SITTING in the departures lounge at Geneva International Airport I had little sense of feeling lucky.
I felt sore. My toe was busted up and my legs ached.
I was happy though. It was Sunday, August 24, 2008 and I had summitted Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, 48 hours earlier.
Then I got the message.
“Are you ok? Eight missing on Mont Blanc after avalanche yest.”
The text came from a work colleague back in Dublin, himself a climber, who knew I was pushing for the summit that weekend (just not exactly when).
More messages followed in the coming hours as the full scale of one of the worst accidents in the French Alps in decades began to emerge.
The climbers, five Austrian and three Swiss, were swept to their deaths when a huge ice serac broke off, avalanching down the mountain and burying them underneath. Seven other were injured.
Eyewitnesses told of a huge tract of ice, 200m long and 50 wide, sweeping silently and rapidly down the mountain face at 3,600m, and climbers’ desperate attempts to get out of its path in time.
The recovery mission was later suspended; the local mountain rescue chief said there was little chance of recovering the bodies.
The French interior minister described the serac fall as “monumental” and “inescapable”.
All this unfolded on the same peak where I stood a little over a day earlier.
Reading the reports over coffee in a sunny airport cafe I had a sense of ‘there but for fortune’.
But I was aware, as most who undertake any Alpine climb are, that accidents happen on Mont Blanc like they do anywhere else.
It’s just that when they happen on Mont Blanc they tend to be far deadlier.
Despite the thousands who attempt it each year ascending the peak is not safe. There are areas of the mountain, such as the notorious rockfall run of the Grand Couloir, that remain very dangerous – despite every precaution.
The mountain – and the risks borne in climbing on it – was back in the headlines this week.
An accident on the Dent du Geant, a sub-peak on the Mont Blanc massif, claimed the lives of two Irish climbers last Sunday.
The two were experienced climbers and, by all accounts, were operating well within their comfort zone.
Nonetheless a single event – which appears to have been a rope breaking loose from the face – caused the pair to fall 200m to their deaths.
Many people are troubled by the apparent meaningless of such a tragedy. Every such catastrophe leads to loss of life and devastation for families left behind. People ask ‘for what’?
Nothing tangible, it would appear. No great advance, no ground-breaking progression. The significance rarely stretches beyond whoever’s on your rope.
The Irish climbers surely knew this, as do the hundreds of others on Mont Blanc today.
That’s because at its core, and despite the necessity of teamwork, mountaineering is a solipsistic pursuit. The camaraderie is enjoyable but for many a successful ascent is, firstly, a personal achievement.
That achievement comes at the cost of personal risk and most who climb seriously, on Mont Blanc or anywhere else, will accept this.
The gains – chief among them watching the dawn break from the highest point on the continent – completely outweigh the risks. The danger is traded for the feeling and the memory – a bargain forgotten once you step off the mountain.
But all that didn’t stop me sensing an echo of that Geneva Airport feeling as news of this week’s tragedy broke.
There but for fortune.