Responsible tourism in Mont Blanc

It is hard to believe that Mont Blanc is not actually a highly protected landscape. It doesn’t have national park status, for example. In France, it was designated a ‘site classé’ in 1951, which prevents development, camping and supervises amenities, but it does not have a conservation strategy that is co-managed by the three countries, something that would exist with a higher form of protected landscape designation. What it does have, however, is a strong group of mountaineering, environmental and conservation experts from three countries, who came together in 1991 to form Espace Mont Blanc. Two of its priorities of late are to seek international protective status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to perfect a management plan for the massif which will be controlled by European judicial statute. Indeed the former won’t be achieved until the latter is put into practice. Until then, we all have a responsibility to protect and respect Mont Blanc and below are some of the most important issues to take into account while doing so.

Wildlife and environment

It is not just the slopes, forests and precious alpine tundra that needs protecting around Mont Blanc, it is also the air. And the ambience. Mountain Wilderness, a mountain conservation organisation created in Biella, Italy, in 1987, leads important campaigns to protect wild mountain places. They define these as “any untouched mountain environment where anyone who so wishes may come into direct contact with the wide-open spaces, experience solitude, silence, rhythms, natural dimensions, laws and dangers.”

The most recent campaign is ‘Silence’, launched in October 2014, whereby climbers ascended to a height of 3,400m at the Col du Geant, and created an installation using plastic bags laid out in giant letters which read ‘Silence!’ This is aimed at the growing number of privately chartered tourists planes and helicopters which are currently destroying this rare natural gift of silence on Europe’s highest mountain. Many of these flights are offered as ‘prizes’ to skiers by ski resorts, as incentives to book with them for the season. There is now rarely a moment of total silence, without hearing tourist propellers, echoes and engines overhead.

At present, the conglomerate Espace Mont Blanc is working on the (somewhat surprisingly) first ever ‘Strategy for the Future’ management plan for this multinational mountain, and this campaign seeks to ensure that an air space without aviation is prioritised by this organisation as it looks forward to a cleaner future. To date, these flights are not limited unlike, for example, the silent paragliders, which are not allowed over the Mont Blanc range in July and August. It is also thought that the increasing number of ‘flyovers’ is becoming a safety risk. In French national parks flights for leisure purposes are only allowed 1,000m above the ground, but there are no such restrictions over Mont Blanc, as it does not have protected status. Watch the video below which captures the heart of this campaign, as well as the hearts of the campaigners, which beat strongly to protect this unique mountain territory.

Frédi Meignan, President Mountain Wilderness France:

“Silence has become such a rare commodity, because wherever we live today there is always noise. And here we are in one of the few territories where there is no noise at all. Not one noise. It is so quiet you can even here the silence. I believe that such a rare and beautiful territory deserves a minimum of respect, and respecting Mont Blanc is respecting its silence“

Silence - Respectons le massif du Mont-Blanc from Mountain Wilderness on Vimeo.

What you can do
Don’t take a tourist flight over Mont Blanc by plane or helicopter, even if it is spectacular. And support the invaluable work of Mountain Wilderness by following their projects on social media/blogs and so on. However, as they work internationally on important mountain campaigns, their Mont Blanc work can be seen more clearly (by those that speak French) on the website, Pro Mont Blanc, of which they are a member, as this is an umbrella organisation of various charities and conservationists working to protect Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland and Italy. French speakers might also like to seek out Pro Mont Blanc’s book, published in 2002, Le versant noir du Mont Blanc (The black hillside of Mont Blanc), which highlights many of its conservation issues.

People & culture

Mountain safety is like a religion for people who live in and love the mountains. Especially on Mont Blanc which has seen tragedies and fatalities. Tourists can be guilty of turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of walking and climbing on the Mont Blanc massif. Because it is so accessible, by cable car or train, and it is packed with pretty ski villages and state of the art mountain refuges, it somehow seems ‘safer’. But the experts know the reality of unpredictability of mountain landscapes.

If possible, always go trekking with an International Mountain Leader or IML. These are highly qualified people, who know exactly how and when to tackle different aspects of Mont Blanc, depending on weather, the time of year, avalanche risks and so on. They are also fully trained in emergency procedures and will warn the walking group about dangers and how to prevent accidents. You might fall into the trap of thinking that you do not need a guide or leader in summer but this is not true. Conditions can still be extreme in summer, so don’t take any risks. Or, in early summer, the temperatures might soar early morning, causing ice melt and avalanche at higher levels.

Although there are many walks to be had around the Tour du Mont Blanc that don’t require alpine skills as such, being aware of mountain safety at all times is vital. 80 percent of rescue operations are due to exhaustion, and are usually preventable with better preparation. Then, the higher you go, you want to start thinking in terms of alpinism, which is a whole world of new skills. With ropes, crampons, ice picks, learning to climb glaciers and walking as a group, roped together just some you need to be familiar with. There are various courses to help you prepare in mountaineering skills, such as the British Mountaineering Council’s Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust, which provides supreme, subsidised courses for young mountaineers. This impressive charity was created by the family of Jonathan Conville, an experienced climber, after he died on the Matterhorn in the winter of 1979. It is worth noting, as well, that this Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust is well worthy of donations if training people to mountaineer safely and responsibly is something you are keen to support.
What you can do
Make sure you are fit and well prepared before your trip. Safe walking boots, the right amount of layers, waterproofs, water and an emergency kit are key. Ensure that you are walking with an internationally qualified mountain leader. The UIMLA International Mountain Leader and the IFMGA Mountain Guide are the only internationally recognised qualifications in the mountains world-wide. The one stop and not to be missed shop for all information on safety and routes is the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix. Put the details on your phone before you go: 190 Place Eglise, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, Tel: +33 4 50 53 22 08. There is also one in St Gervais in France, at the tourist office.

Responsible tourism tips

There are now police at certain stages of the Mont Blanc ascent, due to irresponsible and ill prepared climbing practices on some people’s parts. This is always a divisive issue – how much do we police the mountains in order to stop the one or two idiots? When actually, the mountains should be about freedom and tranquility, not over-regulation. The fact is that if every climber, hiker and mountaineer acted responsibility, there wouldn’t be such a need for reigning in.
Bernard Marclay, Mountain Wilderness France:

“There is always a problem of ‘surfrequentation’ or overcrowding on the ascent as well as the Tour due Mont Blanc. But we believe that access should be free here on Mont Blanc. People just need to be respectful of the environment when they hike there, and the minimum they can do is to take away all of their waste. Most people are respectful, but some are not so careful."
If you are climbing to the summit via the Gouter Route, you now need to make a reservation at the ‘Refuge du Gouter’, done either by internet or your tour operator. If you don’t have one, the Mont Blanc police will not let you ascend to the summit. Camping is no longer allowed there at this refuge as it was in the past. The only place you can camp legally now is at the Refuge de Tete Russe, which is at a lower level than the Refuge du Gouter. The Vallee Blanche cable car that goes from from Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner is also a very sore point for Mountain Wilderness and other conservationists who have, for many years, considered it almost sacrilegious to put such heavy mechanics in such a pristine environment. and have campaigned for it to be removed. Which is contentious, of course, as it is very popular with tourists. Wild camping is not permitted at high altitude, and sleeping is only allowed in the mountain refuges. You aren’t allowed to build fires either. You can camp bivouac style everywhere, however, but under the condition that you put up your tent at nightfall and have taken it down by sunrise. Clean air is an issue around Mont Blanc, especially regarding the amount of heavy goods traffic using the Mont Blanc Tunnel that cuts through the massif. The leading campaign organisation, Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont-Blanc often organizes demonstrations around the tunnel to highlight the need to reduce commercial traffic around Mont Blanc. You too can reduce your impact by taking a train to the Alps. The public transport network around Mont Blanc is impressive and tour operators can meet you at main railway hubs anyway. And in Chamonix, for example, the majority of public transport is free, to discourage people from bringing their cars.
Bernard Marclay, Mountain Wilderness France:

“When air pollution hits certain levels, then the heavy good vehicles are stopped entering the Mont Blanc tunnel and driving speeds for all drivers are limited too. But in general, the pollution levels are far too high, and we encourage tourists to leave their cars behind”.
It is very important to stay on the allocated paths, and this applies particularly to mountain bikers on the massif, who are guilty of going off piste. It is a growing tourism sector, and so it is very important that you check if you are on a pathway where mountain bikes are allowed in the first place, and then to stick to the path and not go like a bat out of hell through untrampled nature. Charity climbs can be an issue on Mont Blanc, with people taking on the ascent to the summit or else racing their way around the Tour du Mont Blanc at breakneck speed. The numbers allowed on Mont Blanc and the massif go unmanaged, as it is part of the Mont Blanc ethos that the mountains are for everyone. It is rare, however, for charity event organisers to have an environmental policy or, indeed, to contribute towards the maintenance of the land they are running all over. There is an argument that they bring tourism money to the area, but many charity climbers swoop in and out again for a few days, so this is not always the case. If you are just going there for an event, consider extending your stay for a couple of days and spreading your money locally, not just funneling it all into a non-local charity. If every charity walker/runner spent one more night in an auberge or mountain refuge and bought one more dinner locally, it would create a hugely positive impact for residents, food producers, hotel owners…the list goes on.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) from his poem Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:

“And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
if to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?”
There are some issues with music played at altitude. The now world famous jazz festival CosmoJazz takes place the last week of August and lasts for a week, and although well organised and controlled, and a good source of local tourism income, it is not considered by some to be in keeping with the tranquility of the Alps. However, it is the growth of more informal, unregulated music bars and events attached to resorts at high altitude, which play music morning until night throughout the season, that is an issue, as to date there are no limitations on music on the massif. Paragliding is popular in summer, but in the busy months it is restricted, so you need to check the regions where you can and can’t. Similarly, windsuit enthusiasts who like to throw themselves down valleys with nothing but a suit to act as wings, is being restricted to certain places. Waste is always an issue in trekking regions, so it is always worth reminding yourself of the Leave No Trace principles before you go. This organisation is the font of all knowledge and training when it comes to environmental protection and outdoor activities. It all seems like common sense and, in general, walkers love the environment and are extremely protective of it. However, this doesn’t explain the wasters who leave things behind like disposable barbeques, cigarette butts, banana skins, chewing gum, drinks bottles and even pop up tents. Leave no trace also means leaving nature as you find it, so don’t pick wildflowers please.
Catherine Mack, Responsible Travel:

“One place everyone needs to go on Mont Blanc is the toilet. And it does happen to have the two highest toilets in Europe. Which is a relief. A 4,260 meters relief in fact.”
Let’s not beat about the bush, the waste issue also relates to human waste. Bring bags with you, and take your faeces away. Toilets on Mont Blanc are serviced by helicopter in order to deal with the amount of human waste which spreads down the mountain, calling it a ‘Mont Noir’ when the snow melts. Often local people have to clear it up along with all the other trash left behind. Shit happens. Shovel it and shift it. Ski touring or cross country skiing is growing in popularity and can be done at higher levels well into the spring sometimes. However, back country skiers need to be aware that this is nesting season for many of the mountain animals and birds, and so great care needs to be taken to avoid disturbing ground nests and breeding grounds. It comes to a shock to some tourists, but hunting does still happen in and around Mont Blanc. It was the traditional reason for people taking on the peaks, before hiking and mountaineering became recognised as leisure activities in their own right. Hunters must have licences, and practise only in certain seasons, shooting limited numbers of course, but the sought after animals are generally chamois, deer and stags. Ibex are totally protected, having come close to extinction at one time.
One of the advantages of traveling with a responsible tourism walking company is that they work with carefully chosen local guides and expert leaders, who check the walking routes at the beginning of the season to ensure that everything is clearly marked, or that there are no diversions necessary due to path damage and so on. To lessen your environmental footprint on habitats and ecosystems, walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. A responsible walker is an insured walker. Accidents do happen, even if they are just a badly sprained ankle, and you might need to be rescued. So make sure you are properly insured, even though you might feel more ‘covered’ because you are in Europe.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: ptwo] [Top box: Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin] [Safety: simonsImages] [Ibex: Guilhem Vellut]