Credit Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Last August, after several accidents and deaths among climbers on Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest and most treacherous mountain, Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of the French town of St. Gervais-les-Bains, issued an order: Anyone attempting to climb the nearby Gouter route up the mountain must now have specified gear including a harness, rope and headlamp. Those who do not take these precautions are to be fined.
On the face of it, the order is common sense. Mont Blanc, known among climbers as the White Killer, is 15,774 feet high, and as the recent spate of casualties make clear, its ascent is a dangerous one — as one French climbing website describes it, “a vertiginous high mountain route prone to natural hazards: rockfalls, crevasses, avalanches and extreme weather.”
And yet, the decree appears to be a first — no such regulation exists on any of the world’s mountains, and it threatens to unravel a centuries-old ideology based on the understanding of mountains as wild, inherently risky places of conquest, not to be confused with busy boulevards and cafe-lined city streets.
The mayor’s order is more than a matter of public safety. It raises existential and philosophical questions, too: Where, and when, can we take life-threatening risk? Should we continue to see mountains as wild and dangerous natural places, or extensions of our urban environment?