The French communes of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains, Chamonix and Les Houches have submitted a draft arrêté préfectorale (prefectural order) for public consultation relating to the protection of Mont Blanc's natural environment and the prevention of ill-equipped mountain-goers from accessing the popular routes. Today marks the end of the public consultation period after 17 revisions of the draft, which should be approved by the Haute-Savoie prefecture in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a Twitter row between the mayor of St-Gervais-Les-Bains, Jean-Marc Peillex, and a French journalist has reached its peak.
The protected area consists of 3175 hectares, and within this zone non-emergency camping or bivvying on or near the Goûter route would be forbidden and roped teams restricted to a maximum of three people, while the existing summer hut reservation system for the Goûter and Téte Rousse would remain in place alongside minimum equipment checks, with the option of one-day ascent and descent without accommodation still permitted. Violations of the decree would be punishable by the penalties outlined in Articles L. 415-3 and R. 415-1 of France's Environment Code, which appears to be one year's imprisonment and a fine of €15,000.
President Emmanuel Macron announced plans for the decree following his visit to the Mer de Glace on 13 February this year. As part of a range of new policies concerning biodiversity and the environment, the French President pledged to create a protected nature reserve around Mont Blanc to limit numbers and prevent overcrowding, particularly in the peak summer period.
In September 2018, the mayor of St-Gervais-Les-Bains, Jean-Marc Peillex, wrote a letter to President Macron imploring him to take action in protecting the mountain environment, with an emphasis on managing Mont Blanc. Incidents on the peak have frequently made headlines in local and international news, often accompanied by disparaging quotes from Mr Peillex, who repeatedly refers to the culprits as "hurluberlus" (oddballs). In recent years, trail runners in trainers, shorts and t-shirts have died, people have brought children or dogs to the summit, pilots have landed planes and one man dragged a rowing machine up for a charity stunt, but discarded it at the refuge on the descent.
Mr Peillex has regularly intervened in activities on the mountain, which can attract over 30,000 summit attempts annually. In 2017, he imposed a minimum equipment by-law concerning climbers on the Goûter route, and he has frequently threatened closure of the refuge if measures are not taken to control the risks of overcrowding. In 2018, restrictions were imposed on the mountain, stating that only climbers with pre-booked accommodation at the Goûter hut would be granted access by a "brigade blanche" patrolling the peak.
In a UKC interview in July 2018, Mr Peillex commented:' 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.'
Last week, the Mayor publicised the drafted decree while drawing attention to further acts of irresponsibility on the mountain. In a Tweet from 1 September 2020, Mr Peillex stated "There are still oddballs on Mont Blanc," and shared details of recent incidents reported to him by the brigade blanche. A trail runner wearing shorts and t-shirt had not reserved hut accommodation and had fitted his crampons backwards, while another man had walked up to the Goûter hut with an unmuzzled pitbull, which had reportedly caused stonefall after scrabbling around the mountain and put other people at risk.
The Mayor's inclusion of photographs identifying the individuals, and his emphasis on their country or town or origin, have been criticised online. In an open letter on Alpine Mag, Editor-in-Chief Ulysse Lefebvre wrote that the Mayor had 'denigrated, singled out and thrown [a citizen] out to pasture.' Lefebvre also accused Mr Peillex of 'populisme classique', by referring to one man as 'our Marseillais, equipped for the beach', seemingly attempting to create a 'them and us' division. Addressing the mayor's use of public humiliation, Lefebvre continued: 'Is there not a greater threat on Mont Blanc than a poorly equipped mountaineer without a reservation? And even if a man makes a mistake, is that a reason to shame him? Does a badly-fitted crampon make a mountaineer a man who should be nailed to the pillory? Is it more of a crime than the burning fuel from the planes circling the massif?'
Lefebvre continued: 'We love this mountain at least as much as you do. Whether we are passing through or living in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, our opinion counts, as citizens, regardless of our geographical or social origins or our technical levels. Mont Blanc does not belong to you, Mr Peillex. It belongs to the commune of Saint Gervais perhaps, although the notion of communal property is another debate. But not to you. You are neither the judge nor the arbitrator.'
Mr Peillex responded by accusing Lefebvre of chasing clicks and putting the Mayor out to pasture for having shared photographs of the climbers, including the hastag #violencesfaitesauxmaires (violence against mayors).
The creation of a national park to include Mont Blanc and its surrounding environment was mooted but ultimately rejected over twenty years ago, and today, Mr Peillex has told French press that this option is not out of the question. He has expressed a desire for "a moral application" of this latest order.
See below for a translated extract of the decree which relates to leisure activities within the protected zone:
In order to prevent the destruction and physical alteration of natural habitats, to maintain the quality of and the tranquility of the site, it is forbidden, within the perimeter:
2.1 : of the entire site
2-1-1: to enter with any type of vehicle (motorised or non-motorised);
2-1-2: to land by any means except for the restocking of refuges and authorised maintenance work.
2-1-3: to allow pets to enter, with the exception of the dogs involved in annual campaigns to count wildlife and leashed animals on the hiking routes in the transition zones;
2-1-4: to camp outside the Tête Rousse refuge, within the limit of the validity of the exemption granted for the classified site and on reservation by name;
2-1-5: to bivouac except in case of force majeure, on the route and close to the normal route accessing Mont-Blanc via Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, due to the presence of several refuges on this route;
2-1-6: to walk along the Mont-Blanc tramway track during operating hours;
2-1-7: regarding access via the normal Mont Blanc route through the Dôme du Goûter, it is forbidden:
- during the summer period when the refuges are guarded, to undertake an ascent without reservation in a refuge, except for a planned return trip in a day enabled by the technical and physical fitness of the persons concerned;
- to wander voluntarily outside the usual routes for ascensionists who enter by the normal route of the Goûter or the Payot refuge;
- to sleep in the Vallot shelter, except in cases of force majeure;
- to sleep at the Rognes forest hut.
2.2: of the central area (zone centrale)
2-2-1: to practise any activity other than mountaineering, mountaineering-paragliding, paragliding, paragliding, climbing, etc.
2-2-2: in order to avoid damage and disturbance to the environment, particularly those linked to rescue intervention, it is forbidden:
- to access the site for an ascent of Mont Blanc without being equipped with appropriate individual and collective equipment to use the area under safe conditions in accordance with the habits and customs defined by mountain professionals;
- to progress in rope teams of more than three people;
- to carry equipment or objects other than those strictly necessary for progression in the alpine environment, individual or collective protection and sustenance.