The Beaufortain, a “Tyrolean island”

The Alps have their grand valleys, full of traffic and tourism, noise and activity.

But then there are the small valleys, which have long remained mountain “islands”.  Beaufortain is one of these.

An island has its own culture, butis not necessarily totally withdrawn.  At sea, the islands have their sailors.  On land, they also have their adventurers, travelling far to discover them, to see if the grass is greener…

Through patience and hard work, the Beaufortains have shaped their mountains to the needs of a complex agro-pastoral system, where plots of land are never lost just for pleasure. From cereals grown in the flat ground of the lowlands, up to the furthest corners of the high alpine pastures, no plot was untapped at the beginning of the 19th century. This shaped an open landscape, strewn with scattered cottages or summershelters, where a few weeks were spent leading the animals up to pasture, to graze the fresh hay uncovered by the retreating snow.  Comparison is sometimes made with the Tyrol. This is pretty true for the landscape and for the care taken to maintain its agricultural heritage. And it’s also true for the psychology of its inhabitants. But also, you can see that the bulbous bell towers of Beaufortain, as in many other valleys of the Savoie, hark back to a time of influence from the east…

From summer to winter

For a mountain farmer, winter is as good aslost time – a heavy constraint on the work of summer, when many handsare needed to collect the hay and supplies essential to the survival of men and animals during thedead time. Lots of hands in summer, too many in winter. In order not to burden their families, many travelled far to findother work (the cliché of young chimney sweeps…), or to set up as roving street traders, sellers of trinkets or jewels… Some did not return, making their new family in Paris or elsewhere (this is how the most famous Beaufortain, Roger Frison Roche, was born in Paris …). Others came back, with new ideas… for example, to welcome tourists. Alas, the Beaufortain has no 4000m peaks, or even 3000m ones blessed with formidable precipices. The fashion for mountaineering first hit Chamonix, then Pralognan, then La Grave. In this vogue for alpine conquest, the Beaufortain compared poorly, with its gentle cattle-grazing slopes (although thePierra Menta with its chamois is striking enough). Soit attracted just a handful of tourists toenjoyits countryside and listento its cowbells.

That was until the day when fanatics began to show interest in sliding down these slopes on skis in the middle of winter. This was the dawn of the revolution: if people were willing to pay to come and have fun during the dead-season for agriculture, there might be no need to go far to earn a crust… In 1927, the Viallet d’Arêches hotel was the first to open in winter. The Lyonnais arrived to try out the snowy pastures of the Grand Mont… Others opened ski accommodation in Pémonts, above Hauteluce. Alfred Couttet, a Chamoniard, built a hotel in the beautiful Roselend bowl around 1937. There were even projects to build ski-lifts…

At the same time, the Albertville region boldly replaced its military-based economy with factory chimneys. Following the (hydro-electric) lead of Aristide Bergès, from Isère, industrialists came to capture the energy of the Beaufortain torrents to power their factories.  One by one,Aubry in Venthon, and then especially Paul Girod in Ugine, built power plants taming the Doron de Beaufort. New construction brought work to the valley, strength to the people, and new riches to the communes.

Future winter

The war here was less dramatic than in the Vercors or the Glières, even though the valley was a solid base for the resistance, with the great parachute landing of August 1944 at Saisies*. After the liberation, a few imaginative minds aimed toput in place what they had seen elsewhere, from the ski-slopes of Megève to the cable cars of the dam sites… Why don’t we build a ski lift here? In 1947, Gaspard Blanc (assisted by his wife Simone) opened the first lift in Arêches.

The following year, the fate of the future Roselend station was sealed: the new EDF company was interested in its bowl and the 1200m drop to La Bâthie, near Albertville. In ten years, the equilibrium of Beaufortain was upended. Three huge construction sites invaded the alpine pastures: the dams of Roselend, Saint Guerin and the Gittaz. Thousands of employees arrived from outside, young people from the country attracted by the good wages of the new sites… It was painful, of course, but why not make hay on the devil’s slopes? Many did not return to agriculture, even part-time. From below, night and day, streams of buses took the workers up to the steelworks of Ugine. With 4000 jobs at the end of the 1960s, the steel industry was taking over.

In the winter, the small ski resort of Arêches developed quietly, together with Saisies, which opened in 1963 after the pioneering work of an Austrian, Erwin Eckl, who had arrived before the war in thesepastures so full of promise.

But at the end of the EDF construction period, the Beaufortain was suddenly threatened with starvation. Its lifeforce was gone.  Its traditional agriculture had been mortally wounded, and tourism on its own was not yet able to stem the wound.

The saving grace came on two fronts, together with the comforting crutch of the compensation paid by EDF for the drowned pastures.

Firstly, around Maxime Viallet, farmers revived local cheese-making, and obtained an AOC for Beaufort in the late 1960s. Slowly, they managed to create an exceptional product, sold at a good price. This was the only way to compensate for the extra costs of exploiting the higher steep pastures of the massif.

Secondly, the commune of Beaufort took over the old ski lifts,which had been erected any old how in the fields of Arêches; and gradually organised a coherent resort, capable of attracting holidaymakers. The only developers allowed were those promoting social tourism. Property development was virtually monopolised by the locals. The “island” willingly accepted visitors, but it kept the profits for itself, and managed without too many exceptions to maintain the image of pristine and natural mountains that it was able to promote. However, Beaufortain now has 20,000 tourist beds for only 4000 permanent residents…

Yesterday, or the day before yesterday, no one would have thought of reaching such capacity. But the Beaufortain experience is a textbook example of change brought aboutsmoothly and relying on traditional but renovated agriculture.  While other alpine valleys are overrun with thorns, the problem is virtually unknown in Beaufortain, much to the delight of mountain cyclistsfollowing its ancestral paths, now reborn as new country trails.

François Rieu


*Read « Les Montagnards de la Nuit » by Frison Roche