Illustration by Matt Ward
It’s hard to imagine a ski resort as dirty. To connect the idea of something so bright and white with anything that isn’t pure. A breath of cold, mountain air will always feel fresh and clean, especially for city people. We see it as restorative for our lungs. A way to offset our usual grimy inhalations. We crave it. We seek it out.
So when news broke last winter that the air quality in Chamonix was as bad as that in cities including London and Lyon, on certain days, the disbelief amongst snow lovers was palpable. (French TV News even screamed that it had reached Beijing-levels, though that’s since been disputed.)
But the people who live in Chamonix weren’t surprised at all. Residents have long known about this historic resort town and adventure mecca’s “dirty secret". The coughs that won’t clear up, the high rate of respiratory illness, the days when school kids are told they can’t play outside… Locals are just pleased those outside the valley have finally started to notice.
I was lucky enough to live in Chamonix between 2000-2002. The air was cleaner then. That’s not nostalgia speaking it actually was, as the Mont Blanc tunnel was shut following a fire in 1999. The closure was helpful for the eco campaigners as for the first time since the tunnel opened in the 1960s its negative local impact could be measured. When closed, the Guardian reported that: “Air quality improved throughout L’Arve region dramatically. Wild flowers that hadn’t been seen for years suddenly reappeared. The entrance to the tunnel, blackened by exhaust fumes, became pearly white…"
In 2002 thousands attended rallies organised by several local non-profits, including Environn’ Mont Blanc, posters and banners urging “Non Au Retour Des Camions" filled the valley, and 99% of residents voted against the tunnel being reopened. But it did and the lorries did come back with a vengeance. Today it’s estimated that half a million HGVs pass through the tunnel every year.
But the lorries filing under Europe’s highest mountain aren’t the only problem. Open fires, that quintessential cosy mountain experience, which also make the streets of Chamonix smell so nice, are a big source of pollution too. As Vanessa Carrington, a spokesperson for Inspire, a charity born of Environn’ Mont Blanc, which campaigns for better air quality in the area, says: “There are a lot of homes where it’s the sole source of heating but for those people doing it because it’s charming, it’s not the best thing to do. Not only are you polluting Chamonix but you’re killing yourself in the process with the particles released."
Too many people drive in Chamonix too, which has a massively negative effect on air quality, especially with diesel engines, emitters of harmful nitrogen oxides, more popular than ever. It doesn’t help that Chamonix isn’t a ski-in ski-out resort but instead five separate ski mountains dotted around the valley. The town bus service is often crowded and unreliable, especially on powder mornings, while trains are infrequent so many tourists rent cars, and most locals drive as their primary way to get around.
Pollution from industry further up the valley towards Sallanches is also a problem, all of which combine with Chamonix’s unique v-shaped valley geography in the worst possible way. As Carrington explains: “The steep mountain sides, deep valleys, and temperature inversions help trap pollutants on the valley floor, particularly in winter on sunny days, when the air becomes very still. That’s also when everyone is having fires, so that’s when we have our peak days."
Last winter, I spoke to local resident Jools Benker, a mother and film producer, about it. She said: “We've known about "the pollution" for a few years now, but it wasn't until the children weren't allowed out in the playground at school that we realised how bad it was. That's just crazy. When your doctor tells you that he keeps his own children at home on peak days, it makes you rethink your life choices."
“You know it's a bad day when the first thing everyone does when they wake up is cough. Then you step outside and you taste it, in your mouth, in your nose, it's everywhere. And you can see it too, when you're up on the hill looking down at Chamonix, bathing in a cloud of purple/yellow/grey clouds. I honestly think that the only way to improve the air here is to let the world know how bad the current situation is. If tourists stop coming because of it, the local authorities will definitely have to do something about it at last."
Giles Bickford is one of the owners of the Vert Hotel in Chamonix. They run an annual Street Food festival to raise awareness and funds for Inspire. He says: "For many businesses here, there's a financial temptation to brush the issue under the carpet to protect the tourist industry."
“But I think for the smaller local companies owned by people living and raising families in the valley the priority is increasingly to fight for the environmental health of the area, which is also the only way to sustain our businesses in the long term."
And when you have French TV News talking up the issue and British news sites such as The Guardian covering it the cat is pretty much out the bag anyway. Even more so since the Chamonix rap, which has over 60 thousand views and killer lines such as “The air in Cham, it’s so hard to breathe, the sickness in the valley is making me heave" and “So much bad air, it’s pushing me down, we’ve got to change our ways to save this town…"
The film was produced by Rachel Service of Seven Twenty Productions. I asked where the idea came from:
“Friends of ours, Daph and Charlie, two Cham locals with young kids who were sick of being told their kids couldn't play outside at lunchtime because it was to dangerous and constantly having to take their kids to the doctor with chest and throat infections…A lot of people were happy to support the project as it's something that affects all of us."
The clip was first screened at the Chamonix Adventure Festival last March, where it got a great response. The team also got a round of applause from the pisteurs one day on the mountain, which Rachel Service says: “Was really nice as obviously what we are saying directly affects tourism in Chamonix."
Not everyone was so stoked on the video locally though. A source told me: “I won’t name names but one of the big players in town was very upset that scenes from the rap had been filmed in front of their location… But [it was suggested to them] that they could be a pioneer, they could be the big guy who stands up and says, ‘There’s a problem,’ and everyone else can follow. Shortly after that they posted it on their facebook."
That was a big step. Vanessa Carrington says: “Two years ago you wouldn’t have gotten anyone in business, whose livelihood depends on tourism, to even admit that there’s a problem. They thought it would kill the industry. But if you don’t do anything about it it’s going to kill the industry too because no one is going to come here. It’s better to deal with it now while you still can."
“You look at the mountains and the beautiful sky and surroundings and you can’t imagine in your wildest dreams that we have pollution levels that are making people ill. Summer is less bad but then people kind of feel like it’s gone away. Then it spikes up again in winter people remember there’s a problem…"
That cycle had been going on for years but this summer it appears a breaking point of sorts was reached and in recent weeks some positive changes have been announced. The public bus system has been shaken up with greener vehicles, including some electric buses, introduced. Frequency will be improved and they’ll have free wifi to encourage more people to use them. Some on-demand services will also be launched, which would have a massive impact, as no one wants to wait for a bus when there’s snow on the mountain.
There will also be tighter restrictions on highly polluting trucks, funding for people to upgrade their heating and insulation to reduce the use of open fires, electric car charging stations, and a big cycle lane initiative in the flat part of the valley.
I ask Vanessa Carrington why now? Was it rap power!? “I think the rap certainly helped. I think awareness in general, both in the valley and beyond, of our pollution problem has helped motivate people and the government to take action. We are thrilled these changes have been made."
“I hope the people of the valley make full use of the subsidies and the improved bus schedules instead of automatically taking their cars. I would also like to see more communication efforts to inform people in real time about the pollution days, for example instead of putting it on the electronic panel boards (that people only see in their cars), send direct messages to residents through schools, sports clubs, shop owners etc."
"The larger companies here, such as the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, Bureau du Guides and ESF, could be proactive by posting flags similar to the avalanche warnings, but for pollution (green=okay, orange=warning, red=bad). I am not criticising what hasn't been done yet, it is just a long road ahead."
Anne Lassman-Trappier, President of Environn' MontBlanc adds: “This is an ongoing process. We obviously need to keep going and get further. We are asking for the most polluting trucks to be forced to travel through the Alps by rail permanently, on the available capacity on a nearly line in Savoie. But the issue of goods transport is the toughest one to address, because it is dealt with at a national level."
“On the other hand, [local government] is in charge of local cycling policies, and on this subject, our actions are having a direct effect and local public transport, as we have seen with the bus system, as Vanessa says, we now need to get many more local people to use this service..."
So as we’ve seen recently with the reversal of plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, eco-aware people can make an impact and affect real change, especially on their local environment, which is epic news!
Should you avoid Chamonix this winter? No way, it has some of the best snowboarding and skiing terrain you’ll ever experience in a truly wonderful setting. Should you ditch the open fires and switch your rental car for a bus when you’re there though? Yep. As Rachel Service says: “You don't have to try and save the world, you just need to act more responsibly on a local level."