The History of Alpe d’Huez
Up until 1950 Alpe d’Huez was a coal mining town. The extreme deforestation that resulted from the mining caused the town to be buried under a succession of avalanches in the late 1940s. It was an avalanche in 1950, which hit a dorm and killed 12 people that finally ended the mining.
It was due to the mining activity that Huez got its first cable car in 1905. This was not for the use of skiers, but for the transportation of coal to the valley town of Bourg d’Oisans. Skiing was first introduced in 1911 by a local school teacher. As word spread about the quality of the ski touring in the area a small tourism boom started. But it wasn’t until the French Touring club paid a visit and decided that they would build a refuge for its members there, that the potential started to be realised.
In 1928 the Touring Clubs refuge, in what is now known as Alpe d’Huez, was completed. Over the next few years more people took interest in the village and investment started to come in and the station slowly expanded. Hotels started springing up and plans for a Cable car to the peak of the 3330m Pic Blanc began to take place. The other major development that was ongoing at this time was the infamous road to Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, now synonymous with the mountain stages of the Tour de France.
The road was completed in 1935 which led to a turning point in the resort’s history the following year. In 1936 the resort’s first ski school was opened along with a pioneering drag lift. This drag lift was built by a Polish man called Jean Pomagalski, and this was the beginning of the ski lift company Poma which we now see in ski resorts around the world.
During the Second World War development stopped and the region became an area famed for skirmishes between the Nazis and the resistance. Many local people in Alpe d’Huze harboured allied pilots that had been shot down as well as Jewish refugees. One popular story from war time Alpe d’Huze is about a commander in the German army who defied orders to murder all the men in the village due to his love of alpine sport.
Once the war had ended development of the resort resumed. The resort became fashionable due to the sunny slopes of the mountains, which is also why it is called the Island of Sunshine. Over the 20 year period from the end of the war in 1945 over 30 hotels were built and the ski area expanded. It wasn’t until 1950 that work finally started on the Cable Car to the Pit Blanc summit. This was completed in 1962, but during this time the network of lifts began to expand.
The Olympics came to Alpe d’Huez in 1968 when the resort hosted the Bobsleigh completion during the Grenoble Winter Olympics, which boosted the resorts profile and infrastructure. If you go to Alpe d’Huez today you won’t find the bob run in resort any longer. Due to the sunny nature of the resort the track had to be refrigerated to keep it useable which made it expensive to build and maintain. It would also have been expensive to run after the Games, so it was constructed as a temporary structure and removed after the Olympics had finished.
By 1980 the resort had 58 lifts in operation but was under pressure to keep up with the purpose built resorts that were starting to pop up in Savoie region. The next thirty years saw more major developments in the resort including the impressive Marmottes cable car. Today the resort boasts 84 lifts and 263km of piste, putting it in the top 20 largest ski resorts in the world.