Friday, February 21, 2014

Les Arcs, l'espirit pionner: review of seminal new documentary film

 Click to see trailer
Click the image for trailer...
Anyone who's at all interested in Les Arcs and how if came to be here must see this excellent new DVD, Les Arcs, the pioneering spirit.  This 2013 production (with english subtitles) by Sophie Bosquet and Guillame Calop takes the form of interviews with many of the still-surviving pioneers, coupled with astonishing and highly entertaining contemporaneous film/video clips.

Roger Godino (his french is very easy to follow) carefully and clearly explains the challenges faced by the new project, from bringing about the 'fusion' of Bourg St Maurice and Hauteville-Gondon (one had the land, the other the financial clout) to the painful process of expropriation whereby 300 land owners were relieved of their chalets and montagnettes in return for tiny amounts of money.

Sadly Godino's principal co-pioneer Robert Blanc was killed in 1980, but the glowing personality of his brother Yvon and some charming film footage (see him ski in powder - brilliant) make his presence felt throughout the production.

Robert Blanc 1933 - 1980
Godino also clarifies the frequently misunderstood concept of 'total integration' whereby the resort should have control of every aspect of its exploitation, from the lifts and hotels to the bars and grocery shops. Profitable activities like ski hire would in effect subsidise loss-making operations like the lifts themselves, the original provision of which was deliberately over-scaled in relation to the number of beds (5000 at opening) in order to allow constant expansion toward the planned 40,000 beds to be spread between the 1600 and the future resorts of 1800 and 2000.

Bernard Taillfer building Arc 1800
Gaston Regauirez narrates the astonishing  architectural tale, and the involvement of the luminary Charlotte Perriand and local carpenter Bernard Taillefer (both appear in the film). The huge  intellectual, creative and financial effort required to turn  virgin forests and fields into a world class ski resort is clearly charted. The determination and utter commitments of the pioneers comes across and nicely balanced by their tremendous sense of enjoyment and passion for the environment they were working in. Plus their love for the white stuff, of course!

The fun and fizz of this film is infectious, and for one made me long to go back in time and to join the red-pullovered moniteurs as they leap (on skis) one after the other in the Cuopole swimming pool!  The cameo appearance of Elizabeth Chenal at the start of the film, with the words 'Nature is beautiful!' as she emerges from her home, the only surviving 'original' chalet on the pistes, is a touching reminder of the roots of Les Arcs and Blanc's origins as a simple shepherd.

The disc contains many 'bonus' items, including a selection of hilarious 1970s publicity films for Les Arcs, and a set of interviews with other key players in birth of the resort. Fascinating stuff for anyone who can follow the french and wants to know more about the antecedent 'Courbaton 1750' ski area and how that might have developed instead of the Arcs.

Apart from some badly-written english subtitles (and a few fairly elementary translation mistakes) this is a first class publication; no Acardien or Arcadienne should miss it!

Available from many shops in Les Arcs and Bourg St Maurice,or from Amazon.

Monday, February 17, 2014

From the Sony Walkman to the Pistenbully 600-E; 30 years of piste-bashing history

I went out for a ski this afternoon - brilliant sunshine after 24 hours of snowfall, and a few hours on the mountain were obligatory for everyone. But although it wasn't too crowded for half-term I could see that a lot of younger and less experienced skiers were struggling  with the mix of loose bumps and scraped hard-packed bits on almost all the pistes, even relatively flat blue runs. What seems to have happened is that the snow had continued to fall even after the pistes have been damées or 'bashed' last night.

Some of the guests were wondering why they hadn't re-done the pistes during the day, and I found myself reminded of the that 1980s wonder the Sony Walkman. For those too young to remember, this was a compact, portable music cassette player with headphones, and was the fore-runner of the Discman, the  Ipod and other digital music players now largely usurped by the Smartphone.  Before this personal music device existed it was common to see, and hear,  powerful dameurs (piste bashers) at work at all times during the skiing day, even on open and crowded pistes. But soon a string of nasty, sometimes fatal accidents caused by skiiers not hearing the approaching engins because of their Sony Walkmans blasting Dire Straights and Kate Bush straight into their ear-holes was to change all this.

I remember one such tragic incident in Meribel in the early 1990s, involving an ESF instructor relaxing with his music after finishing an afternoon of teaching. The dameuse was left in position, surrounded by police tape, for several months until the judicial enquiry was completed. It also became a kind of  monument in the resort to a new and potentially dangerous phenomenon.

No longer seen....
It was therefore only a matter of time before the all the rules changed, and normally piste grooming now only takes place at night and in the early morning, while the pistes are closed to skiers. Here are at Les Arcs the dameurs work in two shifts, from 4 - 12 pm and 12pm - 6am. With the advent of nocturnal grooming, the design of the machines themselves changed and developed. It was also around this time that environmental issues rose to the top of ski resorts' agendas, so the noise, pollution and ground damage became an issue.

Various new technologies have been introduced to make the machines safer and more eco-friendly. About 10 years ago Les Arcs proudly announced that it was from then on only going to use biodegradable fuel and engine oils. GPS navigation systems started to be employed to guide the machines more accurately (they often work in pairs or even trios), so they don't wastefully go over the same bit more than once. With night usage it was important that noise was reduced, and the many powerful spot lights needed could be controlled and focussed away from nearby chalet bedroom windows. The cabs are luxurious, with sprung seats, music and communication systems, computer controlled heating and air-conditioning,  360 degree view windows and TV monitors for the rear view.

PistenBully 600e
The latest incarnation of the modern piste basher is the PistenBully 600-E, the first ever diesel-electric hybrid which, the manufactures claim, uses 20% less fuel, creates 20% less pollution (including noise) and 99% less diesel particulates. It does this by using its 12 litre Mercedes-Benz diesel engine to produce electricity to power its motors rather producing direct motive power. This means the engine can run at optimum speed (no revving up and down!) and on the down-hill sections it actually generates electricity from gravity to power its various attachments and devices. These include the 'tiller', which lays down those nice corduroy stripes on the snow for you to smudge first thing in the morning! Obviously it's an expensive item (about €250,000 euros) but the 600-E is already in use in Courchevel and Alpe d'Huez, and I doubt it will be long before Les Arcs gets it's hands on one (the ADS announced last November it was investing 150 million euros in Les Arcs over the next 10 years, so they should be able to afford a couple at least...

Karen, Jessica, Tommy and Alice getting ready for work
As a family we are fortunate to be friends with Les Arcs only female chauffeuse de dameuse, who kindly allowed my wife and children to sit in on the grooming of the Mont Blanc piste last season. It was the highlight of their year! The pictures were amazing, seeing the Deux Tetes in the setting sun...

However, although things are safer than ever on the pistes de ski, accidents to still happen although rarely. In March 2012 two children collided with a dameuse in Les Gets and were seriously injured (but survived OK). They were tobogganing on a piste after closing time, on the first day of their holiday. The driver was arrested and found to be slightly below the car driving alcohol limit, but sadly it was the parents who were to blame for allowing their children to play out-of-hours on the piste.   I've noticed at Les Arcs more visible warning signs have been erected at the foot of the pistes warning people of this danger, but don't ever allow your children to do that, parents!

You can have a go at driving a dameuse yourself at La Plagne - €60 euros for half an hour or 10 minutes for €20 euros for children.  Click here for details, but best to leave your Walkman at home....

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Skiing and faith

Benediction of the skis
Today, St Agathe's day, sees a remarkable village festival taking place at Montchavin, the northern-most village of the La Plagne ski area. Even the smallest of the Tarentaise villages has a chapel, or oratoire; here in Les Granges we have a tiny baroque chapel dedicated to St Blaise, patron saint of barbers!. The annual patronal festival would be an opportunity for the hard-pressed villagers to let their hair down and enjoy some of the fruits of their arduous labours.
When winter sports started taking over from agriculture in Montchavin in the 1930s  the locals (luckily their saints' day fell in the middle of the winter season!) used the occasion to raise money from the tourists for a hardship fund for sick or injured ski instructors.  This tradition continues, and today there will be ski displays, a torch-lit descent, fireworks and of course the customary giant tartiflette. The celebrations will however be preceded by the moving 'Benediction of the Skis', given by the Abbé Petit,  with prayers for safety, courage, humility and plenty of snow!

Ski benediction at Les Avanchers
Similar Christian rituals of blessing are not  unusual in Savoie. A similar event which began in 1934 in Les Avanchers, the village from which grew the resort of Valmorel, attracted people from all over the valley. Many  priests were quite progressive in embracing the new  skiing industry as an alternative to the dying agricultural economies which their flocks were deserting for les grands villes. The 7 days-a-week nature of the new tourist activities made it difficult for those involved to attend Mass regularly. Priests had to become more flexible with the timetables and location of their services, as few of the new wave of purpose-built resorts had chapels. The Cupole building at Arc 1600 was built partly with this function in mind, and services continue to be held there every week.

A defrocked priest, L'Abbé Borrel was however on of the most bitter opponents of Les Arcs in the 1960s. He formed a vocal opposition group in Bourg St Maurice that did everything it could to undermine Blanc and Godino's plans for the new ski area. The basis of his objection was that there was no way the town could raise the money to build it and it would become and abandoned white elephant! Perhaps his motivation was also to do with his ownership of a small building within what was to become Arc 1600 (bequeathed to him a member of his congregation). It was one of the first to be compulsorily-purchased, and turned later into the base for the Les Arcs ski club (Still is today). A touch of spite perhaps on the part of Roger Godino, perhaps annoyed that Abbé Borrel's supporters tried  blow up his office in Bourg with dynamite!

Chapel of St Esprit under construction, Arc 1800
Robert Blanc himself was a committed catholic and church-goer. In 1979, shortly before his death, he told his daughter Claudie that there was still one more thing to do in Les Arcs, and that was to build a chapel. She and others have been campaigning and fund-raising (including donating the proceed of her book, Reve de Bergers, mentioned in previous blog) for several years to fullfil his wish. La Chapelle du Saint Espirit is being built by the pedestrian path between 1600 and 1800, with stunning contributions from local artists  and artisans.
From the elevated site of the new chapel there are wonderful views of the massif de Beaufortain, the Haute-Tarentaise and north to St. Bernard pass and the Italian border.  St Bernard of Menthon established a monastic order high above the valley in the 11th century to aid pilgrims heading for Rome and other travellers crossing the wild  and dangerous high-mountain plateau. The famous St Bernard dogs were trained by the saint and his monks to deliver tea (not rum or brandy!) to those lost or stranded, and to guide them back to the safety of the monastery. The last eight monks finally left about 10 years ago, and today the building is museum. St Bernard is the patron saint of skiing and snowboarding, for as bishop of Lombardia he would use skis and sledges to visit the isolated mountain communities within is diocese.

The Christian has faith provided great comfort and hope for the mountain communities of the past, under constant threat from natural elements which they could barely comprehend. Science and human progress have largely vitiated the need for simple faith, but these magnificent mountains we inhabit constantly remind me that there's another dimension to our existence which perhaps only a belief in higher things can begin to explain:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 121

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

In memoriam Robert Blanc, the man who imagined Les Arcs

Robert Blanc 1933 - 1980
Exactly 34 years ago (4th February 1980) Robert Blanc was killed in an avalanche. He was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life and died in an extraordinary way.

Born into a  family of shepherds, Blanc and his four brothers discovered the joys of skiing in the snowy pastures above their native village of Hauteville-Gondon. During the summers they would live out on the mountains while tending their animals, moving higher as the snow melted until they reached the tiny group of chalets in the Arc valley, nowadays occupied by the Chalets des Arcs restaurant just above Arc 2000.

After military service Robert Blanc became a ski instructor at Courchevel. Seeing the success and excitement of this shiny new post-war resort, Robert began to imagine a vast ski area spread across the valleys, forests and pastures  above his home village, which which he and his brothers new so well. A chance meeting with the social entrepreneur and business guru Roger Godino (Robert taught him to ski) led to a life-long partnership between the two men, the fruit of which was Les Arcs as we know it today.

Vallée de l'Arc before Les Arcs
Robert had an  incredible passion for skiing (he was an Olympian and made many 'first ever' extreme descents all over the world). His charismatic, motivating personality coupled with Godino's astuteness, financial prowess, political contacts and love of things new, led  to their conception of a vast, integrated network of skiing infrastructure and avant-garde building construction.  They brought in a 'dream team' of architects, designers and artisans ranging from Le Corbusier's protégé Charolotte Perriand to local carpenter Bernard Taillefer.

From the start it was planned that Les Arcs would open in stages, with Arc 1600 (then called 'Arc Pierre Blanche') in 1968, followed by Arc1800 in 1974. The complex construction of Arc 2000, which was to the be 'jewel in the crown' of Les Arcs and France's 2nd highest resort opened in 1979. The final piece in the jigsaw was the opening in 1980 of the enormous 'Club Med' at Arc 2000, in the sweeping upward-curved building that imitates the wild contours of the mountains around it.

Arc 2000 today
Robert was extremely active in the new resort, as 'Director of Skiing' as well as training the Les Arcs Ski Club (nurturing the next generation of Arcadien ski instructors) and working as an international consultant in places far from Les Arcs as Chile, Argentina, China and the Soviet Union. He was a very 'hands-on' boss, aware that many of the resort first workers where his school friends, neighbours and of course, his brothers.

So it was no surprise that on the last day of his life, Robert chose to lead a team to search the road between Arc 1600 and 2000 after two Belgian girls booked into the new Club Med had failed to arrive as expected.

The weather had been appalling for weeks, a mixture of heavy snow, rain and wind. Virtually all the lifts were closed because avalanche danger. The previous night the barrier at been lowered across the road near where UCPA is today, indicating that  it was closed. However, on the morning of the fateful day  it was discovered that the barrier had been raised, and there appeared to be traces of tyre-marks in the snow.  Fearing that the Belgians might have become stuck or even avalanched,  Robert's team inched it's way along the road, eventually reaching the safety of the Belliou Fumé restuarant at Pré St Espirit without finding anything. Before heading back, Robert's brother Yvon passed round a bottle of Eau de Vie, saying "Have a drop of this, it might be the last time we drink together!".  "You can save all that for another day", replied Robert, ominously.

Robert died a few minutes later at  Les Chavonnes, a notoriously avalanche-prone spot, ironically just beyond the recently-constructed paravalanche tunnel. He was the only one in the group buried by the 'liquid concrete', and died instantly from a broken neck. Today a plaque marks the spot.  They carried his body back to Arc 1600, where one of the new studio apartments served as a 'chapel of rest'. His funeral in Hauteville-Gondon was attended by over 3000 people. The Belgian girls were found safe and comfortable in the Cachette Hotel, and it was never found out who raised the barrier on the Arc 2000 road, or why.

Reve de BergersBlanc's death marked the 'end of the beginning' for Les Arcs, which was soon after to find itself in a dark place: financial and political crises were compounded by the natural catastrophe of  the La Ravoire landslide in 1981, resulting in the virtual bankruptcy of the resort which could have lead to its abandonment. However perhaps it was the inspiration of Robert Blanc, his vision and determination that has continued to drive Les Arcs to new heights. I'm sure he would be proud of today's Paradiski and all that has been achieved here in the last 34 years.

I'm indebted  to Robert's daughter Claudie's book 'Reve de Bergers'. It's wonderful and encyclopedic  portrait of Robert Blanc, his brothers and the history of Les Arcs (in French, but I've started translating it).