To the northwest is the Aiguilles Rouges massif, its craggy reddish peaks and cobalt-blue lakes shimmering in the summer sun. To the southeast are the permanently white peaks of the Mont Blanc range, complete with glaciers winding with intent down the slopes and the eponymous mountain itself – at 4,810 metres, the highest in the Alps. It’s a classic Alpine environment, but one that’s under increasing strain from the hustle and bustle of human activity.
Nestled in the 17-kilometre-long glacial valley between these two walls of towering granite is the commune of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the birthplace of Alpine tourism. It sits at 1,035 metres above sea level in the Haute-Savoie department in southeastern France, where the borders of France, Switzerland and Italy converge.
Tourism is Chamonix’s lifeblood. The valley has lured travellers ever since it was ‘discovered’ in 1741 by Britons Richard Pococke and William Windham. In 1786, Mont Blanc’s summit was finallyreached, by French doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard and guide Jacques Balmat, giving birth to the sport of alpinism, with Chamonix at its centre. In 1924, it hosted the inaugural Winter Olympics, and the cable cars and gondola lifts that were built in the years that followed made the ski slopes accessible to all.
Today, Chamonix retains a rustic Alpine charm, but is now very much a modern town, connected to the outside world via the Mont Blanc Tunnel and a perpetually busy highway network. It hosts up to 60,000 visitors at a time during the ski season, and climbers, hikers and extreme sports enthusiasts swarm here in the summer in even greater numbers, swelling the town’s population to 100,000. It’s the third most visited natural site in the world, according to Chamonix’s Office de Tourisme, and last year, it clocked up 5.2 million visitor bed nights – all this in a town with fewer than 10,000 permanent inhabitants.
This influx has put the local environment under severe pressure. Faced with the dilemma of environment versus tourism, the authorities in the valley have decided to take action.
At a local level, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc and the three other communes that make up the valley – Les Houches, Servoz and Vallorcine – are working together as part of Espace Mont Blanc, a cross-border sustainable-development initiative involving French, Swiss and Italian communities.
Educating visitors is vital. Tourists are warned not to drop rubbish and there are now recycling points dotted all around the valley, from the town centre to halfway up the mountains. A blog (chamonixgoesgreen.org) reports environmental news in the town, and the ‘green’ message permeates the tourist office’s activities – last year, its policy to mitigate its environmental impact was recognised with the ISO 14001 certification for environmental management.
‘It’s increasing public awareness, whether it’s people living here or people coming on holiday, and developing the responsible tourism aspect – that’s how we want to market Chamonix,’ says Claire Burnet, an Englishwoman who works for the tourist office, having lived in the valley for 25 years.
This summer saw the start of the ‘scientific café’: informal weekly meetings in cafés with local scientists, who discuss the Chamonix environment with residents and visitors over a coffee. ‘It might be a glaciologist or somebody from the national forest society, or somebody who’s talking about the evolution of climate,’ says Burnet.
Low-carbon initiatives are also high on the agenda. Joël Didillon, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc’s deputy mayor, explains that France has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by a factor of four by 2050. Central to achieving this target is the Plan Climat Energie Territorial, a strategy that encourages communes to identify their carbon emissions on a local level and make plans to reduce them. ‘It’s normally for big cities, but Chamonix will adopt it because we want to be an example,’ he says.
Studies identified that accommodation accounts for half of all carbon emissions in the valley. Hotels are notoriously inefficient operations, but those around Chamonix are now cleaning up their act. Some are using low-energy lighting, restricting water use and providing recycling bins for guests; others have invested in huge projects such as refurbishments using locally sourced materials, using geothermal energy for heating, and installing solar panels with the aim of becoming carbon neutral.
Burnet is positive about these developments, including the Mont Blanc Eco-tourism Association, whose members include the most environmentally responsible tourism businesses in the Mont Blanc area. ‘Hotels and businesses can become members, so it’s a way of federating all those people,’ she says. ‘The next thing will be a label, a charter, so if you want this “green” label, you have to comply to certain restrictions.’
Chamonix’s council is encouraging the use of renewable energy in private properties by making subsidies available for green renovations and new constructions, while public sector buildings have also undergone improvements to make them more energy efficient. For example, the local ice rink has reduced its annual water consumption from 140,000 cubic metres to 10,000 cubic metres in the space of three years.
Improving public transport is another cornerstone of the new policy, as 80 per cent of carbon emissions from transport were due to private vehicles. At a cost of €3.3million a year, Chamonix has introduced a free shuttle service in order to get people out of their cars and into buses fitted with particle filters.
The rail system is a trickier matter. The Mont Blanc Express connects the towns and villages within the valley, from St Gervais at one end to Martigny in Switzerland at the other. ‘We want to increase the number of trains by 2012 so that we have one train every 20 minutes,’ says Burnet. At present, the trains run every hour; getting them to run every half hour would require an investment of €22million.
While the Mont Blanc Express is an ideal way to travel within the valley – and see some incredible scenery along the route – it’s much more difficult to arrive into Chamonix from outside by rail. There’s no direct line from the closest airport – in Geneva – so tourists arriving by air normally transfer by car or bus. And the Mont Blanc Express can’t be connected to the rest of the French rail system because of incompatible gauges. It is, however, possible to make the entire journey by rail, via Paris and St Gervais, although it’s a lengthy trip.
on thin ice
If the valley’s visitors and residents need a reminder of the need to reduce their environmental impact, they just have to look up; the effects of climate change are brought into sharp focus on the masses of ice that cling to the slopes above.
Glaciers have long fascinated both residents and visitors in Chamonix. There are several in the valley, the most famous being the Mer de Glace – the ‘sea of ice’ that enthralled Pococke and Windham all those years ago.
Glaciologist Luc Moreau has worked in Chamonix since 1985. A specialist in glacial hydrology, he is involved with a unique research project beneath Glace d’Argentiere that studies the speed of the ice flow. Twice a week during the summer, Moreau greets tourists who arrive via the 100-year-old rack-and-pinion railway to the station at Montenvers, which overlooks the glacier at almost 2,000 metres, and conducts educational talks about the evolution of glaciers as part of efforts to raise awareness about Chamonix’s environment.
‘Since 1820, the Mer de Glace has retreated 2,300 metres in length and 150 metres in thickness under the Montenvers station,’ he says. ‘Now the retreat is very rapid, around 30 metres per year, because of hot summers [in the past] 20 years. During the 1970s and ’80s, the glacier advanced 150 metres. But since 1994, it has lost 500 metres in length and 70 metres in thickness.’
However, he views the Mer de Glace’s retreat in the wider context of history. Its current state is still within previous parameters – during the Little Ice Age from 1600 to 1850, the ice reached as far as the village of Les Bois, but during the warmer Middle Ages, it receded so far that the valley it left behind was used to keep livestock. But glaciers are nevertheless highly sensitive to changes in climate, and in the current conditions, the Mer de Glace is predicted to retreat by four metres in thickness and up to 40 metres in length each year.
If temperatures continue to rise, the prognosis for the valley below isn’t good. There’s an increased risk of icefalls affecting populated areas, says Moreau, particularly from the Glacier de Taconnaz, and devastating avalanches in winter.
valuing the valley
The fragility of the Alpine environment has long been a concern among Chamoniards, as the valley’s residents
are known. Today, 70 per cent of the 805 square kilometres that comprise Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is protected in some way. But now, the impact of tourism has led the authorities to recognise that more must be done if the valley is to remain prosperous – that they must learn not only to better protect the natural environment, but also better manage the numbers of visitors so that its residents can happily remain here.
‘Obviously, we need the tourists, but we don’t want the valley to be saturated at one particular time because it isn’t good for the valley, it isn’t good for the tourists, it isn’t good for anybody,’ says Burnet. ‘And people want to live here, be happy here, and not have to leave, but be able to stay and for their children to be able to stay.’
‘The beginning is now, the beginning of a big programme,’ Didillon adds. ‘We just want to live in Chamonix.’