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

September 13, 1988|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

CHAMONIX, France — 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.

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