Mayor Guards Image : Mt. Blanc: It's Not a Party Peak

Times Staff Writer

Michel Charlet, a 43-year-old insurance agent, is mayor of this famous resort town in the French Alps.

But his most important role--indeed, the mission of his life in the Haute Savoie area where his family has lived since at least 1670--is "guardian of the mountain."

The mountain is 15,771-foot Mt. Blanc, Europe's highest peak. It sits benevolently over the Chamonix valley, looking like a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream.

France is a prideful nation, and Mt. Blanc is one of its proudest possessions.

"To me," explained Jean-Louis Bessiere, 42, a French magazine writer who visited Chamonix on a recent sunny afternoon, "Mt. Blanc is like the Eiffel Tower. It is like a piece of the French flag."

Wards Off Publicity Seekers

As mayor of the territory that includes the mountain, Charlet's sacred task is to keep this lofty French institution from being sullied and vulgarized by cheap publicity seekers--and by "trash sportsters."

For some unexplained reason, a kind of mountain weirdness, an Alpine balminess that the French call loufoque , overtakes people when they come near Mt. Blanc. Call it the Mt. Blanc syndrome. The rarefied atmosphere makes them dizzy and inspires them to think of strange ways to assault the noble peak or exploit its good name.

Six years ago, for example, a stunt driver, dropped illegally at the summit by an Italian helicopter, tried to drive down in a specially modified car.

Fortunately for the image of France and its mountain, the car veered out of control and slammed into a glacier. The driver, identified as Frenchman Michel Chirouze, was arrested after jumping out at the last minute. A debate ensued between France and Italy over which country was responsible for cleaning up the wreckage.

A Giant Geranium

Last summer, there was the case of the strange man who wanted to be photographed at the top holding a giant potted geranium. Then there was the much-publicized episode of the Polish couple who wanted to transport their 2-year-old child to the summit.

But, by all accounts, this year has been the most challenging yet for Charlet in his capacity as mayor and guardian of the mountain. In fact, the Mt. Blanc madness has been so great on the "roof of Europe" in 1988 that French newspaper editorialists and Alpine pundits have begun to worry that Mt. Blanc has become "banalized" or turned into a "stadium."

So far this year, Charlet has firmly denied requests from:

-- A concert pianist who wanted to haul a grand piano to the summit by helicopter and perform a recital.

-- A group of eight French chefs and gourmets who, "drawn together by our friendship and passion for the mountain," fervently wanted to cook and serve a six-course meal at the top.

-- Representatives of a computer company, a washing machine manufacturer and a refrigerator firm who all wanted to photograph their products at the summit, no doubt for advertisements that would talk about their respective "high quality."

-- An organization of 150 Parisians who wanted to ascend the mountain en masse and hold hands.

"It is sometimes necessary," Mayor Charlet announced somberly in a recent interview in his spacious office at city hall, "to guard and protect the pure image of Mt. Blanc."

The French have a well-known genius for prohibiting, denying, restricting and banning. It was no mere whim that one of the most popular revolutionary posters that appeared during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris was one that said: "It Is Prohibited to Prohibit."

Thick File

For this year alone, the Chamonix city file on "interdictions" against would-be despoilers of Mt. Blanc is about 8 inches thick.

But Charlet also likes to talk about the liberties and freedoms enjoyed on the mountain. "It is also necessary," he said, the features on his face softening, "to think of the mountain as the sea. The mountain should have total freedom."

To show that he is a good sport on the mountain freedom question, Charlet this summer permitted a large group of former lung cancer patients from Japan to be ferried to the summit by helicopter and to raise a large banner celebrating their recovery. He said no to the pianist. But on July 27, he allowed a pair of dog-sled drivers, each with a team of three dogs, to climb the mountain amid much fanfare.

As the local Chamonix newspaper, Le Dauphine Libere, pointed out in its report of the event, it was not the first time that dogs had reached the summit of Mt. Blanc. Nor was it the first time that a dog sled had reached the summit. But it was the first time that two dog sleds had achieved the highest point in Europe and, as far as had been officially recorded, six was the record number for dogs at the mountaintop.

Charlet, a lanky man with dark, curly hair who has been mayor for six years, is also a big fan of parachuting. He says "it goes with the mountain." So, every day, weather permitting, the azure skies of the Chamonix valley are flecked with descending, drifting parachutes.

In France, nearly 200 years after its revolution for the rights of man, the best kind of freedom is still one that has first been approved by authority. This kind of permitted freedom reaches its highest practice on Mt. Blanc.

In truth, neither Charlet nor any other person has all that much official control over the mountain. Practically all of Charlet's power is contained in a relatively recent French law that requires the approval of local authorities, usually the mayor of the nearest town, before a helicopter can be used in mountain areas.

Sneak Up Italian Side

Much to the mayor's regret, neighboring Italy, whose border climbs high on the other face of Mt. Blanc, has no such helicopter law, and pranksters often sneak up from that side. Meanwhile, a French legislator has stirred things up by proposing to repeal the helicopter rule.

Still, as long as it is on the books, Charlet and his aides have managed to use the helicopter rule with great effectiveness.

When one ambitious sports promoter proposed a mass foot race up the mountain, an event he said would attract mountain racers from all over the world and perhaps even American television networks, Charlet and his resourceful aide, Gerard Markounsky, refused to permit helicopters on Mt. Blanc on the day proposed for the race.

Then, employing a classic Catch-22 with a French twist, they told the promoter that the race could not be held unless he had rescue helicopters standing by. Otherwise, they said, public safety would be endangered.

A similar helicopter technique was used to kill the dreams of the man with the geranium. "Every year we get these crazy loufoque requests," Markounsky said. "There was the man who wanted to go up with the big geranium. We were not able to tell him he could not go up the mountain with a geranium. But we could tell him that he could not use a helicopter to take him there."

In the end, of course, the man did not go, and French bureaucracy triumphed again.

However, one thing the men at Chamonix city hall have not been able to stop so far is the growing, celebrated phenomenon of individuals racing up the mountain against the clock.

When Mt. Blanc was first climbed 202 years ago by a local doctor, Michel-Gabriel Paccard, and his mountain guide, Jacques Balmat, the expedition took days.

The next man to reach the summit, scientist H. B. de Saussure, was accompanied by a servant and 18 guides. He brought food, scientific equipment, tents, folding beds, mattresses, sheets, blankets, two frock coats, three waistcoats, six shirts, one white suit, boots, three pairs of shoes and slippers.

In 1838, Mt. Blanc was climbed by Henriette d'Angerville and her entourage of six guides, six porters and a carrier pigeon.

5 1/2-Hour Trek

Today's mountain racers make the climb from the front of city hall in Chamonix to the summit and back in less than 5 1/2 hours. They travel alone. Their equipment consists of a pair of jogging shoes, ski poles for balance, strap-on crampons for the snow and glacial areas and a Gortex vest for sliding down the mountain on their belly after they have reached the top.

Among the world's peaks, Mt. Blanc, 1,275 feet higher than California's Mt. Whitney, is one of the easier climbs. Mt. Blanc is the apex of a glacial plateau, 30 miles long and 8 miles wide.

The mountain has a rounded top--"like a white whale breaching the sea," wrote author Peter Miller. It is smooth with snow that is firm and solid in the morning hours, when most of the climbing is done. More than 1,000 climbers reach the top each summer. As many as 100 have stood together at the summit.

Still, most of the 300 professional mountain guides in Chamonix make the trip in two days, with an overnight stop at a mountainside refuge. The standard rate for a Mt. Blanc ascent with one of them is about $400.

Clearly, the guides of Chamonix and the officials at city hall are concerned that the mountain sprinters will encourage people to go up the mountain alone, without guides.

"The races are not good for the image of Mt. Blanc," said Markounsky, "because it makes it look too easy. The honor of the mountain is at stake."

Record Broken Four Times

The record for the round-trip climb of Mt. Blanc was shattered four times this summer, and each time the feat was greeted with astonishment by the town newspaper.

When the third record-breaker, a Swiss math professor named Jacques Berlie, made the trip in 5 hours and 37 minutes on July 28, the newspaper raised an alarm that read like a trailer for a horror movie:

"What will stop them?" it asked. "How can the record for such a difficult terrain be broken?"

Only 11 days later, when Frenchman Laurent Smagghe slashed another eight minutes off the time in the latest record effort, the newspaper's editor asked the racer to react to "a certain inquietude among professionals (mountain guides)" about the mountain racing trend.

"No," said Smagghe, still panting from his effort, "I don't think I have banalized the mountain. I don't think it will incite tourists to climb Mt. Blanc in tennis shoes."

Meanwhile, mountain guide Daniel Meot, 54, a veteran of 70 treks up the mountain, is not so much worried about the mountain racers. They are just a sign of the rushed, high-pressure times, he said, "like the news flash on television."

But he wants to make one point perfectly clear about Laurent Smagghe and his breed. What they do when they attack the mountain is not alpinism --the word used to describe the gentlemanly and unhurried appreciation of mountains and the unparalleled beauty of the countryside.

"Call it an uphill marathon. Call it a foot race at high altitude. But it is not alpinism ."

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