Friday, December 20, 2013

Bending bananas

Coming back to Les Arcs/Bourg St Maurice each year for the winter season always provokes a few emotions: this year it's a mixture of the normal excitement for another winter on this magic mountain (especially now the snow's coming down in serious amounts), and  bit of deja vu touched with a hint of disappointment.

With both chalets filling up this weekend I will have to get ready to answer all those questions the beloved guests always pose: 'How long have you been doing this?', 'What did you do before?' etc. and of course 'What do you do in the Summer?'. Not that I mind answering any of these questions: they can lead to a good conversation and be a way to find out a bit about the guests doing the asking. But it can get a bit tiring sometimes, and some rather cheeky ski instructors of my acquaintance always reply to that last one ' we bend ze bananas'. The guests, not wanting to appear rude suspend disbelief.... 'we bend zem for the European Community so zey have the right amount of bend'. Well I suppose someone has to do it!

The fabulous Cinema Festival  Festival de Cinéma Européen des Arcs film festival is in full swing, featuring many interesting looking films from the countries formerly making up Yugoslavia. It good to see Bourg included as a venue for some of the screenings, at Le Savoy Cinema and the enterprising Super U Culture media shop. Travel between these two venues and you will pass the sad, unfinished multi-screen cinema project at the new  Coeur d'Or complex. Arguments between the lesees Cine-Alpes and the town council have been raging all year, and finally they've agreed to part company.  So back to square one for another of the towns flagship projects, null points to Mde Poletti (the mayor).
The new cinema, still dark

In fact Mde Poletti exudes more than hint of depression in the Petit Borain town magazine: describing last spring as sad and morose in the wake of the cancellation of the CNSHN project and the consequent collapse the Quartier Bulle redevelopment project (the town's two big projects for the future), she fears for Bourg but promises everyday her 'devotion to duty and to work without ceasing for the benefit of the town'. Hollow words, I fear.

To make up for all this doom and gloom the she and the town council have managed to bring off one highly unpopular developments: introducing charging for the Funicular car-park ( at least €3 a day, and no overnight parking).

How it might look once the locals have had their way!
Some readers might remember this happened also happened about 5 years ago, when local distaste for such a stupid idea lead the the various barriers and gates being damaged, removed or destroyed within a few days. They council gave up, but this time they are back with a vengeance!  There's a even a hut for an employee to sit in, presumably to deter night-time expressions of civil distaste.

It may make a few thousand euros for the town, but only in retrospect does anyone seem to be thinking of the disruption that will be caused by parking sauvage (wild parking). Here at Les Granges I expect the small carpark to be regularly overcrowded and gridlocked by those understandably wanting to avoid paying out. How much more noise, green-house gas emissions and visual pollution is justified by this mercenary pettiness?

Craning in the twin towers
I was also hoping to see a nice  new, bright buildings and the footbridge at the foot of the Funiculaire, but instead there's a small building site and not much else. Apparently the long-awaited refurbishment of the first thing most people see when they arrive here in the way to Les Arcs will not be completed until the end of January. A large crane has been lifting two steel towers into place to provide new lift access to the footbridge, but that's about all that has visibly changed.   One wonders why they waited until the middle of winter to do a job which surely would have been easier in good weather, as well as being ready for the start of the season. Perhaps they've been too busy bending those bananas all summer!

Bonne Saison to all my readers!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New website, new chalet

The new Ski Adventures website is up and running at It replaces my home-made effort, which has served us very well for the last 10 years.

David Eighteen who designed it and got it organised has really got across what it's like to 'be there', and to 'eat, sleep and ski' at our chalets in Les Arcs. Perhaps because David has stayed with us a couple of times he really understands our product, and as a marketing professional he knew how to convey the right feeling.... and many thanks also to Jenny and Angus (my staff last season) for the many excellent photos, and Dave's industrious technical colleague Colin Monday.

When you look at the website you'll see that we have another chalet for next season, L'Aguille Grive at Courbaton, ski in/out location between Arc 1600 and Les Granges. Have a look on the new website to find about it.

Meanwhile here's  a great video, it'll make you look forward to winter in Les Arcs even more!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer blog break

Rugged countryside of the Morvan, Burgundy's 'granite heart'
It's taken me a while to realise that I'm not going to write any blog posts about Les Arcs during this hot, sticky summer! I get my ideas and inspiration from things I see around me and read locally, and as I'm now 400km in the Morvan area of Burgundy (the place I call home) Les Arcs seems so far away.....
Traditional Burgundy produce just before cooking....

But Im already looking forward to December and the new season. The chalets are already filling up nicely (new website about to go live with details of my new chalet at Courbaton) and plenty of plans are being made. Next season should provide plenty of controversy and stimulating debate in Bourg St Maurice, mostly along the lines of 'what the hell are we going to do next now all our major plans and projects have failed or been scrapped!'. But we do have a newly renovated Funicular station (and the Elephant & Castle-style footbridge) to look forward to.

So I'm  whiling away the long hot jours d'été by preparing a new blog, Living in the Morvan. It's all about this remarkable and relatively unknown time-warp area of central France, it's terrain, customs, legends and people. I'm trying to get a good stock of posts written before it 'opens', so watch this space....

Many thanks for everyone who has read and followed my Les Arcs blog so far - I can promise lots more exciting posts next season.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"It's a really wonderful sport", said Margaret Thatcher

MT on skis in the 1960s
There can't be much about Margaret Thatcher's life that hasn't been thoroughly written about in the days since her death. Although I am one of those who virulently opposed her ideas, policies and all that she stood for, she eclipsed most of my adult life from leaving university to the creeping decay of middle-age. However, I was fascinated to find that MT was a keen skier. She was introduced to the sport by her millionaire husband Denis, who regularly sojourned in Switzerland when the  going got a bit tough in the business world.

MT hated foreign travel and especially holidays (she famously came back from a 10-day trip to Corsica after 4 days saying she had 'done' the island and was missing work), but she was prepared to overcome her dislike of 'abroad' to enjoy skiing holidays, and to enable her twins Carol and Mark to develop a passion for the sport. Lenzerheide, in the Graubunden area of Switzerland, was a favourite destination. 

Carol and Marco  in 1996
Carol became an accomplished skier, and for a time worked as a ski journalist.  She's been in an 'on-off' relationship with Swiss ski instructor Marco Grass since 1992, and lives part of the time with him in Klosters.

MTs enthusiasm for skiing appears to have been at its height in the early 1960s, before the pressures of opposition, government and eventually the premiership were to dominate her existence. She attended the opening of Britain's first dry ski slope, at Battersea Park in London in December 1962. The occasion was presided over by her friend the hotelier and restauranteur Charles Forte. Despite being a good skier himself he didn't actually ski down the bakelite slope on that opening day:  instead he persuaded Mrs Thatcher to share a toboggan for the 60ft descent.

MT with Charles Forte on Britain's first dry ski slope
The picture, from the London Evening News, shows MT actually appearing to enjoy herself!
She told the Evening News reporter:

“Last year the children were eight and we decided it was time they learned.  Now we are all tremendous enthusiasts, in fact we are spending Christmas in Switzerland this year."

"It will be my first Christmas away from doing the turkey and all that sort of thing. It's a really wonderful sport.”

Mrs. Thatcher's period as British prime-minister coincided with rapid growth in the winter sports industry, notably with the emergence of the independent chalet operator (largely in response the widespread customer dissatisfaction with the winter sports packages offered by mass tour operators like Clarksons and Swan Holidays, who were only really concerned about getting extra profit out of their aeroplane fleets). Crystal Holidays was started in 1980, and went on to be the largest 'chalet holiday' operator, largely defining the chalet industry that we know today.

MT seems to have lost interest in skiing as her political career accelerated, and the savage spending cuts of the 1980s saw an end to funding for professional competitive ski training that has never been redressed.

There's a wonderful Pathé newsreel video of the opening of the Battersea Slope, including a few jumps and tricks. Didn't they dress well in those days!

Many thanks to my friend Robert Balchin (the man who introduced me to skiing!) for digging out MTs words about skiing.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Avalanche tragedy: could your lift pass save your life?

location of fatal avalance, 2 days earlier
Everyone in and around Les Arcs was deeply shocked by the death of a 41 year old Russian skier who was avalanched on the Grand Renard piste  above Arc 2000 on March 30th.  She was skiing with her husband, child and an instructor when an avalanche, some 50m long and 15m wide spontaneously released from the steep slope above the piste. The avalanche was only 1.5m deep, but the heavy, wet snow pulled her over and dragged her under. 20 rescuers were soon on the scene, and she was discovered alive half an hour later, in a state of cardiac arrest. She was helicoptered to Grenoble CHR, where tragically she died the following morning.

Avalanches on the piste are perhaps the event most feared by ski resorts, who employ dozens of people and spend lots of money on a variety of techniques and methods whose aim is to release safely any accumulation of snow that could threaten the resort, the pistes or the skiers below. Strangely, hearing the distant booms and bangs of avalanche release at breakfast time in the chalet is invigorating: it means plenty of fresh show has fallen during the night, and it's also reassuring to know the resort is already being made safe by the pisteurs.

Gasex avalanche release system
Permamanet 'Gasex' (uses compressed gas to cause an explosion, triggered remotely) and 'Catex' (transports dynamite on wires to specific location where its detonated) installations ensure that snow is swept safely from the gullies, cliffs and slopes known to pose avalanche danger. A skier on a piste in a ski resort has a reasonable right to expect safety from natural hazards, in the same way that someone in an city park is protected from traffic and other potential dangers such as unsafe trees. That's why a fatal on-piste avalanche soon passes into the hands of the judiciary: the Magistrates Court in Albertville immediately began an inquiry by questioning those responsible for piste safety and sending an expert nivologist to ascertain whether the avalanche could, or should, have been prevented. If it turns out to be the case that it could have been prevented, a criminal prosecution could ensue. I suppose in that case the Russian woman's relatives would  be able to press a civil case for negligence and expect substantial damages....

Aftermath of St Francois avalanche last season
Thankfully, such accidents are incredibly rare. Last season, according to the annual Pistehors avalanche survey there were 23 avalanche death in France, in 15 separate incidents. None of these happened on piste. The type of avalanche which occurred on Grand Renard was described  as a 'wet snow slide' release, which are notoriously difficult to predict and impossible to pre-release by the methods described above. This is the same type of avalanche, typically occurring later in the season when temperatures rise, that destroyed an entire chair lift in St Francois de Longchamp last season (fortunately no casualties due to the brave and timely actions of the lift operator) and took the life of Les Arcs founder Robert Blanc in 1980.

Piste skiers can't be expected to carry an ARVA (avalanche transceiver which transmits the location of a buried skier and enable sesrchers to detect and localise that transmission signal), or the attendant probes and shovels without which the ARVA is fairly pointless. Anybody, however, who goes off the piste at all (even staying within sight of the piste) should have an ARVA and know how to use it. Les Arcs has an 'Avalanche Park' at the Col de la Chal (top of Transarc Lift) where a pisteur will train you for free to use one correctly. I often point out to my guests that apart from increasing the chances of surviving an avalanche yourself,  you are also reducing the risk to those who come to rescue you (often amounting to dozens of people) who will be placing themselves in a potentially fatal location for as long as it takes to dig you out.

There is also a perhaps under-rated system of 'passive' avalanche safety called RECCO. Based on a system of small reflector devices, that can be sewn into clothes or stuck onto boots, etc.,  it enables ski resort equipped with the RECCO detectors (and almost all resorts are) to find avalanche victims in about the same time as if they were equipped with an ARVA device. This would seem to be the perfect solution for piste-skiers who, in the unlikely event that they were avalanched on piste, would be in fairly close proximity to potential professional rescuers, rather than having to rely on the efforts of the comrades in a more remote location (remember that 93% of avalanche victims will survive if dug out within 15 minutes). Some clothing manufacturers incorporate the reflectors into their products, but you can also buy a pair (two are recommended) and stick them on your boots, like I did with mine and my wife's many years ago. RECCO technology is now included in all Ortovox transceivers as a back-up and it has been adopted by NATO as part of their search and rescue protocol.

Thinking about this made me wonder why the passive reflector technology of hands free lift passes couldn't also be used in avalanche detection. Presumably it works in much the same way, even if perhaps some adjustements were needed. Perhaps the RECCO technology could be built into the lift pass? Detecting the victim's lift pass could also yield other information, like whether it was an adult or child or their age.

Perhaps the time saved if such a device had been present would have been enough, in the tragic case of the Russian skier, to have made the difference between life and death.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Aiming High: review of Erna Low biography

Yesterday at La Thuile, Italy
Unbelievable! After a beautiful sunny day yesterday with blue skies all day today it's been snowing hard at all levels down to Bourg from 9 o'clock this morning. I can't remember a season when there has still been so much snow around (and still falling) at the end of March; the red Granges run to the chalet and the Millerette beginners area still fully functioning and it looks like this could go on to the end of the Easter holidays. We have plenty of availability in the chalet from 13th April, get in touch for an end of season bargain!

As it definitely wasn't a day for skiing (or leaving the chalet at all) I have been finishing reading Mark Frary's new biography of Erna Low, the remarkable woman who virtually created the idea of the 'skiing holiday'and who was responsible, in the 1970s, for bringing La Plagne, Les Arcs and Flaine to the attention of the growing number of British skiers.

Aiming High, describes 'the life of ski and travel pioneer Erna Low' in some detail without getting too bogged down by her numerous friends and acquaintances (including many well-known names mainly drawn from the English upper-middle classes) or the many obscure  Austrian villages to which she took her early  pre-war 'ski parties'.  Erna Low came to London in 1930 to study English literature on a shoestring. To raise money  to visit her family she famously placed a newspaper advert inviting 'young people leaving Christmas' to join 'Viennese Graduette' for a fortnight in Austria (resort not specified) including rail travel and hotel accommodation for £15.

The book gives a fascinating impression of the energy and indomitability of its subject, the driving force behind her quickly expanding ski trip programme. However, the outbreak of war in 1938 meant the end of all foreign travel, so she turned her 'wily sheepdog ability to get things and people organised' to English country house parties, where measly rations would be pooled by groups of like-minded young people seeking to escape the trials and tedium of the war, and maybe by the way to find a wife or husband!

Low was an inveterate match-maker, although she herself  never married despite a lifelong string of apparently platonic male relationships. Mark Frary has uncovered a couple of 'love letters' she wrote giving an insight into the more vulnerable side of her workaholic, tee-total personality.

Erna on skiis
After the war, she effectively combined the 'house party'  and skiing holiday ideas to become most distinctive  and diverse British tour operator. Frary spends a few pages ruminating over the invention of the 'chalet holiday', which clearly resembles Low's product, although normally her guests were expected to cook the food that was provided themselves! In the end he attributes the 'catered chalet idea' to her rival Colin Murison-Small, but I was surprised that he doesn't mention the contribution of her compatriot and contemporary Walter Ingham, despite him being referred to frequently elsewhere in the book.

Jet planes, increasing prosperity and  a 'bumper crop of shining new artificial ski resorts' revolutionised the travel industry in the 1960s and 1970s, with Erna Low struggling to continue with her 'personalised approach' in the face of mass-tourism competition.  Teaching Princess Anne to ski in 1966 combined her rapport with the 'upper class' and her hunger for publicity.  Erna Low diversified into summer holidays (which never made any money) and school trips. The book explains how the introduction of VAT, currency exchange restrictions and the 1967 sterling devaluation disadvantaged Low's 'personal touch' operation in favour of the larger operators like the ill-fated Clarksons.

By the mid 1970s France had become the favourite destination of the UKs 250,000 skiers, and Erna Low became agent for the new resort of Flaine, and later La Plagne.  Frary explains clearly the complicated series of changes of ownership, liquidations and eventual buy-out of Erna Low Travel Services Ltd by its eponymous founder.

A  'master (sic) of reinvention' she then concentrated on in-bound tourism through her Enjoy Britain brand but by the end of 1975 was back in the winter sports market having abandoned the 'made to measure' approach that she had hung onto since the beginning. This didn't last, she sold out again to concentrate entirely on selling Flaine, La Plagne and in the 1980s, Les Arcs. Vigourously promoting these new destinations in every way possible (including touring film-shows and a kind of 'ski clinic' minibus) she helped put them on the map, and created a new product, the 'self-drive, self-catering' holiday package that is still the backbone of the Erna Low brand today.

Erna Low presided over a period of immense change in the travel industry and in the world as a whole. From the pre-telephone days to the arrival of the internet, her principal marketing tool was the brochure, which she elevated almost to an art-form. Writing every word herself in her distinctive slightly bossy style, according to Frary often to 5 in the morning sustained only by a box of chocolates! The book includes reproductions of several of the witty and ingenious covers, many designed and even drawn by Low herself.

In the Epilogue (Erna Low died in 2002 at the age of 92) Frary draws together neatly the threads of Erna Low's life, her extraordinary personality and her achievements that spanned the twentieth century.   The book includes a number of amusing anecdotes and touching accounts of the lives of others who played important roles in her life and business: the painter Francis Bacon was a neighbour in South Kensington, and despite a deep affection they held for each other would sometimes engaging in slanging matches - "you dirty poof!" she would shout, to which he had a stinging rejoinder disclosed by Frary.

There are, however one or two mistakes that make me think perhaps there are probably a few factual errors (Peisey/Vallandry is part of Les Arcs, not La Plagne), perhaps because the book tries to deal with  so many places, people and events. Another niggle is the badly organised bibliography and sloppy index ( which lacks, for example, an entry for the subject herself).

However, Aiming High is a fascinating and enjoyable read for anyone interested in the skiing business, and the world of travel and tourism in general. Mark Frary makes me realise we owe a lot to people like Erna Low, and provokes a few thoughts about what things might be like in another 80 years.

Aiming High by Mark Frary is published by Matador Books (2012). ISBN 978 1780883 540

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Catch Cachette!

The last few days leading up to this, the first day of Spring, have been remarkable. Sustained snow fall punctuated by wonderful periods of sunshine - a real mixture of winter and spring weather. The result is a good 45-60 cm of fresh snow everywhere (but slightly heavy lower down), totally re-invigorating the mountain and those who skiing on it! Let's hope it all lasts through the UK Easter holidays, which start on Saturday.

Not yet a cinema, after 4 years of wrangling....
More bad news in the local paper today about the failed multi-screen cinema complex, next to the Coeur d'Or building in Bourg (opposite Intermarché). It was built 4 years ago by the Coeur d'Or developers, MGM, with a grant of €1.7 million from the town. But it never opened as there has been a long-running dispute between the town and Cinéalps, who were supposed to operate the multiplex. They agreed to spend €1.3 million on fitting it out (at the moment it's just a concrete shell) but they either didn't have the money or didn't want to spend it. The latest stage of the row is over the acoustic insulation, which should have been installed during the main build but was somehow left out! The town has agreed to pay for this (a mere €170,000 euros) if Cinéalps  honour their committment to the scheme, but now Cinéalps want the town to pay them €300,000 euros to finish it! What a mess; it's difficult not to feel rather sorry for Mde Peretti (the mayor) as her pet projects fall apart one by one (CNSHN, Quartier Bulle, cinema....).

The only tangible benefit I can see from the failure of the CNSHN project  is that the 'mythical' Cachette piste and lift at Arc 1600 will continue to be available to everyone as well as being used for competitions and training.

The old Charmettes drag, where Cachette is now.
The Cachette piste existed before Les Arcs. Courbaton 1750, the small network of lifts built by the commune of Bourg St Maurice from 1961, culminated in a several long drag lifts starting from near the Beguin Hotel. One of these ascended to the 'plateau de l'Arpette', more or less where the top of today's Cachette lift is  (2170m) .  From there one could ski the trace of the Cachette piste all the way to Les Granges and, with any luck, all the way down to Bourg (nearly 1500m vertical).  In 1967 a new lift called Cachette was built from where the bottom of Combettes is now (near the Arc 1600 ski school) to where the eponymous lift ends now, and a shorter drag lift called Charmettes was erected where the Cachette lift is today (you can still see the trace of it the trees to the left).

Looking up at the Cachette lift...
During the next 20 years various additions, doublings and upgradings took place (and even more very confusing name changes!), until in 1989 the Cachette high-speed (it was then) de-clutchable lift was constructed, the resorts first modern chairlift.  It can uplift 2500 people an hour, in just over 5 minutes, and until the new Mont Blanc lift was built in 2010/11, was the most heavily used lift in Les Arcs. It was opened at the same time as the funicular, to cope with the increasing numbers of local people and tourists coming up from Bourg.  Before the CNSHN project came along (and went away) there was talk of upgrading it, but suspect with the new Mont Blanc lift next to it that will never happen.

'Le Mur de Cachette' can pose some difficulties, even to the Ski Club!
The Cachette piste, described as 'mythical' by the mountain bike fraternity who get to enjoy it in the Summer (used for World class DH competitions), is the only piste in Les Arcs homologated by the FFS (French Ski Federation) and FIS (international) for world-class Slalom events. To this end, it has the resorts densest snow-making coverage, with over 40,000 m3 being pumped on to it at the start of the season to ensure a good, hard base for the the events that generally take place at the end of the season, such as FIS Men's Slalom race on 1st and 2nd April. If the CNSHN project had gone ahead snowmaking would have increased to 56,000 m3, at an annual cost to the resort of nearly €200,000 euros, so that saves a bit of CO2 output as well as money.

The piste is 1740m long and 45m wide, and the steepest bit (know as the often icy 'Cachette Wall') is 29 degrees (averaging 19 degrees). The name, which was taken from the small group of chalets and barns still in evidence above Arc 1600 means 'hiding place', but is probably a corruption of the Savoyarde dialect word 'cochette', meaning small col or pass. Cachette gains a mention in Claudie Blanc's moving account of the last day of her  father Robert Blanc's life*  (4th February 1980), when his brother Yvon rushes up to pisteurs' hut at the top to get a team together to search the road to Arc 2000 for a possible avalanched car and its occupants. It is while returning from this fruitless search that Robert was killed outright by an avalanche near Pré St Esprit.

The putative CNSHN tunnel plan for Cachette
Cachette is appropriately classed as a red run for us skiing punters, but I think it's a challenging piste to ski perfectly from top to bottom, fast but with style (remember all those people watching you as they come up the lift!) because of the subtly varying camber and pitch, and of course the hapless blue-run users who cross it on two occasions (perhaps the CNSHN tunnels weren't a bad idea after all!).  But there no better piste skiing, first thing in the morning after a nice dump of powder, when its normally deserted. Try it sometime, top to bottom with no stops. Breathtaking!

The Cachette piste also makes Arc1600 the best place to be at the end of a poor snow-season: all that artificial snow means it doesn't really melt until June...
* From the first chapter of  Reve de Bergers, by Claudie Blanc-Eberhart (I have started translating it,contact me for more details)


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Flagship CNSHN 'ski academy' project cancelled

It came as a bit of a surprise, but the writing's been on the wall for a while now. The towns flagship project, the Centre for National High Level Ski Studies has been abandoned.

Quartier Bulle barracks - white elephant?
The FFS (French Ski Federation) announced on Thursday that they were cancelling the project as there wasn't enough support or commitment from the various organisations involved (coded words for 'we couldn't get the money together').  This is a major blow to the future of Bourg St Maurice, as it was hoped the centre would generate up to 100 new jobs and possibly €4 million of extra income. The old army barracks, the Quartier Bulle, is one step closer to becoming an expensive white elephant, as this was to be the base for the CNSHN and related sporting  and leisure activities.

So why did it all unravel? Here's a short history of the doomed project:

  • In 2001 the French Government passed a bill aiming to set up a number of poles for 'High Level Sport Training',  to improve the country's Olympic prospects and to encourage wider sports participation (France too has an increasing couch-potato problem).

    FFS officials and local dignitaries visit Cachette in 2010
  • In response, in 2007 the FFS said there was a need for a centre for young people (of secondary school age) who were talented at skiing to train to become future world class athletes. Apart from improving France's ranking in World Class skiing, there would be spin-off benefits to the sport as a whole and the community which would host it.  Several locations in the French Alps were considered, including Chamonix and Albertville (which is now looking like a possible alternative location). The centre would cater for 110 athletes.
  • In 2009 Bourg St Maurice was chosen as the location for the new centre, on the basis of being close to many major ski resorts, having the FFS-homologated Cachette piste which would be reserved for training and competitions (with new tunnels under it for hapless tourists wanting to get back to Arc 1600!) and the vacant Renouveau holiday centre, which was then viewed as an ideal base for the project.

    The project was going to cost €6 million euros, and as the full effects of the credit crunch had yet to be felt no one thought there would be any problem raising the money. The centre would open in 2012/13, just after the final departure of the 7BCA army regiment from the Quartier Bulle barracks.

Damien Perry - forced to resign

  • However in 2010 a massive argument broke at at the Conseil Municipal (local council) when is was discovered the true cost of the project would be  €14m euros! A third of the councillors resigned, forcing the mayor himself, ex-pisteur Damien Perry, to resign in April 2011. There were subsequent council and mayoral elections, with Mde Jacqueline Poletti returning as mayor (she had previously held the office during the 1980s) - she was largely seen as a safe pair of hands in a time of crisis.

    The project was revived, and support was sought from the regional authorities. It was decided later that year to house the CNSHN in the newly vacated barracks, rather than on the crumbling Renoveau site, which in itself was going to cost €4m to adapt and renovate.

    Crumbling - derelict Renoveau holiday camp
  • In 2012 the town received compensation for the departure of the 7BCA (which led to a reduction of the  population by about 1200 and the loss of up to 300 jobs), of which €1m was dedicated to the CNSHN project. But there were still serious doubts about where the rest of the money would come from, and town council started to worry that the they couldn't afford it (it was estimated that the running costs would be over €2m a year).

  • The biggest nail in the coffin, however, was a big row last year about paying for the normal education requirements of the (now only 94) student athletes. Setting up new school facilities in the Quartier Bulle was going to be expensive, and the students would be isolated from their local peers. So  it was strongly suggested by the regional authorities that the students the could actually live (as well as study) in the 'Cité Mixte' (grouping of local schools on a new site developed a few years ago), leaving the role of the old Barracks site rather in question...  The town wasn't happy with the proposal, which was seen by the FFS as a dimming of their support for the whole project.

With so many unanswered questions and potential problems, it seems hardly surprising to anyone (except Mde Peretti, apparently) that the FFS would call time on the project, as least as far as Bourg St Maurice goes.

Cachette piste at Arc 1600
Once again the town is staring into a financial and political abyss, but it's not for the first time. The rise and fall of the Hydro-electric development in the 1950s left the town in a similar position. It was saved by the Les Arcs project. The recessions of the 1970s and 1980s hit the town (newly reliant on ski tourism) hard, but it survived, flourished even. Now there's new, and harder challenge: to find something to buoy the future that doesn't rely on the slowly diminishing ski industry, that is sustainable and makes sensible use of the town's increasing catalogue of disused real-estate.

    But at least the wonderful Cachette piste at Arc 1600 is still their for all to enjoy, and the new Mont Blanc lift is a legacy of CNSHN fiasco.

    Links (in french):

    Friday, March 8, 2013

    Our local Beaufort cheese wins a medal!

    Beaufort cheese has won a silver medal at the Paris 'Concours Generale d'Agriculture' (a bit like the now defunct British Royal agricultural show) . Actually, the cheese won gold medals at the last two concours, but for obscure reasons gold wasn't awarded this year.

    Beaufort: 400 ltrs of milk = 40kg cheese
    Apart from being delicious to eat and having a wonderful smell, the success (and even the existence) of Beaufort is linked inextricably with the development of the skiing industry in Savoie, and in particular in our valley, the Haute Tarentaise.  It really is our 'local' cheese, as it's made here in Bourg St Maurice, and elsewhere in Savoie.

    Cheese making in the Alps was born from the necessity to conserve the nutritional qualities of abundant summer milk in order to survive the long hungry month of winters. In the middle ages various monastic orders descended on Savoie with the aim of improving the lot of the starving peasants, and introduced major improvements in the management of cattle and the terrain on which they grazed. Thousands of acres of mountainside were cleared of  undergrowth and scrub to create large, communal pastures.

    The system of 'alpage' began, where cattle were grazed progressively higher and higher up the mountains as the snow melted and the summer arrived. By October, and the end of the '100 days of alpage' the cows could be up at 2000 meters, before they were ceremoniously herded back to the valley villages on the festival of 'La Demontagne', all of which still goes on today.

    Trifolium - vital to the cow's diet
    The cattle's owners travelled with them, having constructed rustic 'chalets' at different altitudes in which they could live while guarding and milking the cows, and in which they made cheese from the wonderful fresh milk drawn from happy cows feeding on the 250 species of plants found in the alpine pastures. Centuries later it was these chalets (unused by their owners in the winter) that were rented by the English alpinists in the 1930s as bases for their early skiing exploits.

    The name 'Beaufort' started to be used for the cheese, which is technically a kind of gruyere but without the holes, in the 19th century, as a great deal was produced on the massif de Beaufortain (the range of mountains which you look at across the valley from Les Arcs).  Production grew to over 10,000 tons a year, and in 1939 a co-operative was formed to store, distribute and market the cheese more widely. However, the ravages of the war, subsequent economic decline and mass exodus from the Alps to the cities led to a rapid decline in this kind of agriculture and by 1960 only 500 tons a year were being made.

    After the war France needed electricity more than cheese, and the various huge hydro-electric projects across Savoie (I've written about the Tignes-Malgovert scheme in an earlier blog...) brought people and money back into the valley, at least for a decade or so, until these schemes were finished and the money and people departed. Many local communes, including Bourg St Maurice, looked to the burgeoning winter sports industry for salvation, encouraged by the governments heavily-funded Plan Neige of 1964. Once again, money and people with an appetite for local produce started to flow back in, and a group of farmers in the Tarentaise got together to form a new Beaufort co-operative. The cheese received its 'Appelation Controlée' status in 1964, and production and quality have increased ever since.

    Daily turning and washing
    Beaufort is quite complicated to make - it takes 400 litres of milk (only from Tarine or Abondance cows) to make a 40kg cheese. The milk is heated in large copper pans until it separates, then drained, cooled and pressed into circular beechwood moulds. During the maturing stage the cheese is turned daily and brushed with salt water to create its distinctive hard orange casing which keeps the flavour in as it develops for up to 12 months in the 'cave d'affinage'. Labour intensive, so it's one of France's most expensive cheeses, although the Savoie milk producers protest that they are among France's worst paid dairy farmers.
    Tarine cow

    The production cycle of Beaufort fits well with the 'seasonality' of the skiing industry: the cattle keep the pastures nice and short so that when they become pistes in the winter the early snow holds well (long grass crushed under the weight of snow can be a significant avalanche risk at low altitudes).

    The summer grade of the cheese (Beaufort d'été), the best, is perfect for winter fondues, and the cattle over-wintering in the valley sheds and barns mostly feed their milk to their calves, reducing the manpower needed for milking, etc.and freeing up labour for winter resort-related employment. And of course, the massive influx of winter tourists provide a wealthy and willing market for Beaufort and other local cheeses.

    Many people criticise the environmental impact of the winter sports industry, often with some justification. But  Savoie is not just a landscape, it's also a community with it's proud  traditions, expertise and customs that are worth keeping alive. There's no doubt that without the ski business Beaufort cheese, and many other good Savoyard things, would no longer exist. So make sure you eat some today, and tell your friends. It really is wonderful stuff!

    You can visit the Bourg St Maurice dairy co-operative any Friday morning for a guided tour and see Beaufort being made. See for details.

    Tuesday, March 5, 2013

    Ski Guiding: it's had its day, in court.

    Skiing with my daughters in Arc 1600 
    My blog-writing career seems to have been brutally interrupted by a mixture of illness (the dreaded 'Grippe' which seems to have most of France in its grip..) and the school holidays: 10 highly enjoyable days of skiing with my children in the near-perfect conditions at Les Arcs.

    So now it's shoulder to the word-processor wheel again, and I can't resist having my say about the 'Ski Guiding' controversy which came to a head on 19th February when the court in Albertville upheld a judgement against a British tour operator in Meribel who had been illegally employing unqualified people to act as 'ski guides' for their clients.

    Most aspects of French life are regulated by a set of 'Codes', which set down all the legislation relating to a certain area, such as 'Commerce', 'Route' (roads), 'Travail' (work) and in this case the 'Code du Sport', which governs the organisation, teaching and funding of sporting activities of all types, including skiing.  A complaint was made against  the tour operator 'Le Ski' in relation to Article L212-1, which relates to remuneration:
    Seuls peuvent, contre rémunération, enseigner, animer ou encadrer une activité physique ou sportive ou entraîner ses pratiquants, à titre d'occupation principale ou secondaire, de façon habituelle, saisonnière ou occasionnelle.... les titulaires d'un diplôme, titre à finalité professionnelle ou certificat de qualification.
    My translation:   Only those with a a diploma, professional title or certificate of qualification may, for payment, teach, organise, lead or train participants in a physical or sporting activity, whether this is a full or part-time, regular, seasonal or occasional occupation.

    This part of the Code applies to all kinds of sports, including skiing and snowboarding, so all this fuss could just as well have been about hockey or football.  A lot of the debate at the court centred around the definition of guiding ('accompagnateur'), but the key factor seems to have been that Le Ski's people were being paid specifically to do this, which is therefore illegal.  The court also noted the these ski guides were being remunerated at below the legal minimum wage, and most of the fine imposed was actually in relation to that offence.

    I know from my own extensive ski guiding experience that as soon as you get a group of people together and give them any kind of instructions you inevitably have responsibility for the outcome of following those instructions, so it seems highly reasonable to me that 'ski guiding' falls within the scope of the Article L212. Mention was made during the hearing, by the prosecution, that the mountain is a specific kind of environment requiring specific knowledge and understanding of its dangers and risks.  Who can argue with that?

    I think the comments of  certain other tour operators after the judgement that their ski guides 'never take people on black runs or go off piste, they stay mainly on blue runs'  largely vindicates the correctness of the reasoning behind the judgement; the 'specific mountain environment' isn't defined by piste colour, and in any case there are far, far more accidents, fatalities and injuries on blue pistes then anywhere else on the mountain.

    The controversy about ski guiding has been rumbling on for years, especially at Meribel, where I remember this being an issue when I worked there, as a ski guide, in the 1980s.  There were apocryphal stories of ESF instructors (I wondered how long I could write this for without mentioning them!) breaking the skis, poles and even legs of illegal ski guides and unqualified instructors and tales of armed squads of skiing gendarmes making mass arrests of ski bums trying to earn a pint and a plate of chips showing people the then new art of snow-boarding... 

    Valmorel - under-rated gem of a resort

    At around the same time, there was a terrible incident at Valmorel where a Dutch ski guide managed to get her entire group trapped in a closed mountain restaurant in a blizzard, entailing a dangerous rescue that lasted 2 days and included two pisteurs being seriously injured when their snow-mobile overturned in appalling conditions. Things can go badly wrong for ski guides: she and her employers were later taken to court and had to pay a substantial fine.

    I imagine in Meribel, as elsewhere, the annoyance of the ESF and other professional ski schools has intensified greatly since 2008 when all tour operators, etc. found that with the collapse of the value of the pound guests were far less likely to shell out on ski school - in my business I have  seen a fall of about 80% in the numbers booking any kind of ski lessons. With the 'chalet holiday' market under pressure, offering 'ski guiding' seems like an easy and relatively cheap way to 'add value' to the product and maybe increase client fidelity.  Much of the ski guiding offered by tour and chalet operators is actually pretty atrocious - hung-over 19 year olds with 6 weeks skiing behind them and a scant knowledge of the lift, pistes or 'specific mountain environment' seems to be the norm, according to my guests.
    Early days of ski guiding

    But perhaps behind all this controversy lies a deeper clash of cultures: The British arrived in the Alps between the wars with their characteristic enthusiasm, 'gung-ho' mentality, love of amateurism and suspicion of 'foreigners'. These qualities are still reflected in the products of British tour operators, with their 'dinner party' (normally cooked by amateurs) atmosphere and afternoon tea, all provided within an English bubble avoiding any contact with the locals or the dreaded French language. Many of these tour and chalet operators were set up by enthusiastic amateur skiers looking for a life-style change ( and I count myself among these) with the creditable aim of sharing their love and enjoyment of the mountains with others of the same ilk. 
    Jean Claude Killy - Plan Neige pioneer

     On the other hand, since the 'Plan Neige' of 1964 France sought to enlarge, develop and professionalise its skiing industry through funding, training schemes and investment tax breaks. In order to do anything in France you need to call yourself a 'professional' and do some kind of course or get some kind of diploma (even washing up in a kitchen or serving in a shop). The local communties of the Alps have been saved from extinction by the success of the Plan Neige - up until then there was mass exodus to the cities, stemmed by the new opportunities generated by the ski business. People who were once farmers or foresters retrained as pisteurs and instructors. At the same time government poured money into infrastructure developments and the result we have before us: the greatest ski areas in the world co-existing with the unique wild environment of the Alps which largely owes its conservation to that ski industry.

     There's much talk about 'respecting the mountain' these days, and surely this implies respecting the local  mountain communities who earn their livings as ski industry professionals and in related activities.

    Les Arcs app
    The time has come, it seems to me, for everyone to look hard at the products and services they are offering, whether this is the ESF (who, although I respect them greatly, certainly need to adopt a more flexible approach to how they offer the teaching and guiding  services that they can do so incredibly well), the tour and chalet operators and the resorts themselves. 

     The British are becoming a smaller and smaller part of the market; the future lies in the new clientele from the emerging economies of Russia, China, India, etc. In preparing for this many resorts have already done a great deal to improve maps, signage and offer navigatoinal 'apps', helping people to discover the ski area themselves. In Les Arcs the resort itself offers free 'ski guiding' orientation every week, provided by a professional English-speaking guide.

    British chalet guests - threatened species?
    I don't think anyone is saying the informal or social skiing (e.g. by a chalet owner) is illegal or undesirable, and such people are much more likely to have the local knowledge, anecdotes and experience necessary to enhance their guests enjoyment rather than an under-trained and poorly paid teenage ski guide. 

    Tour operators could improve their  staff training in local knowledge and advice for guests, as well as encouraging them to take advantage of the professional services available in the resort (and the ESF are not the only instructors or guides around). Negotiation, persuasion and understanding could go along way to establishing sustainable alternatives to the peculiarly British ski guide system, which lets face it has finally had its day - in court.

    Thursday, February 14, 2013

    Good news for Les Arcs - new projects approved

    Despite the doom and gloom emanating from Bourg St Maurice and Mde Le Maire in the last few weeks, I was surprised and delighted that on Monday the conseil municipal passed a provisional budget for 2013 which includes several goodies for Les Arcs.

    There has been much wrangling recently as to whether the town should be trying to pay down its €40 million debt, with the possible effects of improving their credit rating for future projects, or if investment now in more modest projects is the way forward.  Well, thankfully anti-austerity common-sense has ruled the day, and €8.5 millions euros are on the table. This is how it's going to be spent:

    Arc 2000 - to be transformed
    1) Improvements to Arc 2000. A new building is going to be constructed near where the buses stop (presently a horrible shabby and unwelcoming first impression for new arrivals)  with a new tourist office, baggage store (hopefully to encourage late Saturday departures to get and extra day's lift pass...), a waiting room with nice toilets. The old 1970's 'Dynotron' lift will be replaced and enlarged. This is all going to cost €1.4 million. It extremely pleasing to this happening at Arc 2000, which ought to be the 'jewel in the crown' of Les Arcs rather than a negelcted backwater.

    Tatty funi footbridge
    2) Renovation of the Funicular footbridge at Bourg St Maurice. About time too - I'm sure a lot of people must step off the train and seeing that scruffy monstrosity feel like getting straight back on and back to Paris or wherever! Anyhow, it's all going to be re-done, new floor, walls and 2 new lifts up from the Funi terminus.There will new digital information displays and new lighting throughout. There is also talk of a possible extension of the paserelle up to the old 7 BCA barracks site - great idea, but it would mean more then doubling its length and passing though various private gardens and Lidl! Perhaps it would  be best to wait and see if anything ever comes of the redevelopment plans for Quartier Bulle.... Budget: €1.9 million

    I do hope they manage to restore the striking triangular neon sculpture thing (hasn't worked for years) above the main staircase.

    The existing swimming pool will be the
    basis of the Centre Aqualudique
    3) €850,000 has been voted for initial studies and planning for the proposed Centre Aqualudique at Arc 1800. This project would include swimming pools, spas, water splashes etc (anyone else seen the fantastic one at Morzine?) which would truly be a great asset to Les Arcs summer offering. The whole thing is budgeted at about €6 m, which they hope to raise by selling the old Renoveau Holiday camp (how many times over has that money been spent I wonder?). So no real certainties there for the moment, but at least a start has been made.

    There is also going to be a major refurbishment of the town's Nursery (Le Pomme d'Api) and the creation of a permanent travellers' site (this should benefit winter seasonaires). There is also money for the cemetery, sewage, car parks, buses and water mains.

    It also transpires from the municipal budget that €2.8 million is going to towards lift investments - I assume that will cover the Chantel replacement and the new rope-tow on the 'snow front' at Arc 1800/Villards (to compensate for another of the "5 great planning errors of Les Arcs" - blog coming soon!)

    Daniel Payot - against the budget
    So where is this money going to come from? It appears the sale of the Old Gendarmerie, which bought in €2 million, and some building plots at Courbaton for another million are the main sources. Other than that it's coming out of the towns revenue and from savings and cost-cutting.  The conseil municipal opposition, led by Daniel Payot, argued against the budget saying that it was dangerous to sell the town's assets now as in a few years time the town could find itself with more debts and running costs and nothing left to sell.

    There is no mention in the budget of the CNSHN (Centre for High Level Ski Studies) which appears once again to be quagmired by political and financial indecison.  From the extravagant plan to redevelop (and even extend) the Quartier Bulle at a cost of about € 6 million the scheme has been reduced to a proposal to house the 90 potential students in the exisiting 'Cité Scolaire' and for them to use existing facilities left behind by the army (gym, canteen etc). And this was to be the grandiose project that was going to change Bourg's fortunes for evermore....

    Anyhow, let's be thankful for the conseils municipal's sensible approach to this handful of schemes that will make quite a difference to the town and the resort.

    Wednesday, February 6, 2013

    Mont Blanc deaths revive tragic memories of 1957

    Les Droites, Mont Blanc
    My chalet guests often ask me to point out Mont Blanc (4810m), which you can see clearly from most of the Les Arcs ski area. I explain: you are looking at the Italian side, and it's actually only 15km away as the crow flies.

    However, last Sunday as I was once again gazing at the rounded dome of Europe's highest mountain  I couldn't help thinking of the tragic plight of the two Lithuanian climbers trapped on the rocky north face of Les Droites, below the peak at 3900m.

    They had sent a text message on Friday saying that one had tried to set off on skis back to Chamonix and the other was managing to "keep warm in his bivouac using his gas stove". Several attempts were made over the next 48 hours to reach the climbers by helicopter, but with high winds and  heavy snowfall  they were unable to get lower than 4300m, or closer than 300m to the stricken pair.  Finally, on Sunday afternoon a helicopter with heat-seeking equipment was able to ascertain that they were both dead, the one who set off on skis having fallen in the Lagarde couloir. Their bodies will be recuperated when the weather permits.

    The local paper mentions a similar tragedy that befell two British climbers in 1999. One was eventually brought out alive after being heroically rescued on the end of a winch line,  lowered several hundred meters from a helicopter in atrocious conditions (apparently the wind was blowing the snow vertically up the mountain and high above it). This surviving climber lost both feet and hands through frostbite.

    Vincendon and Henry
    However, I was reminded of the extraordinary drama that took place on the Brenva Glacier (south side of Mont Blanc, visible from the ski area of Brévent, above Chamonix), some 57 years ago. The appalling failure of various attempts to rescue the climbers Jean Vincendon and François Henry (both in there early 20s)  led to structural changes in the way that mountain rescue in France is carried out. 

    On 22nd December 1956 the two men, experienced winter climbers, set out from the Torino refuge to climb the Brenva. By chance they came across the celebrated Italian mountaineer Walter Bonnatti and his climbing partner, who encouraged the two young men in their planned ascent. The four climbers slept at the Fourche refuge and setting off in different directions early the following morning. However, soon the Bonatti cordée found conditions worsening and decided to change their plans and to rejoin the others on the Brenva route. By the time they met up the weather was considerably worse and the four climbers had to spend that Christmas night in improvised snow holes. The following day they decided to head for the safety of the Vallot Observatory refuge. Vincendon and Henry fell behind and the groups became separated; they never made it to the refuge.  

    Down in Chamonix friends and associates of the climbers were getting worried (no mobile phones in those days). The Chamonix Mountain rescue service arranged for Sikorsky helicopter to overfly the area. The crew spotted Vincendon and Henry. They were unable to land but they did drop parcels of food and blankets (in fact their fingers were already so badly frostbitten they were unable to undo the knots of the string around these packages).   

    Having established they were alive another rescue mission was launched, using one of the biggest Sikorski helicopters possessed by the French army (known as 'The Elephant') to drop a rescue team close to the the two young men.They would then assist them to the Vallot refuge, which was only 400m away. 

    The crashed Sikorsky S-55, "The Elephant"
    Incredibly, the helicopter crashed, the snow and wind proving too much the for The Elephant, but even more unbelievably none of the four occupants of the aircraft were injured. Seeing the extremely poor condition Vincendon and Henry were now in, the senior rescuer, Commander Legall, had to take a tough desicion; the two helicopter pilots being only lightly equipped were in danger. He decided to place Vincendon and Henry in the crashed carcass of the helicopter, to give them a bit of shelter, and to get the pilots to the Vallot refuge as quickly as possible. He would then return with his colleague to rescue the climbers.

    The climb to the refuge with the inexperienced pilots took a long time. One fell in to a crevasse and it took an hour and a half to get him out. By the time the party reach Vallot they were exhausted and it was nearly dark. There was no question of Legall returning to the men in the wreck of The Elephant. 

    The following day, 1st January 1957 saw a further worsening of the weather and no further rescue attempts on the mountain or from the ground could be attempted. It was only on 3rd January, after mounting media interest and government pressure that two state-of-the-art, lightweight Aloutte helicopters were able to land near the refuge and rescue Legall and his party (why hadn''t they been used earlier?). One Aloutte overflew the wreck of the Elephant, and saw no sign of life from Vincendon and Henry. 

    In Chamonix Vincendon's father, himself an experienced mountaineer, pleaded with the authorities to abandon the rescue in order not to risk further loss of life.  It was not until 20th March that Vincendon and Henry's bodies we able to be brought down, by a team of 28 guides. A chilling epilogue to the drama was that Henry's body was found outside the wreck of the helicopter, probably indicating that we was still alive when the Aloutte flew over them.

    There were huge repercussions, in the press and among the different groups of guides, rescue services, police and military about how such missions should be organised and who should have responsibility for the difficult decisions that have to be taken. As a result the Pelotons de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne was founded , based on integrated military mountain rescue systems established in the Soviet Union.

    However, even the best resources and organisation isn't always enough to save lives on the mountains, their power being perhaps greater then human  endeavour. 

    There is an excellent, detailed account of the Vincendon and Henri tragedy in,

    Our thoughts are with the friends and families of the two Lithuanian men who perished last weekend.