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.


  1. So how much have you been paid by the ESF to produce this one sided crock? The French, as you well know, are Europe's masters at ignoring rules when it suits them. You say "The court also noted the these ski guides were being remunerated at below the legal minimum wage," if the courts were actually interested in upholding this law why did they not also ban British chalet staff working a season for board, lodging a lift pass and a pittance of a wage? Despite their argument that they are not behind the court case, this is nothing short of blatant protectionism by the ESF. Ski hosting, guiding or social skiing is a major reason many British people ski in France, I for one will do my best to boycott France for my ski holidays. I would encourage all British skiers to boycott the ESF from now onwards.

    1. Andrew, please do go and ski elsewhere. If you need to follow a gap-year rep with an average skiing ability around a ski area then France is no longer the country for you. Your comment saying "Ski hosting, guiding or social skiing is a major reason many British people ski in France" is utter nonsense. A tiny % of the thousands of British skiers who choose to ski in France actually use, or even care about this service despite what the British press or the tour ops make out. This ruling won't make a scrap of difference. The French have strict rules in the mountains and have every right to apply this decision - deal with it. This is an excellent blog by someone who clearly understands life in the Alps, as opposed to the tosh that has been written on this subject in the UK press and the arguments put forward by the tour ops. Anyway, delighted that there will be one less person in our magnificent resorts next season!

    2. I have taken upwards of 30 ski holidays in France over the last 20 + years, almost all of them were with companies that provided 'guiding', the youngest "guide" was probably in his 30's. What you seem to fail to understand is that, it is not about needing to be guided around the mountain, it is a social thing, skiing the day with people of similar ability, arriving at a restaurant for lunch on a bad weather day to a pre-booked table inside, these all make for a more enjoyable holiday.
      There is no denying this is simply a protectionist move by the ESF, which will lessen the enjoyment of some British skiers.
      I ask you again - if the courts were actually interested in upholding this law why did they not also ban British chalet staff working a season for board, lodging a lift pass and a pittance of a wage?

    3. Both arguments have their merits. There has to be a middle ground. Times are tough for many financially and France would be wise to not neglect the Uk market.
      The Uk is worth alot of money and why dont Esf and the industry work more closely with tour ops to upskill their guides/ensure they are qualified and safe in return for pushing more guests to lessons and such like. Lessons also need to be more reasonably priced.
      In canada they have free mountain hosts, mostly retited qualified local folk who do it for a yr pass and to keep active. This could work. The chalet staff, who having done 2 yrs of "guiding" guests love to ski with could go with their guests and avail of a host.
      If the france/uk animosity keeps up both will lose. Tours ops with no ops outside France will die and France will lose money and shouldnt be so arrogent to think someone else will replace it.

  2. You are all missing the point here... Le Ski was made to pay ESF compensation for taking work away from its instructors... This is all about money and nothing at all to do with safety! If the French are so concerned about safety why do they allow so many children in their ski classes. Last winter an instructor lost a small child on a snowy mountain in the 3 valleys area. The boys father found him crying walking around the shops in Courchevel.

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