Fair Weather Skiers

I was up with the larks… well with JG, my 6 month old son, this morning. The plan was a little ski tour to the summit of the Chamchaude, the highest point in the Chartreuse mountain range. The weather looked a bit doubtful, but I could just make out the shadows of the Dent de Crolles poking through the cloud. Like much of this winter it was snowing.

fair weather skier
All weather skier

They say it is the hardest winter for 30 years. That it will cost the French economy 0.5% of its GDP. The French electricity board, the EDF, has asked people to conserve electricity. The island of Corsica already has 210,000 homes on rotating powercuts due to lack of fuel and low levels in the reservoirs. The winter rain has fallen as snow this year and is still frozen on the ground.

piste basher
After the Storm, Digging out a piste basher

There is one group of people you would thing would be rubbing their hands with glee. The ski resorts, not a bit of it. It seems like the suits employed at the quasi monopolies that manage France’s ski domains didn’t realize that snow falls from the skies during cold weather and not from a canon, fed by a huge reservoir and a power plant.

For the ski resorts February 2004 was ideal. Weeks of warm, sunny weather. They merely had to turn on the canons that now cover up to 50% of the slopes in some resorts. During the winter snow canons at l’Alpe d’Huez use more power than the ski lifts and French ski areas consume as much water as a town. This can even lead to low water pressure in some resorts such as Megève.

snow canon
Snow Canon

This year the number of people buying lifts passes, measured as skier/days, is down and the lift companies are not happy. According to Christian Rochette, the director of the group: Professionnels Associés de la Montagne (PAM) there has been a bit too much snow combined with arctic temperatures. In the big stations of the Savoie and Haute-Savoie, where most of the pistes are around 2,000 meters altitude, the temperatures have dropped to -20C or even lower. The result is skiers staying indoors or looking at other activities and only buying passes for a few days. Day trippers have also stayed away from the high altitude domains.

It is not just the lift companies that are feeling the pinch. Ski shops and piste restaurants have seen their turnover cut. There is of course an upside. Micro ski resorts such as those of the Chartreuse Mountains have had a season they won’t forget in a hurry with snow on the ground since Christmas.

The French Alps can be split down the middle, in the south there has been hardly any snow all winter except for the last few days, almost the reverse of last year. The resort managers are not that unhappy. With artificial snow they have managed to maintain their turnover. Super Dévoluy, which, unlike other resorts in the area, has had quite good snowfall, even increased its occupancy by 20% during the key February holiday period and increased the turnover of its lifts by 13%. Serre Chevalier, one of the worst affected resorts has seen its lift turnover drop by almost the same amount. This won’t please new owners, the Compagnie des Alpes.

Serre Chevalier 1350 gave a 30 year concession on its lift system to the Compagnie de Alpes at the start of this season. (CdA) The resort is currently loss making and heavily indebted. The CdA plans to invest 30 million € over 6 years in new lifts and snowmaking and also restructure the ski domain. Through this concession the CdA has also become a shareholder in the private/public partnership (SEM) Serre Chevalier Ski which runs the rest of the domain.

Our ski tour turned out to be better than expected. Excellent snow except for the last few meters below the summit which was icy and windblown. The visibility was reasonable and the sun even put in a brief appearance. By the time we got back to the car-park the snow had set in for the day. Still with ski touring you have to choose your moments.

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 06 March, 2005 at 12:40 AM

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