From 15th December French ski resorts will be open but with no lifts. Cross country skiing is officially allowed but there is some confusion as to whether ski touring is? And if so how soon before that could then be banned?
I'll never forget that evening in the Cocoon Bar in Serre Chevalier (Saturday, 14th March, 2020) when Dominique Galletti, Directeur de l'ESF Serre Chevalier, who sadly passed away later in the year, announced that the ski resort was to close immediately. There then followed a crazy party at the 1420 Bar and from midnight we were in lockdown.
We were not too bothered and were quite excited at the prospect, being able to ski tour in our backyard without the hordes, something we had been doing in the great pre-season conditions in November and December.
In fact, this video was almost a year ago (30th November) showing what can be achieved by ski touring within the resort without the lifts running.
The next morning with sore heads we ski toured up the piste with the dogs and then the following day we headed to Monetier. As we skinned up we started to hear that ski touring could well be banned within 24 hours and, with that, I left my friends and went solo on a mad adrenaline-fuelled rush to the Col du Cucumelle and skied back down to home in La Salle. That was the last time I had skis on in 2020.
The reason for the ban was to ensure that the hospital and emergency services would not be subject to drains on resources as they sought to combat the initial stages of Covid and have to deal with injured skiers as well. A few days later cycling was banned, too and then we were limited to one hour and one kilometre from home to exercise for the next 55 days.
A few days ago President Macron and Prime Minister Castex stunned the French ski industry by confirming that skiing by way of using lifts would not happen now until the middle of January, even though French ski companies had gone to great lengths to ensure that lifts would follow strict Covid compliance measures. Combine that with the continued closure of bars and restaurants, what is there left to do for people considering visiting a French ski resort over the Christmas holidays?
And in true French style, the resorts are protesting to the government at such an unjust proclamation, especially so as it would seem that both Switzerland and, maybe, Austria will be open to skiers, while at the same time promoting the romanticism of the mountains and resorts as a wondrous place still to visit over Christmas, as even without skiing there's still so much to do.
Now in terms of landscape and beauty that might be true for Serre Chevalier but I would question those adjectives for the likes of the big high altitude ski factories such as Val Thorens and Les Deux Alpes!
At the time of initially writing this (27th November) there was also the little factor of no snow in the vast percentage of French ski resorts however to some extent that situation is no longer the case, see the latest update to this feature. Conditions have been excellent for the snow cannons to do their work so via the webcams you can now see thin strips of snow appearing winding their way down to the valley floors. It's also quite disconcerting to note the total lack of snow on the south-facing slopes below the Col de Buffère where we do ski tour when the conditions are right.
One factor that affected the decision made by the government to keep resorts closed was the very real concern that hospitals already dealing with the Covid crisis would be under even more strain from the potentially injured skiers.
To that end, I have been sceptical about whether ski touring / ski de randonnée will be allowed when resorts do open in December. So it is with some relief that I saw a recent announcement made by the Prefects of the Haute-Savoie, Alain Espinasse, and the Savoie, Pascal Bolot stating that at the end of confinement and travel restrictions visitors to ski resorts will be able to take part in cross country skiing/ski de fond, snow showing and hiking.
At the same time, they ask that people are careful in practising these activities as the hospitals are in a precarious state as Covid infections are still high in the Savoie.
Trouble is that in their announcement they use the word randonné (hiking/walking) but I have been unable to find ski randonné being one of the accepted activities. It is only in the Le Dauphine where they state Haute-Savoie : ski de rando, fond, raquettes… autorisés le 15 décembre.
And to add to the possible confusion, France’s minister in charge of sports, Roxana Maracineanu, has confirmed that cross country skiing is now permitted in a decree published on Saturday, 28th November, allowing the sport to be practised until 15th December. It must be carried out within a 20km radius of a person’s home and for an overall period of no longer than three hours per day (including travel time). However, downhill skiing and other snow sports that rely on mountains are not allowed, so where does this leave ski touring?
Over the past seven or so years we have seen ski touring gain tremendously in popularity and Style Altitude has written numerous features about it in that time, in fact we are very active ski tourers along with our dogs!
I do have concerns that again ski touring might be banned, if not before 15th December or soon after due to the potential risk of injuries and logistics needed to medevac casualties from more remote areas.
To a certain degree, it could depend on how pro-active the ski resorts are and the steps they might take to minimise the risk?
In the past couple of years with the popularity of ski touring, the new thing to do is on-piste ski touring .
More and more resorts now have special routes where people can climb / ski tour/skin up and then ski back down the piste in relative safety, without the need for avalanche awareness and to carry the necessary security kit.
And that is the crux, many people potentially visiting a ski resort might be drawn into the idea of ski touring, rent the gear from the shops that are open and then hit the skin track. However, if the pistes are not prepared, then you'll have the scary scenario of inexperienced skiers coming down unprepared pistes with touring bindings that, unlike their alpine cousins, are infamously not too knee-friendly when it comes to falling.
So if the resorts want to attract visitors then might it make sense to make the resort more ski tour friendly while the lifts are closed?
Plus there is also the potential situation of people who maybe were once fit having now gained excess kilos who still think that they can manage an arduous two to three-hour climb having medical (cardiac) issues requiring PGHM helicopter assistance. At least if in-bounds ski touring they can call upon the resort medical teams.
If the resorts were to do this it might well mitigate the chances of inexperienced skiers keen to get their skiing fix from going further afield into the backcountry.
Spring ski touring on mellow terrain is far more skier friendly than deep snow in January, and is, overall, a much better experience for those new to ski touring. However, in the last four or five years, ski touring for untracked powder has gained momentum and ski design has reflected that with skis circa 105mm+ wide not uncommon and to a degree making it easier for people to ski powder. This also means people touring in the winter must consider terrain choice, conditions and timing as to a certain degree it is more critical than in the spring as snowpack is often less stable following on from winter storms and accompanied winds. If there are a series of incidents due to people ignoring the obvious signs at the start of this coming season then the PGHM / Prefectures might seek to invoke a ban.
Ski touring used to be very much a spring activity and good spring snow aka corn can be very easy to ski so you can feel like a rock star skiing off-piste even on narrow skis.
We have taken friends that are cafe piste skiers up the mountain opposite the pistes of Serre Chevalier, introducing them to ski touring, and they have said it's some of their best most enjoyable skiing ever, but I made damn sure the conditions would be just about as perfect as you could hope for!
But for many on their one week's holiday over the Christmas break, they might ignore the conditions and rush foolhardy into touring on their own.
It has to be said that anyone ski touring for the first time away from the resort should go with a professional mountain guide as there is so much more that can go wrong when ski touring and experience is a vital commodity.
Further Update 30/11:And this just in from Chamonix Press Office Chamonix Mont-Blanc is of course open to visitors and winter is just around the corner. The lifts might not be running in the immediate future, but ski touring, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, sledging, Spas, shopping...and having fun are all authorised activities ! We are confident that the valley will retain its festive buzz as we prepare to leap into another year. It's all a tad reminiscent of cycling in the last lock-down in France when cycling was supposedly banned, and I came in for a lot of abuse on the "Cyclists in France FB Group" when I said I was still cycling (keeping to the 1km radius 1hr from home) as the Prefect of the Hautes Alpes said it was ok and the Gendarmes were cool about it, only stopping me to see my attestation and that I was indeed keeping to 1km from home.
But let's not be too pessimistic and the video below pretty well encapsulates the beauty of ski touring with friends on their first ski tour in classic spring conditions.
Many people love the rush that skiing provides, the adrenaline of being in a situation that might be perceived to be even a little dangerous.
They also believe that skiing will help keep them fit, and even more so now they can't have their hot chocolate loaded with Chantilly cream at a cafe and with the lifts closed how will they get that fix?
Quite simple, try cross country skiing!
And you don't need the latest in ski wear to take part.
Standing on a pair of skis measuring no more than 4-5cms wide in a flimsy pair of boots together with loose bindings will give you that same sense of impending doom where you may well fall and injure yourself. In fact, out of all the sports, people learn where helmets are compulsory it often surprises me that people don't wear them when learning cross country skiing!
Like ski touring the vast majority of holiday skiers do not go cross country skiing, they've paid an extortionate amount for their weekly pass and quite rightly do not want to give up a day's precious skiing.
Again, cross country skiing when the resorts do open will be subject to the weather gods as well as the ski resort management to provide the necessary cross country pistes but I would urge you to seriously consider learning.
And in these uncertain times, even when the lifts do eventually run, the queues might well be horrendous as gondolas and cable cars unable to function help create gridlock on the valley floor at the main lifts.
I actually chose cross country skiing to avoid the high season holiday hordes when the snowpack was not conducive to ski touring.
I had previously dallied with classic cross country, which is when you push yourself along in the narrow tracks you see channelled out at the side of the xc pistes on either side - and for many, this is the purest form of cross country and is by far the easiest to learn.
However, when out on my classic set up on the side of the piste I was always impressed by the speed and fluidity of a good skater, effortlessly gliding past me at speed, quickly disappearing into the distance.
A couple of years ago I migrated from classic to skating, and after a few hours decided it might be prudent to have a lesson. I still remember the instructor amazed at how high my heart rate was as I relied on my strength and stamina to overcome a complete lack of technique.
The beauty of cross country skiing is that there are a myriad of other locations where cross country skiing is practised in stunning scenic valleys and quiet unspoilt villages, a far cry from the culture of a modern ski resort.
This year I decided to have another couple of lessons to iron out my bad technique but maybe the old adage you can't teach an old dog new tricks is true, so it's back to brute force, strength and ignorance to make up for my lack of technique.
On a more serious note, I suspect that injuries from cross country skiing do not amount to any significant numbers and so it will not be banned.
Ironically walking around a resort in icy conditions, lifts open or not, can result in injuring oneself far more than skiing on the piste, as I know only too well, along too with a UIAGM Mountain Guide I know well and an ESF instructor!
Latest Update 7th December
The snow started to fall on Friday 4th December and would seem the at the Southern Alps maybe had the best of it?
Reports of 40cm in the valley to 80cm at altitude. However, the 20km and three-hour rule is still in place so that limits the hordes from Grenoble and Lyon as to where they can go and that was evident from the lack of cars at the Col du Lautaret on the webcam there.
The good news is since we published this article there have been numerous announcements from various Maries and Tourist Authorities proclaiming that you can indeed ski-tour.
Though I still think Resorts are missing a trick by not making specific in-resort ski-tour climbs and prepared pistes, maybe with this recent snow they will see the potential PR benefits of such a strategy?
The image below from SkiTour.fr shows the various sorties that took place over the weekend.
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