War of words over free access to Mont Blanc summit

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The Independent Online

An angry war of words has broken out over free access to the summit of Mont Blanc after the death of eight climbers in an ice and rock avalanche on the Franco-Italian mountain.

Jean-Mark Pelleix, the mayor of Saint-Gervais, a small town on the French slopes of Mont Blanc, has renewed calls for a licensing system to reduce the number of climbers tackling western Europe’s highest peak. His comments have generated a furious reaction in the busy town of Chamonix, at the foot of the mountain, which has been accused by M. Pelleix of turning Mont Blanc into a “new Disneyland”.

The mayor of Saint Gervais already caused worldwide controversy three years ago when he alleged that parts of Mont Blanc – or the “White Mountain” – had been turned into a “yellow mountain” by the indiscriminate urination of crowds of climbers and walkers. Since then steps have been taken to provide high altitude toilets and systematic collections of litter.

The calamity last month, in which eight climbers were killed and another eight injured by an ice and rock fall, has persuaded M. Pelleix to revive his calls for a licensing system to restrict access to the mountain.

“If one person runs across a motorway, they might get away with it,” M. Pelleix said. “If 50 try the same thing, people will be killed. It is the same here… We have to be reasonable, even if big money is at stake.”

It is estimated that 100 climbers and walkers have been killed on the Mont Blanc massif this summer – including 30 on the French side of the mountain. Although most attempts on the summit itself are accompanied by official guides, there has been a surge of ill-equipped walkers and climbers on the lower slopes in recent years.

M. Pelleix has, for several years, accused the larger town of Chamonix of blocking attempts to regulate the crowds of climbers attempting the summit of Mont Blanc - an estimated 200 a day in the summer months. Chamonix (pop 10,000 out of season, 100,000 in the summer) has “sacrificed Mont Blanc on the altar of money and turned it into a new Disneyland.” he said.

Elected officials in Chamonix responded furiously, accusing M. Pelleix of being a publicity-seeker who knew nothing about mountaineering. One Chamonix councillor said, off the record, that he would like to “punch him in the face”.

“Peillex knows nothing about the high mountains. He only goes there in a helicopter,” said Jean-Louis Verdier, assistant mayor of Chamonix and a professional mountain guide. “It is indecent that he is using this calamity to revive his old idea of licences.”

M. Verdier and other Chamonix officials insist that a licensing system would be impossible to police and would destroy the image of freedom and wilderness which attracts tourists to the high Alps in summer.

“In Chamonix, we prefer to educate people, to warn them and to train them,” M. Verdier said. “We have created a high mountain office which helps between 800 and 1,200m people a day.”

Chamonix also points out that access to the mountain’s summit is already regulated, de facto, by the number of places in the alpine shelters. Licensing summiteers would not, in any case, solve the problem of inexperienced climbers invading the lower slopes.

Mayor Peillex is unabashed. “The idea that there should be a complete freedom for anyone to go into the mountains is just as much a myth as Heidi’s cabin,” he said.

Licensing of summit attempts already exists for some mountains in the Himalayas, but not in the Alps. Denis MacShane, the Labour MP and former Europe minister, who was climbing in the Mont Blanc massif this summer, said yesterday that he believed that the mayor of Saint-Gervais had a point. “My guide refused to take me to the Tacul face of the mountain (where last month’s murderous avalanche happened) because he said that were just too many people there,” Mr MacShane said. “The passage of hundreds of people on mountain paths loosens stones and can help to cause avalanches. Some kind of licensing system for Mont Blanc alone is justified.”