Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Going nowhere? Municpal morosity and railway riches

Empty, sad.. and expensive!
Leafing through the latest edition of  Le Petit Borain, Bourg St Maurice's quarterly 'magazine muncipal', is a depressing experience.  Since the departure of the 7 BCA from the Quartier Bulle barracks last June, the permanent population has effectively shrunk by a third, with a consequent reduction of spending power and municipal revenues. Like all communes in France, Bourg is being affected by a significant decrease in government subsidies and other contributions (in the order of 10 - 20%) and faces a rise in VAT later this year to 21%. Bourg St Maurice has debts of about €35 million euros, which it is trying to reduce by €2 million a year to eventually increase its ability to raise funds (more borrowing?) for future projects.

As for current projects, it seems the only thing that is going ahead this year is a new covered car park at Arc 2000, which will cost €350,000 euros and hopefully generate €80,000 euros a year. Does Arc 2000 need a new, expensive car park, I ask myself, for stationary cars to sit in for 7 days? There seems to be plenty of parking, covered and uncovered around, including the under-used car-park at Pré St Espirit. How about buying a few buses and offering a decent bus service from Bourg to Arc 2000 on Saturdays with enough room for luggage, etc? Think how much carbon and money that could save over the 20 year projected payback period of the Lac des Combes project.

Life in the 1970s
Another major project,  the Centre National de Ski de Haut Niveau is in suspended animation while the regional authorities decide how much (if any) they are prepared to contribute. The 'opinion piece' at the back of Le Petit Borain, from the leftish 'Avenir' group points out that the town will need to raise nearly €14 million in two years if CNSHN goes ahead as planned,  by selling of bits of real-estate,  such as the old Renoveau holiday camp (it went bankrupt 3 years ago).  If you are interested in buying a sprawling, run-down Soviet-style collection of buildings and campsites, is on the market for €6 million! Strangely enough this is the same amount Pierres et Vacances paid to buy up Intrawest's remaining share of Arc 1950 last year...

Perhaps the best the town can hope for is selling it at 30% below the asking price, as happened with the old Gendarmerie (went for under €2 million in the end). The empty barracks are going to cost the town €400,000 a year to maintain; not hard to see why the Ministry of Defence was delighted to sell them for one euro!

Bourg St Maurice station in the 1920s
Enough of this. Let's celebrate one of  the greatest projects Bourg has ever seen, and possibly without which we wouldn't all be here. This year is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the railway. The only reason there is a railway line all the way up the Tarentaise valley is that the ambitious engineer behind it, Abel Gotteland, planned to extend the line all the way to Turin and Milan. There was going to be a 22 kilometre tunnel from Viclaire (just after Bourg on the way to Val d'Isere) to the Aosta valley in Italy. It had taken nealy 40 years to build the railway this far from Albertville, but Gotteland reckoned the tunnelling stage could be done in 5 years, with 5000 men!

How feasible this was we shall never know, because the advent of the First World War in 1914 put an end to the project. But it did leave us with one of the finest pieces of railway engineering in the world which was regarded as an asset to the development of the skiing business right from its earliest days. Trains come from as far away as Amsterdam, London, Brest, Hamburg and Madrid. Chalet guests who have been sitting in 5 hour traffic jams on Saturday ask me sometimes, why can't there be more trains, a direct service from Geneva airport perhaps?  Apparently the line and its terminus are already 'saturated' on Saturdays, no room for any more trains.

Jacqueline Peretti, the Mayor
Mde Peretti, the Mayor, says in her forward to Le Petit Borain:

"This year will be a year when we lay the foundation stones of major structural projects which will be our way of responding to the economic crisis we face, with determination and goodwill... lets not believe that our future will be mediocre...." 

Perhaps her words would have a less hollow ring if she had reminded the townsfolk of some of Bourg's great past achievements, products of the imagination, ambition and sacrifice of people like Abel Gotteland  in the face of far worse circumstances and even more difficult times.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Funicular fun

Being vehicle-less for the past two weeks (long story) has been quite liberating. I've done more walking than normal, especially around Bourg between the Les Arcs Express funicular and the town centre. I've enjoyed also the walk through the frozen  park to the supermarkets a few times.  But I have spent a lot of time on the Funi, and a fair amount of time waiting for it at both ends. Even after using it regularly for the last 10 years to get in and out of  Les Granges I still get confused by the time-table, especially in the late afternoons, and this is compounded by the occasional 'operational error', when it doesn't stop here when it should do.

Never stopped by snow or bad weather
Some of my guests find it hard to get the hang of it, and I think the record is 6 journeys up and down before finally managing to get out at Les Granges. I always try patiently to explain how it all works, but glazed expressions and odd questions often belie a fundamental lack of grasp. The commonest mistake the guests make (please don't laugh!) is getting on the one going down when they actually want to go up, or vice-versa. I try to get them to think of it as an upside-down cable car on rails, but I don't think this helps much...

Bottom station of the old TPH,
now demolished
Love it or hate it, the funicular is a vital lifeline for Les Arcs and Bourg St Maurice. Without it I imagine the town would be a rather sad and forgotten place (like Aime) with very little in the way of tourist infrastructure.  The number of users has grown every year (over half a million last year) as Bourg's popularity as a budget resort option and a summer destination grows (same effect as Brides Les Bains/Meribel).

Past and present...
The 'Arc en Ciel', as the funiculaire was originally named, opened on 23rd February 1989, so next season we'll be able to have a 25th birthday party. It was the third link between Bourg and the ski area, having been preceded by the 2 stage chairlift via Les Granges (1961 - 1974) and a téléphérique (1974 - 1989) which was never much good because it was too prone to high winds blowing down from the St Bernard Pass and only took 68 people - not enough for the fast-developing resorts of Les Arcs.

The decision to build an expensive funicular (for which the town is still paying) was taken in the light of the up-coming 1992 Albertville Olympics (remember Torville and Dean?), for which Arc 2000 hosted the Speed Skiing event, the 'KL'. (Much of the valley's infrastructure was improved then, including the upgrading of the railway to take TGVs and the express dual-carriageway road from Albertville to Moutiers.)

Building the bridge over the Isere
Unusually for a funicular railway of such length (2.9 km) there are no tunnels.The Grande Motte funicular at Tignes was built at the same time and for the same reason, but entirely in a tunnel. Various geological problems caused delays, and it missed the Olympics completely, opening eventually in 1993.

The 'Arc-en-Ciel' uses a simple, prefabricated structure made in sections in a factory rather then on-site in a potentially hostile climate. Once the earthworks were done, it was all bolted together easily and quickly.  The two 'rames' each hold 276 people and the 7 minute journey was a great deal faster and more comfortable then either of the previous uplift systems.

View from the cab
We all got a bit excited a couple of years ago when the SMA (now called ADS, who franchise the funicular from the town, who own it) announced they were going to re-furbish the carriages. However, all this resulted in was some rather flat-footed graphics on the outside, a change of name to the dull 'Les Arcs Express' and absolutely nothing on the inside, which continue to look tatty and un-loved.

It'a shame that this, and the appalling Elephant-and-Castle type walkway linking it the railway station are the first impressions  many visitors have of Les Arcs.  The location of the bottom terminus at the wrong end of the station and miles from the town centre is  for me one of the "5 Great Planning Mistakes of Les Arcs" - surely another 500m of track wouldn't have broken the bank back then in the prosperous 1980s?

However, lets be thankful that that the people of Bourg had the courage and vision to build such an efficient,  reliable (never been stopped by snow or bad weather), safe (there has never been an accident) link. Just think of the amount of  Co2 and pollution saved over 25 years of car-less transport. If only we could persuade them to simplify and extend the timetable into the evenings, perhaps run it every 15 minutes rather than 20, and splash out on a coat of paint and some new flooring for the inside.....

You can even get a hand-made Funi 'custom beanie' hat as a souvenir, made by some enterprising British girls and their grannies. Worn compulsorily by cool Coolbus drivers, and ideal for keeping warm while you have to wait 40 minutes for the next one to Les Granges....

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Courbaton 1750: war, peace and power

Ariel view of Courbaton, note the barrack-like buildings
There's a forgotten corner of Les Arcs which has always fascinated me. Nestled in the forest between Arc 1600 and Les Granges is the 'village' of Courbaton, consisting of a number of large, barrack-like buildings and few much more recently built luxury chalets. Like many things connected to Les Arcs and Bourg St Maurice, the older buildings at Courbaton owe their existence to electricity: they were constructed in in the early 1950s as living accommodation for several hundred of the workers involved in construction the Malgovert hydroelectric scheme, the key feature of which is the enormous dammed lake at Tignes which is connected by 17 km of tunnels and pipes to the power station, directly below Courbaton at the edge of Bourg St Maurice. The 'Cité de Courbaton' as it was then known included cafeterias, medical facilities, a place of worship, a bar and other facilities for the EDF workers, many of whom were immigrants, including the legendary 'Spanish tunnellers'.

Ice stalactites in the spooky tunnel
The twin pipes and tunnels run directly below the plateau of Courbaton, and nearby you can see the impressive concrete conical structure which acts as a huge pressure valve for system. It's about 40m wide, and just as deep (carefully fenced off, but if you climb up the rocks nearby you can see inside). There is also a long, spooky tunnel cut into the mountainside below the plateau (follow the cross-country ski route to find it) which I assume accesses the bottom of conical structure.  Beyond the heavy iron gates you can see little, but hear distant gushing water. In the winter this tunnel breeds the most amazing stalactites and stalagmites of ice,  some a couple of metres high.

Once the scheme was completed, in 1952 Courbaton became a   holiday camp for EDF employees, where they could enjoy ski and summer holidays partly at their employers expense. It's now in private hands  and been extensively renovated for holiday lets.

The guardhouse of the fort at Courbaton, still largely intact
Long before all this Courbaton also had a strategic military signifigance. It's situated on a small plateau at about 1500m, looking north across the Haute-Tarentaise valley to the Col de Petit St Bernard and the Italian border (today only a few kilometres as the crow flies). After the annexation of Savoy by France in 1860 there was continuing anxiety about the behaviour of the Italians, culminating in 1914 with uncertainty about which side they were going to be on in the 1st World War. An elaborate batterie was constructed, with 6 large guns trained to repel any Italian advance and also to help defend the Fort du Truc, on the other side of the valley and right in the path of any putative invasion attempt.  Much of the batterie is still there, you can get to it on skis or foot from Arc 1600 (more of this later). Towards the end of second world war it was used by the German army as a reconnaissance point (again to keep an eye on their allies and later enemies in Italy). Most of Savoie was liberated in August 1944, after some extremely protracted and bloody fighting. That same year the American allies  installed a powerful artillery battery  to help dislodge the last German forces, clinging on grimly above what is now La Rosière, across the valley (they were finally defeated in the spring of 1945).

Marketing poster, 1963 -
"from the train direct to the snow"
Still in the throes of economic depression after the completion of the Malgovert scheme and the subsequent departure of its workers and their spending power, Bourg St Maurice began to turn to tourism to boost it fortunes. In 1961 two chairlifts were built, from the Pont de Montrigon (near the bottom funicular station) to Les Granges, and from there to Courbaton. There were six or seven pistes, including a rouge that descended back to Bourg (still skiable today). The ski area became know as Courbaton 1750, and even than a marketing feature was ease of access from the railway station, aiming to attract skiers from Chambèry, Lyon and even Paris. More lifts were constructed, extending as far as the present day Cachette and eventually up to the top of the Arpette and the Deux Tetes.

Some opponents of Les Arcs campaigned for the enlargement of Courbaton 1750 as an alternative to the initial development of Arc 1600 in 1968, without success. The chairlift from Bourg continued running until 1974 when the  telephèrique (cable car) was built, the top station of which is still clearly visible (and scanadalously derelict) next to the top station of the Funicular, which replaced the cable car in 1989.

Courbaton 1750, on the Granges piste. Note the chairlift.
It still possible to ski down the old 'World Cup'  red piste, one of the gems of Courbaton 1750. It starts on the right of the Mont Blanc piste, a few hundred meters below the site of the old Mont Blanc lift. It's a bit overgrown, but the route is quite clear. You have to cross the road twice (the piste was abandoned when the Arc 2000 road was built) before you reach Courbaton, bearing left beside the village where you can see the remains of the batterie.  The 'Coupe de Monde' then gently descends through the meadows around Orgière, before reaching Les Granges. A taste of Courbaton 1750, and the early days of skiing on these extraordinary hills, pre-Les Arcs.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Free on Saturday?

Saturday is a special day for most people - a day to relax and do things you want to do rather than have demands made on you at work, a day to set your own agenda. (Sunday is  more a day for not doing things...) I can't write about Saturday without thinking about Ian McEwan's fabulous novel, which is certainly about doing things, although with unusual consequences. Highly recommended.

Saturday in a ski resort like Les Arcs is also a different kind of day. People leave, people arrive, no one who works here can go skiing and every week we deplore the inevitable traffic jams and airport delays (snow in England today!). 

Saturday nightmare traffic
When I am dealing with guests whose journeys have been long and painful I always remind them that in 24 hours it will all be forgotten, they'll be having a great time on the mountain and Saturday seem like just a bad dream. Until the next one, of course.

 I warn my staff that the most difficult half-hour of each week is the first half-hour spent with new guests; the psychological stress of saying 'goodbye' to a bunch of people who you have come to like  whose company you have come to enjoy, and then, often only minutes later, having to 'turn it on' for a new set of faces, with all the inevitable questions, anxieties and demands.

Saturday, I don't ski

If you are lucky to get here in good time on Saturday (perhaps if you arrive reasonably rested from the Friday night Eurostar service) it can be a great day to enjoy the mountain. There are very few people around on the slopes and there are a few bargains to be had. At Les Arcs you can by a special ticket on the internet called "Samedi je ski" It costs only €26 euros (instead of the normal €46 for a day ticket) for Les Arcs or La Plagne (you can't use the Vanoise Express which links the two). You need to register, and it's all in French (but pretty easy to understand) and you print of the voucher in advance. It was aimed at local students, but anyone can benefit. 

However, a question came up recently on the forum about free lifts in Les Arcs that you could use for just a couple of runs in the afternoon after arriving. I was surprised as I set about responding just how many free Saturday skiing options I could come up with, and some of them are not just for Saturday:

Free skiing in Les Arcs - ideas for that Saturday afternoon with no lift pass: 

La Millerette at Les Granges - always free!
1) Get yourself to Arc 1600 and you can ski down the fabulous Granges run to the funicular half-way station (at Les Granges where my chalet happens to be), and get the funicular back up. Runs every 20mins, so you can get a few runs in. It's also possible to walk through the resort to the start of Violettes (harder red), which starts behind the bottle bank behind the Arcelle restaurant (hard to find, we call it the 'hidden run', but its worth it!) which also runs to the beginner slope at La Millerete (always free 250m drag lift), next to the funicular station, I think technically you should have a ticket for the funicular from Les Granges, but there is no system/personnel to check. 
Funicular - sometimes free?

2) You could extend this descent by taking the Combettes lift near the ski school, which is free on the weekends only. From the top of the funicular there is also a long blue piste (Bois de Saule) and plenty of off-piste possibilties. You could even follow the 'old' Bourg St Maurice piste down as far as Montrigon (you have to cross the road twice), but the funicular stops there are much less frequent. 

3) From Arc 2000 or 1950 ski down the Marmottes and Cascade pistes to Pré St Espirit (bottom of the Comborciere lift) and get the free bus back back up - nothing wrong with a bus as a ski lift, they use them all the time in Austria! Especially as it's free. Also at Arc 2000 the St Jacques (very slow), Cabriolet and the baby lift are free on the weekends. 

4) Not free but cheap: you can get a pedestrian ticket for the Transarc lift at Arc 1800 for about €10 - just watch out they don't see you carrying your skis. From there you have 1000m descent to Pre St Espirt taking in most of the Arc 2000 valley, and then again free bus either up to 2000 or back to 1600/1800. You can do the same on the Vallandry chairlift (€7 euros a ride). 

Why only Saturdays?
But will Saturday always be Saturday? Some tour operators have wisely shifted their change-over days to Sundays to avoid the problems resulting from the limited transport infrastucture. This has got to be a good thing, and I wish, for example, Eurostar would run Saturday night/Sunday daytime service to allow us to make the switch in our chalet (about 2/3rd come this way). But the resorts themselves, their hotels, apartments, ski school etc. seem firmly stuck to Saturday. 

Apart from the the misery of awful, long journeys just think how much pollution and Co2 could be saved by avoiding the kind of traffic jams you get when 40,000 cars a day trying to get up a road designed in the 1930s for much lighter traffic (I am thinking of course of the N90, our local Albertville - Moutiers - Bourg St Maurice - Val d'Isere route).  Perhaps it's time for a more flexible concerted approach by all involved, but in the end it might need a new law to make it happen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Comborcière - the bear facts

Today has been a remarkable day on the mountain - fantastic snow everywhere, but glacial temperatures  (-9c at the bottom of  TransArc at 13.00!) and much colder higher up in the wind and out of the sun. I thought was going to freeze to death coming  down the Arc 2000 valley to Pré St Espirit, where I planned to return via Comborcière and the Malgovert piste and maybe a bit of 'Couloir du Soldat' and into the trees above the old 'Olympic' piste that leads to Les Granges...

Watch out, they may be coming back!
As I was alone, I had a bit of time to think during the chilly 15 minute ride on the Comborcière lift  up to the Petit Fond Blanc (2400m). I remembered reading that this was the first lift constructed in the Arc 2000 valley, in 1968 as part of the original 1600 lift system, quite a while before the Arc 2000 resort was born in 1979.

The name Comborcière deconstructed and translated means 'Vale of the Bear' (la combe = vale, l'ours = bear).

There were once bears there, and the next lift up the valley, Bois de l'Ours translates as  'Bear Wood'. According to one account the last bear was shot in 1924, just about where that chairlift starts. Because of unregulated hunting bears had almost died out in the Alps by the 20th century, so even then they must have been pretty rare (another account I read says this happened in 1890s, so I'm not sure which to believe...). Perhaps like the wolves, they will one day reappear - they have managed to preserve a small bear population in the Pyrenees.

Notice the old drag lift trace to left of present lift
The 1968 lift was a very long, and quite steep button lift. You  can still see the trace of it in the trees to the left of the present lift. Previously, there was a popular walking and skiing route from the top of the Arpette back to 1600, via a long flatish track that runs from the bottom of Comborcière roughly parallel with the road - you can see the start of this from the lift, on the left after about 100m. It's used a lot by piste-bashers these days, but it's still a pleasant walk on a nice day, with wonderful views towards La Rosière and Mont Blanc.

However, that track passes under the notorious Avalanche de Chavonnes, which has proved fatal on many occasions.  In fact it killed Robert Blanc, the co-founder of Les Arcs, in 1980, while he and a team of pisteurs were searching for 2 lost girls (a very dramatic story, more in later blogs). So if you do walk or ski there, take heed of the warning notices and don't risk it if the conditions aren't right. The road below is now protected by a 'paravalanche' tunnel, in which you will see a simple plaque commemorating Blanc, at the spot where he died.

So the logic of the building the first Comborcière lift was to avoid skiers having to take this dangerous route home, although it also opened up the long, bump run underneath and the wonderful off-piste terrain accesssible from the Malgovert piste.

The present lift (3 person chairlift) was built in 1985, as drag lifts started to go out of fashion. Rumour has it that the old drag lift is still in use somewhere in Poland! A new lift is scheduled for 2017,  and hopefully by then the neighbouring, painfully slow Pre St Esprit lift will also be replaced, in 2014 (if you ask me, that should have been done years ago, and paid for by the Arc 1950 developers....).

And finally, a personal Comborcière  anecdote: I was skiing with my wife about 6 years ago. We were heading for the excellent Chalet de Pré St Espirit restaurant at the bottom. I had got about half way down, but I couldn't understand why it was taking her so long- she was skiing much more hesitantly and slowly than usual. When she got to me I asked her what was wrong. She looked at me, and after a moment said:

" I wasn't going to tell you this till we got to the restaurant, but I am being really careful because I am pregnant again!"

About 9 months later our third child, Thomas, was born. Perhaps we should have called him Little Bear...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ski guiding judgement due on 19th February

Today's local newspaper, Le Dauphine, reports that a date for judgement in the Le Ski/Meribel ski guiding case has been set for 19th February. The case has been brought against Nicholas Morgan, co-owner of Le Ski,a tour operator in Meribel, in the Tribunal Correctional in Albertville.

The prosecution  has cited the 'Code du Sport' (everything in France is governed by a legal 'code', such as Code Commercial, Code Criminel etc.) which states:

"Anyone who provides for money any type of ski teaching or training activity must hold a relevant qualification (i.e. a diploma or licence)"

During the courts deliberations there has been much debate over whether ski guiding (or "accompagnement")  can be classed as 'teaching', but the prosecution has insisted on a strict interpretation of the Code, and claims that ski guiding activities are against the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law.  The vice-procureur, effectively chairman of the tribunal, is quoted as hammering home the following point:

" This judgement is eagerly awaited by all tour operators and ski resorts because it has huge economic implications. A ski area is specific type of environment where risks are always present, and this justifies the need for a qualification, whether for guiding, teaching or organising events."

If found guilty Nicholas Morgan faces a fine of €15,000 and/or 3 months in prison (suspended sentence). He will also be judged for failing to properly register his employees with the French authorities, a charge he doesn't deny.

ESF Arc 1600 - no guiding troubles here, yet...
I have my own views on this matter which are different from a lot of the French-bashing, anti-ESF rants that have appeared in other publications and blogs. But I will wait until the judgement is published. However, there is nothing new about this debate; it's being grumbling along for over 20 years, especially in Meribel where they are hot on this kind of thing.

The ESF there has already lost a lot of market-share to 'foreign' (albeit properly qualified)  ski schools, and with a big decrease in British people booking any kind of skiing lessons since 2008 and the general downturn in the ski industry, it's perhaps not surprising that  this affair has finally come to court.

Whatever the judgement  is on February 19th it will form part of French jurisprudence (case-law) and be binding on all such future instances.

Once this matter is resolved once and for all, let's hope tour-operators, ski schools and resorts can enter into some sensible dialogues about providing services that enhance people's enjoyment of this 'specific type of environment' without risk but with maximum pleasure and in an economically-sustainable context for the local population.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Aguille Grive Hotel - what's happened?

Conditions at Les Arcs don't get much better than they were today - another 5 or 6 cm of snow last night to top up yesterdays 50cm 'dump', and the sun making its presence felt despite the fresh cold air. But where is everybody? The place is deserted, I hardly saw anyone at all during my 3 hours on skis (most welcome first outing since Boxing Day!). There seems to be something about the 2nd week of January - conditions are always good but we can't seem to attract anyone to come here. Maybe it's the dip between too much Christmas spending and the arrival of the January pay slip.

The new Aguille Grive hotel
One the way back from a bit of delerium between the trees at Vallandry I thought I'd have a look at the new Aiguille Grive Hotel and Restaurant, built on the site of the popular former eponymous establishment by the same proprietors. It's a hugely ambitious and striking project, with 5  separate 'chalets' linked by an invisible corridor to a large main building. Beautifully clad in local larch and pine, it has been designed and built to the highest 'eco-standards' by a trendy firm of Paris architects. However the best thing is that it is clearly an Arcadien design, updating and echoing the best of Les Arcs highly-distinctive architectural style.

But once again - no one around! The hotel and restaurant was scheduled to open on 15th December, but judging by the piles of plaster-board inside and unfinished concrete structures outside it still has rather a long way to go before it anyone is going to'enjoy the dream holiday', as the marketing website  proposes. I'm trying to find out why things haven't gone to plan: any information gratefully received.

Building the old Aguille Grive in 1957
It's a shame the marketing material for the hotel makes no mention of the old Aiguille Grive restuarant. This was almost certainly  Les Arcs very first development, constructed in 1957 on the ruins of an old shepherd's hut. It was built by the wealthy aunt of Robert Blanc (the co-founder of Les Arcs), Claudia.  She was shrewd enough to recognise that something extraordinary was going to happen in the mountains above her native village of Hauteville-Gondon, although at that stage plans for Les Arcs were barely more than gossip and pipe-dreaming.  Other locals soon started to cotton on to idea of 'white gold', and soon a 500m long second-hand drag-lift was erected in the Grand Meleze field above (roughly were the Arc 1800 piste of the same name runs today) by a farmer called Achille Gonguet.  Yvon and Robert Blanc starting organising skiing lessons soon after, and the rest, as they say, is history.... (more of which you'll discover in future blogs).

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Seasonal accommodation scandal

As predicted the snow came yesterday, and by the evening we had 50cm of fresh cold powder around the chalet, more at the top. This season is beginning to look like a 'classic', with regular decent snowfalls and cold temperatures interspersed with some lovely sunny days. It's actually been quite a sunny today, but the snow's returning this evening and its set to continue, on and off, all week.

We finally said до свидания  to our Russian guests this morning. Last night developed into quite a party, with much mutual toasting and speech-making. They are so determined to come back for Christmas and New Year next season that some of the them have left their equipment for us to store! I'm already looking forward to seeing them all again.

Empty for 3 years!
The issue of accommodation for seasonal workers is turning into quite a scandal. In an earlier blog I suggested  that the commune of Bourg St Maurice should make available some of the huge amount of private and communal accommodation that is sitting unused in the town and in the resorts.

Well, incredibly, it seems the mayor is actually taking the opposite approach: a group of seasonal workers who are squatting in an empty block of 200 municipal apartments at Arc 1800 (Le foyer des Chardons) are soon going to be moved on by the police, despite the building being empty for the last 3 years.  What's more, on top of closing the 'official' saisonniers site near the canoe centre (apparently because it wasn't big enough and was getting too crowded!)  the municipality has increased the fine for 'illegal camping' from €17 to €35 euros per night.

The official line is that campers have to use the tourist camp-sites, but as one saisionaire points out in today's Le Dauphiné, the charges for 2 people amount to over €600 euros a month, which may be cheaper than an apartment (at around €850 for 14m2) but still represents a large portion of a monthly SMIC wage. The paper also points out that at least 20% of 3,500 advertised seasonal jobs don't include any kind of accommodation, and the three official season worker hostels are completely full.

So new illegal encampents have sprung up by the swimming pool, in McDonald's carpark and once again at the popular, but exposed and windswept, site at Plan Devin (Arc 1600).

Let's hope it doesn't take another tragedy before the Mde le Maire and the commune addresses this issue in a sensible and sustainable way, rather than pandering to protocol and prejudice.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Couloir des Canadiens accident

A friend and neighbour, and highly experienced instructor and mountain guide, says its the best place to ski in the world - the north face of the Bellecote mountain in the La Plagne ski area. A number of couloirs of varying difficulty (none of them easy and all must be skied with a guide) run from just below the glacier (3400m)  funnelling steeply down to the Ponthurin valley. 

Steep and deep certainly, but once again we are reminded of the dangers that skiers can encounter off-piste even in relatively good conditions:  yesterday a 25 year old English woman slipped and fell 300m on the Couloir des Canadiens (no 2 on the picture), the most popular of these awesome routes.  It was named after a group of Canadian soldiers who first discovered it was skiable in the 1950s. 

The unfortunate woman suffered very serious head and facial injuries (she was wearing a helmet) and a broken leg. She was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Chambery, but because of the seriousness of her injures was transferred to the larger, more specialised hospital in Grenoble. One of her four companions was in such a state of shock that he had to be winched by helicopter back up to the Roche de Mio.

 No one stepping out on to the north face of the Bellecote could be unaware of the risks, and no doubt the unfortunate skieuse took this into account when deciding to begin her descent. No doubt there will be mutterings about the dangers of off-piste skiing and should it be controlled, etc, but the mountain will always be there to offer exhilaration and excitement  and to inspire respect for nature's most dramatic gifts to us.

We wish her a complete and speedy recovery, and bon courage to her friends and family.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Frozen: wolves, chairlifts and half-term holidays

Thank you to readers who pointed me to the 2010 film Frozen,  which tells of a trio of friends trapped on a chairlift at night. I won't give the plot away, but it does also involve wolves on the pistes, which nicely draws together the threads of recent blogs.  I don't want to give the plot away (most of it you can guess!), so you can download it or watch (a very scary) trailer at:

The weather is changing at Les Arcs. It's been sunny and cold for the last few days, perfect winter weather. A new depression is on the way and it looks certain to snow down to all levels by the end of the weekend. We still do have plenty of snow, and the cold conditions have preserved it well, but a new layer is always welcome.

We're getting ready to say goodbye to our Russian guests at the end of the week, with a 'gala fondue night' planned for Friday. We shall be sad to see them go, they have been perfect for the chalet. The next week, the third week of January, is often a very quiet time both in the chalet and on the slopes. So a chance for us to recharge the batteries after a hectic start to the season and get ready for the February holiday onslaught. But if you fancy a cheap few days skiing, do get in touch.

For children in French schools, the half-term  vacation starts on 11th February and goes on to 11th March; the country is split into three geographical regions (A, B and C), each of which gets two weeks holiday. These 2 week periods are staggered, and overlap by a week. So unlike in Britain and Holland, who both tend to have the same one-week holiday (this year beginning 16th February), there is less strain on the roads, airports, railways and, of course, ski resorts.

Perhaps if more people in Britain were skiers (France has about 5 million 'active' skiers as opposed to less than 1 million in the UK) the British authorities would take the same approach. Once again we expect the 8 hour traffic jams in and out of the valley on 16th and 23rd February, to say nothing of crowded pistes and inflated prices.

A few years ago there did at least seem to be a 'north/south divide' over 2 weeks, but that doesn't seem to happen anymore.  If the Minister of Education was a skier, (although Michael Gove is a scot, so he should be!) maybe he would find a fairer way to encourage young people and their families to enjoy skiing holiday at a reasonable cost and in easier circumstances introducing a staggered system á la francaise.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Moving mountains: a new piste to Bourg?

If you have driven up to Les Arcs from Bourg St Maurice this season you probably couldn't help noticing a large gathering of earth-moving machines and building site paraphernalia at the edge of the second hairpin on the route des Arcs.  I suspected, being on the edge of the foret communale and only a couple of hundred meters from the vast twin pipes running down to the Malgovert hydroelectric power station, it must have something to do with electricity and the EDF.

The mountains have moved, it seems. In the last 60 years, since the Tignes-Malgovert hydroelectric scheme was completed, slight movement of the terrain below the steeply-inclined pipes (the final 950m stage of a 17km network fed by the Lac de Chevril at Tignes) has damaged the joints and made them potentially dangerous. These pipes can carry up to 50 cubic metres of water a second, certainly enough to give Super-U a good soaking if they  burst!

Forgive all the statistics, but the Tignes-Malgovert scheme is one of the 'wonders of the world' in the field of sustainable energy production - it took 20,000 people 20 years to build, involved the destruction and submersion of the thriving old village (and burgeoning ski resort) of Tignes and at the time (1953) was the largest hydroelectric network in the world. The Malgovert power station produces enough energy for 400,000 homes (392 mW) with zero carbon output, and contributes substantially to making Savoie a net exporter of electricity (despite all those power-greedy ski resorts!). In fact, it's my belief that without the advent of hydroelectric power and the subsequent industrialisation of the valleys there would be no ski resorts, but that's going to have to wait for another blog....)

So, the EDF is undertaking its largest current project to rebuild the lower sections of pipes, having re-stabilised the mountain underneath. It's going to take 5 years, and the earth-movers parked by the route des Arcs are engaged in carving 7 km of new forest roads to allow access for men, machines (especially 40 tonne cranes) and material. They have already constructed a zone de vie ( living quarter) for 200 people, as work is expected to go on 24 hours a day. Echoes of the enormity of the original construction project!

After the work is completed, in 2015 the new pistes forestieres will be handed to the commune. If you've ever skied down the Bois de Saule piste from Arc 1600 to Les Granges you'll know how easy it is to miss the point where it departs from the old forest road, and to end up skiing all the way  down to the main road, to exactly the point where this building site begins. In a few years time, you'll be able to carry on (and there's normally enough snow to ski to Bourg during January and February) on these new pistes all the way to down to the edge of the town. So maybe a further, unintentional legacy of the hydro industry may be a new ski piste, to replace the one that existed until the 1980s when the bridges over the road were removed for 'maintenance' reasons.

There's a wonderful aerial photograph on the wall of the ski school in Arc 1600 of a huge torch-lit descent all the way from the resort to Bourg, taken in late 1980s. Perhaps we can soon look forward to recreating it to celebrate the re-invigorated pipes and the sustainable energy they produce.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Wolves on the pistes

There was another sighting of a wolf on the piste last week, at Valloire in the Maurienne valley (i.e. one valley away from the Tarentaise and Les Arcs).  Wolves have been protected in France for several decades, and having no natural predators other than man, the population has increased exponentially since 1992. There are few mountainous, wooded or forested areas in southern France that have not experienced some kind of loupine activity recently, not least the Alps and now, Savoie.

The wolf is by nature a shy creature, and will only risk contact with human beings if extremely hungry and especially if raising cubs (much like foxes in this respect). So as the wolf population has grown, and their natural predation resources thinner on the ground, they have become bolder, and there are now frequent reports of attacks on herds of sheep, goats and even dogs and cats.

Naturally farmers and shepherds are literally 'up in arms' over the wolf, and there have been prosecutions for illegal shootings of  wolves, even when they appear to threaten livestock. On the other hand, farmers can claim compensation of about €100 euros per animal for proven wolf attacks, so perhaps turning a blind eye could be good for a shepherds cashflow. Following much controversy and outrage, there is now a National Wolf Plan (see Wolf in France for details) which aims to conserve the wolf population at sustainable levels while protecting livestock and domestic animals through the imposition of 'wolf-free zones'. I suppose it's all a question of how long its going to take the wolves to learn to read the exlcusion area warning signs...

It's only a matter of time before a wolf is spotted here in Les Arcs. Apparently at their current rate of expansion there will be wolves in the forests around Paris within the next 60 years, maybe sooner. In case you think you have spotted one from a chairlift, here's what their prints look like:

Just be careful where you tuck into your picnic ham sandwiches!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Tragedy at La Clusaz hits the headlines

News of the tragedy at La Clusaz, in which two young people died (see yesterday's blog) has made it into the national French media, and attracted some interesting reactions and a few surprising statistics. According to France Info there are 200,000 seasonal jobs in France, of which 45,000 are related to the winter sports industry. And it is reported that about a third are mal-logés, i.e. have inadequate accommodation. Some of the 65 ski resorts in Savoie have tried to repel seasonal workers who bring there own mobile accommodation, but as one contributor to the article pointed out, without the saisionners there would be no season! In  an interview with the Le Dauphiné a one pointed out that it could easily cost €1000 euros a month for 10m2 studio (equivalent to a 6 ft square broom cupboard), while most of this kind of work is paid at SMIC (the minimum wage) of around €1600 euros a month.

I haven't yet had a response from Mde. Jacqueline Peretti, the mayor of Bourg St Maurice, to my proposal to open up unsold and unused tourist accommodation, the old Gendarmerie and the 7BCA Barracks, but I put this down to the fact today is a Sunday and being Epiphany, the Russian Christmas. She's probably up there at Arc 1950 joining in the celebrations (the whole village has apparently been given over to the festival tonight as 95% of the tourists are from Russia this week).

The Russians in our chalet have asked us to organise a barbecue as their celebration. Apparently grilling meat in the open when the temperature is -30c is a popular winter pastime in Russia, especially as there's no need to further cool the vodka! Apart today and the 'normal' Christmas and New Year, there is one more Russian celebration to go:  the 'old New Year' according to the Georgian calendar, on January 10th. Any excuse for a party, it seems!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Seasonal tragedy

Two seasonal workers (a 21 year old man and his 17 year old girlfriend) died yesterday when the converted lorry in which they were living caught fire. It happened in La Clusaz, one of the increasingly popular Aravis resorts near Annecy. Many of these vehicles use paraffin heaters, and a large stock of the highly inflammable liquid would seem to have been the cause of the fire.

This terrible event serves to underline the precarious living conditions that many seasonal workers have to endure. There is just not enough accommodation at affordable prices for people wanting to come and work  in a restaurant, hotel, or in the case of the young man who died, as a lift operator (no, these people aren't lazy hippies, they just want to work and earn some cash!)

In Les Arcs, despite building a couple of 'seasonnaires hostels' in the last few years, it is well known that there isn't enough accommodation to match all the jobs that need to be filled. In order to try and move the long-established encampment at Plan Devin (Arc 1600), where often as many as 20 converted vans, coaches and lorries we parked, the commune set up a site between the old Renouveau holiday village (and therein lies a story for a future blog!) and the Canoe centre - needless to say well away from the actual Arc resorts, the town and centre and quite a long walk from the funicular. The Plan Devin encampment seems to have sprung up again, and we wish the best of luck to anyone prepared to  live in a converted UPS van in a windy spot 1600m up on the north side of the mountain.

Last season, during the extreme cold spell from the middle of January to the end of February the commune realised there could be a problem with heating - not that the vans could catch fire but that the inhabitants might perish as the night temperatures hit -28c and it didn't go above -5c for three weeks. So they opened up a nearby electricity sub-station and gave a free supply to all the campers, and where necessary provided them with safe electric heater. It was the right, and humane, thing to do.

I wonder if, in the light of the La Clusaz tragedy, they will do the same this year? I hope so. But what needs to be addressed is the whole issue of providing decent accommodation within the resorts. Look at all the empty, unsold apartments in Bourg (in the Coeur d'Or development for example) and 'cold beds' in Arc 1950 - why not commandeer these for seasonnaires, who would be able to pay a reasonable rent? And what about the 1000 or so beds now vacant in the old 7BCA barracks, and the block of flats adjoining the old Gendarmerie (empty for 2 years now)?  Perhaps there isn't really a shortage of accommodation at all, it's just all in the wrong hands.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Uplifting stories

Probably everyone who has ever used a  chairlift has wondered what would happen if it stopped while you were on it, and you were left hanging there for the night. Would you survive? Would you try and jump? Would you try and climb out and shimmy along the cable to the next pylon? From time-to-time one reads about people to whom this has happened, but it is certainly unusual for someone to choose to climb onto a chairlift in the middle of the night.

However, according to Le Dauphiné this morning a drunken scotsman did exactly this  in the wee small hours of Thursday morning. 'Aided by alcohol', to paraphrase the article, a 21 year old Scottish holiday-maker decided to climb up a pylon of the Rogoney lift in Val d'Isere and settle into one of the chairs. He apparently wanted to admire the view over the village.

A passing police patrol spotted him and tried to find out if he was OK, but he had fallen fast asleep. Lots of shouting, throwing of snowballs and the subsequent wailing of sirens as the turntable ladder from Tignes was summoned failed to arouse the inebriated tourist. Eventually the pompiers managed to lift him into the ladder's cage and return him safely to terra firma, where his companion evidently shed tears of relief!.  An hour or so later, at 6 am they had to be shoe-horned onto a bus to Geneva to fly back to Edinburgh, where no doubt he has quite a hangover but probably can't remember anything of the aerial drama.

Chairlift accidents and incidents are thankfully rare, the most recent one I can think of in Les Arcs involved a child falling from the Combettes lift a few seasons ago. Fortunately he wasn't badly hurt (the beginning of this lift is not very high off the ground)  although a major investigation was carried out. Many of the chairlifts used by ski school and children now have 'Childsafe' gadgets on the cross-bar to avoid this happening.

It's not only chairlifts that can cause problems. About 20 years ago in Les Menuires a child was badly loaded into the Roc des Marches telecabine and managed to fall out, hanging upside-down suspended only by a ski boot jammed between the doors. The lift was stopped but no one knew what to do; the lift couldn't be reversed for fear of crushing the pendulous child. Eventually someone got hold of a step-ladder and they managed to get him down, unscathed. There was a subsequent criminal investigation, resulting in the lift operators on duty at the time getting a 3 month prison sentence.

So next time an instructor asks you to accompany a small child on a lift remember, it's quite a responsibility!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

There's no 7 in Bourg St Maurice, anymore...

Apart from all the new mini-roundabouts and one-way systems that have sprouted over the summer, Bourg does feel a little different this winter. And I am sure it has to do with the departure in June of the 7th Brigade of Chasseurs Alpin to new bases in Grenoble and Varces (the French army has been subject to cuts and rationalisation of regiments in Britain).

The 'Batalion de Fer'  has been based here since 1962, although Bourg has had a military presence since Napoleonic times owing to its proximity to the Italian border and the frequent threat of invasion. With over 1000 soldiers and their dependent families the population has shrunk by about 20%. Two primary schools have closed, and the popular 7BCA ski-club, which was open to all the town's children and young people, is no more. The '7', as it was know, was widely admired by the townsfolk and a source of great local pride.

The 7 BCA was regarded as an elite regiment, with specialised skills in mountaineering and, of course, skiing. I was once startled by a group of white-clad female soldiers with machine guns skiing through the chalet garden on a night exercise, and watching battle-hardened marines learning to snow-plough on the Millerette beginner slope (the 7 also taught skiing to other units of the French Army) was certainly a sight for sore eyes!

An article in the Le Dauphiné (the local paper) yesterday describes how historically the Chasseurs Alpins were the precursors of winter sports in Savoie, and credits them with the 'democratisation of Alpinism', as  opposed to almost secretive activities of the British landed gentry discovering the Alps in the late 19th and early 20th century (although many of them such as Capt. Peter Lindsey and Col. Alfred Lunn themselves had a military skiing background).

The challenge for the town council now seems to be what to do with the extensive barracks, training grounds, workshops and hangars bequeathed to it by the Ministry of Defence for the princely sum of 1 Euro!

There is all the usual waffle about 'redynamisation' and 'valorisation', and it has to be said the town doesn't have a good track-record when it comes to big projects. Examples include the now abandoned scheme to build a mineral -water bottling plant under the station, the uncompleted multi-cinema and bowling alley complex, the thermal spa project (the crucial hot spring is in someone's back garden...) and of course the controversy-dogged National Centre for High Level Skiing (CNSHN) which is struggling to get off the ground. Plans for housing, a new town-square and a 5-star hotel are all being discussed. However, municipal money is short, the skiing industry is experiencing decline and the location of 7 BCA barracks site is far from the town centre, the station and the funicular...

The 7 will be greatly missed, so lets hope that whatever does emerge will be a fitting to tribute to their contribution to the town over the last 50 years.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

10 years of Paradiski

It's now 10 years since the birth of Paradiski, the radical scheme to integrate Les Arcs and La Plagne as an 'unified' ski area. It's most obvious physical embodiement is the huge Vanoise Express cable car, carrying 200 people between Plan Peisey and Montchavin a vertiginous 300m above the wild Ponthurin Gorge. Improvements to other lifts were also made to allow the smooth flow of skier traffic between the resorts, and one real benefit has been clear and intuitive direction signage throughout.

 It took twenty years of planning and wrangling to build the Vanoise Express - building things that not only link ski resorts but also different communes in France is always a political nightmare!  From the outset it was agreed that the new lift would have no pylons, to avoid any negative environmental impact. The enormity of this technical challenge once again became evident a year after the opening of the new lift: it had to close for a season after it was discovered the main running cables did not meet the original design and safety specifications.

However there's no doubt that the real success of the project has been to do with marketing. The 'Paradiski brand' has become as well known as 'The Three Valleys', 'The Portes du Soleil' and 'Espace Killy'  as a vast, intergrated ski area able to satisfy the demands of skiers of all levels and nationalities (60% of lift passes are now sold to foreigners).

The clever name and its associated images of heavenly angels and celestial cloudscapes conjour up just the right balance of originality, quirkiness and coherence. In fact, yesterday Jenny and Angus spotted the Paradiski Angel not only on earth but on skis, presumably making a celebratory 10th anniversary visit to us skiing mortals!

So Paradiski has been a great success overall. My only doubt about the project concerns the wisdom of spending €40 million on the Vanoise Express (which is in effect a 'duplex' system with two identical cable car systems running side by side) when given the lower than expected traffic between the resorts a less expensive link and more money spent on improving the various chairlifts at each end might have resulted in a better 'skier experience'. Getting from the La Plagne end at Montchavin-Les Coches to the interesting (and less crowded) skiing to the south side of the Roche de Mio is an ardous experience - one fast lift direct to the Dos Rond would surely have cost less than half a Vanoise Express!

Anyhow, Happy Birthday to the Paradiski angels and here's to the next 10 years.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

So it's 2013, and the Fiscal Cliff has, it seems, been averted - something extra to celebrate. Celebrations certainly got of to a good start in the chalet last night. In addition to our carefully planned and prepared New Year Menu our Russian guests produced copious quantities of food and wine to add to the table. One of the families, of Siberian origin who arrived from Moscow yesterday, brought with them a traditional dish they had prepared at home and carried in their hand-luggage. Made from soused herring, potato, beetroot, onions, egg and a kind of mayonnaise it was delicious and fresh-tasting. I'll try and get the name right later. So in the end this was our menu for last night:

  • Red caviar on baguette and butter
  • Escargots (again, of course!)
  • Seafood platter (oysters, prawns, shrimps, mussels etc)
  • Traditional Russian dish described above
  • A plate of Savoyard sausages (not sure where this came from)
  • Blue cheese soufflés (beautifully cooked by Angus)
  • Duck breast baked in honey and mustard with carrot and taragon pureé and puy lentils
  • Cheese course (St Marcellin, Coloummiers, Roqeufort)
  • Chocolate mousse (enhanced by Jenny's fantastic sugar-work decoration and real sparklers!), served with black tea, á la russe

The wines, champagnes and other drinks were to numerous to list, but one guest brought several bottles of Canadian Frozen Apple wine, which is apparently very popular in Russia. Made when the apples are mature and frozen on the trees, it has the same honey sweetness as traditional 'eiswein', but the apple flavour is there too.

The guests toasted New Year several times, having roots in Kazhakstan, Armenia and Siberia as well as Russia (so many times zones, it makes you realise what huge countries these are - I discovered, for example, that Kazhakstan is the 9th largest country in the world, completely land-locked and with a surface are greater than the whole of western Europe!).

'Our' New Year arrived with everyone in the hot-tub, and an impressive firework display in Les Granges such as I have never seen here before. 

С Новым годом !