How a town without snow reappeared on the map

The hotel is closed and the ski lifts stopped, but at the foot of the French slopes it is preparing to open an electric bicycle shop.

Towering over the scene in the Vercors mountains are les Deux Sœurs, their twin peaks basking in the sun. The first snowfall of the season has not started the chairlifts, immobile since the end of 2018.

Now the Col de l’Azelier resort is looking for a second wind.

Why are French ski resorts closing?

Taz and Obi, the two dogs of Myriam Estades, have fun in the fresh snow.

Estades is happy to live in Château-Bernard, in the midst of the “magnificent” environment in which learned to ski as a child decades ago.

His wish is “that the station and the environment come back to life, whether it is for skiing or not, because it has become a commuter town.”

An immobile chairlift at the former resort of Col de l’Arzelier in Chateau-Bernard, France. – JEFF PACHOUD/AFP

At 1,154 meters above sea level, the Col de l’Arzelier was a family resort built in the 1960s, popular with locals and children who found their feet in the mountains.

It is one of the 186 ski resorts closed in France since the 1970s, according to Pierre-Alexandre Metral, a doctoral student in geography at the University of Grenoble studying redevelopment strategies.

There are a number of reasons why Col de l’Arzelier closed, explains Jacques Postoly, former president of the local ski club and mayor at the time of its closure.

Climate change played an important role, he says, after several snow-free seasons. Problems with private land and a lack of seasonal accommodation also factored into the decision.

And the town of Château-Bernard, population 300, couldn’t keep up with maintaining expensive old equipment.

“It’s not easy when you’re in love with this area and you’re a skier like me.”

“It’s not easy, when you’re in love with this area and you’re a skier like me,” Postoly sighs.

The new local council, which started in 2020, must take up the challenge.

“It’s a bit complicated,” says First Deputy Mayor Anne Deprez. Given economic necessity and the changing climate, “we decided to go in a different direction, much more focused on the natural, untouched side of the mountain,” she explains.

How is the resort embracing its natural side?

snow rackets and cross-country skiing have replaced (alpine) skiing at the resort.

At the top of the ski lift, the Soldanelle refuge promises an “exceptional panorama”, a stay in a yurt and a “car-free” experience. It is ideal for lovers of trekking and mountain biking, including young families.

The former grocery store has been renamed ‘Altebike’. Pierre Menade and his colleague Thomas Honoré prepare to offer rent electric bikes here in the spring.

“We told the council that we wanted to revitalize the local area and its architectural heritage, that we could develop all these things. So we were quite well received, they offered us the premises immediately”.

A little later, a pasta the factory will open in a former ski rental room.

But change is sometimes difficult, especially for those who have known the good old days of alpine skiing.

A new life for the hotel

The imposing Hôtel des Deux Soeurs, for sale, overlooks the slopes. Built by one of the resort’s founders, it closed in the 2000s.

The building was chosen last year for an architectural project by students from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region for a European competition, called Solar Decathlon.

They envisioned a rehabilitation between economic activity and permanent housing, inspired by “ongoing residentialization,” says architect Christophe de Tricaud, who helped oversee the project.

According to him, “about 30 percent of tourist accommodation is permanently inhabited in the pass.”

“We think that this residentialization could very well continue and intensify, especially in view of climate change and the livability of cities, particularly Grenoble,” he continues.

For him, the middle sierra could “quite easily become a climate refuge” in the future.

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