Numerous alpine huts have disappeared in these last years under the pressure of modernization and profitability. The Refuge de l’Aigle, nestled on a rocky spur at 3,450 meters of altitude in the Oisans Massif, has sheltered some of the most famous figures of alpinism for almost a century. The French Alpine Club (CAF), which is now called the French Federation of Mountaineering and Alpine Clubs, decided in 2002 to destroy the hut in order to build a new, more spacious and comfortable building. They, however, hadn’t counted on the spunk of a small association called the Friends of the Refuge de l’Aigle, led by its president Jean Berriot, himself a former hut manager within the CAF.
Journalist Christophe Migeon interviews Jean Berriot.
What is this hut’s history?
Jean Berriot: The Refuge de l’Aigle was built in 1910 with material brought up on men’s backs. It is one of the highest and most difficult accesses in the Oisans Massif. It was originally built as a shelter for the teams that were returning too late from the Meije ridge traverse (3983 meters to the summit). Today, its role has changed: most of the alpinists go back down through the valley after the traverse. Most of the overnight stays, about 80 %, are by people who are actually going climbing in the West Meije (3850 meters).
Why is its destruction a problem?
Jean Berriot: It is simply pretty much the last old hut still in service in the French Alps. Some are certainly as old or even older, but they are abandoned. The Aigle is the last of its kind and this is why it is serious. For me it is a bit like destroying a roman chapel or an aqueduct. It is about the respect of the mountain culture and heritage, the work of the veterans.
Is your initiative not driven a bit by old-fashioned sentimentality?
Jean Berriot: It is not only about nostalgia. There is a simple and rustic atmosphere in the building, and I would go so far as to say its authentic. This hut is a lesson on the mountain itself: you need to share its tiny space, squeeze together; it is a real shelter against the cold and the wind. And at the same time, the structure is so light that you don’t feel separated from the mountain. I’ve frequented a lot of huts in my life. I haven’t been able to feel this curious feeling anywhere else.
On the other hand, our supporters are many and diverse. Personalities like the alpinist Christophe Moulin, politicians like the deputy member of the Hautes Alpes, Joël Giraud, and the vice-chair of the General Council, Gérard Fromm, and also the philosopher Michel Serres are behind us, and I don’t think sentimentality is driving their actions. The late René Demaison was also one of our most avid supporters. I still hear him telling me: “You should not touch the Aigle hut. It is part of the Meije. Destroying it would be a major error!”
Jean-Jacques Eleouet, Petzl Foundation’s General Secretary: Beyond the simple protection of this hut, the Petzl Foundation hopes to contribute to the reflection on the future of mountain tourism by adapting the accommodations in general. Later, we would like to put together an inventory of the mountain heritage of the Alps. It would be as wide as possible and would go beyond the huts, the cabins, and the shepherd shelters and would include the abundant intangible heritage of the 20th century.
This ambitious project is in my opinion the first step in the interventions that aim to reasonably protect these natural spaces and keep them attractive for future generations.
The actual hut, with it 19 places, however, seems saturated and obsolete. Is the CAF not right to want to open the mountain up to the larger public by proposing a refuge of greater capacity?
Jean Berriot: The annual occupancy is not increasing, and the hut is far from being in a state of permanent saturation. The CAF is defending a project that would actually be a small hotel with thirty places, and it would have three water-operated toilets. But there is no water up there. The current hut runs only with melted snow. The new one would require a bigger volume of water. And in August, the peak season for visits, there is no more snow. And what is going to happen with the waste? This project is an ecological aberration.
We are instead proposing the building of another hut towards the Col du Bec at 3200 meters of altitude, surrounded by streams, sheltered from avalanches. It would have the advantage of reducing the very long ascent to the hut (1800 meters) by 400 meters.
Even the present host of the hut, Alain Troadec, is in favor of the renovation of the site, saying that those who want to keep the hut the way it is don’t spend five months per year up there like he does.
Jean Berriot: I was responsible for the commission for the Briançon CAF huts for almost ten years. The 11 huts I was managing allowed me to acquire a good practical knowledge of the milieu, not only as an alpinist but also as a manager. In 2002, I learned that the Aigle hut was going to be destroyed. I immediately made a report of the dangers of the project and sent it to the highest levels in the hierarchy at the CAF and to the Ecrins Park, land manager of the site.
I never received any response or comments, so I created the association of the Friends of the Refuge de l’Aigle in 2004, first in order to classify the hut as a “historical monument” with the help of the deputy Joël Giraud. We failed on this project. When the Ecrins Park management agreed with the CAF, we asked for a moratorium on the construction from the administrative court. When this was refused, we appealed and got rejected as well in March 2008 due to an error in our procedure.
In that case, isn’t the fight already lost?
Jean Berriot: Not at all! The CAF is having more and more trouble recruiting new members and is facing serious financial difficulties. The state coffers are also empty, which makes the budget necessary for the project (more than 800,000 €) far from guaranteed. Officially, the demolition has been postponed to an unspecified date. Meanwhile, we are staying very vigilant because the CAF has said repeatedly that the hut was constantly overcrowded. This is completely wrong.
Along with that, we are now asking the Ministry of Ecology to classify the site and not only have it “registered”, the way it is today. This will be an additional protection, even if this does not completely eliminate the possibility of destruction. We are rather well on our way in this aspect. We have also started a petition on our website asking for a moratorium on the construction. It has already accumulated more than 2,400 signatures.
How has the Petzl Foundation helped you?
Jean Berriot: Our biggest problem was to attract attention from the media. They remained silent on the subject and probably thought this was a backyard squabble, not too much a story of the times. In 2004, I did an eight-day hunger strike to bring the attention of the general public to our cause. The CAF was very embarrassed by this, especially after I had spent 40 years on their side. But this story had the benefit of getting the association started. Paul Petzl was personally interested in our operation as early as 2004 and gave us 7,000 posters, which we put up everywhere. It is what really brought us out of anonymity. Finally, at the beginning of 2008, the Petzl Foundation helped us to finance a publicity campaign, which allowed us to have numerous articles in the regional and national newspapers.
Stephane Lozac’hmeur, project manager at the Petzl Foundation: The 2008 information campaign mobilized the general public on the subject and has incited people to sign the petition. Since then, the political panorama has changed, and most of the concerned elected representatives now disagree with the CAF project. Also, it seems the CAF does not to have the necessary financing. Based on these two elements, we hope that a decision on the future of the Aigle hut will be made next year at the latest. To the great pleasure of the company’s president, Paul Petzl, this project allows the Petzl Foundation to make a commitment in a militant way to respect of our mountain heritage.
About Jean Berriot
Born on May 29, 1936
High School technical diploma
High School, and then College, Teacher
During his long vacations, he liked doing small jobs for craftsmen (carpenters, mechanics…), an experience that helped him in his work with the huts.
From 1980, delivery driver for a mountain coop.
Work at the commission for the Briançon CAF huts from 1920 to 2002. He managed 11 huts including the refuge de l’Aigle.
His favourite place: the Macchapuchhre mountain towards the Annapurnas base camp in Nepal. “We also call it the fishtail. I love its shape, long, a bit twisted. There is this rock, the ice and above, the blue sky… This mountain is beautiful. More beautiful than the Meije!”
His favorite person: Alpinist and writer Pierre Chapoutot who died in 2006 in an avalanche on the Lauzière Massif at the age of 67. “The Greeks symbolized a balanced man with an equilateral triangle, its sides representing the three types of courage: the physical, the intellectual and that of the heart. This completely corresponds to this man whose ideas really inspired those in our association of the Friends of the Refuge de l’Aigle. I would personally wish that if a new hut is built towards the Col du Bec, it has the name Chapoutot.”