We recently reported that access restrictions were to be put in place on Mont Blanc until 1st August in an attempt to resolve overcrowding both at the Goûter refuge and on the mountain; reducing tensions between hut managers and climbers and minimising the risk of accidents en route. We sent some questions to Jean-Marc Peillex, mayor of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains - the administrating commune in which Mont Blanc is largely situated, shared with Courmayeur - to find out more about the state of affairs on Western Europe's highest - and highly popular - mountain.
Interview translated from French.
Mr. Peillex, please explain the events that led to this recent regulated access on Mont Blanc.
As in every year, Mont Blanc is stormed up by many climbers but also by pseudo-mountaineers whose attitude and practices are disrespectful of the natural environment, basic rules of safety and also of laws and regulations enforced by the State.
These climbers do not respect the requirement imposed by the State of having a reservation at the shelter - an obligation introduced at the time to combat overcrowding, and consequently the quota of persons authorised to stay in the shelter is often exceeded (120 people - in law the refuge is considered as an 'ERP' (Établissements Recevant du Public), an institution receiving the public with maximum occupancy such as a theatre, a school etc.).
Access is not generally regulated because today the State refrains from controlling or penalising offenders on the grounds that "the mountain is a place of freedom!"
You threatened to close the Goûter refuge definitively - how did you come to this conclusion?
It is the only weapon I have since I am the only person responsible for safety in the commune and in the ERP. The state asked me to enforce this in recent years when there were episodes of significant rockfall in the Goûter couloir! So I didn't invent this as such, but I use this same weapon as a threat.
Do you think that the renovation of the old Goûter refuge (by the guides of Saint-Gervais) will decrease or increase the burden on the shelter / the Goûter route itself?
The problem is nothing to do with numbers. At the beginning of the construction of the new Goûter refuge, the préfet (State representative in a French Department) of the time, Jean-François Carenco and I set the maximum capacity of the new shelter at 140 (to fight against overcrowding). For financial reasons, the FFCAM (Fédération française des clubs alpins et de montagne), who built this new shelter on the commune's land as part of an administrative lease, has decided to reduce the number to 120. We are therefore operating below what was initially planned. The renovation of the oldest part of the old shelter will not increase the phenomenon of overcrowding, but will simply welcome mountaineers to a hut that will be in better condition.
There are climbers who will ascend by the Tête Rousse route who do not need the refuge / who will ascend in a day. Is there room for nuance in the decisions of the gendarmes?
Of course, the requirement of a reservation at the Goûter refuge concerns only those mountaineers who climb with a stop at the Goûter hut. Those who leave early to climb Mont Blanc in a day are not concerned in these restrictions.
Mont Blanc seems to be both a blessing and a curse for Saint-Gervais. The mountain aids tourism but the pollution problems in the valley and the deaths on Mont Blanc taint its reputation a little. How can we find a balance between a sensible level of tourism and a healthy environment and - as much as possible - a safe one?
Mont-Blanc is a boon for our commune because it is the image of purity, effort, reward - it's a life experience. Today the way it is used reflects an entirely different image! Unfortunately Saint-Gervais does not have control of activity on Mont-Blanc, which is mostly managed in the Chamonix valley or through travel agencies. Saint-Gervais only suffers and sees cohorts of mountaineers coming from the Chamonix valley pass through via the Les Houches cable car (75% of mountaineers use the "Voie Royale/Normal Route" of Saint-Gervais, of these 75% come from the Chamonix valley). Saint-Gervais prefers holiday tourism to this kind of tourism at any price - including the price of pollution (the Chamonix valley accomodates 100,000 visitors / day in peak periods). Access today is not regulated because the State and some "politicians" want to believe in the idea of an area of freedom in order to protect a very lucrative business for the few (travel agencies...)
Do you think a permit system for climbing Mont Blanc would work (and if so, do you think it goes against the ethics of European mountaineering)?
In all the important sites of the world there are systems of quotas and controls (North American national parks, Nepal, Kilimanjaro, Everest ... gorges of the Ardèche, creeks of Cassis). There are also planes, museums...why should an overcrowded route escape this, and who is having trouble controlling it?
Last year a minimum equipment list was imposed. Has this solution been successful? It seems to be quite difficult to enforce. Are there long-term solutions to improve the dangerous crossing of the Grand Corridor? (a tunnel and a Via Ferrata have been mentioned in the past?)
Obviously without the will of the state and the order given to the gendarmes to undertake this control, it cannot work - but at least it was a reminder that you do not climb Mont Blanc in shorts and trainers. Last year the two trail runners who killed themselves were seen by many; nobody, the gendarmes included, prevented them...and they killed themselves! It is shameful. They are dead, but they are not the only ones to practise in this way.
'How can we be nicknamed the Valley of Death and be classified in UNESCO?' You have been critical of the proposal for the Mont Blanc Massif to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. What are your reasons? Have you changed your mind?
This is an excellent question that you need to ask those who aren't short of contradictions! Do I still have the same outlook? Yes, an award is a good thing, but only when you deserve it. Today, if we do not put limits on the use of our sites in the first place, if we do not address the reasons for the pollution, we do not deserve to be recognised and rewarded. Worse still, it would be another 'star' that would bring even more people; crazy, disrespectful people..but perhaps this is what those who really live for the business of Mont Blanc want.
In the past there were tensions between the authorities of Chamonix and Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc. Are you working together to solve these problems that affect both communities?
You will understand that the values we defend are not the same, unfortunately. The fundamental problem is this: what are we going to leave behind for future generations?
Is there cross-border cooperation between the three countries concerned by the Massif?
There is a pseudo-cooperation where the rare meetings are useless. A caricature of what we call in France the langue de bois (stonewalling, doublespeak).
About Mr Peillex
From the Département Haute Savoie website.
Elected to the County Council since 2004.
8th Deputy Vice President delegate of Tourism and the Mountains.
Member of the Permanent Commission.
Member of the 6th Tourism, Lakes and Mountain Commission.
Member of the 7th Committee on Territorial Planning, Housing Policy, Sustainable Development, Environment, Agriculture, Forestry, European and Transboundary Co-operation.
Mayor of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.
Profession: CEO of a real estate agency.