Have you ever wondered how pistes are kept in perfect condition, day after day, throughout the season, whether there’s been fresh snow every night for a week or nothing for days? It’s all down to les dameurs, a hardy bunch of night-shift workers, and their huge piste-bashers.
As soon as the pistes are declared clear at the end of the day, the dameurs drive their bashers up the mountain. Looking like overgrown diggers, with tracks for wheels, piste-bashers are very expensive bits of kit. At Val d’Isere they replace three machines every year, at a cost of some 300,000€ each; a machine will last on average five years before it needs replacing.
They look sturdy, and they are, but the controls are very delicate. Everything is power-assisted. There are three main parts to the machine: the front “digger” blade, which evens out the snow; a rotating blade at the rear of the vehicle which whips up the snow and aerates it; and a rubber blade right at the back to smooth it out and give the pistes their characteristic striped look. If snow is becoming thin in one part of the piste the dameurs collect it from other areas, on- or off-piste, to fill the gaps.
On very steep slopes the machines are attached to safe anchorages in the rock by cables up to 1km long and a 3.5 tonne winch. The cable costs another 50,000€ but is a vital for the safety of both men and machines, as are the GPS radios in the cabs to keep in contact with HQ. As a backup dameurs also carry mobile phones and avalanche transceivers.
A huge part of the cost of providing perfect pistes is the fuel: each machine uses 250 litres per night, partly to heat the cab and run the hi-fi system – it can get very cold and lonely up the mountain in the dark.
Dameurs start work at 5 pm and finish at 2 am. It’s not a job for everyone but at Val d’Isere one dameur, Joel, has been grooming pistes for 27 years. Next time you look out of your chalet window at night and see the piste-bashers’ lights on the mountain, give him a quiet wave and “Thank you”. Without him and his colleagues your skiing and boarding would be much more dangerous – and a lot less fun.