After several squeaks, the rusty wheel was finally wrenched from the tarnished white pole that once stood proudly on the mountainside.
Watching from the sidelines, roughly a hundred people gathered in the small French Alpine village of Saint-Firmin to bid farewell to their ski lift as a small team worked to dismantle it late last month.
The reason? It hasn’t been in use for years – because there was no more snow.
“Global warming happened, and that’s what changed our view of this site,” Didier Beauzon, 63, a life-long resident of Saint Firmin and an elected official serving the village, told CNN.
“Well, we had to give it back to nature,” he added.
The ski site was originally built in 1964 to help kids from the village learn how to ski somewhere close to home before they tackled more challenging trails all around the Alps.
While it once enjoyed regular winter snowfalls, things had deteriorated in recent decades. It’s a situation currently being experienced in other French and European ski resorts as climate crisis is blamed for shortening ski seasons and reducing mountain snow and glacier cover.
“The lack of snow meant that the last time it ran was about 15 years ago and for just one weekend. Since then, it has not been used again,” Beauzon said of his village’s ski lift.
Fun and joy
But things were not always like this, Beauzon remembers his youth, when activities were organized by the village during wintertime for kids at the ski site.
The local sport association would hold competitions at weekends, and open fun events for all comers on Wednesdays, followed by prize ceremonies in the village’s center square.
“Everybody could win a prize, all you had to do was get to the bottom, regardless of how,” Beauzon said.
The prizes were usually modest – a pair of socks, a chocolate bar – yet are joyful, he said. At the end of each skiing season, trophies would be awarded to the village’s strongest skiers.
“Personally, I’ve never won a trophy,” Beauzon said. “But it was always a good laugh for everybody because it was always a good atmosphere.”
Unfortunately, such traditions melted away along with the snows. And with the lift silently rusting away as a sad reminder of the good times gone by, the village decided to get rid of it – a challenge that proved to be trickier than any downhill ski run.
“Inside the pylon, we found that it was much more reinforced than we expected,” said Olivier Bustillo, manager of environmental group Mountain Wilderness, tasked with breaking down the ski lift.
“We spent maybe half an hour, maybe almost an hour more per pylon,” Bustillo added.
It took the team of roughly 20 workers two days to finish dismantling the entire ski lift system – the group has already dismantled around 10 similar ski lift systems in France, according to Bustillo.
The cost of the entire Saint-Firmin lift dismantlement is around 20,000 euros ($20,691), financed mainly by the local government with help from charities. The recovered metal was collected by a company specializing in scrap metal and will be recycled, Bustillo said.
It’s unlikely to be the last lift dismantled. This year saw a record-breaking heatwave sweep through France and most of western Europe, pushing temperatures close to or above 40° C (104° F) for a sustained period during summer. Wildfires burned through the southern and western parts of the country.
Currently 62% of France’s population is exposed to either “significant” or “very significant” climate risks, according to data from the French Environment Ministry.
France could also be facing a much more challenging future as temperatures are expected to rise by 3.8 C by 2100, and even 6.7 in the worst-case scenario, according to a study published by researchers from the French national meteorological service Météo France in October.
“Comparing our results with those based on previous generations of climate model ensembles reveals that our assessed ranges are substantially higher than previously reported,” the study said in its conclusion.
Earlier this month, French ski resort Val Thorens, the highest altitude resort in Europe, announced it was delaying the opening of its ski season by a week to November 26 because of “warm autumn weather.”
In Saint-Firmin, locals have decided to build something at the old site of the ski lifts, to remind their children of this piece of history. Many were glad that the village can finally move on and make the site useful again. Yet the sense of loss also remained.
“I think that people are becoming aware of the evolution of the climate. Indeed, it’s all about that. When we talk about the ski lift, people talk about the climate,” Beauzon said.
“I felt a little nostalgic. We had to mourn a whole era that will never return.”
Top image credit: OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE/AFP via Getty Images