Photo Friday: French President Emmanuel Macron Dons Ski Suit and Visits Mont Blanc and Mer de Glace

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the tram from the Alpine resort of Chamonix up to Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, to pay homage to the legendary massif and reflect on the toll climate change is exacting on its great glacier, the Mer de Glace. The President dined at Mont Blanc’s base with climate scientists; peered from the mountain’s northern slopes down upon the jagged crags of ice doppling the immense—albeit shrinking—valley glacier; and walked in blue tunnels, which course the Mer de Glace’s innards. 

The glacier has shrunk more than 200 feet in depth (65 meters) and almost 1,000 feet in length (300 meters) since 1996. “What we see with this glacier melting is irrefutable evidence of global warming,” Macron said after visiting Mer de Glace.     

French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to make combating the climate crisis a signature piece of the rest of his term as he eyes the 2022 elections. (Source: Twitter)

The visit coincided with Macron’s announcement of numerous environmental policies aimed at combating the climate crisis. These ranged from the promise of the French government to stop purchasing single-use plastics in July, to the creation of a new agency—the French Office of Biodiversity—tasked with the stewardship of the country’s ecosystems. 

More pertinent to Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace was the announcement of a new nature preserve ringing the mountain and a raft of new rules on limiting the number of climbers that can access the summit of Europe’s highest peak. Around 30,000 people attempt to summit the almost 16,000 foot (4,800 meters) peak each year and leave it strewn with garbage. 

Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of Saint Gervais—a town near Mont Blanc—sent Macron a letter last fall lamenting the polluted state of the mountain and the “oddballs” responsible for it. Last year a British Royal Marine veteran tried to summit Mont Blanc while carrying a rowing machine—a stunt intended to raise money for charity. The climb sapped his strength, however, so he descended without it, leaving the hulking exercise machine high on the mountain. Local authorities said they will have to use a helicopter to get it down.  

“It is all well and good to worry about the Amazon rainforest, but to ignore what is happening on Mont Blanc and to allow this disrespect to continue is intolerable,” wrote Peillex. 

Some believe that the controversial French President’s environmental ambitions and business friendly policies are incompatible. (Source: Twitter)

These new policies and the visit to Mont Blanc are part of Macron’s larger effort to stake the second half of his term on climate and the environment. Some view the controversial President’s climate change combating ambitions at odds with his investment banking past and business friendly policies, but he thinks the two are compatible.  

Speaking before scientists and members of the French Ministry of Ecology at Chamonix after his visit, he declared that the fight to curb climate change and protect biodiversity was “a fight for our own survival” but added that “we need to show that this strategy is compatible with economic progress because this is the strategy in which I believe.” 

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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.