The Origins Of Skiing In Briancon

In 1942, one year after the inauguration of the world’s biggest cable car in Chantemerle (now also known as Serre Chevalier 1350), Edmond Astier was one of three piste workers in the budding ski resort. Their job was to block canals, flatten the snow with their skis, and rescue injured skiers. Soldiers from the base at the Col du Granon came every day to help them flatten the snow on 10km of pistes. They went up the cable car in the mornings and then spent the day walking sideways down the mountain to flatten the snow with their skis! There were no ‘piste bashers’ in those days.

The people that worked in the resort conceived various methods for flattening the pistes and getting the injured down the slopes safely. For example, a thick log drawn with hemp ropes was a useful tool for flattening snow. It was vocational, physical work. In the autumn, all the young villagers would help clear the pistes and widen them. And for no pay. They enjoyed playing and learning on the ski slopes. Snow had up until then been regarded as a winter plague, but it soon transformed into enjoyment and commerce. The Briançon area was one of the first in France to benefit from the so called ‘white gold’.

In 1899 Berthe Clerc gave her husband a pair of skis for Christmas. These Nordic planks were a curious thing, but after touring around the valley, Captain Clerc soon got the taste for it. He quickly realised that skis were a much quicker alternative to the snowshoes his soldiers used. He had 10 pairs ordered from Norway and started lobbying for a general introduction to the army. There are 72 military buildings around the town, and Captain Clerc found that skis were the quickest mode of transport in the winter.

The wooden skis were 2.5 m long and had no edges, so skiing downhill was both impressive and scary. To stop, skiers would throw themselves on the ground and hope for the best. The Paris army officers soon gave in to Captain Clerc’s insistent reports on the benefits of skiing, and ordered him 1,000 pairs. They also accepted the creation of a military ski school in Briançon. It was opened in 1904, but in the meantime the captain had gone to Algeria. Captain Bernard was the one to start the ski school, but he was quickly replaced by Captain Rivas. Rivas immediately created a ski factory, the first in France.