Climbing and conservation: Mont Blanc and a mountain of rubbish

A French mayor has called for climbers to be charged a fee in order to combat growing pollution on the 'white mountain'. But his plan has provoked a storm of protest from those who see mountaineering as one of the last frontiers of freedom and adventure. John Lichfield reports
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Mont Blanc, "the white mountain", sprawls magnificently astride the French-Italian border, rising ridge upon ridge to reach the highest point in western Europe. The mountain's permanent snows and glaciers have made it a symbol of wild beauty and 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 many 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 4,808-metre (15,780ft) peak, 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 licences to anyone who wishes to climb on Mont Blanc.

His proposal has provoked a storm of protest from guides and climbers, for whom mountaineering is one of the last frontiers of adventure and 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. Paid-for licences and even "reserved climbing slots" would be an unwelcome intrusion by officialdom into the pure air of the high mountains.

"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 M. Peillex, who is 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? Fifty thousand 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 some local people and visitors alike. Villages on the Italian side of the mountain, a much less popular approach route to the peak, are horrified by suggestions that they already have too many visitors. Their income from tourism has been falling, they say.

Other local observers agree with M. Peillex that something must be done. Olivier Curral is the caretaker of the mountain refuge at Goûter, at 3,817 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 - the €25 (£17) a night to stay in the refuge. "They camp sometimes for several days waiting for a break in the weather. Some of them respect the mountain and bring their rubbish back with them and use our toilets," he says. "Others just leave their refuse beside their camp sites. As you climb that way, you see patches of urine and excrement everywhere in the snow. And this is supposed to be a protected mountain, a place of purity." M. Peillex says that in the hot summer of 2003, the snow and ice melted above the Goûter 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.

The mayor 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 to the summit without having reserved a place and being accompanied by a professional who would guarantee the preservation of the mountain environment."

The issue may become a cause célèbre for the unending - and perhaps insoluble - problem caused by all forms of mass tourism. Tourists, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, tend to "destroy the thing they love". Rising prosperity, cheap air fares and the taste for adventure sports and holidays have extended the problem beyond central Paris or Venice into some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the planet.

There is even a serious problem in the Himalayas. Apart from its climbing licence, the Nepalese government now demands cash "deposits" from expeditions. If the climbers fail to prove that they have brought their rubbish back with them, they forfeit the money. Reinhold Messner, who was the first man to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen and the first to conquer all 14 of the world's peaks over 8,000 metres, has devoted a wing of his mountain "museum" to rubbish collected on the slopes of Everest in his home in South Tyrol.

"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."

Sir Chris Bonington, who led the first ascent of Everest's south-west face in 1975, calls Everest the "world's highest rubbish dump". "We must deal with this situation. The area is one of stunning natural beauty, which is in danger of being ruined by litter," he said.

M. Peillex has called a public meeting in Saint-Gervais, on the lower slopes of Mont Blanc, on Saturday week. He has invited mountain guides, tour organisers and representatives of climbing organisations to discuss his ideas. As mayor of a French commune, M. Peillex has substantial independent powers. They do not extend to issuing licences to people to use public footpaths. The so-called "Royal Route" - the most popular trail to the top of Mont Blanc - passes through his commune but he has no powers to impede access.

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.

The mayor denies that he plans some kind of unilateral action. He says that he hopes to gather enough local support to persuade the regional or national authorities to adopt his plan.

Perhaps surprisingly, his idea has been strongly opposed by the powerful local associations of mountain guides. They even reject the idea that one of their members should accompany each expedition.

Olivier Dufour, president of the Saint-Gervais guides' association, said: "These ideas are contrary to the values that we cherish - the liberty of access for everyone to the summit of the mountain, encouraging independence and a sense of responsibility to all who want to climb." Xavier Chappaz, president of the Chamonix guides in the valley beside Mont Blanc, said: "Even the Soviets had to abandon the idea of permits for mountain climbing. 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 kind of rule had existed."

Bernard Mudry, president of the Club Alpin Français (representing climbers), said: "You are not going to solve this problem with permits and rules. You have to teach people to be responsible. A village mayor cannot act as if he is the proprietor of a piece of our natural heritage which belongs to the whole of humanity."

French climbers' websites have been buzzing with arguments for and against the mayor's plan. "Scandalous and unconstitutional. Why not make tourists pay to enter Paris?" said one climber from Grenoble.

"The problem is not new. I stopped climbing 20 years ago because the mountains had been invaded by Sunday climbers who turned the place into a pig-sty," said Jack, from Annecy.

Some internet users were convinced that the idea would be shot down by the powerful commercial lobby in the Chamonix valley, which would oppose any restrictions on tourism. According to Alain, a climber: "At Saint-Gervais, they are all heart. At Chamonix, they care only for cash."

In the face of this blizzard of reactions, for and against, M. Peillex has already retreated a little. He has dropped the idea that climbers must be accompanied by a guide - accepting the argument that it would be unfair to turn the mountains into a playground for the idle - or energetic - rich.

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