The Cols’ Porteurs tour gives you a unique insight into the behind the scenes goings on of a ski resort. Sounds interesting I thought – and if nothing else, will equip me with some impressive facts to casually drop into conversation on the chairlift with mates to dazzle them with my vast knowledge of the winter sports scene.
So, on my recent holiday to Serre Che, I decided to give it a test-drive…
After a quick couple of runs to warm up our legs, we met our guide at the top of the Col Boeuf chairlift. Speaking perfect English, Guillaume gave us a unique insight into all the behind the scenes action.
Here’s the first part of our ‘backstage’ tour – learning about the weather, snow conditions, and rescue facilities on the slopes.
Our first stop was at one of the weather stations. Guillaume shows us how the snow depth is measured daily in a whole host of different ways, including the weight and depth of the snow – all by hand. Snowflakes are magnified and compared to a set of standards to determine how likely the snow is to slip. A calibrated metal stake is used to assess how dense the snow layers are, whilst every week every layer of snowfall is tested to monitor its temperature – a process that takes over 2 1/2 hours.
This process is repeated across the many weather stations throughout the resort by a dedicated, with the information collated and sent to Meteo France, as is done by all the other ski resorts in France. Along with the weather forecast, these snow conditions are analysed by the resort’s safety director to determine the avalanche risk for that day, which is rated between 1 and 5. Usually, if a risk is at 5, the resort will remain closed, and the risk presented to the staff in preparing the slopes for opening would be too great.
Avalanche and slope security
Securing the slopes from a risk of avalanche can be done in a variety of ways, depending upon the terrain, Guillaume explains. “Did you see on the higher parts of the mountain the big pipes coming out of the snow?” he asks. These are used for gas explosions (Gazex) – where a mixture of 20% hydrogen and 80% oxygen are ignited in the pipe, with the resulting shock wave causing the snow base below to slip in a controlled manner. Alternatively, dynamite can be winched out on a pulley system (looking like an ancient drag lift at high level above a slip face) to an identified point where it’s detonated 3-6 metres above the snow. For the more remote locations, many resorts, including Serre Chevalier use helicopters, and throw dynamite charges to the slopes below. Blasting takes place from first light – around 4 or 5am, in order to get the slopes safe and prepared ready for the first skiers.
Recently BBC’s Human Planet series filmed to Ski Patrol teams in Interlaken doing exactly this:
But should the worst happen the Serre Chevalier team are well prepared. There are 3 avalanche rescue dogs posted on the mountain, all of whom have a specific handler they live and work with. Powerful dogs with an excellent sense of smell are needed for this tough work, with German and Dutch Shepherds being the breeds of choice. After 2 years training a dog will work for another 8 years, with only the fittest dogs continuing on the team as speed is vital. Despite all the advances in technology, a dog is still by far the most effective way of locating an avalanche victim; a team of 80 men will take 2 1/2 hours to comb 80 square metres for a victim whilst a dog can cover the same area in 12-15 minutes. As a victim can survive for about 20 minutes under an avalanche, getting a dog to the scene is vital for a successful outcome. Rescue dogs are trained to ride on skidoos, chairlifts and helicopters to get them to the rescue scene as quickly as possible.
The rescue team train weekly, with Guillaume often volunteering to be the ‘victim’. “Being buried in the snow for up to 40 minutes whilst the dogs are brought in can be very uncomfortable” he says. “We’re given thick coats to protect us from the cold, and buried in snow holes, but you are very happy to see the dog.” He describes the eerie situation or being able to hear what is going on above you – the sound of mobile phone conversations, instructions being given, dogs digging. But it’s a one-way communication. “You can shout and scream all day but if you are under the snow and nobody will hear you” Guillaume warns.
The dogs, of course, do not appreciate the dangerous nature of the situation for which they are so vital. For them it’s always a big game, with the aim being to get their favourite toy as reward for finding the buried person. Even in a real-life situation, the handler will reward the dog for searching by playing with them afterwards. And who can say they don’t deserve it; searching at high altitude in soft snow is physically exhausting for the dogs who work in relay as they are often at the point of collapse after 20 minutes of searching. “A dog will be so tired that their tongue will have turned almost black after they have been searching”, Guillaume explains. “But then they get a nice sleep in the rescue station after and they are OK again!” he continues.
Ski Patrol station
Speaking of the ski patrol station, Guillaume gave us a tour of the facilities. The station is one of several across the ski area, controlled by the central nerve centre in the valley. With a medical treatment area at the mid station of the mountain, casualties can be given first aid before being transferred to hospital. Guillaume points out the treatment bath for hyperthermia, splints, oxygen and difribullators they keep on site. With up to 45,0000 people skiing in Serre Chevalier on any one day, the team can be kept very busy, as their ‘red taxis’ (as they call the ski patrol casualty sledges) attend accidents across the resort. The majority of accidents can easily be avoided though, as they are a result of careless skiing and excess speed, resulting in collisions with other skiers, trees and barriers.
Thankfully we leave the rescue centre with a positive statistic – only 1 in 12,000 people on average need the piste rescue services. So far I’ve been lucky enough not to have been one of those, and I intend to keep it that way.
I’ll continue my story in my next post – when we get the low-down on snow making, piste bashers, and the vast lift system spanning the resort.
Serre Chevalier vital statistics:
The resort is spread over 4 areas: Briancon, Chantemerle, Villeneuve and le Monêtier-les-Bains. There’s 103 slopes to choose from, ranging from the most gentle to the most exhilarating – all in one of the most sunny places in the Alps, boasting up to 300 days of sunshine per year!
Find out more about the Serre Chevalier ski area from Crystal’s resort page
By Amy Fletcher, Crystal Ski