Overcrowding, inexperienced climbers, climate change… the future of Western Europe’s highest mountain is uncertain. In order to house the rising number of tourists in the area, local town planning authorities have been rather cavalier in the enforcement of town planning laws, leading to a rise in fraud and some questionable real estate projects…
Every year, around 20,000 make their way to the highest peak in Western Europe to attempt to reach its 15,776-foot summit. This huge influx of thrill-seekers and amateur mountaineers is causing widespread concern for local authorities. The steep rise in tourism in the area, coupled with a warmer climate, is turning the already fragile local ecosystem into a serious hazard for visitors, with the threat of rockfalls and falling ice growing year on year.
This wave of enthusiastic rock climbers, skiers and epicureans coming to the region has necessitated an expansion of regional hospitality services. Local officials, however, have begun to vehemently speak out about the environmental threat posed by the constant, rising inpouring of tourists who have developed a reputation for not respecting the rules, leaving one of Europe’s most dazzling natural sites under real threat of long-term degradation. Strangely, though, some of these officials appear to be paying lip service to environmentalist concerns, with dubious profiteering going on behind the scenes…
Mont Blanc adventure tourism
Rather astonishingly, Mont Blanc does not benefit from the status of a highly protected landscape. Development and camping were banned on its territory by France in 1951, but the fact that it still lacks any special environmental status means its preservation is legislatively more complicated for the three countries it borders. This has helped accelerate the rise in adventure tourism, a booming phenomenon in the age of social media, with young thrill-seekers eager to show off their prowess for extreme sports, reaching the highest peaks, kayaking the most treacherous waters… These activities rarely take into account the precarious situation the natural world currently finds itself in, and are therefore posing a real environmental threat to the well-being of the ecosystems where they operate.
Furthermore, the glaciers on Mont Blanc are melting. The Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France, “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80 meters in depth over the last 20 years alone,” the glaciologist Luc Moreau stated in 2018. This is leading to structural instability in the ice sheets, posing a real and current danger to all thrill-seekers motivated enough to witlessly attempt to negotiate the cracks, crevasses and rock faces to be find on the mountain. “The little amount of snow that was here melted very quickly,” explains Olivier Greber, a Chamonix mountain guide. “This means that what we call the old ice is appearing. Some of it is, according to the scientists, 6,000 years old.”
It is therefore understandable that some local mayors have become incredulous in their opposition to the hitherto uncontrollable convergence of Instagrammers, inexperienced mountaineers and adventure tourists who have shown little regard for the new realities of a warming world.
Local officials speak out
One of the most outspoken voices decrying the environmental degradation caused by enthusiastic mountaineers is Jean-Marc Peillex, mayor of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, who has spent years speaking out against overcrowding, even referring to inexperienced hikers and climbers as ‘wackos’. In December 2022, the mayor released a statement attacking two climbers who had apparently defied a 2020 ban on bivouacking above a certain altitude put in place to protect the fragile mountain top. “The Mont Blanc has had enough of these people who are looking for social recognition, and who are capable of anything just to show they exist,” he exclaimed.
But the mayor’s comments did not go unnoticed, with several associations speaking out against his apparent unreasonableness and the rising absurdity of his position. In an online petition, the SIM mountaineering association accused Peillex of “lashing out at everything and everyone, without discernment, restraint or coherence”. In fact, the mayor’s ostentatious tirade in the name of environmental protection is all the more remarkable, however, when one takes a closer look at his track record regarding for instance luxury real estate in his commune.
The man who cried wolf
Peillex, a well-known local figure in the fight against overcrowding, would seem on the surface to be a bona fide slugger fighting the good fight. The mayor has nonetheless been involved in some more-than-questionable real estate affairs in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. He authorized, in 2016, the highly controversial construction of three large luxury chalets for hotel L’Armancette. The fight for legal documents took over half a decade, and several local associations have called out the project. These include “Respectons la terre”, which on 11 February filed a complaint for the “illegal granting of a building permit and passive corruption”…
The involvement, perhaps, of multi-millionaire Vincent Gombault, currently leading the investment fund Clipway Limited, based in London, with subsidiaries in Belgium and Luxembourg. He might go some way to explaining Peillex apparent hypocrisy and suggests some dubious wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Gombault notably began donating large sums to the municipality, starting in 2016, for the renovation of around a dozen of the town’s chapels, including a listed building. A planning application was swiftly submitted to the local planning authority just a few months later…
The hotels were given planning permission in an area “where only residential buildings are authorized by the local planning authority”, according to Laurence Prélot-Mathey, of France Nature Environnement 74. This has put Peillex in an uncomfortable position, being forced to attack environmental associations as he continues to criticize tourism on Mont Blanc.