Banque Populaire Auvergne Rhône Alpes

Snow grooming

Wednesday 11 December 2013

History belongs to those who write it

If we were to choose an innovation that has changed the mountain world, we’d say it’s snow grooming. Although the current trend is toward a free ride on untouched virgin snow, leaving long curving tracks on immaculate powder snow, ski resort operators still pay much attention to maintenance of the pistes: snow grooming or “piste bashing”.

To a resort operator, snow grooming is many things: an exact science, but also a constant concern and a permanent expense and investment item. It cannot be denied that snow grooming has helped democratise skiing and helped create keen interest in winter sports. Otherwise, would beginners and/or children dare to venture out on deep fresh snow, on unkept trails and pistes? Probably not. History belongs to those who write it, and, in the history of snow grooming, Emile Allais wrote the introduction and the first few chapters. Yes, Emile Allais, the precursor, the talented inventor, the skier who revolutionised everything, or almost. During his American days – especially at Squaw Valley – he made an observation that would motivate him for the rest of his life, and that he would embody: “nothing, nothing at all should be overlooked that may contribute to the satisfaction and the well-being of a customer who is willing to pay, provided the service is top-quality”.

It is true that the pistes where his favourite subject (almost an obsession, according to Gilles Chappaz who directed the work titled “Allais, la légende d’Emile”).
And Gilles Chappaz was not mistaken when he wrote that “every skier owes Emile part of the pleasure he experiences on the slopes”, because that pleasure also depends on a smooth, well-groomed piste. Many are the skiers who try to be the first on the piste, as soon as the ski-lift opens, to ski down the freshly-groomed snow. This book, published by Éditions Guérin, is full of information on the history of snow grooming, a history closely linked to the personal history of Emile Allais, the inventor of modern snow-grooming. Like many other innovations, snow grooming is the result of a good idea, an observation, and a chance encounter. Emile Allais reaffirms the truth of this statement, when he tells his California experience:
Les premières techniques de damage.

“There was a TV relay station right above the pistes, on the mountain. Supplies were taken to this relay station by means of a small tracked vehicle. The driver of this vehicle was a skier and he paid his rides on the ski lift; one day he came to ask me if he could get some tickets at a reduced price, because he was short of funds. I proposed an exchange of services, whereby he would groom the beginners’ piste with his machine. He did so, but the work proceeded slowly, using just the vehicle’s tracks, so we had the idea of putting some rollers (some large fuel drums) behind the vehicle. That is how the mechanical snow groomer was born, by converting this small tracked vehicle into an improvised groomer, and by substituting the ski lift employees who were often asked to smooth the pistes with their skis”. Mechanical snow grooming was born. But how had it been done before that time, before the arrival of the first Snowcat? Guides, rescue guards, ski lift employees - anyone working at the resort - took the ski lift, then came down, perpendicular to the piste, step-fashion, one behind the other, to groom the pistes. Seems archaic? Yes, but absolutely necessary to attract the first skiers and offer them a quality product to match their expectations.
Later on, the pistes were prepared by means of large rollers up to 1.5m wide, pulled by two or three people.
In France, it was only when Emile Allais returned to Courchevel that piste grooming received a lot of attention. Employees on skis, rollers, and a full range of solutions were tried before Emile finally got, after three years of tough negotiations, his first Snowcat.


Les débuts du damage mécanique
As we can see, mechanical snow grooming is a recent invention, but it has since evolved rapidly. In the 1960’s, the first motorised vehicles dedicated to snow grooming appeared. Prinoth is one of the first manufacturers. Starting in 1962, the company developed and manufactured the first models, including the first P60 prototype. Two years later, the machine left the factory and started operating at a resort.
In 1969, Kässbohrer delivered its first model PistenBully, the first of a long series. One year later - in 1970 - Bombardier, which since 1937 had been building tracked vehicles for movement and transport on snow, purchased the company Lohnerwerke GmbH and began to produce its Skidozer machines for piste grooming.

After that, the use of snow grooming machines spread like wildfire, all resorts got them, and the different models evolved markedly. Winch machines made their appearance, making it possible to groom all types of pistes under any circumstances, and the snow groomer operator became a professional. Later on, GPS started to be added to the vehicles, which optimizes the work of snow grooming, and manufacturers followed the trend. Skiing has certainly evolved, and so have the work and the machines.
The new snow sports and the spaces dedicated to freestyle, absolutely require constant evolution of snow grooming techniques and the development of new dedicated models. Today, the snow shovel is no longer the only tool needed to shape modules that are becoming larger and larger. To see what we mean, just take a look at the work done for the last Frostgun at Val d’Isère by the company Snowconcept. In fact, Lionel Broche and his team didn’t hesitate an instant before using a groomer equipped with a winch to push gargantuan volumes of snow to build a model more than 17 meters high.

Today, these late-night workers are going green, thanks to sustainable development, fuel prices, and European standards.
Snow grooming is work for night-owls because, once the last skiers have left the pistes, the ballet starring the snow groomers and their operators begins, a ballet without which we could not ski down those mountain slopes every morning.


Photos : © DR - OT Saint-Bon-Courchevel


The innovations

  • Montagne Leaders 231 >> Juridique et institution : SNTF – DSF (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 232 >> Services à la clientèle : Le main libre (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 233 >> Savoir faire : Le service des pistes (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 234 >> Pistes : Enneigeur HP/BP (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 235 >> Remontées mécaniques et transports : La pince débrayable (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 236 >> Sécurité : Déclencheur d'avalanches
  • Montagne Leaders 237 >> Juridique et institutions : La loi Montagne (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 238 >> Savoir faire : Ski à la française (Emile Allais) (Prochainement en ligne)
  • Montagne Leaders 239 >> The 3S
  • Montagne Leaders 240 >> Snow grooming
  • Montagne Leaders 241 >> The Snow Plan (Le plan Neige)


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