When you reach an elevation of 2,362 metres in the Mont Blanc massif, the treeline ends. A couple of hundred metres further up, the air gets thinner. By the time you have climbed to 3,000 metres, you’ll only see browns, greys and the occasional glimpse of bright bluish white – a reminder that there are glaciers, just out of view. Very little grows; it’s a wonder the mountain goats picking their way through this stark landscape find anything at all to eat.
For a couple of hours, as you make your way up and up, scrambling over rust-coloured rock, trying not to look at the sheer drop, you feel as if you are walking on the crust of Mars. Venture further and the world eventually turns white.
At 4,808 metres, Mont Blanc is the highest peak in Western Europe. For more than 200 years, alpinists and amateur adventurers have been attempting to reach its summit. This is the roof of the Alps – a wild place with what appears to be a steady stream of ants crawling over it from May to October, putting one foot in front of the other, fighting swells of fear, doubt and altitude sickness and testing their fitness and mental strength like never before.
In recent years, a kind of crisis point has been reached on the mountain. Adventure tourism has boomed. Most recently, a British climber from Portsmouth almost froze to death during his quest to reach the summit to celebrate his 26th birthday – he was rescued after falling down a crevasse and spending a night on a glacier. His body temperature dropped to just 25 degrees Celsius – more than 10 degrees less than normal.
People have become obsessed by bagging Munros (conquering Scottish mountains over 3,000ft high), free climbing far-flung rock faces, circumnavigating a whole country in a kayak. Outdoor wear is the height of fashion; Instagram is full of shots of people standing triumphantly at the top of the globe’s tallest peaks. All the while, our natural world has never been more fragile.
On Mont Blanc, where 20,000 people attempt the summit every year, the glaciers are melting. The Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France, ‘is now melting at the rate of around 40 metres a year and has lost 80 metres in depth over the last 20 years alone’, the glaciologist Luc Moreau stated in 2018.
At the top, guides are finding new crevasses in the ice. Further down, the ground is becoming steeper and less stable – rockfall in the Grand Couloir, the short but dangerous gully that 75 per cent of people trying to summit Mont Blanc will have to traverse halfway up the route, has become so frequent it is often not possible (or, at least, not advisable) to cross.
This year saw a watershed moment on the mountain when a dry winter and exceptionally hot summer collided. Perilously low snowfall had left vast areas of glacier without its usual thick layer of protection. When the temperatures began soaring in May and didn’t stop, the ice was exposed and began melting quickly.
High up, new crevasses formed and fragile snow bridges that enable climbers to cross existing ones broke; lower down, the drought was causing rocks to come loose, with only one way to fall. ‘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.’
When the heat reaches the old ice below the surface – ‘the concrete of the mountain’, as he calls it – shards of rock begin to fracture and fall. Only a period of cold weather can stabilise things. The Grand Couloir – which stretches between two mountain refuges and takes most climbers about three hours to hike – has long been known colloquially as the ‘bowling alley’ or the ‘death couloir’.
Petzl, a French manufacturer of climbing gear, analysed mountain police registers, finding 347 rescue operations in the Couloir from 1990 to 2017, with 102 deaths and 230 injuries; 84 per cent of the rescues were for amateurs not accompanied by a professional guide.
Guides taking paying clients to the top have had to turn back or delay, watching the mountain weather constantly to judge when there might be a window where they can get across unscathed. Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock had to change his plans back in July – he was to attempt the summit to raise money for a children’s hospital. Instead, he completed a four-day hike called The Tour of Mont Blanc with his partner, Gina Coladangelo.
John Taylor, who owns a guide company in Chamonix, says after a ‘lean winter’, the likes of which he has ‘never seen’ before, glaciers you could usually walk across ‘had big gaping holes everywhere. So we were already in a bit of a parlous state. Then it got stupid warm in July.’
The mayor’s office in the nearby village of Saint Gervais said people were in ‘mortal danger’ from rocks coming loose in the Couloir. For two weeks, the two mountain huts where climbers (a maximum of 120 at the higher hut, the Tête Goûter, 72 at the Tête Rousse, lower down) take shelter for the night, were closed by the local authority in an effort to keep people off the mountain. ‘If we close the huts, they can no longer drink their Guinness and their Heinekens at 3,800 metres,’ says Jean-Marc Peillex, mayor of Saint Gervais, pointedly.
It was a controversial decision from a rather controversial local mayor. It also happened to come at a time when a wider debate was gaining momentum. Should the priority on the mountain be to make it safer for climbers, or should the liberté de la montagne be protected at all costs? Should it be allowed to be a kind of ‘mountain Disneyland’, as one seasoned guide fears, or should it remain wild, unencumbered by regulations and free from amenities? Does it matter whether or not you can buy a bottle of Champagne at 3,167 metres if there is no route left to walk on? And does any of that matter if the effects of climate change are, in the end, going to outrun it all?
If it were up to Christophe Profit, Mont Blanc would be open to anyone who wanted to climb it, whenever they liked. One of the old guard of mountain guides who has spent his life above the clouds, this summer he made headlines internationally when he took it upon himself to rip out two of the four iron stakes that had been implanted in the ice en route to the summit.
Officials put them there to help climbers get across; Profit wrenched out each one and marched them down the mountain. He ‘took the thorns out of Mont Blanc’.
People are becoming less and less willing to adapt, says Profit, 61, a climbing legend in the valley. ‘We’ve become like sheep.’ Overcoming the unexpected is all ‘part of the joy of the mountain’, he says. ‘Up there, we are not sheep. We don’t need stakes. Each person is capable just with their brain of working out what to do. Even an amateur has to work out his route. He’ll encounter difficulties, and the joy of arriving at the summit will be immense. But if there’s a cord, there’s no commitment, and no joy.’
As we talk in the dappled shade in his garden, outside the chalet he shares with his wife Claudine in Les Houches, I wonder if Profit is among a dying breed. He has climbed Mont Blanc, he estimates, ‘hundreds of times’, and yet it’s hard to imagine him effortlessly scaling a mountainside. He is strangely unsteady on flat ground, his toes folded over one another awkwardly, from a lifetime spent gripping on to rocks. He has two titanium hips, a result of wear and tear, and yet he spends his days expertly guiding clients up some of the highest peaks in Europe. When you watch footage of Profit as a young man, making his way methodically, gracefully, up sheer rock, he looks weightless, as if nothing could be easier.
When you talk to him about the jagged peaks above his home, he becomes emotional. This summer, he was struck by how the mountain had changed in 40 years. ‘When I began working in alpinisme, I would train on the Glacier des Bosson [one of the largest glaciers in the massif]. We walked for just 20 minutes and we arrived on the glacier. Now, that’s finished, you cannot go there, [...] you have to walk for hours.’
Another glacier near his home used to be a key route to the summit. ‘Now it’s too small and in a few years it’ll have disappeared.’ It doesn’t put him off. You simply have to be ‘plus animal’, he says, and have a certain kind of wild spirit to tackle the mountain. ‘You respect a mountain like Mont Blanc.’
He worries about mutterings that one day you might need a permit to climb it. ‘We are in France. To have a permit to climb Mont Blanc? You’d have a revolution. We’d never accept this.’
‘We are really attached to the freedom of getting to the mountains,’ agrees Greber. ‘If I’m a guide today, it’s because access to the mountain was and is free.’
He hates the idea that Mont Blanc might go the way of Everest. ‘It’s not an alpiniste affair any more. Is it still climbing, or is it high-altitude tourism where the sherpas and the guides do everything for you? We don’t want to get to this point.’
‘If you want to go up there in a pair of trainers and fall off,’ says Taylor, ‘you should be allowed to.’
In 2019, Mayor Peillex tried to cull the number of what he calls ‘pseudoalpinists’ on the mountain by restricting the number of people who could stay in the refuges at one time. The huts had become packed, with climbers turning up without a reservation knowing they’d have to be allowed in (it wouldn’t be ethical to turn them back out on to the ice). People were using the mountain, he felt, like a playground.
We meet in Peillex’s office in the mairie in Saint Gervais. He is a rather serious man – an undoubtedly passionate local politician, with an almost obsessive protectiveness over the little mountain town he runs. He tells me about when he first became aware of the ‘overcrowding’ on Mont Blanc and ‘the fact that it was a dump where the snow was covered in rubbish, excrement, urine. I became aware of that in 2003 when there was the first heatwave. [That year] a helicopter landed in a pile of excrement. A glacier was yellow with urine. That’s the reality. Camping was forbidden, but there were 90 or so tents outside the Goûter Hut, and people did their business in nature, and nature is what? A freezer. Their shit will be found in 50 years.’
By 2019, he’d had enough. ‘That summer, we’d had Latvians going up there with a 15-metre flagpole. Some Russians went up there without shoes. The previous year it was an English guy, a veteran Royal Marine who used Mont Blanc to raise money for injured soldiers. He went up there with a rowing machine of 50kg on his back.’
When the weather turned, he was forced to abandon his rowing machine in a refuge. ‘We had to go and get it with a helicopter. The British Army paid us the fee for going to get it and gave a donation to French military victims. Even locals were at it – a restaurateur went up with a table, a tablecloth and dinnerware to set it up at the top and take a picture he could use in the marketing for his business.
It was time to cull ‘les touristes alpinistes’, as he calls them, or ‘Mont Blanc in high heels’. Now, you have to have a reservation in advance and prove it to two officers – la Brigade Blanche – stationed on the mountain.
It doesn’t always work – even this summer during the drought, people still attempted to summit. ‘We had a whole load of Romanians roped together in the Couloir and the [mountain rescue] helicopter flew over them and, with the megaphone, asked them to turn back, and they turned back. [...] There was another guy who was trying to cross the Couloir with the rockfalls with a child of 10.’
The restrictions have helped with overcrowding; the Brigade Blanche often turn people away. ‘Sometimes because they have bad equipment so that is for their own safety,’ says Philippe Godard, 63, a former officer with the mountain rescue.
‘Before, it was impossible to manage their rubbish,’ says his colleague, Philippe Caumes, 50. ‘If people don’t bring down what they take up the mountain, what are you meant to do? It was unmanageable.’
So what does Peillex say to people who feel freedom in the mountain should be protected? ‘I’d tell them that freedom no longer exists.’ He created a stir this summer when he said climbers wanting to go up Mont Blanc on the Goûter route should give a €15,000 ‘funeral deposit’ to cover the potential cost of their rescue or the recovery of their body. ‘If they want to climb with death in their backpack, let them pay up for the costs of relief and burial,’ he said. He never followed through, but he made his point.
At 9am, Victoria and Cedric Baumer alight from the train at the Nid d’Aigle, the final stop before there is nothing else for it but to follow the red arrow pointing up and start walking. It’s a grey morning and the forecast looks dubious. ‘I’m a bit stressed because the weather is not perfect,’ says Victoria, an 18-year-old student from Paris, attempting the summit with her father, a family friend and two guides. ‘Up there, there is less oxygen so we’re going to walk really slowly. But I’m very excited.’
They are jittery, checking their gear. Cedric, 53, is quietly concerned about the weather. ‘If you say to us we have to be down in one hour, that’s going to be hard.’ He knows from doing Mont Blanc years ago, ‘it’s in your head if you do it’. The Baumers have a house in nearby Megève. Victoria grew up with a view of Mont Blanc framed in her bedroom window. ‘It became my dream.’
We follow them as far as the Tête Rousse – a challenging two and a half hour hike. I am 31 and relatively fit, but about 20 minutes into our climb, I’m questioning whether I’ll be able to make it. It’s punishingly steep, the ground covered with loose rock. Some sections are little more than 50cm wide, with a sheer drop on one side. By the time we reach the hut, I can feel the loss of oxygen – nothing, I’m told, compared to what it’s like when you climb higher.
Climbers coming down are exhausted by their three-day journey. ‘It was harder than we thought it would be,’ says Nicholas Romero, a 45-year-old operations director from Aix-en-Provence. ‘You really have to treat the mountain with humility. Fortunately we had great guides, which is really necessary.’
By 2pm, a group of English and Irishmen have made it as far as the glacier just before the Tête Rousse. It’s only when you are standing on a glacier that you really get a sense of its power. It’s at once solid and moving – ancient but alive. Walk to the middle and you’ll hear the roar of the melt water making its way to the surface through the cracks and crevices, carving a route down the mountain.
Looking across it, their final challenge before resting for the night, you can see they are contemplating what they’ve signed up for. ‘It’s already the hardest thing I’ve ever done just coming up here,’ says Frank Morris, who owns a photographic studio in Bristol. He hopes to summit on his 55th birthday on Friday. He was last on the massif 10 years ago on a family holiday and can’t believe how much the glaciers have receded. ‘I fear for my kids – they need to do it now before it’s too late.’
Back in Chamonix the next day, a group of Brits with Taylor’s Mont Blanc Guides are getting ready. Margaret Knight, Pip Brady and Jenny Hunt, three friends from Malmesbury, Wiltshire, are visibly nervous. ‘My eldest daughter, her parting words just now were: “Don’t be brave, Mum, be safe,”’ says Knight, 53.
‘I am scared of heights, there’s just no getting around it,’ says Brady. Why, I wonder, are they putting themselves through this? ‘It’s just something really different,’ says Brady. ‘Life is so short. As you get older you just think, do you know what? If I’ve got the opportunity, I’m just going to do it.’ Social media plays into it, says Hunt. ‘Everyone seems to be adventuring and I think it just gets more and more extreme.’
I message them a few days later. The rockfall in the Couloir was too dangerous to attempt the summit. Still, they had a fantastic trip on another peak in the region. ‘Completely out of my comfort zone,’ says Brady. ‘Really had to face a good few demons. Far more exhausting and physical than I ever imagined and far more technical climbing. Seeing the glacier and crevasses changing and expanding and melting over the course of a day brought home the full impact of global warming more than anything else.’
I’m hoping the Baumers will be more lucky. I speak to Victoria a week after their summit attempt. ‘We didn’t get to the top. We climbed [after the Tête Rousse] for two hours to get to the Refuge du Goûter. We slept there and the weather was really bad.’ They delayed on the advice of their guide, then gave it a go. But the combination of the altitude and 90km winds was punishing. ‘It was kind of dangerous and we were too tired.’ She sounds disappointed. ‘We’ll be back, that’s for sure. Maybe next year.’
Taylor is campaigning for the huts to stay open for longer. He feels the season is shifting, with warm weather lasting well into October. While he worries that ‘the profession of guiding as I know it is going to disappear’, with many ski routes unviable thanks to low snowfall, Mont Blanc will be safer for longer, simply because it’s so high.
Some might say Mont Blanc should be protected from that trail of ants crawling up its side, that an obsession with summiting is modern arrogance in the face of a fragile natural world. But when you speak to the guides who have spent their life in this environment, you hear nothing but a deep respect for the mountain.
And when, says Taylor, you’re with a 60-something Yorkshire miner, who’s barely said a word the whole way up, sobbing on the phone to his wife at the summit, you see the special magic this place can hold. Some of that magic might even be because the route is so dangerous, so unpredictable, so clearly running on borrowed time.