The lesson to be learned: we must start protecting the Alps

This terrible accident was an inevitable consequence of mass tourism in a fragile environment
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The Independent Online

Those investigating the fire last weekend that led to the deaths of 155 skiers in Kaprun have been examining the possibility that it was started by a cigarette, by flammable materials in the train, or by friction. They would do well to broaden their inquiries into the effects of tourism on an increasingly fragile Alpine environment.

Those investigating the fire last weekend that led to the deaths of 155 skiers in Kaprun have been examining the possibility that it was started by a cigarette, by flammable materials in the train, or by friction. They would do well to broaden their inquiries into the effects of tourism on an increasingly fragile Alpine environment.

Some think of conservation as a child of the 1960s, but in the Alps it began far earlier - more than a century before, when John Ruskin published his objections to the proposed railway round the head of Lake Geneva. This, he wrote, would ruin "the one spot in Europe whose character and influence on the human mind is special".

Forty years later, by which time the alpine railway network was well established, it was a railway that became the conservationists' cause célÿbre. This was the line that was to run from Kleine Scheidegg in the shadow of the Eiger, right through that magnificent mountain, virtually to the top of the neighbouring Jungfrau. It aroused protest from all quarters, from those who argued it would destroy the livelihood of mountain guides to those who thought the rapid change in altitude as the passengers ascended the mountain would kill them. Despite this, in 1896 the line went ahead.

By 1905, things had become sufficiently serious for the League for the Preservation of Swiss Scenery to be launched, soon to be followed by its English branch. George Pilkington, president of the Alpine Club that had - intentionally or otherwise - done so much to publicise the Alps, also felt obliged to issue a call to order. "Now that their slopes are being disfigured with unnecessary railways, their cliffs degraded with iron lifts, and their noblest glacier threatened by a wire sledge run, it is time that Englishmen should heartily co-operate with those who have the right to protect their native mountains and take a share in the noble work of preserving for future generations the healing and mystery that have charmed and elevated their lives."

In the years up to the First World War, such calls as these went largely unheeded, though the war itself and the economic crises that culminated in the Wall Street crash of 1929 then provided dampeners. It was after the Second World War that the genie really clambered out of the bottle. In Austria itself in 1945 there were, in all, 25 cable cars, ski-lifts and mountain railways. By 1970 there were something approaching 2,000. Even then, the alpine scholar Professor Ronald Clark could write, "It is difficult to underestimate the physical changes that have taken place in the Alps over the last 100 years." Thirty years later there are 50 million people visiting the Alps every year. There are now more than 600 resorts and some 41,000 ski runs, capable of handling 1.5 million visitors a year.

It is not surprising that the alpine environment is showing signs of strain. According to some estimates the volume of the alpine glaciers has contracted by a third over the past quarter of a century. The permafrost on which many of the higher structures in the Alps are built, not least the cable-car stations, is beginning to melt. Some see the terrible avalanches of last year and the floods in the Aosta valley earlier this autumn as signs of incipient climate change.

We cannot of course single out the authorities in Kaprun for granting permission for the funicular to be built. But we can blame ourselves as a society for exploiting the Alps to such an extent that we have turned them into the most environmentally threatened mountain system in the world.

Irrespective of its more local causes, Kaprun was an accident waiting to happen, the inevitable consequence of the demands we are placing on the Alps. It is time we heeded the warnings of the likes of Ruskin and Pilkington. It was the latter who told the Alpine Club almost a century ago that if the successful conquest of the mountain peaks brought fame for individual climbers, then it also entailed responsibility. The environmental summit under way in The Hague would not be a bad place to start taking those responsibilities seriously. Even if we are starting a hundred years too late.

 

* Jim Ring is the author of 'How the English made the Alps', published by John Murray (£19.99).

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