Chamonix is a mecca and playground for climbers. The cradle of alpinism, it has, since 1948, been home to France’s élite Mountain Guide training school (the ENSA - or Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme). In early December 2013, Chamonix hosted the Annual General Meeting of BAIML, the British Association of International Mountain Leaders.
The BAIML AGM consisted of two days continuing professional development training for the Association’s membership and, for the first time, offered a training module in pack animal care.
Arriving Chamonix on the Friday, I and my fellow BAIML members were more than a little surprised to set eyes upon a mule. Yes, a mule!
The Chamonix valley, much as other mountainous valleys across the world, relied almost entirely upon the mule (and to a lesser extent the donkey) for all their transport needs. Supremely adapted to the harsh mountain environment, local communities turned to the mule to service the needs of the emergent mountain tourism industry in the late 19th and early 20th century.
With the arrival of motorised transport in the Alps and the Pyrenees, the mule gradually disappeared and the practice of muleteering with it. In recognition, however, of the mule’s great contribution to the lives and livelihoods of past Chamonix communities, the free local bus service has been named ‘Le Mulet’.
The mule is also reappearing as an environmentally friendly means of resupplying mountain refuges across the Alps and as a means of carrying the luggage of trekking clients on hut-to-hut tours.
Elsewhere across the world, especially in remote and undeveloped areas such as the High Atlas of Morocco, the mule is widely used in mountain tourism. British International Mountain Leaders (IMLs) are increasingly finding themselves working with mules in such countries and need to have the knowledge, skills and interest to promote the welfare of the mules they find themselves working with.
This is no easy matter: IMLs have a wide range of responsibilities and, increasingly, need to master a long list of technical and non-technical skills, from mountain navigation and rope-work to snowshoeing and remote emergency care. That the need to care for our four-legged friends is also increasingly recognised became very clear when the Donkey Sanctuary supported training module was attended by over twenty delegates, all keen to explore and discuss the wide range of issues that crop up with regards to pack animal care on treks and expeditions.
The interactive session proved very illuminating and allowed experiences and knowledge to be discussed and shared. This was the first ever such training module. It is anticipated that this may lead to the development both of a pack mule welfare app and, ultimately, a code of practice for the mountain tourism and expeditions industry.