Finally the French school holidays have petered out and we’re back to some semblance of peace and quiet, thank God. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend for people to come on holiday the week after all the schools have gone back, so just when you think it’s safe to get back out on the hill, you get mown down yet again by North African youths under the mistaken impression that snowblades don’t make them look gay. Really, someone needs to break the news to them there.
Peak season rather makes a mockery of all the peace and quiet of the mountains, man against the elements stuff you hear people wittering on about when they talk about their ski holidays. What with more crowds than you see at Waterloo during rush hour, helicopters chattering overhead and the Pano Bar’s industrialised idea of what constitutes music doing your head in over half the mountain the place is more Brixton than backcountry. So much for peace and quiet.
The idea that you’re pitting yourself against the whims of nature is a tad ridiculous these days as well, when everything is thoroughly signposted, avalanche-controlled, shaped, groomed flat every night and generally managed for your convenience. It’s no coincidence that the other main plank of the Compagnie des Alpes operation is theme parks.
Not that I’m suggesting we should allow random avalanches to carry off our visitors and leave the pistes to go into six-foot icy moguls either – there’s a place for that sort of thing, mainly at the top of the Tunnel over in Alpe d’Huez, and probably not all over the easy runs in a resort popular with families and only moderately competent skiers. So most of the skiing public then.
Ski forums inevitably have a ‘stop the brutal grooming’ faction keen to advocate a return to wintersports sauvage and usually just indulging in a bit of ‘look at me I can ski powder and moguls’ willy-waving. Put your money where your mouth is and hire a mountain guide then. If you’re that good you’ve got no interest in sticking to the pistes with the proles, have you?
What these old schoolers choose to forget is that without all the grooming and snow management, they frequently wouldn’t be skiing any time after March, let alone into the first week in May. If we’d left nature to take its course last season we’d have been lucky to stay open beyond mid-February, which would have been nothing short of a disaster for an already fragile mountain economy. You try making seven months earnings last a year – I can’t see your mortgage provider being too happy with the proposition.
On the other hand, I’m starting to have a bit of sympathy with the idea that the whole business is over-managed. We’ve got a few places here left to go into moguls, but too many resorts bash them out so assiduously that it wouldn’t surprise me if people who started skiing in the past 10 years or so have never seen one. And what’s with the habit of taking perfectly skiable fresh snow and flattening it before anyone can get to it? I know there are legions of holidaymaking skiers out there who can’t deal with it, but that’s no reason to squash absolutely all of it as soon as it falls, is it?
For the punter, the solution to all this is either to get good enough to trek off into the backcountry, not usually feasible for someone with limited practice opportunity and other commitments, or to head off to the smaller resorts which can’t afford as many piste bashers. And while the lift passes might be cheaper in the little places, getting there under your own steam usually isn’t.
Alternatively, the big resorts could try to remember that the fun of wintersports isn’t necessarily all about easy cruising, factory restaurants with more throughput than McDonalds and banging on-piste apres ski. I’m not about to apologise for them turning ski into big business and thereby providing a viable economy in areas which would by now otherwise be populated entirely by inbred 80-year-olds and the odd goat, but it might serve them well to turn the alleged music down a bit and leave us a bit of natural snow here and there.