Orderly queues formed and there was an atmosphere of tremendous excitement on the morning of 15th December 1934. Morzine’s first ski lift – only the second in France – was about to turn for the very first time. Tourists had been flocking to this most perfect holiday destination since the early 1920s, when Francois Baud built the first hotel in the village.
The Grand Hotel, as it was, still stands in place today. The village had become popular with hikers during the summer seasons, but with the creation of the first ski piste behind the Grand Hotel shortly after its opening, came a whole new idea… could Morzine become one of the first ski resorts in France? Yes it could.
This winter, to celebrate ninety years of skiing in Morzine, SA téléphérique de Morzine Pleney – the company charged with the operation of our ski area – have published a beautiful coffee table book charting the decades that followed. ‘One Montagne, one Village – Adventures on Pleney from 1934 until today’ is available to buy in French from the Pleney lift pass office in Morzine, at various bookshops in the region and also online. Pre-orders are being taken for an English-language version of the book which will be printed when there are sufficient orders. Visit the Pleney lift pass website for more details and to order your book, which is priced at €19 with postage also available.
Slate mining was the premier industry in Morzine long before the tourists arrived. Over 200 miners worked in the mines you can still see them today along the Ardoisiere valley en-route to Prodains and high above Lac de Montriond. The slate extracted from the mines was transported down the valley to Thonon, Thones and Taninges, returning vast riches for a village previously occupied with farming.
As it happens, mining slate provided Morzine’s inhabitants with more leisure time than farming once had and in 1910 the Morzine Ski Club was founded. The club brought together locals – and some visitors – who enjoyed walking up mountains, sometimes for several hours, to take advantage of deep snowfalls using the most rudimentary equipment.
Francois Baud was a local businessman and his construction of The Grand Hotel in the centre of the village in 1925 became the catalyst for tourism in Morzine. So significant was this development in the history of the town, the footbridge across the valley, built in 1952, still bears his name. During the decade, Morzine was mainly involved in summer tourism, with ramblers flocking to the village in search of clean, fresh air and stunning views. Just one piste existed at this time, on the Route de la Plagne. Imagine!
There was capacity for just 25 skiers on the new Pleney telecabine when it opened in December 1934. With skis mounted on the outside during that first ascent, passengers discover pristine, un-pisted snow at the top. The technology involved in shaping skis was just beginning to develop and the sport became a leisure pursuit for the wealthy – an entire industry was born. At this time Morzine had grown to include 15 hotels, five guesthouses and 60 rental chalets offering 850 guest beds in total. Meanwhile, over in Les Gets, 1937 saw the inauguration of the Boule de Gomme drag lift. Still in service today, this lift is the oldest in the entire Portes du Soleil!
With the arrival of World War 2 in September 1939, the development of tourism in Morzine ground to a halt. The village – in fact the whole region – was under Nazi occupation, with local resistance fighters using secret routes over the Col de Cou and into Switzerland to smuggle weapons and goods across the border. Many Jewish people also used these routes to evade the Nazis and find safe passage into Switzerland. When the war ended in September 1945, the expansion of Morzine as a tourist town became a priority.
So successful was tourism on the Pleney during the early 1950s, a second ski lift company was formed to build another ski lift, this time on the opposite side of the valley. The original Super-Morzine lift came to life in 1953 and although Avoriaz was just a twinkle in the eye of Jean Vuarnet at this time, it gave access to the snow fields high above the rooftops of Morzine. Unfortunately the original ski lift, which featured 94 two-seater cabins, was destroyed by a fire in 1964.
Ski tourism was now a big deal in the French Alps and Morzine was at the heart of it all. The Nyon cable car was both built and inaugurated in 1960, transporting 35 skiers at a time to an entirely new part of the ski area. The 80-person Prodains cable car linked Morzine to Avoriaz and came to life in 1961. As you’ll discover on page 40 of this magazine, French Olympic skier Jean Vuarnet both conceptualised and created Avoriaz and the resort continues to be groundbreaking today.
Having gathered pace over the preceding decades, ski tourism spread across the Alps during the 1970s. No longer a pursuit exclusively for the rich, purpose-built mountain resorts were developed, catering for tourists as skiing became mass market. High rise hotels popped up in traditional alpine villages, roads were expanded and car parks created. Morzine pushed back, keen to retain the charm, character and authenticity that was so deeply rooted in the village. It’s for this reason that you’ll continue to see chalets and buildings inspired by 60’s and 70’s architecture around the village today.
In 1981 the International Association of the Portes du Soleil was born. A world first, it created one ski area spanning two different countries with a variety of terrain for every type of skier. Avoriaz became a pioneer in the development of snowboarding culture in Europe, creating the worlds first natural snowpark.
The Recent Decades
Mass market tour operators made ski holidays more affordable and British families began flocking to resorts across the French Alps. As the entire industry snowballed and prospered, Morzine, Les Gets and Avoriaz were always at the forefront of adaptation, creating new events and activities for all, while respecting and preserving the authentic Savoyarde life of the village. In 2008, Avoriaz collaborated with Burton Snowboards creating ‘the stash’ cementing it’s place in freestyle history. How we continue to manage our villages for the mountain-goers of the future is now a priority for everyone.