Retrospective on the 2005 - 2006 Ski Season

The smaller mountain regions of France had an excellent winter season with exceptional snow cover in the Vosges, Jura and Massif Central and very good conditions in Corsica and the Pyrenees. Although the total snowfall was not astounding a long period of cold weather meant that the snow that did fall remained on the ground even at quite low altitudes. The season in the Southern Alps was satisfactory and much better than last winter. In the Northern Alps the season was below average at higher altitudes until mid-February.

powder skiing December 2005 Vercors
Skiing in early December

Northern Alps

The 2005-2006 season in the Northern Alps can best be described as slow to get started but with an excellent late finish at altitude following a snowy April with around a meter of fresh snow in the second week of May in the Haute-Maurienne and Southern Tarentaise areas. May saw some of the best high-altitude skiing in the Mont-Blanc range with routes such as the Mallory and on the Aiguille Verte and Courtes being repeated by a number of skiers.

val d'isere january 2006
Val d’Isère, January 2006

Both Val Thorens and Val d’Isère, traditional early season resorts, postponed their opening and then only ran with the help of artificial snow making. In mid-mountain areas such as the Chartreuse and Vercors the season started slightly earlier. Ski tourers were out in force from the last weekend of November and some ski resorts, such as the Sept Laux north east of Grenoble also opened during this week. However snow cover only approached that of an excellent 2004/5 season in mid-March with a rapid melt-off during April and May. In short spring came at least a couple of weeks early below 2000 meters altitude compared to the long term average.

autumn 2006
Autumn 2005

The autumn of 2005 was very warm with little snow especially at altitude. This left glaciers bare and crevasses open. Temperatures were in the low 20s °C in the Alpine valleys and some record highs were recorded in October. Cold weather finally set in at the start of November. Winter was persistently but not exceptionally cold right through until the start of March 2006 except at New Year when temperatures saw a spectacular jump. At 1600 meters in the Haute-Savoie they rose from -17 °C to +6 °C in the course of 24 hours. However these brief warm spells were without any significant rain. There was snow cover in the valley floors from mid December right through to February.

snow cover bellecote la plagne 2006
Snow cover, Bellecote / la Plagne

The thin snow cover resulted in a steep temperature gradient which transformed the snow into “facetted crystals” and “depth hoar”. We observed this in the third week of November in the Belledonne range at 2000 meters and in mid-January almost the entire snowpack at Val d’Isère, around 80cm, was composed of such snow crystals. Agreeable to ski this snow is referred to as “loud powder” in North America due to the sound skis make as they glide through it. Practically all slope aspects apart from those facing directly south and oblique (at 90 degrees) to the low winter sun had these types of crystals. There was also a lot of wind over the winter, especially from the south. This was clear from the large cornices overhanging north facing slopes at the end of winter and also from deposits of Saharan sand at the end of January. These could be seen as far north as the Chablais mountains. The strong wind stripped many ridges and summits bare but lead to large accumulations on sheltered areas. At the end of January wind alone was responsible for the formation of a number of slabs which were responsible for a series of fatal avalanche accidents.

spring 2006
Facetted snow, late November 2005

March had very unsettled weather but this brought fresh snow. At the start of the month a storm brought a meter of snow to some areas, the avalanche risk was at its maximum and a number of roads were cut. Holiday makers in Vallorcine near Chamonix were left stranded for days with the only way in and out a perilous journey on foot through the rail tunnel. The middle of the month saw some of the best powder conditions of the whole winter. The last two weeks were exceptionally warm which caused a lot of melting of snow in lower elevations. On the 26th of March temperatures in the mid-20s were recorded in the alpine valleys. The warm weather also weakened cornices that had formed under the influence of strong, southerly winds and there were a number of accidents. April was largely warm and sunny with some good snowfall at altitude. This brought superb spring skiing conditions but the weather deteriorated towards the end of the month and continued to be very hot but unsettled during early May.

snow cover vercors 2006
Snow cover in the Vercors mountains


The Pyrenees had another excellent season. The first snows were in early November and another 80cm fell in the middle of the month in central regions. Ski touring started in mid November and still going in at the end of May when this article was written. The early snow also brought the first French avalanche accidents and a fatality close to Andorra. Using a helmet camera Jerome Buc filmed a memorable video of an avalanche he triggered on the 28th of November at Piau. The ski lifts had not yet opened.

Unlike the Alps the few warm periods during the winter were accompanied by rain to mid-altitudes which helped stabilize the snowpack. Mid-March saw heavy snow across the region with high to extreme avalanche risk in the Western Pyrenees close to the Atlantic where close to 1 meter of snow fell.

spring 2006
Spring portage


The Mediterranean island of Corsica was also hit by snowstorms late in November with snow down to 300 meters and leading authorities to close the islands road passes to trucks. The snow cover continued to be good throughout the winter.

Vosges and Jura

The Vosges and Jura mountains recorded some recorded some record snow conditions. The ski resorts and ski tourers had a fantastic winter lasting from the end of November through to mid April. The Météo France monitoring station at the Ballon d’Alsace (1424 meters) recorded a maxium depth of 370cm of snow, beating the previous record dating from 1968. Total snowfall at 1100 meters, the height of most of the areas ski resorts, was around 690cm. There were some impressive cornices on the ridge lines around Hohneck which were still there in May.

winter 2006
2006, a cold winter

Massif Central

The Massif Central had another long winter with total snowfall of 445cm in the resort of Le Lioran and 610cm at the top of the ski resort of Mont Dore (1415m). Temperatures were not as cold as last season but 120 days recorded sub-zero temperatures at 800 meters. This persistent cold was responsible for keeping good snow cover despite the relatively few episodes of snow.

skiing april 2006
Skiing in April

The Sancy mountains had the best snow cover for 30 years with ski lifts open for 158 days. Le Mont Dore finally closed its runs early in May. The woods on the south face of the Sancy saw 159 days of continuous snow cover at 1400 meters. From the 24th of November to the 1st of May. At Mont-Dore (1050m) there was 125 days continuous snow cover beating the previous record of 119 days in 1980/81. The station saw snow depths of 220cm at 1330 meters at the start of March. There was snow at 1000m from the end of November until the beginning of April

Further south in the Cantal the resort of Le Lioran was open until the 17th of April. St Jacques-des-Blats (1000 meters) saw 95 days of continuous snow cover but snow fall was patchy with the western slopes having the best conditions.

There were some big natural avalanches in the region. At Le Lioran on tje 19th and 20th of February and the 4th of March at Mont-Dore in the Val d’Enfer which caused considerable damage to the ski lift infrastructure. A member of the Gendarmerie was also killed at Le Lioran on the 8th of December while on patrol on a closed run.

Southern Alps

spring 2006
Snow levels, col du Restafond

The season in the Southern Alps started earlier. At the Col d’Agnel on the border with Italy a Mediterranean storm at the start of October dumped 70cm of snow. Enough to get the ski, and avalanche season underway. On the 18th of November a Gendarme from ??? was killed ski touring just over the Italian side of the frontier. There was further snow at the start of December but then little fresh snow until the third week of February except in the Hautes-Alps (Serre Chevalier) and Alpes de Haute-Provence (Allos) where conditions were close to average. This was enough to keep the ski resorts happy, at least compared to a very poor 2005 season. As in the Northern Alps the conditions were cold creating a lot of weak facetted snow. At the start of March a storm hit the Hautes-Alps bringing between 50-100cm of new snow. The consequence was a series of avalanche accidents killing 19 people in the region, 17 of the deaths over the four week period from the 29th of January.

cornice april 2006
Cornice, April 2006


2005/6 was also a record year for avalanche deaths. Fifty five to date and for the most part triggered by the victims or members of their group. The number of accidents was due to the nature of the snow pack, a buried layer of weak snow crystals and the widespread risk across whole of the Alps. The early part of the season saw a shallow snow pack with continuous freezing conditions. There was little consolidation of the snow pack through rainfall and refreezing.

Further Information
Retrospective on the 2004/2005 Ski Season
Retrospective on the 2003/2004 Ski Season

Posted by davidof on Thursday, 25 May, 2006 at 05:15 PM

hi! i would ask you about all the climate data of snow depth. Where could i found it?


Posted by  on  Wednesday, 20 October, 2010  at 03:37 PM
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