Fall at Pic Eccles (Mont Blanc)
This trip should have become: Mont Brouillard - Punta Baretti (third attempt)
28 to 29 July 2004
Wednesday, July 28
This summer, we are planning to spend a couple of weeks in the Alps in order to visit some of the "remaining" 4000 m peaks. Conditions in the area of Aiguille Verte are not very good (bergschrunds of the couloirs are wide open now), so we go to the Italian side of Mont Blanc. There are three 4000m peaks waiting for us. We already had attempted Punta Baretti and Mont Brouillard from Glacier du Miage, but that route leads through very loose rock which we did not really like. So now we want to use the east side via Glacier du Brouillard and Col Emile Rey.
From Val Veny we ascend three hours to Rifugio Monzino (2590 m). For a hut ascent, the second rock section is quite interesting. A long row of chains makes a steep section of grade II more or less accessible. From the hut, one can enjoy a nice view on the wild Mont Blanc south side.
Thursday, July 29
We leave at half past three on Thursday morning. After one and a half hours of stumbling through the moraines we reach Glacier du Brouillard at about 3000 m. The glacier is well snow-covered, we can hardly imagine what a labyrinth of crevasses must be hidden underneath the snow. Indeed a ramp - not visible from the valley - leads up to the next glacier terrace without any difficulty. From there on, the crevasses become bigger and more difficult to walk around. There is no direct access to the uppermost glacier basin, and so we follow the trace to the right, up to Bivacco Eccles. The last meters are a somewhat unpleasant steep scree and snow slope. But the snow is still firm, we reach the upper of the two bivouacs at 3850 m altitude at nine o'clock. It has three places, and the door is warped so much that one must take the rucksack from he back in order to enter.
Nine o'clock is for sure too late to enter the sun-exposed couloir to Col Emile Rey. So Mont Brouillard and Punta Baretti have to wait until tomorrow, and we will have plenty of time to explore the surroundings of the bivouac. After a short break we leave the ski poles and one rucksack here (Claudia takes her rucksack) and start for a climb around the corner to have a view towards Col de Peuterey. Shall we take the cell phone with us? Not really much weight, I put it into my jacket pocket.
We climb to the left behind the bivouac, then upwards to the rocky base of Punta Eccles. For some unknown reason we have our helmets on, although in this terrain there is nothing at all that could fall upon us. Who knows what it may be good for... Along scree-covered bands we proceed towards the corner, belaying the more difficult pitches (II, II-III). Soon Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey is in view. It looks more deterrent than we ever had dreamt of. Until that day I had believed in being able to visit all "classic" 4000m peaks of the Alps (e.g. according to Blodig) some day. What we see here makes this objective very questionable.
Claudia wants to look around the next edge in order to see Col de Peuterey completely. We go simultaneously with the rope, she even found a belay sling where she wants to fix a carabiner and have the rope run through (as she at least tells me, I cannot see around the edge).
Suddenly a jerk on the rope pulls me to the ground. With full tension of the rope I slip over the rock band until after several meters I can somehow block the pull. Claudia must have fallen. I still cannot look around the edge and do not know if the belay is really used. For the moment, at least, the fall is held - else it could well have been thousand meters.
Slowly and carefully I continue on the band - still under a strong pull but now only static and not with the force of the free fall - and see the sling and the rope running through the carabiner fixed to this anchor. As I reach the anchor, the pull on the rope diminishes. I make self-belay and try to clarify the situation.
For two minutes no answer to my shouting. After that, first questions ("did I fall?") rather diffuse answers from below. Obviously this is a serious situation. I cannot go down since the rope is not long enough for rappelling, and the situation below is so unclear that I remain at the good belay above rather than trying to go down into an unknown terrain. Fortunately I soon realize that I have the cell phone (normally it is in the rucksack). There is even good reception here. Dialing 112 - and soon I have some person on the phone to whom I can explain the situation. About 15 minutes later the rescue helicopter comes, finding us quickly. A rescuer comes down on the winch, checks the belay; after that, another rescuer is being let down to Claudia and shortly after taken into the helicopter together with Claudia. They fly to Rifugio Monzino where the first aid measures are taken. Soon the helicopter returns and fetches me and my rescuer. Unfortunately we left all documents in the rucksack in the bivouac. This complicates the operation: Once he is let down with the winch and fetches the things from inside the bivouac. A remarkable precision work, and surely not without risk even in good summer weather.
Claudia is being brought to Ospedale Regionale to Aosta. I get off the helicopter in Entrèves, and after our particulars are taken down by an officer I am brought to the car in Val Veny. An hour later I arrive in Aosta, too.
Friday, 30 July to Thursday, 5 August
Unfortunately, without good knowledge of the Italian language it is not easy for us to get an understandable diagnosis. It seems to be a fracture of a series of ribs which might also have damaged the lung (pneumothorax) and a fraction at the sacrum, and in addition a concussion and some abrasions. The first recommendation - 30 days stricly lying in bed - will hopefully not be confirmed. Since Claudia sometimes has some problems moving the legs, she has to stay several days in Aosta for observation until she can be transported to Germany. Our ADAC health insurance for abroad organizes the transport back and also some clarifying telephone calls for the translation of diagnoses etc.
Until then, I spend the time visiting in the hospital and getting the things which one needs when suddenly hospitalized. At least I find some time during the day to visit the very prominent Mont Emilius enthroned directly above the city. From the summit it is a 3000 m view directly downwards to Aosta.
On Thursday, Claudia is brought to Germany to a hospital where on arrival the kitchen is unfortunately already closed and there seems no way to find some food for a new patient. It would now have been quite interesting to get the Italian diagnoses in German and discuss the therapy. There was, however, no information on Friday, and the weekend is weekend. After consulting several competent friends, she prefers to have the further treatment ambulantly - one can be in bed at home as well as in hospital.
The recovery made good progress. After three weeks it was merely possible to walk 300 meters to the swimming baths for aqua-jogging, but already on 3 October she could run a half marathon in quite a reasonable time (1:57).
Rifugio Monzino belongs - as the only hut in the region - not an alpine club but is property of the guides of Courmayeur. Therefore there is no reduction for alpine club members. The warden (he is French) speaks an excellent English and is willingly giving information about routes and conditions on the mountain. The hut therefore is very recommendable, even if the stay is comparably expensive (18 EUR p.pers.).
The so-called "Bivouac Eccles" are two small bivouac huts at about 3850 m at Pic Eccles. The upper of the two has 3 places (not four, the fourth bed is missing). The lower bivouac is said to have 8 places, we didn't check that. From Rifugio Monzino it takes about 5 to 7 hours. When the glacier is well snow-covered, the route is quite easy up to about 3750 m; in the upper sections big crevasses can force some detours. The last 100 height meters are snow-covered rock at about 45° steepness which could be delicate depending on conditions.
The air rescuers of Entrèves deserve greatest respect. To carry out a rescue in such steep terrain is not without risk even at good weather. Fetching the rucksack made the operation even more complicated. The formalities were done in a quick, efficient and very friendly manner. The communication with the phyisicians in Aosta was in part rather difficult due to the language barriers. In summary, the staff of the hospital looked after the patients very well. Possibly some German hospitals could learn a thing or two here.
Why does one fall off the mountain apparently without any reason?Claudia does not remember the fall itself, and she can reconstruct only parts of the transport until she arrived in the hospital. The reason for the fall remains completely unclear. The terrain was relatively easy up to the anchor where the belay was fixed, after that the band becomes narrower. A fall due to a wrong estimate of the difficulty of the rock seems not probable, since Claudia has been climbing since 15 years and knows her abilities well. As possible reasons remain slipping on or with some snow or ice plate on the rock, or stumbling with the (new) crampons e.g. due to getting caught in the trousers or so.
The coincidence of cell phone and helmet
The first two items are really interesting, because they moderated the possible consequences of the fall very much. Considering that Claudia go a concussion and lost consciousness for some minutes even with the helmet, the consequences could have been much more severe without a helmet. If the cell phone had been in the rucksack rather than in my pocket, it would have been much more complicated to get rescued. Another plus was that we were directly in view of Entrèves and Courmayeur and that the connection was good. If we had been on the other side of Pic Eccles (an unprominent rock bump of Mont Blanc) an emergency call by cell phone would not have worked.
© 2004 Hartmut Bielefeldt
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