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.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Plenty of snow in Les Arcs - another disastrous season?

Last week, outside the chalet
It's not been a bad winter so far in Les Arcs. Regular falls of snow and relatively low temperatures have resulted in some of the best top-to-bottom conditions I have seen here in the last decade. Even a day of heavy rain at the end of last week was followed by another 10cm of snow that same night, further consolidating the snowpack in preparation for the substantial snow showers forecast for the next few days. The lifts and pistes of Paradiski have been  pretty well 100% open since December.

Les Arcs and the other large, high-level ski resorts of the Alps, will be hoping for a big thaw, rise in temperatures and closure of low-lying pistes and  lifts before the French school holidays begin next week. A few more days of rain followed by a warm sunshine would be perfect!  Lift ticket sales have remained static for the last couple of seasons, but there's every sign they might be lower this year because of all this snow, as well as the general economic malaise to which the ski industry is becoming susceptible.

This doesn't make sense, I hear you saying. Surely snow is what makes money in a ski resort, the 'white gold' as they used to call it in the glory days of the 60s and 70s.  Well, the problem is that in a 'good snow' winter the indigenous population will head for the lower, family-friendly resorts that are dotted around Savioe, the Alps and other mountainous regions of France. These resorts may be quite low, typically between 1200m and 2000m, with only a handful of lifts and pistes, but the price of the lift pass, accommodation and nourishment will be significantly lower. Most people taking children on a skiing holiday don't actually need 600km of pistes and 200 lifts to have a good time. Small ski stations in the Jura, Vosges and Massif Central make a point of offering an authentic, welcoming ski experience, focussing on good value and 'traditional' holiday values.

Ironically the 'mega-resorts' have invested massively in snow making networks to protect their revenue in 'bad snow' years. For example, at Les Arcs more that 40% of the pistes are covered, and a few years ago the huge Adret des Tuffes reservoir was constructuted in the Arc 2000 valley to provide 400,000 cubic meters of partly gravity-fed meltwater to the snowmaking network.

Abandoned in 1995

Such projects are very expensive, and many resorts now use as much electricity making snow as they do for running the lifts.  All this leads inexorably to rising prices for the consumer - the skier. Lift passes rise year on year, and for the first time ever this year I noticed a figure greater than €1000 euros appearing on the Les Arcs Price list (6 day Paradiski family pack, €1017 euros). Even the cheapest 6 day adult pass is now €225 euros - compare that to the popular family resort of Metabief - Mont d'Or in the Jura (20 lifts, 42km of pistes), there the same pass costs less than half, at €109 euros.  As a father of 3 myself, I would certainly be considering somewhere like this for my family if I wasn't already rooted in Les Arcs, much as I love the place!

At the peak of the 'credit crunch' (the winter of 2008/9) Les Arcs saw a 4% fall in lift pass sales. Not much perhaps, but if that goes on for 10 years it would be the end of the business. Not that the smaller resorts themselves are in anyway immune from the same economic pressures. Yesterday's local paper carried an article about 'Ghost Ski resorts' (english version on', adding  Drouzin Le Mont to the lengthening list of village resorts closed or abandoned in the last few years. The best know example of these is Abondance, in the Portes de Soleil domaine. Briefly rescued by an American millionaire a few years ago, the future of this pleasant cheese-making village as a ski resort is once again looking dubious.

Drouzin - likely to close down
Perhaps now I should mention global warming. I have skied in France during every season for the last 25 years, and I'm not sure myself whether le réchauffement has really has had much effect on the skiing business yet, compared to other factors such as the emergence of snowboarding (more on this another time).  

Economic, political and social issues (couch potatoes don't do skiing....) are still the major factors determining the success or otherwise of a ski resort. This view is echoed by Laurent Reynaud, director of the French ski areas association (quoted in the article cited above):

" The fragility of ski resorts is not just down to climate change but also their structure. Those who had the foresight not to invest in cable cars and gondolas are doing okay. Managing costs is the key. Take the small resorts in the  Vosges for example, equipped mostly with drag lifts: they are maintaining their market share.”

Perhaps Les Arcs had better watch out!