Alpine club hesitates between protection and promotion

Mountain Wilderness activists demonstrate against heli-skiing at Monte Rosa Keystone

The Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, has the task of both protecting mountain nature and promoting Alpine sports. But reconciling these conflicting aims can sometimes prove to be difficult.

This content was published on July 18, 2013 minutes

One hotly debated example is whether to allow heli-skiing – flying people in to remote mountain sites to enjoy pristine powder slopes.

The SAC’s dilemma is neatly set out in its statutes: on the one hand, the club, “promotes mountain sports as an experience for a wider public”; on the other, it “lobbies for the alpine environment’s sustainable development and preservation as well as for the culture associated with the mountains”.

The internal debate over heli-skiing has put local sections at loggerheads with the SAC’s central committee. In canton Valais, the sections have opposed the Federal Civil Aviation Office’s decision to ban heli-skiing in some areas above Zermatt - contrary to the committee’s position.

“Heli-skiing is a very important element in ensuring we have a diverse offer,” said Daniel Luggen, director of Zermatt Tourism. “If we didn’t offer it, we’d lose guests with deep pockets. This would have consequences for mountain guides and helicopter companies, as well as for hotels, restaurants and ski lifts.”

Finding a compromise

Trying to reconcile these two aspects is difficult, admits Françoise Jaquet, the SAC’s new president. “But we always try to find a compromise. We are not against heli-skiing as such but we don’t want landing zones in protected areas, even if we are prepared to discuss possible exceptions,” she said.

The club’s central committee is caught between a rock and a hard place, reckons Katharina Conradin, director of Mountain Wilderness, a non-governmental mountain protection group which organised a demonstration against heli-skiing on Monte Rosa above Zermatt in mid-April.

There are the mountain region sections which want to ensure the widest possible access to the Alps, and there are the urban ones which tend to have a more restrictive policy, she explained.

For Daniel Anker, editor of Helvetia Club, a book published to coincide with the SAC’s 150th anniversary, this divide between urban and mountain sections is simply “a mirror of society”. The same split can sometimes be seen over political decisions, such as the recent vote on second homes, which was supported by a large majority in urban centres but rejected in Alpine tourist regions.

From the elite to the masses

The Swiss Alpine Club was officially founded on April 19, 1863, at Olten station. There were 35 founders, mostly from Basel. Among them was the Bern chemist Rudolph Theodor Simler, who was elected first club president.

Simler had first raised the necessity of having such a club the year before. In a letter addressed to the “mountaineers and friends of the Swiss Alps”, he highlighted how he found it “uncomfortable, if not shameful” that if you wanted to find out about the Swiss mountains, you had to resort to a guide written in English. At that time, the British were the principle actors in the Swiss Alps.

The first SAC hut, the Grünhornhütte in the Glarus Alps, was inaugurated in same the year of the club’s founding.

At first reserved for the elite, the club eventually opened up to everyone. In 1913 there were 13,702 members in 58 sections. By 1963, this had risen to 44,649 in 62 sections. Today there are more than 140,000 members in 111 sections.

Besides owning and managing 152 huts (9,200 beds), the SAC also finances the Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern along with the Swiss Air Rescue Service (REGA).

In 2012 there were 310,000 overnight stays in its huts, about the same number as prestigious tourists locations such as Montreux, Ascona or Pontresina.

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Old dilemma

A look into the SAC’s history reveals that this has been a constant dilemma, which first emerged at the end of the 19th century, when the mountains became more accessible. The period saw the first alpine railway and cable cars projects. The first tourist cable car was inaugurated at the Wetterhorn in 1908, while the Jungfrau Railway transported its first passengers four years later.

As Martin Gutmann writes in Helvetia Club, “it was a double insult: not only were the most beautiful peaks defaced, but non-mountaineers were given the opportunity to reach them”.

Not all the club members were against this development because the infrastructure served to promote mountain sports. But the opponents won the day, resulting in the SAC successfully lobbying against a project to build railways lines on the Matterhorn, the Diablerets and the Piz Bernina. In 1907 a paragraph was added to the statutes on the need to contribute to protecting the beauty of the mountains.

The SAC continued this role for many years. “Until the 1970s, the club was quite progressive in environmental protection matters,” explained Conradin. “It played a central role in the creation of the Swiss Foundation for Landscape Conservation and the Federal Inventory of Landscapes.”

“After that, due to the big boom in alpine sports, the club became a bit more economically focused,” added the director of Mountain Wilderness, which itself was founded in 1987 to oppose notably the direction taken by the SAC.

Another problematic area for the SAC is wildlife quiet zones, which seek to limit human activity to tolerable levels for fauna.

“There isn’t a clear definition,” Jaquet said. “Some cantons have declared a total ban on entering, others have said people can go in so long as they keep to the paths. It’s important for us to take part in the discussions or at least be consulted before any decisions are made and not just be stuck with a fait accompli.”

Hut issues

Mountain huts are also a matter of debate as some members believe they have become too luxurious in their quest to attract guests. “The sections are in charge of the huts. We do recommend that they do not go overboard in terms of comfort. A hut doesn’t need a sauna as we sometimes see in the Italian Alps,” pointed out Jaquet.

“The environment has to be considered during renovations, like using renewable energies rather than a generator, and improving wastewater dispersal.”

This policy applies to all of the club’s activities. “We have recently published a guide on climbing in Graubünden, which included previously little known sites. On the one hand, this is along the lines of what the club has always strived to do – present the Swiss mountains,” added Anker. “On the other hand, these sites will attract people and if the numbers rise from ten to 1,000, what do we do then? Regulate? Ban? It’s a thorny question.”

Anker says that environmental considerations are well rooted within the club. “For example, when ski guides draw up their excursion maps they always work in close contact with [cantonal] forest and fauna offices. The regulations are a lot more restrictive than before and if these offices say it’s better not to publish a guide for a certain area, we simply do not do it.”

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