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Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

Backstage workers keep things smooth for skiers
Getting thousands of skiers up the slopes every day is a real challenge and takes a lot of planning! Whether in large resorts with over 500 employees or in smaller ones with only twenty or so, it's the same scenario... a group of workers collaborating closely around the clock to keep the resort running smoothly. Above all, it involves an almost anonymous team working behind the scenes so that we can go out and enjoy our passion: skiing.
Behind the scenes
Grooming: keeping the snow pristine
With the storm raging ferociously around it, the snow cat gropes its way forward in the shadows of the mountain. Its blade explores the snowy surface like a giant claw, recognising hazards and remembering the traps like the treacherous block of ice lying just under the surface, almost blindly cutting its way through, but with no room for error. The technology involved and the huge cost of these machines (several hundred thousand euros) require highly trained, skilled and, above all, experienced drivers. Given that the winter snow season is getting shorter by the year, a grooming strategy is now essential, drawn up according to the ground features, the slope, and the number of people using specific slopes liable to 'wear away' more quickly than others. This long-term and highly skilled job is crucial if skiers are to enjoy a smooth and faultless run.
Patrick, groomer at Alpe d’Huez for over 20 years, told us: «The groomer must first know a great deal about the ski domain, the science of snow and the terrain. He must know how to pick out landmarks or find a pylon in the fog, something that a sat nav is unable to do. You need 5 or 6 years of experience to 'feel' that you're heading off track. The experienced groomers help out, of course. There's a real team spirit among the groomers».
To discover more about this job that in some ways reminds us of the film «the Wages of Fear» by Clouzot, the resorts organise visits around the domain in snow crawlers.
Childhood dreams of fancy lorries?
Making snow: high-tech, behind-the-scenes work
Snow-makers can do everything from plumbing to computing and road repairs… They manage the artificial snow networks and make sure the facilities work around the clock. The water drops sprayed into the air with snow guns at a pressure of 20 to 80 bars don’t freeze at once. The small quantity of water injected atomises into minute particles, and as the air and water mixes under pressure, it creates tiny ice crystals. When these come into contact with the cold air, the particles solidify and form flakes! The temperature needs to be between -2 and -12° for good results, with 20% humidity, otherwise the snow gun will just produce a useless jet of water. Unless they keep a close eye on the process, the snow makers may find themselves with huge sheets of ice at the foot of their guns.
The snow patrol... the jack-of-all trades
The skiers' guardian angels
They need to be top-notch skiers, tough, and comfortable in all types and conditions of snow. Their job is to ensure that the domain is skiable, to be on hand in case of accident, and to give skiers information about the snow conditions. As well as being excellent skiers, they must have really good interpersonal and team-working skills, and be ready to help skiers in difficulty, hurt, tired or simply lost. They have several areas of expertise: pyrotechnician to set off avalanche-triggering explosives, avalanche dog handler, snow expert…They are usually seasoned professionals, ready to intervene when needed in all situations, however difficult.
Ski lift operators
Ski lift, cable car and chair lift operators need plenty of patience for their job. No question of letting their guard drop, even for a second, as the skiers get onto the lifts. While hand-free ski passes mean that we no longer need inspectors for «your pass, please», technology can't replace the human side of lift operators, who’re always ready to encourage beginners and adults. As well as knowing their machines inside out, their little chalet is often used as a refuge for shivering children. They keep the ski traffic fluid during February's busy season, answer skiers' questions and recommend the best slopes, itinerary, restaurant and sports shops.
Sales and administrative services
The sales people sell the resort's products... we might almost say it's the core sector: without customers, there'd be no resort!
The utility services manage the buildings' upkeep both inside and out, employing a small army of workers: carpenters, masons, painters and technicians that often have little to do with skiing.
The administrative staff deal with wages, accounts, secretarial work and promoting the resort. The IT team manage the complex IT systems that are now used in every area.
At the beginning of the season, all the workers, whatever their speciality, are busy preparing the domain.
They start up the different facilities after their summer slumber, prepare the slopes, install the signs, check the safety installations, the mattresses and nets, call up all the seasonal workers to be ready for the start of the season… From a distance, the work looks mind-boggling, and it is! And yet, at the same time every year, the skiers arrive to enjoy their unique ski experience without anyone suspecting all the work going on behind the scenes!
Photos: N.Cuche E. Beallet
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