A major heatwave has hit the Alps, and the forecasts show that it’s due to stay. Last week our teams on Mont Blanc and other major summits were successful (see photo above), and reported good conditions in the mountains, but as is often the case, a tipping point seems to have been reached. The cumulative impact of the driest winter on record, which only saw three significant snowfalls, the ongoing evolution of climate change, and now drought and successive heatwaves, seem to be pushing the Alpine mountains into unchartered territory in terms of objective risks and predictability.
We’re writing this blog to share the latest information, so you know what the options are, what we are offering, and that we’re keeping up to date with every last minute change, to ensure that our courses are impacted as little as possible, and that you attempt summits via routes that are in safe condition. The key point to make is that no one has ever seen conditions such as these before in the Alps, so there are no definitive answers especially much further than the length of a forecast ahead. Weather and climate models are discovering new records, and we are adapting to these extraordinary changes and the challenges that they are bringing. Already the summit of Mont Blanc has seen a recent sad temperature record of +10.4C a couple of weeks ago. One message is abundantly clear, even at this early stage of the summer – we must be flexible, and adapt to keep safe. We won’t cut any corners with this.
Climate change in the Alps is very much a one way process of glacial decline, as we documented in the Instagram post above on 29 June 2022. We’ve got used to seeing routes going out of condition, and others coming into fashion, as we all adapt to the impacts of climate change in the mountains. What’s worried us most is the high freezing level (zero degree isotherm), which seems very high for the next fortnight. Below is the forecast for Aiguille du Midi 3842m, which isn’t getting an overnight re-freeze for two weeks (and potentially more), and is seeing unprecedented daytime peak temperatures of up to +15C.
The forecasts today (12 July 2022) have a high predictability accuracy for the week ahead, and much lower after that. Some precipitation is forecast for the 22 July, but the accuracy of the forecast on that timescale is poor. We do know, with some good degree of certainty, that drought and heatwave conditions are going to prevail for at least the next week, if not next fortnight. Overnight refreezes, that are essential for reducing rockfall risks, and freezing snow bridges over crevasses, will be sadly lacking. At this moment we think it unlikely that conditions on Mont Blanc will change for the rest of this month. Alternative routes up the mountain, or even alternative peaks will have to be considered.
What has changed the status quo suddenly, were the major rockfalls on the Gouter Couloir on 15 July 2022. We haven’t a group on the mountain this week, due to these risks, but an independent climber took the amazing video footage below, shared by the mayor of St Gervais. Rockfalls like this have been previously seen in the heatwave of August 2015, but never as big as this, and certainly never in mid July. Immediately the authorities have advised against any ascents via this route, until further notice. This advice has to be followed by all the guide companies, from the local agencies such as Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix & St Gervais, to all other companies and even private guides operating on the mountain. As Jean-Marc Peillex says, there’s a real danger of death to ignore the rockfall impacts of this heatwave, so for now, the Gouter route on Mont Blanc is currently out as a possibility for an ascent.
Aside of the evident risks, that we (nor any other reputable company of guide) would not expose you too, we obviously need to consider the Plan B for this heatwave episode in the Alps. Mont Blanc has other routes, but all are longer and harder physically and technically. For those who only had the absolute minimum pre-requisite experience for the mountain, there will be no option but to consider another peak. If you have more experience, then the Gonella Route is still just in condition. The Trois Mont Blancs traverse from Aiguille du Midi isn’t an option both due to the 1:1 guide ratio, and also that there is an exposed and weak serac (unstable block of ice) threatening the route up Mont Blanc du Tacul.
An obvious question that anyone booked for Mont Blanc in the coming week(s) might reasonably ask, is what other alternative peaks there are to climb instead. We answer this on the Mont Blanc course FAQ page at this link; http://www.icicle-mountaineering.ltd.uk/mont%2Bblanc%2Bguide%2Bfaq.htm, and the suggestions are as follows;
|If the weather is too poor / unsafe to attempt Mont Blanc, or you opt out of an attempt (it does occasionally happen), then you still have all the days of guiding that would have been on Mont Blanc, and at exactly the same guiding ratios (and the same pay for the guide). Whevever possible we try to find you a challenging alternative such as Gran Paradiso in Italy, or Weissmeis / Bishorn / Breithorn in Switzerland. The routes that we would select on these peaks would be of a similar grade and challenge to that of ascending Mont Blanc, so are not ‘soft’ options, but worthwhile major 4000m summits. Some clients opt for two day routes to develop their technical skills. With the gradual effects of climate change, occasionally we see periods of extreme heatwave (e.g. August 2015), and in these episodes it is not advisable to attempt the peak due to increased risks of rockfall in the Gouter couloir to safely consider an ascent. In these periods, alternative routes (e.g. Gonella) are considered up Mont Blanc, but beware these are significantly tougher physically, and it’s more technical than the normal route. When there is an advisory against an ascent, insurance is invalidated if you were to go on that route. Rest assured that even in these circumstances, the course will go ahead, and we will work closely with you to either consider another route on the mountain, or if that isn’t an option, to select a route / series of climbs that is a challenging alternative. Occasionally this is the case, but be prepared to attempt alternative goals, as we all know that climate change is a one way trend, so this will occur more often in the future.|
Currently it seems that August 2015 conditions have returned, and so we need to listen to the advice from the weather experts, and change plans to keep safe. It’s not just Mont Blanc that is affected, and below is a gallery of conditions reports and advisories against other mountains. This gallery is being added to with new reports, as we receive them, so check back from time to time during the summer season, so we can share the latest information with you.
Edit 27 July 2022 – The latest situation is that Mont Blanc has advisories still in place on the Gouter Route, but that the huts remain open. Whilst this seems to send mixed signals, no guides are attempting the peak, and we think that the huts should be temporarily closed on this route, to protect unguided groups from exposing themselves perhaps unknowingly to these conditions and risks. There are also advisories on both the Lion (Italian) ridge and now the Hornli (Swiss) route on the Matterhorn. Other major peaks with advisories against climbing them include the Dent du Geant and Rochefort Ridge. Conditions in Monte Rosa on the Southerly aspect are delicate in terms of glacier travel, but are still possible. Saas and Oberland regions are degrading quickly. We are seeing conditions that we might feasibly expect in very late August, over a month early, and with no prospect for snowfalls or shorter cooler days in the coming weeks.
So what routes are in good condition? Mostly those which are mainly rocky Alpine ridges, such as the Mittellegi on the Eiger, are in excellent condition. On this route crampons are hardly required all the way to the summit, and just on the descent of the South ridge. Other high snowy peaks, without rockfall risk, and more Northerly aspect, are also still in good climbable conditions. This includes Dufourspitze 4634m, the second highest mountain in the Alps, via the Monte Rosa hut. Below is a gallery of routes our teams are enjoying at the moment, and we’ll add to it following this blog post, to keep you abreast of the latest options and conditions. There’s still plenty to choose from!
So for those who might be worried that their primary objective is unsafe or unattainable due to current conditions, there are suitable alternatives. If you planned to go to the Matterhorn, go to the Eiger. If you want to visit Saas, go to Monte Rosa. If you’re a beginner and after climbing Gran Paradiso, it’s still OK via the Victor Emmanuelle hut. On any week a specific mountain is never guaranteed, and your flexibility is important. From our perspective we’ve already booked (and paid on Mont Blanc) for hut spaces and deposits, the guides are booked and guaranteed, and all the local logistics such as your valley accommodation is already in place. Yes this summer will be more challenging than ever before, but that’s exactly where the expertise of our guides and in resort teams comes into play more than ever. If your primary objective isn’t safely (or even legally) possible, they’ll work with you to develop alternative plans tailored uniquely to each of you.
To address the white elephant in the room, we haven’t witnessed it yet, but if someone were to every take the line that they had “only booked a specific route or peak” and they wanted to cancel or transfer if it wasn’t possible, we’d have to say sorry but no. Work and pay for guides is guaranteed, huts are booked, accommodation is paid for, transport and logistics are in place. In the mountains, a specific objective is always a dream, but never a guarantee. No one honestly knows how this season will progress, and the anti-cyclonic conditions might collapse in a weeks time, but we need to ask you at present to adapt to the change, and to go for challenging alternatives if conditions require. That’s always the case with mountains, but it’s the new world we are seeing in terms of the triple impact of poor winter, climate change, and heatwaves, that make plans going ahead more than a few days impossible and unreliable. Dialogue about trips and plans over a week away is idle talk. Rest assured that whatever happens in the weeks ahead, our team will work tirelessly to adapt for you, on a day by day basis.
That’s a real USP of Icicle, in that we have a logistics team in the Alps who can put new plans in place for you if required. It’ll be untold extra work and efforts, but we’ll make it happen for you! Our 22+ years of experience will really come in to play. The season has already been a challenge, but we’ve risen to it, and more importantly so have each of our guests.
Well done everyone! A big thank you to each of you for your flexibility and understanding, and a huge thanks to our amazing guide team for keeping you safe. Thanks
Resources & articles – the Alpine heatwave has been really widely reported in the press. Here are some links, and we’ll add to the list over the coming days / weeks…
15 July 2022: https://explorersweb.com/mont-blanc-climbing-closed/
15 July 2022: https://www.francetvinfo.fr/france/auvergne-rhone-alpes/haute-savoie/mont-blanc-le-maire-de-saint-gervais-les-bains-demande-aux-alpinistes-de-ne-pas-vouloir-etre-plus-fort-que-la-nature_5257684.html
20 July 2022: http://www.alpine-club.org.uk/news/chamonix-condtions
05 August 2022: Finally a decision is made to close the Gouter & Tete Rousse huts until further notice, due to rockfall risk. Still breaking news 08:30, and will update when more information becomes available.
05 August 2022: Click bait headline, that is preceded / outdated as the huts are now closed on Gouter route. “French mayor demands €15,000 fee to climb Mont Blanc” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-62436466