That's It, We're Dead: Disaster Strikes Along the Alps' 'Haute Route' (2023)

For Lisa, it was clear that Mario expected everything to go smoothly. For instance, he declined to go over certain items during his briefing, such as a balaclava to prevent a person's head from cooling, a synthetic bivouac sack for sleeping outside on a frigid night or a small beacon that could send an emergency signal with GPS coordinates via satellite. Such items could prove useful if things went awry, but they also added extra weight and tended to be expensive.

Ten people is a lot for an ambitious trek. Such a large group is invariably slow, which is why Mario Castiglioni opted to travel light. In case of emergency, he always had his satellite phone.

Much like Lisa Hagen, Tommaso Piccioli, the heavyset Italian, had also spent years dreaming about the Haute Route. He grew up in Rimini, a coastal city in northern Italy, though the beaches never captured his passion as much as the Dolomites, a mountain range where his parents had a vacation home. He used to work at an architectural firm in Hamburg, Germany, and organized his life in such a way as to maximize his time in the mountains. With his wife, an Australian, he divided his time between Sydney, Milan and the family's vacation home in South Tyrol. There, in the Italian Alpine Club, he became friends with Betti and the two of them decided to traverse the Haute Route together. He knew not to underestimate the route. It would be his first time with a guide.

Tommaso found it strange that the guide hadn't mentioned GPS beacons during his briefing. But he didn't dwell on the thought -- after all, he had his own GPS device with which he could orient himself if need be.

A Storm Is Brewing

The first days were just like the catalogue had promised: Blue sky, white snow, descents into valleys and ascents to peaks as high as 2,459 meters. On Friday, Day Two, Tommaso read the weather report: The warm, dry wind that had afforded them clear and sunny skies so far would disappear by Sunday afternoon. The temperature would plummet, and a storm would settle in. But Sunday was a long way off.

On Saturday, Day Three, their journey took them 17 kilometers over a steep landscape to the next lodge. At one point, Tommaso lost his balance and fell nearly 5 meters until the rope caught him. He wasn't injured.

For dinner they ate vegetable soup and noodles with ground beef. Tommaso ate a large bowl of soup and three helpings of noodles. He didn't know it then, but his gorging would significantly increase his chances of surviving the next 36 hours. He went to bed around 9 p.m. and couldn't sleep. He eventually took a sleeping pill.

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As the group waited for their guide's decision the next morning at breakfast, the lodge's common area was steadily filling up. Most of the other 60 people in staying there would opt to wait out the storm. Tommaso Piccioli talked to a Frenchman who assured him the weather would quickly become perilous.

Mario Castiglioni thought otherwise. He convened his group and informed them they would be summiting the highest peak of the trip, the 3,790-meter Pigne d'Arolla. Once there, they would decide how to proceed.

According to their itinerary, the next lodge, the Cabane des Vignettes, is only six hours away. But something had gone wrong with their reservation and the lodge is fully booked. No problem, the guide says, if the weather takes a turn for the worst, they can always ski down into the valley from Pigne d'Arolla or try their luck at Cabane des Vignettes. In the worst case, they'll have to sleep on the floor.

Simply because other guests preferred to err on the side of caution does not necessarily mean the guide's decision to keep going was wrong. Alpinism knows few rigid rules. This ambiguity is what makes the sport so exhilarating -- or terrifying, depending on the situation. Mountaineers must work with flexible risk analyses rather than certitudes.

That said, the group could have mitigated its risk fairly easily by using a GPS device to track its progress after leaving the lodge. That way, even if they could no longer see in front of them, they could trace their digital tracks back to safety. But they failed to do this. Instead, they followed their guide.

At 6:30 a.m., the group climbed a gradual, wide snowfield toward the summit.

A half-hour later, Pascal Gaspoz made himself an espresso in the valley below. Gaspoz is in his late 40s and a professional mountain rescuer. He works at the helicopter company Air-Glaciers. He checks his weather apps and prepares for the likelihood that he'll soon have work to do.

The ascent to Pigne d'Arolla is less challenging than it is long. After 20 minutes, Lisa Hagen turns around and looks back at the lodge. It was the right decision to keep going, she thinks. The clouds are dispersing, and the sun is beginning to shine through. She takes a photo and climbs on.

The group makes its ascent without much conversation. Everyone is trying to conserve energy. They have no idea how long they'll be climbing. Lisa isn't exactly sure what Mario Castiglioni has planned as he leads them up the mountain. She could ask him directly, but it would require catching up to him. She stays in line. After all the times they've been in the mountains together, she trusts him.

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Tommaso Piccioli is ahead of Lisa. He's glad he was able to sleep. He had a hearty breakfast and is feeling strong. He's counting on the group skiing down to the valley or turning around to the lodge before the weather turns. The sky is already overcast again.

They've been climbing for three hours when the storm hits. It happens sooner and it's more aggressive than expected. Snow swirls around them and everything they could see only moments ago -- the lodge, the tracks they left behind, the mountains, the valley -- is suddenly gone. It's too late to descend on skis, the view is too poor. They pack away their skis and walk up to the guide. No one speaks. Mario Castiglioni casts a long, colorful rope through the snow behind him so that the others can follow his tracks. His wife takes up the rear, helping those with the least amount of energy. Gabriella is one of them. She lost a crampon somewhere along the way.

Around 10 a.m., the group runs into four other people. They are French alpinists, two women and two men, who have gotten lost. Lisa Hagen notices that one of the men has a compass and a map. How old-fashioned, she thinks -- and useless in a storm like this. The Frenchman tries to communicate with their guide, screaming against the wind. She can't hear what he says, but it appears as if the two of them are disagreeing. The guide then marches on and the French fall in line behind him.

Keep Calm, Don't Panic

Lisa Hagen still isn't sure where Mario is leading them. At some point, she sees Kalina, Mario's wife, through the fog. She calls to her: Why didn't we ski down to the valley sooner? Not now, Kalina answers, we can discuss everything tonight. Lisa thinks about sitting inside a warm lodge later that evening with a beer in hand. Mario knows what he's doing, she thinks. He's never let her down before.

After a while, she realizes the group is ascending the same area they descended earlier. I must keep calm, she tells herself. Don't panic. She puts one foot in front of the other, jamming her poles into the snow with every step. She can no longer see the guide. Tommaso Piccioli, who has a GPS device with him, catches up to the guide and asks him: Where are you going? It's OK, Mario calls back to him. They continue for a bit and then Tommaso shows the guide his GPS. At the corner of the display is the beginning of a trail.

They change direction and head to where they think the trail is. A lodge suddenly appears on Tommaso's screen. "Guys, we're going the right way!" Tommaso tells the group. They keep going until they reach the edge of a cliff. They turn around and look for another way down to the lodge. Except there is no way down.

At some point the fog clears and Luciano, the 72-year-old man from Switzerland, sees a black rubber hose hanging over a ledge. Luciano knows that in the summertime, this hose carries water from a spring directly to the Cabane des Vignettes. He says: We just have to follow the hose. But the more they do so, the steeper the ledge becomes. At some point, the hose is so far above their heads they can no longer see it due to all the snow. They have to turn around. Lisa Hagen notices that Gabriella can hardly walk. The guide's wife has taken her climbing harness and one of her skis. One of the Frenchmen is carrying the other one.

They could stop and dig a hole in the snow. It would offer them shelter for the night. But they keep going.

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Dusk has fallen by the time they discover two chest-high cairns. The piles mark a passage through which skiers can glide down to the lodge below, only 400 meters away -- when the visibility is clear. But the storm is too intense. We'll stay here, the guide says, instructing everyone to pile their backpacks to shield them from the wind.

Lisa Hagen hears the guide's wife tell him she's going to look for deeper snow to dig a shelter. Then she watches as she disappears into the fog. The guide stays with the group. Tommaso overhears him say, "I can't see a thing."

By now, Lisa knows that she can't count on Mario. She lays down in the snow and watches the guide frantically push buttons on his satellite phone. It's not working. She remembers her own mobile phone in her pants pocket. She'd have to remove her gloves to get at it and that's not an option right now. Her gloves are her last line of defense. She thinks: I can't spend the night out here. We're going to die if nobody finds us.

She leans against Andrea, the nurse, who's only here because someone else canceled. He has his arm around her. She manages to pull some bread out of her pack without taking off her gloves. She gives one piece to Andrea and keeps the other for herself.

Tommaso hears Marcello calling to his wife: Gabriella! Gabriella! But Gabriella only moans. Tommaso doesn't hear anything after that. He's got his arm around Francesca, the woman with the glitzy rings, the mother of three. She has pulled a thermal blanket over her. Tommaso looks around for his friend Betti. He sees her lying down with her face in the snow. He screams her name. He thinks he can hear her calling his name softly back.

Freezing to death is a slow process. At first, the body fights back by shivering violently. As the extremities cool, they become numb and blue while the body protects the most vital organs. Once the body's temperature drops below 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit), things become much more bearable. The shuddering stops. There's hardly any pain, only a great sense of tiredness and the almost unbearable desire to close one's eyes. The end is barely noticeable.

On Monday morning at 6:50 a.m., Pascal Gaspoz's phone rings at Air-Glaciers' headquarters. Word is that someone's in trouble near the Vignettes lodge. Surely, it's nothing special, he thinks as he walks out to his helicopter. But he takes a doctor with him just in case. It takes them 30 minutes to reach the spot that a pilot will later describe as looking like a war zone. Thirteen people are lying in the snow on a steep ridge, a mere 300 meters as the crow flies from the Cabane des Vignettes lodge. Two hundred meters below them lies a man.

Extreme Hypothermia

Gaspoz calls for backup and lands the helicopter. Two mountaineers who spent the night inside the lodge come out to administer first aid. Soon there will be seven helicopters at the scene. The doctors determine the climbers are suffering from extreme hypothermia. They have no visible outer injuries, no broken bones. Seven are awake and talking, six are confused or unconscious. The one man down below appears to be dead.

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They fly the people to the lodge, beginning with those who are conscious. The unconscious ones are given heart massages. Nine of the 10 members of the group are brought to hospitals, one is pronounced dead: Mario Castiglioni, the guide, the 200 meters below the rest. He apparently attempted to get help the next morning and collapsed from exhaustion.

Later, others are pronounced dead as well: the married couple Gabriella and Marcello, their friend Betti, Andrea, the nurse and Kalina, the guide's wife.

For two days, the doctors do everything they can to save Francesca, the mother of three, but eventually she dies too.

The four French people survive.

Other survivors include Lisa Hagen, Tommaso Piccioli and Luciano, the 72-year-old. Lisa and Tommaso suffered only minor hypothermia and were discharged from the hospital after a day.

They were the only ones able to keep themselves awake until dawn. In the morning, Lisa saw that Tommaso was still conscious. She crawled over to him and Tommaso managed to pull his thermos out of his backpack. Both had a drink -- the tea was still warm.

In the morning light, they saw the lodge with its illuminated windows. It looked like a postcard, the way it sat atop a precipitous cliff. They saw a group emerge from inside and began to yell and wave their arms. Fifteen minutes later, they heard Pascal Gaspoz's helicopter.

Luciano watched as the sky above began to brighten, then he fell asleep. He dreamed of pretty colors and flowers. When he woke up in the afternoon, he was lying in a hospital bed. The first thing he noticed were his fingers against the white sheets -- they were black. The doctors told him his body temperature had dropped to 26 degrees Celsius. One or 2 degrees lower and he wouldn't have woken up.

Questions of Accountability

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In the past year, 154 people died in accidents in Switzerland's mountains. In 2015, 213 people died. Most of these accidents are marked by short blurbs in the newspaper. Occasional fatal accidents are nothing unusual in the mountains. But seven fatalities in a group of 10 is a catastrophe, and it raises the question of whether someone should be held responsible.

Tommaso Piccioli says the guide, Mario Castiglioni, made fatal errors. He wasn't sufficiently equipped and didn't know the route. Piccioli says he's fighting to ensure this accident is not without consequence. Strict rules could be imposed for guides, for instance. "It's hard to talk about this," he says. But he does so anyway -- not least for his friend, Betti. "She died because of someone else's mistakes."

For Lisa Hagen, the matter of who is to blame isn't quite as clear. She says she knew Mario Castiglioni to be a responsible guide. He doesn't have the opportunity now to defend the choices he made. That's why she decided to speak up.


How hard is the Haute Route? ›

How hard is the Walker's Haute Route? In a word, it is difficult. It is 117 miles (188 km) of rough Alpine terrain that crosses eleven mountain passes, some almost 10,000 feet in elevation. Unstable trail conditions and afternoon storms can force hikers down to safer, low-altitude paths.

How long does it take to walk the Haute Route? ›

The highest point reached by the standard route is 2,987m (9,799ft) and the height gain on the route is around 15,200m (49,867ft). Trekkers typically take 14 days to complete the hike, give or take a day or two.

Can you do the Haute Route without a guide? ›

Yes, in fact many people like to adapt the Deluxe Haute Route guided itinerary for a self-guided itinerary. The Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route itinerary is also great for doing the full route while cutting out some not-as-scenic days.

When should I do the Haute Route? ›

Best time to ski the Haute Route

The Haute Route Season runs from mid-March to the end of April – this is when the glacier and snow conditions are generally best for the route and therefore when the mountain huts are open, along with all the uplift and other infrastructure supporting the route.

Can you wild camp on the Haute Route? ›

Wild Camping on the Walker's Haute Route

The trail passes through two countries and several local municipalities, each with their own specific rules and regulations. Generally speaking, wild camping may be allowed in France at high altitudes between sunset and sunrise, but it is strictly forbidden in Switzerland.

How do I prepare for Haute Route? ›

The plan requires 10 hours of training in the first week, progressing to 20 hours in the tenth week, with an increasing intensity as well. The Haute Route is famous for its' climbs, so we need to make sure you have the strength to keep turning the pedals when the road heads upwards.

Is the Haute Route crowded? ›

Most of the time, the Haute Route trails were wonderfully uncrowded. The most crowded trails were stages 1, 2, and 3, when we shared the trails with those hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc. The TMB is a much more popular trek and the number of hikers on the trails and in the hotels and lodges illustrated this.

What is the temperature in Haute Route? ›

Temperatures can range from the low 40s at night to 80 °F during the day.

What towns are in the Haute Route? ›

Low level "Walker's Haute Route" variation huts and villages
  • Chamonix town, France.
  • Argentière village, France.
  • Trient village, Switzerland.
  • Champex village, Switzerland.
  • Sembrancher village, Switzerland.
  • Le Chable village, Switzerland.
  • Verbier village, Switzerland.
  • Arolla village, Switzerland.

How technical is the Haute Route? ›

Regarding the uphill: The Haute Route is graded 'advanced level'; this means you should be familiar and efficient using touring equipment and be able to demonstrate self-sufficiency on the mountain, for example, there are several sections where moderately steep kick turns are necessary.

How long is the Haute Route cycling? ›

For some insight into these epic cycling events, triathlon coach and cycling journalist Nick Busca set out to Northern Italy to ride the Haute Route Stelvio, an epic three-day, 226km race taking in one of the most iconic and respected climbs in the sport or cycling.

How much does a Haute Route pack weigh? ›

Therefore to make this high mountain traverse both more fun and safe we must travel light. As you assemble your gear, "go light" whenever the opportunity presents itself. In the end your full pack should weigh no more than about 20 lbs.

What is the best month to hike the Haute Route? ›

Early to mid-September is an especially enjoyable time to be on the Haute Route since September typically has less rain and a more stable weather pattern than either July or August. The trails are generally quiet. In many areas you can hike all day and never seeing more than a handful of other hikers.

What time of year is best to hike Haute Route? ›

Like the HPR, the Walker's Haute Route is best done in the alpine summer walking season. That's high season in July and August, with June and September still a good possibility. Snow could remain on higher passes well into July.

How long is the Haute Route ski tour? ›

The classic Haute Route usually takes six days/five nights, roughly over the following stages shown below. We also recommend a day in Chamonix before you start for you to meet your guide, do a gear check and practice your avalanche and glacier skills before starting.

Is wild camping legal in the Alps? ›

Wild camping is permitted anywhere in France subject to the permission of the landowner or tenant of the land, and subject to some general limitations. The wild camping rules in the French Alps are different to the UK. In Scotland, because of the Land Reform Act of 2003 you are allowed to camp on most unenclosed land.

Can you get away with wild camping? ›

Wild camping offers the perfect escape. Leave the crowds and the noise behind, reconnect with nature and discover your very own private spot. The choice of view is unlimited!

How do you train for hiking in the Alps? ›

To start, do some cardio several times a week – walking, biking, running, swimming, etc. Start out gradually and increase your aerobic training to 4 to 5 times each week, 40 to 60 minutes at a time. Your heart will thank you on those uphills!

Can you cycle the Haute Route? ›

Now in its eleventh year, the Haute Route Alps has carved a name for itself as the most challenging amateur cycling race in the world. Test your endurance on the flagship Haute Route event.

How do you train for the Walkers Haute Route? ›

Try to go for shorter hikes and runs a few times a week, with rest days interspersed between training days. On weekends, go for longer hikes. Again, challenge yourself but don't wear yourself out. Over time, increase the length, difficulty, and frequency of your hikes and runs.

How hard is the Wind River High route? ›

Experience this 103.8-mile point-to-point trail near Dubois, Wyoming. Generally considered a challenging route. This trail is great for backpacking, camping, and hiking, and it's unlikely you'll encounter many other people while exploring.

How long is lowest to highest route? ›

The Lowest To Highest Route is a 132 mi trail that starts in Inyo County, California and ends in Tulare County, California. The trail is considered to be difficult to hike and has a total elevation gain of 36564 ft. Normally the trail takes 1 day to complete but can be finished in less than a day.

Is the Matterhorn the same as the Mont Blanc? ›

If Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps, the Matterhorn is the most recognizable and dramatic. To climb these beautiful mountains is truly a memorable experience. The magnificent scenery and final, exposed summit ridge for Mont Blanc makes it perhaps the finest snow route in the Alps.

Where is the coldest place in Indiana? ›

Angola is the coldest place in Indiana. Ranked by the lowest annual average temperature, Angola is the coldest place in Indiana. Angola has a low annual average of just 48 degrees Fahrenheit (F), making it, on average, the coldest place in the state.

What is the hottest place in the United States? ›

Death Valley is famous as the hottest place on earth and driest place in North America. The world record highest air temperature of 134°F (57°C) was recorded at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913.

What is the hottest place in Indiana? ›

Maximum temperature ever recorded: 116F at Collegeville in 1936. Most days ever recorded when temperature was over 90F: 105 times in 1953 at Evansville.

How do you pronounce Haute Route? ›

2. In English, Haute Route translates to High Road, which makes sense considering the trail's structure. You pronounce it like “Oat Root.”

What is Haute Route in English? ›

The term “Haute Route” is French in origin and translates to 'High Road' in English, however, the labelling of this journey actually came from a group of British Alpine Club mountaineer's, who named it the 'High Level Route' after forging a mountaineering route between Chamonix and Zermatt in the 19th century.

What is the history of the Haute Route? ›

The Route was first completed in the mid-19th century as a summer mountaineering route by the English Alpine club. It began as the “High Level Route” in English, but was translated into French when it was first completed on skis in 1911. Since then, the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route has stuck as the original name.

How hard is the Tour du Mont Blanc hike? ›

The trail, for the most part, is not technically difficult. There's a great variety, too. You can expect everything from forests, barren rocky terrain and vast green valleys on the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking route.

What difficulty level is Tour du Mont Blanc? ›

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a grade 3 trek. Described as difficult, the TMB is hard and physically demanding. You will be travelling over rugged and mountainous terrain with a sustained amount of ascent and descent on a daily basis.

What is the hardest bike race in the world? ›

Tour de France is considered to be the world's “most prestigious and most difficult” bicycle race. It is an annual men's event, which is primarily held in France. The race also occasionally passes through neighbouring countries.

What is the toughest cycling race in the world? ›

The Tour de France

Riders must maintain an average daily speed of 25 miles/hour if they are to simply complete the race, let alone compete. That speed has to be maintained every day for 21 days and more than 2,100 miles. The intensity is grueling and puts the body on the edge of the lactate threshold.

How far do pro cyclists ride a week? ›

That's roughly 580 km and 18 hours a week.

How much should a 4 day backpacking trip weigh? ›

Pack Weight for Backpacking and Hiking

A loaded backpacking pack should not weigh more than about 20 percent of your body weight. (If you weigh 150 pounds, your pack should not exceed 30 pounds for backpacking.) A loaded day hiking pack should not weigh more than about 10 percent of your body weight.

How much weight can a person carry in a backpack? ›

Doctors recommend that backpack weight should be between 10-15 percent of a person's total body weight. If a 90-pound sixth grader carried 15 percent of their weight, the backpack should be no more than 13 pounds. An average for a 135-pound adult would be about 20 pounds.

How heavy is a mountaineers pack? ›

With a fully integrated system like Seth's and where redundancy is only present in the anchors that you build, your final pack weight for six days of alpine climbing should be under 45 pounds (not counting your rope and hardware).

How tough is the West Highland Way? ›

We recommend all groups on the Way take good maps and know how to navigate with a compass. For guaging distances walked and still to be walked, the maps really come into their own. The West Highland Way is not technically difficult and is designed as a long distance path open to all normally fit walkers.

What is the hardest day hike in the world? ›

HuaShan, China: This epic trail to the South Peak of HuaShan is often billed as the most dangerous hike in the world. To reach the summit, hikers need to scale uneven steps and a series of ladders before hooking themselves onto a chain to traverse its renowned "plank walk."

Are there toilets along the West Highland Way? ›

Also there are public toilets or toilets in pubs (always buy a snack or drink if using a pub toilet, many sell chocolate bars or canned drinks you can have later on) all along the route.

What is the toughest part of the West Highland Way? ›

Rowardennan to Inverarnan. Very rough and rocky, with undulating trails covered in tree roots. This is a challenging stage, said to be one of the toughest of the whole West Highland Way.

Which is the longest mountain route in the world? ›

The mid-ocean ridge is the longest mountain range on Earth.

The longest mountain range on Earth is called the mid-ocean ridge. Spanning 40,389 miles around the globe, it's truly a global landmark.

Can you see Mount Whitney from Death Valley? ›

To the West, across Badwater Basin, the Panamint Range rises dramatically to Telescope Peak. To the east is found the Greenwater Range. On very clear days, the highest and lowest points in the contiguous 48 states of the United States: Mount Whitney 4,421 m (14,505 ft) high and Badwater −86 m (−282 ft) can be seen.

What is the lowest to highest Death Valley? ›

The Lowest to Highest Route is a 135 mi / 217 km hike beginning at Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley National Park and ending at the summit of Mount Whitney – the highest point in the Continental United States (but technically you'll end back down at the trailhead since you'll need to get back out of the ...


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