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...

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