Posted on: 2024-01-01 08:12:19 by davidof

Pic Blanc and the Tunnel of Legend

It is 60 years since the opening of the Pic Blanc cable car and tunnel piste at l'Alpe d'Huez but what is the story behind this legendary ski run?

By 1950 the system of individual promoters running their own lifts and pistes on various parts of the Alpe had reached its limits. The Société d’expansion touristique de l’Alpe-d’Huez was formed to rationaliz]e the operations and to reach the summit of the Pic Blanc but first they had to build two intermediate cable cars to 2700 meters.

The new lifts faced financial and operating difficulties and went bust in 1958. Things were looking bleak. The local shop keepers and hotel owners created the Société d’aménagement touristique de l’Alpe-d’Huez. The SATA bought the lifts and restarted plans to reach the summit of the ski area but first they had to improve the existing ski area. They installed the Petit Prince drag lift to link with the satellite village of Villard Reculas and improved the capacity of the Signal lift.

To complete the final link the SATA would need more money than the local businessmen could find. In the summer of 1960 a civil servant, Mr Martin, from the Finance Ministry arrived in Grenoble. A car met him and he had lunch at l’Alpe with the mayor who had found him a guide. Georges Rajon. The functionary wanted to see if the project was realistic with the view of giving a state backed loan. He and Rajon took the cable car to 2700 meters then left on touring skis for the Breche des Grandes Rousses which they climbed on foot. At the top Mr Martin said he’d seen enough for his report but the guide insisted they continue to the summit. After surveying the mountains they skied down to the col de la Sarenne where a car took the civil servant back to Grenoble. Mr Martin was nearly 60, quite an adventure for a Parisian.

The lift was built by the Grenoble firm Neyrpic. Finished in 1963 after three years of challenging construction work due to the length of the line, its altitude, and the transport of materials. In total 50 tonnes of switchgear, 150 tonnes of scaffolding, 1,500 tonnes of concrete and 2,200 metres of single-span cable were required. The workers had to also be mountaineers and even skiers. It was not without incident. One of the workers, Michel Herbin, fell 40 meters onto the glacier. The pilot, Henri Giraud, was sent to recover his body. He found Herbin under a meter of snow. He put his body in the plane and flew him to hospital. 2 hours later Herbin discharged himself

Finally in the winter of 1963 the link was finished. Maurice Herzog, the French Sports and Youth Minister was on an official visit to l’Alpe d’Huez. Herzog, along with Louis Lachenal, were the first men to climb an 8000 meter peak. On the 10th of February he put on his skis at the summit of the Pic Blanc, at 3326 meters the third highest mountain in the Grandes Rousses range, and headed off down the glacier along the off piste Sarenne itinerary. A couple of hours later he was back in the resort, met by a posse of local dignitaries. He was over the moon, the cable car he’d just opened would allow the Sarenne glacier to be used for summer skiing and would put l’Alpe d’Huez into the select group of resorts with pistes over 3000 meters altitude.

The new lift was an instant success. Skiers came from all over the world to attempt the Sarenne piste, reputed to be the longest in Europe. Back in the day you skied all the way to Huez village where there was a walk to a bucket lift. However some skiers didn’t appreciate the hike and would ski over the Mine de l’Herpie ridge to descend directly to the ski resort. To secure this route the SATA installed a handrail but this proved difficult to maintain. Another solution was needed to directly link the Glacier de la Sarenne to the Grandes-Rousses.

Georges Rajon, owner of the Hôtel Le Dôme, had a brilliant idea. Why not dig a tunnel at 3000 meters between the two sectors? The distance was only 200 meters. Rajon’s father Maurice was one of the original inhabitants of l’Alpe d’Huez and Georges was a champion skier. People thought it was madness. Surely the difference in air pressure would create gale force winds that would blow skiers out of the tunnel like champagne corks? Others favoured a real piste cut through the Herpie ridge. Ski and ski resort pioneer Émile Allais was called in to give his opinion “it will be a first but you should do it; build it and they will come” he suggested.

Rajon skied the length and breadth of the slopes under the Pic Blanc before deciding on a spot that would give a slope, in the tunnel, of 3%. Work started on the 16th July 1964, the contract given to Vigne based in Oris-en-Rattier. The project, especially transporting debris by a rail system installed for the purpose, proved more complex than anticipated. In order to open for the winter it was decided to work from both ends with the junction made towards the end of November. Just in time for the first snows of winter.

On the 5th of July 1965, summer skiers discovered two lifts (now removed) on the glacier de Sarenne. Alpe d’Huez, along with Val-d’Isère and Chamonix, had joined the select group of French summer ski areas. Due to the ravages of global warming, out of the original three, only Val-d’Isère survives.

The Tunnel black is one of the steepest pistes in the Alps. Descending from the 3326m Pic Blanc you hug the ridge. Three hundred meters lower down there is what looks like a small blockhouse. The opening into the tunnel. At the exit the skier has a sensation of vertigo. The 35 degree, frequently mogulled slope is a challenge, even for good skiers. Blow a turn and you won’t stop until the bottom. A real black run in a unique environment. It is a right of passage for any skier.

On the 3rd of September 1964, three days after the opening of the tunnel three pisteurs took the first tram to secure the ski area. Caught by a storm they sought refuge in the tunnel. Mountain rescue tried to reach the group but had to turn back at 10pm in extreme conditions. They didn’t know that the pisteurs had found shelter. One of the pisteurs had a matchbox with just 4 matches left in it, just enough to light some palettes left in the tunnel. The warmth saved them from hypothermia, or worse. The next day, at 7am, they decided to try and climb back to the summit. An hour later they had reached the safety of the top station.

Near the exit on the right you’ll notice a small memorial to Léonel Lacroix, the youngest son of Désiré Lacroix. The Lacroix are originally from the Jura, a family of champion skiers they were among the founders of the resort. Léonel was killed in an accident in 1996 on the Tunnel run while working as a pisteur.