A Cap on Climbers at Mont Blanc

As another scorching summer in the Northern Hemisphere comes to an end, alpine hikers are preparing for an unfamiliar tourism restraint on Mont Blanc, the Alp’s highest peak, beginning next climbing season. The mountain, which straddles France and Italy, faces a cap on climbing issued by the French government. This new policy intends to permanently limit the number of mountaineers ascending the 4,810-meter summit from the Royal Route, Mont Blanc’s busiest climbing route which begins in France.

Pointing at the 3842m height of Mont Blanc (Source: Masin/Flickr).

As reported by The Telegraph, the Royal Route is currently used by three-fourths of the adventure seekers who attempt to reach the peak each year. Starting next summer, the French government will half the number of climbers, allowing only 214 climbers per day. This decision was made after a surge of adventure seekers, some ill-prepared for the alpine challenge, resulted in sixteen deaths this past summer. The deaths were largely caused by avalanches and rockfalls during the final ascent, with such hazards likely to increase under the current global warming trajectory.

Mont Blanc, with its magnificent glacial sceneries and relatively climbable, well-marked trail, has become the center of modern alpine tourism since the first ascent of the mountain in 1786. Today it remains one of the most popular climbs in the world, with thousands of tourists traversing its trails and visiting its campgrounds each year. But among landscapes, alpine and glacier environments are increasingly fragile under changing climates. Mont Blanc is not an exception, with the effects of climate change progressively more noticeable.

Arnaud Temme climbs Mont Blanc from a harder route to avoid the “traffic jam” on the overcrowded Royal Route (Source: Arnaud Temme).

“When I repeated climbs [in the Alps] after more than a decade, these changes were very clear,” Arnaud Temme, a geographer at Kansas State University and an experienced climber, shared with GlacierHub. “It is sad when beautiful bright ice is replaced by wide expanses of rock and rubble.”

One of the most popular attractions on Mont Blanc, the glacier Mer de Glace, sits on the northern slope of the massif. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist, recently told The Guardian that the glacier “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years alone.” A visible consequence of the retreating Mer de Glace snout is that 100m of ladders have been fixed against newly exposed vertical rock walls for hikers to climb down the glacier.

The Mer De Glace has retreated at least 80 meters in depth over the years. Climbers now have to ascend steep ladders to reach the icy areas (Source: Theodore/Flickr).

As a seasoned climber, Temme talked to GlacierHub about the impact of the changes he has witnessed on the mountain. “I’ve climbed in the European Alps for decades, and there is no doubt that climbing and high hiking routes are getting more dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been in tight spots several times due to glacial retreat or permafrost degradation, and have experienced declines in the quality of routes much more often.” He added that it takes more energy and attention as a climber to cross fields of loose rock than to cross a glacier.

According to Temme’s research and his own experiences of “getting into trouble” on the mountain, the conclusion is clear that conditions are becoming riskier.

“Since the 1990s, guidebook authors and their informants have started describing conditions that are more dangerous for climbers. Increased levels of rockfall were the main culprit— directly linked to climate change and permafrost retreat. Many routes are no longer even described in guidebooks, to prevent climbers from risking their lives on them,” he said.

It is indisputable that the rapid glacial melting and frozen ground thawing are causing a shrinkage of the snowy landscapes. In alpine areas, glacial retreat is always accompanied by more rock exposure. As the stability of the glacier is reduced as it melts, the chance of rocks falling and posing deadly threats to climbers increases. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 570 rockfalls occurred on the Mont Blanc massif, with the number of people killed increasing each year.

Given these risks, the future of alpine tourism looks bleak. Temme thinks glaciers will continue their retreat to higher altitudes. “Glacial tourism in some lower locations will become impossible, and it will become more expensive in others. Alpine climbs involving glaciers will have to be adapted, rerouted and, in some cases, abandoned like others already have,” he said.

Raoul Kaenzig, a climate researcher from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told GlacierHub, “Mountains are spaces of freedom and should remain so as much as possible. I would focus on the prevention and the education of the tourists instead of prohibiting access by law. Restrictions measures should be kept only for extreme cases, like Mont Blanc.”

The fragile dynamics at Mont Blanc are also at work in other mountain ranges, Temme warned. For example, the Olympic Mountains in the U.S. state of Washington and the Southern Alps in New Zealand, both popular with climbers, have a great deal of glacier ice and are experiencing substantial climate change. As the planet warms, climbers to the world’s highest peaks will have to adapt to new mountain landscapes and the rising risks associated with glacier retreat.

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