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Dawn with the avalanche patrol - James Cove, Tignes
Monday December 24, 2012 - Email this article to a friend

Setting off avalanches is dangerous but essential work and this season, with huge amounts of snow falling, the piste patrols in the Alps have been busier than ever. PlanetSKI has been out with the avalanche patrol in Tignes.

"Be careful when you put your skis in the back of the van as there are explosives in the box," was the casual piece of advice from 41-year old, Peter Richmond, as I joined the 8 men and women heading up to the Grande Motte glacier in Tignes.

They are part of the Tignes piste patrol and this morning they have avalanches to trigger.

As I opened the double doors at the back there was an innocent enough looking cardboard box.

Inside were enough charges to bring down half a mountain.

I put my skis down very gently being careful not to touch the box. Obviously a knock from a pair of skis would not be enough to detonate the charges, but it certainly made me concentrate.

And realise the dangers.

We drove to the bottom of the furnicular train at Val Claret that is run each morning at dawn to take the patrollers up the mountain ahead of everyone else.

Most of the skiers and snowboarders in Tignes were safely tucked up in their warm beds - we were heading up the mountain to set off avalanches.

Tignes piste patrolCarefully does it













As we sped up through the mountain another team went up by piste basher, so they could assess the snow and weather with their own eyes and pass on the information.

Once at the top we went into the pisteurs hut to prime the explosives.

I tucked myself at the back of the hut, out of the way, as explosives and detonators were distributed, checked and packed for use. The men and women divided into teams of two and each set off to the various sectors that were deemed to be potentially unsafe.

We were in constant radio contact with a controller back in the hut who would dispatch a rescue team if anything went wrong.

Tignes Piste PatrolPreparing the charges













As I trudged out with Peter Richmond and Delphine Jaffre it seemed odd to think that in their rucksacks were large amounts of high explosives that would soon be detonating avalanches.

Tignes piste patrolSlope assessment













It also seemed odd that an Englishman was part of the French piste patrol.

Peter came to Tignes 20 years ago on holiday and never left. He fell in love with the mountains and with Tignes.

He started off doing the whole range of ski bum jobs from barman to driving jobs and chalet work.  He ended up with a burning desire to join the ski patrol and with encouragement from friends, family and the resort he went through the French system. It was long, hard and difficult but he succeeded.

It is a highly skilled job and requires many years of experience and training.

"I have received nothing but encouragement from everyone," he said.

He is as much part of the team as those that have been born and brought up in the area.

In some ways more so as he has made a very definite choice of work and lifestyle. He is respected by colleagues and locals alike.

Tignes Piste patrolPeter and Delphine













I was in luck on the day I had chosen as not only had a 3-day storm deposited large amounts of snow but we had a clear day.  It was a priviledge to watch the sun rise over the mountains at 3,000m.

Tignes Piste patrolDawn breaks













Tignes Piste PatrolPreparing the slopes













The team also admired the view, but not for long.

There were tens of thousands of skiers in Tignes wanting to get up and enjoy the day. They could not do so until the slopes had been bombed and the piste patrol declared them safe.

"There is no compromise on safety and we will take as long as it takes to make the slopes safe and if we have any doubt we will wait and keep areas closed, " said Arnaud Trinquier, the Tignes mountain manager.

"We are separate from the lift company and the tourist office and we do things our way."

With that in mind Peter and Delphine seemed in no rush. They just wanted to go out, get the job done and return safely.

I could observe but I was not allowed too close as they primed the explosives and hurled the bombs into the snowpack from a safe distance. 

We were perched on an exposed slope above a piste near the very top of the ski area in the Grande Motte area and the explosives were connected to a timed detonator and then thrown by hand into the exposed snow.

 A few minutes later there was a very loud bang, a puff of snow and plume of smoke and the snow slid down the mountain.

Above me a helicopter hovered over the summit of the Grande Motte; it swept in hovered briefly and then banked away sharply.

"Keep your eyes on the top as it will probably all come down," yelled Peter over the wind. 

We were a good mile or so away and out of any danger zone but it was a spectacular sight as the whole top slid away. It seemed to happen in slow-motion.

Powder snow billowed up into the air as the huge slide settled.  Anyone caught in that would be unlikely to escape with their life.

There are five main ways to set off avalanches.  The easiest is using the gasex method where fixed installations are put in and then triggered from down in the village by computer and satellite technology.

The rest though involve humans setting off explosives.  Charges can be dropped form a helicopter, fired from a compressed air gun or put on a cable and winched out over a dangerous slope.  In many cases though the only way to make the slopes safe is to ski into the danger area, find a safe location and then throw a charge into the snow.  Accidents do happen but fortunately not often.

"There are dangers with the job of course but the risks are kept to a bare minimum and we follow strict rules and procedures as we go about our work," admits Peter Richmond.

With that we set off to detonate another avalanche with some snow that hung threateningly over the marked piste.

The team are not there to make the off piste safe, rather their responsibility is to ensure the marked pistes are safe.

"People ski off piste at their own risk and we do not carry out controls there. We ensure the marked slopes, mountain restaurants and lifts stations are secure. We also ensure the roads in and out of the resort are safe from avalanche," explained Arnaud Trinquier.

Off to exploreOwn responsibility off piste

















Detonating avalanches is just one task, albeit perhaps the most glamorous, of the piste patrollers.

They also mark the runs and provide medical assistance. It is they who are first on the scene of accidents whether it be taking an injured skier off the mountain or searching for avalanche victims.

Already this winter there have been two serious avalanches in Tignes; one resulted in the death of a young French woman while a British man remains critical after he was buried. Neither were wearing avalanche transceivers or they may have been found quicker.

The piste patrol were at both accidents within minutes.

With our controlled avalanches set off we returned to the hut to report that all was well. The other teams came back in.

Messages were sent back down to the lift company and the area was declared open.  Within 15 minutes hundreds of skiers and snowboarders were spilling out of the lift station to go and enjoy a day in the snow-filled playground.

The men and women of the piste patrol put the kettle on and waited for the first emergency calls to come in.


Tignes piste patrolPeter Richmond













For an interview with Peter Richmond and images of the team detonating the avalanches then see the video below.


James Cove is staying with Crystal Ski at the Riders' Lodge. Crystal Ski (; 0871 231 2256) offers a week's catered accommodation at the Riders' Lodge including flights from London to Chambery and transfers from £555 per person.

For short video report from James Cove about the snow conditions in Tignes before Christmas and some great powder skiing then see below.

For the spirit of the mountains

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