Summer Skiing and Snowboarding

With substantial late spring snowfall the outlook for summer skiing is better than last year in France. Five lift served glacier areas should be open this summer for various durations from the 19th of June. Only Val Thorens is definitely closed as the Péclet funitel is being rebuilt following avalanche damage during the winter.

Global warming threatens the future of summer skiing. Of the five glaciers under exploitation this summer only the Glacier de la Grande Motte (Tignes) and Mont de Lans (Les Deux Alpes) offer substantial ski areas and snowparks.  Christian Vincent of the Laboratoire de Glaciologie in Grenoble thinks that “some of the alpine glacier retreat scenarios have been largely overestimated”. Although after last summer’s heatwave ski resorts are not taking any chances, both Val d’Isère and Tignes have started to install snowmaking on their glaciers with the work to be completed over the summer of 2004. Mr Vincent says that over the last two decades ”lower down the glacier at Tignes has thinned by 30 metres but higher up it has gained mass due to precipitation.”. According to Mr Vincent the size of a glacier depends on a number of factors apart from average air temperature. The configuration of the accumulation zone and the average snowfall at altitude are all important. Specialist Luc Moreau even thinks that some of the larger glaciers may gain mass in future as climate change leads to more precipitation at altitude. Didier Richard, a researcher with the CEMAGREF in Grenoble is more pessimistic for the Sarenne (l’Alpe d’Huez) which he thinks “will without doubt disappear by 2050”.


Even if the outlook for the bigger French glaciers global warming does pose other problems. Movement in the glacier can lead to the collapse of ski lifts as happened on the Girosse glacier at la Grave during last summer’s extreme weather. Shrinkage also means that lifts may need to be rebuilt as the tongue of the glacier recedes or where the cable height is too great for safety. Glacier lengths are much more susceptible than mass to climate, the Mer de Glace close to Chamonix has retreated over 1000 meters since 1870. Val Thorens even decided to dismantle the 3300 chairlift that served the Peclet summer ski area when it no longer complied with European regulations for cable heights. After great hopes in the early 1970s which were curtailed by the environmental movement Val Thorens doesn’t see much profitability in its summer ski area. A whole summer of skiing brings in as much revenue as a February weekend.

There are also environmental issues. The snow canons being installed at Tignes and Val d’Isère use large quantities of water more than twice that required to irrigate a field of maize of the same area. They may also require more energy for summer use as water has to be pre-cooled to a suitable temperature to make snow. The Snowmagic® system burns a massive 400 kw/h to make 6 tons of snow but it can operate in positive air temperatures of 20 degrees. Securing a glacier, filling in new crevasses and preparing pistes and snow parks, along with the passage of thousands of skiers and snowboarders all help to erode the area and change the albedo (reflective properties) of the snow. To ensure sufficient snow for the summer ski resorts bank snow up on the glacier during the spring months with ratracs. Avalanche control in the glacier’s accumulation area can also affect the mass of the glacier. Currently there is limited research into the effects of glacier skiing.

You have to be an early riser to appreciate summer skiing. Most lift systems open at around 7h30 and this is the time that slalom skiers can be seen training, taking advantage of the still hard snow. By 10am the snow will have softened nicely (assuming a clear overnight sky) and just after noon it is all over. Skiers will have to mix it with the many club and national skiers who use the glaciers for training. Probably of most interest are the snow-parks for boarders and skiers and the summer camps to learn new techniques. If you are staying for a few days don’t forget après ski activities such as mountain biking, rock climbing and long-boarding… or just lazing by the pool.

Glacier snow is razor sharp and skiers and boarders should be fully clothed, preferably with two top layers (provides a sliding surface above the skin) including long sleeves and gloves. A helmet and other protection is a really good idea for the snow park. Don’t forget that the sun is very strong at altitude, a high skin protection sun cream or sun block is essential as are UV400 rated ‘glacier’ style sunglasses. Finally you shouldn’t stray from the marked runs as there are crevasses, some bridged by small quantities of snow, waiting to swallow the unwary.

Tignes: Glacier de la Grande Motte
The summer ski area is open from the 19th June 2004 to the 5th of September 2004 from 7h30 to 13h30.  This summer should see snow cannons on the Rimaye and Grand Plan pistes.  The area offers over 600 meters of vertical with some 20km of pistes over an area of 130 hectares. There is only a single red piste.

Les Deux Alpes – Glacier de Mont de Lans
The glacier is open from the 19th June to the 28th of August. Les Deux Alpes has the largest summer ski area in Europe, over 200 hectares offering 700 meters of vertical. There are 10 runs and a snowpark consisting of two pipes, big air and rails.

l’Alpe d’Huez – Glacier de Sarenne
The glacier is open from the 26th of June to the 25th of July 2004. This summer the Marmottes is being extended with a new funitel to give improved access to the glacier. This is all part of a project to extend the south-east facing resort further up the mountain as a response to global warming. The interest in developing the Sarenne area is more to do with ensuring the early winter and spring ends of the season. There is even talk of creating a new resort at the level of the 1st tronçon above 2000 meters.

The area has a limited 400 meters of descent over 7 runs and includes a snowpark. The resort offers many après activities, notably a large pool, excellent mountain biking and of course the Tour de France 15km mountain time trial on the 21st of July.

Val d’Isère - Glacier du Pissaillas
The ski area should be open from the 26th June until the 15th August 2004 although this depends on snow conditions. The area is small with just over 500 meters of vertical. There is no snowpark and 9 runs.

la Plagne - Glacier de la Chiaupe
Last summer La Plagne was closed for the rebuilding of the Roche du Mio cable car. This year it should be open in July although la Plagne are putting much more emphasis on their summer activities. The tiny Chiaupe glacier offers limited descent and only 3 pistes.

PisteHors review of summer skiing in 2003

Posted by davidof on Tuesday, 01 June, 2004 at 03:52 PM


bien noté ces possibilités ski en Europe l’été… mais il y a aussi plein de riders français (et pas des moindres...) qui font le déplacement pour skier dans l’hémisphère sud… et pourquoi pas à Cajón Grande, en Argentine, tout près de Las Leñas… wink

à+ sur les skis!

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 02 June, 2004  at 12:06 AM

Your mountain hut looks like a great base for skiing and boarding, the hot tubs would be fantastic after a hard day’s touring. PisteHors has ski toured in Chile, you certainly get strange looks going through Roissy airport in July loaded with ski gear. With Las Leñas nearby you could mix a ‘summer’ holiday of piste skiing with touring from a mountain hut.

Posted by  on  Thursday, 03 June, 2004  at 11:26 AM
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