The crowds have dispersed, the lifts have drawn to a standstill and the setting sun has cast dark shadows over the valley – but up on the hill the action is far from over.
While we’re tucked up in bed, the mountain’s caretakers face danger and extreme conditions to make sure the pistes are safe and groomed for the morning.
With an arsenal of grenades, guns and tanks they tackle avalanches, moguls and rescue missions so hazardous that a third are injured each year. And except for jumping at the odd bang of an explosive, most of us hardly even notice they’re there.
Let’s take a look behind the scenes at the ‘invisible jobs’…
Most of us are sipping our first apres beer as the pisteurs make their way down the mountain, checking for anyone in trouble, after lifts close. The mountain is divided into sectors, and at the top of each sits a hut manned by a small pisteur team. They’re responsible for making sure everyone is safely off the slopes at the end of the day.
Anyone who’s taken a wrong turn or been caught in a storm knows the mountain can suddenly be a scary place. If you, or a member of your group, are lost you can find an emergency number for the pisteurs on the bottom of your piste map. We’ll return to the role of the pisteur after darkness and danger descend. But for now the slopes are clear and we hand over to our next team of nightriders…
It’s usually around the time you’re wandering back from the pub ready for a warm pre-dinner shower that the first team of chauffeurs head out on their solo missions.
Driving the piste bashers – huge tank-like machines with a plough at the front – they are able to shift up to 16 tons of snow at a time. Their aim: To smooth over the lumps and bumps carved by skiers and snowboarders, leaving behind a lovely corduroy piste.
Take Tignes as an example – it amounts to 154km of the Espace Killy’s 300km of vast and varying terrain. Its slopes are tended by 17 piste bashers manned by 15 chauffeurs working 6-hour shifts. In any one night they’ll groom 80% of the resort’s pistes.
Their first hazard: Steep slopes. Tignes’ Trolles or the Val d’Isere Face are so steep they’re hard to ski down, never mind drive a 10-tonne machine up. This is where winches come in. All piste bashers have an in-built 1km steel cable that can be attached to static rigging points anchored into the steepest slopes. It allows them to be hoisted up slopes with a gradient of up to 90% and prevents them from sliding uncontrollably back down. Piste bashers are sturdy objects but they’re not immune to avalanches. So cabins are reinforced and equipped with GPS to give chauffeurs a good chance of survival if they’re caught in one.
Their second hazard: The weather. Let’s put ourselves in the driver’s seat for a minute. Imagine embarking on your upward journey into a labyrinth of deserted pistes in the cold dark of a winter’s night. A storm descends around you. All you can see is a snowy blizzard lapping at your windscreen and all you have for company is a crackly radio. Next time you’re dipping fondue while dining with friends in a cosy alpine restaurant, spare a thought for the chauffeurs!
The GPS in the cabin helps drivers avoid getting lost even in zero visibility. Its other role is to measure the snow’s depth and find thinning patches of piste. On south facing slopes where the snow melts quicker in the sun, or in busy areas where snow gets scraped away, extra powder is regularly needed. Step forward…
Working primarily when most of us are tucked up in bed, their job is to create snow – and it’s quite a science.
This man-made snow is made from a mixture of compressed air and water. When both are sprayed from static snow cannons they create an ice crystal, upon which a flake forms as it falls to the ground. No chemicals needed. But this is no easy feat – conditions must be optimal. The temperature must be below -3°c, there must be low humidity and minimal wind.
A vast network of underground pipes links Tignes’ lakes with the snow cannons dotted around the mountains. Three snowmakers are employed in Tignes to manage and service these cannons. They use the man-made snow mainly at the start and end of the season – to get a base level ready for the early birds and keep the resort skiable for longer.
So next time you despair at the sight of grass and mud poking through the piste, only to return the following day and find it beautifully shiny and white again, just give a nod to the snowmakers. They created new snow, and all while you were sleeping.
As you turn off your 7am alarm and stretch out those sleepy limbs, the pisteurs tackle some of the mountain’s most dangerous places, with an arsenal of explosives, to make them safe.
To ensure there is no avalanche risk above open roads, open pistes and buildings they set off at 4am in teams of two to carry out controlled explosions. Using grenades they trigger avalanches to get rid of loose snow and prevent bigger avalanches happening naturally. So don’t be surprised if you hear a few bangs over breakfast.
It’s important to note that pisteurs are only responsible for ensuring open pistes are safe. This may include bombing off-piste areas if they threaten ski runs or buildings like mountain restaurants, but they are not there to make off-piste areas safe – so enter there at your own risk.
The pisteurs use a variety of equipment including:
- The Catex: A rudimentary cable tow used to carry an explosive into position above the area at risk, to be triggered remotely
- The Gazex pipe: A fixed tap-shaped pipe you’ll see protruding from the snow, that detonates gasses to clear an area of up to100m radius of loose snow
- The Avalancher: A compressed air gun with a 2-metre dart that can be fired into the snow to create a controlled slide
- The Grenadage: A handheld grenade thrown by the pisteur – the most dangerous method but arguably the most effective
- Grenadage by helicopter: This can only be done with special dispensation from the government
This may sound like every young boy’s Action Man fantasy, but these explosives are used with great care by the pisteurs. They’re working with dangerous equipment in dangerous conditions. And, no matter how much health and safety protocol they follow, the job is a risky one. They’re working in extreme weather and must remain close to explosion sites to confirm the explosives have gone off and achieved the desired result.
Around a third of Tignes’ pisteurs are injured each year – last season 22 of the 56 staff took the equivalent of two years of sick days due to injury. The last pisteur sadly killed in Tignes during avalanche control was in 2000.
Filmmaker Steen Sundland spent last season following Tignes team for documentary ‘Pisteurs: The Invisible Job’, in which he claims that ‘1 in 5 pisteurs will not complete the season due to injury or death’.
And now you’re ready to hit the slopes for another day exploring… but the pisteur’s job continues still. They remain stationed at the hut at the top of their respective sector, always on hand to come to the rescue.
Tignes employs 6 pisteurs who specialise in dog handling, working with their dog to sniff and dig people out during an avalanche rescue. The ‘meteologues’, or pisteurs who specialise in weather, are responsible for keeping the piste-side information boards up to date with avalanche risks, weather warnings, dangers and piste closures on the mountain. As you pass these boards on your way to the lifts, don’t forget take a look and stay safe, courtesy of the pisteurs.
As much as we may hope we never meet one in a bind, it’s reassuring to know they are there to help. The pisteur huts are in fact open to the public so don’t be afraid to pop in, whether you’re in need of help or just to say a friendly hello. This may be the ‘invisible job’ in resort, but it’s one we should all be incredibly thankful for.
It’s another day on the slopes, another après beer and another cosy night in a warm bed for us, while behind the scenes the whole process starts again.
The mountain never sleeps.
“I was once first on the scene to a client with very bad spinal and head injuries. He couldn’t feel his toes and I thought he wouldn’t walk again. Two years later he banged on the door of the rescue hut where I was working and asked if he could have a ski with the man who’d helped him – and we did the same run. It has happened that people dug out of avalanches have come back to say thank you with a gift or a bone for the dog that found them. It’s a real pleasure when they have a happy ending, very rewarding.
It’s a dangerous job but we’re trained to a high level, which makes it safer – though it doesn’t make you invincible. During avalanche control in a 5/5 avalanche risk zone in -20 degrees with 10 kilos of dynamite on my back, I’m not concerned – if I do my job properly I’ll be safe. I’m more concerned when I’m on the piste digging out snow cannons with people zooming past – pisteurs often get hit like that. I’ve had to jump out of the way of skiers on the piste while attending to an injured client. My family worry, especially when it’s stormy. But it’s just like being a firefighter, it’s the job you’re trained to do.
The pisteurs have a special bond like any crew. You trust these people with your life – whether you’re dropping bombs, firing arrows of nitroglycerine, on a rescue mission or just opening the piste.”
Tignes slope safety in numbers:
154km of slopes
17 piste bashers
3,700kg of explosives
56 pisteurs in 2013/14
22 pisteurs injured in 2013/14
352 snow cannons
6 rescue dogs
By Amy Wardman