Simon Akam is a British writer. A contributing writer for the Economist’s 1843 magazine, his work has also appeared in Outside, GQ, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He is the author of The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11.
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.