5 minutes with Hillary Gerardi: epitome of mountain culture
American by birth, French by adoption, Hillary Gerardi, 35 epitomises mountain culture. As a mountain explorer, competitive trail runner and development manager at CREA Mont-Blanc, Gerardi’s purpose and soul are at the heart of the Alps.
Hillary shares with us her team’s passion for wild places and how together with researchers, decision-makers and the general public, we're making a difference to observing biodiversity and climate change.
Q. You’re originally from the US, how did you land in Chamonix?
HG: It was a love for the mountains that initially drew me to the Alps, but CREA Mont-Blanc specifically drew me to Chamonix. Working at CREA allows us all to follow our passions – our team work part time and complement this with a second mountain activity. We have a Ski Instructor, International Mountain Leader and a High Mountain Guide amongst us. The dual roles give us all an authentic sense of purpose, and we can lead with experience and learn from each other. As a professional trail runner, I can combine my love of endurance and exploring mountains.
Q. What mountain projects are you working on at the moment?
HG: Chamonix is currently under a blanket of snow, so much of CREA’s main fieldwork is limited until the spring. The best way to get around the mountains is on skis, so while out skiing we follow tracks and collect scat to determine the distribution of different hare species in the region!
Meanwhile, our weather stations and camera traps are still hard at work, (as part of the Wild Mont-Blanc Project), recording temperatures and snow cover across the French Alps, and capturing photos of local fauna across the Mont-Blanc massif. Both at CREA Mont-Blanc and in my athletic pursuits, I enjoy the winter as a bit of a calmer time to prepare for a busier spring and summer.
Q. Are there any specific species of flora and fauna that are of concern?
HG: Right now, we have another ongoing project on Arctic-Alpine species, to understand how birds and animals interact with their habitat, and how they are being impacted by climate change. The species are especially adapted to live in cold environments and even change colour in colder months to be camouflaged in the snow.
For example, The Rock Ptarmigan is at risk of losing up to 90% of their ideal habitat by 2100, and the Mountain Hare is seeing the European Hare (from lower elevations) move up into their habitat. Both species are also impacted by human activity in the mountains. Check out this fun video about the project of The Rock Ptarmigan and Mountain Hare.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with the Écrins and Vanoise National Parks, and is made possible by the European Union’s POIA funding.
Q. How have the Alps changed in the last few years?
HG: Of key interest are “ecotones”, or the places where two ecosystems meet - rich in biodiversity and interactions between species. Two particular ecotones are the treeline (where the forest gives way to shrubland) and the limit between shrubland and grassland.
Our studies have shown that since the 1950s, the surface area of the forest has increased by 80% in the Mont-Blanc massif, as a result of both warming temperatures and a transition from grazing to a tourism economy.
Altitude Gin’s support helps fund our study of these alpine shrublands, where species like juniper and myrtille (its gin ingredients) grow. In 2022, we are developing new techniques to map shrub cover in complex habitat mosaics, and are also studying how changes in vegetation can affect habitat and food availability for herbivores
Q. You’re a competitive trail runner, what do you notice most on your runs?
HG: One of the truly remarkable things about the Mont-Blanc massif is the elevation and temperature gradients. In only 20km of distance, from the base of La Vallée de l'Arve to the summit of Mont-Blanc, you run from 500 metres to 4,810 metres altitude.
Because temperature varies with elevation, getting colder as you ascend, you run through incredible range of microclimates and ecosystems in a relatively small area. Starting from Swiss or Italian valleys and climbing to the top of Mont Blanc is a great climatic journey - similar to going from the Mediterranean all the way to Greenland! In one run you can travel from the valley floor, through the forest, into the shrublands, grasslands and then into rocky and snowy mountains.
Living and running in Chamonix for the last 5 years, I’ve noticed some changes to our trails and landscapes. My own observations are anecdotal, but confirm what the CREA analysis shows: the treeline is moving up and summer heat waves melt snow fast and often dry out alpine wetlands.
Above all though, every time I’m out running, I’m reminded that whilst our landscape is changing, the Mont-Blanc massif is still an absolutely awe-inspiring place filled with incredible species, specially adapted to live here.
Q. What does 2022 have in store for CREA?
HG: Any public events will be really dependent on local and national guidelines. We really hope that we’ll be able to have our monthly ‘Science Sandwich’ lunch conference schedule back up and running for 2022, as these are a great way to share the latest mountain-related science with the public, and provide an opportunity for citizens to engage and exchange with scientists right here in Chamonix.
The public are also able to contribute to our work through their participation in the Phénoclim Citizen Science programme in spring and summer, as well as Wild Mont-Blanc, our online platform where you can help us identify animals in photos taken by our camera traps.
If you’re in the Mont-Blanc massif this winter and see a banded Alpine chough, take a photo where the bands are visible and email us at CREA with the location. We’ll be able to tell you the bird’s biography!
On the research side, we’ll be continuing our study of Arctic-Alpine species, ecotones and also working with other researchers, land managers and decision-makers on a set of biodiversity indicators that will better help us understand and integrate ongoing change into policy.
Hillary lives in Chamonix, with her husband Brad and in 2018 became world champion of the 'Skyrunner Extra World Series' circuit. It's little surprise that the existential motto she has carved into her soul is “love what you do, do what you love”.
Learn more about CREA Mont-Blanc here.