across the Karakoram and Himalaya – from K2 to little-known mountains on the borders of Sikkim, and Sichuan in China – as well as North and South America. He was a past General Secretary of the British Mountaineering Club.

It has already been a deadly year in the Alps with 20 deaths: Mont Maudit (9), Lagginhorn (5), Eiger (2), Dôme du Goûter (2), Dent Blanch (1) and Wetterhorn (1)

My sincere condolences to all who lost family, teammates, and friends. This is a video of the Mont Maudit rescue from Reuters:

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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4 thoughts on “Climbing News: Mont Maudit (Blanc) Tragedy, Difficult Denali, Karakorum Drama

  1. Just posted on Cathy O’Dowd Facebook page:

    “Cathy called early yesterday morning for medical advice about one of the Sherpas – not serious. She is safely down now. Rick Allen and Sandy Allen have made a first ascent of Nanga Parbat from the Mazeno ridge at just after 6pm last night. They spent the night in their snow hole high on the mountain. The aim is to meet up at the bottom of the Diamir ridge, which they are descending, where Cathy and the sherpas will be waiting with warm food and hot water. They have spent since 2nd July on this attempt, mostly over 7000m and must have v little food by now. Lets pray for a safe descent tomorrow.”

  2. Greg- I don’t feel there is anything unusual whatsoever about large snowfalls on Denali in June and July, nor is ‘settled’ weather necessarily more likely to occur in May. There have been many years in May where there were no summits until the third or fourth week, and some with none at all. June through September are statistically when Denali’s upper elevations receive the majority of their snowfall for the year. Part of the reason for this is that cold air holds less moisture and the rest of the year it is essentially too cold for significant snowfalls to occur. The other reason is that the ‘typical’ summertime pattern in Alaska is often cool and wet- a large and prolonged Pacific high pressure system typically sets up off the west coast of the US sometime in late June or early July, and it deflects moist storms forming in the Aleutians directly into mainland Alaska. What you experienced this season was perhaps an unusually sustained period of active weather. There was about a 7 day period of excellent weather in the third week of June and a lot of people summitted. This season seemed to feature 2 week cycles of alternating stormy and settled weather, and the timing of your trip was unfortunately out of cycle. June has always been historically the best month for summit success, July is a wild card and some years is really nice, but more often than not, it’s wet, and the storms when they come tend to drop tons of snow. I’ve seen 6-8 feet single snowfalls at 14 camp in June and July; if anything, I would say (and possibly due to climate change) that we’ve seen fewer of these monster summer snowstorms up here in recent years than we did 10-15 years ago.

    The only thing predictable about May is far colder temperatures, higher wind speeds- even during “fair” weather-, and a much greater potential for frostbite. I’ve climbed Denali in April, May, and June, but I honestly do not recommend the early season. My personal opinion is your best bet is to start your trip in late May, you’ll probably miss the worst of the cold up high but possibly be finished with the trip before the “summer” weather pattern (i.e, wet) sets up. But like Denali itself, no matter when you go, you just never know…good luck next year, whenever you decide to be there.

  3. Alan: I think that with climate change we’re going to have to reconsider some of our climbing schedules. I was on Denali (June 17th Expedition with Mountain Trip). I chose the later start to avoid the harsh cold that historically comes with early season climbs. While the MT guides did an excellent job of getting us to high camp — we waited there for 5 days for a break in the weather which never came. On the 5th day, a group of rangers who were also looking for a summit shot started packing up to go down. They told us that while they couldn’t force us to do anything we should seriously consider descending because a “perfect storm” of 4 low pressure cells were settling in over the mountain. We were a few hours behind the rangers and had a pretty harrowing descent in some very unpleasant conditions. Even when we got down to the camp at 7,000 feet, because of all the heavy snowfall (at least 3 feet in less than 24 hours– which was unheard of for the beginning of July said most of the guides) our trek from 7k to the airstrip took 12 hours as we had to break trail through waist deep snow the whole way.

    It seems like such a shame to have only needed a 12-15 hour clear weather window which would have allowed us a summit chance; but now I have to go back in 2013 for another 21 days to finish the final portion of the climb.

    In summary, I think that people choosing expedition dates will have to seriously consider the impact of climate change. I agree these late season dates on Denali (which historically were usually only a concern because the lower glacier was melting out at that time) are now frought with storms and unsettled weather.

    I suspect next year, I’ll risk the colder weather of the early season to avoid the unpredictability of the weather in June and early July.

    While the Denali and other mountain climbing seasons are unlikely to change, the preferred dates within these seasons are likely to change.

    For those sceptical about the impact of climate change — they should simply talk to a few mountaineers!


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