Tourist stream turns Mont Blanc slopes yellow

By John Lichfield

FRANCE - Mont Blanc, the "white mountain", sprawls magnificently astride the French-Italian border, the highest point in western Europe.

The mountain's permanent snows and glaciers have made it a symbol of shining purity since Roman times.

No more.

So popular has it become with climbers - virtually a climbing package tour destination - that the "white mountain" could be renamed the "grey and yellow" mountain, according to one enraged local politician.

Glaciers have been so polluted with urine that they have turned yellow. Rubbish and excrement is strewn the length of the most popular climbing routes. Even a washing-machine was recently found on the hallowed slopes.

Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of the French commune of Saint-Gervais, which includes the 4808 metre (15,780 feet) peak of the mountain, believes that it is time to save the highest point in the Alps from becoming a mountain of rubbish. He has called a meeting next week to discuss the possibility of issuing paid-for climbing licences.

His proposal has provoked a storm of protest from guides and climbers, for whom mountaineering is one of the last frontiers of freedom. The idea of licensed mountain-climbing - although already imposed by the Nepalese authorities on Everest and other Himalayan peaks - is a nonsense, they say.

Licences and even "reserved climbing slots" would be an unwelcome intrusion by officialdom.

"They want to put the police on our backs even on the summits of the Alps. It's an outrage," said Eric, a mountaineer from Paris. "It's completely against the spirit of the mountains, which must remain a place of natural beauty, accessible to everyone."

But this, says Mayor Peillex, a famously outspoken man, is bunk. Natural beauty and freedom are not compatible with "traffic jams" of climbers and heaps of refuse.

"The legendary climb to the peak of Mont Blanc is becoming a piece of cut-price, consumer goods," he says. "In the four months from June to September, nearly 30,000 people try to reach the roof of western Europe."

"Mont Blanc climbs are already being sold at knock-down prices in former Communist bloc countries in eastern Europe. How many people can we expect when the tourist market opens up to the vast populations of India or Asia as a whole? 50,000 a year, 100,000? I don't want to see the day when 200,000 Chinese are climbing Mont Blanc."

The mayor's idea - and the faint scent of xenophobia in his words - has annoyed local people and visitors. Villages on the Italian side of the mountain, a much less popular approach route, say their income from tourism has been falling.

Other observers agree with Mayor Peillex that something must be done.

Olivier Curral is the caretaker of the mountain refuge at Gouter, at 3817 metres, the last official resting place before the assault on the summit of Mont Blanc. The problems are caused, he says, by young, foreign climbers who cannot afford - or refuse to pay to stay in the refuge.

Mayor Peillex says that in the hot summer of 2003, the snow and ice melted above the Gouter refuge, exposing years of accumulated human excrement. "It was more like an open-air toilet than a glacier." The mayor said that a recent helicopter visit to another part of the mountain revealed a glacier which has been tinged yellow by urine.

Mayor Peillex has already won a national environmental award for a local information campaign to clean up Mont Blanc, which started two years ago. He now wants to go further.

"Why not issue permits to climbers as they already do in Nepal? Why not force them to be accompanied by a guide? Nobody should be allowed to go the summit without having reserved a place and being accompanied by a professional who would guarantee the preservation of the environment." Apart from its climbing licence, the Nepalese Government now demands cash "deposits" from Himalayan expeditions.

If the climbers fail to prove that they have brought their rubbish back, they forfeit the money.

Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen and the first to conquer all 14 of the world's peaks over 8000 metres, has devoted a wing of his "mountain museum" in South Tyrol to rubbish collected on Everest.

"Human beings are destroying the [Himalayan] mountains," he says. "They don't know what they are doing up there. Ninety-nine per cent of them could not even climb the Matterhorn. They are not mountaineers, they are tourists. And tourism ends where mountaineering begins."

Mayor Peillex has invited mountain guides, tour organisers and representatives of climbing organisations to discuss his ideas.

National Government officials have already warned that they would challenge the mayor in court if he issued a decree restricting the number of climbers who take this route.

Perhaps surprisingly, his idea has been strongly opposed by the powerful local associations of mountain guides.

Xavier Chappaz, president of the Chamonix guides in the valley beside Mont Blanc, said: "The mountains must remain a place of liberty. We even oppose the idea that a guide must always be used. There should not be a financial barrier to reaching the summit. Many of the people who are now guides would never have started out if that rule had existed."

"I stopped climbing 20 years ago because the mountains had been invaded by Sunday climbers who turned the place into a pigsty," said Jack, from Annecy.

Mayor Peillex insists, however, that he will pursue his plan for a climbing licence. "It is the only way to save Mont Blanc," he said.

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