Review of the 2009/2010 Winter conditions in the French Mountains

If you only listened to the mainstream press you would have the impression of a very hard winter: trains frozen in the Channel Tunnel, major highways all but impassible, ski lifts buried under snow and avalanches causing death and destruction from Scotland to Italy. With the climategate scandal you might also start to believe that global warming was just a figment of publicity hungry scientists’ imaginations. However French ski tourers had a feeling of a short winter, with very poor weather and, here they’ll agree with the media, dangerous snow conditions. With the deaths of Olivier Cordeuil and Nicolas Wirsching, Grenoble lost two of the creme of its steep skiing community to avalanches.

november snow belledonne
November snow in the Belledonne

Meteo France classes the winter of 2010 as cold, snowy and lacking sunshine but not exceptional, even when judged by the last few years. Winter was characterised by three waves of cold conditions in mid-December, the start of January and mid February with snowfall down to valley floors, the cold weather preserved snowfall. However the snowiest conditions were confined to the north of the country. Total snowfall was far from breaking records. During the winter only the Mediterranean saw above average precipitation with very unusual snow in early March Cannes and the Bouche des Rhone. The last days of winter were also marked by Xynthia, a severe storm that devastated ski areas in the Pyrenees.

november snow chartreuse
Ski touring was possible in early November


For each month we will take the weather stations at Tarbes at 360m in the French Pyrenees and Bourg St Maurice (BsM), 865meters in the heart of the Savoie ski resorts as our references. Average are calculated from 1971 to 2000. It should be noted that both weather stations are situated in valleys and the conditions experienced on the mountains may be both warmer and sunnier due to winter temperature inversions.

december powder
Fresh powder in early December

December started warm but there was very cold weather from the 12th to 21st of the Month, In the Jura temperatures dropped to between –25 °C and -28 °C on the 20th December. It was also cold from the 25th to 30th. Overall temperatures were 0.4C below average in BsM but close to average at Tarbes. BsM saw 40% more precipitation than normal with snow on 15 days compared to an average of 9, Tarbes has 20% less precipitation. Sunshine was slightly below average in both the Alps and Pyrenees.

By the second half of the month all mountain ranges had snow cover but conditions were poor, especially at low altitudes. Snow depths only reached normal from 1800 to 2000 meters with very irregular cover at high altitude. However the cold weather from the 12th enabled ski resorts to make snow and start the season normally. After the 21st there was a spectacular rise in temperatures (at 2200 m from -18°C on the 20th to –2°C 36 hours later). The warm weather also brought rain which affected skiing conditions below 1500 meters.

december powder
In the extreme cold 100cm superlight powder fell on the alps around the 20th

Northern Alps only had normal snow cover from 2300 meters. Ski touring was only possible with good conditions from 1900-2200 meters despite snow cover on valley floors. A foehn wind had caused a lot of damage to the snow cover at high altitudes with summits and ridgelines frequently bare.

december powder
Conditions at the end of December were good at altitude

The Southern Alps had normal to above average snow cover.

Pyrénées lacked snow but conditions were typical for an average season. Cold weather meant that snow was present from the low altitudes and was skiable from 1500m but conditions were only good from 1800-2000m. The extreme east of the range had poor conditions. The snow-pack was largely made up of two big falls at the end of November which thawed to some extent during the warm weather at the start of the month and from 10-30cm that fell in the middle of December.

Corsica had normal snow conditions from 1600m but higher up winds had caused a lot of damage with hard, icy snow (a Corsican phenomena) on summits and ridges.

Jura had no real snow below 1100m due to the foehn and again ridge-lines were bare. Vosges had rain to summits after the 21st but had snow to valley floor level.


january touring
Touring was possible from low altitudes by mid January

The first half of January was very cold as was the end of the month. At BsM precipitation was just 50% of average although the number of days with snowfall (9) was close to normal. Sunshine was about 20% below average although there were 15 days with sunshine compared to 10 in a normal month. Overall temperatures were -1.6C below average. At Tarbes temperatures were closer to normal, -0.4C below average with precipitation just below average. The area also lacked sunshine, around 60% of average. However the Alps and Pyrenees escaped the big freeze relatively lightly, overall France was -2.4 °C, the coldest January for 20 years. Corsica saw twice as much precipitation as normal.

january touring
Excellent conditions at altitude towards the end of the month


The cold in January conserved the snow cover and French mountains started the main winter holiday period with good conditions. In the Alps there was snow to low altitude with average cover to around 2000m and above average higher up with around 1m of snow at 2000m. Snow depths were above average in most of the Pyrenees with 1m at 1800m altitude except for the east of the range which had below average conditions. Corsica had normal snow conditions with cover from 1000m altitude and 1m at 1600m altitude.
The Jura and Massif-Central all started February with good snow cover to low altitudes. In the Jura there was 80cm at 1200m and still a good 50cm at 900m where many ski tours start. The Vosges had excellent conditions with with 1m at 600m altitude and 150-180cm at 1200m.

february touring
Good snow at altitude in February but the conditions were unstable

The month saw a final cold snap from the 6th to 16th but this was followed by above average temperatures for the last couple of weeks culminating in the storm Xynthia which hit the Pyrenees and west of France on the 27th and 28th of the month. Winds were around 140 to 160km/h with over 200km/h recorded at altitude in the Pyrenees, Massif Central and Vosges.
To cite a couple of figures: 210 km/h at Super-Bagnères and 238 km/h on the summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre

Temperatures at BsM were -0.6C, rainfall was just 50% of average with a large part of it falling on the 25th. However the number of days with rainfall (12) was 50% more than average. So although the snow may not have added much to depths skiers would have had the impression of frequent snowfall. There was 85 hours of sun compared to 127 hours in a normal February. At Tarbes temperatures were a chilly -1.6C less than normal, precipitation was also half of average but there was slightly more sun at 66%.

february touring
Good snow at altitude in February but the conditions were unstable

The end of February finished with good snow cover except at low altitudes where the warm temperatures, rain and wind started a thaw. Above 1800m conditions were normal but wind from the sector North-west to South-west caused very irregular snow at altitude. Snow cover was better in the Isère. Conditions were excellent in the Southern Alps at all altitudes but wind from the south-east to north-west had worked the snow at altitude with crusts and uneven surface.

There was normal snow cover in the Pyrénées but with uneven snow at altitude due to a strong south-westerly airstream.

february touring
The month had frequent small snow falls

Snow in Corsica was very good above 1500m. Again at altitude strong winds from the Est had worked the snow.

The Vosges, Jura and Massif Central had seen snow but frequently followed by rain to summit level with average cover only starting from 1000m.


The storms at the end of February had a major effect on snow cover. The Southern Alps and Vosges still had good conditions at all altitudes, in the South it was possible to tour from 1000 meters. According to Yves Clémenceau, the head of Meteo France for the Hautes-Alpes, the department had its 3rd coldest winter (Dec to Feb) for 62 years with maximum temperatures largely below freezing. In the Pyrenees and Northern Alps conditions were only normal or above average above 2000 meters. In mid altitudes the snow pack had been affected to rain to 2200-2600 meters as well as strong winds. Higher up the surface was often wind affected.

march touring
Fresh snow returns in the middle of March

Corsica still had good snow cover despite warm temperatures at the start of March with over 300cm at Maniccia at 2400m altitude, a record for French mountain ranges.

In the Jura and Massif Central the snowline was at 1100m with good cover from 1200-1300m. Snow was good in the Vosge starting from 550-600m and 100cm of old snow could be found at 1000m altitude.

The month had normal sunshine at start of the month but was cloudy since 18th. The start of the month was very dry with no precipitation from 4th to 19th and after a cold start temperatures were 0.6C above average at BsM and -1.1C below average at Tarbes.


nivose gua
Snow depths at le Gua, Vercors range

It seems the ski tourers were correct. If we take the weather station at la Gua in the Vercors as a reference then at 1600 meters, about 400 meters above the starting point of most ski tours, snow cover was only acceptable from the second week of January and although conditions were skiable to low altitudes (in January tours were possible from 600 meters which is exceptional) snow depths never reaching the levels of recent winters. This lead to a rapid deterioration of conditions in early March. The cold winter had meant snow on the plain and the cold temperatures conserved this snow during the winter months of January and February, coupled with the lack of sunshine this created the impression of a hard winter. However although precipitation was frequent apart from the start of January there were no major dumps. Ski resorts were able to operate normally due to snow making on lower pistes coupled with natural snow fall.

nivose bellecote
Snow depths, la Plagne Bellecote

The situation higher up was entirely different. Although frequent episodes of strong southerly winds stripped ridged and summits of snow, cover was plentiful from the start of November. Looking at la Plagne, Bellecote, conditions were better than all recent winters until mid January with only the excellent 2006 winter eclipsing this season from the start of March. Anyone skiing in resort and keeping their off piste above 2000 meters would have found 2010 to be an excellent winter in the Alps and Pyrenees with frequent snowfall giving good conditions. The only minus point was a lack of sunshine. Once again the best snow cover was on Corisca which had 3 meters of snow at 2400 meters altitude.

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 04 April, 2010 at 02:47 PM

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