Retrospective on the 2003/2004 Ski Season

With the last of the French resorts, Tignes and Val Thorens closing this weekend it is time to review the 2003-2004 season.  This report is based on figures supplied by the French weather service: Metéo France and from observations by and friends.

After the summer heat wave that saw temperatures in the alpine town of Grenoble hovering in the mid-forties everyone was expecting a real winter as had happened following the summer of ’76.  Less than a couple of months after the heat wave broke it seemed we were not to be disappointed.

Early October snow in the Belledonne mountains

On the 6th October Grenoble awoke to find the Chartreuse and Belledonne mountains covered with around 45cm of French snow, enough to tempt some people to try some pre-season ski touring in the surrounding mountains, at least on their rock skis. Within a few days the snow was gone and this set the pattern for the rest of the season. The Mediterranean autumn rains, usually confined to the coastal regions, were blown inland giving a scattering of snow at altitude in the Southern Alps throughout October. The traditional autumn opener is the Mondial du Ski et Snowboard at les Deux Alpes over the Toussaint holiday week at the end of October. The snowboarders had ideal conditions but the first few days of the ski event were disrupted by storms and rain at altitude. Les Deux Alpes was a washout with not a flake of snow below 2,500 meters. Then on 31st of October the temperatures freshened and we awoke to a winter wonderland for the weekend with around 1 meter of fresh snow.

Les Deux Alpes, 1st November 2003

However the storm had not been able to pass the mountain barrier separating the Southern and Northern Alps. Val Thorens, usually one of the first resorts to open for the winter season was bare whereas down in the south, Montgenèvre was able to open a large part of its domain for the second weekend of November with good off-piste conditions. Corsica also saw early season snow but this soon melted and conditions only returned to what could be called normal in March with the best snow in the south of the island.

A good start to the season in the Cantal

Another weather front blew in to the Alps at the end of November dumping close to a meter of snow and it seemed that the season would get off to a good start. The opening weekend at Val d’Isère had excellent condtions on piste, even if off-piste things were a little rocky. Then disaster. A hot southerly fohn wind blew for several days and literally stripped the slopes below 2,500 meters. We abandoned plans for a season opener in the Three Valleys which had excellent snow conditions a year earlier and moved our attentions to Le Lioran in the south of the Massif Central which had been spared the warm weather. The situation in the Alps below 2000 meters remained critical until Christmas week, which finally saw snow down to the valley floors.

January was the stormiest month of the season, but with a lot of rain, some falling above 2,500 meters in the Savoie.  February was dry with spring conditions earlier in the month, an anticyclone blocking any Atlantic storms.  On the 4th of February it was 15C at the Metéo France research center at 1325 meters on the Col du Porte and 20C at Clermont Ferrand in the Massif Central. A record! The pattern during February was warm with hot winds blowing from Africa, this deposited two layers of sand from the Sahara, a very rare event for the winter. Overall snowfall was between 120-150% of average in the Southern Alps away from the coastal regions and there was good snow, especially at altitude. Many resorts were able to increase their receipts after a good 2002/2003 season. The situation in the Northern Alps remained one of lack of snow except for the Belledonne where it was close to average with a good end to the season.  At Tignes and Chamonix snowfall was 55% of normal and to the south at Les Deux Alpes it was around 65% of normal [see note].  Overall snowfall was around 80% of normal [see note] except close to the border with Italy.  Temperatures in the valleys were above average and at 1000 meters, the bottom of many ski resorts, only January and February really experienced winter conditions.

Snow pit in the Ecrins showing the two layers of African sand

The Pyrénées had opened to early snow in 2002/3 but at the start of this season reasonable conditions could only be found close to the frontier with Spain and in the principality of Andorra.  When PisteHors covered the Rendez-vous des Etoiles at la Mongie on the 20th of December there was barely 20cm in the station but around 1 meter of fresh snow fell over the Christmas week.  At the start of February, snow depths were irregular at lower elevations due to the number of warm episodes, average at around 1800 meters but very good higher up, 200cm at 2500 meters. Like the rest of the country the first two weeks of February were very warm, we were ski touring in T-shirts at Porté Puymorens. March and April saw a number of weather system cross the mountain range which let many resorts finished the season with good snow cover, 100cm at 1800 meters and 250cm at altitude. Piau-Engaly had 740cm cumulative snowfall for the season. The Pyrénées were unusually cold due to a large amount of cloud cover over the winter.  Overall snow depths were between 120-150% of normal in central and far west of the mountains and between 100-120% in rest of range. After some worries earlier in the season the conditions enabled resorts to maintain or even increase their record receipts of 2002/3. Visitors numbers are expected to show around 5% increase.

The mercury climbs at 2,600 meters

After a good start to the season the Massif Central had rather patchy conditions.  Snowfall was between 150% to 200% higher in the south of the range and above average elsewhere but this hides the reality of a number of warm spells with rain at altitude which had a bad affect on the snowpack, particularly on sunny slopes.  In mid-January there was only 40cm of snow at le Mont Dore and 60cm further south in the Cantal. The most that can be said was that at higher altitude and on shady slopes the snow cover was around normal. The season finished with fresh snow and on the May day weekend snowboarders were still having fun on the slopes of Le Lioran in a homemade funpark, a full three weeks after the lifts had closed. The picture in the Vosges and Jura was not so good, after early season snow winter only really got underway in mid-January with between 60-80cm on the slopes at 1000 meters. Overall snowfall was below average although fresh snow in mid-April enabled some resorts in the Jura to open for the Easter holidays.

Lack of snow in the Oisans

The good to very good conditions experienced in some regions hide a winter of great volatility. The series of warm periods during the season had a bad impact on snow-levels below 2000 meters and particularly on any slopes exposed to the sun. The warm periods were frequently accompanied by rain at altitude, which further affected the snow conditions, saturating and washing away snow at low altitudes. The cold periods at least meant that ski resorts were able to use the snow canons in which they have invested heavily over previous years.

The Col du Porte in the Chartreuse saw around 150 days of snow cover, below average for the last forty years despite early season snow but better than many of the seasons in the 1990s.  The mountain ranges to the north and east – from the Vosges to the Savoie continue to experience a drier climate.  This will have an affect on the glaciers of the region and particularly on the continued practicability of lift served summer skiing (see separate article to be published June).  The Pyrénées had another good winter although with a very poor start to the season.

Note: seasonal snowfall figures come from Meteo France and compare the period October 2003 to March 2004 with the 30-year period from 1971. See article L’enneigement en montagne de l’hiver 2003-2004 runs weekly snow and avalanche reports through the season, these can be found under the avalanche section from the main menu.

Percentage figures for ski resorts from Michel3600/

Posted by davidof on Tuesday, 04 May, 2004 at 08:14 AM

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