They’re the unsung heroes of the resort. The army of pisteurs, dameurs, security patrol and engineers who work day and night behind the scenes to keep the Portes du Soleil in perfect condition. For this issue of Source Magazine we’ve been behind the scenes with Jeremy Helvic, a Portes du Soleil pisteur and snowmaker, and you’ll find further instalments from our ‘Behind The Scenes’ series on the Source website this winter.
Previously a pisteur in Chatel, Jeremy is moving to Avoriaz to join the snowmaking team.
“Last winter I worked as a pisteur secouriste or ski patrol in Chatel and often closer to home in the Roc d’Enfer ski area. I’d start at 8am to open the slopes and finish at 5.30pm, after closing the slopes. Of course, if there’d been a fresh dump of snow overnight I’d head in early, around 6.30am, to help blast avalanches and make sure the area is safe before it opens.
The job of a pisteur is an important one as we work to identify dangers such as rocks, ice, holes and bumps across the ski area. We use yellow and black poles to draw attention to hazards and we mark the limits of the piste so skiers can see where they start and end. Throughout the day we also keep an eye out for avalanche dangers and we spend a lot of time helping skiers and snowboarders – broken skis, lost poles and sometimes lost children – it’s all part of the job! Of course our main area of responsibility is to rescue anyone who’s had an accident and needs medical attention – we work to get them off the mountain quickly.
Lots of people ask me what training or qualifications are necessary to work on the mountain, and the biggest challenge is definitely the ski test, which you need to do to prove your skill level before you’re accepted onto the course. The test itself usually takes place on the gnarliest run and performance is judged by a panel who look at style, speed and efficiency. Once you’ve passed the ski test then there’s a 1 month course which covers how the weather affects snow conditions, rescue techniques and the rules and regulations of the piste. Successful completion of the course gives you a Brevet National des Pisteur Secouriste, which is a national qualification.
The best part of my job is definitely feeling that I’ve really helped someone out, whether it’s just giving them information, or being able to calm them down and get them off the mountain if they need medical help after an accident. Other perks include being the first person on the slopes to declare them ‘open’, riding in a helicopter and getting to blast avalanches. Sitting at the top of the mountain in the sunshine and appreciating the amazing view is also pretty special too!
The hardest part of my job is being called to a bad accident. Myself and the rest of the team act professionally, because that’s what our training has taught us to do, but even when a rescue goes smoothly we still replay it in our minds afterwards. That can be hard. We work as a team and we share our responsibilities so we’re able to offer support to one another. I haven’t found myself in any situation that’s been very dangerous and I keep my fingers crossed that I wont!
We do sometimes see some silly things on the mountain and the worst bit is knowing people underestimate the dangers of going off piste when conditions just aren’t right, or if they don’t have the correct equipment. Just because there are tracks leading off piste, this doesn’t mean you should follow them…
Another question skiers often ask is whether it’s hard to balance safety with the need to keep the lifts running and the resort open. My answer is always no, because safety always comes first. The decisions on whether to open a slope or close a slope are made by a team of people using lots of information. If there’s any question mark over the safety of a run, we’ll keep it closed.
In other ski resorts they measure the number of pisteurs and other mountain workers that are injured each season – I’ve seen statistics as high as 1/5th of the team over in Tignes! This makes the job look and sound very dangerous, and although it’s likely to be a realistic statistic, it’s probably down to injuries such as sprained ankles. It’s really important that we take care of ourselves during the season, otherwise we increase the likelihood of getting injured.
There are so many other important roles on the mountain each day that you might not be aware of. Helicopter pilots bring medical assistance to emergencies and they help us recover people from areas where there are no roads for ambulances. The helicopters also help us to blast avalanches. A team of doctors give advice over the radio and in person, and they often arrive with the helicopter or ambulance. The piste basher drivers (or dameurs as we call them) are also essential as they help to make the slopes better and safer. Lifties also help to make the whole lift network run smoothly and safely. Often they are the first people to hear of any accidents or incidents so communication with them is essential.
This winter I have a new job in Avoriaz and I’m very excited about it. I’ll be a Nivoculteur or snowmaker, working from 5pm as the pistes close for the day until around 2am, or from 4am until 1pm. It’ll be my job to make sure the snow cannons are always functioning and will make snow when conditions are right – usually when it’s between -3.5 degrees and -4 degrees. It’s very important that the cannons are switched on as soon as conditions are right, and this explains our shift pattern! A Nivoculteur’s job begins well before the season starts so that there’s a good base when skiers arrive.”
What else happens on the mountain after dark?
16.00 – The ski lifts are starting to close. Lifties begin clearing the working areas around the lifts of any snow before taking down the signage and netting around the lift station, ready for grooming. They also fold up the seats on the chairlifts in case it snows overnight.
17.00 – Ski patrol (pisteurs) begin carefully patrolling the runs and off-piste areas, hurrying along stragglers and looking for anyone having difficulties. It may take several laps of each lift to check every piste, while all the time it’s getting darker and darker.
17.30 – It’s time for the piste bashers to move in and they’ll be at it for most of the night. Each run gets fully ploughed up, flattened, and then a final ‘groom’. Bashers use a wide selection of technology to get the job done: winches and cables to access the steeper stuff, high tech GPS for when visibility drops to zero, and a whole host of computer-guided wizardry to keep them clinging to the side of the hill.
18.00 – If the temperature is low enough, the snowmakers will start work with the setting sun and carry on through the night. Snowmakers operate the vast network of snow cannons around the lower half of the mountains. A huge amount of effort goes in to keeping the Portes du Soleil’s 1500 snow cannons in peak operating condition, something you’ll be thankful for come spring!
03.00 – If it’s snowing, road clearance teams will be starting work around now, ploughing all the major routes to make sure they’re clear for the morning. You might hear them when you wake up, clearing the smaller roads, parking areas and footpaths.
06.30 – If there’s been a big snowfall, avalanche blasting will commence well before the sun comes up. Most blasting in the area is done with the automated gas powered Gazex blasters, which you’ll see poking out of some of the steeper sections near or above the pistes. However, there’s still a requirement for someone to physically hike up and dynamite blast any particularly heavy looking or ‘wind loaded’ areas of snow.
07.00 – Lift crews arrive to hand-clear the equipment and chairs. The lift barriers and netting are re-erected.
08.00 – The Pisteurs start their morning patrols, checking and marking hazards, and putting up poles and signage.
08.30 – Restaurants are clearing their terraces and firing up the coffee machine.
09.00 – The lifts are ready to go. Medical teams, ambulance drivers and helicopter pilots are standing by.