The Crystal Ski Holidays Blog

Secrets of the slopes revealed in Serre Chevalier – part 2

Piste Basher in Serre ChevalierFollowing on from the earlier post about what goes on behind the scenes in Serre Chevalier, we’re now rounding things up looking at some of the technical wizardry that keeps a ski resort running.

Snow-making secrets

Guillaume skied over with us to fill us in on how snow cannons work. You’ll see these dotted around any ski resort and usually you’d ski past these things without a second thought (unless you’re unlucky enough to get sprayed with an icy shower when you ski too close to one in operation), but there’s a mammoth operation in place overnight to make sure the slopes stay snow sure.

In Serre Che, 80kms of the 250kms of slopes are covered by snow cannons, and snow-making can take place at -2°C or below. Water is supplied to the fixed cannons from the several reservoirs around the resort, which in turn are supplied by water pumped up from the River Giusane in the valley below. The water is then sprayed out of one nozzle of the snow cannons, mixed with water sprayed out the other at 10 bar pressure to create snow. Nothing else is added to the mix which is good to know, as the thaw from Serre Chevalier’s slopes drains back into the Giusane river which supplies water to the city of Marseille, some 125 miles away.

Snow Cannon at night in Serre Chevalier

Snow-making is not a cheap activity; it costs €1 to make 1 cubic metre of snow which is at 50% humidity. All the resort’s snow-making is controlled centrally by computer, with a patrol team out on the hill checking on the progress of the cannons throughout the night.

With the concerns about climate change affecting the future of winter sports, it’s reassuring to know that Serre Che uses renewable energy to power the mountain. The majority of power comes from the local hydro electric plants, powering the lifts during the day and the snow machines at night. The bill isn’t cheap however, with the average daily electricity consumption equalling that of a town of 15 thousand people.

Fancy a job as a piste basher driver?

I must admit I’d never really thought about what happens overnight in a ski resort. I’d often look up at the lights of the piste bashers on the hill at midnight on my way back from a bar and assume they were pretty much done for the night. But in fact, these bashers work flat out 100% of the time the slopes are closed to prepare the slopes for the following day. There’s 2 shifts; one working from 5pm until 2am, then a second shift who work through until 8am.

Serre Chevalier has 23 piste bashers across the resort; with each machine costing double that of an Aston Martin at €250,000 – €300,000. In order to drive one of these beasts there’s a three week training course, after which you’re let loose on the mountain on your own. It doesn’t mean everything goes smoothly course – driving a piste basher is a risky business. One newly qualified driver in Serre Chevalier set off an avalanche with his piste basher on his first night out unsupervised. The slip caught the machine, which tumbled down the hill and was buried with the driver inside. Fortunately the cab is reinforced, and the driver was unhurt – he was able to radio back to base for the avalanche rescue team who then located him using the GPS tracking system that all piste bashers have on board.

Bashers usually work in teams of six, with one leader on the slopes with each team. The GPS system means that slopes are groomed highly efficiently, even in poor visibility, as computers can determine where all the machines are in the resort and what areas need attention. These huge machines are powered with a 12 litre engine, burning through 30 litres of fuel an hour and reaching a top speed of 25kph. They can work on a very steep gradient of up to 90% by attaching themselves to a rigging point above on a 1.5km long steel cable; which can winch the piste bashers up and down the slopes. The snowplough at the front is extremely powerful; able to shift up to 16 tons of snow at any one time. Yet these machines are light on their feet, with their rubber caterpillar tracks putting less pressure per square cm than a human foot. And if you’ve ever wondered how they make that lovely corduroy – it’s through blowing compressed air into the snow as it passes over the harrow at the rear.

Inside the cab, the main control is through a joystick with an impressive array of buttons to make any Playstation fan feel at home. And if you do fancy having a go at driving one of piste bashers on your holiday, it’s possible in Serre Chevalier – they are one of the only resorts in the world to have their own Grooming School.

What weighs 500kg per unit and travels at 5 metres a second?

The answer is: one chair on a 6 man chairlift. And that’s before anyone sits on it. Pretty impressive when you think about that little cable that we all dangle off as we are whisked up the mountain…

This was our last stop on the Cols’ Porteurs tour, where Guillaume took us to meet the chairlift manager at the top of the Combes lift. The top is always where the chairlift manager can be found, along with the engines, as it is more efficient to pull the load up the mountain than to push it. In order to get up to the top of the chairlift every morning to get the lift ready for the day, the manager can activate the lift by remote control.

A chairlift doesn’t come cheap to a ski resort. At the start of the 2010/11 season the new Vallons lift (linking Monetier and Villeneuve) was installed to replace several older chairs at a cost of €7 million. But the investment is well worth it, as running at full capacity, a modern chairlift is highly efficient, transporting around 4500 skiers per hour and carrying a maximum load of 60 tons. Modern lifts can also cope much better with high winds, being able to operate in winds of up to 70kph; usually closing in high winds is due to the risk of hypothermia to the users from the wind chill rather than because of any mechanical concerns.

I thoroughly recommend the Cols’ Porteurs tour to anyone who’s over in Serre Chevalier next winter. You’ll gain such an appreciation for what a massive operation goes on behind the scenes in a ski resort. The tour lasts just 2 hours and runs at various times throughout the day from several rendezvous points, so it’s really convenient to take part. The tour is open to anyone who can confidently ski a red run and places are always in demand, so simply contact the Serre Chevalier ski area to book your place.

By Amy Fletcher, Crystal Ski

Crystal Ski are back in Serre Chevalier from 12th Dec 2011. Find out more about the resort by visiting our website.

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