In the wake of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) confirmation that summer 2023 was the hottest season the world has ever seen, the small French village of La Sambuy has become the latest resort to announce the permanent closure of its ski lifts. Founded in the 1960s, La Sambuy claimed 10 pistes and three chairlifts topping out at 1,851m and was popular with Haute Savoie locals seeking a quiet, less expensive alternative to nearby Megève and Courchevel.
However, La Sambuy’s mayor, Jacques Dalex, confirmed that the resort was only able to remain open for four weeks last winter. With annual running costs of €80,000, it was no longer financially viable to operate La Sambuy as a ski resort. As Dalex explained: “Climate change is forcing us to revise our way of thinking.”
Lack of snow is by no means a problem faced exclusively by Alpine ski resorts – destinations in the southern hemisphere have also been hit by climate change this year. The Australian resort of Thredbo was forced to close two weeks earlier than planned, on September 18. The New Zealand resort of Craigieburn meanwhile closed for one day (September 6) due to the impact of “translucent precipitation on the snowpack” before subsequently announcing its premature closure for the season on September 16.
Fortunately, these southern hemisphere closures are not terminal, unlike that of La Sambuy. However, sadly, data compiled by Pierre-Alexandre Metral, a PhD student at Grenoble University, implies that La Sambuy is just one of some 200 of the 584 ski resorts built in France since the 1930s to have been abandoned, many in the last 20 years.
Most of the closed resorts are tiny, operating five chairlifts or less, yet they still represent about 30 per cent of all French resorts, posing a significant socio-economic threat to local communities as well as the ski industry, and country as a whole.
Lack of snow, largely attributed to climate change, is the key reason for the demise of these resorts yet it’s not the sole cause. Other factors include the inability of smaller resorts to compete with increasingly large ski areas, poor management, and divided local and regional leadership.
For small communities in particular, the closure of a resort not only represents the loss of jobs and income but a loss of identity as well. Once thriving Alpine towns are now scarred by the rusting remains of disused chairlifts, abandoned snow groomers and derelict buildings. In the case of one abandoned resort, Saint-Honoré 1500, this friche industrielle (industrial wasteland) has become a living art gallery: the vast concrete shells of unfinished holiday apartments now serving as a canvas for graffiti artists.
While coating pistes with artificial snow was once heralded as the simple, if costly, solution to dwindling snow cover, the environmental impact of the practice is rendering it increasingly untenable. It is impossible to deny the irony that recreational skiing, with its sprawling carbon footprint, is a key contributor to the demise of the very glaciers, snow and resorts that skiers hold so dear.
It’s inevitable that more French resorts will fall prey to the changing climate and times, requiring locals and the tourism industry to get innovative in regenerating these Alpine destinations. Boosted in part by rising temperatures in cities and urbanites seeking rural escape from the pandemic lockdowns, many resorts are reinventing themselves as year-round wellness escapes that offer a multitude of outdoor activities, from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to mountain biking and rock climbing. However, as one resort official asked me: “How do we erase the negative terminology of an ‘ex-ski resort’?”
According to the founders of the regenerated resort of Puigmal 2900, which reopened in December 2021 following an eight-year closure, there is hope for resorts willing to embrace a carbon neutral future. “Ski resorts will become mountain resorts,” says Pierre Beaufils. “While traditional ski resorts will have to charge ever higher prices to sustain their snow record, we envisage the growth of inclusive, decarbonised mountain areas that blend downhill and uphill skiing without the use of artificial snowmaking and with minimal piste grooming.”
Beaufils’ futuristic vision might sound utopian, but only time will tell. In the meantime, spare a thought for the resorts whose last ski day has come. As one particularly poignant graffiti inscription says on the disused Gare de la Para mid-station in Chamonix: “Je suis un témoin, j’ai une histoire, sauvez-moi svp” - “I am a witness, I have a story, please save me.”
Col de l’Arzelier
The climate change victim
The resort of Col de l’Arzelier opened in 1967 with two lifts offering skiing on both sides of a quiet road located 30 minutes from Grenoble. Set at the foot of the striking Two Sisters peaks, part of the mighty Vercors massif, the resort consisted of a car park, timber reception chalet serving refreshments and Soldanelle mountain refuge.
These basic amenities were added to over subsequent years, with Col de l’Arzelier reaching its zenith in the early 1980s with six ski lifts, nine pistes, some cross-country ski and snowshoe trails and a toboggan run. The village claimed the Two Sisters hotel and restaurant, three bars, six apartment blocks, 80 individual chalets and a ski hire shop.
However, the Isère region suffered an extended snow drought in the 1990s which, combined with the southern exposure of Arzelier’s western sector, led to the abandonment of one of its six lifts in 1998. Five years later, the Two Sisters hotel went bankrupt, and a second chairlift was abandoned in 2008.
In December 2018, following 51 years of service, Col de l’Arzelier’s original chairlift, the two-seater Les Bruyères, and its other lifts, required significant upgrades to keep running safely. With only 300 residents, the Château-Bernand municipality was unable to cover the cost of this work, despite raising over €26,000 (around £21,800) in donations from passionate locals, and the resort closed. The municipality announced the sale or dismantling of the ski lifts in 2019, much to the ire of the outspoken ‘Les Amis de l’Arzelier’ campaign group, who still remain opposed to the closure of the resort. The abandoned lifts, snow groomer and buildings still litter the site today.
Gap Céüze 2000
A divided community
The horseshoe shaped Céüse mountain has been popular with Hautes-Alpes skiers since the 1920s. It was only in 1938, however, that the enterprising Monsieur Gaillard, who owned a local hotel and transport service, decided to install a 185m-long ski lift on the hill and drive visitors to it from Marseille by bus.
After the war, Gaillard’s homespun lift was replaced with a modern one by Jean Pomagalski, shortly before he founded the global lift company, Poma. Following the creation of an intermunicipal syndicate in 1951 to launch the resort of Gap Céüze (Gap being the nearest town), a second lift was installed. Over the coming years, the Gaillard and Edelweiss hotels opened, as well as a snack bar and a holiday center for the PTT, France’s then postal and telecoms department.
Gap Céüze flourished through the decades, benefitting from increased investment when it was taken over by a new intermunicipal group in 1986, boasting nine ski lifts, 25 runs and a snowpark at its peak.
However, successive years of snow drought in the 1990s led Gap to withdraw from the syndicate in 1996. A decade later, plans for an artificial snow system stalled as local municipalities questioned the impact of it on their local water supplies. The mayor of Manteyer announced the closure of the resort in May 2007, only to reverse the decision in October following the creation of Céüze Passion, an association that campaigned against the closure with a petition signed by 1,700 fans of the resort.
In 2015, another failed syndicate was dissolved, and a new group of local communes took over, creating fresh branding and renting two snow cannons in a bid to resume business. However, lack of snow rendered it impossible to reopen and the permanent closure of Céüze 2000 was recorded in February 2020 after 85 years of operation. The future of the site remains bitterly contested by local officials and residents.
The small fish in the big pond
The foundations for the resort of Drouzin-le-Mont were laid in 1966, when the enterprising Henri Teninge installed a 200m-long generator-powered ski lift opposite his restaurant, Chez L’Henri, on the Col du Corbier pass. Set 1,230m above the village of Le Biot, the Col du Corbier is set on the fringes of today’s sprawling Portes du Soleil ski area, near the villages of Abondance and Châtel.
In 1970, the neighbouring communes of Biot and Bonnevaux joined forces to open a ski resort in December 1971 with four lifts and a ski school. In 1975, the resort was renamed Drouzin-le-Mont, construction started on a complex of 30 chalets just below the pass and plans were made to create 300 further accommodation units. Despite the rejection of a bid to install a chairlift in the early 1980s due to insufficient snow cover, two chairlifts were installed in 1990 at the highest point of the ski area, enabling the resort to claim 20 pistes.
However, in February 1994, the electricity to Drouzin-le-Mont was cut off due to unpaid bills dating to 1986. The resort was in debt to the tune of 10 million francs. The lifts were sold in 1998 to the property developer Michel Vivien with the stipulation that they be operated and maintained for at least 18 years.
Vivien constructed a vast water reservoir to supply a network of snow cannons, created a summer toboggan run and built hundreds of expensive slope-side chalets and apartments. However, April 2012 brought his dramatic announcement that chronic losses, caused by consistent lack of snow, required him to cease operation and the municipal council had little choice other than to buy back the resort.
Today, Col du Corbier has returned to its original name and operates as a family-friendly ‘easy mountain’ with a gentle nursery slope serviced by a magic carpet, toboggan rides, snowshoe and cross-country ski trails and activities like ski-joëring and snowshoe archery.
Chasing dreams of white gold
When the coal mines of the Matheysin plateau closed in the 1960s, local councils moved from the pursuit of black gold to white gold, hoping to profit from France’s flourishing love affair with skiing. Grand plans were set in motion to create a ski resort linked to the existing Alpe du Grand Serre ski area on a beautiful spot above the town of Saint-Honoré, with panoramic views of the Vercors massif and Mure valley.
Construction started in 1977 on a reception building, apartment blocks and tennis courts for the new resort, named Saint-Honoré 1500 to reflect its altitude, but the distinct lack of ski infrastructure deterred potential buyers. It was only in the late 1980s, that the Alpe du Grand Serre ski area was expanded with new chairlifts and terrain; a cable car was built over the Col de l’Ouillière, linking it to Saint-Honoré 1500; and the fledgling resort gained two chairlifts and a tow lift. A T-bar was added in 1991 to create a beginner’s area by the resort base.
In the meantime, a new property developer had taken over the resort’s stalling real estate portfolio, announcing ambitious plans for plush chalets and hotels with swimming pools, saunas and bowling alleys. However, work ground to a halt in 1993 when he was declared bankrupt and subsequently imprisoned for fraud and embezzlement of €2.3 million (£1.9 million).
As the hulking concrete structures fell into disrepair, becoming a living graffiti art museum, Saint-Honoré’s ski lifts continued to turn, albeit only on weekends and school holidays, snow permitting, until 2003. One by one, the lifts were then dismantled and sold to other resorts.
A glimpse of the future
When it closed in 2013, Puigmal was the largest ski resort in France to have been forced into closure. Since opening in the Pyrénées-Orientales region in 1970, the Puigmal ski area attained legendary status in southern France, boasting at its peak 13 lifts, 32 pistes, a snowpark, two cross-country ski trails, two mountain restaurants, a ski school and ski hire shops.
Major investments were made in the early noughties to renew the ageing ski lift fleet and extend the ski area up to 2,660m, opening a large freeride ski area, known as the Gates of Paradise. However, a series of disastrous snow years forced the resort to close in 2013 with debts in excess of €9 million (£7.5 million).
Former national ski racers Éric Matzner-Løber, Samuel Nguyen and Olivier Letessier were among countless Puigmal fans who had grown up travelling regularly to the resort from nearby Perpignan and Montpellier. In 2021, the trio joined forces with three fellow mountain lovers to create Puigmal 2900, a pioneering project to rehabilitate the derelict resort into an eco-responsible mountain area. In just six months the determined crew refurbished the old ticket office, snack bar and main chairlift to reopen to skiers and tourers on December 21 2021.
Puigmal 2900 is on track to attain Flocon Vert (green snowflake) status within its first year of operation in recognition of its wide-ranging responsible tourism credentials. These range from capping daily skier numbers at 1,500 to minimise environmental impact to testing groundbreaking methods of sustainable snow making, piste preparation and lift management. In October 2022, Puigmal 2900’s director, Sébastien Marque, announced that the resort would only operate its chairlifts on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends, while remaining open to ski tourers, hikers and snowshoers on other days. While presented as an opportunity to promote eco-responsible mountain sharing, the move was also a financial response to the skyrocketing costs of electricity, which had tripled since the previous winter.
The resort is, perhaps, a glimpse of the future of ski resorts: decarbonised mountain areas that actively encourage people to learn to love the mountains as they are, all year round.