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Rockfalls and gaping crevices put Mont Blanc out of reach for many

In a year marked by drought and heatwaves, rockfalls and gaping crevices have made access to the top of Mont Blanc even more difficult and perilous -- to the great frustration of amateur mountaineers.

Rockfalls and gaping crevices put Mont Blanc out of reach for many
Mont Blanc can be seen in the background, as an athlete completing a marathon runs by in Chamonix, south-eastern France (Photo by OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP)

Officially, none of the seven routes leading to the summit, at 4,807 metres, is closed, but access conditions at the end of July have deteriorated to such an extent that only the most experienced climbers are able to make the ascent, experts say.

A lack of snow during the winter has laid bare vast areas of greyish glacier — yellowish where sand dust from the Sahara has accumulated — riven with fractures.

The heat did the rest, causing the melting of the fragile snow bridges that make it possible to cross the crevasses as well as leading to landslides.

In the southeastern French town of Chamonix, at the foot of the “White Giant”, the season is in full swing with thousands of tourists flocking by cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, at 3,842 metres, the closest you can get to the summit of Mont Blanc without hiking or climbing.

‘Awful’ conditions’

But in the small cave carved out of the ice which serves as a changing room and a starting point for mountaineers for many mountain races, there are fewer people than ever putting on crampons right now.

Scotsman Evan Warden and his 14-year-old son David said they were shocked to discover the “awful” conditions.

“Everywhere we walked there was just constant rockfall and the crevices constantly open up. (We were) pretty worried,” said David, 14, on his first visit to the Alps.

“MB is too risky… that was our plan, yes but I’ve not seen this much rockfall here in a long time. That’s global warming definitely,” Evan said, adding that the pair had hoped to do the “Trois Monts” (three peaks) route.

Norwegians Monica and Marten Antheun had also been hoping to have a go at the famed peak after three years’ waiting.

They had booked a trip, but it was cancelled.

“I think the guides know the area and the conditions. It’s okay for us, we can do it later”, said Monica.

Guiding firm, Les Compagnies des guides de Chamonix et de Saint-Gervais, announced in mid-July the temporary suspension of ascents to Mont Blanc by the “normal” Gouter route due to rockfalls in the Gouter corridor, also known as “death gully”.

Access remains open only to independent guides.

Recent very high temperatures have destabilised the mountain, says Noe Verite, caretaker of the Cosmiques refuge, located on the Trois Monts route.

“We see the conditions deteriorating day by day,” he said.

‘Like fridges’

For him, July is usually the peak of the season, but the cancellations have been piling up.

The usual route is affected by large rocks “like fridges” falling, Verite said.

Currently, only between a dozen and 20 skilled mountaineers are able to reach the summit of Mont Blanc each day compared to 100-120 usually, says Olivier Grebert, president of the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix.

Cancelled races are postponed, reimbursed or redirected to other routes and the firm takes the opportunity to do a bit of education with those who, for example, want to climb the summit “for their 40th birthday”.

“This ascent must be part of a mountaineering career,” explains Grebert: “Mont Blanc sometimes has the reputation of being an easy ascent but it’s not the case, this year even more so.”

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CLIMATE CRISIS

How 2022 compares to Europe’s hottest summers

In just over two decades, Europe has experienced its five hottest summers since 1500. As temperatures rise above 40C across Europe this week here's a look at the history of recent heatwaves that have hit the continent.

How 2022 compares to Europe's hottest summers

Europe’s increasingly frequent heatwaves are back under the spotlight over devastating wildfires and with sweltering temperatures forecast to hit record highs in Britain and France this week.

On Monday July 18th the European Commission warned that more than half of the EU territory was a risk of suffering a drought due to the lack of recent rainfall and the scorching temperatures.

2022: Double trouble

A heatwave engulfing western Europe, the second in a month, sparks huge wildfires and threatens to smash records in Britain and France.

Fires in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain force thousands of residents and tourists to flee and kill several people, including a Spanish shepherd and a firefighter.

Firefighters stand on a road as heavy smoke is seen in the background during forest fires near the city of Origne, south-western France, on July 17, 2022. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

Britain braces for an all-time high of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) or more. Brittany in France could also register similar temperatures in what would be a regional record.

The weather warnings come hot on the heels of a scorching spell in June, where parts of Europe, from Spain to Germany, sizzled at unseasonal highs of between 40C to 43C.

2021: Hottest ever

Last year is Europe’s hottest summer on record, according to the European climate change monitoring service Copernicus.

Between late July and early August 2021, Greece endures what Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis calls the country’s worst heatwave in over 30 years, with temperatures hitting 45C in some regions. In Spain, temperatures reach 47C in parts of the south, according to national weather agency AEMET.

A helicopter drops water as fires rage in Navalmoral de la Sierra near Avila at center of Spain on August 16, 2021. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

The heat and drought spark large wildfires along the Mediterranean, from Turkey and Greece to Italy and Spain.

2019: Northern Europe swelters

The summer of 2019 brings two heatwaves, which leave around 2,500 people dead, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters of Belgium’s Louvain University.

In France, temperatures hit a record 46C on June 28 in the southern town of Verargues. Thousands of schools are closed.

A picture taken on July 25, 2019 shows a board displayed in an office building and reading 41 Celsius in Stuttgart, as a new record high temperature was recorded in Germany, amid a Europe wide heatwave, breaking the previous hottest figure reached the previous day. (Photo by Marijan Murat / dpa / AFP) / Germany OUT

On July 24 and 25, northern Europe fries in record heat. Temperatures of 42.6C are recorded at Lingen in northwestern Germany, 41.8C in Begijnendijk in northern Belgium and 38.7C in the eastern English city of Cambridge.

2018: Drought drains the Danube

The second half of July and beginning of August 2018 sees very high temperatures across much of Europe and rivers running dry due to drought.

The Danube falls to its lowest level in 100 years in some areas, notably exposing World War II tanks in Serbia that were submerged since the conflict.

Portugal and Spain suffer hugely destructive forest fires.

2017: Months of mugginess

Much of Europe, but especially the south, sweats from late June to well into August.

Spain set a record of 47.3C on July 13 in the southern town of Montoro.

Persistent drought sparks forest fires in Portugal.

2015: Back-to-back heatwaves

It’s heatwave after heatwave throughout the summer of 2015 which leaves an estimated 1,700 people dead in France.

In Britain, roads melt and trains are delayed in the hottest July on record, with temperatures reaching 36.7C at Heathrow airport.

2007: Greek forests ablaze

Central and southern Europe are parched by drought throughout June and July, provoking a spate of forest fires in Italy, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Locals use branches to estinguish a fire in Kato Kotyli village in central Peloponnese 30 August 2007. The fires that wrought a trail of destruction across Greece for a week were mostly under control as people counted the cost of a disaster that has claimed 63 lives. (Photo by Yiannis Dimitras / AFP)

In Hungary, 500 people die as a result of the heat.

2003: 70,000 dead

Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal all experience exceptional heat in the first half of August, with Portugal suffering a record 47.3C at Amareleja in the south.

An EU study of 16 nations puts the number of excess deaths across the bloc during the heatwave as high as 70,000, with France and Italy each seeing between 15,000 and 20,000 fatalities, according to various reports since.

The 2003 heatwave in France caused the deaths of many elderly people and led to a change in the government’s approach to dealing with heatwaves. PHOTO JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo by Jean-Philippe KSIAZEK / AFP)

In France, most of the victims are elderly people in an episode that traumatises the country and leads to the implementation of new systems of protection during heatwaves.

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