Skiing without ski lifts in France

TIT MECHANICAL The clicking of chairlifts and the bass rhythm of altitude bars are familiar soundtracks in an alpine ski resort every winter. So the calm of the mountains this season is surprisingly strange. French ski resorts are rather animated by different sounds: children tobogganing, huskies pulling sleds, rebellious enthusiasts who climb painfully on skis with their skin on. At the end of last year, when the French government decided to crack down on covid-19 again, it closed all uphill transport but kept the stations open. This means that the French can still ski, but without ski lifts.

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Some solutions are punitive. Cross-country skiing, or skiing uphill, involves fighting on foot on slopes, with handles attached to the bottom of the skis. The alpine village of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, which is part of the Trois Vallées ski area north-east of Grenoble, has opened up a few trails for those with the stamina to reach the top. But skiers have become a minority. The Husky sled is complete. Kit for trekking on snowshoes (snowshoes) is exhausted. “Everything we had was pre-booked and rented,” explains the owner of a ski rental shop in Saint-Martin. At an altitude of 2000 meters, hardy tourists can even go ice diving through a hole in a frozen lake.

The French ski almost as many days in total each year as the Americans, who are five times more numerous. With little prospect of opening the ski lifts this season and most of the neighboring ski areas also closed, the 325 French resorts have had to diversify. This can help them attract more non-skiers to the mountains in the future. Meanwhile, those who usually make beds, serve drinks, maintain ski lifts or teach at ski school in the Alps are either on leave or out of work. Foreign tourists are stuck at home.

The Saint-Martin-de-Belleville tourist office claims to have only 30% occupancy, less than half of its normal rate in February. In the French mountain resorts, specially designed for skiing and often without charm, the rate has fallen to 25%, indicates the National Association of Mayors of Mountain Resorts (ANMSM).

The government unveiled a “mountain plan” costing 4 billion euros ($ 4.8 billion) to help people and businesses keep operating. But the pressure is on. Some small stores and businesses typically earn two-fifths of their annual income in February. The income of the ski industry could represent half of the 10 billion euros expected in a normal year. Village town halls, which depend on their share of income from ski passes or parking lots, fear for their budget. “The mountain is an ecosystem”, explains Joël Retailleau of the ANMSM. “It’s easy to just press a button and close the elevators, but it has ripple effects, not only in the resorts, but also in the valleys. It affects hundreds of thousands of people. “

Local anger over the government’s decision could be vented during the regional elections in June. Laurent Wauquiez, a Republican president of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, was the favorite even before the ski lifts closed. Marine Le Pen’s nationalist party was second without even choosing a candidate. The government is unlikely to reopen the ski lifts before the end of the season. If anything, as infection rates start to rise again, it may need to tighten up. Neighboring Italy had planned to reopen ski resorts this month, but changed its mind.

Ski lifts have turned France’s poor mountain valleys into playgrounds for the rich in Europe, but also created glaring inequalities. Locals now find themselves alongside tourists, even though the mountains are gloriously peaceful without them.

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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Uphill wrestling in the snow”


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