Well that’s it for 2015, probably the most difficult season we’ve had since we started in 2004. The last three years have all done better than our published average course success rate of 66%: in 2012, 2013, and 2014 over 70% of our groups made the top of Mont Blanc and last year we even managed to make it to the twelfth course before bad weather finally intervened. This year as well we got off to a flyer with ten of the first eleven courses summitting, but then the heatwave arrived and for about six weeks, that was pretty much that. In the end all we could manage this year was a paltry 36% course success rate. Normal temperatures did in fact return after the first three scorching weeks, but the damage had been done and it was the end of August before cooler weather finally started to bring the couloir back into condition.
In nearly thirty years of climbing here I have only experienced a heatwave (French=”canicule”) like this once before, back in 2003 the year before Mont Blanc Guides came into being. Mont Blanc was practically unclimbable for nearly two months during that summer because of rockfall in the Grand Couloir, and I remember wondering whether it was worth starting a Mont Blanc guiding company if that was the way things were going. Happily though that’s not what happened, and at no point during our first six years of operation (2004 to 2009) were temperatures too high to make the Grand Couloir uncrossable. In the three year period 2010 to 2012 one or two weeks were affected at different times in the season, but then after that 2013 and 2014 were again solid years. 2015 however, really wasn’t.
In a normal summer temperatures in Chamonix (1000m altitude) stay around 25°C – 28°C, and every so often a cold snap comes along and refreshes the mountain and the couloir with a bit of new snow; my rule of thumb is that as long as it stays below 30°C in Cham we’re mostly OK. This year for a three week period in June temperatures were consistently above 35°C and on several occasions even exceeded 40°C – the grand couloir just couldn’t take it and I took the decision to stop crossing it on July 2nd until things cooled down.
These two photos, taken at roughly the same time in 2015 and 2014, show the extent of the problem. The Grand Couloir appears in the 2015 photo as the light near vertical gulley in the middle of the picture with the thin dark melt stream running down it. The light colour is a result of falling rocks!
When all the snow disappears and the extreme heat starts to permeate the permafrost, the Grand Couloir becomes unstable and can produce rockfalls at any time of the day or night (note: a survey taken by Petzl who were thinking of sponsoring building a bridge across the couloir gave the suprising result that most rockfalls occurred around 10am). These can be large and come without warning as this video, taken I might add when no-one with half a brain would have gone anywhere near it, shows. Notice the climber in the yellow helmet at 4 secs; I wonder if he thought it was worth it.
Our statistics then have taken a bit of a hit this year, just when I thought our 66% average course success rate could perhaps go up to nearer 70%. They are as follows:
2006: 80% (equal best year)
2009: 80% (equal best year)
2010: 35% (equal worst year, endless wind and snow)
2015: 36% (equal worst year, heatwave)
Adding it all up it comes out at 62% chance of getting a shot at Mont Blanc summit on one of our courses; perhaps I won’t bother to go through the website and change it all just yet. Though it was much too hot this year the weather was otherwise excellent, which meant our teams managed a huge amount of alternative summits. The number of times we were able to get up Monte Rosa (4600m), Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248m), Gran Paradiso (4061m), the technical Cosmiques and Entreves ridges and even exceptionally the Matterhorn (4478m) was I think unprecedented. Mont Blanc was obviously the main target however, and for those who didn’t get to try it we may think of offering weeks with a different training mountain in 2016, perhaps Monte Rosa / Mont Blanc instead of Gran Paradiso / Mont Blanc. I can understand how frustrating it was not being to able to attempt Mont Blanc despite the good weather, especially for those we turned back at Tete Rousse despite the fact that most other people there, guided and non-guided alike, were going up. Peer pressure can be a dangerous thing in the mountains however.
Roll on 2016 anyway, I’m looking forward to it.
(Director / Head Guide MBG)