Skiing Against the Flow

Some people have compared it to driving the wrong way down a motorway at full speed. Others say it is a fundemental part of their freedom to roam. We are talking about ski mountaineers who climb up ski pistes against the flow of alpine skiers. It is certainly a subject that has exercised the minds of ski resort operators and mayors.

Chamonix[1] has become the latest municipality to outlaw the practise with a recent ‘arrêté municipal’. The dangers seem obvious. Tourists, blissfully unware, encountering a group of skiers strung out Indian file across the piste, perhaps in poor visibility… it is an accident waiting to happen. There are other dangers. les Sept Laux, near Grenoble, has already acted against ski tourists following an incident when a group triggered an avalanche in the ski domain. This, they say, occupied the piste patrol when they should have been concentrating on fare paying clients and could endanger piste skiers. Chamrousse, which already has an arrêté, is worried about the increasing practise of ‘after work’ skiers from nearby Grenoble taking a tour in the resort risking their own lives and potentially those of piste workers.

The dangers of ‘after hours skiing’ was brought brutally home last Tuesday when a 71 year old man hit a ratrac that was preparing pistes at 7pm in the resort of la Clusaz. The man, a regular in the resort, later died of his injuries in Geneva hospital. Chamrousse say that ratracs are winched by cable on steeper pistes, sometimes a 1000 meters in length. These cables are pretty much invisible in poor light and can kill a skier instantly. There is also the danger of avalanche control work, some of it carried out remotely using systems such as gaz-ex where the operator may be unaware of skiers in the sector.

Some ski tourists have responded that they were using the areas long before they were turned into ski pistes. They point out that an ‘arrêté municipal’ from the 1st of December 2000 in Gavarnie in the Pyrenees, which incidently does not cover snow shoers and walkers, makes access to traditional destinations such as the Pics Saint-André, the Col de Boucharo and the Bréche de Roland difficult and obliges skiers to detour through terrain threatened by avalanches. They think that economic reasons may be a factor. Ski and snowboard tourists do not buy lift passes so do not bring much revenue to a resort. Ski resorts may also be increasingly worried about being sued in the event of an accident. By outlawing uphill skiing they effectively push responsibility onto the participants. Experience in les Sept Laux during heavy snow this week showed that the practise was still tolerated by the piste patrol providing the ski mountaineers were sensible and remained just off or to the edge of the ski pistes. Ski tourists argue, with somewhat less weight, that it is a way for them to earn their turns in relative safety during bad weather and high avalanche risk.

For those used to ‘la montagne libre’ that France traditionally represents these developments form a pattern of increased litigation. Last season la Grave was found guilty of not properly sign-posting dangers on standard routes in its vast off-piste domain after the death of a snowboarder. La Mongie in the Pyrénées is currently studying its legal position after opening the vaste Pic du Midi to non-guided skiers. Other resorts, including la Mongie, have passed bye-laws restricting off-piste skiing when the avalanche risk reaches a certain level. Some communities[2], perhaps worried about the threat of avalanches following the Montroc tragedy or about paying for rescue operations have outlawed backcountry skiing altogether in their areas.

[1] Local bye-law governing the security of ski runs in the community of Chamonix (n°334/2004 (10/12/2004))
Article 9 : For reasons of security, it is forbidden to proceed against the normal flow of skiers, by whatever means, except when absolutely necessary (rescue etc) during the period of run opening or piste preparation when the runs are closed. At all other times use is under the sole responsibility of the practicant.

[2] Fallavaux passed an arrêté municipal banning ski de randonnée on the 22 July 2000 (ref [url=][/url]

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 02 January, 2005 at 11:44 PM

Seems like a reaction to a marrying of all those Fritshi Freerides and a lift ticket system that relies only on a check at the bottom (apart from the top station) to me.
I really can’t see how someone going uphill at the side of the piste is more of a threat than someone standing still in the middle.

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 05 January, 2005  at 02:06 AM

Actually in Chamonix now every lift has an electronic pass checking system so if you skin up to the midstation it no longer gets you out of buying your lift tickets if you want to use the pistes. So I don’t even think it has to do with lost revenue least they didn’t ban it altogether, but this is the first I’ve heard of the arrete. We’ve been going up pistes while they are closed since the start of the season...but not while they are actively working on the pistes. Maybe it is put there more to prevent litigation if someone is hurt rather than to be enforced. 

Posted by  on  Thursday, 06 January, 2005  at 12:16 PM

Swiss Journal is carrying an article on the problems of cohabitation between ski tourists and alpine skiers. [link in French]

Posted by davidof on  Sunday, 09 January, 2005  at 02:08 PM
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