Yesterday I shared a beautiful and compelling video from one of the most iconic mountains in Europe. In the text that accompanied that video I noted that Mont Blanc is one of the peaks responsible for the birth of mountaineering. Another such mountain is the Matterhorn in Switzerland, which has been at the epicenter of climbing for more than 150 years. But after a long and dangerous year on that iconic mountain, some guides are now saying that it may be too dangerous to climb.
Yesterday it was revealed that a South Korean climber fell to his death on the Matterhorn. That was the seventh death on the mountain this year, Apparently, the unnamed alpinist was ascending the mountain with a climbing partner when he decided to turn around and head back down. After descending to 12,140 feet (3700 meters) he reportedly slipped and fell about 656 feet (200 meters) to his death. This accident comes just two weeks after two other climbers were struck by falling rock and knocked from the mountain, which mirrored a similar accident that claimed the life of a British climber back in June.
These fatalities, coupled with ongoing instability on the mountain, have apparently led to some Swiss guides calling the mountain “too dangerous.” A number of those guides have even been calling for the closure of the mountain, saying it simply isn’t safe to take groups of tourist climbers up its slopes at the moment. So far, the idea of closing the mountain has been flatly rejected.
Closing the mountain isn’t without precedent. Back in 2003, the Matterhorn was shut down because instability was causing massive rock slides high on its slopes. That summer, Europe was embroiled in a very hot and extended heatwave, not unlike what it has experienced this year. Experts say that the warmer temperatures are causing the mountain’s permafrost to thaw out, which is allowing rocks and debris to become loose and go tumbling down the slopes.
To further put things in perspective, last year 11 people died on the Matterhorn, with an estimated 3000 climbers reaching the summit on an annual basis. Meanwhile, there were more deaths on Everest this spring climbing season, where fewer than 900 people summited. In other words, the Matterhorn is a safer mountain than Everest, as least in terms of numbers. Of course, there are a lot of factors to consider as to why that is the case, not the least of which is the much higher altitude found on the Himalayan peak. Still, it helps to understand the sheer number of climbers that attempt the Matterhorn in any given year and how relatively few of them die on their climbs.
That said, the thawing permafrost is likely to only become a larger problem moving forward. Climate change is altering mountains all over the world, and these types of dangers are likely only going to increase. Shutting the mountain down entirely may not be the answer, but educating climbers about the dangers can help the situation. Chances are however, these once safe and well-trodden peaks are only going to continue to become more treacherous.