By Heather Garlick
Think you took your life in your hands on the slopes today? Did you feel the adrenalin pumping through your body on the gnarlier runs and jumps? Do you have diffi culty thinking of anything more exciting? Well imagine skiing those same runs in the dead of night, with a storm on the horizon. Imagine skiing them with a whole police force on your trail and red-hot black market products weighing you down. Imagine skiing them on an old-fashioned pair of skis – basically a couple of planks strapped to your boots.
The history of smuggling in and around the Portes de Soleil is long established and full of fascinating details, littered with aff able rogues, cack-handed law enforcers and comedic scrapes with the powers that be. The topography of the area, its dangerous descents and complex array of routes and passages, has long made it popular with those wishing to smuggle coveted goods across borders. Darkness and adverse weather conditions were favoured as they provided cover for crossing the passes for those who would rather face bad weather than risk being caught and shackled. This made winter the perfect time for smuggling and smugglers soon took to wearing skis and affixed sealskins (goat skins in reality) to the bottom of them in order to climb the steep slopes of the range.
Smuggling dates back to the days when extortionate taxes were charged on necessary products. Like a hoard of alpine Robin Hoods, smugglers swooped in to take their chances on hazardous routes across the mountain passes in order to carry wares to those who lacked the means or desire to pay taxes. Back then, the big deal in the world of contraband was salt. But almost anything imaginable has made the perilous journey through the mountains at one time or another.
The smugglers adopted some novel ways of transferring wares too. Money; small, light and valuable was the perfect thing to smuggle across borders and would often be carried pressed inside small cavities carved out of the wooden skis. It was also often the preferred load for women, who found it more diffi cult to carry the heavier weights and would instead conceal coins in their hair and skirts. But more varied loads were traded back and forth as well; matches, gunpowder, weapons, tea, pepper, chocolate and even pigs all found their way across the mountain passes at one time or another.
There was as much demand for import as there was export in the local valleys. Smugglers would seek out a well-hidden shelter somewhere on the route between the two trading villages. In the morning it would be fi lled with sausages and cheese from France, and by afternoon this would be removed and replaced with coffee and sugar from Switzerland (an interesting take on the ‘sugar mountain’ metaphor).
And the customs offi cials? Well they eventually adopted skis in their attempt to keep up with their hell bent adversaries, but were more often reported in falls and accidents than apprehending criminals. As a result, in 1947 the fi rst customs offi cer ski school was set up. The early footage shows a rather shaky start but they went on to boast world class Olympians from their ranks. It was only with the advent of tourism that locals of the Portes de Soleil saw a more profi table and less risky way of using the mountains that surrounded them. In fact the last two customs off ces around here didn’t close until 2006 and 2009.
Fancy trying a smugglers’ route? You’ll find a map showing some of the most popular runs taken when conveying goods between France and Switzerland on the source magazine website. Why not try them carrying a sack of coffee with a couple of kilos of cheese stuff ed down your ski pants? Oh, and don’t forget to use the wooden planks.
Visit the museum
The Vieille Douane in Chatel is a treasure trove of information on the practices of smugglers throughout the region. The wall displays are in French but there are many photos and a translated museum guide. This winter the museum is hosting an exhibition on womens’ involvement in smuggling. Adult Entry is €4 and €3 for kids with a discount for liftpass holders. The museum is open every day except Saturday between 2pm-6pm with a guided tour at 3.30pm.
Take the letter I bus from Chatel up to Vonne. The bus runs about every half hour. Remember that if skiing from Avoriaz, you’ll come off the slopes at Linga and will need to take the (very regular) bus into the centre of Chatel