I arrived in Chamonix on Monday, 19 November. Loïc Desage was already waiting for me outside his house near Argentière. Loïc is a mountain guide and ski patroller. Over the past few years, he has become a friend and my guide of choice for steep skiing around Mt Blanc. We initially thought that we could do a tour while I am in Chamonix, but unlike in the high Alpine of Switzerland and Italy, there was not enough snow here at that time.
Loïc has lived in Chamonix for almost thirty years. He has seen the valley get more crowded with tourists in search of alpine adventures. In high season, the valley population temporarily increases from 10’000 to 100’000 people. Chamonix is easily reached by car (not at all by train though) and nowhere else in the world it is easier to reach the high alpine. Within no time, the Télécabine de l’Aiguille du Midi takes you from 1’000m up to 4'000m. Outside the top station, you have a vertiginous view down the steep north faces and on the many majestic peaks of the Mt Blanc massif. It is a seemingly infinite playground for serious mountaineers, skiers and snowboarders.
And everybody wants to climb Mont Blanc. Even those that maybe should not. The stories of ill equipped and unfit amateurs, unfamiliar with the high alpine and arriving at the refuges without having reservations, of aggressions on exposed narrow sections, and of the too many fatalities are well known among mountaineers. In 2018, some guides and the Mayor of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains (the commune on which Mont Blanc is mostly situated) have called for more restricted access to the highest mountain in Europe, to reduce the number of accidents.
Meanwhile, climate change is making the ascent more perilous, too. The routes have become more prone to rock- and icefall over the years. And then the heatwave of 2018 opened up new crevasses at an altitude as high as 4'600m - something that was never seen before, Loïc told me. It became necessary to consider alternative routes, routes that are sometimes exposed to other hazards. Intrigued, I asked Loic to tell me more about how the 2018 heatwave played out in Chamonix.
The year 2018 was a remarkable one, he said. After the massive snowfall of last winter, everybody expected an outstanding summer season with a solid snow-cover that would hold until fall. The conditions were indeed perfect during the months of May and June. But as of early July, things started to get more iffy in the high Alpine.
On 22 August, the first mountain collapsed. It was on the famous Arête des Cosmiques, a popular climbing route towards the top of Aiguille du Midi. On 25 September, the second mountain collapsed. This time it happened on Trident du Tracul, one of the most iconic granite towers in the Mt Blanc massif, those towers that are known for being so solid. Both rockfalls were huge. Two climbers were on the Tracul route the night before and heard worrying noises from deep inside the rock. The noises came from rock movements caused by melting permafrost, that underground ice that has kept the mountains stable for thousands of years. Now, with climate change, melting permafrost is one of the biggest risks of climate change in the Alps. Luckily, nobody died this time round. But the community of mountaineers has lost two iconic routes.
Down in the valley, Chamonix has been facing another challenge for decades: air quality. It is the worst in all France, caused by the dense high-way traffic through the Mont Blanc tunnel, the factories of Passy, the wood heatings, but also the pollution-trapping geography of the V-shaped valley, with its frequent temperature inversions and little space for wind to pass through. Actions are being taken by the local government, Paris and Brussels, but the situation is barely improving. Except from 1999 - 2002, when the Mont Blanc tunnel was closed after the tragic inferno. During those three years, air quality improved dramatically. The stone walls next to the tunnel entrance found their natural colour again instead of being black with soot. And wildflowers that were not seen in years reappeared not far away from the tunnel.
The next morning I continued cycling towards the Mediterranean. The remaining route took me over Albertville to Grenoble, over the snow-covered Col du Lautaret down to Digne and via the Verdon Regional Park and the Préalpes d’Azur down to Cannes. It was during those days that the protests of the Gilets Jaunes started to emerge. At every other roundabout, there were people protesting, making fires and waving banners to express their anger.
The protests were triggered by Macron’s eco-tax on fuels, a measure that should help reduce emissions. After six weeks of cycling across the Alps and seeing first hand how climate change is impacting nature and communities, the widespread protests felt like a brutal reality check. Decarbonising transport is essential to reach climate targets. Arguably, fuel prices do not reflect the real cost of their production and consumption, so isn’t it the right thing to do to re-balance the equation with an incentive tax?
The answer might seem obvious from a pure environmental perspective. But that perspective is too narrow. What Macron has painfully ignored, is that it is about doing the right thing right. Introducing an eco-tax without a rebate or tax credit is not the right solution, particularly not in present-day France. After years of raising inequalities and growing economic frustrations, suggesting a tax that is most hurtful to the poor was proof of the fateful distance between the Palais de l’Elysée and the economic worries of the people in France of 2018.
Of course there are the good examples, too. There are numerous climate policies done right that help shifting markets and behaviours. Continued technological progress has accelerated the spread of renewable energies, more businesses and consumers are embracing sustainability. But the bottom line is that we still have a long way to go. We need to do much more at a much faster pace, carried by a shared vision that goes beyond legislative cycles. Hope is that the next swing of the democratic pendulum in major economies around the world will equip the world with more true global leadership. With people who seek to work across boundaries and have the courage and political will to lead us to the future we need. A future in harmony with nature.