Everest, Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Olympics

Once again it’s the time of year when you’d think the only mountain worth climbing in the world is Everest. The press, the TV and the internet are all full of it, as if the significance of a climbing objective was just measured by its height. I have this theory that climbing things because of their size is like marrying someone because of their physical dimensions. Jokers have remarked “and your point is?”… At least I hope they were joking.

There are collections of peaks based on altitude, whether it’s the seven summits, the alpine 4000m peaks or the Scottish Munros. These have some merit in getting you to places you might not necessarily go and experiences you might not have anticipated at the start of pursuing your tick list.

Personally I climb peaks for aesthetic line rather than their altitude. Few of the 7 summits are aesthetically attractive (with the exception of Denali in general and the stunning Cassin ridge in particular). And if we look at the biggest of the Munros, even the most ardent of Scots would be hard pushed to call Ben Nevis a beautiful mountain, though the climbing on its north face is world class.

No doubt there’s some great climbing on Everest. Kenton reckons the Khumbu icefall is a stunningly beautiful place. And the west ridge, Tom Hornbein’s committing alpine style adventure back in 1963, is a great line too.

The problem on Everest is media publicity, whether it pushes people towards the peak or whether people go there to pull publicity to themselves for the benefits of sponsors, charitable causes and so on. That leads to overcrowding and tensions building on the mountain, while elsewhere the general public get a rather warped view of what mountaineering is all about, and that’s before the fights start.

The recent fight on Everest has its parallels on the Matterhorn, which is the closest you’ll get to Everest in a European context, both in terms of queues and the notion that the rules should be set by local guides. The Tobleronenhorn is a mountain that looks fantastic from a distance of 5km, but close up is pretty unpleasant to be on, even without the queues. As the late great Chris Dale put it, “it’s about as steep as you can stack shite”. For those of you haven’t had the Toblerone experience, the unwritten rule is that nobody leaves before the Zermatt guides. Disregarding this rule will usually get you a good telling off, but things can also get physical. I’ve never been in a scrap on the Matterhorn myself, but I’ve heard plenty of stories and have been on the receiving end of some totally unwarranted abuse from local experts. I’ve also stood in queues, the worst being totally stationary below the Moseley slab for 45 minutes before my client decided that we should go somewhere less crowded.

So where does Mont Blanc fit into all this? There has recently been fevered debate on internet forums after it emerged that gendarmes will be deployed on the 2 most popular routes to advise climbers and enforce the rules on camping and bivouacking. Once again the main issue is overcrowding, in this case leading to environmental damage. Bluntly, there’s a lot of shit just behind the Gouter hut and below the Cosmiques hut on the Col de Midi. I really can’t see the situation improving anytime soon, given the sheer numbers of people wanting to climb Mont Blanc, and the fact that “laissez faire” is a quintessentially French expression. Contrary to some opinions on UKC forums(the climbing version of the Daily Mail letters page) , there are no privileges for local guides on Mont Blanc.

The North American solution to overcrowding on Denali is to regulate in a draconian way to restrict access. This works from an environmental perspective, limiting the numbers on the mountain and ensuring that all litter is removed and human waste disposed of correctly. This works fine in an Alaskan context with the air flight as a natural turnstile, but it would be unenforceable on Mont Blanc. As an aside there are deep divisions in the international guiding community over the privileges given to local guides on Denali. We can certainly see a theme emerging where local guides are accorded an unfair advantage.

Draconian control is something that also features in indoor climbing in North America. I was in Montreal recently and climbed at an indoor wall with friendly staff and fantastic route setting. There was an obligatory test before being allowed to belay (most UK walls allow you to sign a waiver saying you can), but I wasn’t allowed to belay anyone on lead until I passed another test, and that can’t be done unless it’s with a leader you know. In short, it was made pretty difficult to walk in and lead routes. The result was that 90% of the climbers in that wall were top-roping as opposed to leading.

The British Mountaineering Council posted this on Facebook on 9th May about the possible inclusion of sport climbing in the Olympics:

“The 29th May is a significant day for 2 reasons. Firstly it’s the day the IOC announce the shortlist of sports for the 2020 Olympic Games, and secondly it’s the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest… could this be a lucky sign?”

My irony detector nearly went off the scale. In 60 years we’ve seen Everest degenerate from last great problem to a commercial battleground. I can imagine various scenarios for how rock climbing might look in 2080, and inclusion in the Olympics doesn’t improve any of them. More publicity would lead to more overcrowding and greater restrictions on both indoor walls and outdoor crags. Where Everest “leads”, climbing walls will follow, and if the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc are anything to go by, eventually your average climber on the crag could be affected in the same way.

My top tips?

  • Climb things that look nice, rather than just because they’re big/bigger/biggest.
  • If there’s a queue for your route, go somewhere else.
  • Don’t climb for fame or fortune – climb for fun.