Older residents of Saint-Firmin can recall learning to ski on slopes served by one of the first lifts above the village, one that will now be seen only in pictures of days when winter meant abundant snow.
Wearing hard hats and T-shirts in the bright autumn sunshine, volunteers recently gathered to pull down the pylons that had been rusting unused for the past 15 years.
Sparks flew as saws cut through the eight columns that crashed like trees onto the grass of the Valgaudemar valley, the pieces then dismantled and lugged or dragged to the bucket of a waiting tractor.
“We no longer have the climate that produces constant snow, and we can’t install snow cannons here,” said local councillor Didier Beauzon, who enlisted the help of the NGO Mountain Wilderness.
The old lift at Saint-Firmin tops out at 1,550 metres (5,100 feet) and mostly faces south — a situation that effectively dooms its chances to remain a winter sports destination as temperatures have risen across Europe.
The lift, installed in 1963 as newly prosperous postwar generations were flocking to the slopes, will end up in a local scrapyard.
It was the 70th operation to remove obsolete installations, including nearly two dozen abandoned ski lifts, orchestrated by Mountain Wilderness, created in Italy in 1987.
Around 3,000 such installations are rusting across French mountain ranges, it estimates, and the goal is to encourage local authorities to remove them and return the landscape to its pristine state.
“The ultimate goal is to have each developer, each agency, take responsibility for the dismantlement, without the intervention of an NGO or volunteers,” said Nicolas Masson, an administrator at Mountain Wilderness’s French arm.
“Removing a structure and putting things back in their natural state should be the norm, it’s a fundamental part of sustainable development,” he said. “Unfortunately that doesn’t always seem so obvious.”
– Alternative futures –
Other leftover relics include installations, rubble and trash from forestry and agriculture operations such as logging cables or disused gates, or from military or industrial activities.
Some pose dangers, like World War II barbed wire barriers that can injure sheep flocks or deer.
“We know that we won’t be able to remove it all ourselves,” said Carmen Grasmick, one of the Mountain Wilderness volunteers.
For the NGO, the cleanup campaign also aims to nudge other communities to consider alternatives to focusing almost exclusively on skiing, and develop outdoor activities more in tune with a changing climate.
It notes the high costs in terms of resources for operating a resort, especially as more stations turn to artificial snow-making machines to ensure slopes are available all winter.
French villages in lower altitudes of the Alps as well as the Pyrenees mountains are already confronting the new reality of lifts that may never be turned on again.
“There will always be people who are sad because it’s where they learned to ski, it happens each time,” Grasmick said.
“But there are places like here where they have the courage to turn the page. Because in any case, there’s nothing else to be done.”