The Crystal Hunters of Chamonix
Climate change is melting the glaciers and permafrost of the Mont Blanc massif, revealing crystals hidden in pockets once covered in snow. Simon Akam tagged along on an expedition with one of the area’s most legendary hunters, a daring French alpinist who completes dangerous climbs to discover specimens worth tens of thousands of dollars.
On a partly cloudy afternoon in August 2019, I followed a Spanish mountain guide named Simón Elías up steep granite terraces on the north face of a peak in the French portion of the Mont Blanc massif. The 12,561-foot summit of the mountain, called Les Courtes, loomed 1,000 feet above where we were climbing, and 2,000 feet below us lay the Argentière glacier, its surface striated with crevasses. We had entered the Argentière basin across a low point in the ridgeline called the Col des Cristaux—which in English translates to Crystal Pass—before traversing laterally across the mountainside. On another rope, photographer Nicolas Blandin moved alongside a 66-year-old named Christophe Péray.
The topography was complicated: fresh snow stuck to the mountainside, and I periodically lost sight of Elías ahead of me as he moved behind rocks. Communication with Blandin and Péray was only possible through echoing shouts.
I belayed Elías as he put in a cam before positioning himself on the face to uncover a four. Four is French for oven, but in this context, the word refers to cavities in the mountainside that, in the broadest sense, resemble somewhere you could bake bread. English has various equivalent geological terms: alpine-type fissure, alpine cleft, or, most simply, pocket. This one was on a snow-covered ledge, a couple feet wide at its broadest. Unless you were an expert, however, it would be hard to distinguish the site from any of 1,000 other such ledges on the face.
I shouted up, asking if the pocket was large. “No, it’s not enormous,” Elías’s voice echoed down in French. “But there are beautiful pieces here. Very beautiful pieces.”
This area contained several similar pockets, which Elías and Péray had discovered a few weeks earlier by rappelling down from the ridge above. It was, until recently, permanently covered by ice and snow, but that had melted out, likely due to climate change.
I scrambled up and joined Elías on the ledge. Some minutes later, Blandin and Péray also appeared at the site. The Spaniard sang a wordless melody as he drove in pitons and secured us to the rock face.
Now he and Péray began to clear the snow from the ledge and reach into the cavity. The opening expanded as they dug until it was roughly wide enough to fit a soccer ball. Their tools included a chisel and a green plastic rake that Péray had appropriated from his children’s sandcastle equipment. They also prepared with blowtorches to melt the remaining ice, the gas hissing in the thin, high-altitude air. “At the moment, the snow prevents me from seeing properly,” Péray said in French. “After clearing the snow and removing some stones, I should reach them very soon.”
We were high, north-facing, and out of the sun. I waited in the cold until eventually Elías, crouched on his knees, began to pull out chunks of a dark glassy substance. A few smaller pieces came first, which he held together in his orange-and-gray-gloved hand like oversized, irregular marbles. The block that followed was much larger, the size of a small brick, its surfaces angled together into a sharp point, like a microcosm of the spiky mountains all around us. It was translucent. This was what we had come for.