This past week I had the opportunity to travel through the Alps, staying in the Chamonix Valley for about seven days. Amid jokes that the Montanan students would be going to the mountains, it became clear that Chamonix has a surprising amount in common with Bozeman. Not only are they climatically similar, but Chamonix encourages a lifestyle that is becoming increasingly popular in Bozeman. Noted as the “sports death-capital of the world” owing to the high level of rock and ice climbing, skiing, paragliding and cliff jumping that occur in the valley, Chamonix is home to extreme natural and financial wealth. A local journalist tweeted that it is a place where, “millionaires are tolerated, but mountain men are revered.”
This birthplace of Western alpinism is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive and elite places to live in Europe. Just as in Bozeman, the cost of living has gone up in recent years and the mountains have become less and less of a place for roaming backpackers or dirt-bag climbers to embark on adventures, and more for the wealthy to pay for an experience. Walking around town I saw more brand-new crampons attached to backpacks and North Face-clad families in one week than during my entire time in France thus far.
Similarly, while living in Bozeman, I constantly found myself wondering how students could afford to ski as often as we do. Patagonia has become a popular clothing choice in the Gallatin Valley, and having the type of gear that comes with that is not cheap. I was unaware of the extremely high costs of skiing until college as my dad worked steadily as a ski patroller. Between gear, passes and transportation, I became unsure whether skiing, and other outdoor sports, have become only for the wealthy.
The French government, on the other hand, views sports as a powerful tool in fighting social disparity. The government actively invests in sports programs, city-wide exercise equipment and encourages school programs. Alpine sports are a bit different though. Depending on how much government funding a school receives, they may or may not have access to things like alpine skiing, rock climbing or hiking. Multiple geographic factors are at play owing to to the fact that outdoor rock climbing is not available throughout France. However, these types of activities are far less accessible than soccer or tennis, the nation’s two most popular sports. According to student of French, Henri Joubin, “With any other sport than outdoor activities, the French government steps in and makes it accessible. Outdoor sports are only for the elite.”
While in Chamonix, this disparity became clear. We did not have brand new North Face coats, and were overwhelmed when we ducked into a sports store to find that it was four stories high and packed with the newest model of everything. Even the local consignment shop bragged Louis Vuitton sneakers and used prices between 25 and 250 dollars. As someone who views nature as being open to anyone who wishes to take advantage of the opportunity, these mountains were oddly closed off. On our way up to the infamous Aiguille du Midi, North Face and Rossignol were filming a new advertisement and everyone who hadn’t spent the extra ten euros for a fast pass was obligated to wait for the crew and models to get on and off the gondola.
Some argue that this type of money is necessary for maintaining the mountain. In the words of professor Dominique Colleton, “Finances are necessary for protecting the environment, and in the case of extreme winter sports, money does exclude some while providing others with a preserved landscape.” Either way, it seems apparent that the way both French and American societies interact with nature is changing. Especially in Montana, where access to wilderness areas is widespread, one should not have to buy his or her way into nature.