Related topics

Fatal Falls Highlight Dangers of Summer Tourism

August 6, 1994

GENEVA (AP) _ The sun-baked Alps, which lure tens of thousands of aspiring mountaineers every summer, are turning into a death trap for the unsuspecting and the ill- prepared.

Within one week - the deadliest so far this summer - more than 20 people died in climbing accidents in Switzerland, France and Italy.

″It’s not the mountains that are more dangerous at this time of year, it’s the people,″ commented Sepp Inderkum, rescue chief at the Swiss Alpine Club. ″People have much less respect for mountains in beautiful weather.″

During cool days in spring and autumn, the peaks tend to attract dedicated climbers, who are well-equipped and are prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions.

But at the height of the vacation period, ″day tourists″ take over. Many are unfamiliar with the route, reluctant to rise at dawn to start long hikes, and poorly outfitted.

″In most cases, people who we have to help either have very little experience or none at all,″ said Armando Poli, president of Italian First Aid Corps. ″A lot of them get injured and find themselves in trouble in easy situations like pathways through woods.″

An exceptionally hot summer throughout Europe has melted the ice layer even on the highest peaks. This has increased the risk of avalanches of loose snow and rock slides.

An avalanche on the French side of imposing Mont Blanc left nine people dead July 29. Three people were killed in a fall Aug. 4 on the Italian part of the 15,782-foot mountain, the tallest of the Alps.

A total of nine people fell to their deaths during a national holiday weekend in July in Switzerland. A 74-year-old American woman, who stumbled over rock precipice into a dry stream bed 30 yards below, was one victim; a 39-year-old man in sandals was another. Their names were not released.

The worst single incident occurred when a rope-party of four Germans, equipped with ski poles rather than ice axes, slipped on Frundenhorn mountain after setting out when the sun had made the snow too soft.

″They died because they ignored the basic rules of climbing,″ said Fritz Loretan, who runs the 8,406-foot-high refuge where the party stayed.

The Alps aren’t the only site of fatal accidents. In July, two hikers lost their footing on a glacier on Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak, and fell to their deaths. The same month, three Europeans died in the Peruvian Andes, apparently because too much snow made climbing hazardous. In Nepal’s Himalayas, there were 11 recorded deaths from climbing accidents last year and 24 in 1992.

But good roads make the Alps easily accessible, so the toll is much higher.

Last year in Italy, 242 people were killed in climbing and skiing accidents. In Switzerland, 98 people died climbing or peak hiking, about half of them foreigners. In neighboring Austria, there were 150 victims from climbing and hiking accidents last year.

Despite the fatalities and an ever-increasing number of tourists, Europeans say the annual casualty rate is stable and should be kept in perspective.

″About 3 million Austrians are keen mountain walkers. Every year about 9,000 of them get injured,″ said Rupert Kisser, an Austrian who promotes safety issues. ″But if you compare this to soccer, in which 30,000 of the 700,000 participants get injured, then the mountain accidents don’t seem so bad.″

Wilhelm Beeker, head of the Bavarian mountain patrol unit of German Red Cross, said there was an increase in Alpine accidents a couple of years ago when eastern Germans gained the freedom to travel but not the money for proper boots and climbing gear. The situation has now stabilized.

Swiss rescuers complain that in addition to eastern Germans, poorly prepared Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians and Russians are causing headaches.

″Many have inferior equipment, or none at all. And many want to save money by not using a mountain guide,″ commented Bruno Yelk, a guide who takes part in rescue missions around Switzerland’s Matterhorn mountain near Zermatt.

Even though European rescue teams rely heavily on volunteers, costs reach the equivalent of millions of dollars annually.

In Italy, there were 2,135 rescue missions last year, many involving helicopters. In Switzerland the Air Zermatt company made about 900 trips in the southwestern Valais Alps alone.

Air Zermatt’s Christian Budmiger warns that non-insured climbers are billed up to $52 per minute of helicopter time for rescue operations.

Update hourly