The Most Dangerous ‘Death Ridges’ of the Alps

There’s an insidious side to the magnificence of the Alps. Although many routes are safe and easy to navigate, the unpredictability and remoteness of the ranges means you’re often tiptoeing on scree slopes, along tenuous trails posing as paths, devoid of cables or ropes to aid you in the extreme exposure (a hiking/climbing term used when there is high risk due to the steepness of the terrain).

Hiking isn’t typically regarded as a hobby fraught with danger — but when you take on Alpine terrain, there can definitely be a fatal factor involved. Here are the Alps trails known to have dangerous death ridges, best left to hardened hikers (or mountain goats).

Crna Prst Hut to Dom Na Komni Hut, Julian Alps, Slovenia

Trying not to take a tumble on this precarious path. Photo: Clementine Gray

Be forewarned: This trail is only for those with an excellent head for heights, as the sheer exposure — and lack of a path — can leave one shuddering with vertigo. Expect to cling to glaucous rocks to hold you on the ridge as you shuffle along, and try not to look down the 70-degree slopes, where tiny villages cluster far beneath.

If you can focus on your trail buddy’s two legs scissoring along the slope, and don’t peer aimlessly around, you should make it safely across in one piece without taking a tumble. In poor weather conditions, this section can prove lethal and should not be attempted.

Carnic High Elevation Trail, Austria/Italy

A slippery skid on scree could prove fatal. Photo: Clementine Gray

This section between Hochweißsteinhaus and Neue Porze Hütte on the Carnic High Elevation Trail requires an early start, plenty of supplies and excellent weather. There is no place to shelter or restock supplies (so ration carefully) until you reach Porze Hütte after around nine hours of hiking along a route dotted with WWI shelters and sheer slopes.

As you commence this hike at high altitude (2,200m), memorials mark the spots where those have fatally fallen on the trail. And to test your nerves at the final stage of the hike, you’ll have to trot across a rusting ladder balanced precariously over a deep gully. Fog can pour in at a moment’s notice, and distant thunderclouds bloat the skies to a field of smelted lead.

For all this gnarly exposure, you’ll be treated to exceptional views, as you walk the border between Italy and Austria. Just watch out for the cows in the lower ground. If you didn’t think hiking was bad enough, a hiker was gored to death last June in the Austrian Alps.

Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France

Trekking to the top of Mont Blanc. Photo: Chris Weisler

The hike up the Mont Blanc sounds pretty cruisy. After all, you can take the Aiguille du Midi cable car up the first 9,000 feet, and it’s often described as a “long walk.” Yet, estimates calculate that around 100 hikers a year die in the region.

As a result of the apparent accessibility of the mountain, the route is often crowded and mountain huts are overbooked, which increases the pressure to get up to the summit, rather than wait for a clear-weather day.

Plus, there can be an over-reliance on guides, paid to herd masses to the top. The easy access can beguile hikers into complacency. But one must not forget the unpredictable climate with rock slides, avalanches and fast-forming storms. In July 2007, 30 perished on the mountain in a single month.

Stubai High Route, Austria

Tiptoe carefully on this trail. Photo: Clementine Gray

This route is best for hardy hikers as this perilous path is rife with exposed passes and small spurs to navigate across. The high-Alpine terrain reaches up to 9,800 feet, and although fixed wires are apparent in some sections, there are often moments of excruciating exposure.

Added to this, there’s treacherously loose rocks and you’ll nudge your way briefly across a glacier. Careful of rubble rockfall and unseasonal ice. Sadly, as recently as August 2017, a hiker tumbled to her death along this ridgeline.

Marmolada Massif Dolomites, Italy

The mighty Marmolada. Photo: Massimiliano Fulgosi

A hybrid between a hike and a climb, the Via Ferrata (“Iron Way”) is the non-climber’s way of experiencing the mountains. First used during WWI to allow speedy passage for troops, the Via Ferratas routes are now dotted around the Alps and used for recreational purposes. Most routes are particularly hairy, and require a head for heights.

Sometimes referred to as “climbing for cheats,” it’s certainly dangerous, and a casual attitude is not to be adopted. The Via Ferrata of the Marmolada massif was first established in 1903, and sees you scrambling up the west ridge to more than 10,000 feet, to stand atop the highest peak in the Dolomites. To reach the top, you’ll clamber up a steep glacier, clipped to a piece of iron (a handy lightning conductor if a storm were to hit) in wild, rugged mountain terrain.

Plus, the mountain has a maleficent past. A dire death toll was calculated after the “White Friday” avalanches in 1916 struck the Austrian barracks on Mount Marmolada. An estimated 200,000 tons of ice and rock fell, killing 270 soldiers. Recently, another hiker was fatally struck by lightning on the massif in August 2017.

All of that said, it’s not just doom and gloom. There is good reason why hikers relentlessly flock back to these pastures as most Alpine hikes are perfectly safe and accessible. These ridges are easily avoided and if you do fancy the challenge, you can venture across them providing you have the proper experience and mountain knowledge.

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