Whether it is the Alps, the Himalayas or the snows of Kilimanjaro, and whether it is a climber, a hiker or a resident, the mountains have for centuries attracted a certain type of person. These are people who seek serenity, solitude and escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life – who want to be surrounded by nature in its most imposing form, if not tested by it, in order to feel alive.
It is desolate, snowy peaks and majestic sunsets over untouched glaciers that they are after, but nowadays this sense of isolation is becoming more elusive. The business of mountain living is running away with itself, and in so doing threatening the very thing that makes it desirable in the first place.
Nothing illustrates the problem better than the pictures of kilometre-long queues that appeared in 2013 of oxygen-masked climbers standing in line to reach the summit of Everest. The mountain climbing community was ablaze with talk about how the overcrowding problem was now endangering the summiting process, if not undermining the very point of climbing Everest in the first place.
Talk to experienced climbers or guides, meanwhile, about who is really to blame for the cramped conditions on the mountain and their answer is forthright: it is all down to the rise of the amateur climber with more money than sense – the millionaire who has it all but wants to impress with an adventure story.
In the Alps, the mountain refuges servicing Mont Blanc are beginning to experience similar overcrowding. Last year, the huts got so busy that many climbers opted to pitch camp themselves – a problem because it was the reservation system for the mountain refuges that had helped to control the summit crowds.
The French authorities responded aggressively by placing high-mountain gendarmes by the Goûter hut – the starting point for the ascent to Mont Blanc – to police and fine people pitching unauthorised tents. But this was seen as being against the spirit of the mountain, and many objected to the authoritative nature of the crackdown. In their opinion, the mountain is common land, and access to it is a universal right.
Overcrowding isn’t just an issue for big mountain climbers. Poor snow at the season’s start rendered many of Europe’s low ski resorts out of action this year, generating unprecedented crowds on the pistes of the higher altitude resorts.
Some locals say they’ve never seen it so busy at peak periods. Usually clear pistes began to resemble clogged-up motorway junctions, endangering skiers and forcing many who could not necessarily handle it into riskier off-piste territory. The problem of skier sprawl is now so prevalent in key resorts that the opportunity to ski virgin trails lasts at most a morning. The hunt for fresh snow – the new scarce commodity – has begun to resemble a Klondike gold rush.
As a result, resorts have sought to control crowds by using high prices. Ten years ago upmarket locations such as Courchevel and Verbier were still easily accessed by most of Europe’s middle class. Today they represent the exclusive playgrounds of the rich. The transformation has come with a proliferation of fashionable boutiques, designer restaurants and high-end chalets, which are used at most once or twice a year and have the effect of turning the resorts into ghost towns during off-season periods.
Swiss authorities, annoyed by the side effects, have banned the development of second homes in areas where such properties dominate. Yet this has only pushed real estate prices higher, magnifying the access problem and spreading the “Louis Vuittonification” trend to second-tier towns.
Chamonix, which has for years catered successfully to both hardcore ski-bums and the affluent, is undergoing exactly such a metamorphosis. So far, a well-located five-bedroom chalet can still be found for under €2m, but the rising number of Michelin-star restaurants and boutiques in town is telling.
And yet, what is perhaps most striking is that the soaring costs associated with mountain living are not helping to regulate the crowds, demonstrating perhaps the preponderance of wealth that is out there. This begs the very serious question of whether prices should be used to control access to the great outdoors at all? One alternative, at least for big mountain climbing and skiing, could be to ration access to the terrain by some form of lottery, a process already used by many football clubs to control crowds in stadiums, as well as to keep demographics within them equitable.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that local authorities would ever go for it, given the potential disruption this could unleash on local house prices. What use, after all, is a mountain chalet without a skiing option? If it is argued, on the other hand, that residents should be excluded from any such scheme, that would defy the point of the regulation in the first place. Indeed, just as in the Swiss case, the loophole might fire-up the bid for local property instead, fuelling the vicious circle further.
For now, it is more than likely that the mountain overcrowding problem is here to stay. The only respite for property investors is that if they identify the right unspoilt resort today, they might still be able to strike snow and benefit from the spillover effect when it eventually comes their way.
Izabella Kaminska is an FT Alphaville reporter