Behind every ski resort is a plethora of teams — the ski lift crew, the snowmaking people, the snow groomers who flatten the pistes overnight, and the ski patrol team. I signed up to open the pistes with the ski patrol in Manigod, a family-friendly ski resort connected to La Clusaz.
With a nearby chairlift churning into action, Nicolas from ski patrol arrived, ready to open his final piste for the morning. It’s almost 9am, and today was an easy 8.30 start for him. When there’s a risk of avalanche, he’s on the mountain at 6.30am, preparing and detonating avalanche bombs, and verifying that the pistes are once again safe.
Nicolas, already weighed down by a large backpack and a massive drill, collected two blue poles on our way to open a piste. At a crossroad of pistes, we stopped to hoist a ‘SLOW’ banner. Further down our piste, Nicolas drilled holes for the two blue poles to be planted where he’d noticed them missing the night before. We sauntered down the piste on our skis from side to side, checking for problems and fixing any signs or poles that were loose.
Being an easy blue run without any avalanche risk, opening the piste was a casual affair. Skiers zoomed past us before we’d finished, and Nicolas kept his eye on a small child who had fallen badly, waiting until the boy was back on his feet with no signs of injury before carrying on to the next wonky pole.
While pole colour indicates piste difficulty (from green for beginners to black for advanced), the blue poles on the right of our piste had orange tips. Nicolas explained that it’s a safety measure throughout France: poles with orange tips indicate the right edge of the piste, and poles without indicate the left edge. If you’re skiing on a foggy day, you can use the poles to guide you safely down by making sure the ones with orange tips are on your right.
When we’d finished opening the piste, Nicolas demonstrated his avalanche airbag with the help of a volunteer. Pulling a toggle on the shoulder strap causes an airbag to inflate quickly but gently, and it would keep the wearer floating above the snow if caught in an avalanche.
As well as an airbag in his backpack, Nicolas carries a large first aid kit, a litre of water, an avalanche shovel and probe, crampons and climbing gear. The backpack is heavy, and he carries it every day. Each ski patrol cabin has a defibrillator in a backpack and an oxygen tank in another backpack to cope with every mountain emergency. Cabins at strategically placed points mean staff can get to any injured person within a few minutes by skiing or with a snowmobile.
During his shift, Nicolas will make regular piste checks, alerting the other resort teams of any tasks, such as asking the snow groomers to fill in a rut on the side of a piste He will also provide first aid to anyone injured and transportation to the closest medical centre, and then close each piste at the end of the day.
Junior French ski patrol staff must pass a ski test, a first aid test (two weeks) and one of the toughest ski patrol courses in the world (six weeks). Just 5-10% of ski patrol applicants are successful at qualifying each year, and there are positions for only one third of the 6600 qualified ski patrol professionals in France. It’s a popular job, and a relief to know the rest of us are in capable hands if we need their help.
The public are invited to open a Manigod piste with a member of the ski patrol for free every Tuesday morning during February school holidays. Sign up at the tourist office in advance.