When we’re not here, we’re there.
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Our friend Jon is on a ski patroller exchange in France for a year. Here is his first note to us, explaining his world. As we like to say around here: “Hey, how did he get my life?”
“Before I go into this, you should know something about the drinking. I am going to talk about drinking alcohol on the job, in fact you may think it is my main focus. In reality, though it does occur on a daily basis it is not gratuitous or really even noticed, except by an outsider for which it extremely noticeable, and hence my inability not to call attention to the fact that THERE IS DRINKING AT WORK. Think of it terms of a nineteen year old talking about drinking. It’s a really big deal to them, and stories tend to hyperbole, so too with mine.
First the big picture.
Service de Piste- this is the big company that I work for and their scope of control includes: ski patrol, grooming, and snow making that covers 372 sq miles of slopes, 2091 snow cannons, 1839 hectares of market slopes, and 320 slopes security staff. They work in conjunction with another company that runs the 178 ski lifts. Outside of this are all the other companies and individuals that run the restaurants, ski schools (1500 ski instructors) and retailers. To say the least, this is very different from the U.S. model of the monolithic company that runs a ski area.
La Masse- this is my sector or duty station. Ski patrollers generally work in one sector for the whole season, and potentially for years. La Masse is very much off to one side. Most of the slopes in Les Menuires are on the east side of the north-south valley, and so receive sunlight from 11 o’clock until close. La Masse is on the west side of the valley and faces a little north, some of our slopes get sunlight for brief period in the morning, and then the shadows cover everything. This makes for good snow, but most of our clients tend to be gone by noon as they chase the sun across the valley. The base elevation is 6070 feet and the summit 9400, and there are 12 trails in the whole sector, and not a single tree. Between the trails/pistes is the hors piste or off piste. Hors piste comes in two flavors, between our slopes, and within our sectors boundary, marked by 7 meter steel poles orange and black, this hors pistes is avalanche controlled, but un-groomed, and un-marked and is great skiing when there is snow. Outside of the boundary is also called hors piste but is not avalanche controlled, and can be great skiing when there is snow. As with most of the sectors, La Masse is about 10-15% piste, and this area is serviced by 2 gondolas, two fixed grip lifts and one surface lift. 80% of the whole terrain is avalanche control area, handled mostly by remote control devices; gasex, and bomb trolleys. We have two duty stations one at mid mountain, and one at the summit, but generally only one of these is in use, controlled by the weather, and the summit shack is the primary. There are nine patrollers that are stationed at La Masse of which six are working every day. We work on a rotating 4 days on two days off schedule, so our days move around the week a lot. There are three different jobs on each day.
La Masse summit duty station.
Pistuer- patroller. These folks do all the trail marking maintenance. Each piste is marked with color coded bamboo on each edge, and numbered, and named markers. These markings are straightened everyday, there spacing is corrected. Rocks are picked off the trail, and major in-piste obstacles are marked. These folks will respond to accidents is they occur, if they are in proximity.
Primier ligne- First line- this is the first patroller up the mountain. As they go up the mountain, just ahead of the public, they check that each of the lifts are running and announce this on the radio. Once the summit is attained they become permanence. This means they sit around, make coffee for lunch, and wait for something to happen. All day. Accidents in the am, or during lunch are their general work, but if nothing happens then they don’t do much.
Cuisinier- the cook. The cook goes to the store in the morning, and shops for the days’ meal. The menu is up to them, the costs are pooled, and averages out to about 100E a month per patroller. They then head up to the duty station, and cook all morning, serve lunch, clean up after the meal, clean the duty station, and then take a nap, read or watch TV until the end of the day. Meals generally are a salad, a main course, a side, and dessert. This is served with bread, red wine, a cheese plate, and coffee. Meals tend to be large and leftovers are not permitted.
…and now how this all this plays out for me. I am picked up by the company shuttle at 8:13 am. The shuttle driver is a patroller, and the duty is shared among all, assigned for a full year. A 15 minute drive up to the locker room, punch in, boot up and BONJOUR EVERYONE. This is very very very important. Everyday you shake hands, or cheek kiss the women, and say hello to everyone you work with and or know. This a bit formal, and is only done once a day, to re-bonjour someone is considered rude- “….what! you don’t remember saying hello to me? You asshole” This starts on the shuttle ride up, in the locker room you usually do the rounds before you put your boots on, and this will continue all day as you encounter your peer group. A brief discussion with the sector group decides Primier ligne, cook is decided the previous day.
As Primier ligne, I bonjour my way up the mountain, maybe having a coffee in a lift shack, and then the phone calls to the other lifts to see if they are open. This is very challenging for me still. French on the phone with a person who wants to give a little story about something, and then having to talk on the radio. Anything out of the ordinary- “Is your lift open?”- “yes” leads to sputtered explanations- pistuer- American- hey just keep it simple please, but I improve and people are very understanding. Once at the summit it’s reading and sudoku all day..
As a pistuer, I also bonjour my way up the mountain, coffee is had somewhere, and lots of chatting/ gossip. Once at the summit the people divide into trail groups, and all of the pistes are skied, and straightened. This is done at leisurely pace, but it is done carefully, everything is touched, and made neat. This will take most of the morning. After this work the group of four will usually met at one of the restaurants for an aperitif. Yep here’s the drinking. This isn’t everyday, but most, usually this will be pastis- an anise liquor with ice and water, or a 4 ounce beer with a flavouring, cassis or lemon. Usually one person buys a round, and then the restaurateur will get a second, I’ve seen up to four rounds, but two is the usual. Sometimes the cook and permanence will walk over to partake also. Very odd. Around 12:30 it’s lunch time. Eat hearty mi mateys. Wine is served at lunch, but it is still personal choice, there is water and syrup flavorings, it is usual to water the wine down, and with a lot of aperitifs, usually less or no wine. Lunch is sometimes followed by genepi, a harsh homemade grappa-like alcohol flavored with herbs. After lunch, it is usually nap time, prime couch space is shared, TV is watched, books or crossword, card games, just relax for about 30-60 minutes.
After this time it up to the individual, if there is still piste work to do, do it, or go ski, or take a more serious nap. If an accident happens go- as you wish.
Sweep is at around 4:30, and by this time shadowy La Masse is empty.
Cooking. Oh my God, I have to cook for the French. Nothing makes me feel more American then food knowledge. What cheese or wine is used or served with/when or for what. Flavoring is more subtle to my crass American tongue, and I have to cook something that they will eat. Well if I can’t speak the language so well, and my knowledge of the ski area limits me, the very least I can do is cook a good meal. My prep is started days in advance, with the vetting of menus and recipes with my co-workers. Then putting to together ingredient lists-what is the difference in French for baking soda and baking powder?- converting from cup/ teaspoon to metric to guesstimate- no measuring spoons at the station- and then putting it all together for six hungry men. So far great success with pasta carbonara, salad with sliced apricots, shallots, and home made croutons, and chocolate banana bread. Banana bread was new to them, but went over swimmingly. Next…lasagna? Tomato soup and grilled cheese? Meatloaf or burgers? Who knows. I know if it’s bad because then everyone eats a lot of cheese. I think that is enough info for now.”
Genepi in the sun.