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Asafe and enjoyable skiing experience still relies on the human touch, as I discovered in the amiable company of the pisteurs of the Grand Massif ski domaine in Haute-Savoie. While you’re still barely awake teams of accomplished skiers are out on their daily tours of inspection, checking every piste, replacing any safety nets or signage displaced by the previous night’s gales and blizzards, and checking for any other hazards. Their job is to find (and rectify) them before you do.
Often barely-visible, yet potentially the most lethal, are zones at risk from avalanches. Recognising problems hidden beneath fresh overnight accumulations requires skill and nerve, as does triggering controlled avalanches safely out of harm’s way before the real thing can occur. Habitual danger points are often equipped with remotely triggered gas-fuelled Gazex ® cannon, but elsewhere it’s still a case of laying explosive charges.
Apart from quarrymen and military personnel, the specially trained avalanche control teams are the only people licensed by law to handle explosives. Unlike their counterparts, however, the teams use conventional lit fuses; with so much electrical equipment around on the mountains (not to mention the ever-present risk of a sudden lightning strike) using electric cabling to trigger dynamite is simply not an option. Unsurprisingly, if a thrown charge somehow fails to ignite, you don’t just go and take a look to see why. There’s a safe minimum wait of 30min – and one charge is on record as having detonated after 27min.
Time for a break...
Once the pistes are signed-off as safe the lifts can open for recreational skiers, but the pisteurs remain on call for emergency recoveries of anyone unfortunate enough to have a bad fall requiring medical treatment. The steel-thighed teams are soon on scene to transport the patient safely and swiftly down the mountain, skiing with a heavy stretcher sled or hitching it to a snowmobile.
At the end of the day the lifts close and the mountain falls silent, and which point the meticulous inspection patrol begins again, this time in reverse. As soon as the last skiers have begun their final descents the pisteurs fan out behind them, re-skiing every piste to check for stragglers or anyone in difficulty. At times like these the total silence is a great aid to concentration – and you have to say that in good visibility the teams enjoy this aspect of their work. As before, every single run is signed off by the pisteur responsible, ready for the piste-groomers to begin their overnight work.
© Roger Moss
We produced this report in the Grand Massif ski domaine, situated in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps. One of the largest linked ski areas in France, it comprises over 133 runs (265km) with 78 ski lifts which connect the ski villages of :
Flaine, Les Carroz, Samoëns, Morillon and Sixt Fer à Cheval
Ski-lifts play a key role in providing the perfect ski experience. We look at different types and how they work.
How artificial snow systems work - and can they really live up to their promise?
A privileged insight into the inner workings of the Grand Massif Express, Samoëns.
When the sun goes down the piste groomers start their work. We discover what goes on while you're sleeping.