What a winter. As staff in our chalets start to wind down after the season with the sun finally shining, the snow is still deep — there’s been talk of 2017/18 being the ‘season of a generation’ and it’s not been far off that. With an estimated 1.5m of snow still in resort in Val d’Isère at the end of April, whether it’s record breaker or not, this really has been a season to remember — particularly after the past few dry winters Europe has endured until now.
Nearly 9m of snow has accumulated in Val d’Isère since the beginning of the season — very often more than in many other parts of the Alps thanks to a weather phenomenon called the Retour d’Est. This very localised weather system (literally meaning “Return from the East”) brings huge amounts of precipitation from Italy, dumping heavy amounts of snow on the Italian/French border — Val d’Isère and the neighbouring Haute Maurienne Vanoise. In fact, there is still so much snow at the top of the mountain between the two areas (the tourist office estimates around 15m) that the Col de l’Iseran — the highest paved road in the Alps that connects Val d’Isère and the Maurienne Valley during the summer — will have to be cleared by machine to open the route in May.
While all this snow seems like great news, it also caused a fair bit of disruption. Le Chardon transport manager Ant literally had to dig out our resort manager Joelle from her apartment one morning in January. After being confined to barracks with a bug for a couple of days, Joelle found herself unable to open her door to get to work — six feet of snow had fallen in the 48 hours she’d been inside, barricading her inside.
Transport Manager Ant, coming to her rescue, explains: “I took one look at the Cholet Apartments where Joelle lives and thought ‘I’m going to need a shovel … a BIG shovel. Around 40 minutes of digging later I got near the door and was able to swim/wade/crawl through the last bit, dig a section out so that the door could be opened and free our RM from her white prison.
“I have to say, in the 30 years I have been skiing, all over the world and the nine winters I have worked in the Alps I have never, ever, EVER seen anything like the snow we’ve had this year in Val d’Isère. In one word……EPIC!”
But despite the challenges, skiers and snowboarders rejoiced in fantastic ski conditions that lasted from December until now — when the lifts weren’t closed due to the sheer volume of snow or the high winds that at times accompanied the Retour d’Est.
“The snowfall has given us an epic season with our instructor team busier than ever,” says Heather Davies of Val d’Isère’s Oxygène Ski & Snowboard School. “While we’re not complaining, it is fair to say that while the snow has been welcome, the frequency and generosity of the snow storms has caused its fair share of disruption throughout the season.
“With the enormous January snowfalls came road closures, in-resort curfews, avalanches onto the road (and an avalanche risk of 5/5 at one point) as well as various weather-related lift closures which meant a lot of juggling logistics for everyone. At these times our priorities became postponing lessons, communicating delays, identifying safe areas in which to hold ski lessons and helping to ensure the safety of our team and clients.”
Lift workers and ski patrol had a long, hard winter — working long hours to keep the resort open and safe, and with temperatures often hitting -20c. In April, conditions have at times been akin to those in January, with packed powder on the pistes, cold days and heavy snowfall — with the odd glimpse of sunshine.
“Every cloud has a silver lining. With record snowfalls this season we have had to endure some rough weather but with that came some great off-piste and general snow conditions,” says Ken Smith from Progression Ski and Snowboard school. “We may not have the usual April goggle marks but we had some big grins throughout the season — the snow has been exceptional from December right through until now. We even had winter powder conditions in mid-April!”
And while guests in resort have had fantastic conditions during an amazing season, Ken sums up the feelings of most resort workers when he says: “It’s been an exceptional season for snow but I am looking forward to some summer sun!”