The bystander effect

The story takes place at 8700 meters, and it’s shocking. On May 21, a huge crowd worthy of a rush-hour subway crowds onto Everest’s summit ridge, below the Hillary Step, a narrow but horizontal section. They are huddled together, waiting for the previous climber to snap a carabiner or put his jumar on the fixed rope, and visibly trying to pass each other. The majority descend. A large section of ledge gives way under the feet of a few of them, precipitating them into the void on the Tibetan side.

A video shows one of them struggling up the rope, under the impassive gaze of more than thirty other people. Not one of them moves, not one of them reaches out or throws a rope (although you’d have to have one to do that) to help the unlucky ones. Everyone seems anaesthetized, apart from a single sherpa (?) who appears to be kneeling, crouching near the mooring. Two people have disappeared, and will not be found.

Busy hour at Everest, in the center the part of the cornice that will collapse a few moments later.

The avalanche that hit the ascent route to Mont Blanc du Tacul.

The story takes place at 4,000 meters, and it’s shocking. On Saturday May 25, a crowd of ski-mountaineers is climbing the slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The trail zigzags upwards, with people lining up in single file. Two skiers descend (too) close to the trail, triggering an avalanche that covers it. A man is dragged for “300 meters”, and only his “right hand” remains on the surface, which he uses to remove snow from his mouth to breathe. Ten to fifteen long minutes later, a mountain guide located him, “dug him out” and called the rescuers.

From the hospital in Sallanches, he recounts. “The guy who cut the slope came down looking for his lost ski. When he saw me, he just said ‘I’m really sorry’. And he went on looking for his ski. Having found it, without saying a word, without offering any help, he and his friend went down.” A former mountain rescue worker, doctor Jean Blanchard watched the avalanche from the Cosmiques and then the helicopter ballet: “It’s a miracle that, with so many climbers and skiers, there was only one person down.” And at least one or two charitable souls, if not the ones responsible.

At Tacul, it’s a miracle there was only one casualty

The bystander effect, as sociologists call it, is at work here. Namely, the probability of being rescued is inversely proportional to the number of witnesses, whose reaction is inhibited by the presence of others at the scene. Basically, the more witnesses there are, the less anyone feels concerned. On Everest, of course, the bystander effect is reinforced by an “extreme” situation, oxygen mask, lack of communication, fatigue. At Tacul, beyond the initial carelessness, it’s a case of not helping a person in danger.

Faced with such crowds, it’s tempting to stay on the sofa. Solution? Avoid Everest’s summit ledge at peak times, and Everest in general. That’s easy. Avoid the Mont Blanc du Tacul at weekends, like most of Chamonix playground these days. Harder already, I know.

Avoid the Cosmiques ridge and the Aiguilles d’Entrèves traverse, except when the weather is bad, but not too bad. Otherwise, well, be patient, and take your neighbor for what he is: someone who had the same idea as you.