Monday, April 14, 2014

ZAC des Alpins (the old barracks): future or fiction?

Michel Giraudy, new mayor of Bourg
Congratulations to M. Michel Giraudy and his team of councillors elected from the 'Agir pour l'avenir' group, on becoming the new mayor of Bourg St Maurice. Giraudy is a genuine tourism professional, having been head of the Val d'Isere and Courchevel tourist offices for many years and now running his own consultancy business. He also worked at Club Med and was involved in organising the 1992 Albertville Olympics.

I think M. Giraudy is going to be glad of all this valuable experience when he tackles his mayoral in-tray. Top item will be the 'ZAC des Alpins' project, upon which, we are led to believe the future prosperity of Bourg St Maurice largely depends. This huge scheme to redevelop the old Barracks on the southern edge of the town is likely to provoke much controversy and need a huge amount of imagination, committment and acuity if it's to succeed, qualities which have been lamentably lacking in dealing with recent failed projects such as the Centre for National Ski Studies, the Renoveau fiasco and the mineral water bottling plant farce.

Le Quartier Bulle, now ZAC des Alpins
To recap, in 2011 the 7th Brigade of Chasseurs Alpins departed the barracks, which they had occupied since before the First World War.

The soldiers were highly respected by the town community, and contributed greatly to the economy, and social and sporting activities.   Bourg suddenly lost nearly a third of its population (1500 out of 5000), but gained a sprawling complex of hangars, yards and logements spread over 7 hectares. This was 'sold' to the town for €1 euro by the Ministry of Defence, perhaps anxious not to have to find the €400,000 per year needed just to maintain and secure the site while empty!

At the time Bourg was expecting to host a new National Centre for High Level Skiing Studies  (CSNHN, a kind of ski university - see previous blogs), and the old barracks were to be its home. However, owing to spectacular bungling and vaccilation by the council under the then-mayor Damien Perry, the FFS changed its mind and chose Albertville instead. So, the old barracks became a bit of a white elephant.

Detailed proposals of the new 'UTN ZAC des Alpins' project have recently been made public and presented to the councillors. The scheme involves retaining some of the more interesting (and older) buildings, demolishing the ugly ones and building some new ones. . The aim is to construct a 'Development Zone' in which will be the following:
Architect's impression
  • Four star hotel, luxury tourist accommodation and short-term tourist lodgings totalling 1500 new beds
  • Conference centre
  • 'Wellness' health centre with spa, fun-pool etc.
  • Shops, cafés, etc. and an entertainment venue
  • Craft village
  • Memorial to the 7th BCA regiment
In addition there will be new housing for saisonaires and 'parkland' within the complex. A striking feature is the proposed series of waterfalls fed by the adjacent Arbonne river. But, remember this is Bourg St Maurice, so there has to be the obligatory 300 new car parking spaces and two new access roundabouts on the main road!  

Acknowledging that the ZAC des Alpins is on the 'wrong side' of the town as far the transport/mountain access/commercial infrastructure is concerned, the proposal includes the provisions of 2 shuttle bus services (reaching the funicular in 2 minutes, apparently) and a possible new walkway to the station  

The proposals, which have been put together the Society for the Development of Savoie details the benefits to the town: eventually  the local economy will enjoy an extra 20m euros of income per annum from a mixture of increased lift-pass sales (2.4m), accommodation (10 - 14m) and spending in bars, shops, restuarants etc ( 5 - 7m). The project would create about 500 new jobs, about half of which would be permanent and the rest seasonal (winter I assume).

It all looks very slick and impressive, but there are obviously quite a few question marks about Bourg's ability to bring off a project like this. Firstly, the town is going to have to find 12 million euros to fund the project, spread over a period of 3 or 4 years. The government is expected to pitch in another 3 million, but it will take 10 years for the cashflow to become positive and half the money the town will provide will be borrowed. This is on top of the its current debts of around 40 million, but SAS reckon that initial interest repayments on all these loans can be made by making cuts to services and 'management savings'. This all sounds rather risky for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the location, location, location of the site is undoubtedly a problem. Who would be prepared to pay to stay in a sumptuous 4 star hotel which then involves a bus ride and then the funicular to get to the snow? The SAS figures quote an average annual occupancy rate of 75%, whereas in the last few years the figure generally in Bourg St Maurice has been 46% (from Vivre en Tarentaise). It's strange that the Dutch hotel group Valk are mentioned a possible exploiter of the new hotel: they have dozens of 'resort' hotels in Holland, a few in France and Spain but none in Alpine or mountainous environments. I hope this doesn't mean some of hotel groups active in the Alps haven't already shunned the idea!

Another threat to the high street?
Secondly, the plan to put in shops and craft workshops can only detract from the struggling town centre, and make it a less attractive proposition for casual visitors from the Arcs resorts. It contradicts much of the councils policy and actions to try and 'redynamise' the town centre - there is already enough pressure from the supermarket end of town, with all its parking, cafés and choice of large shops. Even if the proposed commerces within the ZAC were well patronised by the new clientele, this would hardly have any positive effect for the town centre: it's to far away for people to want to stroll down to the Rue Pietonné if they have shops etc. on hand in the ZAC.

Thirdly, I can't really see how the a conference centre in a fairly inaccessible town like Bourg is going to do well when there is already an abundance of such facilities in all the local cities, and the increasing use of virtual and internet based systems will make 'real' conference events increasingly redundant.

I think its a sign of the desperation of the local politicians that some of these questions were barely raised at the presentation of the plan, except by Councillor Bocianowksi, to her credit. The SAS presentation offers no exit strategies or worse-case scenarios, only a rose-tinted view of increasing prosperity despite the multiple challenges faced by the tourist industry here (visitors to Les Arcs fell by 9,3% between 2009-2012), and in particular skiing which whether you like it or not is main motor of the local economy.

It is, I realise, easy to criticise a new project like this, and if it does go ahead I really hope it will succeed and not become a nightmarish drain on the town's finances. But I am pretty sure no council would have chosen to buy a site like this for redevelopment, rather it's been thrust upon as and something has to be done with it. Let's hope M. Giraudy's the man for the job!

You can see full details of the proposals here (in french but mainly pictures and diagrams):





Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Municipal elections 2: Roger's out, big plans unveiled

Roger Pugin - pulled out
Roger Pugin's list (Mieux Vivre) have pulled out of the municipal elections, even thought they had 11% of the vote and were eligible for the 2nd round.

The AGIR group did particularly well in the polling booths in Les Arcs, with 51%.This  would have been enough for an outright win if it had been reflected across the commune.

My money's on them to win at the moment, but I expect Pugin's supporters will vote for the Garnier list, which could make things interesting... (I wonder if the last minute appearance of previous mayor Damien Perry on Pugin's last may have done some damage; he's still a deeply unpopular figure in the town....)

Quartiers des Alpins: artist's impression
In the middle of all this, an important meeting of the Municipal Council will take place tomorrow, at which will be discussed the initial proposition for the redevelepment of the old baracks, now called the Quartier des Alpins.

This is perhaps the most important current issue for the incoming administration.

I'll be writing more about this soon, but here's a sneak preview of the plans:
 http://www.bourgsaintmaurice.fr/vie-municipale/actualites/projet-zac-des-alpins.html

Monday, March 24, 2014

Municipal Elections 1: They could lead to a real down-hill slide!


Yesterday (Sunday 24th March) was the national French Municipal Elections, which take place every 6 years and appoint municipal counsellors to run their commune through the 'conseil municipal'. The Mayor is then elected from within the majority group.

Some of my chalet guests were quite interested to know how this might affect Bourg St Maurice and the future of Les Arcs, so I have broken my promise to myself not to write about local politics (apparently I sound too negative, some say!) and explain the results of the elections here.

But first, a quick explanation of how this part of the electoral system works: The number of councillors is set according to the number of electors in the commune. Bourg St Maurice has 5092 and the council has 29 places.  In communes of over 1000 electors the candidates are allowed present themselves as 'listes', which are like political parties but not necessarily aligned with the national parties.  A kind of proportional representation system is used, whereby unless one 'list' gets more than 50% of the vote there is a second round, with any 'list' gaining less than 10% of the vote being automatically excluded. Electors are only now allowed to vote for candidates from one list (the practice of 'panachage', picking random candidates from any list has been controversially banned since the last election). Once the second round has taken place, the councillors are appointed in proportion the size of the vote gained by their 'list'. It sounds complicated, and it is! 

So here in Bourg there have been 4 lists fighting it out. The gap between the first three is very narrow, and the fourth got more than 10%, so the second round will be a re-run of the first unless one of the lists pulls out or joins forces with another.


Which one will be the next mayor of Bourg St Maurice?

In first place was the 'ruling party',  Agir dans la continuité (Action through continuity, right of centre), headed by Michel Giraudy (he has serious background in ski resort and tourism managment), with  911 (30,97%) of the votes. This list includes Mde. Poletti, who has been mayor since 2011 and collapse of the previously elected adminstration headed by pisteur Damien Perry). The list contains experienced and focussed individuals, many being already councillors including Claudie Blanc-Eberhert, daughter of Robert Blanc.

In second place, but only just, was Trait d'Union (Link), led by retired hairdresser Louis Garnier. Predictably, many of list are shop owners in Bourg, but there doesn't seem to me to much representation from 'the mountain' and certainly no exciting policies in his manifesto. They got 53 voted fewer than Agir, with  29.16% (858 votes).

Third place was taken by Eric Minoret's list, Servir Ensemble pour construire Demain (Serving together to build tomorrow). They got 821 votes (27.91%), narrowing the gap still further. This list seems to have a large number of retired people on it, even though at 52 Minoret is the youngest 'tete de liste'. 

Finally, with 352 votes (11.96%) comes ex-teacher Roger Pugin and his Mieux vivre à Bourg-Saint-Maurice Les Arcs Hauteville-Gondon (A better life in Bourg St Maurice and Hauteville-Gondon).  Roger appears to  be focussed on the town and surrounding villages, perhaps as he comes from an agricultural family. Parking and better law enforcement are favourite themes.


Muddying the issues: Source of  Eau de Bonneval
Frankly, I think there's a lack of inspiration and an absence of a vision for the future in all the lists' manifestos. People who don't know about Bourg politics find it astonishing that Car Parking is such a big issue, while vital issues like the future of the old barracks (now called the 'Quartier des Alpins') hardly get a mention.  For example: two of the 'lists' want to revive the recently abandoned plans for a mineral water bottling factory under the station (Eau de Bonneval), the idea being the the picture of Bourg on  the label will encourage people to visit the town in the summer....

The  Agir list have given a detailed table of achievements, failings and aspirations in their manifesto which does make them stand out as the only group with  any good  ideas and a real understanding of the importance of Les Arcs to the commune (not least 2500 jobs created). 

Buried in there is something that caught my eye and could be a really exciting and tangible link between Les Arcs and the town: between now and 2016 Agir wants to study the possibility of building a 'Luge d'éte' (Tobbagan track) from Arc 1600 to the town . What a brilliant idea, 1000 vertical meters over 3 km, with the funicular used as uplift. 


Luge d'eté: Morzine can do it, so can Bourg!
Great for the summer market, but what about at the same time re-instating the old 'Piste de Bouleaux', the trace of which is still skiable from Les Granges to Montrigon and down to Bourg via the little oratoire of Our Lady of Good Hope and back to the funicular (the road bridges at La Ville and Montrigon were removed in the 1980s).  The snow holds well enough on that pitch of the mountain, and with a snow-making network (water from the Isere) it could make Bourg a real 'ski in' resort for most of the season (you can already often ski down in January and February). Why not widen the new piste out as it crosses the river for demonstration events and competitions? It would certainly help revitalise the rather desolate area around the funicular, with new bars, restaurants and shops. 


Old barrack: costly white elephant.
Also, abandon the 'Quartier des Alpins', try to sell it or mothball it. The site is too big, ugly and complicated  and in totally the wrong end of the town to be anything other than a costly white-elephant. Forget about mineral water, but DO get the Coeur d'Or multiscreen cinema open! Rent out the old Renoveau buildings as dirt-cheap seasonaires accommodation (no one is ever going to buy it for 6 million euros). Run the funicular and the Arcs navettes until well past midnight, so people from the resorts can spend money in the town, and people from the town can get to jobs up here... I'd stand for mayor myself but you have to be a French citizen!

In the past Bourg has been led out of crises by individuals with inspiration and imagination, not afraid to confront realities and with a real belief in the future.  Let's hope M. Giraudy, M. Minoret or M. Garnier  provide such leadership after the second round of elections on March 30th. Vote if you can!


Full election statistics for Bourg St Maurice 




Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pierre Novat, inventor of the piste map: deception, deformity and truth

Novat's Paradiski panorama - "sharpens the skier's appetite"
The piste map still occupies an important place in the paraphernalia of a skiing holiday: an object that can excite the imagination, be spread before friends to share their mountain experiences and become a lasting souvenir of a wonderful skiing holiday.  I don't think any  amount of 'apps' and websites will ever replace the paper piste map - a communal item rather than an individualised experience.

The local Savoie paper, Le Dauphiné, carried and interesting article yesterday about the man who invented the piste map, Pierre Novat. Before that they were really just one dimensional diagrams rather than the elaborate 'virtual reality' effect that Novat used to bring the mountains alive on paper.

Pierre Novat:  truth through deception
Pierre Novat came from Lyon, studied interior design and fine art, and was a passionate skier. It was while spending a season in Val d'Isere in 1961 that got himself the job of drawing the first piste map to include the newly built resort of Tignes.

He looked hard at the topology of the mountains and valleys before tracing the new pistes and lifts, and played freely with perspective to achieve his hallmark two-dimensional effect. And the maps were incredibly detailed "down to the smallest chalet", his daughter Frederique is quoted as saying, "he had no hesitation in deforming a mountain  so that you could see behind it. It's all false, but it's also all true".

Novat wanted the skier to be able to visualise a piste in the context of the whole sector, valley or mountain. He was interested in showing the relationship between things rather their actual nature, echoing the structuralist philosophies of Levi-Strauss, Sassure and Jakobsen that were in vogue at the time. Novat  had formidable intuition and savoir-faire, and made it possible for anyone to immediately 'read' the resorts' mountains and pistes.

Frederique Novat at work
Novat's work at Tignes-Val d'Isere impressed  Courchevel's resort director Jean Cattelin, and he was asked to create a map of the 'Trois Valleés', a dauntingly large and complex terrain even then.

Over the next 35 years Novat created over 250 piste maps, covering most of the France's burgeoning ski areas. When he died in 2007 his work was taken over by his children Arthur and Frederique, now working under the auspices of the 'Atelier Pierre Novat, Panoramistes'.  They produce three or four new maps a year, always starting by over-flying the area in a helicopter to get a feel for the topology. Then the first sketches are made using coloured crayons on tracing paper. Then comes a painstaking process of adding details and skewing, stretching and deforming  the image to get the notorious 'Novat' style. At every stage the design is checked the the commisioning ski resort, as it would be impossible to undo these radical modifications of reality once formed on paper.

Novat's greatest project was the huge panoramic map showing, in detail, all the resorts in Savoie involved in the 1992 Albertville Winter Olypmics, now a collector's item.

Braque - Le Port de l'Estaque
Novat regarded himself as an artist (he also painted) , not a cartographer, and admired greatly the work of the cubist painter Georges Braque who was also played with perspective and proportion to stunning effect.

Like all great artist Novat shows us that imagination and flair count for more in the eyes of the viewer than accuracy and pedanticsm.  Novat interpreted the mountains for us, made them readable, in the same we a great artist like Braque decodes the world we live in through shape, colour and contrast.

There is currently an exhibition on in La Plagne (Salle des Omnisports in Plagne Centre) with over 60 of Novat's canvases on display. If you can't make that, have a look at this diaporama of Novat's work. http://tropfragile.free.fr/galerie/Photos.html#grid

A book has also been published recently with many  examples and explanations of Novat's work. Plan des Pistes is published by Glénat Livres. I'm hoping if my wife reads this she'll buy it for my birthday! Please buy it direct from the publishers, not from Amazon.



Monday, March 10, 2014

Arc 1800: The Dawn of a New Area?

Lovely day on the mountain today: glorious sunshine and plenty of snow everywhere after the blizzard conditions at the beginning of the week. Everything is open, even the mythical 'hidden piste' from 1600 to Les Granges (properly called  Violettes). A clue for finding the start of it: don't miss the bottle banks behind the Arpette Restuarant!

There's an almost  feverish level of excitement at the ADS (Les Arcs lift company) over the newly announced plans for the redevelopment of the Charvet/Chantel area of Arc 1800. In fact a number of the main planks of the project were planned and announced some  time ago, but the ADS is putting a bit of a spin on the whole thing and calling it 'The Dawn of A New Area' which I thinks quite a clever pun compared to there normal rather flat-footed attempts at translation.


For me Arc 1800 has always been the most unsatisfactory part of the Arcs resorts. It is sprawling  and unfocussed, like a kind 1960s new town ribbon development, with no real centre or character. The 'fingers of the glove' theory behind it, where you move between discrete areas of different activities (skiers, pedestrians, shops, trees, etc) fails here; in effect you have a highly inconvenient layout, with all the lifts bunched at one end. 

Big drop to the front de neige!
But surely the worst feature (in my opinion one of the '5 greatest architectural failures of Les Arcs') is the steep slope between the shops, restaurants, childrens' play area and ski schools along front of the Villards area and the Vagère, Chantel and Villard lifts and ski school meeting area (and the location of the TransArc isn't much better). It's no fun trying to coax a handful of children 100m up a 50% icy slope to get to their lessons, and its a tiring trudge for most adults trying to get back up after a spot of lunch or a cup of coffee in one of the many cafés and restuarants. Surely it wouldn't have been that difficult to create a level 'front de neige' back in 1974 when Arc 1800 was built!

The new developments in the Chantel area ( a large flatish area above the Charvet area)  have already created hundreds of new beds in this highly overcrowded zone (you should have seen the queues for Vagère last week!), and more development is planned there. 

So the Dawn of a New Area scheme will be a welcome and logical step towards making Arc 1800 more coherent and 'better suited to the expectations of the clients', to quote the ADS.  The main points are:


    Espace Aqualudique
  • Redevelopment of the swimming pool next to Vagère into an Espace Aqualudique, adding a large enclosed pool with artificial waterfalls, caverns and flumes to the existing outdoor pool. There will also be a sauna, jacuzzi, massage tables and an underground access passage from Villards. There's also a plan for some kind of 'people mover' from Vagère, but I can't quite see the logic of that  (swimming in ski-boots?). Definitely going ahead, will open in December 2014.
  • Dismantling of the exisiting Chantel  (hooray!) and Villards lift, to be replaced by a new funicular-type system to carry people up to Chantel, to be called 'Le Dahu', apparently modelled on the Cabriolet lift between Arc 1950 and 2000. A new gondola (telécabine) will replace Villards, and this too will be built before next season. That really should take some of the strain off  TransArc and Vagère.
  • Between Chantel and Villards/Charvet various zones will be developed for toboganing, beginners ski area, tubing, children's playground etc. Later they plan to construct a restaurant complex there as well, but that seems all a bit vague at present.
  • The icing on the cake: a brand new 6 person chairlift from Chantel  (top of the new Dahu lift) to the Col de Frettes (to be called Carroley, as the old lift of that name will be taken out), which will give quick access to 2000 and 1600 (and a better route to the SnowPark). This is slated for completion on 2015, but as its going to be funded in part by the commune of Bourg St Maurice it maybe affected by the outcome of  municipal elections in March.
Part of new Charvet development
Building on the 'Alpage de Charvet' was always part of the Les Arcs master-plan, but Roger Godino (the business brain behind the resort and its first chief executive) saw the development of Chantel as the grand finale of the  Les Arcs project:

"I have seen at least 20 architectural projects for Chantel, and I threw them all in the bin (including one from Charlotte Perriand which is now in a museum!). I have never come across a worthwhile project for Chantel, and now when I see random buildings being constructed one after the other, and when I think that there's still 40,000 m2 to go (two thirds the size of Arc 1950)  I say to myself, then I didn't know what to do, so I saved it for the end. How mistaken I was."  (Roger Godino, 2009, quoted in Reve de Bergers by Claudie Eberhart-Blanc).

Let's hope this 60 million euro investment proves Godino wrong, and that the result will make Arc 1800 and more attractive, better organised and less crowded resort, and truly and new area will dawn.

The ADS flyer (in french):  http://mespagesamoi.free.fr/Documents/ADS_Reamenagement%20site%20Chantel.pdf



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....