Alps' Slippery Summits Take Toll on Amateur Mountaineers

Climbers and hikers tackling Europe's Alps this summer have discovered that it's definitely not a stroll in the park.

Although the skies are blue and the weather warm when they set off, would-be mountaineers are often totally unprepared to find themselves only hours later in windy, freezing temperatures. The result: more than 100 deaths since July.

"It's chic now to be a mountain climber. There are many more people," says Edy Gross, a professional mountain rescuer in Sion, a scenic city in the Swiss Alps.

Compared with five years ago when Mr. Gross began his rescuing career, climbers today "are less ready and carry less with them. And they don't consider the weather first."

Scarcely a day passes without a report of deaths, many of them in the meccas of climbing - snow-covered Mont Blanc, which rises to a spectacular 15,750 feet, or the 14,700-foot Matterhorn. Last weekend, six climbers, including two Americans, died in the Swiss Alps, and 12 bodies were found on a single day last week. In one instance, four people had been roped together and fell during an avalanche of ice on the Taeschhorn, near Sion.

Other stories this summer include the deaths of two young climbers, one from Australia and the other from Britain, who were being photographed to celebrate reaching an Alpine summit when they fell.

Unusual climatic conditions this summer have included a combination of late snow, rain, and heat.

"It was bad until mid-July, too rainy and too much snow. This makes some mountains too hard to climb," says Wolfgang Woernhard, head of the 1,250-member Swiss Mountain Guides Association. Conditions were so precarious around the Matterhorn that guides in nearby Zermatt refused to climb in the early summer, a top tourist time, he says. "We really lost a whole month" of the climbing season, he says.

For visiting climbers who have only three or four days to make a climb, waiting for the right conditions is difficult, if not impossible. "So people start out in bad conditions, and things happen that are not good," he says.

Mr. Woernhard also notes that climate change has produced slicker conditions. "The ice is melting, and there is less snow, and it's difficult to climb on only ice. If you make a mistake, you plunge." For nonclimbers, he explains, "It's like an icy road ... except it's vertical."

Weather conditions also can make climbs more arduous, and climbers underestimate how long their journey will take. "Many times conditions mean that you have to double the time you've planned and use more strength. Say, for example, instead of six hours, it will take 12 ... and people are not prepared for that," Woernhard said in a telephone interview from Zurich.

Despite the risk and the increase in number of amateurs on the slopes, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for professional mountain guides, says a spokeswoman for Verbier, a Swiss resort town. A guide costs between $200 and $600 per day, depending on the number climbing and the difficulty of the peak, says Verbier's Helen Lartigau.

Despite the deaths, the Swiss Alpine Club says the overall number of fatalities in the mountains has declined. In 1985, club statistician Ueli Mosimann says, there were 195 such deaths in Switzerland. In the past decade the death toll has been around 150, he told local newspapers. In 1995 and 1996, it was less than 100.

The official number of deaths in Switzerland so far this year is 49. That number does not take into account deaths in nearby France and Italy, which have pushed the Alpine total to more than 100 so far.

France and Switzerland began coordinating rescue efforts in 1987, and a project is being discussed that would create an aerial-rescue base in Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, in France. But, despite the high death toll, there appears little chance of official restrictions being imposed. The Swiss government recently rejected the idea of a nationwide law on mountain guiding.

"It's a bit like sailing on the sea," Woernhard says. "You're allowed to go out on a yacht, and in the first 30 miles, the Coast Guard can help you. But if you want, you can sail across the Atlantic, and there's no one to stop you."

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