The Glacier du Tour sits atop the mountain like a wave frozen in time. From the children’s slopes of La Vormaine to a soundtrack of playful squeals, laughter and skis swishing through the mud, I admire its bluish hue and jagged blocks of ice while lamenting how much it’s withdrawn since I’ve been here 23 years ago lived.
The Mont Blanc massif is one of the most densely glaciated areas in the Alps, and in the Chamonix Valley, glaciers are visible from almost every vantage point, including all four of the city’s main ski areas: Le Brévent, La Flégère, Grands Montets and Le Tour (including the beginner slopes of La Vormaine).
Since the late 19th century tourism in Chamonix has focused on the high mountain environment of these glaciers. The majestic Glacier des Bossons, which looks like a frozen waterfall flowing between Mont Blanc and France’s highest cable car, the Aiguille du Midi, offers the best view, with much of the city geared towards it. Accessible by the Montenvers train or by skiing or snowboarding in the remote Vallée Blanche, the Mer de Glace, the second longest glacier in the Alps, is one of the region’s most popular attractions.
Beginning next year, the Mer de Glace will host a Glacier and Climate Interpretation Center to address the apparent threat posed by global warming to these magnificent bodies of slow-moving ice. Luc Moreau, a local glaciologist who has been studying the Chamonix glaciers since 1987, tells me that every glacier in the valley has melted sharply since the 1990s. His simulations suggest that by the end of the century, when the Alps warm above the global average, all glaciers below 3,500 meters will have disappeared; the highest lift stops at 3,842 meters.
While they’re still here, the glaciers are like a live laboratory, where people can see the effects of global warming firsthand and, Luc hopes, be inspired to do something about it. “They make visible what is invisible,” says Luc, who hosted President Emmanuel Macron at the Mer de Glace in 2020 and wrote to him in January to demand swift action.
Until recently, ski resorts haven’t spoken much about the climate crisis — aside from touting new eco-hotels and snowmaking infrastructure — for fear of scaring off holidaymakers or dampening spirits for those already here. But in 2021, the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, the oldest and largest association of mountain guides in the world, decided to celebrate their 200th anniversary by tackling the problem and including environmental protection as part of their mission.
To find out more, I spend half a day splitboarding (a snowboard that splits in two for touring) with Brad Carlson, a mountain guide and environmentalist who has lived and worked in the area for more than a decade. .
We start our trek by taking the highest lift at La Flégère, then taking the path to the left and enjoying the stunning views of Glacier des Bossons, Mer de Glace and Glacier d’Argentière across the valley over which the peaks rise Rising peaks of the Mont Blanc massif. It’s early February but the weather is warm, sunny and spring-like.
Brad tells me that guides used to only talk unofficially about the environmental changes they noticed. “It was a taboo subject,” he says, but now it affects about three-quarters of his customers.
As we cross the frozen Lac Blanc and make our way to the Col du Belvédère, we see other groups of ski tourers with guides ranging in age from their early 20s to early 60s.
“People might think if they come here they’ll see something dying, but it’s actually still as beautiful as ever,” Brad says, and I wholeheartedly agree. “Mountain environments are constantly changing, and mountain guides have historically had to adapt.
“The challenge is to rebuild perceptions of what people in the Alps expect and encourage a more flexible mindset.”
Guides want to move away from clients with specific goals, such as: B. climbing a certain mountain on a certain day or skiing in fresh powder snow. Instead, guests must accept the uncertainty of the conditions and ask the guide, “What makes sense right now?” As the snow season shortens, some guides even offer activities that don’t depend on snow, such as canyoning and rafting.
Another day my husband and I take the Montenvers train to the Mer de Glace. It’s a bewildering experience: when I last snowboarded here in 2001, it was 118 steps from the Vallée Blanche from the glacier to the cable car; We are now descending 580. More tiers were added each year to compensate for the shrinking ice.
Work has begun on a lift to replace the steps and the Glaciorium Interpretation Center will open next year, which will show the evolution of glaciers and our relationship to them through interactive displays. The hope is to preserve and enhance the memory of this landmark site while educating visitors on the impact of the climate crisis on the valley.
Zoe Hart, a mountain guide who has lived here for more than 20 years, says talking to guests about what’s going on is all well and good, but more is needed.
“These visits can be a tool for environmental action, but it’s not enough to simply educate people on their journey, make them sad, and then go home and forget it all,” she says. “We need to encourage concrete action to protect this resource while the tourists are here.”
Zoe directs her clients to environmental nonprofits where they can contribute, while Brad suggests donating to alpine ecosystem research center CREA and helping with citizen science projects the team at CREA is developing. He hopes that one day these will be incorporated into guided tours with clients.
The elephants in the room are the impact of tourism in this fragile environment and the carbon footprint of getting there. Four of us traveled in a hybrid car, it’s better than flying but not as good as taking the train, always difficult during February school holidays.
In turn, much of Chamonix’s resort operations are powered by hydroelectric power, generated in part by meltwater from the valley’s glaciers. Its snow groomers still emit CO2, although the lift company is experimenting with hybrid machines and emission-free HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil).) fuel and hopes to achieve carbon neutrality within 10 years. A project to build a biogas plant is underway. Buses and trains are free in the valley in winter for ski lift pass holders, many are hybrid buses and some buses run on natural gas.
“I don’t think the answer is to blame people for not coming here,” says Zoe — hiring mountain guides supports the local economy — though she also prefers a tourist tax. “People coming to Chamonix spend a lot on accommodation, ski passes, dinner and travel: you could afford 1% of that to do something good.”
Towards the end of the week we ski and snowboard to the dramatic Glacier d’Argentière with my son and his friends and their reaction is far from dire, prompting a series of gasps and wows. Like most 13-year-olds, they know only too well what the climate crisis can bring, but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the here and now and appreciating this unique and fragile high-mountain environment.
The guided splitboard/ski tour was provided by the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Tourist Office and costs from €105 per person, chamonix-guides.com/fr Splitboard rental from €70 per day, was provided by Zero G. Ski touring equipment can be hired from Intersport in Chamonix from €50 a day.