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....

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