The work of our “smoothers of the ephemeral”
Interview with Jean Noël Bianchini
S3V* SLOPES SERVICE DIRECTOR
*Society of the 3 Valleys
CAN YOU DESCRIBE A TYPICAL DAY AT WORK ?
We start the day at 6:30am, our goal is the opening of the ski resort between 9:00 - 9:30am. It is a huge organization, often stressful because everyone is waiting for us (ski school, clients...). We fulfill an opening paper where we include the snow groomers’ information plus the Bourg-Saint-Maurice’s weather. We also analyse the avalanche danger, talk about the slope of the day recommended by our snow groomers, and mention the opening hours for eventual delays. After all of that, we send this paper around 7:30am to the socio-professionals, Méribel Tourism, guides, ski schools, or other ski services... There is a large diffusion !
MAY YOU PRESENT YOURSELF ?
At the age of 17 I was a ski patroller. I evolved from there to a ski patroller artificier (the person who triggers avalanches for the slopes' security), to the assistant of the head sector, to the head of the valley sector, to the assistant of the slopes manager and finally, to the direction of the slopes service for 6 years now. I am in charge of several services mainly based around snow grooming, the garage, the security of the slopes and artificial snow.
Once snow has been produced, spread and groomed, the safety side of the ski area appears as the most important. The milestones, beacons, mattresses and nets that you can see while skiing, are there to secure at best and avoid accident. Mountain interventions for ski patrollers account for 10 to 20% of their work. When there is heavy snowfalls, the ski patrollers activate the PIDA (Active Avalanche Control Plan), and ensure there is no risk of avalanche for the slopes’ openings, even sometimes located off-pistes in extension of the ski area.
We are working for a total security for the Opening of the season.
This year it was fabulous ! In november we had nice snowfalls and simultaneously we did the production of artificial snow. So we did not lose all the natural snow, we compacted it and all the peaks were groomed.
There are snowmaking strategies for artificial snow. At the beginning of the season we chose to concentrate it on the northern slopes. It is a big loss if we do not make the right choices and we definitely opted for the right one because if we had produced artificial snow on the southern slopes at the same time, we would have lost all the natural snow.
In any case, the connections with the neighboring resorts Les Menuires, Courchevel and Val Thorens will be ensured for the Opening !
❄ Snow grooming
In Mottaret we have 11 snow grooming machines and 23 drivers. The snow groomers are managed and supervised by a team leader. In all, there are 4 team leaders who manage various services. We run with two services: one that starts at 5:30pm, ends at 1:00am and the 2nd takes over at 2:00am until 9:30am. Their work is planned the day before by the sector heads.
The sector head reports on the condition of the slopes and organises the grooming plan. It stipulates the snow grooming to be realised and the places less likely to have heavy snowfall or something else. Before starting on his sector, the snow groomer takes into account the grooming plan integrated into the computer of his snow grooming machine.
Working conditions are difficult but it is a choice. The snow groomer has a 20min lunch break at the beginning of the night and after that, he's working non-stop until 1:00am. Before leaving, he records on his dashboard what he did or could not do during the night for his colleague who will take over. The snow groomers are able to work without seeing each other. There are all interconnected by radio during the night to exchange.
Snow grooming is also machines and you have to be reactive for eventual breakdowns. Breakdowns may be electrical, mechanical or hydraulic. 5 mechanicians are responsible for maintenance. The snow groomer has a good knowledge of the snow and its machine. Driving a machine is one thing, working with one is another ! Most of the snow groomers also work in summer Public Works, so they have a good gear knowledge. Often, being a snow groomer is a "job-passion".
These machines are beautiful worthing about 300 000€. We could even say it's more expensive than a ferrari so the driver who is lucky enough to use it must take care of it.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN RISKS WITH A SNOW GROOMING MACHINE ?
The main risk is to get your foot stocks in a caterpillar which may break your leg... but there are not many accidents. However all the drivers have a specific radio in case of "no movement" which automatically sends a call after 1min to all the other drivers. Being connected by GPS gives an ability to know where someone is located to send help. Drivers have this type of device as a pledge of individual protection.
WHAT IS THE MOST UNUSUAL THING TO EXPERIENCE WHEN YOU DO THIS WORK ?
Grooming under the moonlight ! At night many things happen... Have you heard about the Partridge Wall ? At the Vallon, they land on the cable of the winch and as the snow grooming machine pulls up the snow, the cable rolls up and the partridges fly away one by one.
DO YOU USE ELECTRIC / HYBRID TRANSMISSION SNOW GROOMING MACHINE?
It is still on plan. Like hybrid cars it's a small market and reversing it is not going to be easy, even though it is the future ! For the moment we are working with "bio / responsible" oils. Like electricity, we try to take natural, hydraulic or even wind energy on a certain percentage.
TO CONCLUDE, WHY MÉRIBEL ?
I fell in the cauldron when I was little ! I am from Méribel, and while I left the mountains to work somewhere else, I came back quickly. The enormous advantage of Méribel is that we are at the center of the 3 Valleys rather than being on the extremities. It's never easy to ski on the 3 Valleys in one day. In Méribel we can choose ! Today I can say that I am going to ski at Les Menuires, then to Val Thorens, and go back to Méribel. The next day I can ski in Courchevel, Moriond, Le Praz, I cross Pas du Lac, then I go back to Méribel. It's so diversified. For me, doing the 3 Valleys in a day does not have a lot of interestt, while being based in Méribel allows you to have fun and discover something else.
Yes, Méribel... Because it's the most beautiful of it all !
ADVICES FOR THE FIRST SKIERS OF THE YEAR
Jean Noël Bianchini, Slopes Services Director, S3V
‘START THE SEASON SLOWLY BUT SURELY’
« Considering the current conditions of low snow levels, my advice would be to still come skiing because you can have fun. Above all, it would be to go slowly, respect the one who ski downstream and take no risks, such as not going off-piste. You have to ski at your own rhythm. People often go very fast but do not have control on their equipment. We will ski off-piste, but for that we must wait for good snowfall ! »
Valérie Ginot Veron, Sales Manager (Méribel Alpina)
‘DO NOT HESITATE TO ASK FOR ADVICE’
« There are many people who will be there on the ski resort to inform you. You may inform yourself as well at the ski pass office, at the departure of the ski lifts or at the ski patrollers' cabins, to have the best information about the slopes openings and the quality of the snow. It will evolve constantly, so it's important to do that. »
Hervé Lenoire, Operations Director, S3V
‘ENJOY THE FRESH AIR’
« You have to come to enjoy the sun and the fresh air in view of the pollution down the valley. Also do not forget to warm up a little to ski in good conditions. The tip of the moment is to come in altitude ! »
Hélène Cresson, sEASONNAIRE AT THE TOURIST OFFICE
‘Have fun !’
« You have to come skiing ! For the Opening, it is also possible to sled in Mottaret on the Doron's carpet which is open until the beginning of the evening. You can also go for a walk, and even go up to the summits as a pedestrian with the ski lifts. The atmosphere will be festive with many animations and the opening of the Folie Douce !»