From the 17th century onwards, farmers began exploiting the mineral wealth contained in their local mountain, which was shaped by the geological turmoil unleashed during the formation of the Alps. It is a particularity that makes Valais a land rich in mines – although they are generally of poor quality. Green rock containing olivine and serpentine is visible at a number of locations along the surface of the valley and is well known for its heat-retention properties. Although it is hard and somewhat difficult to work with, the locals learned to carve this magnificent rock, mined from the very depths of vast pits. They used it to build stoves, perfect for warming your back against in the winter months.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the residents of Bagnes discovered a dense vein of soapstone at the surface of the Bocheresse quarry. This whitish rock contains a considerable amount of talc and is prized for its resistance to heat and fire. For anyone used to chiselling away at green rock, this is a much easier material to work with! From 1830, surface mining yielded generous blocks of magnificent soapstone, until a massive collapse halted operations at the turn of the century.
After several years of inactivity at the mine, Auguste Maret, the father of the engineer who designed the Mauvoisin Dam, ordered the digging of a gallery so that the hidden areas of the precious soapstone vein could be accessed again. The local farmer-miners found themselves working under a delicate subsoil that needed to be supported with solid timber to prevent the vault from collapsing. From 1910 to 1942, the golden age of soapstone, they extracted numerous 200kg blocks and transported them down to the valley on large sledges. As they were busy with agricultural work for the rest of the year, the farmers worked at the mine during winter. During this period, there was less water flowing through the inside of the cave, whose steady temperature of 12 degrees made it much cosier than the chilly weather outside. By watching the chamois in the surrounding area, the workers were able to calculate the best moment to avoid avalanches as they made their way down from the mine, hunched over their mountain boots and holding on to their heavy loads with all the strength their muscles could muster. The famous stoves were then carved down in the valley. Soapstone began to lose its appeal at the end of the Second World War, and particularly with the arrival of electricity. Studies carried out between 1978 and 1983 estimated the remaining quantity of soapstone at 5,000m3 – as much as had already been mined. However, securing the quarry, storing the soapstone blocks and, above all, market conditions meant that industrial operations would not be profitable enough to attract investors.
Mindful of their significant heritage, the Municipality of Bagnes decided to secure the site in 2010, making it accessible for visitors to enjoy and equipping it with solar-powered lighting. Guides Pierre-André Gard and Alexandre Cappi offer a captivating glimpse into the lives of the farmer-miners every Friday in July and August.
The soapstone quarry is an hour and a half’s walk from Bonatchiesse along the prepared trail. The entry to the quarry is visible at the centre of the image.
Guide Pierre-André Gard in front of one of the last remaining stairways used for mining soapstone blocks.
Solar-powered lighting reveals a mysterious site.
This vast cave yielded 5,000m3 of soapstone.
The vault of the quarry had to be supported with solid timber to prevent it from collapsing.
A guided tour covering local history at the heart of the rock.
The soapstone stove at the FXB Panossière mountain hut was made from stone mined at the Bocheresse quarry in 1995.