Two 21-year old British climbers, James Atkinson and Rob Gauntlett, were killed this weekend in the Mont Blanc Massif, and many tributes are being paid to Gauntlett, who in 2006 and shortly after his 19th birthday became the youngest Briton to climb Everest.
Although details are not yet confirmed, it appears the two were attempting the classic Gervasutti Couloir (800m and D- by the usual finish) on the East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul above the Vallée Blanche. Their bodies were recovered by helicopter from the bottom of the couloir. It is not clear what caused their lengthy fall, though the climb can be exposed to ice fall from the serac barrier at the top of the face.
Having decided he wanted to climb Everest while studying for GCSEs at school, Gauntlett began to gain experience. When 17 he made an attempt on the Pakistan 7,000er Spantik and in 2005 climbed the Standard Route on Ama Dablam with Tim Mosedale's commercially organized expedition. In May 2006, a little after his 19th birthday, he joined an Adventure Peaks commercially organized expedition to the North East Ridge of Everest, where a little after his 19th birthday he was successful in reaching the summit.
More recently Gauntlett completed a 13-month journey from the North to South Magnetic Poles using only ski, dog sled, bicycle and sailing boat. For this, National Geographic made him one of their Adventurers of the Year 2008.
The second accident at the weekend occurred in the Fer a Cheval above Sixt, on the legendary and seldom completed La Lyre, a 500m icefall climbed at the end of December by Nick Bullock and Tim Emmett (see Ascents and Tragedies on Sixt Icefalls for a report on this ascent and a brief history of the route La Lyre and ice climbing in the Fer a Cheval)
The young French guide Benoit Drouillat and his brother Vincent appear to have climbed La Lyre (VI/7) and were rappelling the route, when they were hit by falling ice blocks and swept to their deaths. Although young, Benoit Drouillat was an accomplished alpinist and photographer. Amongst other achievements, last year he made the second winter ascent of the very difficult Slavko Sveticic route Manitua on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses.
It seems word of previous ascents of La Lyre had got out. However, commenting on conditions in the cirque, the well-known and talented ice climber Bruno Sourzac, who had recently made an ascent of La Lyre himself, noted that in good weather the top of the wall catches the sun relatively quickly and it is imperative to make an early start.
Christophe Rezette, a local Sixt guide, felt there are only a few days each year when conditions in the Fer a Cheval are favourable. In his opinion, at the start of January fohn winds and temperature inversions had begun to destabilize the ice.
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