Tuesday, February 4, 2014

In memoriam Robert Blanc, the man who imagined Les Arcs

Robert Blanc 1933 - 1980
Exactly 34 years ago (4th February 1980) Robert Blanc was killed in an avalanche. He was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life and died in an extraordinary way.

Born into a  family of shepherds, Blanc and his four brothers discovered the joys of skiing in the snowy pastures above their native village of Hauteville-Gondon. During the summers they would live out on the mountains while tending their animals, moving higher as the snow melted until they reached the tiny group of chalets in the Arc valley, nowadays occupied by the Chalets des Arcs restaurant just above Arc 2000.

After military service Robert Blanc became a ski instructor at Courchevel. Seeing the success and excitement of this shiny new post-war resort, Robert began to imagine a vast ski area spread across the valleys, forests and pastures  above his home village, which which he and his brothers new so well. A chance meeting with the social entrepreneur and business guru Roger Godino (Robert taught him to ski) led to a life-long partnership between the two men, the fruit of which was Les Arcs as we know it today.

Vallée de l'Arc before Les Arcs
Robert had an  incredible passion for skiing (he was an Olympian and made many 'first ever' extreme descents all over the world). His charismatic, motivating personality coupled with Godino's astuteness, financial prowess, political contacts and love of things new, led  to their conception of a vast, integrated network of skiing infrastructure and avant-garde building construction.  They brought in a 'dream team' of architects, designers and artisans ranging from Le Corbusier's protégé Charolotte Perriand to local carpenter Bernard Taillefer.

From the start it was planned that Les Arcs would open in stages, with Arc 1600 (then called 'Arc Pierre Blanche') in 1968, followed by Arc1800 in 1974. The complex construction of Arc 2000, which was to the be 'jewel in the crown' of Les Arcs and France's 2nd highest resort opened in 1979. The final piece in the jigsaw was the opening in 1980 of the enormous 'Club Med' at Arc 2000, in the sweeping upward-curved building that imitates the wild contours of the mountains around it.

Arc 2000 today
Robert was extremely active in the new resort, as 'Director of Skiing' as well as training the Les Arcs Ski Club (nurturing the next generation of Arcadien ski instructors) and working as an international consultant in places far from Les Arcs as Chile, Argentina, China and the Soviet Union. He was a very 'hands-on' boss, aware that many of the resort first workers where his school friends, neighbours and of course, his brothers.

So it was no surprise that on the last day of his life, Robert chose to lead a team to search the road between Arc 1600 and 2000 after two Belgian girls booked into the new Club Med had failed to arrive as expected.

The weather had been appalling for weeks, a mixture of heavy snow, rain and wind. Virtually all the lifts were closed because avalanche danger. The previous night the barrier at been lowered across the road near where UCPA is today, indicating that  it was closed. However, on the morning of the fateful day  it was discovered that the barrier had been raised, and there appeared to be traces of tyre-marks in the snow.  Fearing that the Belgians might have become stuck or even avalanched,  Robert's team inched it's way along the road, eventually reaching the safety of the Belliou Fumé restuarant at Pré St Espirit without finding anything. Before heading back, Robert's brother Yvon passed round a bottle of Eau de Vie, saying "Have a drop of this, it might be the last time we drink together!".  "You can save all that for another day", replied Robert, ominously.

Robert died a few minutes later at  Les Chavonnes, a notoriously avalanche-prone spot, ironically just beyond the recently-constructed paravalanche tunnel. He was the only one in the group buried by the 'liquid concrete', and died instantly from a broken neck. Today a plaque marks the spot.  They carried his body back to Arc 1600, where one of the new studio apartments served as a 'chapel of rest'. His funeral in Hauteville-Gondon was attended by over 3000 people. The Belgian girls were found safe and comfortable in the Cachette Hotel, and it was never found out who raised the barrier on the Arc 2000 road, or why.

Reve de BergersBlanc's death marked the 'end of the beginning' for Les Arcs, which was soon after to find itself in a dark place: financial and political crises were compounded by the natural catastrophe of  the La Ravoire landslide in 1981, resulting in the virtual bankruptcy of the resort which could have lead to its abandonment. However perhaps it was the inspiration of Robert Blanc, his vision and determination that has continued to drive Les Arcs to new heights. I'm sure he would be proud of today's Paradiski and all that has been achieved here in the last 34 years.

I'm indebted  to Robert's daughter Claudie's book 'Reve de Bergers'. It's wonderful and encyclopedic  portrait of Robert Blanc, his brothers and the history of Les Arcs (in French, but I've started translating it).

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