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France's new 'high-altitude hotel' left hanging in Alps

Pascal Tournaire

A new €6 million eco-friendly mountain refuge set on the slopes of Mont Blanc is to remain off limits until 2013. Technical glitches and squabbling that has drawn in France’s sports minister have delayed its opening.

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It has been billed as an incredible feat of architecture and engineering, a pioneering example of sustainability and the future of high altitude alpine lodging.

But technical problems and wrangling between various stakeholders means the €6 million state-of-the-art Refuge du Goûter on Western Europe's highest mountain will not open as planned this year.
 
The refuge, perched like a spaceship 3,835 metres (12,582 ft) high on one of the most popular routes used by climbers hoping to scale Mont Blanc, was due to be inaugurated in a no-expense-spared €93,000 ceremony later this week.
 
But mountaineers heading for France's famous peak will now have to wait until the summer of 2013 before setting their weary feet inside what will become the highest refuge in Western Europe.
 
Authorities say the refuge, which has been dubbed a 'high-altitude hotel', needs to remain closed after a series of glitches meant it is still not safe.
 
The Refuge du Goûter was hit by a fire on August 19. More recently, authorities also revealed that the cooling circuits of the refuge’s solar power system have malfunctioned.
 
“We need more time”
 
After taking five years to plan and three more to build, the delay is a blow for the French Alpine Club who own the building. Nevertheless, the organisation’s Vice President Raymond Courtial tried to put on a brave face this week.
At 3835 metres high the Refuge de Goûter will not be on the route of everyday walkers
 
“We are obviously disappointed but its not a disaster,” Courtial told FRANCE 24. “It is a complex building and we need to carry out tests and make sure everything is working for when we welcome the mountaineers."
 
“We have no regrets over this project. It was an enormous challenge for us considering the technology and the difficulties in building it so high."
 
“It’s important to show everyone what is possible in terms of sustainability.”
 
On the positive side, the delay may allow time for the French Alpine Club and the mayor of the local town of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains, Jean-Marc Peillex, to smooth over their many differences in time for the opening.
 
Refuge feud
 
The mayor and the alpine club appear to have been at loggerheads ever the since the project was announced.
 
The bickering has been more vociferous in recent weeks with the two sides arguing over the finer details of the inauguration celebration and who will fund it.
 
The headstrong mayor, a member of France's Radical Party, reportedly blocked a move that would see France’s sports minister, Valerie Fourneyron, airlifted up to the refuge by helicopter to officially open the building.
 
“The refuge must be opened by mountaineers who have climbed up on foot. That is the tradition and it applies to the minister as well,” said the mayor.
 
Peillex has also taken the French Alpine Club to task over the ever-increasing number of climbers seeking to scale the summit and the subsequent problems of pollution. Around 25, 000 climbers attempt the summit each year with around 250 heading out for the top each day.
 
Despite the alpine club insisting the 120-bed refuge will only be available to those who reserved their places in advance, the mayor is aware that the former mountain hut was regularly filled to well-over capacity, with climbers sleeping in corridors, on table tops or even in tents outside.
 
“It’s the state’s responsibilities to prevent an excessive number of climbers trying to summit the mountain,” he said.
 
Going green on Mont Blanc
 
The Refuge du Goûter has certainly scaled the heights in terms of sustainability and design.
 
The construction of the Refuge du Goûter was naturally fraught with difficulties. Due to extreme weather conditions, work could only take place between spring and autumn and regularly had to be postponed.
 
The 100 or so construction workers - who were specially chosen because of their endurance - were forced to contend with high altitude and driving winds of over 70km/h.
 
Apart from the kitchen, which will use gas, the building will be powered by 70m2 worth of solar panels, as well as wind turbines and an emergency generator fuelled by the burning of rapeseed oil. Snow melted by solar power will also fill the building’s 20,000-litre water tanks.
 
Windows are triple glazed and all water used for cooking will be redirected and used for flushing the toilets, which have been designed to use around only a fifth of the usual amount of water. All water will, in turn, be treated and filtered before being disposed of.
 
Dug 14 metres in to the rockface, the refuge, made with local alpine wood, is further designed to resist winds of up to 300km/h.
 
It has been dubbed by some an 'high-altitude hotel' because of the comfort it will offer climbers.
 
Thomas Buchi and Hervé Dessimoz, the two Swiss masterminds behind the refuge, hope their ultra-environmentally-friendly project will be an example to others.
 
“Our message is that if you can construct an ecological and autonomous building like this at an altitude of 3,835 metres, then there is no excuse for not doing it anywhere else,” they said.
Mountain high: Mont Blanc's state-of-the-art alpine refuge
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