First Tracks in Les Deux Alpes
Making first lifts is one thing, but being the very first down the piste in the morning is quite another. “First Tracks” gives you the opportunity to join the snow patrol in Les Deux Alpes and experience the freshly-pisted slopes and see how they are made safe for everyone else who will use the slopes during the day.
The day starts early for the pisteurs responsible for the upkeep and running of the Deux Alpes ski area. Beginning at 6am, they meet up on the mountain in the little huts dotted across the resort, and make an action plan for the day. First of all is avalanche control, before moving onto surveying the pistes and making them safe, then monitoring and patrolling for the rest of the day until the end of their shift at 6pm.
One Wednesday, as part of the “First Tracks” session, we were lucky enough to join Neil, an Englishman who has been a pisteur for 12 years, for morning duties. This season he is part of the team working up at 3200m, although he has worked in different areas over the years. At the start of the season there are 50 pisteurs, but already there are now just 45 due to injuries. Each pisteur is assigned an area for the season: there are 6 teams looking after the Diable and Cretes area, two teams each in La Fee and La Toura, six teams between the Vallee Blanche and the bottom (resort level), and three teams up at 3200m.
Neil told us about the pisteurs’ daily routine. First off, between 6am and 8am, is avalanche control. Several different methods of avalanche control are used in the Deux Alpes ski area. While on the Jandri Express up to mid-station, Neil showed us some of the large metal pipes sticking out of the mountainside. They are used to create explosions using propane gas, deliberately setting off avalanches, thus keeping the slopes safe for later in the day. Other methods include the good old-fashioned method of throwing dynamite onto the mountainside (although the appropriate safety measures are always adhered to!), dropping dynamite from helicopters and using a system of pylons, connecting wires and computers to generate controlled explosions at specific areas. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try any of these procedures, however we did learn just how much effort, organisation and coordination goes in to keeping just the piste areas safe.
After avalanche control comes checking the pistes and making sure they are safe. This is where we could join in and lend a hand. Our assigned piste was the red Jandri 4, going from 3200m to 2600m. One of our tasks was to ensure the poles on either side of the piste, marking the edges, were upright and not pointing uphill and that none were missing. Neil expained that on a blue piste, you should have blue poles down the left hand side, and blue poles with about a foot of fluorescent orange at the top, down the right hand side. This is so that in bad visibility, you can work out whether you are on the piste or off-piste. We also had to ensure the assigned emergency helicopter landing pads to the side of the piste had been flattened and were safe for use if necessary. Quite the responsibility!
Gently skiing down the piste, it was an awesome feeling of making the very first marks after the piste-bashers had prepared the piste. The snow conditions were wonderful and looking back at your tracks in the fresh powder was something else. The piste was in tip-top condition, and we didn’t find anything untoward. Another task we helped with was to put up safety banners where there were junctions, warning people to take care and slow down. People often just see these as obstacles but you can see how important these are with the amount of pistes that cross one another.
One of the biggest causes of accidents on the mountain is excessive speed. A new app for iphones has been created, letting you monitor your progress down the slopes, and has revealed just how easy it is to cruise down at 50km/h. That is going to hurt if you fall over, or collide with another skier! Over the course of the season there can be up to 2000 rescues, just in Les Deux Alpes alone, with up to 20 recues per day in high season.
This is another job for the pisteurs: rescuing the sick and injured from the mountain. After the pistes have all been made safe, it is usually 10am, and the pisteurs have a well-deserved coffee break and bite to eat. The rest of their day is spent monitoring the pistes and providing help to anyone who needs it. After we had skied down Jandri 4, Neil showed us the contents of his backpack, which every pisteur has, and also took us on a tour of one of the mountain huts they use. We were shown the medical facilities and also, the living and breathing rescue facilities – the rescue dogs! There are 3 dogs stationed at 2600m, all trained to find and help save people trapped in avalanches. The three dogs, Gaspard, Dirt and Bart, were each a different breed, all commonly used for rescue dogs: Alsation, Border Collie and Golden Retriever. Their owners are pisteurs and they go up the mountain with them each morning. During the day they rest in the mountain hut, and get taken out for walks every few hours. Earlier on in the season, in the beginning of December, search and rescue dogs from all over the Alps came to Les Deux Alpes and had training up on the glacier for several weeks. It was a strange sight seeing dogs up at 3200m while whizzing down on skis!
The array of medical and safety equipment is quite amazing, and how it all fits into one small rucksack. Each pisteur has to undergo intense training, and even complete a degree before they are qualified. They do have an enormous amount of responsibility, and can find themselves in difficult situations.
When we asked Neil about memorable moments, he said saving someone’s life after they had had a heart attack on the slopes was one of them. They had to be airlifted to Grenoble hospital, taking only 12 minutes by helicopter, and made a full recovery. They even came back a year later to say thank you! We listened to many more stories from Neil over breakfast which we had in the 3200 restaurant. There is nothing better than fresh croissants, pain au chocolat and a warming hot chocolate after a morning on the slopes.
“First Tracks” runs every Wednesday morning from 8.15am in Les Deux Alpes. It costs just 13 euros per person, which for the experience, the wealth of information given and the free, tasty breakfast, it is well worth it!